Medicinal and Aromatic Plant Research in the 21st Century

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The use of medicinal plants is as old the history of manhood. Archaeological sites show plants for healing purposes as for example the Lascaux caves in France, which are between 15,000 and 27,000 years old . Even more, the history of herbal medicine seems to have its very first roots in the animal kingdom. Fascinating evidence exists for self-medication among non-human primates. Chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas swallow specific leaves and chew bitter piths, if they suffer from parasite infections. It has been speculated that ancient shamans and healers learned from apes by observing them while they were taking medicinal plants. These plants were then taken by local human populations for medical purposes . The ancient knowledge on the beneficial activity of some plants was a privilege of shamans and healers and give reason to establish traditional medicines worldwide. While many forms of traditional medicines were handed down orally from generation to generation for millennia , complex forms with written textbooks and education systems also developed, e.g. in traditional Chinese medicine, Japanese Kampo medicine, or Ayurveda.

Essential oils of aromatic plants

There is a progressive transition between food plants and medicinal plants and a clear distinction between categories is frequently not possible. Plants primarily used for nutritional purposes may contain secondary metabolites with health promoting effects and even therapeutic potential. Hence, it comes as no surprise that aromatic plants can also be medicinal plants, although their applications are much broader. These plants contain essential oils – volatile aroma compounds, which are isolated by distillation. Because the distilled oily extracts represent the “essence” of plants, they were termed essential oils. Essential oils have numerous usages in the “beauty industry” as perfumes, cosmetics, or soaps, in the food industry as flavors for foods and drinks, and in the medical industry. They have antiseptic, antimicrobial and antiviral activities. As mosquito repellents, they bear the potential for malaria prevention. Furthermore, they reveal considerable cytotoxicity towards cancer cells.

Future perspectives

Although research on medicinal and aromatic plants has a long-lasting tradition, there is a huge task for the future to fulfill the requirements and expectations on herbal health care for future generations. In addition to quality control standards, the modes of actions and synergistic interactions need to be much better understood. One of the possible pitfalls may be the right applications and indications need to be explored and improved in controlled clinical trials. Examples of future perspectives are the so-called neglected diseases, such as certain tropical diseases which are epidemiologically important, but seem not to justify private investments due to the lack of spending capacity in the respective countries. Detractors of herbal medicine argue that herbal medicines may be ineffective for such diseases. This assumption is fed by the fact that patients obviously take medicinal herbs against these widely distributed diseases, but treatment effects of medicinal herbs should be more obvious and neglected diseases should be under control by medicinal herbs if these would work. Obviously this seems not to be the case.

On the other side, there is mounting evidence that medicinal plants with their panoply of secondary metabolites reveal considerable activity against parasites causing neglected diseases . This paradox illustrates the need for systematic research to improve and utilize the full potential of medicinal herbs.

Source (see full article):

Department of Pharmaceutical Biology, Institute of Pharmacy and Biochemistry, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany

Corresponding Author 

Dr. Thomas Efferth 
Professor, Department of Pharmaceutical Biology
Institute of Pharmacy and Biochemistry
Johannes Gutenberg University
Staudinger Weg 5, 55128 Mainz, Germany
Tel: +49 6131 3925751
Fax: +49 6131 3923752