Today more and more people are turning to less traditional medicine and seeking help through much older methods, such as meditation, mindfullness and natural remedies. Researchers are beginning to investigate the hard science behind these techniques. It has been known for centuries that plants are a good source for medicines, giving us new antibiotics, aspirin, and cancer treatments to name a few. With a rise in ‘Fake News’ and the growing difficultly in finding reliable, truthful information, what is the science behind home remedies and should we be turning to plants for the answers?
“Healing with medicinal plants is as old as mankind itself” and until the 16th century, the main source of medical treatments came from plants. Medical advances have moved on a lot since ancient times but we still find medicine (or inspiration for medicine) in nature. Three well-known drugs have origins from plants: Aspirin originates from willow tree leaves. The use of willow leaves for pain relief was documented as early as 3000-1500 B.C. Taxol is a commonly used chemotherapy drug, originating from the bark of the pacific yew tree. Penicillin is a beta-lactam antibiotic, which is naturally produced by some fungi. All of these substances are examples of natural products which scientists have isolated from their natural producer, and now make chemically for mass medical use. In many cases, natural products used today have been used for centuries in herbal remedies without knowing the science behind them.
Like natural products, old wives tales also seem to have been around forever. Have you ever wondered if doc leaves really do help nettle stings? Stinging nettles have tiny hairs which contain irritants such as formic acid and histamines, which enter our skin if touched, causing the stinging sensation. Ideally you want to treat the area with an alkaline substance such as soap (i.e. to neutralise the acid). It was thought that doc leaves had an alkaline sap contributing to its sting relieving properties, however their sap is in fact slightly acidic. Some research now points towards the doc leaf having anti-inflammatory properties, reducing the pain felt from a nettle sting. The theory of doc leaves for nettle stings has been passed down generations, everyone knows about it, so what else has science gained from such tales?
A very recent finding from Swansea University could be incredibly exciting: tea leaves that fight lung cancer, that will be the headline, but what’s the science? Researchers have made nanoparticle quantum dots (i.e. tiny nano-sized particles that are semiconductors) from tea leaves which have been shown to inhibit the growth of lung cancer cells. The finding was completely accidental. The team had been trying to create the quantum dots in a simple, cheaper process, that didn’t have toxic side effects, and had decided to try a non-toxic, plant-based method using tea leaves. Quantum dots could have applications in technological advances and in medical research amongst other areas, making this a hot topic for a lot of research. The tea leaf quantum dots were applied to cancerous lung cells and inhibited their growth, penetrating and killing 80% of them. The tea leaf quantum dots were also better at imaging the cancerous cells than standard, more toxic quantum dots. This research is in the very early stages but, in the future, our Nation’s favourite drink could help those suffering from lung cancer.
Many microorganisms have been found to produce their own antibiotics to combat bacterial infections and we’re still discovering these today. Due to the ever increasing resistance to antibiotics, there is still a lot of research into natural products which tackle bacterial infections. Bacteria grow resistance to things they could find commonly themselves, especially if over used (e.g. over prescribing antibiotics), so it is essential to look further afield for new antibiotics. Such research is currently being undertaken at Newcastle University, where PhD student Ali Budhi Kusma is researching extreme environments (such as volcanoes, thermal springs etc.) for possible new antibacterial compounds. So far his research has had some really promising results and I look forward to hearing more about it in the future.
With resistance to prescribed drugs at an all time high, it could be time to revisit plants for new inspiration. Amongst this there is also research into treatments such as meditation and mindfulness being used as an alternative to antidepressants, but this is for another blog post! Overall, old wives tales may seem strange (and a lot of the time a load of old rubbish), but sometimes it’s worth thinking about the science behind them. Plants have been applied in medicine for centuries, and with so many species across the Globe, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of possible natural products.