The pharmaceutical industry is producing life-changing and life-saving medicines. But let’s take a look at what Mother Nature has given us.
by Joe Goldstein, R.Ph.
It’s often been said that there is nothing new under the sun. Big Pharma is constantly looking for new compounds and creating new chemical entities to fight disease. I can’t help but think that if we look hard enough, we will find some or all of these chemicals in God’s green earth. Nature has given us many medicines through the centuries. I talk about a few in my book Recipe for Health (amazon.com/dp/1622494318), along with the field of pharmacognosy, which is the study of plants and other natural sources of drugs. Some medicines owe their effectiveness to rocks, minerals and metals, such as sulfur, silver, and even gold. That may be for another post, but this is all about plants and animals. They are in no particular order.
One of the best known medicinal chemicals comes from white willow bark, and from the meadowsweet plant. For more than 2,000 years these have been used to reduce fever and relieve pain and inflammation. Both were found to contain a chemical called salicin. Salicylic acid, a chemical that comes from salicin, is where we get acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), or aspirin. Today we hear of aspirin used mostly to prevent stroke in certain patients, and at low doses of 81 milligrams or less. When I was growing up, it was commonplace to be given, as children, aspirin for headaches, other pains, and fever, at doses of 650 milligrams. We no longer give aspirin to children under age 18 years, as it was found to cause Reye’s syndrome in children who have had a recent viral infection. Reye’s syndrome can be fatal. Aspirin is still used today by people who suffer from arthritis, and is an effective and very useful medication when used properly under medical supervision.
Foxglove is a beautiful plant that flowers every two years. In the 18th century it was given to people who had “dropsy”, now known to be congestive heart failure (CHF). Digitalis purpurea is the scientific name for foxglove, which gave us the class of drugs called digitalis glycosides. The best known, digoxin, is a potent drug used today to treat CHF, atrial fibrillation (Afib) and other cardiac ailments.
Chinese medicine still uses plants, animals and insects to make traditional remedies, just as it has for hundreds of years. Fermenting a particular yeast, and mixing it with red rice, gives red yeast rice, a food eaten in China. It has also been used as a medicine to improve cardiovascular health. Red yeast rice has been found to contain important nutrients, and a statin-like substance that has been shown to substantially lower LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides.
Some people remember growing up and having a tablespoonful of cod liver oil administered to them every morning. It is a great source of vitamins A and D, and may help ward off some common ailments. It is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, known today to help protect from triglycerides. The omega-3 fatty acids also may help ease joint pain in some people with arthritis and other musculoskeletal problems. I personally recommend cooking fresh cod. White fish often have little flavor, but a little creative seasoning will give you a hearty, healthy, and flavorful alternative to that oily spoonful. Salmon and mackerel are other options from our bountiful seas, to help your healthy heart stay healthy.
Cinchona is a group of plants native to South America. In the mid-17th century an extract of its bark was found to relieve the symptoms of malaria. That extract, quinine, is still used today. Small amounts of quinine are added to tonic water as a flavoring agent. In the early 1900’s another cinchona compound, quinidine, was found to treat some types of irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmia), and is still used today.
Paclitaxel is a chemical that comes from the bark of the Pacific Yew. It was originally used to treat women with ovarian cancer, and is now used in some patients with certain types of breast cancer, and is also used to treat Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer found in some people who have AIDS.
Ma huang is a chemical found in the ephedra plant, and has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. The true chemical name is ephedrine, and has been used to treat asthma and other respiratory diseases. Ephedrine and its chemical derivatives are not available legally in the United States as a result of passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005. Ephedrine, as well as pseudoephedrine (available in limited quantities behind pharmacy counters), are necessary chemicals in the production of methamphetamine.
Cows eat grass, and also clover, including common sweet clover. If sweet clover gets moldy, and is allowed to spoil, it produces a chemical called coumarin. In the 1930’s, a Wisconsin farmer wanted to know why his cows were dying. Cows that ate spoiled sweet clover were found to hemorrhage, and die. Coumarin was the culprit. The spoiling process turned it into dicumarol, which interfered with the cows’ blood-clotting, so they bled to death. Scientists produced several synthetic chemicals from coumarin and dicumarol. One, warfarin, was very potent, and was sold as a rat poison. Warfarin eventually was approved for use in humans, and is taken today by millions of people in the U.S. How did warfarin gets its name? It is a derivative of coumarin from the Wisconsin Animal Research Foundation.
There are many other medicines, both old and new, that have their origins in nature. Watch for future posts.