Although herbal medicines are often criticized as frivolous, more than a third of modern medicines come directly or indirectly from natural products such as plants, microorganisms or animals. For thousands of years, people have used the healing properties of plants.
Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California, United States, have now discovered that the bark of the Galbulimima belgraveana tree contains a psychotropic substance that can be used to treat depression and anxiety.
This tree grows only in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea and Northern Australia, where the bark has long been used by local peoples as a remedy for pain and fever.
“This shows that Western medicine is not dominating the market for new therapies and there are many traditional medicines that still need to be studied,” said Ryan Shenvy, a chemistry professor and director of research, in an interview with DW.
What active substances are there in plants?
The most famous example of a plant-based medicine is opium, which is derived from poppies. 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 collect opium in a poppy field.
In the same way there are other ancient phytotherapeutic drugs, whose healing effect is scientifically proven.
Treat Parkinson’s with a velvet bead
The so-called velvet grain (Mucuna puriens) has been part of Chinese medicine and Ayurveda for more than 3,000 years. Ancient texts describe how healers used grain extracts to reduce tremors in patients and treat a disease known today as Parkinson’s.
Current studies show that velvet grain contains a compound called levodopa, a precursor of dopamine. As a medicine, levodopa is used to treat Parkinson’s disease and helps stop tremor by boosting dopamine signals in areas of the brain that control movement.
The modern history of levodopa began in the early 20th century, when the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk synthesized the substance. Decades later, in the 1960s, scientists discovered that levodopa was an effective treatment for stopping tremor in patients with Parkinson’s. 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 the treatment of cardiovascular disease. Hawthorn fruit contains compounds such as bioflavonoids and proanthocyanidins, which have a high antioxidant effect.
Hawthorn fruit has a high antioxidant effect.
The Greek physician Dioscorides was the first to discover the healing effects of hawthorn in the first century BC. Extracts of this plant are not yet suitable for medical use for the general public. Relevant studies have not yet been completed.
Fighting cancer with Pacific yew
In European mythology, yew occupies a special place in medicine. Since most of the tree is poisonous, it is often associated with death, but also with immortality.
Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), a coniferous tree native to North America, has the most positive healing properties.
In the 1960s, scientists discovered that the bark of the tree contained the compound paclitaxel, on the basis of which an effective drug for the treatment of cancer was developed. It can stop the division of cancer cells and thus block the spread of the disease.
Willow bark is another traditional medicine with a long history. As far back as 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 is made. It is used to reduce pain, lower fever and prevent strokes. It was first used during the flu pandemic in 1918 to treat fever. Today it is the most widely used drug in the world.
(vt / cp)