9 Herbal Medicines and Their Uses. You’re probably aware of the warnings against using herbal medications in conjunction with prescription medications. In some cases, the herbs undermine the effectiveness of the prescriptions. In other cases, an herb to treat the condition amplifies the effect of the prescription. However, herbal medicines were not always seen as contrary to mainstream medicine. In fact, a number of herbal medications have become mainstream treatments, though those being prescribed it may not know its origin. Here are 9 herbal medicines and their uses.
Willow bark from several different species contains salicin. This is similar to the acetylsalicylic acid that is more commonly known as aspirin; that started to be mass produced in 1899. The chemical difference means willow acts more slowly but lasts longer. Willow also contains tannins and flavonoids. These provide other health benefits.
Capsaicin is the chemical compound that makes hot peppers hot. You’ve probably encountered that sensation when eating the chili peppers that give chili its name. The compound capsaicin is mixed into various creams and used to provide temporary relief of joint and muscle pain. It is often used to treat arthritis, bruising, back aches and muscle sprains. Topical creams containing it are used to treat nerve pain in those who have herpes zoster, also known as shingles. The same compound is used to treat psoriasis and arthritis. Capsaicin levels are higher in areas with more mold and insects, suggesting the compound helps the plant resist infection. This has led to some consuming the spicy substance for the anti-bacterial effects. Spices like peppers have long been used to kill intestinal worms and treat other digestive tract infection.
Taxol is an anti-cancer, chemotherapy drug. It was first used to treat breast and ovarian cancer. Use has expanded to treat melanoma, prostate cancer and bladder cancer. This cancer drug derived from the bark of Taxus brevifolia, also known as the Pacific yew tree. This is one of the most successful cases of traditional and indigenous medicine leading to a “new” prescription drug. It took more than a decade for the key chemical, paclitaxel, to be isolated and its antitumor properties to be confirmed. The mass production and distribution was delayed by the difficulty of coming up with an acceptable delivery system. It is currently delivered through intravenous infusions in most patients. Taxol was a breakthrough because it produced partial and complete response in patients with advanced ovarian cancer. It has fueled further research into traditional medicine, because the biggest benefits of herbal medicine are the fact that the plants and their uses are already known. There’s no need to test tens of thousands of plants and every compound they create against every disease and type of cancer. We’ll provide further examples of this later on.
The mayapple or American mandrake has been used by Native Americans for centuries. It was used in the 1800s by whites to cure warts. In 1835, the active resinous compounds were first identified. It took another century for etoposide to be synthesized. This compound was initially approved by the FDA for treating lung cancer. It was later approved as a chemotherapy drug for testicular cancer, lymphoma, and several types of sarcoma.
Quinine has been overshadowed by other malaria drugs because the parasite has evolved resistance to it. However, that only happened after centuries of use in the developing world. Quinine originally comes from the cinchona tree found in Peruvian rain forests. In 1912, a patient found that it halted his heart rhythm problem, leading to the drug’s use for that disorder.
Interestingly, the next big anti-malarial drug is also derived from herbal medicine. Qinghao, also known as artemisinin or Artemisia annua, has been formally recognized as an anti-malarial. Expect to see it distributed worldwide to fight that parasitic infection. This is one of the classic examples of the benefits of herbal medicine partnering with the pharmaceutical industry. Real cures are found and mass-produced for the benefit of everyone.
The anti-bacterial properties of molds were known well before penicillin was isolated. For example, a Polish herbal remedy called for the use of wet bread and spider webs to be made to treat infections. Molds were used in India, Egypt and Greece, too. By the early twentieth century, we knew that the Penicillium mold could fight infection. However, it was shortly before World War 2 that they were able to mass-produce the key enzyme, penicillin.
Foxglove was used for years to treat everything from tuberculosis to edema. This is one of those cases where an herbal remedy was used for many things but it was only effective in a few cases. The one proven use for this herbal medicine was congestive heart failure. This means we’ve used medicinal plants to treat heart conditions like atrial flutter and fibrillation. You just didn’t realize it because the prescription drug’s name was digoxin, not foxglove.
Red Yeast Rice
Red yeast rice is not one of the more famous medicinal plants, but it is a mainstay of Chinese medicine. Red yeast rice is made by fermenting a yeast, monascus purpureus, and pouring it over red rice. The combination is both eaten as food and prescribed as medicine for heart problems. Modern researchers found it contains statin-like chemicals. It hasn’t yet been approved by the FDA, it remains regularly prescribed in Eastern medicine.
Cod liver oil has long been used to treat conditions like rickets and tuberculosis. In the case of rickets, it was delivering missing vitamins that children required. Yet it was equally effective in treating muscle and joint problems. The omega 3 fatty acids were shown to be effective against unhealthy fats in the bloodstream. The ethyl esters from these enzymes were eventually isolated and turned into the prescription drug Lovaza.
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