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Plant medicine for human health – real, or a scam?

By Monica van de Weerd

Plants don’t walk – not rocket science I know, but what does it mean for the plants? 

Well, about 350 thousand years ago, humans evolved from apes, learned to walk bipedally and like many other mammals and insects, used movement to flee from predators.  Plants don’t have that luxury, despite having evolved over millions of years.  Yet, when you examine the vast variety of plant species, inhabiting all corners of the earth, it’s hard not to be awestruck. 

Plants have adapted to survive in drought, deserts, flood zones, in extreme heat and cold and in high altitudes, they have adapted to survive in fire - they have even adapted to survive in my daughter’s bedroom!

Structural form is one way in which plants adapt to their environment - longer tap roots, thicker leaves, prickles and spikes.  Less obvious adaptions are through their chemical compounds, known as “secondary metabolites.”

Secondary metabolites have an array of functions - they induce flowering, fruit set and abscission, maintain perennial growth or signal deciduous behaviour. They act as antimicrobials and perform the role of attractants or, conversely, as repellents.

Plant secondary metabolites have been a rich stomping ground for human health, both traditionally and in modern medicine, yet only 6% of the world’s plant species have been screened for bioactivity.

Interestingly, paleolithic humans consumed eight times the number of plant compounds than we do (read more here). 

For those who question the efficacy of plant medicines, close to 50% of modern pharmaceuticals, approved in the past 30 years, originate from plants, or are analogues of plant compounds.  Further to that, 80% of these plant derived pharmaceuticals are related to their original ethnopharmacological purposes.  We can learn more from traditional medicine than many realise. 

Also of interest, is that even within the same species of plants, there are different quantities and types of secondary metabolites – think about the modern cannabis plant, compared with hemp, both are derived from the same species, often a mixture of Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica, yet hemp, which has been bred for food and fibre is low in THC.  Many cannabis plants have been bred to be high in THC for its hallucinatory properties – yet there are over 400 secondary metabolites in the cannabis species, made up of cannabinoids and terpenes, many of which are being explored extensively for medical use. 

And speaking of cannabinoids, did you know Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, used a species of liverworts, Radula complanate, in their traditional medicine, Rongoā.  It has since been discovered that the bioactive compound in those liverworts was actually a cannabinoid, known as perrottetinene. 

Sadly, in the 1920s, the practice of Rongoā was banned by Europeans – the ban has since been lifted, but it does make me wonder at what knowledge might have been lost during that time.

Plant secondary metabolites in the same species of plant can also vary when exposed to differing environments.  In New Zealand we have high rates of UV light compared with similar latitudes.  For example, our peak UV levels can be 40% higher than peak UV levels in similar North American latitudes.  In response, New Zealand plants have developed higher levels of plant metabolites as a defence mechanism.

In our new and improved EXhale® formulation, we have included black currants as well as boysenberries, to give a wider array of anthocyanins for lung health.  We only use the best organic New Zealand black currants, as they have been shown to have higher levels of anthocyanins than black currants grown elsewhere – more bang for your medical buck!

So why is there so much negativity around plant-based supplements and medicines?  I am a scientist with a PhD in plant biotechnology. I describe my training as “reductionist.”  I was taught to look for statistically significant differences and to keep reducing down until I could find the compound or molecule that caused that difference – this is the genesis of pharmaceutical development, the hunt for single compounds and molecules.  It has been a highly successful and expensive approach - it can take billions of dollars to find that elusive compound – yet the approach has its limitations. 

Plant compounds often interact with each other, and ourselves, in a complex manner – few pharmaceutical companies have the resources to design clinical trials to test the wide range of plant compound interactions and their impact on human health. 

In the cannabis world, they have a name for this multi-compound effect, they call it the “entourage effect” and for me, it is an acknowledgement, that we as humans still know so little about the world around us – we don’t understand or allow for complexity and we don’t design our health system for such complexity either.

At Zestt Wellness, we believe wholeheartedly in the value of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals – we also believe whole heartedly in the value of holistic and preventative medicine in the form of beautiful, wonderful, varied plants – plants which we have co-evolved with over centuries.

Source: Zestt Wellness.

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