It almost goes without saying that there are literally thousands of materials that have been used for medicinal purposes throughout human history. Many good books have been written on the subject, and I won’t try to address it here. I will, however, draw a distinction between two broad categories of medicinal materials: those that have a claimed medicinal value based on folklore, tradition, or anecdote; and those that have been subjected to clinical investigation in which specific active substances and their predictable effects have been identified and verified. Now, I know that some people could take offense at this. The distinction does not imply in black-and-white terms “useless” versus “useful” or “natural” versus “unnatural.” They are two ends of a continuum that highlight the issues (and sometimes mysteries) underlying the concepts of “safety” and “effectiveness” in medicinal material. Just because it’s important to know where things come from, following is a list of some of the items that appear on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, that are sourced directly from plants and minerals:

  • Activated charcoal. Carbon that has been processed to give it a highly porous surface area. It is particularly effective in filters and purification systems, and as an emergency treatment for ingestion of poison.
  • Atropine. A highly potent neurotoxin with several medical applications. Found in certain members of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family, such as belladonna, jimsonweed, and henbane.
  • Calamine. A pharmaceutical preparation of either zinc oxide and ferric oxide, or a compound of zinc carbonate. It is a liquid suspension used as an anti-itch medication.
  • Digoxin. A neurotoxin used as an important heart medication, found in many plant species in the foxglove (Digitalis) family.
  • Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate). This is a mineral with many uses in and out of medicine. It is used externally as a paste to treat skin inflammations; taken internally, it is used to treat a variety of illnesses, including the prevention of eclampsia in pregnant women.
  • Iodine. Not only is it an essential mineral nutrient for humans, the preparation povidone iodine (a.k.a Betadine) is also widely used as a topical anti-microbial agent.
  • Lithium salts. Lithium carbonate in particular is used to treat mood disorders. It was also, by the way, the “active ingredient” in the original formulation of the soft drink 7-up.
  • Paclitaxel. An important chemotherapy medication also known as Taxol, derived from the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia).
  • Pilocarpine. A glaucoma medication originally derived from several species of plants in the genus Pilocarpus, especially jaborandi (Pilocarpus microphylla).
  • Salicylic acid. A compound derived from salicin, which is found in the bark of most species in the willow (Salix) genus of plants. It is used to treat skin conditions such as psoriasis and acne, and is the precursor to acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). Bismuth subsalicylate is the key ingredient in both Pepto-Bismol and Kaopectate.
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