Plants are pretty important to the human race and future of the world. If all the world’s animals disappeared tomorrow, some adjustment would be needed, but in the end we would probably be okay.
If plants disappeared, we would all be dead by next week. If we understand plants and how to get the best from them – the growing world population will hopefully be a better place.
Dr Jose M Prieto-Garcia is a multidisciplinary researcher in the field of the Chemistry, Pharmacology and Toxicology or Natural Products either as Medicines or Food supplements. He teaches under and postgraduates at UCL and is responsible for the Master in Medicinal Natural Products and Phytochemistry. As well as this he is also editor of international journals such as Frontiers in Pharmacology, Evidence-based CAM and International Journal of Food Chemistry. He’s published more than 50 peer reviewed papers and co-authored a reference book “Fundamentals of Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy”.
Dr. Prieto-Garcia’s research started at exploring in detail the effect of anti-inflammatory medicinal plants and natural products on enzymes of the arachidonate pathway using targeted lipidomics.
After his PhD, he was immediately appointed as Young Researcher of the EU funded project ‘Insect Chemical Ecology’ to explore the biochemical interactions between plants and insects, gaining a wide experience in phytochemical analysis. He afterwards joined the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy in April 2005 as a Postdoctoral Researcher on a European Union funded consortium developing standardised extracts of Cannabis for use in the treatment of migraine and rheumatoid arthritis.
We were lucky enough to chat to him about his favourite plants and herbal medicines…
Why do you think people are using herbal medicines more?
The market trends for the last 20 years do point towards a steady increase in the public interest for these products. However, we depart from very low numbers in the early 90s, with only 2.5% of users. In the late 90s, it went up to 12% of British citizens turned out to use these products. In 2009 a survey commissioned by the Medicines Agency (MHRA) revealed that 35% of British adults have used a herbal medicine, and 26% of adults have used a herbal medicine in the past two years. This means that some 10% are just trying and abandoning their use. With this numbers I would not dare say that the majority of the population regards herbs as a valid source for health, and if you look in the detail, the biggest consumers tend to be upper-middle class or above, so it may not look as a cost-effective option for those in a budget.
I believe there has been a big influence of the WWW. Before the introduction of internet in homes and mobile devices the knowledge herbal medicines was reserved to the herbalist and you had to physically enter the herbal shop or practice to have a one-to-one consultation with a qualified herbalist. If you did not want to talk with anyone due to embarrass you only could buy a book and try to self-prescribe. Now the indication of any herbal products is at within a split second reach via smartphones. Today people also wants quick miraculous fixes and they will try anything.
How powerful do you think herbal medicines are/ what are their potential?
In allopathy -our current medical system- we demonstrated that the higher the dose the higher the effect. Translate this to the herbal medicines and it means that it depends on how much we are able to concentrate herbs (extracts). For some of the plants we can nowadays isolate the active molecule but then this will not be a ‘herbal’ medicine anymore. In essence we can make them pretty powerful if we want, obviously at the risk of increasing side effects.
In terms of potential it is unlimited. A modern standardised plant extract could be successfully applied in a clinical setup for ANY condition. Recently in USA, the FDA has approved the use of Dragon’s blood (the sap from a tree growing in the Amazon) for the non-infective diarrhoea in AIDS patients, as well as a cream based on highly concentrated tannins from Green Tea for the treatment of genital warts. These are not easy conditions and there were no synthetic drugs to fill this gap with better efficacy.
What do you think the herbal medicines/ pharmacognosy industry needs most ?
It is a very broad question because herbs are very complex products in both biological and chemical terms. The first big need for the herbal medicines industry is to ensure a sustained supply of high quality herbal drug, and this implies getting the plant material complying with very stringent Good Agricultural Practices, Good Harvesting Practices, Good Transportation Practices and Good storage Practices. All these can be met at a price, and here is the reason why herbal products use to be more expensive than synthetic ones. The second need is to be able to assure that the chemistry of the plant materials is the required one batch after batch. When dealing with herbal medicines containing only one herbal ingredient it is quite straight forward but when you make up a products with more than one active ingredient it starts to be really challenging as the chemical from each plant usually interfere with each other.
Do you think popular interest is a fad or is it here to last?
Popular interest is fuelled by innovation. As far as herbal medicines are able to attract the public by inventing newer and more effective applications they will keep being important in our society.
What do you think could increase peoples use?
The biggest boost would be the integration of herbal medicines in the National Health system. We already have Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products approved by the Medicines Agencies across Europe, the so-called Traditional Herbal Medicines, but the medical doctors generally ignore their characteristics and uses so they will not necessary recommend them to patients. Moreover their cost is not refunded. In UK there is a wealth of information in governmental web sites about these products but it is highly technical.
Could you tell us what your favourite plant medicine and mechanism of action is?
Andrographis paniculata (King of bitters). In 2015 I arrived to Bangkok to teach in the Siriraj Hospital (Mahidol University). I arrived with a cold (planes air conditioning are terrible) and the logical traveller’s diarrhoea started to show up. My Thai collages gave me capsules of Andrographis . All was solved in 24 hours with just 7 grams of the dry leaves! I never had such as speedy resolution of colds with our more ‘Western’ equivalents, namely Echinacea or Pelargonium. Nowadays, this plant is being developed as a powerful immunomodulator and even as an ingredient for future anticancer therapies. Beware, it is not safe for everybody, in particular hypertense patients should keep away from it.
Favourite fact about plant medicine?
Ginkgo biloba is my number one. This species was around when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth in the Jurassic Age. Therefore it is considered the oldest standing plant species (some 300 million years old). Ginkgo trees may be males or females and reproduce using spermatozoid-like cells!!! Their DNA is 3 times bigger than ours and I like to think this means they have not just more information but much more wisdom than us. They were the only living organisms able to resist the effects of a nuclear bomb where any other was virtually evaporated (google for Hiroshima and Ginkgo). This ‘prehistoric plant’ is currently being developed for the prevention of the most modern of pandemics: neurodegeneration. It looks like that Nature kept this tree for literally millions of years to help us humans in the 21st century. This is a really humbling and mind-blowing set of facts.
Are there any plants currently banned (like cannabis was) that you think should be used for medicine?
Kava kava would be a welcomed one. I believe the toxicity associated with some of its components could be easily dealt with using the right technology. This plant could afford the first of its kind ‘Collective Wellbeing medicine’ in an age when everybody complains of rampant levels of anxiety and social violence in our society. The catch is that, similarly to its use in Polynesia, everybody in town has to take it for best overall effect! We could ask Harry and Meghan how you feel after sipping kava drinks as they did in their recent visit to Fiji.
Alcohol is amazing at bringing people together. Do you have any favourite plants or plant ceremonies used socially?
It is easy to forget that the global blockbusters in social events are -and still will be for long time- Tea and Coffee. Caffeine containing plants are the absolute kings and queens of any human activity. They can be informally taken or elevated to rituals like the British Afternoon Tea or the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Mediterraneans and Latin-Americans alike prefer to reflect and discuss about serious matters over perfectly brewed black coffee instead. Caffeine containing infusions are safer and healthier than alcohol, and boost our cognitive functions instead inhibiting them. However, caffeine-containing soft drinks do not ‘give you wings’ but hate instead. The latest evidence is that their consumption in high quantities is linked to crime and antisocial behaviour. We need to educate the new generations in that caffeine is not the reductionist approach to social wellbeing.
Do you think there is a potential to use plants safely and recreationally? If yes, which?
Yes, but safety depends on two factors: quality and quantity. Sensible amounts of high quality products, assured by recognisable standards. We all know the average quality of what is sold in the WWW…and how much the people abuses of what makes them feel good.
Other favourite plants and why?
My choice is ALL OF THEM! Imagine a world with only one or two different plants. Every species occupies a place in the big design of Nature and serves its own purposes. Sometimes we don’t simply know why they are there, but them all help the planet to exist as we know it. We humans use plants to eat, dress up, make our houses, and express our most intimate feelings when words fail to us: love, grieve, victory, peace can be more profoundly expressed by roses, poppies, bay leaves and olive branches, respectively. Please, respect and protect all plants on Earth. Even the most humble plant may become an invaluable source for new materials and medicines in the future.