The Power of Plants For Healing
My sister Naomi and I come from a background where herbal medicine was the norm in our house. If we became poorly, we would turn to plants for medicine. In the winter we would have Thyme syrup for coughs and in the summer we would turn to delicate Eyebright for hay-fever. At the weekends and during the holidays we would be outside with our father getting knee deep in the bogs of the Scottish Highlands filling our sacks with Bogbean or going to the sand dunes to pick the Eyebright. At home, in our kitchen, the red Aga would always have herbs macerating next to it or drying on top.
Generations Of Herbal Knowledge
This is because our father is a medical herbalist, and generations before him were doctors, herbalists and surgeons. Our great, great, great grandfather Dr Samuel Lamb would have been in his surgery at around the same time Mr Boots opened his first herbalist shop in 1849, the precursor of the high street chemist we know today.
In the same way as we are losing the connection between the milk in the fridge and the cow in the field, we are losing that precious connection between the plants in the field and the medicines in our cupboard. How can herbal medicine, which is so real and innate to me and my family, be so foreign and distant to others especially when you realise that the majority of the drugs we use today are derived from plants and used in every day conventional medical settings?
To help us all reconnect to the power of plants, I gave this talk with Naomi at TEDx in Tunbridge Wells recently.
We All Depend On Plants For Our Most Vital Medicines
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has an official list of essential medicines that are necessary for any healthcare system. They are the most safe and effective medicines available to us. But here’s the thing: a substantial proportion of these drugs come from plants; we depend on plants for our most vital medicines.
Eight Examples Of Plant-Derived Medicines
- Lidocaine – the most commonly used anaesthetic in dentistry. Lidocaine is developed from cocaine which, of course, comes from the cocoa leaf. And it’s thanks to the observation of the numbing effect of cocoa leaf in the mouth that we have Lidocaine and many other modern anaesthetics.
- If you go for an eye exam you may be given Atropine eye drops which dilate the pupil to allow better examination of the inside of the eye. Atropine is actually from atropa belladonna or more commonly known as Deadly Nightshade.
- Then there’s Morphine from the opium poppy which has administered to the pain of ‘World War’ injuries and continues to be unrivalled as the most potent form of analgesia since it was first isolated more than 200 years ago. And Morphine is still extracted directly from the plant.
- We owe the discovery of Metformin, the first line treatment of type 2 diabetes, to the French Lilac or galega officinalis: a plant always used by herbalists to treat this condition.
- Oncology too has benefited from plant derived medicines. We have Vinblastine from madagascan periwinkle and Taxol, a breast cancer drug, which comes from the European Yew tree. Taxol is directly harvested from the leaves of that tree. In fact, 90% of all drugs in the field of oncology are found in either plants or other natural products.
- Two of our most important anti-malarial drugs: Quinine (from the Cinchona tree) and Artemisinin (from Sweet Wormwood) have saved millions of lives and are still extracted directly from the plants.
- Aspirin, one of the most commonly used drugs in the world, comes from the compound found in Meadowsweet.The sweet scent of this herb always takes me back to my father’s dispensary in Scotland.
- You may even have a painkiller in your medicine box that contains caffeine that comes from either a bean or a leaf and both caffeine and aspirin are on WHO’s list of essential medicines.
You Are Literally Drinking Medicine In A Cup Of Tea.
Now let’s take a compound, like caffeine and have a closer look at one of the plants it can be found in – chamilia sinensis: it’s where we get our green tea and our breakfast tea from. Dive beneath the surface of this leaf and you find another world within a world. The tea leaf has over 4,000 different bioactive compounds. A bioactive compound is a compound that exerts a measurable physiological effect on human or animal that’s consuming it. The studies are clear: tea protects against heart disease and cancer. But which of these 4,000 compounds is that due to is it one, is it a few, or is it the symphony and synergy of the whole?
Did you know that the stimulating effect of caffeine in your tea is perfectly complemented and balanced by an amino acid unique to the tea leaf called L-Theanine? So, while caffeine elevates your sense of focus and alertness, L-Theanine stimulates alpha brainwaves, the same type observed during meditation, and the net result is a focused calm.
My grandmother lived to the age of 96 on no drugs and existed, towards the end, on a diet of tea and biscuits. Who can say what influence the tea had on her longevity? Your daily cuppa could be your greatest health ally.
Is Modern Medicine Missing Out?
In the same way we risk missing out on the synergy of the whole plant what might we be missing out on when we treat parts of ourselves rather than the whole? For example, if we have a headache, conventional medicine will aim to target the pain, which of course is a justifiable thing to do, but for little or no consideration for the hormones, dietary influences or digestive health at play.
Did you know the old-fashioned name for depression was melancholia or melancholy? Melancholy – the word – breaks down into melan (black) and cholia (bile). In other words, depressive states were traditionally viewed as disorders perhaps relating to the liver or maybe more generally relating to the digestive tract. Now of course, depression is a multifactorial disorder, but that old view, the traditional view, is most in line with the most recent research which is coming out on depression relating it to inflammation, autoimmune disease and digestive disorders.
Milk Thistle In Hospitals
Let’s take a plant like Milk Thistle and relate that to a rather unusual reason for hospital admissions: mushroom poisoning. Now mushroom foraging is enjoyed the world over but there have always been incidents of mistaken identity; with a name like ‘Death Cap’ you know you’re going to be in trouble if you eat that by accident. Ingestion of this mushroom is associated with high death rate due to rampant liver failure but in hospitals around the world, an extract of Milk Thistle is intravenously being used, and saving people’s lives, in fact, this protocol is cutting death rates by half and preserving the health of the liver. Milk thistle is one of our most favourite herbs and has always been used traditionally by herbalists to preserve the liver and support the health and function of it.
Do you know that 80% of the developing world still relies on plants and natural products for their medicine? Why? Because they are safe and effective options. Think back to that Milk Thistle usage and remember this: that many, if not most of the plant-derived drugs we use today are used in a similar way to the traditional medicinal use of the plant that they came from.
Dandelion And The Vagal Nerve
Let me finish with one final example, the dandelion. Most people don’t know this, but the dandelion is able to activate the largest nerve in the body. At the back of your tongue you have bitter receptors and when you eat or taste a bitter plant, like the dandelion, when these bitter receptors are activated, they go on to stimulate the Vagal Nerve. The Vagal Nerve innovates all of the digestive organs improving their tone and function. So you see, with some of these plants, the healing actually begins in the mouth. And if that wasn’t amazing enough, this humble, bumble-bee loving weed, is being studied for its potential in treating blood cancers including lymphoma and leukaemia. You see the closer you look at these plants, the more amazing they get. Plant power indeed.