The dynamic role of herbs in medicine

Nobel Prize Highlights the Dynamic Role of Natural Medicines

When standard anti-malarial drugs ceased working effectively due to mutations and emerging strains of resistant malaria.

“To see things in the seed, that is genius.”
— Lao Tzu

Shen standard anti-malarial drugs ceased working effectively due to mutations and emerging strains of resistant malaria, Chinese scientist Youyou Tu turned to more traditional methods to seek out options for effective treatment of the mosquito-borne disease. Returning to ancient Chinese literature dating back as far as AD350, Professor Tu found mention of a plant extract from the Sweet Wormwood plant Artemisia Annua which she began to analyse as part of her ongoing research.

sweet wormwood plant Artemisia annua
Sweet Wormwood – Artemisia Annua

Known in Chinese as Qinghao, Tu used a handful of plant extract in two litres of water, before consuming the drink and observing the effects. With no alternative but to test this product on herself and a few brave colleagues, Professor Tu initially identified the correct dosage for safe human consumption. From here she went on to develop the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin, which remains in use today in the treatment of Malaria.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was split two ways for ground-breaking work on parasitic diseases.  For her outstanding work and contribution, Youyou Tu received half of the award and William C Campbell and Satoshi Omura between them received the other half. Youyou Tu’s inspiring story illustrates how ancient understandings, derived from nature have helped provide a vaccine for human disease.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
— Albert Einstein

Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist studying the traditional uses for plants in Central and South America forests declares that “Western medicine is the most successful system of healing ever devised, but there’s plenty of holes in it. Where’s the cure for breast cancer? Where’s the cure for schizophrenia? Where’s the cure for acid reflux? Where’s the cure for insomnia? The fact is that these people can sometimes, sometimes, sometimes cure things we cannot.” You can watch his TED video here, where he highlights the devistation of cultural wisdom in the Amazon rainforests.

Some well known compounds from botanical sources have been incredibly important in the development of human medicine. Asprin, derived from the White Willow Tree, morphine from the Opium Poppy, and the anticoagulant Coumadin from Spoiled Sweet Clover. In fact, the majority of prescribed medicines used in modern countries today are derived from, or patterned after, natural compounds sourced from plants, animals, and microbes. This is particularly true for drugs that treat infections and cancers.

The Pao Pereira tree, native to Brazil, for example, has recently demonstrated its ability to supress the spreading of HIV, herpes viruses, cancer and leukemia cells. Cat’s claw (uncaria tomentosa) found in the Andean mountains of Peru, is known for its immune-boosting potential as well as a potential DNA cellular repair property. This makes cat’s claw a possible preventative remedy for Alzheimer’s.

“The art of healing comes from nature and not from the physician. Therefore, the physician must start from nature with an open mind.”
— Paracelsus

Herbs and other plant extracts have been used widely as health aids and preventative medicines, yielding physical and mental improvements for thousands of years. In rural developing counties, especially those in tropical climates with rich ecosystems and botanical diversities, there tends to be a greater use and trust of non-processed, natural remedies, which play a part as the primary source of prescribed medicines [1]. Among such health benefits commonly observed from these remedies are general improvement to the immune system, strengthening of the cardiovascular system, correction of joint and skeletal disorders, treating allergies and improving cognitive ability.

The Noni, Morinda citrifolia, is an evergreen tree which grows throughout the tropical regions of the Pacific Ocean and is historically used for joint pain and skin conditions. The noni fruit has been used for cancer cures and cardiovascular diseases in traditional folk medicine [4]. In the lab, noni has shown promising results as a powerful antioxidant, and with its high concentration of enzymes, providing support to the immune system and the body with tumour-fighting agents.

Cat's claw - uncaria tomentosa
Cat’s Claw – Uncaria Tomentosa

Cat’s claw has recently become a popular herbal supplement in the United States and Europe and is supported and promoted by the American Cancer Society.  It is also being increasingly used in the treatment of Lyme Disease for its antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. However, until full clinical human trials have been completed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no substantiated evidence for these given claims.

These are just a handful of examples of natural remedies that are continuing to enhance people’s health, and although scientific research is essential for our better understanding of these nautral medicines, our ancestors have been testing these ingredients, through trial and error for thousands of years.

Founder of Raintree Nutrition, Leslie Taylor, extended her trust to ancient remedies during her challenge with cancer. Diagnosed in her mid-twenties with a rare form of leukemia, myceoblastic leukemia, she battled for two years, enduring conventional treatment. After seeing no improvement, she began studying and self-prescribing alternative, natural options. Within eighteen months, following a combined change of diet, including herbal medicine, Taylor was declared by specialists as cancer-free. Remarkably, not only was her cancer in complete remission, but the damage from the conventional treatment was also fast healing.

Cat's Claw Bark
Cat’s Claw Bark

Taylor’s research took her to Peru and into the Amazon rainforest where she worked with indigenous Shamans and medicine healers, learning about their ancient plant knowledge as well as coming to understand the various tribal and rainforest communities [6]. The key botanical that Taylor was working with was commonly named Cat’s Claw; this was to become one of the main ingredients in her eight-part jungle plant extract formula, which she brought to the market as Amazon Vitality.

Amazon Vitality
Raintree Nutrition – Amazon Vitality

The blend of rainforest botanics in Amazon Vitality, have been shown to improve health in almost all areas of the body: the skin, brain, liver, kidneys, gastric tract, heart and immune system [7]. The eight plants include: Cat’s Claw, Calaguala, Samambaia, Chanca Piedra, Fedegoso, Picão Preto, Gervâo, and Tayuya.

From 1996 to 2012, Raintree Nutrition successfully marketed and sold the supplement, Amazon Vitality. In 2012, Taylor withdrew her product from the market and closed the company due to an intervention by the FDA which restricted Taylor from providing the information on the value and benefits of the product. Once she disbanded her business, she was able to freely share and distribute information on her research, the ingredients and formulas to continue helping people.

“Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.”
— Hippocrates

Taylor’s decision that spreading the truth about her research was for her, more important than the selling of her product, shows the passion and inspiration that can come from the concern and healing of oneself. Her persistence, along with others such as Youyou Tu, are encouraging examples of people using empirical knowledge, respecting nature and bringing improvements to human lives and creating a positive, trusting social environment. Unfortunately, due to the strict and long processes of developing clinical grade pharmacuticals, large corporations tend to take advantage of their position in society, suppressing the potential progression of alternative, accessible, natural medicines. On an individual level, if someone had an ingredient with the curing potential of a disease, our natural human response would be to assist. Taking note from the examples given, we can celebrate and encourage scientific research which is taking not only the compounds from the rainforests, but respecting the knowledge of ancient texts and tribespeople to bring health improvements. Not only for our own future, or future generations, but to progress in merit of the foundations our ancestors lay down for us.

“The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”
— Thomas Edison

For a brilliant portrayal highlighting the dying wisdom of indigenous communities, Wade Davis from the National Geographic presents a TED talk called the Dreams from Endangered Cultures.


Tabassum, Rasool, Malik, Ahmad Natural Cognitive Enhancers
Palombo Traditional Medicinal Plant Extracts and Natural Products with Activity against Oral Bacteria
National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health
Health Sciences Institute
Health Sciences Institute
Health Sciences Institute

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