Why …

… should I use plants for health care?

  • There is a lot of science to support the effects of plant remedies

There is good evidence (including ‘systematic reviews’ and ‘meta-analyses’ of human clinical research) that confirm benefit beyond placebo for standardised preparations of many common plants of hedgerow, field and garden in the UK and Europe. These include hawthorn, garlic, and horse chestnut for circulatory problems, milk thistle and artichoke leaf for digestive difficulties, rosemary, sage and lemon balm to improve cognitive performance, valerian as a mild sedative and to aid sleep, chasteberry to relieve menstrual and menopausal problems, St John’s wort to treat mild to moderate depression, and the oil of peppermint in irritable bowel conditions.

The average kitchen spice cabinet might yield ginger that has been shown to treat stomach-related nausea and vomiting, fennel for infantile colic, cardamon for circulatory problems, and turmeric in joint and other inflammatory conditions.

Non-European plants with relatively strong evidence include ginkgo, black cohosh, and kava kava.

The plants above are are just those common traditional home remedies that have been selected to research and there are no reasons to assume they are exceptional. Indeed many traditional remedies share key active constituents and other features with those that have clinical data.

  • Plants contain constituents that obviously are active

As well as the familiar nutritional properties most plants contain constituents that protect the plant or help it reproduce, grow, or prevent decay. These ‘secondary plant metabolites’ are most likely to have an impact on humans who consume them. Our ancestors knew that these effects could show quickly and this is how they learnt about plant medicine. They favoured plants that were rich in these key constituents and made the first ‘drugs’ (form an old European word drogen meaning dried plant) by extracting them. For example:

Mucilages are soothing on external and internal surfaces and plants that contain them were often used as wound remedies and to calm upset digestion, dry throats and coughs.

Tannins seal exposed protein on wounded or inflamed surfaces and were also used as wound remedies and to reduce inflammation in the mouth. throat and upper digestive tract.

Resins are directly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory on exposed surfaces and were used for mouth and throat infections and to treat infected wounds.

Aromatic essential oils settle internal muscle spasm and reduce inflammation and are still used as spices to help digestion and reduce colic and flatulence. Others have been used for chesty coughs and as mild sedatives.

Acrid principles (in hot spices) stimulate circulation and metabolic activity and were very valuable remedies in ancient times, used to counteract effects of cold and damp in illness, particularly in the respiratory tract, joints and digestion.

Plant pigments (like yellow flavonoids and blue anthocyanidins) improve the function of small blood vessels (the primary site of inflammation) and were used  in fever management.

Anthraquinone laxatives (as in senna, aloes, rhubarb root and cascara) clearly work!

Bitter principles stimulate bitter taste buds and thus lead to secretion of key digestive hormones; they have always been used to stimulate appetite and digestion especially for people recovering from illness.

Detergent principles in plants (‘saponins‘) have been used to steady cough and digestive upsets (eg in licorice), and interestingly to treat adrenal (eg ginseng) and ovarian symptoms (eg. in several North American women’s remedies) – we now know they are plant steroids.

Seeds, gums, cereals and other sources of fibre bulk up in water and have long been used to stabilise bowel activity.

  • Plants are very well suited to problems that conventional medicines miss

There are many everyday conditions that are often not suited to prescription medicines. We list them on this site.

Long term and low level conditions may be well managed by gentle supportive remedies rather than strong medication.

Doctors will often agree to you choosing home treatments to complement or even replace their prescriptions in situations like those above. See also the Self Care Library for further thoughts on the whole self care debate.

Plants can be ideally suited to these gentle tasks. They have enough pharmacological activity to be helpful but also the more broad effects from having many hundreds of constituents.

  • Plant remedies do different things in the body

As modern science has given us details about the way the body works it has helped target medicines better at specific diseases. Previously medicines were chosen for the effect they had when they were used. Medicines were meant to improve performance. Practitioners had to look at the person as a whole and realised that people reacted differently to remedies. They classified medicines by the overall effects they had on different types of person and types of illness. People used what we now think as outdated causes of illness, based on experience of the weather, like hot, cold, dry, damp and wind diseases. Medicines were seen to counteract these illness patterns. Such ideas seem less primitive if we translate what they meant into modern language, for example:

  • counteracting cold symptoms (warming) = increasing circulation
  • reducing hot symptoms (cooling) = increasing digestion and sedation
  • reducing damp conditions (drying) = reducing infections
  • counteracting dryness (moistening) = reducing hypersensitivity (allergies)
  • calming wind symptoms = reducing inflammations

In ancient Europe, in China, in India, and other traditions medicines were classified in these ways. There was a surprising level of agreement on the fundamentals. As we are faced with more illnesses too chronic and complex for easy fixes, maybe we should look again at these approaches to helping the body help itself.