The term phytotherapy is derived from ‘phytos’, which means herb and ‘therapeia’ which means treatment. Phytotherapy is the professional and scientifically based form of ancient herbal medicine. It uses plants and herbs in a standardised form to promote or maintain health. Phytotherapeutics are medicines that contain as ingredients only plants, parts of plants or plant materials or combinations thereof, in a raw or processed state.
The definition reads: “Medicines that as active ingredients only contain plants, parts of plants or plant materials or combinations thereof, in a raw or processed state”. According to this definition, therapeutic use of isolated plant substances (e.g. curcumin, morphine, digoxin, galantamine, taxol) explicitly doesn't fall under phytotherapy.
Phytotherapy is used in various naturopathy methods as well as on a limited scale in the regular context. Much phytotherapeutic knowledge is based on centuries of preserved and passed-on use. From this knowledge, many single medications have been developed. Example, digoxin and reserpine. Within pharmacognosy, scientific research is done into the medicinal efficacy of herbs and herbal extracts. Various pharmaceutical companies are investigating herbal medicines from non-Western cultures in order to discover new medicines.
it's been known since time immemorial that certain plants can have a medicinal effect and have been used for just as long. And phytotherapy is one of the oldest forms of medicine with which man has tried to cure his diseases. As far as we know, the earliest written sources date back more than 5000 years and clay tablets have been found in Mesopotamia. Example, describing the prescription of herbal medicines. In the Middle Ages, monasteries had the task of caring for the sick, growing medicinal plants, applying new herbs. Recording existing knowledge.
With the advent of phytochemistry, it became possible to isolate the active substance(s) from the plant extract and to standardise the plant drugs.
In 1985, the World Health Organisation estimated that nearly 80% of the population in developing countries was dependent on herbal medicine because of poverty and the insufficient availability of modern medicines.
The active substance in many drugs in modern medicine originally comes from plants. Example, Digoxin, codeine, aspirin, colchicine, morphine, vincristine, taxol. Yohimbine. Sometimes the substance is now produced in the laboratory. Some drugs are just chemical derivatives of plant substances.
At the moment we live in a time where hardly any value is attached anymore to what's been proven experimentally for centuries and to the developed knowledge that's been passed on from generation to generation. Through the centuries, the application of medicinal herbs has provided a wealth of information, which has led to a very high level of reliability and effectiveness. Fortunately, the scientific basis for phytotherapy has been greatly strengthened in recent years. Research is increasingly providing more and more evidence for demonstrable efficacy.
If the whole plant or plant part is used, as in phytotherapy, natural harmony is maintained. Studies have shown that the substance(s) to which the medicinal effect is attributed are more potent in their original form (the herb) than in pharmacy where the substances are isolated, which means that the mutual controlling and regulating effect between the substances is lost.
To date, it's not been possible to analyse the mutual cooperation of all the substances present in a plant. Current research provides a new wealth of information and shows that the applications of herbal medicine are more up-to-date than ever. it's generally known that bee-phytotherapy uses only mild medicines to restore health. When an herb naturally contains toxic (poisonous) substances, the concentration of the medicine will be adjusted in such a way that the effect is effective and mild.
For phytotherapeutic medicinal products, the harvested and dried material must meet the standards of the Pharmacopoeia. Example, a minimum content of volatile oil, flavonoids or saponins must be present.
Herbal remedies can be made and used in many different ways. The chemical composition of these preparations can vary considerably, even if they're made from exactly the same plant material.
In the preparation of extracts, the basic material is concentrated, which means that more plant material is needed than is present in the final preparation. The ratio between the amount of plant material originally present and the extract is expressed in the ‘drug-extract ratio’. This ratio can be high: the most popular Ginkgo biloba extract in the world (EGb761) contains 50 times the concentration of the Ginkgolides naturally present in ginkgo leaves.
When the content of one or more content substances (usually the assumed active substances) is guaranteed, one speaks of a standardised and standardised product. Standardisation of phytotherapeutics takes place in order to maintain the natural variation in the content of phytotherapeutics while still offering some therapeutic stability to practitioners.
In the case of standardisation, it's important that not only the concentration of one or more ingredients is guaranteed. That all procedures, from sowing to the final product, are recorded in the protocol so that they're always carried out as uniformly as possible. The aim is to obtain a product that's as reproducible as possible and as uniform as possible in terms of composition, even between different production batches, including ingredients whose contents aren't guaranteed.
The bioactive contents of plants that have a positive effect on the human body are also called phytonutrients. Phytonutrients can be classified into different substance classes. Among the known active substances, whose properties and medicinal effects are important, are terpenes, bitter substances, alkaloids, tanning agents, glycosides, saponins, mucilages, minerals. Vitamins.
Externally, herbal preparations containing tannins are used as mouth and gargle water. Internally, tannin-containing herbs serve for the treatment of diarrhoea. In the past, tanning agents were used in the tanning of animal skins. Plants containing tanning substances are the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), the oak (Quercus spp.). Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus).
These substances, also called glucosides, are glucose compounds that give sugar to the cleavage product with acids, bases. Enzymes. The remaining compound (aglycone) determines whether or not the glycoside is active. There are different types of glycosides, some of which work strongly and are certainly not harmless (think for example digitoxin). A number of examples with specific properties:
Saponins have the property to foam strongly in combination with water. On the basis of their effect on surface tension, they've the character of soap. Directly introduced into the blood circulation, saponins act as a strong poison and lead to the dissolution of the red blood cells and to organ damage. Large quantities cause cramps and after a short period of time respiratory paralysis. In the gastrointestinal tract, saponins are hardly absorbed. Therefore, when taken by the mouth in low doses, they're non-toxic. In phytotherapy, plants containing saponins are administered as a urine floating agent (birch leaves), as well as for their secretion and expectorant effect in case of bronchitis (primrose). The root of the primrose (Primula spp.), ivy leaf (Hedera helix), (birch leaf (Betula spp.)), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). White horse chestnut (Aesculus spp.) contain saponins.
Mucilages: Mucilages, which contain the mucus cells of the plants, include starch, gum. Pectin. These are primarily used to treat inflammations of the mucous membranes (stomach, intestine, respiratory tract). The mucous substances form a protective layer on the inflamed mucous membranes. Among the plants that are rich in dry mucilages are hemest root (Althaea officinalis), flea seed (Plantago psyllium), linseed (Linum usitatissimum). Narrow plantain (Plantago lanceolata).
Organic acids: Many plants, usually in their fruit, contain certain organic acids, such as malic acid, oxalic acid, tartaric acid. Citric acid.
Resins: Resins are non-volatile substances formed in the barque and wood of tropical tree species in particular. When resins dissolve in volatile (essential) oil, it's called balm. Resins contain acid and therefore have a pungent effect on the skin. Resin-containing dry substances include myrrh and incense. Both are disinfecting and anti-inflammatory and are often applied to inflammations of the skin, throat, intestine. Joints.
Minerals: Various minerals occur in very small. No less important, quantities in plants. These include sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur, silicon, iron, manganese, copper, zinc, phosphorus, bromine. Iodine.
Vitamins: A vitamin is a micronutrient used by organisms such as humans in coenzymes. Because vitamins aren't consumed, humans need very little of them. Organisms can not or only to an insufficient extent make their own vitamins. Some vitamins can be produced by the body itself, examples are vitamin B3 (from tryptophan) and vitamin D (in the skin by exposure to UV-B radiation).
Research into the efficacy of herbs as a medicine is complex because very often several components (each plant is a mixture of active substances) contribute to the desired effect. There is no money to be made from patents on natural products and many current patent medications are already modifications or isolation of plant substances, which makes investing in them very risky for big pharma companies.
Every substance has a certain degree of toxicity and can have both desired and undesired effects on the body. The fact that a substance has been extracted from nature won't make it more or less healthy.
Ex1. St. John’s wort increases the sensitivity of the skin to the sun. St. John’s wort gives many interactions with various medications. The medicines with the most important interactions are immunosuppressive drugs, drugs used in HIV infection, digoxin, certain sleep-inducing drugs, a drug against cardiac arrhythmias, the contraceptive pill, anticoagulants. Theophylline.
Ex2. In 1990 a lawsuit was started in Belgium against doctors, pharmacists. Importers of Chinese herbs, after a hundred or so women were told that their kidneys were affected by “incurable interstitial fibrosis”. The doctors in question had prescribed these women a cocktail of synthetic medicines and Chinese herbs to lose weight. The herbal mixture included a plant species of the genus Aristolochia containing aristolochic acid, which in itself is highly toxic to the kidneys (nephrotoxic) and carcinogenic. it's prohibited in some European countries to trade plants containing aristolochic acid or its derivatives.
In several countries, government agencies are warning about various Ayurvedic products because they were found to contain too many toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and/or arsenic.
Further Reading and Research:
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