Plants in society
Updated: Sep 28
This blog post is all about some of the plants that we come across in everyday life that we take for granted.
Don’t be fooled - the items being mentioned here are not inherently safe - they range from relatively benign to heavy duty dangerous. It’s just that social acceptance has allowed them to be incorporated into our lives with licences and a medical acceptance.
So here we go - a top ten of plant based items that are encountered in everyday life.
Quinine has been used for hundreds of years to treat malaria. It comes from a tree - the Cinchona - and stories abound as to the origin of quinine success but undoubtedly it was the military use of quinine to prevent malaria that brought it to the fore in our society.
I have personally seen the effects of not taking quinine tablets to prevent malaria and it is truly sobering to see how quickly this disease acan kill. Even in 2020, malaria kills 3000 children in Africa - EVERY DAY!!
Unfortunately, quinine essentially tastes pretty unpleasant in its “raw” form. (Fast forward to nowadays with all the fantastic Fever Tree flavours that we are seeing and it’s all very different.)
So how did the Army get people to take the quinine - simple - add in some gin. Does the trick every time!
Don’t be fooled by quinine though - it is a potent drug in tablet form (tonic water is safe though guys!) It is far less often used against malaria now as prevention but active treatment still holds a place - but it is a medication regularly requested by people wanting to treat their “Restless Legs Syndrome”. It works brilliantly but bear in mind that quinine is a drug that has significant side effects.
I was going to put in a screenshot of the side effects of quinine from the British National Formulary - but decided against it - too long and more than a screen’s worth (40 entries with side effects on my BNF phone app). However, the list contains a few biggies - like…..convulsions / coma / death / pancytopenia (inability to produce platelets & white and red blood cells - a bit like leukaemia).
Mmmm - makes you wonder. The weirdest one in my opinion is that quinine can cause yellow vision - permanently.
Aspirin comes (originally) from the bark of the willow tree and has a massively strong place in our society - perhaps less so recently after contraindications for use with children, but it is still a staple for prevention of cardiovascular disease, (ie angina / heart attacks etc).
However, it was first noted to have anti-inflammatory properties by the Rev Edward Stone in Chipping Norton in 1752 and a couple of years later he was persuaded by friends to write up this finding in “The Lancet” as it had settled his gout fantastically well. Welcome aspirin as an anti-inflammatory!
It's not all good news though - beware aspirin - as it has significant side effects not the least bleeding from the stomach which can cause significant life threatening problems at times. Overall it has also done massive good work for us over the years - but as with all medications - be wary.
Here’s page one of a write up from The Reverend Stone….
3. Evening Primrose Oil (EPO)
Evening Primrose is a plant native to North and South America, Europe and parts of Asia. The oil from its seeds have been used for medicinal purposes for many years. Conditions such as eczema and psoriasis are but two of the list that could easily take up a full paragraph but above all else, breast pain and the menopause are a further two problems for which ladies take EPO. The evidence for benefit is scanty but for the ladies who state benefit, the help is massively welcomed.
The simple cranberry. Who would credit such a simple item to be helpful in reducing symptoms of urinary tract infections? Probably the safest of the top ten!
What’s that I hear you say? It is otherwise known as digoxin. Less used now in the medical profession than 20-30 years ago, but still a life saver - literally - in helping people with heart problems with atrial fibrillation and heart failure. It comes from the highly poisonous Foxglove plant.
A great medication but again dose issues are easily encountered. Powerful and dangerous stuff!
A great resource on Foxglove (Digitalis) can be found here with a fantastic amount of information on suitable growing / cultivating.
Deadly nightshade at work here - dangerous ground here - but here’s a copy of the resuscitation guidelines by the Resuscitation Council (UK) when encountering bradycardia (slow heart rate)
Belladona was often used by the Roman ladies many hundreds of years ago to create dilated pupils - it worked but side effects were noted. However, atropine drops are still used by opthalmologists occasionally, to obtain good views of the back of the eye / retina, although more modern options are likely first choice nowadays. Tinctures of Belladonna were widely used until recently....
7. Saw palmetto
What’s this I hear you say - well it’s the extract of a cactus that has been long used by some as for prostatatism. BUT - prostate symptoms are not always benign - they can be caused by cancer so alI I would say is if any gentleman experiencing a problem with his waterworks - see a doctor - get a PSA test and examination and urine tests - prostate cancer is a major problem. In the 20 most common causes of cancer deaths in the UK in 2017, prostste cancer was third in the list only behind lung and bowel cancer and higher up the list than breast cancer for ladies.
Soya milk - contains phytoestrogens. I have had patients with oestrogen responsive breast cancer who were advised not to take soya milk by their surgeons / oncologist because of the phytoestrogens within. So it’s helpful to some, not to others.
9. St John’s Wort
This is a naturally occurring plant based supplement that has a well recognised effect against depression. However - guess what - care is needed as it interferes with liver metabolism and in doing so can affect other medications being taken.
By inducing enzymes in the liver (cytochrome P450) St John’s Wort makes many drugs less effective, eg oral contraceptives, heart meds, immune suppressant mdeications to name a few. It is massively important for anybody taking this supplement to tell their doctor it is being taken.
Now greatly popular and whilst fantastic in curries (have you tried turmeric matcha tea - it’s great too!) turmeric has a reputed anti inflammatory action. Evidence is currently lacking to back this up - but many people promote and attest to it having helped. Who am I to say…?
So - with all that said and done, I do not offer any medical advice here- I simply point out what has been used in years gone by. What I have hoped to achieve is just collect a few of the medicines that are taken for granted and in this day and age where much comes from a lab / test tube, this just acts as a reminder that we have a long list of plants used without question. .