New book explains plants, medicine

December 30, 2003

A new book by botanists at Washington University in St. Louis enlightens both consumers of natural products and herbs and traditional physicians.

Medical Botany, Plants Affecting Human Health, is the second edition of a 1977 book, Medical Botany, published by Walter Lewis, Ph.D., professor emeritus of biology, and Memory Elvin-Lewis, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and ethnobotany in biomedicine in Arts & Sciences at Washington University. John Wiley & Sons Inc has just published the 812-page book. The book clarifies and classifies the role that plants and herbs play in human health. The work can be a cornerstone of an individual's research and practice in this area, whether it be parsing the properties of Echinacea or St. John's wort, or learning the calcium content in black beans, or the medicinal value of garlic and red wine.

"The work was over twenty years in the making and is by no means a 'pop', throwaway book on herbalism," said Elvin-Lewis. "It's a reference book that physicians should treasure, especially in light of the fact that so many patients are self-medicating. The book has a long shelf life. You can use it forever."

The 1977 book was patterned after texts on internal medicine. It was intended to be a guide to how certain pharmaceuticals evolved from plant sources and how the use of plants and herbs for health reasons has evolved in many cultures.

It was a very popular book that thrived throughout the years and was used by as many as 20 different universities, according to the authors, as a text for courses developed on alternative medicine.

"Since 1977, we've seen an explosion in the enthusiasm for nature's products, healthier diets, exercise, nutritional foods, lower fat consumption and alternative medicines to improve our health," said Lewis. "Memory and I thought the time was right for our second edition, an expanded look at what is being popularly practiced right now, and what plants and herbs people worldwide, but especially North American Indians, have used with success."

For consumers and physicians alike

In their Preface, the authors write: "Medical Botany focuses on research discoveries and their development as therapies for use in complementary-alternative and conventional medicines, utilizing plant natural products and their derivatives. This integrated approach should provide the professional, the student, and the public with the means to communicate and understand the implications of their therapeutic choices. This is particularly important for those who choose to self-diagnose and self-medicate, or who may utilize conventional and alternative therapies together. Either of these approaches is likely to reflect on their state of health as viewed by conventional practitioners. Through an appreciation of the potential of integrated forms of health care, the patient and practitioner can work together in a nonjudgmental framework to achieve the best resolution of health care."

The book is a cornucopia of information on the benefits of plants, herbs, vitamins and minerals, dental plants, as well as the dangers of ingesting certain plants or combining a certain herbal therapy --as one example, flaxseed oil -- with conventional treatments -- blood thinners -- which can put people at risk of developing hemorrhagic stroke. There are countless such descriptions. There are lightly written sidebars in each chapter, extolling the healthy properties of soybeans, for instance, or the good news about chocolate's benefits. Part I consists of three chapters on injurious plants, including a very long table describing the symptoms of plant poisoning complete with antidotes There are twelve chapters in Part II that look at every conceivable part of the human body (featuring a look at dental plants, one of Elvin-Lewis's areas of expertise) and mind as they relate to plant and herbal treatments, including plants that affect metabolism and the gastrointestinal tract, plants as they relate to cancer, and a thorough table describing every known and documented plant or herbal aphrodisiac. Part III is composed of four chapters on psychoactive plants, dealing with stimulants, hallucinogens and depressants.

For 20 years, the couple has worked with native Amazonian indigenous people in identifying and classifying their uses of plants for a variety of medical uses. They note that the Jivaro Indians of Peru alone use at least 500 species of plants for medicines on a daily basis. Also, they mention that Navajo apprentice healers must learn the medicinal uses of nearly 200 plants; Samoan healers apply between 100 and 200 plant and herb species; and they note that traditional medicine in China, which includes herbal medicine and acupuncture, is being incorporated in varying degrees with conventional medicine.

Elvin-Lewis said that Western physicians generally have little understanding of herbalism, not to mention self-medicating patients, many of whom also take traditional or "newly evolved" herbal medicines. "There still is an uncertainty in the medical community about the value of herbalism, despite the fact that herbs are very much mainstream," said Elvin-Lewis, a fellow of the International Society of Herbal Medicine in India.

Non-traditional herbal meds can be 'dicey'

According to Elvin-Lewis , when compounded and prescribed appropriately, the safety of traditional herbal medications is high. It is generally recognized that life-threatening events are rare, when compared to the hundreds of thousands of adverse reactions reported for pharmaceutical products. However, with herbal remedies, in particular, adverse problems are unlikely to be reported because there is often a preconceived notion that the herbs are not harmful. The authors state that uninformed use of non-traditional plant remedies can be dicey to a person's health. They note instances of hallucinations with cinnamon and tetracycline, sedative effects with Valerian or passion flower and antihistamines, elevated blood pressure with thizidine diuretic and Ginko biloba, and increased seizures when evening primrose is taken in addition to phenothiazines, active ingredients in a number of pharmaceuticals. A number of herbal treatments --Valerian, for instance --are additive.

And if you're going herbal to lose those 15 extra holiday pounds, the book makes clear that you should avoid sparteine-containing herbal treatments for slimming and diabetes control. The authors say that these treatments have been associated with instances of circulatory collapse, respiratory arrest and nerve irregularities. Blossoms of germander in herbal teas or capsules to treat obesity have been shown to cause acute hepatitis. Instances of kidney failure have been found in Japan, China and the United Kingdom in people using various herbal slimming agents. "We believe that anyone considering taking herbal medications must be well-informed and not rely on unfounded claims found in other-than-scientific literature," Elvin-Lewis said. "Our book lets readers decide for themselves."

Lewis said their work reflects the fact that plants are an essential of life.

"Plants feed us, protect us and provide us with medications," he said. "They are a key component of the fabric of life and are a major part of human history. That's all reflected in the book."

Washington University in St. Louis

Related Health Articles from Brightsurf:

The mental health impact of pandemics for front line health care staff
New research shows the impact that pandemics have on the mental health of front-line health care staff.

Modifiable health risks linked to more than $730 billion in US health care costs
Modifiable health risks, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking, were linked to over $730 billion in health care spending in the US in 2016, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health.

New measure of social determinants of health may improve cardiovascular health assessment
The authors of this study developed a single risk score derived from multiple social determinants of health that predicts county-level cardiovascular disease mortality.

BU study: High deductible health plans are widening racial health gaps
The growing Black Lives Matter movement has brought more attention to the myriad structures that reinforce racial inequities, in everything from policing to hiring to maternal mortality.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

E-health resource improves men's health behaviours with or without fitness facilities
Men who regularly used a free web resource made significantly more health changes than men who did not, finds a new study from the University of British Columbia and Intensions Consulting.

Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.

Mental health of health care workers in china in hospitals with patients with COVID-19
This survey study of almost 1,300 health care workers in China at 34 hospitals equipped with fever clinics or wards for patients with COVID-19 reports on their mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress.

Health records pin broad set of health risks on genetic premutation
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Marshfield Clinic have found that there may be a much broader health risk to carriers of the FMR1 premutation, with potentially dozens of clinical conditions that can be ascribed directly to carrying it.

Attitudes about health affect how older adults engage with negative health news
To get older adults to pay attention to important health information, preface it with the good news about their health.

Read More: Health News and Health Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to