Phytomedicine: Past and Present Phytomedizin: Vergangenheit und Gegenwart Fitomedicina: Pasado y Presente

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Phytomedicine: Past and Present

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Phytomedicine: Past and Present

Since ancient times, man had to learn to dress, eat and heal. For this, it had to mimic its environment and learn from the behavior of animals, based on their instinct knew selecting species that are considered edible from those regarded as medicinal and toxic.

This learning sued him a long time and not all were equally prepared to implement it. The continuing exodus of many people due to constant wars plotted against the adaptation of humans to their environment or habitat.

However, in the primitive villages who had developed a deeper knowledge and a means of adaptation very superior to the rest: this led to the emergence of the first shamans who not only were responsible for handling problems of health of their fellow, but who could predict what the best times for growing seeds and the time of harvest.

Within “advanced civilizations”, the Egyptians demonstrated a profound knowledge of physician, and through the Ebers papyrus (first medical document of antiquity discovered in 1872) demonstrated the virtues of many medicinal plants in human health.

In Egypt, who professed the art of healing was the priestly caste belonging to Brahamanes since, within their conception of life "had the powers to fix the problems of the spirit, they could also repair the disorder of the body...”

In the past, the Chinese were just a sample application of medicinal herbs, as noted in the treated Pen'tsao, reprinted and revised during the successive dynasties. India also offered its knowledge through fundamental works as Caracas, Susruta and Vagabhta where mentioned the virtues of hundreds of medicinal plants.

In Greece, between IV and III century BC, Hippocrates emerges from the figure, the "Father of Medicine", who not only provided the guidelines for the proper use of medicinal plants, but also established the basic concepts of modern semeiology encouraging fasting, hydrotherapy, and the value of proper nutrition to treat disease (it was his famous aphorism: "Let your food be your medicine") and finally laid the foundation for what we now know as hygiene. Other important figures of ancient Greece are found in Dioscorides, Galen, Columena, Celsus and Pliny, to name only some.

In the Middle Ages, the use of medicinal plants have a condition of stagnation and discredited through the intemperance of the Holy Inquisition in its famous "witch hunt", it burned at the stake hundreds of men and women (healers of the time) performing "spells with demonic powers" for their therapeutic actions. Only in the monasteries was the art of healing, thanks to the substantial work of monks and priests who translated from Greek and Latin works on the primitive use of medicinal herbs. Their gardens were famous and their preparations in the form of medicinal wines, a tradition that is still preserved (monastic and Benedictine liqueur).

During the conquest of America, priests and monks who moved to the New World brought their medical knowledge, which were greatly enriched by contact with indigenous shamans who passed their knowledge on the use of American medicinal plants. The fact of making the sign of the cross from the Indians was learned from the Spaniards, to prevent and remove "spells suspects" of other spiritual forces.

In Europe, the art of healing gained new impetus by the alchemists, with the figure of Paracelsus. Italy was formed in major medical schools such as Salerno.

In Germany there were figures like Samuel Hahnemann (the mentor of Homeopathy), Hufeland Cristoph, Heinrich Lahmann and Augustus Bier (promoter from anesthesia and intravenous raquitomy) gave a strong impetus to natural medicine.

Finally in the nineteenth century, when Friedrich Wöhler produced the synthesis of urea from an inorganic substance (the ammonium cyanate), the industry of chemical synthesis started, and until then no other matter than animal or vegetable origin was conceived as a source. The twentieth century marks the leadership of the synthesis products, leaving relegated to plants as a "minor medical practice."

However, the main products of first line emerged from the natural area, including penicillin, aspirin, rye ergot, belladonna, digital, vincristine, pilocarpine, ipecac, atropine, reserpine, podofilina, etc..


With the tragedy at the end of the 50s with the chemical thalidomide, the criteria for safety assessment of drug approval that governed were questioned, giving rise to the creation of the first Departments of Pharmacovigilance. Between 1982 and 1990, more than two hundred drugs left the market due to severe poisoning among the population. Parallel research with medicinal plants continued its quiet hustles and hence there are new drugs currently in wide use: Panax ginseng, Ginkgo biloba, Hipericum perforatum, Taxus Bacata, Centella asiatica, aloe, Hamamelis virginiana, Pygeum africanum, Serenoa repens, Lentinus edodes (shiitake), Fucus vesiculosus, etc.

The wide gap between industrialized and Third World countries showed a large mass of people who cannot, at present, access to conventional medicine. Hence the World Health Organization (WHO) since the mid-'80s tries the acceptance and implementation by government authorities of the so-called Alternative Medicine, with a special interest in research and prescription of medicinal herbs.

WHO has defined phytomedicines as the application of active ingredients from plants in therapy. Moreover, the organization said in 1996 that 80% of the world's population depends for its primary health care of medicinal plants. Modern methods of extraction, identification and standardization of substances from plants, coupled with modern scientific research (tests in vitro and in living animal, preclinical testing, clinical, etc.) have to generate margins of safety in prescribing these drugs to the population, so the difference from the classical phytotherapy bases its actions on the empirical knowledge.

Without doubt this new definition of phytomedicines represents a hierarchy of phytotherapics on conventional practice, which nevertheless remains closely linked. In this way tends to be common today, bringing biologists, botanists and pharmacognostic with shamans and healers of tribes that still persist in tropical forests. In this regard, multinational laboratories have established research centers in the Amazon or the Costa Rican jungle, such as Merck & Co.

Phytomedicine debate

Beyond this renewed interest in medicinal plants professing the main laboratories in the world, we must make it clear that this movement generates some questions and concerns:

Is chemical synthesis ending?

Does search focuses only on the finding of active disease that may be "profitable" as cancer, arthritis or diabetes? Can malaria, leprosy, tuberculosis and various parasitic infections, evoke the same interest?

Are partnership agreements between the laboratories and the host that provides the "raw material"?

Is the biodiversity of the area of work, in particular to avoid predation by endangered species?

These and many other questions will be answered only through the passage of time and under the action of sentinel who love this activity.

Beyond all these conjectures, it is plausible that renewed interest to the medical herbs. According to a recent report published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), estimates that about 100,000 people died in 1994 in the United States for any adverse reaction to drugs prescribed by doctors (i.e. drugs of " good prescription "). The numeral is even more alarming when we read the report that that figure did not take account of cases of drug overdose or self, which would raise further the proportion of deaths. Similarly, cases of deaths due to medicinal plants recorded the lowest rates in health centers and toxicology.

However, phytomedicines should not be regarded as a safe practice. The same should be carried out by skilled professional. As Paracelsus said: "A remedy can be a toxic and a toxic can be remedy, It all depends on the dose" Accordingly, we can say that there are no toxic plants, but use of plants. The correct and rational use of them will make the continued prioritization of this practice, in the vicinity of a new millennium, the man will return to their sources.

"God created the earth medicines. The wise man is one who does not disdain them." Sirach, Cap. 38.

Source: Asociación Argentina de phytomedicines

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2 Reviews about Phytomedicine: Past and Present
on 03/09/2014
This is a very interesting article. My fiance is native Tlingit (natives to Southeast Alaska) and we are both very interested in learning their ways of healing. We live in a temperate rain forest, and it is so lush and green, there are so many plants growing that I'm sure we could harvest our own medicine from the land. this is an inspiring article.
on 25/03/2014
Well, we cannot say that chemical drugs are too bad and that because they have saved many people but almost all of them were severely sick and that is why they didn?t followed preventive medicine before getting really bad, or even having the proper way of living, so maybe that is what is wrong with the world

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