Are Many Modern Drugs Herb-Based?

Perhaps 15-20% of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from natural sources, and indeed, many of the great physicians, up until very recently, were herbalists.
By James Dillard


The guy in the health food store told me that half of the pharmaceutical drugs come from natural things like herbs, and that all of the great physicians in history were herbalists. Is this true?

Are Many Modern Drugs Herb-Based?


Perhaps 15-20% of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from natural sources, and indeed, many of the great physicians, up until very recently, were herbalists.

Humanity has enjoyed a very beneficial relationship with plants for a long time. We probably owe our very existence to the development of flowering plants about 65 million years ago. Seeds, fruits, and nuts provided the concentrated food sources that sustained the first human tribes for many millions of years. Plants have provided food, fiber, shelter, and fragrance for our species for millennia. And we have used plants for medicine since the very beginning of time. The earliest cave paintings and archeological sites document the use of medicinal plants from thousands of years ago.

Why do plants have medicinal properties? Since plants cannot run away from predators, through evolution they have developed complex and sometimes harmful defense compounds to keep from being eaten. Because of their complexity, many of these compounds have pharmacological activity, and humanity has learned to use them as medicines.

Every ancient human civilization used medicinal plants for healing, including the Chinese, Indians, Sumerians, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Africans, and Native Americans. Hippocrates used over 300 herbal remedies, including colchicum for gout, which is still used today for gout in pharmacological colchicine. The botanical books of the first century Greek physician Dioscorides and the second century Roman physician Galen set the standards for botanical medicine for more than 1,500 years. This knowledge was guarded through the Middle Ages by various religious orders in the libraries of their monasteries.

Then came Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better know to history as Paracelsus. Paracelsus studied medicine all over the world and is considered to be the father of modern pharmacology—the science of studying how drugs work. He was the first to advocate the medicinal use of toxic minerals like mercury, lead, arsenic, bismuth, gold, silver, and copper in very low doses during the 1500s. He also coined the term “essential oils,” because he felt that these purified plant derivatives represented the fifth essence of existence (besides earth, fire, air and water). Hence the term “quintessential,” meaning fifth essence.

During the 18th century, British physician William Withering began using foxglove (digitalis) because a patient—seriously ill with “dropsy” (swelling of the legs and heart failure)—was saved by a brew containing this herb, which he had obtained from a “witch” in Shropshire. Physicians still often prescribe digitalis for weak hearts today.

By 1804 our knowledge of chemistry had advanced to the state where morphine could be isolated from the opium poppy. By the late 1880s other refined medicines and new synthetic medicines began to replace herbals. The so-called “eclectic physicians” (similar to our modern naturopaths) continued to keep herbal traditions alive until about 1930. In 1936, herbal medicines were dropped from the official U. S. pharmacopoeia, more from disuse than from a lack of safety or efficacy.

Herbal medicines began showing up again in health food stores during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then blossomed to extraordinary levels of use during the 1990s. A recent survey from Prevention Magazine/Princeton Research Associates indicated that 49% of 2,000 randomly sampled Americans used an herbal remedy during the previous last year, and that 24% used herbals on a regular basis.

So you see, herbal medicines have been with us all along. This doesn’t mean that herbal remedies are adequate substitutes for modern medications when the latter are needed, but well-prepared herbal medicines do have valuable medicinal properties and can be helpful in certain circumstances. And many of our modern medications, such as theophylline, quinidine, ephedrine, digoxin, and taxol are derived directly from plants. After all, the word drug comes from the Dutch word droog, meaning to dry, because medicinal herbs were commonly prepared by drying them out first.

We should have respect for our herbal traditions, and try to understand when these medicines can be helpful and when they are not.

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