Importance of medicinal plants and herbs in the modern world

The term “medicinal plant” includes various types of plants used in herbalism (“herbology” or “phytotherapy”). It is the use of plants for medicinal purposes and the study of these uses.

The word ‘herb’ is derived from the Latin word ‘herba’ and an old French word ‘herb’. Nowadays, an herb refers to any part of the plant such as a fruit, seed, stem, bark, flower, leaf, stigma, or root, as well as a non-woody plant. Previously, the term “grass” applied only to non-woody plants, including those that come from trees and shrubs. These medicinal plants are also used as food, flavonoid, medicine or perfume and also in certain spiritual activities.

Plants have been used for medicinal purposes long before the prehistoric period. Ancient Unani manuscripts Egyptian papyri and Chinese writings described the use of herbs. There is evidence that the Unani Hakims, Indian Vaids, and European and Mediterranean cultures used herbs for over 4000 years as medicine. Indigenous cultures such as Rome, Egypt, Iran, Africa and America used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems such as the Unani, the Ayurveda and Chinese medicine in which herbal therapies were systematically used.

Among ancient civilizations, India is known to be a rich repository of medicinal plants. The forest in India is the main repository of a large number of medicinal and aromatic plants, which are largely harvested as raw materials for the manufacture of medicines and perfumery products. Around 8,000 herbal remedies have been codified in the AYUSH systems in INDIA. Ayurvedic, Unani, Siddha and folk (tribal) medicines are the main indigenous systems of medicine. Among these systems, Ayurveda and Unani medicine are the most developed and widely practiced in India.

Recently, the WHO (World Health Organization) estimated that 80% of people worldwide depend on herbal medicines for some aspect of their primary health care needs.

According to the WHO, around 21,000 plant species have the potential to be used as medicinal plants. According to available data, more than three quarters of the world’s population mainly depend on plants and plant extracts for their health care needs. More than 30% of entire plant species, at one time or another, have been used for medicinal purposes. It has been estimated that in developed countries like the United States, herbal medicines constitute up to 25% of total medicines, while in rapidly developing countries like India and China, the contribution can reach 80%. Thus, the economic importance of medicinal plants is far greater for countries like India than for the rest of the world.

Importance of some herbs with their medicinal values:

(1) Herbs such as black pepper, cinnamon, myrrh, aloe, sandalwood, ginseng, red clover, burdock, bayberry and safflower are used to cure wounds, sores and boils.

(2) Basil, fennel, chives, coriander, apple mint, thyme, golden oregano, lemon balm, rosemary, variegated sage are important medicinal herbs and can be planted in a vegetable garden. These herbs are easy to grow, look great, taste and smell amazing, and many of them are magnets for bees and butterflies.

(3) Many herbs are used as blood purifiers to modify or change a long standing condition by removing metabolic toxins. These are also known as ‘blood cleaners’. Certain herbs improve a person’s immunity, thereby reducing conditions such as fever.

(4) Some herbs also have antibiotic properties. Turmeric is helpful in inhibiting the growth of germs, harmful microbes and bacteria. Turmeric is widely used as a home remedy to heal cuts and wounds.

(5) To reduce fever and heat production caused by illness, certain antipyretic herbs such as Chirayta, black pepper, sandalwood and safflower are recommended by practitioners of traditional Indian medicine.

(6) Sandalwood and cinnamon are excellent astringents in addition to being aromatic. Sandalwood is particularly used to stop the flow of blood, mucus, etc.

(7) Certain herbs are used to neutralize the acid produced by the stomach. Herbs such as marshmallow root and leaf serve as antacids. Healthy stomach acid needed for proper digestion is retained by these herbs.

(8) Indian sages were known to have herbal remedies that work against animal poisons and snake bites.

(9) Herbs like cardamom and coriander are renowned for their appetizing qualities. Other aromatic herbs such as peppermint, cloves and turmeric add a pleasant aroma to food, thereby increasing the taste of the meal.

(10) Certain herbs like aloe, sandalwood, turmeric, hindi sheetraj and khare khasak are commonly used as antiseptics and have very high medicinal values.

(11) Ginger and cloves are used in some cough syrups. They are known for their expectorant property, which promotes the thinning and ejection of mucus from the lungs, trachea and bronchi. Eucalyptus, cardamom, wild cherry and cloves are also expectorants.

(12) Herbs such as chamomile, calamus, ajwain, basil, cardamom, chrysanthemum, coriander, fennel, peppermint and spearmint, cinnamon, ginger and turmeric are helpful to promote good blood circulation. Therefore, they are used as cardiac stimulants.

(13) Some medicinal herbs have a disinfectant property, which destroys pathogenic germs. They also inhibit the growth of pathogenic microbes that cause communicable diseases.

(14) Herbal medicine practitioners recommend calming herbs, which provide a soothing effect on the body. They are often used as sedatives.

(15) Some aromatic plants such as aloe, golden seal, barberry and chirayata are used as mild tonics. The bitter taste of these plants reduces toxins in the blood. They are also useful in destroying the infection.

(16) Some herbs are used as stimulants to increase the activity of a system or organ, for example herbs like Cayenne (Lal Mirch, Myrrh, Camphor and Guggul.

(17) A wide variety of herbs including Giloe, Golden seal, Aloe and Barberry are used as tonics. They can also be nutritious and rejuvenate a healthy or sick individual.

(18) Honey, turmeric, marshmallow and licorice can effectively treat a fresh cut and wound. They are referred to as vulnerable herbs.

As our way of life becomes techno-savvy, we are moving away from nature. We cannot escape nature because we are part of nature. As herbs are natural products, they are free from side effects, relatively safe, environmentally friendly and locally available. Traditionally, there are many herbs used for ailments related to different seasons. They must be promoted to save human lives.

(The author is a physician (Unani Medicine) AYUSH Unit District Hospital Pulwama. He can be contacted at: [email protected])

Alvin J. Chase