“We realize we are already in a relationship with plants because of the mere fact that we breathe. When we become conscious of the source of this breath our relationship deepens. When we pay attention to the fact that we are exhaling carbon dioxide which the plants are breathing in we then shift into the symbiotic reality of exchange of breath with all the green beings. We are constantly in a cycle of breath, a relationship where we are dependent on each other for our life.” 1
When you sit down to eat a meal, do you think about everything that went into the food on your plate? What did it take to grow? There must be sunshine, rain, bees, and so on for you to consume all the wonderful fruits and vegetables and reap the benefits they provide your body. All our food comes from plants, either directly, or from an animal that ate a plant. Our ability to breathe oxygen comes from plants which are crucial to our survival. Plants are not only dependent on humans but also dirt. Dirt is a living system that has a symbiotic relationship with plants also. Nutrients from decomposing plants provide structure and water holding capacity to our land, control diseases and pests, and sequester carbon. The nutrient density of the plants we eat depends on the soil.2
I believe we as humans take for granted that our health and survival depend on agriculture. The evolutionary success of both humankind and its plant symbionts is dependent on our caring partnership.3 We have a long way to go to repair the damage that has been caused. Farmers are in a financial and ethical struggle. They are trying to make a living financially and want to do what is right for the land.
Our history with plants as medicine
Plants have been used for thousands of years for their medicinal properties. I find it interesting that a poisonous plant’s antidote is probably growing not far from the poisonous plant! Jewelweed, for example, typically grows near poison ivy, and it is the antidot for the itchy rash which occurs from poison ivy. The Native Americans also used jewelweed for several types of skin rashes. Various disease has been treated with the use of plants as medicine through history. To date, 35,000 – 70,000 plant species have been screened for medicinal use.
According to World health organization reports, around 80 % of the global population still relies on botanical drugs; today several medicines owe their origin to medicinal plants.4Drugs such as codeine, quinine and morphine all contain plant-derived ingredients.5 The first semi-synthetic pure drug aspirin, based on a natural product that comes from a white willow tree, was introduced by Bayer in 1899. 6
When a plant is used for herbal medicine many parts of the plant are used, such as the root, bark, stem, leaves, seeds, flowers, and fruits. Different parts of a plant may offer a variety of therapeutic effects. Plants produce bioactive compounds which are classified into primary and secondary metabolites. Primary metabolites like carbohydrates, lipids, and amino acids, are necessary for the growth and basic metabolism in all plants, while secondary metabolites are not essential, but they may play crucial roles in plant wellbeing by interacting with the ecosystems.When assessing phytochemical compounds, the main interest is in quantifying their activity, evaluating how successful they are in promoting good health, and preventing diseases.7
These therapeutic actions can be attributed to a wide variety of components found in herbs including alkaloids, anthocyanins, anthraquinones, cardiac glycosides, coumarins, cyanogenic glycosides, flavonoids, glucosinolates, phenols, saponins, and tannins.8 A great example that has become known for its many benefits one of which being, maintaining a healthy inflammatory response and also for its antioxidant properties. Curcumin is a type of phenol found in the turmeric root.9 Gingko is also one of the oldest homeopathic plants, as well as one of the oldest tree species. It is a key herb used in Chinese medicine. It is known for it’s potential to boost brain health, and slow cognitive decline. 10
Plants produce bioactive compounds which are classified into primary and secondary metabolites. Primary metabolites like carbohydrates, lipids, and amino acids, are necessary for the growth and basic metabolism in all plants, while secondary metabolites are not essential, but they may play crucial roles in plant wellbeing by interacting with the ecosystems.11
Eastern Medicine vs Western Medicine with the use of medicinal plants
Eastern medicine is much more holistic. They are focusing on every aspect of the body. Not only balance of the systems of the body, but also the patient’s environment and lifestyle. They use many techniques and medicinal plants. Eastern medicine does not evaluate an illness purely based on the symptoms a person is showing but rather on complex patterns of disharmony in the body.
Western medicine, where the focus is generally only on the system affected. Because of this way of thinking, pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures are based on how they affect each individual organ or organ system, instead of considering how the systems are intertwined.
The Western approach divides health from disease, yet the Eastern approach considers health a balanced state versus disease as an unbalanced state.12
Eastern Medicine systems are supported by vast literature and records of theoretical concepts and practical skills; passed down from generation to generation through verbal teaching. In some parts of the world, most of the population continues to rely on their own traditional medicine as their primary health care. 13
Ayurveda means the “science of life.” It is a 5,000-year-old system of medicine originating in India. Its practices combine natural therapies with a highly personalized, holistic approach to the treatment of disease. They believe the disease is a result of disharmony between the person and the environment. They relate these problems to food, activity, the climate, and stress which disrupt or destroy these functions. Ayurveda seeks to normalize body functions with varied techniques, including nutrition and activity, internal herbal preparations, purification treatments. Many Ayurvedic practices help balance gut health, and by doing so, can treat the root cause of many issues.14
The Role of Food in Ayurveda
In Ayurveda, ingestion of food, spices, and medicinal plants are used for stabilizing and healing the body. They believe metabolic diseases and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract as well as skin, muscles, joints, neurological, gynecological, and psychological disorders are directly related to food. 15
The Action of Indian Spices from plants as medicine
Spices are obtained from the roots, flowers, fruits, seeds, or bark of plants or herbs. Spices are native to warm, tropical climates. Different species present different benefits that may have specific functions in the body. The phytochemicals within spices protect the plants from damage by insects, animals, fungi, pathogens, and parasites. Before consumption, most herbs are dried to degrade these chemicals. Drying also increases the resulting spices’ shelf life and potency. Many spices and plants work synergistically; therefore, combinations of plants are typically involved in their different actions. Supporting herbs will each have different actions, acting as catalysts to help proper absorption, transportation, and reducing toxicity. This form of traditional medicine is becoming popular in many parts of the world. It is becoming increasingly popular in Europe due to the positive results of many chronic conditions. 15
Traditional Chinese medicine is a comprehensive and complex, holistic form of medicine that analyzes multiple aspects of a patient and focuses on their relationship with Nature. While Chinese medicine texts date back to around 300 BC to 100 BC, critical aspects of traditional Chinese medicine date back even further, emerging during the Zhou Dynasty in 1000 BC. This 3,000-year-old holistic approach uses many techniques, such as acupuncture, food therapy, massage, and therapeutic exercises. Like Ayurveda, they look at imbalances that lead to disharmony in what they refer to as “QI.” QI is the energy in the body. 16
Alcmaeon lived around 500 B.C.E. . He appears to have been the first person to wonder about the possible internal causes of illness. He proposed that disease might result from environmental problems, nutrition, and lifestyle. Greeks believed health was affected by geographic location, social class, diet, trauma, beliefs, and mindset. Greek doctors became expert herbalists and prescribers of natural remedies.17
A system of medicine founded in the late 18th century in which remedies consist of diluted substances from plants, minerals and animals. It is based on a theory that “like cures like.” Remedies specifically match different symptom pattern profiles of illness to stimulate the body’s natural healing process.18
Preparation of plants for medicinal purposes
Medicinal plants are extracted and processed for direct consumption as herbal or traditional medicine or prepared for experimental purposes. The concept of preparing medicinal plants for experimental purposes involves the cultivating the plant at the proper time, authentication by an expert, adequate drying, and grinding.
Extraction of medicinal plants involves separating active plant materials or secondary metabolites such as alkaloids, flavonoids, terpenes, saponins, steroids, and glycosides from inert or inactive material using an appropriate solvent and standard extraction procedure. Plant materials with high content of phenolic compounds and flavonoids were found to possess antioxidant properties and are used to treat age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinsonism, anxiety, and depression.19
The extraction process involves using a solvent, (water, ethanol, methanol, acetone etc) to separate the active medicinal component of the plant from inert or inactive components.20
An herbal extract made by soaking herbs in alcohol or vinegar base for several weeks. The liquid is then strained to remove the plant.21
“Let food be thy medicine”
What you eat may have the ability to transform your health. Foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, tubers, and legumes are great dietary staples that may aid in maintaining homeostasis in the body. These foods are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals and provide an abundance of nutrients for your body. Dark chocolate can regenerate stem cells, blackberries and pomegranate can activate the immune system, Camu – Camu is immune calming, broccoli provides DNA protection, and there are many more plant-based benefits there is no magic bullet. The key is diversity, eating all the colors of the rainbow, and making good choices on what we put in our bodies every day.
Avoiding highly processed foods, which have been stripped of nutrients to a more plant-based way of life, provides many benefits to your body. Your digestion and skin typically will improve, and your total energy may increase due to the nutrient-dense attributes.22
Our long symbiotic relationship with plants has created an inherent need to be close to nature. We have a bond with nature, we feel energized when we are close to what supports us in life, it is restorative.