Two exciting and pathbreaking studies conducted recently in India and South Korea have shown that the use of Indian plants in face masks and as oral medicines help to filter the Corona virus and also help in slowing the rate of infection and easing the symptoms.
Dr Puttanathu Rahman, a scientist at the University of Portsmouth said that using Indian traditional plants is very promising for the treatment of COVID-19. In collaboration with scientists at Bharathiar University, they are developing nano-fibre based respiratory masks with herbs in it to help filter out the virus and prevent it from entering the respiratory system. Hydroxychloroquinone (HCQ) the synthetic form of Quinine, an antimalarial drug extracted from the bark of Cinchona showed an effect against the COVID-19 in laboratory experiments and is thus opted by many countries to treat its citizens. India happens to be the largest manufacturer of HCQ and is exporting the drug to many countries like the US, the UK and Israel. This tells us how important the role of plants in medicine is.
Plants are used for various purposes ranging from cooking to cosmetics to medicines to rituals to aesthetics. The study of plants in science is known as Botany and Theophrastus, a Greek botanist, disciple of Plato and Aristotle, is considered as father of Botany. Theophrastus was born in 370 B.C and extensively worked on the classification of plants and also focused on the location and reproduction of plants. He also worked on planting methods and the smell, tastes of different plants. He recorded his findings in 18 books in total of which 15 survive to this day.
When we go back a few centuries, say around 3000 B.C, we arrive at the Vedic Period in India when our rishis wrote the Vedas and practiced penance. Indian rishis have studied the classification and taxonomy of plants. They classified plants based on their exomorphic characters which shows that they realised the importance of morphology in classification. The Rig Veda has descriptions of plants being classified into three groups- Trees (Vriksha), Herbs (Osadhi) and Creepers (Virudh).
The Atharva Veda also has descriptions of the type and morphology of plants. The Yajur Veda has classified medicinal plants into 4 groups. Charaka and Sushrutha contributed tremendously to the medical field and gave us Ayurveda - The Science of Life.
I recently listened to a talk by Dr S Sundara Rajan, a botanist and a Sanskrit scholar and has studied Vedic Botany extensively, who mentioned the diet of the rishis during the talk. They would eat a day a week or a day a fortnight or a day a month. But what they ate that one day gave them the necessary strength and immunity to get by until the next time they ate, of course their powers of penance also played a role there. This tells us that they had knowledge of the nutritive qualities of plants.
Speaking to CSP, Dr S Sundara Rajan emphasised that Vedic botany must be introduced in schools and universities to show that the immense contribution of Indian heritage to the science of Botany. He outlined in detail the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata where he talks of the conversation between Bhrigu and Bharadwaj. While Bhrigu tells Bharadwaja that plants are inanimate objects, in just 7 verses, Bharadwaja explains how plants have all the 5 senses and are not inanimate, and explains the concept of the Transpiration Pull theory and Photosynthesis. (unpublished data).
Transpiration pull theory was introduced by Dixon and Jolly in 1894, two German scientists. They said that when water evaporates from the leaves, there is a vacuum created in the plant and a force pulls the water from the soil through the roots. This force is created at the surface of the soil but far up in the plant. The Shanti Parva of Mahabharata talks of the same concept in two verses.
Vaktrena utpala nalena Yatha urdhvam jalam adadeth |
Tatha pavana samyuktaha Padaihi pibathi padapaha ||
If you cut the petiole of a lotus plant and dip one end of the plant in water and place your mouth on the other end and then suck the plant, a vacuum is created and the water rushes up and reaches the mouth. This means that the force is not created at the point where the petiole touches the water but it is created above and the water is pulled up via the roots. (unpublished data)
Then Bhrigu asks Bharadwaja what happens once water enters the plant.
Tena tajjalam adattau jarayatyagni marutau Aahara parimanascha Sneha vriddhischa jayate
He explains that along with the light from the sun and the air, the water prepares food in the plant. This in modern terminology is known as photosynthesis. (unpublished data)
Dr Rajan says: ” Our rishis are scientists. They stayed in the forests to be in close proximity with nature. That is the right term to describe them.” Doesn’t it deem fit to call our rishis as the true “Fathers of Botany”!
Here we will focus on the role of plants in medicine - both traditional and modern medicine. Plants have been used as therapeutics since time immemorial. It was only two centuries ago that modern medicine was born and slowly took over traditional medicine. Some fossil records show that the use of plants as medicines goes back to 60,000 years.
During the course of my research for this article, I came across a paper that spoke of how the causes of illnesses was not known at that time and the type of plant to be used was learnt by experience. The true causation and medicinal properties of plants was understood years later when technology paved the way. However, Maharishi Charaka and Sushruta’s works differ with the above statement.
Along with the Charaka-Samhita or (Compendium of Maharishi Charaka) which is an early text on Ayurveda, Maharshi Sushruta wrote the Sushrutha Samhita where he has described 184 chapters containing descriptions of 1,120 illnesses and 700 medicinal plants. He also gave descriptions of surgical procedures, types of fractures, medical equipment and dental procedures. Our rishis studied botany mainly to look into their medicinal value. The Rig Veda has, in the form of sonnets, the healing properties of many herbs. The sages at that time conducted many symposiums, conferences and seminars to discuss and share the knowledge they have procured. Women scholars like Maitreyi and Gargi played a very important role in these conferences as they studied medicinal plants and also the maintenance of these plants.
The Nighantu Period that lasted approximately 7 centuries witnessed the development, identification and therapeutic properties of medicinal substances. In Raja Nighantu, nomenclature of medicinal plants was done based on its use and the effect it showed, the habitat of the plants, and morphology.
Bhavprakash Nighantu gives the description of specific characters of medicinal plants that were based on guna and morphological characters.
The parts of plants that can be used as medicine can be the seeds, roots, leaves, flowers or sometimes the whole plant. These parts contain the component that confers the medicinal property and are produced and stored in the plant and this when consumed causes a physiological effect.
The Valmiki Ramayana, along with imparting human values and the concept of Dharma, also gives an account of the flora of all the places that Lord Sri Rama visited- Chitrakoota, Dandakaranya, Panchavati, Kishkinda and also Lanka. While reading the Ramayana, we learn of the plants from the reference to context that were used as medicines, especially during the Yuddha Kanda where Lord Anjaneya brings the Sanjeevini mountain that was filled with medicinal herbs, to the battlefield to cure Lakshmana. In the Mahabharata, a conversation between Sage Narada and Yudhisthira gives the description of Satsanga, Sadachara and Ashtanga which are all associated with Ayurveda.
This shows that plants have been used in medicine for a very long time. This interest was revived when the Dutch and the English entered the country. This brings us to the time when the era of modern medicine began. A German pharmacist’s apprentice extracted Morphine which is the active compound found in the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum. Since then, active compounds from many plants have been extracted such as Vincristine and Vinblastine from the Catharanthus roseus (Madagascar Periwinkle). Vincristine and Vinblastine interfere with the cell division process and hence were used as anti-cancer treatment. Arteether was extracted from Artemisia annua and Aspirin from Salix alba. The discovery of artemisinin can be traced back to the 1960s, when tropical malaria was a serious problem during the Vietnam War. Galegine that was extracted from Galega officinalis paved the way for Metformin and other anti-diabetic drugs. Various anticancer drugs such as Paclitaxel and Camptothecin are extracted from plants.
Among the anticancer drugs approved in the time frame of about 1940–2002, approximately 54% were derived from natural products. Actinophyllic acid derived from Alstonia actinophylla facilitates fibrolysis, removing blood clots and therefore it is considered as a lead for other therapeutic agents for cardiovascular diseases. There are many more extracted components of plants that are used in modern medicine now. Taxol was isolated as a new compound from T. Brevifolia was found to be very potent against ovarian and breast cancer. Taxol was approved by the FDA 21 years after its discovery.
Twenty five percent of the medicinal plants that are prescribed worldwide come from plants and 121 such active compounds being in current use. Of the 252 drugs considered as basic and essential by WHO, 11% are exclusively of plant origin and a significant number are synthetic drugs obtained from natural precursors.
In countries like India and China, WHO reports that a large portion of the population have started to rely on traditional medicine over modern medicine. Although diseases are treated using medicines that are produced synthetically in the laboratories after a series of experiments conducted to check its efficacy, there are a number of side effects. In the current scenario there is an increase in the number of drug resistant microbes and new diseases that have no medicines available (like the COVID-19) and also there is an issue with side effects with respect to modern drugs. Thus, the need for plants as a source of medicine is high. There is higher acceptance for plant based drugs due to better compatibility to the body and fewer side effects.
Hormonal contraceptives are widely used but they also show severe side effects like increased blood clot risk, fatal embolism, breast cancer, HIV transmission risk, stroke risk, endometrial and ovarian cancer. This poses a challenge to modern medicine to develop drugs that have fewer daunting side effects and are affordable. Many plants have better anti-fertility potentials that need more investigation.
Now one might wonder as to why modern medicines that are extracted from plants pose side effects than when the plant is consumed directly in the form of a concoction or lehyam or ghee. If modern medicine contains the active component of the plant, why do people hesitate to take up Ayurveda and prefer modern medicine (despite the side effects)?
Dr Sundara Rajan’s answer: The active ingredient in the plant is present in a homogeneous condition with the other components in a plant. When it is present in a plant, the active ingredient can cause harm but there will be another ingredient that subdues the effect of the other. When the active ingredient is extracted from the plant, it is removed from that homogeneity and it does not produce the same effect as it does when it is present within the plant. Morphine when present in the plant does not affect the plant but when it is injected in humans, it causes various effects based on the dose. This is caused due to the change in the homogeneity created.
I will also tell you one thing, when Allopathy fails, everyone will come running to Ayurveda. When Ayurveda fails, they’ll blame it on Ayurveda alone. I attended a conference in 1978 in New Delhi where Prof Narayana Swamy, a respected Ayurvedic practitioner spoke of the side effect that is caused when the active component of a plant is reintroduced into the plant. When morphine is injected into the poppy plant, the plant is severely affected. The same homogeneity is not restored."
Traditional medicine is still practiced in many parts of the country to treat rabies, scabs, measles, snake bites, eczema, jaundice, cancer, diabetes and the local practitioners there impart the knowledge of drug preparation to the other locals. The instructions are verbal and hence there is sometimes no record of the medicines. It has been found that the tribal community of Chitrakoot is rich in ethnomedicinal knowledge, which has been transmitted from one generation to another. This knowledge when spread to the masses can help to protect the resources to avoid falling prey to deforestation. These studies of ethnomedicinal aspects will be useful for further researchers in the field of pharmacology, phytochemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry. Also with the resources that technology provides like synthesis, pharmacodynamics, pharmacology, fermentation, when combined with natural products from plants, we can develop a large drug screening platform- which can help us achieve personalised medicine.
WHO has begun documenting many medicinal plants that have been used by tribals and to explore the scientific evidence of Indian herbs.This will provide people with not drugs with better efficacy but also will give them a clear picture on how to better their health status.