February 29, 2024

Herbs - the past and future of pharmacy

It is estimated that more than 25% of prescription drugs contain herbal ingredients, but only a small percentage of the world's plants have been evaluated for potential pharmaceutical use

Author: Rositsa Tashkova, MSc in Molecular Biology and Microbiology
The importance of herbs for the treatment of various diseases - from ancient times to the present day - is evident from the diverse scientific disciplines that have formed around them [ref. 1]:
• The clinical use of medicinal plants is called phytotherapy;
• Historical aspects of the use of medicinal plants in different societies around the world are united in the sciences of ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology;
• Traditional medicine also refers to the role of plants in various popular "non-scientific" medical systems, experience that has been passed down through the generations, but has not been proven by science (often this is due to the fact that the mechanisms of action of the specific herbs or combinations);

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• Pharmacognosy is the science of biogenic or naturally derived pharmaceuticals and poisons. It deals with all medicinal plants, including complex mixtures that are used in the form of raw herbs (crushed herbal substance) or extracts (phytotherapy), pure compounds such as morphine, and foods that have additional health benefits only in the context of preventive effects (nutraceuticals - garlic, ginger, turmeric, cocoa, red wine, foods containing flavonoids, anthocyanins and carotenoids). Pharmacognosy includes identification, physicochemical characterization, cultivation, extraction, preparation, quality control and biological evaluation of drugs.
What is the place of herbs in medicine
It is estimated that more than 25% of prescription medicinal products contain herbal ingredients, but only a small percentage of the world's plants have been evaluated for potential pharmaceutical use. [ref. 6]
Recent years have seen increased interest in plant research as a source of new drugs. This has also increased the number of newly discovered bioactive compounds of plant origin, and many programs will continue to contribute to this in the near future.
China has played an important role in the development of currently used pharmaceutical products with approximately 30,000 species of plants, many of which have a long history of use in traditional medicine.


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According to the American Pharmacognosy Society, it is "the study of the physical, chemical, biochemical, and biological properties of drugs, drug substances or potential drugs, and drug substances of natural origin, and the search for new drugs from natural sources."
Often, naturally occurring medicinal substances cannot be mass-produced, so they have to be researched to develop synthetic biosimilars.
The production of these compounds synthetically allows modifications to be made to increase bioavailability, alter pharmacokinetics, and increase efficacy. These modifications can transform the crude inactive plant extract into a powerful drug, as seen with some anti-cancer drugs. Thus, natural compounds represent excellent models for the production of new drugs. [ref. 7]
Pharmacognosy is recognized as a vital part of drug development processes and pharmaceutical education, but has been neglected recently due to the advent of effective drugs that can be synthesized in the laboratory.

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However, many scientists recognize that folk knowledge about the medicinal use of various plants should never be lost, as they provide a very good starting point for the development of new medicines. An example is artemisinin from the sweet wormwood Artemisia annua, which is a recognized ancient Chinese medicine against malaria.
Respect for ancient wisdom is reflected in phytotherapy (herbal medicine) and phytopharmaceuticals. The use of plant products to treat diseases is well known in South American countries, China and India, where billions of dollars are spent on research to identify and market natural medicinal products.
The importance of medicinal plants should be explored in other countries to fight currently incurable or life-threatening diseases such as Alzheimer's, HIV, chronic pain and malaria. In Bulgaria, the Institute of Organic Chemistry with the Center for Phytochemistry at the BAS and in particular the Laboratory "Chemistry of Natural Substances" deals with similar studies. [ref. 8]

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Where are the healing properties of herbs hidden

Certain parts of the plant (flower, leaves, stems, roots, fruits) can be used as medicines or a specific active substance can be extracted from it to be put into a tablet, capsule, syrup.
Examples of the first method of application established in medical practice are: St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) for the treatment of mild to moderate depression; ginkgo biloba (Gingko biloba), whose leaves are used to improve memory and for anxiety; chamomile flower (Chamomilla recutita) to relieve mild gastrointestinal ailments and as an anti-inflammatory; senna (Cassia spp.) leaves and pods anti-constipation; extract of hawthorn, peppermint and valerian to calm; decoction of sumac (tetra, Cotinus coggygria) for external use, due to its antiseptic properties and many others.

Some of them have been accepted into the ranks of classical or conventional medicine, while others are still part of so-called alternative medicine [ref. 2] and are used as supportive, additional medical agents.
Due to their wealth of active substances, herbs should not be taken lightly as something that "if it doesn't help, at least it won't hurt us". Some of these ingredients are extremely potent, others can have an effect (beneficial or not) with long-term use. Let's not forget that most poisons also have a natural origin.
Some herbs are hepatotoxic (toxic to the liver), others can cause photosensitivity and should not be taken in the sun (this is the case with St. John's wort), others can interact with other medications we are taking, which to reduce or increase their effect undesirably. It is therefore necessary that herbal treatment is always prescribed and monitored by a specialist. Unfortunately, not every doctor or pharmacist is well acquainted with the characteristics of herbs and herbal preparations, and there are also many self-styled "healers".


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When we talk about active ingredients, these are pure chemical substances often used in the form of licensed medicines. They are sometimes produced synthetically, but were originally found in plants. Examples of such substances are [ref. 1]:
• morphine from opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), used as an analgesic (pain reliever);
• digoxin and other glycosides from the foxglove plant (Digitalis spp.), used to treat heart failure;
• taxol, from the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), used as an anticancer agent [ref. 10];
• quinine, from the bark of the quinine tree (Cinchona spp.), used to treat malaria;
• galantamine from snowdrop species, used to treat cognitive disorders.
What is the difference between herbal medicines and homeopathy?
Unfortunately, many people still do not distinguish between homeopathy and herbal medicine, incorrectly calling herbal preparations homeopathic. Therefore, we need to make a distinction between the two.
What herbal medicine and homeopathy have in common is that both fall under the heading of "alternative medicine" and that some homeopathic preparations list herbs and other plants.

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Herbal medicine is the use of plants, lichens, algae and fungi for a medicinal or therapeutic effect on the body. The earliest evidence that herbs were used for healing was found on clay tablets created around 3000 BC. from the Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq).
The foundations of Traditional Chinese Medicine were probably laid between 200 and 250 AD, at the same time as the foundations of Ayurveda in what is now Pakistan. A few centuries later, in 1500 BC, the ancient Egyptians wrote about the use of plants for medicinal purposes on scrolls called the Ebers Papyrus. [ref. 9]
Herbal medicine uses a variety of preparations, such as tinctures, teas, powders, essential oils, honeys (honey infused with herbs), herbal vinegars, elixirs, and numerous topical forms. The main characteristic shared by all of them is that they contain physiologically active substances from the herbs used to produce them.

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In turn, homeopathy was developed in the late 18th century in Germany by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann. It is based on the principle "like cures like" - the root of the word homeopathy, with "homeo" meaning "similar" and "pathos" meaning "disease".
What does this mean? Homeopathic preparations usually contain negligible doses of substances which, if taken in a physiological dose, would produce the same symptoms as the disease. Homeopathy is based on the "less is more" philosophy, according to which the more diluted the medicine, the stronger its effect. Even today, homeopathy uses highly diluted substances of natural origin for its medicines. [ref. 3]
Homeopathic preparations use herbs such as arnica (Arnica montana) and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but also minerals such as phosphorus and animal products such as snake venom (Lachesis mutus). Preparations are made in infinitesimal dilutions so that very few or no molecules of the original substance remain. These are then incorporated into topical preparations, tinctures, or small sugar pills that dissolve under the tongue.


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So, the main difference between the two methods is that in herbal medicine, the preparations rely on the phytochemicals that the herbs contain. These phytochemicals are present at physiological levels and are therefore found in herbal preparations. In homeopathic preparations, the materials are diluted many times over - so much so that only a tiny amount of the original substance remains, if any at all.
Another significant difference is that homeopathy does not rest on any scientific evidence [ref. 4], despite attempts to confirm its effects. Unlike herbal medicine, homeopathy has been rejected by the scientific community as an ineffective method of "treatment". [ref. 5]
Herbs have their established role in the development of medicine and pharmacy, both past, present and future. Their potential continues to be studied and realized while we enjoy another cup of aromatic thyme, mint and oregano tea.

(SRC: sanat.io/) 

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