Promoting Medicinal Herbs And Food : Jeevan K. Prasain

When it comes to taking food or medicine, we tend to have them as natural as possible. Botanical or natural products-based medicines are considered safer than modern drugs, and 80 per cent of the Asian and African population still relies on them, according to the World Health Organisation.

Plants are important components in Ayurvedic, Japanese traditional Kampo and traditional Chinese medicine, and are widely used for preventing and treating many diseases. About 20 per cent of the adult population of the US is said to take herbal medicines. This indicates that botanical medicines are growing exponentially, and with good reason. They are relatively cheaper than prescription drugs also.

In view of the growing ageing population and chronic diseases worldwide, the market for herbal supplements and remedies can offer solutions that are currently unavailable with modern medicines. But what specifically makes herbal medicines safer and more effective than modern medicines?

Natural has an answer

Despite considerable progress in Western medicine or modern medicines and spending billions of dollars on research and development over the last two decades, modern medicine has failed to offer effective and relatively safe drugs for many chronic diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Many scientists and pharmaceutical industries are now considering botanicals as an unlimited source of medicines. 

Historically also, plants, or herbs, have been the most prolific source of modern drugs. For example, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) was discovered as an analgesic drug from the Willow tree, and the anti-biotic penicillin from the Penicillium mould, and these discoveries provided new insights that cure of diseases was possible from nature itself.

Plant-derived natural products are a diverse collection of biologically active chemical compounds formed over millions of years of evolution. They work synergistically or additively with relatively low concentrations to elicit beneficial effects, as opposed to modern synthetic drugs which are primarily based on a single active chemical compound.

For example, a single pod of garlic may contain more than 30 sulfur compounds in low concentrations. Because of them, garlic provides a number of health benefits. Since traditionally used herbal medicines often contain multi-component extracts of natural products and work together, their action against diseases involves multi-target strategies. This does not mean that they do not have adverse side effects. Sometimes, herb-drug interaction can be a serious concern.

There are many foodstuffs or spices in our kitchen that can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and reduce the cancer risk. It is worth remembering a famous quote by Hippocrates - the founding father of natural medicine: “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”.  His advice has been proven true by scientific research as well. Plant derived foodstuffs contain not only nutrients but also an array of phytochemicals that can be used as a natural boost to the immune system and protect the body from inflammatory insults.

For example, edible mushroom can be a medicinal food for combating cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Lycopene in tomato juice may treat prostate cancer. Broccoli and mustard greens are cancer-preventive. Garlic is one of the extensively investigated spices for its beneficial effects on cardiovascular complications and hypertension. Turmeric powder has recently become a hot topic for its health effects, ranging from anti-inflammatory to anti-cancer due to its ability to affect multiple targets. The list goes on, and the health benefits are high in number. Because healthy eating has proved to be a major step to leading a healthy life, the market for medicinal food and herbal medicines in the form of dietary supplements is growing day by day.

Our position and untapped potential

Reports indicate that among the 7,000 species of medicinal plants recognised all over the world, more than 900 types are found in Nepal. We have rare high altitude medicinal plants that might not be found elsewhere. There are many unique fruits and a variety of healthy vegetables that can be grown easily in our backyard. Many edible fruits and vegetables are still available in the forests, and their medicinal values are yet to be identified. They can be used to benefit the average health state in Nepal, and by doing so, will lessen the need for modern drugs.

It is lamentable that no emphasis has been put on the preservation and promotion of herbal medicines and our unique food varieties in the policies and programmes of the Nepali government or the private sector. There is no proper regulatory mechanism to monitor the quality of herbal medicines sold in the Nepali market. Misidentification of plant species, chemical contamination, adulteration and improper labeling are some of the problems consumers currently face while purchasing herbal or traditional medicines.

There is no denying that herbal or medicinal foods are good for our health and well-being, and we have a huge untapped potential, but quality assurance matters the most.  Health care practitioners should also be aware of the positive and negative effects of taking herbal medicines while prescribing medicines. The sooner we realise the value of nature’s invaluable gift, the better we can improve the quality of life in Nepal.

(Currently, Dr. Prasain is a faculty member at University of Alabama in Birmingham, USA.)

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