Today more than one-third of modern drugs are derived either directly or indirectly from natural products, such as plants, microorganisms and animals.
The most well-known example of a medical drug extracted from a plant species is opium, which has been used to treat pain for over 4,000 years. Opiates like morphine and codeine are extracted from the opium poppy and have a powerful effect on the central nervous system.
The bark of the Galbulimima belgraveana tree has psychotropic effects that could help treat depression and anxiety. The tree is found only in remote rainforests of Papua New Guinea and northern Australia and has long been used by indigenous people as a healing remedy against pain and fever.
The velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) has been used in ancient Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine for over 3,000 years. Ancient texts tell us how healers used bean extracts to reduce tremors in patients to treat the condition we now consider Parkinson’s disease. Studies now show that the velvet bean contains a compound called levodopa, a drug used to treat Parkinson’s disease today. Levodopa helps to stop tremors by increasing dopamine signals in areas of the brain that control movement. The drug revolutionized the treatment of the disease and is still the gold standard for its treatment today.
The medical properties of hawthorn (Crataegus spp) were first noted by Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century and by Tang-Ben-Cao in ancient Chinese medicine in the 7th century.
Clinical trials using current research standards have found that hawthorn reduces blood pressure and may be useful to treat cardiovascular disease. Hawthorn berries contain compounds such as bioflavonoids and proanthocyanidins that appear to have significant antioxidant activity.
The North American Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), that possesses the most beneficial medical properties. Scientists in the 1960s found 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 further growth of the disease.
Willow 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 of the discovery of aspirin — the world’s most widely taken drug.
“I have no country to fight for; my country is the Earth, and I am a citizen of the World.” – Eugene V. Debs
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