In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life which bare twelve manners of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
- Revelations 22:2
By Maurice Hinson, MD
Nature has provided EVERYTHING we need to heal ourselves. Yet, through policy change, targeted marketing, and poor lifestyle choices we have become overly dependent on synthetic agents to support our health and wellness. The Flexner Report of 1910 arguably changed the entire course of U.S. Healthcare. This report, which was conducted to examine the integrity of American medical education, resulted in the closing of over 30 proprietary medical schools (including historically Black medical schools), many of which taught traditional medical therapies like Native American herbal therapy, and established the biomedical model as the gold standard for medical education (1). Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, this assessment was initiated and funded by J.D. Rockefeller, whose success in petroceuticals (i.e., oil-based therapies) was threatened by the established herbal based therapies of that time. This report, in combination with a massive media campaign against herbal therapies (again funded by Rockefeller), gave birth to the pharmaceutical industry (2). Traditional therapies, which had been practiced for thousands of years and had been the staple of American healthcare, were now ostracized and relegated to quackery and pseudoscience, while pharmacologic therapy became the primary method of medical management in the U.S. healthcare system.
While pharmacologic therapy certainly has a role in the medical management of certain disease types, it fails to adequately address the needs of patients with common chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, depression/anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. Consequently, the U.S. continues to have the highest chronic disease burden, highest infant/maternal mortality, and lowest life expectancy of any comparable developed country. In addition, pharmacologic therapy continues to be an increasingly significant financial burden to patients and the U.S. healthcare system. Money spent on prescription drugs topped $574B in 2021, up nearly 45% since 2010 (3). Whereas U.S. spending on preventative care services only reached $120B (4). It is within the realm of preventative care that herbal therapy may afford its greatest benefit.
Herbal and plant therapy has the potential to resurge as a primary source for disease prevention and treatment given their broad efficacy and safety profiles- and failing pharmacologic therapies. We must also highlight the fact that the pharmaceutical industry was created and advanced through a process called ethnobotany, which is the study of indigenous people’s use of native plants. Drug researchers would observe how and for what purpose plants and herbs were being used, extract and isolate the active compounds from the plant, test which compound produced the therapeutic benefit of interest, create a synthetic derivative of the compound, patent the synthetic, put it in pill form, and sell it to the consumer. Aspirin, the most commonly sold over the counter medication in the U.S., is a synthetic derivative of salicylic acid which is a naturally derived compound from salicin. Salicin is found in many plants like willow bark, meadowsweet, tomatoes, spinach, zucchini, etc. So, the entire pharmaceutical industry is rooted in herbal therapy. The main issue with this drug development practice is that it fails to recognize one of the universal laws of nature- that nothing exists in isolation. Isolating and administering one active compound without the other compounds to counterbalance is unnatural and likely the reason why most synthetic drugs treat only one disease state while having a laundry list of side effects. Whereas plants and herbs tend to have a broader therapeutic profile with negligible side effects. For example, Gynura procumbens, a medicinal plant native to many Asian countries, has been scientifically proven to reduce blood pressure, reduce blood sugar levels, suppress cancer (leukemia, uterine, breast, osteosarcoma), treat herpes simplex virus type 1 & 2, improve low libido and male infertility, treat malaria, improve gastric ulcers, prevent kidney disease progression, improve fatty liver disease, etc. The Chinese even refer to this plant as Bai Bing Cao or “100 ailments”. And the only reported side effect is a mild allergic reaction (5).
Gynura procumbens is not unique in this broad therapeutic profile. Many plants and herbs demonstrate similar findings with only negligible adverse events and can be easily incorporated into our diet and daily routine. And the most beautiful aspect about plant and herbal medicine is that you don’t need fancy, expensive equipment or a multi-million-dollar laboratory or an overpriced pill to obtain their benefits. We can bypass the middleman entirely and head straight to the source. A small investment in seed or starter plant, soil, water (or simple hydroponic system) with adequate light would yield a natural, independent era in our journey towards optimal health and wellness.