Amazing Phyto-Phacts

Selected Facts about Phytomedicinals

(Click on plant hyperlinks & hear a radio show about that plant.)

The Use of Phytomedicinals, Historical and Now

In the West, the modern age of antibiotics and other such pharmaceuticals only began fifty to seventy years ago. Before that–for centuries–we relied on plants, other natural substances, and crude drugs modeled after plant molecules for medicine.

Twenty-five to fifty percent of prescription drugs contain chemicals derived from medicinal plants.

The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of people on the planet still use medicine from plants, either because they rely on traditional health care (such as Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda), or because western-style drugs and health care are financially or geographically out of reach.

Sales of herbal products recently topped $12 billion dollars annually in the U.S. and Europe.

Correct Usage Is Important (A Few Facts from the Radio Show)

You shouldn’t take echinacea all the time to prevent flu, colds, and other infections. It should be taken only at the onset of symptoms.

Some phytomedicinals lessen the effectiveness of oral contraceptives.

Because estrogenic activity can contribute to tumor growth, people with hormonally-driven cancers (e.g., some forms of breast, uterine, prostate, testicular, and other cancers) should consult with a health practitioner before taking or eating soy, black cohosh, licorice, and certain other phytomedicinals that act like estrogen in the body.

St. Johns Wort works only for mild to moderate (not severe) depression.

If you drink alcohol regularly and in large amounts, drugs that affect the liver, such as kava, can be dangerous.

Uva-ursi, a remedy for urinary tract and bladder infection, may not work if you eat certain foods while taking it.

It can be a waste of time and money and risky to your health to take medicine–including phytomedicinals–without consulting a trained, credible health practitioner.

Medicinal Plants Need Our Help!

Of the approximately 400,000 plant species on earth, fewer than 2% have been thoroughly screened for phytomedicinal chemicals. Because native plant habitats are destroyed almost daily, many medicinally valuable plants will be gone before scientists can investigate them.

About 25 million acres of tropical forests–an area about the size of Washington state–are lost each year to slash-and-burn agriculture.

We can cultivate many medicinal plants successfully, but not all. Many are still gathered in the wild (known as “wild-crafting” or “wild-harvesting”)--and not always sustainably.

Related Reading

Nature’s Medicine: Plants that Heal by Joel L. Swerdlow (Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2000)

Bramwell, David. "How Many Plant Species Are There?" Plant Talk 28 ( April 2002)

Brooklyn Botanic Garden, November 2003