Throughout history, physicians have used herbs as medical remedies for the treatment of different illnesses. Today, there are over 12,000 plants implemented for their healing properties in both traditional medicine and ethnoscience (Wachtel-Galor & Benzie, 2011). In many cases, doctors combine herbs with other methods of treatment and disease prevention.
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Although natural medicines are not characterized by quick or well-pronounced pharmaceutical activity as they tend to affect the user slowly and gradually, in some cases, they still may be more effective than their synthetic substitutes. Indeed, among the 3,000 synthetic drugs implemented in modern medicine, about 25% are of natural origin (Wachtel-Galor & Benzie, 2011). Moreover, the number of herb-based medicines continues to grow.
Even though herbal remedies serve as an excellent alternative to chemically produced drugs, their overuse or inappropriate intake may lead to a failure to improve health conditions or even to adverse treatment outcomes. Thus, health care practitioners should increase their competence regarding the use of medicinal herbs and educate their patients about the benefits and potential risks associated with the implementation of natural remedies.
Through an investigation of recent research findings, this paper aims to identify the role of herbs in modern medicine. The author argues that an evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of natural methods of treatment, the characteristics of herbs, and their possible roles in disease prevention and treatment may help medical professionals and patients develop a more comprehensive view of the issue. Moreover, such an in-depth analysis will support the development of strategies for more frequent use of herbs in mainstream medical practices.
The implementation of herbs in medicine has its roots in antiquity. Through many evaluations of historical and anthropologic materials, researchers have revealed that herbalism was popular in many geographical regions and epochs including ancient Egypt and India. Indeed, there is extensive information about the use of medicinal herbs in Egyptian manuscripts. One of the most famous works of that region, the Papyrus Ebers, was written between the 15 and 16th centuries B.C. and describes recipes for the treatment of many diseases through herbalism (O’Sullivan, 2005). Some plants that were implemented in ancient Egypt a few thousand years ago are still used today, including mint, aloe, plantain, poppy, and castor.
The development of natural medicine was substantially encouraged in ancient India as well. One of the oldest medical Sanskrit manuscripts, the Ayurveda, includes a description of over 700 medical herbs and explains the interactions of herbal compounds with different body processes (O’Sullivan, 2005). The Ayurvedic texts were translated into many languages, and the knowledge built by Indian physicians served to enrich and improve medical practices in many other states as well including China, Tibet, Persia, and Greece.
Herbalism developed and transformed over time, but its evolution continues even today. As has been observed by many researchers, the combination of two types of medical approaches—modern Western medicine and traditional medicine (e.g., Chinese traditional medicine that dates back to the earliest days of human development)—may work better together than either system would independently (Han & Miller, 2008). The growing body of literature devoted to the research of herbs’ properties and effects demonstrates significant interest in the subject and provides a more comprehensive view of herbs’ potential in the medical field.
Modern medicine actively uses herbs to complement the primary methods of treatment or to produce the drugs themselves. Indeed, it is clear that herbal medicine has formed the basis for many present-day medical practices. Moreover, as many researchers have observed, the increasing demand for naturalism and a growing awareness of the positive effects associated with herbal medicine will stimulate a wider integration of herbalism into mainstream healthcare systems and pharmaceutics in the future (O’Sullivan, 2005).
All herbs comprise bioactive elements and secondary elements: metabolites, proteins, essential oils, vitamins, inorganic salt, and more (Singh, Saharan, & Bhandari, 2014). The active substances that define the healing qualities of plants are alkaloids, glycosides, coumarins, resins, tannins, and some others (Singh et al., 2014). In comparison to purely synthetic substances, complex compounds formed biologically have more properties in common with the human body. Therefore, in many cases, herbs can be more easily assimilated into the body and have fewer side effects.
Alkaloids constitute one of the most diversified groups of herb compounds. The most commonly used elements in this group are strychnine, caffeine, morphine, nicotine, quinine, and atropine (Shahid, Shahzad, Malik, & Sahai, 2013). Pilocarpus, belladonna, ephedra, Camellia sinensis (tea) are just a few examples of plants that naturally contain alkaloids. The medicinal properties of alkaloids are well known in modern medicine. For example, clinical researchers use vincristine derived from periwinkle in the production of drugs for the treatment of cancer, and atropine contained in Belladonna has a strong effect on humans and can be used to reduce spasms and relieve pain (Shahid et al., 2013).
Glycosides represent an essential category of biological compounds that comprise nitrogen and consist of saccharine and non-saccharine parts. The activity of glycosides is primarily determined by their non-sugary compounds (Shahid et al., 2013). Compared to alkaloids, they are quickly disintegrated by their enzymes and some other physical factors while stored, which usually leads to loss of healing properties. This biological disintegration may be slowed or stopped through adequate handling and preparation of the herbs, including quick-drying, short-term storage, and protection from moisture or other environmental impacts.
Anthraglycosides, saponins, cardiac glycosides, and flavonoid glycosides are commonly used to treat various diseases (Shahid et al., 2013). Of these, cardiac glycosides are the most significant, and many drugs implemented for the treatment of cardiovascular pathologies have an herbal basis. The plants included in this group are Convallaria majalis (lily of the valley), different kinds of foxglove, Adonis, and more. Herbs that contain cardiac glycosides are highly toxic and can be ingested only in moderate amounts (Shahid et al., 2013). Phenolic glycosides are also important in modern medicine. As recent research findings have revealed, they have well-pronounced anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (Shahid et al., 2013).
Many natural coumarins are biologically active and have a variety of effects on the body. Researchers first became interested in studying them after the discovery of coumarins’ anticoagulant. In the 1940s, the farmers noted that livestock bled to death after eating bad hay that contained a lot of white sweet clover (Meek, 2013). It turned out that this plant contains dicumarol, which prevents blood from clotting normally. This discovery led to the plant’s later use as an anticoagulant for the treatment and prevention of thrombosis and thrombophlebitis.
Many furocoumarins are photosensitizers (Dharmananda, 2000). This photosensitizing activity increases the sensitivity of the skin to ultraviolet rays, which causes increasing pigmentation and severe burns. This property of furocoumarins allows the treatment of vitiligo and some types of cancer.
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Advantages and Risks
Herbal remedies have a great number of benefits that distinguish them from chemically derived drugs. First of all, herbalism is associated with a reduced risk of the occurrence of side effects because most medicinal plants are well tolerated by humans. As stated by Han and Miller (2008), many naturalist healthcare systems, especially Chinese medicine, pursue treatments without side effects. Since health care practices including herbalism usually emphasize the importance of a holistic and patient-centered approach to treatment, the occurrence of side effects is thus regarded by herbalists as a failure (Han & Miller, 2008).
The increased safety of natural ingredients and a profound understanding of the chemical processes in both the human body and plants, as well as plant-body interactions, allow for positive treatment outcomes and an improvement in the quality of life. Due to the reduced probability of adverse side effects, herbs are efficient in the treatment of chronic illnesses because the soft effects of herbs on the body allow the long-term implementation of natural medicines.
Moreover, they are usually more affordable than mainstream chemical drugs. Researchers also observe that herbalism may more closely correspond to patients’ beliefs and interests decreasing their concerns about the adverse impacts of synthetic drugs, satisfying their need for a personalized health care approach, and allowing specialists to promote health information and access (Wachtel-Galor & Benzie, 2011).
However, as mentioned by Dharmananda (2000), although people tend to link natural herbs with multiple health benefits and a reduced risk of harm, doctors in different lines of traditional herbal medicine have sometimes implemented toxic varieties such as foxglove or deadly nightshade. Therefore, to use herbs safely and efficiently, a patient or medical practitioner must attain a high level of competence. In potentially life-threatening situations, patients should always address well-trained herbalists to get the correct and most efficient herbal formulas. Additionally, in the case of serious illness, herbal remedies alone may not be sufficient, and both mainstream and natural methods of treatment should be carried out during treatment (Han & Miller, 2008).
Another potential risk is in the interactions between herbs and synthetic drugs. To avoid undesired outcomes, physicians need to pay greater attention to those patients who must undergo many medical therapies at a time. Researchers suggest that individuals whose health is fragile should not use most herbs (Dharmananda, 2000).
At the same time, a doctor should always stay up to date by researching recent study findings of the pharmacological actions of drugs and herbs, as well as the mechanisms of their interactions. It is of particular importance to consider the similar pharmaceutical activities of herbs and other medicines because the combined intake of different drugs may lead to the intensification of their therapeutic effects and, in this way, lead to adverse health outcomes (Dharmananda, 2000).
Implementation of Herbalism
Today, practitioners of the diverse medical traditions implement herbs in the treatment of multiple diseases including cancers, degenerative and progressive diseases, phycological conditions, immune system failures, and others. As researchers have observed, natural remedies can be effective even when a person has a genetic predisposition to an illness, and they can significantly improve his or her quality and length of life (Han & Miller, 2008).
One good example is Catharanthus roseus, also known as periwinkle, which is known for its numerous biological activities and is commonly used to treat various diseases. The diversified benefits of the plant are a result of its more than 130 alkaloids: catharanthine, vindoline, vincristine, and many others. All of these alkaloids are associated with different influences on body processes including the arrest of bleeding, cessation of tumor development, and reduction of inflammation (Shahid et al., 2013). Today, the anticancerous properties of vincristine and vinblastine contained in periwinkle are well known.
Clinicians usually use different extracts of leaves in modern medicine to treat neoplasms, but the alkaloid portion of dried leaves used externally has proved to be effective as well; in a clinical study, this method allowed for the healing of different types of warts (Shahid et al., 2013). The chloroform extract of periwinkle leaves is useful for the treatment of leukemia P388 cells. Moreover, along with its demonstrated antitumor activity, different combinations including the plant produce a great variety of effects: antimutagenic, antihypertensive, cardiotonic, cytotoxic, CNS depressive, and more.
As a review of the literature makes clear, herbal medicine has a long history of development. It prevailed in the past, but with technological and scientific advancements, synthetic drugs became more widespread in mainstream medicine. Nevertheless, the evolution of herbal remedies continues, and the number of research findings in the field of herbalism, as well as discoveries of new favorable properties of plants, is steadily growing. Even though herbs are usually not regarded as the principal method of treatment in the Western tradition today, drug producers use the extracts from many plants in the development of medicines for different serious illnesses.
Researchers also suggest that the combination of modern methods with centuries-old natural health care practices allows the achievement of better treatment outcomes. Herbal medicine is also deeply embedded in the concept of holistic medical practice, which pays attention to all aspects of individual life and aims to maximize patients’ health potential. Through learning and implementing the principles of herbalism, mainstream health practitioners may diversify their methodology, expand their knowledge base, and significantly improve the health of their patients, even in the toughest situations.
Dharmananda, S. (2000). The interactions of herbs and drugs. Web.
Han, H., & Miller, G. (2008). Ancient herbs, modern medicine: Improving your health by combining Chinese herbal medicine and Western medicine. New York: Bantam Books.
Meek, T. (2013). This month in 1939: How dead cattle led to the discovery of warfarin. PMLive. Web.
O’Sullivan, C. (2005). Reshaping herbal medicine: Knowledge, education and professional culture. Edinburgh, Scotland: Elsevier/Churchill Livingstone.
Shahid, M., Shahzad, A., Malik, A., & Sahai, A. (2013). Recent trends in biotechnology and therapeutic applications of medicinal plants. London, UK: Springer.
Singh, A., Saharan, V. A., & Bhandari, A. (2014). Pharmacognostic standardization with various plant parts of Desmostachya bipinnata. Pharmaceutical Biology, 52(3), 298-307. Web.
Wachtel-Galor, S., & Benzie, I. (2011). Herbal medicine: An introduction to its history, usage, regulation, current trends, and research needs. In: Benzie, I. & Wachtel-Galor S. (Eds). Herbal medicine: Biomolecular and clinical aspects. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis. Web.