Botanical Medicine—A Modern Perspective

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Chapter 33 Botanical Medicine—A Modern Perspective

image Introduction

The term herb refers to a plant used for medicinal purposes. Are herbs effective medicinal agents or is their use merely a reflection of folklore, outdated theories, and myth? To the uninformed, herbs are generally thought of as ineffective medicines used before the advent of more effective synthetic drugs. To others, herbs are simply sources of compounds to isolate and then market as drugs. However, to some, herbs and crude plant extracts are effective medicines to be respected and appreciated.

For many people of the world, herbal medicines are the only therapeutic agents available. In the late 1990s, the World Health Organization estimated that about 80% of the world’s population relies on herbs for primary health care needs.1 This widespread use of herbal medicines is not restricted to developing countries, since it has been estimated that 70% of all medical doctors in France and Germany regularly prescribe herbal preparations.

Although herbal medicine has existed since the dawn of time, knowledge of how plants actually affect human physiology remains largely unexplored. Many individuals formulate their view of herbal medicine based on opinion, philosophy, and ideology. This chapter seeks to facilitate an informed view of herbal medicine. The past and future of herbal medicines are discussed. We believe that the continued evolution of the tradition of herbal medicine can only be accomplished within the context of continued scientific investigation.

Throughout the world, but especially in Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan, a tremendous renaissance in the use and appreciation of herbal medicine occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century. For example, in the United States, the sale of herbal products skyrocketed from $200 million in 1988 to more than $3.5 billion in 1997 before leveling off in the $4 billion a year range (Table 33-1). Within the European Community annual sales exceeded $7 billion in 1997.2

TABLE 33-1 Total Estimated Herb Sales in the United States 1994-2005

1994 2020  
1995 2470 22.3
1996 2990 21.1
1997 3557 19.0
1998 4002 12.5
1999 4110 2.7
2000 4260 3.7
2001 4397 3.2
2002 4276 −2.8
2003 4178 −2.3
2004 4320 3.4
2005 4410 2.1

Data from Ferrier GKL, Thwaites LA, Rea PR, et al. U.S. consumer herbal and herbal botanical supplement sales. Nutr Business J. 2006.

The rebirth of herbal medicine, especially in developed countries, is largely based on a renewed interest by the public and scientific researchers. During the past 20 to 30 years, there has been a huge increase of scientific information concerning plants, crude plant extracts, and various substances from plants as medicinal agents. For example, a PubMed search of the term “herbal medicine” yielded over 1300 hits in 2010. However, the number of studies of botanical medicines is much higher. For example, there were 130 studies published on Ginkgo biloba alone in 2010.

image The Role of Herbs in Modern Pharmacy

Plants still play a major role in modern pharmacy. For the past 50 years, about 25% of all prescription drugs in the United States and other developed countries have contained active constituents obtained from plants. Digoxin, codeine, colchicine, morphine, vincristine, and yohimbine are some popular examples. Many over-the-counter (OTC) preparations are also composed of plant compounds. Pharmacognosy, the study of natural drugs and their constituents, plays a major role in current drug development. Unfortunately, the standard path of the approval of a drug is a process that typically takes 10 to 18 years at a total cost of roughly $250 million (Table 33-2).

TABLE 33-2 Classic Examples of Drugs From Plants With a Correlation to Its Traditional Use

Atropine Anticholinergic Atropa belladonna
Caffeine Central nervous system stimulant Cola nitida
Camphor Rubefacient Cinnamomum camphora
Cocaine Local anesthetic Erythroxylon coca
Codeine Analgesic/antitussive Papaver somniferum
Colchicine Antigout Colchicum autumnale
Digitoxin Cardiotonic Digitalis purpurea
Digoxin Cardiotonic Digitalis lanata
Emetine Amebicide/emetic Cephaelis ipecacuanha
Ephedrine Sympathomimetic Ephedra sinica
Gossypol Male contraceptive Gossypium spp.
Hyoscyamine Anticholinergic Hyoscyamus niger
Kawain Tranquilizer Piper methysticum
Methoxsalen Psoriasis/vitiligo Ammi majus
Morphine Analgesic Papaver somniferum
Noscapine Antitussive Papaver somniferum
Physostigmine Cholinesterase inhibitor Physostigma venenosum
Pilocarpine Parasympathomimetic Pilocarpus jaborandi
Podophyllotoxin Topical wart remedy Podophyllum peltatum
Quabain Cardiotonic Strophanthus gratus
Quinine Antimalarial Cinchona ledgeriana
Reserpine Antihypertensive Rauwolfia serpentine
Scopolamine Sedative Datura metel
Sennosides Laxative Cassia spp.
Theophylline Bronchodilator Camellia sinensis
Tubocurarine Muscle relaxant Chondrodendron tomentosum
Yohimbine Male erectile dysfunction Pausinystalia yohimbe

Data from De Smet PA. Drugs 1997;54:801-840.

Because a plant cannot be patented, plants are screened for biological activity and then the so-called “active” constituents (compounds) are isolated and typically chemically modified to produce unique substances. If the compound is powerful enough, the drug company begins the process to procure Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Of 520 new drugs approved by the FDA or comparable entities in developed countries, 30 came directly from natural product sources and another 173 were either semisynthetic from a natural source or modeled after a naturally occurring compound.1

Because of the expense and lack of patent protection, few clinical evaluations were done before 1980 on whole plants or crude plant extracts as medicinal agents per se. A key factor in contributing to more research into herbal medicines after this time was the development in Europe of regulatory policies and practices that made it economically feasible for companies to do research. For example, in Germany, regulations allow herbal products to be marketed with drug claims if they are proven to be safe and effective.3 Whether the herbal product is available by prescription or OTC is based on its application and safety of use. Herbal products sold in pharmacies are reimbursed by insurance if they are prescribed by a physician.

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