Herbal remedies that really work: poppy, velvet bean, hawthorn | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW

Humans have been extracting the healing properties of plants for thousands of years. Although herbal remedies are often dismissed as unscientific, more than a third of modern medicines are derived directly or indirectly from natural products, such as plants, microorganisms and animals.

Now, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in the US state of California have discovered that a chemical extracted from the bark of the Galbulimima belgraveana tree has psychotropic effects that may help treat depression and anxiety.

The tree is only found in remote rainforests of Papua New Guinea and Northern Australia and has long been used by indigenous peoples as a remedy for pain and fever.

“This shows that Western medicine has not cornered the market for new therapies; there are traditional medicines still waiting to be studied,” said senior author Ryan Shenvi, PhD, a professor of chemistry at Scripps Research. , to reporters last week. †

What other medicines are in plants?

The most famous example of a medical drug extracted from a plant species is opium, which has been used to treat pain for more than 4,000 years. Opiates such as morphine and codeine are extracted from the poppy and have a powerful effect on the central nervous system.

Afghan man picking opium

Afghan farmers collect raw opium in a poppy field

But what other ancient herbal medicines have demonstrable medical benefits, and what’s the science behind them?

Velvet Beans Treat Parkinson’s Disease

The velvet bean (mucuna pruriens) has been used in ancient Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for over 3000 years. Ancient texts tell us how healers used bean extracts to reduce tremors in patients to treat the condition we now think of as Parkinson’s disease.

Studies now show that the velvet bean contains a compound called levodopa, a drug used today to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Levodopa helps stop tremors by increasing dopamine signals in areas of the brain that control movement.

The modern history of levodopa began in the early 20th century when the compound was synthesized by the Polish biochemist Casimir Funk. Decades later, in the 1960s, scientists discovered that levodopa can be used as an effective treatment to stop tremors in patients with Parkinson’s disease. The drug revolutionized the treatment of the disease and remains the gold standard for its treatment today.

Hawthorn may be a future treatment for cardiovascular disease

Clinical studies using current research standards have shown that hawthorn (Crataegus spp) lowers blood pressure and may be useful for treating cardiovascular disease. Hawthorn berries contain compounds such as bioflavonoids and proanthocyanidins that appear to have significant antioxidant activity.

The medicinal properties of hawthorn were first noted by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century and by Tang-Ben-Cao in ancient Chinese medicine in the 7th century.

Hawthorn extracts are not yet suitable for medical use in the general public – studies are underway and more rigorous research is needed to assess the long-term safety of using the extracts to treat disease.

Hawthorn tree twig

Hawthorn berries taste a bit like small apples and their extracts can help treat heart or blood diseases

Pacific Yew Bark May Fight Cancer

Yew trees have a special place in medicine in European mythology. Most parts of the tree are very poisonous and cause associations with both death and immortality. The third witch in Macbeth mentions “taxes of yew shattered in the lunar eclipse” (Macbeth Act 4, Scene 1).

But it is a yew species in North America, the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), which possesses the most beneficial medical properties.

Scientists discovered in the 1960s that the tree’s bark contains compounds called taxels. One of these taxels, called Paclitaxel, has been developed into an effective cancer treatment drug. Paclitaxel can stop cancer cells from dividing, blocking the further growth of the disease.

Pacific yew in Oregon

Pacific yew in the US state of Oregon

The miracle cure from willow bark

Willow bark is another traditional medicine with a long history. The bark was adopted 4,000 years ago in ancient Sumer and Egypt to treat pain and has been a staple of medicine ever since.

Willow bark contains a compound called salicin, which would later form the basis for the discovery of aspirin – the world’s most widely used drug.

Aspirin has several medical benefits, including pain relief, fever reduction, and stroke prevention. Its first widespread use was during the 1918 flu pandemic to treat high temperatures.

Edited by: Clare Roth

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