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Natural Awakenings New York City

Back to the Future with Plant-Based Medicine

By Michael Biamonte

Eat leeks in March and wild garlic in May, and all the year after the physicians may play.

—Traditional Welsh rhyme

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

—Traditional American rhyme

Traditional healers have long used plants to prevent or cure infectious conditions. Now Western medicine is trying to duplicate their successes. The use of and search for drugs and dietary supplements derived from plants have accelerated in recent years.

It’s well understood now that plants are rich in a wide variety of secondary metabolites, such as tannins, terpenoids, alkaloids and flavonoids, which have been found to have antimicrobial properties. Still, while 25 to 50 percent of current pharmaceuticals are derived from plants, none are used as antimicrobials. 

The public is increasingly aware of problems with the overprescription and misuse of traditional drugs and antibiotics. In addition, many people want more autonomy over their medical care. 

The use of plant extracts, as well as other alternative forms of medical treatment, has enjoyed great popularity since the late 1990s. A multitude of plant compounds—often of unreliable purity—are readily available over the counter from herbal suppliers and natural food stores. As a result, self-medication with these substances is commonplace. 

Historical Lessons Learned

There are an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 species of plants on Earth, and only 1 to 10 percent of them are used as foods by both humans and other animal species. It’s possible that more are used for medicinal purposes. 

Hippocrates, who lived in the late fifth century BC, mentioned 300 to 400 medicinal plants in this writings. In the first century AD, Dioscorides wrote De Materia Medica, a medicinal plant catalog that became the prototype for modern pharmacopoeias. The Bible offers descriptions of approximately 30 healing plants. Indeed, frankincense and myrrh probably enjoyed their status of great worth due to their medicinal properties. Reported to have antiseptic properties, they were even used as mouthwash. 

The fall of ancient civilizations forestalled Western advances in the understanding of medicinal plants; much of the documentation of plant pharmaceuticals was destroyed or lost. During the Dark Ages in Europe, Arab cultures continued excavating their own older works and building upon them. Of course, Asian cultures were also busy compiling their own pharmacopoeia. The Renaissance saw a western revival of ancient medicine, which was built largely on medicinal plants.

Among Europeans living in the New World, the use of botanicals was a reaction against invasive or toxic mainstream medicinal practices of the day. 

In the 1800s, no less a luminary than Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. noted that medical treatments of the times could be dangerous and ineffective. Examples include the use of mercury baths in London “barber shops” to treat syphilis, and the use of dangerous hallucinogens as a tuberculosis “cure.” In 1861, Holmes wrote, “If the whole materia medica as now used could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind—and all the worse for the fishes.” 

In 1887, alternative practitioners compiled their own catalogs, notably the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States.

A New Sense of Urgency

We’ve seen a similar shift in thinking over the past 20 years, as mainstream medicine is increasingly receptive to the use of antimicrobial and other drugs derived from plants.

One reason is that traditional antibiotics—products of microorganisms or their synthesized derivatives—are becoming ineffective; new and particularly viral diseases remain intractable to this type of drug. 

Another reason is the rapid rate of extinction of plant species. There is a feeling among natural-products chemists and microbiologists alike that many potentially useful species are at risk of being lost forever. The scientific discipline known as ethnobotany, or ethnopharmacology, is devoted to preserving and using the impressive array of medicinal knowledge assembled by indigenous peoples.

This is part of the knowledge base of doctors trained in the use of naturally derived treatments. People wishing to use plant-based methods to treat chronic conditions should not try to self-medicate. Instead, to have long term and successful results, they must be under the care of a qualified doctor who understands plant-based medicines.   

Michael Biamonte, CCN, is founder of The Biamonte Center for Clinical Nutrition, located at 2185 34th Ave., Suite 14D, Astoria, NY. To learn more or to schedule an appointment, visit Health-Truth.com


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