Exceptional plants that revolutionized medicine | Science and Ecology | D.W.

Although herbal medicines are often criticized as unserious, more than a third of modern medicines come directly or indirectly from natural products such as plants, microorganisms or animals. For millennia, humans have harnessed the healing qualities of plants.

Now, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute, in the state of California, in the United States, discovered that the bark of the Galbulimima belgraveana tree contains a psychotropic substance with which, for example, depression and anxiety states could be treated.

This tree only grows in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea and northern Australia, where the bark has long been used by native peoples as a medicine against aches and fevers.

“This shows that Western medicine does not dominate the market for new therapies, and there are many traditional medicines that still need to be investigated,” explains Ryan Shenvi, professor of chemistry and director of the study, in an interview with DW.

What active substances are in plants?

The best-known example of a plant-based medicine is opium, which is obtained from the poppy. Its active parts are mainly alkaloids, codeine and morphine. They belong to the opioids and have a strong effect on the central nervous system. There are opioids of natural origin, such as endorphins and pure opiates, and synthetic or semi-synthetic production.

Afghan farmers harvest opium in a poppy field.

Likewise, there are other ancient phytotherapeutic drugs, whose medicinal effect has been scientifically proven.

Treat Parkinson’s with velvet grain

The so-called velvet grain (Mucuna puriens) has been a part of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for more than 3,000 years. Ancient texts describe how healers used grain extracts to reduce tremor in patients and treat the disease now known as Parkinson’s.

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Current studies show that velvet grain contains a compound called levodopa, a dopamine precursor substance. As a medication, levodopa is used to treat Parkinson’s disease, and helps stop tremor by boosting dopamine signals in the areas of the brain that control movement.

The modern history of levodopa began in the early 20th century, when Polish biochemist Casimir Funk synthesized the substance. Decades later, in the 1960s, scientists discovered that levodopa was an effective treatment for stopping tremor in Parkinson’s patients. The drug revolutionized the treatment of the disease and is still used today.

The healing power of plants

According to current clinical studies, hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) lowers blood pressure and may be useful in treating cardiovascular disease. The hawthorn fruit contains compounds such as bioflavonoids and proanthocyanidins, which have a high antioxidant effect.

The fruit of the hawthorn has a high antioxidant effect.

The fruit of the hawthorn has a high antioxidant effect.

The Greek physician Dioscorides was the first to discover the medicinal effects of hawthorn, in the first century BC. The extracts of this plant are not yet suitable for medical use for the general public. The respective studies have not yet been completed.

Fight cancer with Pacific yew

In European mythology, the yew occupies a special place in medicine. Since most of the tree is poisonous, it is often associated with death, but also with immortality.

The Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), a conifer native to North America, has the most positive medicinal qualities.

In the 1960s, scientists discovered that the bark of the tree contains the compound paclitaxel, on the basis of which an effective drug for treating cancer was developed. It can stop cancer cells from dividing and thus block the spread of the disease.

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a miracle drug

Willow bark is another traditional medicine with a long history. Already 4,000 years ago, the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians used the bark to combat pain.

Willow bark contains a compound called salicin, from which aspirin was developed. It is used to reduce pain, lower fever, and prevent strokes. It was first used during the flu pandemic in 1918 to treat high fever. Today it is the most widely used drug in the world.




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