Herbal Medicinal Plants and Sustainable Human Health

 For most of the developing world, there are still a lot of people who do not have sufficient access to basic needs such as food, water, education, health services and clean environment in both the rapidly growing cities and in the rural areas. This is a key concern being addressed by many governments at all levels amidst the rapidly increasing population on one hand and a deteriorating environment on the other hand. The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that more than half of the world's population does not  have access to adequate  health care services (HCSs). This is due to the fact that poor people neither have access to nor could meet the expense of the present HCSs. Therefore, innovative alternative approaches are needed to concentrate on this problem.

Herbal Medicinal Plants and Sustainable Human Health

Medicinal plants offer alternative remedies with tremendous opportunities. They contribute significantly towards human livelihood and development and have been used for medicinal purposes long before prehistoric period due to number of known and unknown chemical molecules which are of great importance in pharmaceuticals. They not only provide access and affordable medicine to poor people; they can also generate income, employment and foreign exchange for developing countries. In fact, ancient man was totally dependent on plants for his needs of treatment, prevention and other form of medicaments, thus, utilizing plants as drugs for decades. Throughout the development of human culture, the use of medicinal plants had magical-religious significance and different points of view regarding the concepts of health and disease which existed within each culture. According to WHO reports, around 80% of the global population still relies on botanical drugs; today several medicines owe their origin to medicinal plants. Traditional herbal medicines are getting significant attention in global health debates. In China, traditional herbal medicine played a major role in the strategy to contain and treat severe acute respiratory syndrome. Around 80% African populations use some form of traditional herbal medicine, and the worldwide annual market for these products approaches US 60 billion dollars. Many hope traditional herbal medicine research will play a critical role in global health.

Herbal medicines have become a major source and main stream for future drug development and for human health care. Out of the 252 drugs considered as  basic and vital by the World WHO, 11% are exclusively of plant origin and a significant number are synthetic drugs obtained from natural precursors. Some of these drugs obtained from plants include digoxin from Digitalis spp., quinine and quinidine from Cinchona spp., vincristrine and vinblastine from Catharanthus roseus, atropine from Atropa belladonna and morphine and codeine from Papaver somniferum. It is estimated that 60% of anti-tumour and anti-infectious drugs already on the market or under clinical trial are of natural origin. Plantbased drugs are reported to be successfully used to cure skin diseases, tuberculosis, diabetes, jaundice, hypertension, mental disorders, cancer and many other infectious diseases. Countries with ancient civilizations like India, China, South America, and Egypt are still using several plant-based remedies for treating such ailments. In most cases, the crude extract of medicinal plants may be used as medicaments. Drug discovery from natural sources involve a multifaceted approach combining botanical, phyto-chemical, biological, and molecular techniques. Accordingly, medicinal plant based drug discovery still  remains an important area, till now unexplored, where a systematic search may definitely provide important leads against various pharmacological targets.

Ancient Unani manuscripts Egyptian papyrus and Chinese writings described the use of herbs. Evidence exist that Unani Hakims, Indian Vaids and European and Mediterranean cultures were using herbs for over 4000 years as medicine. Indigenous cultures such as Rome, Egypt, Iran, Africa and America used herbs in their healing rituals, while other developed traditional medical systems such as Unani, Ayurveda and Chinese Medicine in which herbal therapies were used systematically.

Among ancient civilizations, India has been known to be rich repository of medicinal plants. The forest in India is the principal repository of large number of medicinal plants, which are largely collected as raw materials for manufacture of drugs. India has 15 agro-climatic zones and 17000-18000 species of flowering plants of which 6000-7000 are estimated to have medicinal usage in folk and  other documented systems of medicine, like Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Homoeopathy. About 960 species of medicinal plants are estimated to be in trade of which 178 species have annual consumption levels in excess of 100 metric tons.  

The herbal industry shares about US 100 billion dollars with decent growth potential worldwide. The WHO has stated that trade in medicinal plants, herbal raw materials, and herbal drugs are growing at annual growth rate of about 15%. The increasing popularity and acceptability of herbal medicine is belief that all natural products are safe, cheaper and commonly available. However, there are also some concerns associated with herbal medicine regarding its pharmacognosy and standardization compared with conventional drugs. For the last two decades research efforts have been intensified in both developed and developing countries to scientifically evaluate using clinical and validate the herbal drugs.

Thus, in sustainable human health management, herbal medicinal plant has played a vital role which has led to the growing interest in alternative therapies and therapeutic use of plants. These herbal products today are the symbol of safety in contrast to the synthetic drugs, which are regarded as unsafe to human  being and environment. Although herbs had been priced for their medicinal, flavouring and aromatic qualities for centuries, the synthetic products of the modern age surpassed their importance, for a while. However, the blind dependence on synthetics is over and people are returning to the naturals with hope of safety and security. It's time to promote them globally.

Ironically, the potential benefits of plant-based medicines have led to unscientific exploitation of the natural resources, a phenomenon that is being observed globally. This decline in biodiversity is largely the result of the rise in the global population, rapid and sometimes unplanned industrialization, indiscriminate deforestation, and overexploitation of natural resources, pollution, and finally global climate change. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that plant biodiversity be preserved, to provide future structural diversity and lead compounds for the sustainable development of human civilization at large. This becomes even more important for developing nations, where well-planned bioprospecting coupled with non-destructive commercialization could help in the conservation of biodiversity, ultimately benefiting mankind in the long run. It is therefore recommended that deliberate efforts towards domestication and cultivation are essential for continuous supply of these plant species.

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