By Matt Rozsa
When we think of medicines today, our minds tend to wander toward pills composed of synthetic substances and concocted in sterile laboratories. Yet natural substances have a wide range of medicinal properties that have been utilized. These four even date back to ancient Roman times!
Poppy is one of the oldest natural medicines, with its use being traced back to Sumerian drug recipes, ancient Roman texts, military manuals, and medieval medical schools. When the pharmacological revolution occurred in the early 19th century, one of its first milestones was the discovery and isolation of alkaloids from poppy plants in 1806. Extracts have been used as muscle relaxants (particularly to treat diarrhea and abdominal cramping), sedatives, and to create morphine (from the opium poppy).
The ancient Chinese Emperor Shen Nung wrote a book 4500 years ago, “Pen T’Sao,” which includes ginseng among the 365 medicinal plants worthy of being regularly used. Studies have found possible benefits to the immune system, blood sugar levels, concentration and learning, physical endurance, and mood. In addition to this mixture of possible physical and psychological boosts, though, ginseng has side effects that range from the mild (nervousness and insomnia) to the more serious (depression or allergic reactions). As a result, experts suggest that it not be taken for more than three months at a time without a doctor’s recommendation and that it be avoided by pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Ancient Egyptian and Roman sources mention medical uses for aloe, and it was well known to be used by medieval Arabs. Its applications range from treating diabetes, hepatitis, arthritis, and inflammation (in the case of aloe gel) to serving as laxatives (in the case of aloe latex). It has also been reported to treat skin conditions like acne, baby rash, and psoriasis, as well as helping heal wounds by improving blood circulation and preventing cell death. That said, it does carry the risk of causing dependency (if used as a laxative) and has enough potential side effects, particularly for individuals who are already sick or are taking medication, that it’s smart to consult one’s doctor before using it for purposes other than applying it to the skin to reduce pain or inflammation or treat diseases and injuries.
Like aloe, honey has been used to treat wounds since the days of the ancient Romans. Because honey contains enzymes that release hydrogen peroxide, it can help accelerate healing and prevent infection.
These are only a few of the plants and other natural substances that are commonly used as medicine today. Others include St. John’s wort, Ginkgo biloba, garlic, saw palmetto, chamomile, and ginger.
Special thanks to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Collective Evolution, The Week, Drugs.com, WebMD, University of Maryland Medical Center, and The Mayo Clinic for the information contained in this article.