Herbal Medicine for Human Health

Dr. Ranjit Roy Chaudhury, Emeritus Scientist of National Institute of Immunology, delivered two lectures on “Herbal Medicine for Human Health”. Excerpts of Lectures are given below.

It is really very appropriate that at a time when holistic health is considered to be preferable to disease control the IGNCA has taken the initiative to open up this multifaceted subject. Statistics reveal that 80% of the population of the developing countries, i.e. 64% of the world population or 3.2 billion people are totally dependent on herbal medicines for primary health care.

Let us start by looking at herbal medicine as it is practiced today India at the different levels and see what is being done and what more could be done. At the first level of health care – at homes and at the primary health care, people use medicinal plants about which they know or those prescribed by the herbalist or traditional medicine practitioner. What are these remedies and are they effective? Tulasi or holy basil is used for many things like treating cough and cold and increases one’s resistance to disease by stimulating the immune system of the body. A few leaves to be taken every day is what is recommended. The husks of Isabgol or Plantago ovata are used for treating constipation. This is being used in allopathic mediacine and has been included in the WHO’s list.

Another home remedy, now, also taken over by the West is ginger or adrak known as Zingiber officinale. We have used it for many years for the treatment of nausea. The fruit of the Bael or Aegle marmelosis used commonly for the treatment of diarrhoea. A compound of Tulasi leaves, Neem leaves and black peppers has been used to treat fevers and several persons report that it prevents malaria if used every morning by persons living in malaria infected areas. Embelia officinale or vidanga is used for treating acidity. Moringa oleiferia is used for high blood pressure.

It is quite clear that most of these carefully selected remedies are effective and not only have they stood the test of time – natural selection – but there is scientific evidence for their efficacy in experimental studies. These should be more widely used in allopathic hospitals.

We should not forget the tremendous faith, belief and empathy our rural population have for our traditional herbs. A part from the urban elite the vast majority regard herbal medicines and Ayurvedic and Unani medicines as our own medicines and allopathic medicine as the medicine of the West. “This was the reply given to me in the interior of Burma when I asked an elderly Burmese patient why she preferred to visit the traditional medicine clinic instead of the allopathic hospital next door.”

There are certain diseases, termed refractory diseases which allopathic medicines do not really cure while there are plants reputed to cure such conditions. Our plants should be properly evaluated for these conditions. If proved effective and safe they should be used for these conditions.

The plant Crataeva nurula, for example, is reputed to dissolve kidney stones. A well controlled clinical trial would demonstrate its efficacy. Several interesting clinical trials have been carried out in the past by individual investigators and the Councils of Ayurvedic and Unanai Research – some controlled and some partly controlled. It is, however, during the last six years that the Indian Council of Medical Research has included this in its official programme. This approach, established here, has now become a model as it is being followed also in countries such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, and North Korea.

We will now look at some of our experiences in the field vital to us – development of a herbal contraceptive. At a meeting at Jaipur I gave the participants a look at the contraceptive choices we would be able to offer to our people, perhaps by the end of the year in addition to existing contraceptives. These were not impressed. These were foreign contraceptives, even the Centchroman developed at the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, from a synthetic compound. Could we not, they asked, provide our women with a herbal contraceptive which would be much more acceptable? At our own laboratories at the Postgraduate, we identified, as a result of our efforts, six plants out of two hundred where we obtained exciting antifertility activity. This was a Task Force effort initiated by Col. B.L. Raina in 1966, Director of Family Planning of the Government of India and was supported by ICMR.

Work on Hibiscus rosasinensis or Jaba was carried out, initially at the College of Ayurveda and College of Mediacal Sciences at Varanasi, and later by another ICMR Task Force on Anti-Fertility Plants at several centres in India. It becomes clear that Hibscus rosasinensis may give us the first oral herbal contraceptive. In the Yogaratnakar it has been stated: “The lady who takes the paste of the Jabakusum in rice water mixed with molasses for three days does not become pregnant.” Ethnobotanically this plant has been used as a contraceptive in at least seven countries world-wide.

Let us look into the aspect of how to delay the aging process. Several plants are supposed to increase the quality of life. Some of those being tested for anti-AIDS activity are also in that list. Ginseng is also used for this purpose. There is no plant which has been shown to increase the span of life by controlled clinical trials. At the moment some trials of plants which are known to have an anti-oxidant activity are being conducted on old people. During aging, certain biochemical and chemical changes take place. Anti-oxidant substances can prevent or delay these changes. These are certain palnts found in India and abroad which have an anti-oxidant action and can prevent and delay these changes.

Let us take up two issues which have been worrying all persons interested in medicinal plants. The first is deforestation which is destroying our medicinal plants. This is constantly being reported in our Newspapers. It is, for example, difficult to get gum guggal, and it is practically impossible to get genuine chirata or Andrographis paniculata and the same is true for many plants.

The second problem is that many of our remedies are home remedies or grandmother’s remedies which are becoming extinct. Many Ayurvedic physicians pass on the knowledge only to their written information. Sometimes even valuable manuscripts are destroyed or sold off to the kabadiwala. This type of information should be collected and compiled so that it is not lost to posterity.

Western countries have become, once again, very intersted in medicinal plants because two recent discoveries have fired their imagination. The first discovery was not strictly a medical discovery but it was from a plant all of us are familiar with – the neem tree known as Azadirichta Indica. Neem leaves have been used for generations in India to keep off insects from warm clothes packed up during the summer season or on grain stored in containers. In spite of our possessing this traditional knowledge it was the American scientists who have successfully isolated from neem what is today widely accepted as the most powerful anti-insect substance yet discovered. Azadirichta Indica acts against 150 species of insects. Many Indian scientists and politicians feel that our country has been deprived of a world market of this Indian plant. There are, however, many other properties of neem which we could take advantage of. Neem has long been considered as an antiseptic. It many turn out compounds which may be of use in viral diseases. It is used as a skin ointment, datoon. Brushing the teeth with a twig of the neem tree keeps the teeth in good condition and spotlessly clean.

A more recent discovery by American scientist is the Drug Taxol from the plant Taxux baccata. This drug was released recently and is being used for the treatment of ovarian carcinoma. The bark of the tree known as Pacific Yew is being used and Dabur Pharmaceuticals are working on this plant.

Indian scientists all over the country have been working on medical plants ever since late Sir R.N. Chopra established a centre for this type of work and trained pharmacologists who spread out throughout the country to continue such work. A tremendous amount of information has been gathered and published even though not many drugs have been developed. This storehouse of information should be used by us to develop indigenous medicines.

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