A Quick History of Plants as Medicine
Here’s a quick history of plants as medicine.
Whether we’re talking about Ayurvedic practitioners in India or Chinese herbalists, the history of medicinal plants is about as old as mankind itself. Yet today, in the midst of the artificial intelligence revolution, the cryptocurrency craze and technology galore, more consumers than ever are going back to their roots by embracing herbal medicine. You might even be one of them.
Over the last two decades or so, plants have taken center stage in the West. A 2007 survey found that traditional medicines and therapies were being used by 38% and 12% of American adults and kids, respectively. And that number has seen steady growth ever since. Last year, we spent nearly $8 billion spent on herbal supplements.
Whether consumers are turning to herbal medicine for natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals or to achieve more holistic wellness, there’s no denying that herbs have made their way across the world and into American pantries and medicine cabinets.
Here’s an overview of how plants have been used as medicine in ancient civilizations around the globe (including in our little civilization called America).
Pen Tsao, a Chinese book dating back to 2500 BC, mentions more than 300 dried plant parts that were used to create medicinal items. Ginseng, camphor, cinnamon bark and many others described in this medicinal record are still used today.
Somewhere around 700 AD, a book outlining more than 600 prescriptions was put together by Wang Tao, who even back then knew that discoloration of the tongue signaled the onset of an ailment. Chinese medicinal knowledge was handed down through generations; it was only in the mid-1900s that it made its way into formal educational training.
The oldest form of healthcare therapy in the world, Ayurveda dates back to 5000 BC—a time so long ago that the Saharan Desert was lush with vegetation and water. Ayurveda treatment involves the use of medicinal plants along with massages and detoxing.
A 5000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet found in Nagpur was inscribed with Ayurveda healing recipes using over 200 plants such as henbane, poppy and mandrake. Clove, turmeric, pepper and a number of other herbs and spices are mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures as well. Talk about staying power.
Ancient Arabia is credited with the idea that a controlled diet and regular exercise make for healthier living. The Arabs were one of the first to establish the roles of physicians and pharmacists, opening the door for in-depth study of a number of plants and their uses.
The foundations for the Greco-Arabian school of medicine was laid by Avicenna around 900 AD. He’s commonly known as the father of early modern medicine and his book, Canon, lists more than 1000 drugs. It was so astounding that it made its way to mainland Europe, where it was used by physicians studying medicine. Ancient Arabic herbal treatments even involved various plant poisons and their antidotes.
Greek herbal treatments
The Greeks also made important early contributions to the field of plant-based medicine. Theophrastus (371-287 BC) classifies more than 500 medicinal plants; even back then he recommended taking small doses of plant-based drugs so that the body could adapt to the changes. His books mention the properties of cinnamon, pomegranate, mint, and cardamom, among others.
Dioscorides’ ancient, medical magnum opus was considered the physician’s Bible all the way until the Renaissance. In it, nearly 70% of the drugs mentioned are plant-based. Dioscorides’ book also offers comprehensive notes on how to collect and prepare various plants.
The significance of plant-based remedies is undeniable—so much so that even the contemporary world has fallen under the spell of the medicinal power of herbs. The 2003 SARS outbreak in China was contained using traditional herbal medicines. And the Africa flower has been used for years to counteract muscle wasting brought on by the HIV virus.
Modern-day herbal medicines
Nowadays, plant-based products come in the form of teas, capsules, ointments, essential oils or as the herb in its entirety. You can also find herbal ingredients in top-rated fat burners and, of course, in popular nootropics formulas. But if you’re thinking of an herbal supplement, just be careful about the filler ingredients that go into the finished product, because manufacturing processes can often make plants much different than our ancestors’ herbs.
Many of these ancient herbs have also been heavily researched—turmeric and ginger, for instance, have a massive body of research just about their health benefits. Likewise, the class of adaptogenic herbs are now being touted in studies left and right. But just because a plant has been used for thousands of years doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be effective. And just because something screams “natural” from its label doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe for you, either.
The moral of the story? Herbs have been used in healing since before the Sahara was a desert—yes, it’s been that long. But despite the fact that plants are generally safer and more natural than pharma drugs, it’s still important to check out interactions, research and quality reviews.