Once upon a time, the only medicines available to man came from plants. There were no scientists in labs researching compounds or pharmaceutical companies selling drugs. There were no organizations, like the FDA, overseeing the safety and efficacy of medicines that people were treated with.
The modern western healthcare system was developed, and plant medicines were all but forgotten. Treatment models that utilized plants were left to rural communities without access to modern medicine. Recently, however, plant medicines have made a resurgence. Doctors and patients alike are searching for treatments that fill the gaps in Western Medicine. People are re-adopting the idea that health is more complex than simply looking at and treating one organ or system in the body.
The Integrative health model has become increasingly popular over the last decade. Integrative medicine uses all available methods to help heal the entire body and mind. It looks at the human body as a complex system, rather than individual parts that function separately from one another. This model holds onto Western medicine practices while embracing plant medicines from around the world to help heal people.
The History of Plant Medicine
For thousands of years, communities around the world handed down knowledge of the medicinal plants that grew in their region. They used these medicines to treat all types of illnesses with great success. Of course, they didn’t have the tools, skills, and knowledge to perform life-saving surgeries, but the plants that they used helped heal people’s bodies for much of history.
The first records of plant medicine date back to 3500 BC in China. Written records of the benefits and uses of different plants have also been found in ancient Egypt and India. Many native cultures around the world also had plant medicine systems based on what grew on their land. They passed this knowledge down verbally from generation to generation.
During the Middle Ages (500-1500 AD) the use of plants for medicine was largely wiped out. These practices went against the religious principles that governed Europe at the time. Those who practiced plant medicine were often labeled as heretics and witches. Then, the Renaissance hit and brought with it a revived interest in advancing medicine through scientific discovery. Certain plants, such as opium, were part of this new outlook on medicine. However, much of the knowledge about plant medicines was lost. Colonization took a huge role in burying many of these systems. The cultures that used these methods were deemed inferior to their European invaders. The west made a great effort to wipe out the cultural heritage of the countries that they conquered. In many countries, the sacred plants that they had been using for thousands of years went underground.
Many native traditions were wiped out by colonization. Plants that were once sacred were deemed “witchcraft” to demonize the cultures that used them. However, some (mostly rural) communities were able to hold onto their traditions and still practice them today. Many Native American tribes still use their traditional plant medicines. Peyote is one example that Native Americans still use today to heal the mind and connect to Mother Earth. This medicine has become popular because of the recent growth of interest in psychedelic medicine. Ayahuasca is another psychedelic plant medicine that has drawn a lot of attention because of its benefits for mental health issues, but traditional plant medicine systems are much more complex than just one treatment.
In the mountains of rural Peru, I once had a young girl show me over a dozen plants, growing in a small patch of grass on a hillside, that she and her family used to treat illness and improve their health. This traditional Peruvian community had a deep knowledge of all the plants that grew on their land. They knew the effects of each plant and how to use them to prevent and treat health issues. Western medicine has begun to adopt this holistic mindset as issues like diabetes, heart disease, and mental health are on the rise.
Modern Integrative Medicine
There has been a huge shift in how many people view medicine and health in recent years. Western medicine has taken a lot of heat lately for only offering symptom management, rather than addressing the root causes of health issues.
Emergency surgery or antibiotics for infection can be lifesaving, however, plant medicines offer solutions to less extreme health issues that western medicine has failed to address. Modern medications often have negative side effects and they only address a part of the problem. People are looking for healthy solutions, and have found those answers in plants.
Integrative medicine uses western intervention when needed while utilizing less invasive measures to support overall health. For example, a growing number of cancer treatment centers provide patients with access to dieticians, acupuncture, and even herbal medicine practitioners while they are going through surgery, chemo, and radiation treatment. This helps patients improve their overall health which reduces side effects from treatment and improves their quality of life.
The mindset of Western vs. traditional medicine is quickly fading into the past. The validity of one treatment system does not threaten that of another. Rather, these systems can work together to improve global health and move medicine forward.
A Booming Industry
There are a handful of plants that have gained popularity recently. Echinacea is one natural remedy that has become a staple of medicine cabinets worldwide– it accounts for 34% of the global herbal remedies market. The flower was popularized during the pandemic due to its immunity-boosting properties. Other herbal remedies that support the immune system such as elderberry and garlic have seen an increase in use as people aim to protect themselves from the Covid-19 virus.
Cannabis is another plant medicine that has gained popularity over the past decade. Though it was not quite the wonder drug that many hoped for, the plant does offer many health benefits. Cancer patients often use it to manage pain, decrease nausea, and increase appetite while going through chemo treatment. CBD (a chemical found in the cannabis plant) has also been approved to treat certain types of seizures.
Cannabis, like many plant medicines, is non-toxic, so it is safe for people to use to improve their health without the risk of side effects. There is an influx of companies manufacturing safe and effective hemp-based supplements to aid in sleep, mood enhancement, and even workout recovery. Cannabis and hemp-derived products have shown great potential for naturally treating insomnia– an issue that one in three adults struggle with. CBD has also become popular amongst athletes to aid in recovery. Companies, such as Mineral, aim to address these issues by harnessing the benefits of plant medicines to offer safe and effective herbal remedies.
The current interest in plant medicines is just the beginning. As acceptance grows, we will see more and more plant-based treatments being integrated into the western medical model. This will be prevalent in the supplement market and pharmaceuticals. The future of health and medicine utilizes all available resources no matter their historical and cultural context.