A look back in time at traditional plant-based medicine
Many cultures have been using the incredible power of plants for thousands of years. The book, known as the Pen-ts'ao, dates back to 2500 BCE, contains 365 plant-based healing recipes, and illustrates that Chinese medicine has an incredibly rich history.
Not exclusive to China, a dig outside Nagpur, India, discovered a 5000 year old clay slab referencing 250 different varieties of plants. Similar ancient scripts can be found in many cultures and are proof that humans have a long-standing history of using plants thoughtfully and for their unique healing abilities.
Even to this day, the Worldwide Health Organization estimates 60% of the world’s population still rely on traditional natural plant healing.
For many cultures, including the traditional indigenous cultures here in North America, plants have been an integral part of healing. For cultures that pass on their traditions orally, it means that all too often there is little-to-no written record. Add to this hundreds of years of immigration and assimilation, and traditional plant-based knowledge has been lost or is at best, highly at risk.
How were the plants used in traditional medicine found for their purposes?
Healers and knowledge keepers dedicated time to learning about the indigenous flora to their region. A trial-and-error process would occur using the local plants. The knowledge collected about a plant or plant-based concoction, would be passed on to the next generation when deemed beneficial. Over time, these concoctions could be fine-tuned for optimal plant combinations and dosing.
Theories on plant chemical productions that are useful to humans
There are many theories why natural plant chemicals have so many healing properties for humans.
- Self protection for plants
One reason that plants create these compounds actually has nothing to do with human use.
Plants must adapt to their environment while constantly in an arms race with their natural predators, such as bacteria, viruses, fungus, and herbivores for survival. One way to increase their chances of survival is to produce compounds that can either harm their predators or cause adverse reactions.
For example, Salicin, is a compound produced in the bark of Willow trees Salicin has been shown to protect the willow from many pathogens. It is an important chemical in the plant defense system. This same compound has also been used in teas and salves for thousands of years to stave off fever and reduce pain.
- Chemicals that aid in reproductive survival
Another possible reason that plants create these natural compounds is to help with reproductive survival. A plant may want it’s seeds to be consumed by herbivores to help disperse them.
For example, Capsaicin is a compound found in hot chilli pepper seeds. Capsaicin gives chili peppers their intense spiciness. It is thought that capsaicin is produced as a mechanism to improve dispersal from specific animals.
For many mammals, capsaicin can create a painful burning sensation to those that try to eat it. However, there are bird species that do not feel this same pain when consuming the seeds. The seeds also seem to be resistant to the bird’s digestive tract. This makes them the perfect dispersal mechanism!
Benefits of natural ingredients
We have come full circle, with many people realizing the benefits of natural ingredients and traditional healing methods. Nature is amazing at creating complex and efficient mechanisms to keep life thriving. Humans have been relying on this for thousands of years and many still do today.
When using the correct plants for their intended purpose, you can often help improve ailments with fewer side effects. Natural plant-based healing ingredients can also be used in a preventative manner or often in combination with western medicines (with a professional health practitioner consultation first).
Science has adopted many of mother nature’s mechanisms in the search for creating synthetic versions. Synthetic approaches have proven to be quite beneficial in fighting many major ailments. Purified, synthetic compounds have helped to treat many ailments and prolong human life expectancy. However, many of them come with their own harsh side effects.
Mother nature is great at providing the tools needed for organisms to survive and thrive. Humans have recognized and harnessed many of these healing properties of plants over time. Many people today still live by the long standing aid that natural plants can offer!
Please note: Before you begin any new diet, medicine, or health practice it's always best to check with your health care practitioner and ensure that it's the best and safest option for you and your health.