Medicinal plants have been used throughout history to heal the sick. Carbon dating from ancient Babylon (Iraq) indicates that plants were cultivated as medicines 60,000 years ago. It is thought that the ancient Greeks and Romans learned from these earlier civilisations and began to keep written records of their own discoveries at least 2500 years ago, with written records beginning earlier in India, China and Egypt.
One of the most outstanding figures of Western medicine, the Greek physician Hippocrates, living around 400 BC and often referred to as the "father of modern medicine"', is said to have used only food, medicinal plants and lifestyle advice to heal his patients. He is known for the saying "let food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food". The core principles and medicines formulated by him and his successors read strangely modern and are increasingly validated today.
If the history of human medicine was condensed into a relative period of one hour, everything except for the last minute would be dominated by plant medicine. Even in New Zealand, plant medicine was taught at medical schools well into the middle of the 20th century.
A variety of factors including technological advances, economical and political shifts resulted in the declining use of traditional plant medicine in many Western societies throughout the 20th century. New discoveries of powerful synthetic medicines such as antibiotics, and different ways of measuring the effectiveness of medicines such as randomised control trials, resulted in the marginalisation of traditional knowledge that had been passed down through generations of healthcare practitioners.
However, because of the rise in degenerative and chronic illnesses, limited biomedical options for treating many ailments safely, and the threat of loss of effectiveness of Western "miracle drugs" such as antibiotics, this hiatus has been short-lived.
Plant medicine is experiencing a renaissance, with scientific research into healing plants growing exponentially. The demand for traditional medicine is increasing worldwide, with surveys indicating that around 50 per cent of New Zealanders and up to 70 per cent of children use plant medicines for their healthcare needs. Herbal medicinal products enjoy high acceptance by patients, which is reflected internationally. In Europe, up to 86% of people use Complementary and Alternative (CAM) healthcare.
Reflecting this shift, the World Health Organisation has published a global strategy to integrate traditional medicine into public health services and self-health care. Because traditional medicine focuses on patient involvement and self-care, it can help to address the burden of lifestyle disease facing modern societies. In this way, the use of traditional medicine for promoting health and preventing disease may actually reduce health-care costs. In addition, medicinal plants can enhance the benefits of pharmaceutical medicine and reduce many common side effects.
My own PhD thesis is part of the work being done globally to validate the evidence base of traditional knowledge. The research revolves around a 1500 page, 400-year-old Renaissance Materia Medica, a medical book of collected knowledge about medicinal plants that have influenced Western medicine. The tome is the most comprehensive German language encyclopedia on medicinal plants of the early modern era.
So far, the empirical knowledge detailed in the Materia Medica is shown to be thorough and complete. There is very little new information about medicinal plants that we've discovered through biomedicine that the ancient physicians didn't already know.
For instance, the compounding of penicillin was first recorded by German Benedictine monks in the eighth century and the recent recreation of a 1000-year-old medieval remedy from England for eye infections proved effective against an antibiotic-resistant superbug.
The use of traditional medical knowledge can be a fruitful approach for new therapeutic approaches and drug discovery. More countries are gradually coming to accept the contribution that traditional medicine can make to the health and wellbeing of individuals, and to the comprehensiveness of their healthcare systems.
Chrystal, K., Allan, S., Forgeson, G., & Isaacs, R. (2003). The use of complementary/alternative medicine by cancer patients in a New Zealand regional cancer treatment centre. NZ Med J, 116(1168).
Kopp, B. (2015). High acceptance of herbal medicinal products: What does the future hold? Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, 165(11-12), 215-216. doi: 10.1007/s10354-015-0376-3
Wilson, K., Dowson, C., & Mangin, D. (2007). Prevalence of complementary and alternative medicine use in Christchurch, New Zealand: children attending general practice versus paediatric outpatients. N Z Med J, 120(1251), U2464.
World Health Organisation (2013). WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023. Switzerland: Author. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/92455/1/9789241506090_eng.pdf?ua=1