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Before there was big pharma, before animal and human trials on new medications, and long before extensive lists of possible side effects from them, there was an entirely different form of medicine. It came from plants.
For thousands of years, humans relied on the earth and plant-based medicine to supply the things that helped us maintain health and return to health. The learnings from each generation were passed down and built upon, through midwives, doctors, apothecaries, and the sacred Medicine Keepers of Indigenous cultures around the world.
Modern medicine has brought to us incredible gifts. Anti-retro virals to treat HIV and AIDS. Sophisticated vaccines that have near eradicated many deadly diseases. Just last week it was announced that polio had been vanquished in Africa.
But there is also a side to modern medicine that raises important questions. Are manufactured pharmaceuticals always a better option or are they just a different one? Is the drive to monetize medicine pushing us away from natural solutions that might be growing in our own backyards? Are we at risk of losing the wisdom and knowledge that evolved over thousands of years of turning to nature for our wellness needs?
In this blog, we’ll take a look at some of the plants that stand out in nature’s pharmacy.
Getting Back to the Roots
Many plants have incredible and complex root structures that sustain and support what we see growing above the soil. What hides below the soil can include some powerful medicinal roots.
Take ginger, for example. In addition to bringing beautiful flavours to a stir fry, ginger root has been used medicinally as far back as 5000 years ago in China and India. Ginger root has been used in treating stomach and digestive ailments like nausea, morning sickness, and constipation. It is also heavily featured in traditional remedies to treat cold, sore throats, and congestion.
If that sounds like folklore, you might be surprised to learn that modern science has been looking into these claims… and finding there a lot of truth in them. A 2015 study looked into the properties of ginger root and found that this simple plant root had use for those conditions and more, including relieving joint pain and even increasing sexual health.
Tumeric is another root that that offers much more than bright flavours and colours to a delicious meal. Long used in aruyvedic medicine, modern research has found that curcumin, the key component found in abundance in turmeric, has powerful properties for reducing inflammation, increasing focus and attention, and acting as an antioxidant in the body.
Some other roots that are starting to get noticed by the modern medical industry include dandelion (which shows promise in providing cancer-fighting agents to the body), echinacea (a traditional medicine for the prevention and treatment of colds and other respiratory ailments), valerian root (long used as an aid in combating insomnia and promoting restorative sleep), and marshmallow (helpful in alleviating symptoms of dry cough and itchy throat). And of course garlic! Good for much more than warding off vampires.
Make Room for Mushrooms
Moving on from roots, let’s take a dive into mushrooms. Mushrooms provide delicious and nutritious additions to meals. They may also be the next breakthrough in plant-derived medicines.
Some people are wary of all mushrooms, and with good reason. Many varieties are highly toxic to us humans. Some are given names that warn of the danger within them, like Deadly Webcap, Death Cap, and Funeral Bell.
But not all mushrooms are created equal. Many species of mushroom are loaded with psilocybin. Psilocybin has hallucinogenic effects on the body. In today’s world, most countries have banned these ‘magic mushrooms’ for exactly that reason.
That is starting to change. There is ample evidence of the use of psilocybin mushrooms in the spiritual ceremonies of ancient cultures. Modern research has been working to understand their potential medicinal benefits. The Harvard Psilocybin Project kicked off in the 1960s to explore this question. In the 60 years since, more research points to the promise of psilocybin in treatment-resistant depression. There are also indications that psilocybin can be of benefit in treating substance-use disorders and anxiety disorders.
Regulation changing to match. In the United States, the FDA granted a limited Breakthrough Therapy Designation allowing for the use of psilocybin in the treatment of chronic and resistant depression. In Canada, psilocybin was given a green light to assist four terminally ill patients in dealing with end-of-life anxiety.
Imagine if one day, a simple mushroom could be the thing that helps someone overcome alcoholism, smoke their last cigarette and never go back to it, or regain feelings of joy and peace where before they knew only sadness and anxiety?
Herb, Weed, or Potent Medicine?
The last category of plant-based medicines we’ll dive into are leaves and flowers. Some of the top contenders are probably already familiar to you. Mint, for example.
Many of us already know mint as a soothing, flavourful leaf that can bring relief to an upset stomach, a sense of calm to an anxious body and mind, or a gentle remedy for a sore throat and cough.
But there is more to mint than a tasty cuppa. Mint has been shown to have powerful anti-microbial properties, lessening or halting the growth of many bacteria and fungal spores.
Many other flavourful herbs and flowers also offer natural remedies. Oregano does more than help keep pests out of your garden. Oil of oregano is used by many to ease the discomfort of colds and flus. But oregano has been found to assist in in reducing the inflammation that leads to atherosclerosis – the leading cause of heart disease.
Sage is considered to be among the most sacred of medicines in many Indigenous cultures across North America. And modern science is bringing evidence to support this ancient wisdom. Sage has been found to assist with common ailments, like the hot flashes that can accompany menopause. But it also shows promise in treating complex and little understood conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
Some plants that are often treated as pesky weeds are also part of nature’s apothecary. Plantain, for instance, is a humble little plant used as a natural remedy around the world for thousands of years. Its leaves can be crushed into a paste that neutralizes the venom of bees, wasps, and scorpions and takes the sting out of a burn. Yarrow leaves encourage clotting and are antiseptic. They can be applied as a poultice to a wound to help stop bleeding and prevent infection. Even stinging nettle, a plant that can deliver some powerful welts to the skin if you accidentally walk through it, can help the body eliminate excess fluid and salt when prepared and taken as a tea or tincture.
Cannabis and Plant Based Medicine
All this brings us to cannabis. Poor cannabis. Maligned for over a hundred years in many parts of the world, this hearty plant is one of the most powerful seen in the natural pharmacy.
Evidence shows that cannabis has been used for spiritual and medicinal purposes as far back as the ancient Asyrians. As humans migrated around the world, they brought seeds with them to cultivate hemp to make textiles and cannabis strains to make medicines.
Cannabis is among the most complex and diverse plants in the natural wellness arsenal. Many of the medicinal properties noted in other plants come from the terpenes they produce. Cannabis produces abundant terpenes, including many of the same ones that contribute to the medicinal punch of the other plants mentioned in this blog. But more than that, cannabis produces cannabinoids that mimic and enhance some of our bodies’ own, natural ways to heal and balance.
We know that CBD inspires our bodies to produce more cell receptors, which are needed for our natural endocannabinoids to bind to and be carried throughout our bodies. We know that THC fits like a lock and key into one of these receptors, enabling it to travel through the body.
And we are learning more and more about the direct and indirect relationship these have to terpenes in delivering their own wellness properties when we respect the whole plant as nature created it. That is a lot of promise packed into just one plant!
The Future of Plant Based Medicine
The word ‘disease’ literally means the absence of ease. While we may use it today to describe diagnosable medical conditions, like diabetes, cancer, or this word at its core means anything that is out of balance and causing distress.
Our bodies, like all things in nature, seek equilibrium. That is where we find ourselves in a state of ease. That same simple concept applies to science and medicine too. Without question, modern medical science has improved our lives enormously. And without question, science can benefit from including the science of nature in its future research and development.
An Indigenous woman commented a few years ago about how barren she found cities to me. As she put it, “In my culture if you are unwell, you go outside. Medicine is the land and the forest. Medicine is all around you.”
In our bodies, as in our environment, balance is everything. Here’s to a future of equilibrium between modern research and the wisdom of hundreds of generations of plant-based medicine.
Written by | Infused Amphora Team
The Infused Amphora Team is dedicated to creating resources to educate and engage consumers on the growing evidence of CBD benefits and the extensive health and wellness properties of CBD oil.
Contributors | Angus Taylor + Dr Gaylord Wardell
IPI is a pharmaceutical ingredient company that cultivates cannabis strains curated to extract specific cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids for the formulation of effects-based health and wellness products. Angus is an experienced public speaker, engaging stakeholders, governments and media. Angus was the co-founder of NewLeaf Cannabis, Canada’s most successful retail brand to date, and has been established as a well-known and recognized expert in the field.
Dr Wardell is a practising physician with over 40 years of clinical and educational experience in pain management, medical practices and education. Dr Wardell is past President of the Pain Society of Alberta, and current President of the Alberta Medical Association, section of Pain. He is a popular public speaker, an active blogger on medical and pain-related issues, and proponent for scientific validation for patients experiencing pain.
Infused Amphora “Learn” is intended for informational purposes only and is NOT a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.