medicinal-plantsMEDICINAL PLANTS have always been considered a healthy source of life for all people. Therapeutic properties of medicinal plants are very useful in healing various diseases and the advantage of these medicinal plants is being 100 per cent natural. Medicinal plants contain substances that can be used for therapeutic purposes, or which are precursors for chemo-pharmaceutical semi-synthesis. When a plant is designated as medicinal, it is implied that the said plant is useful as a drug or therapeutic agent or an active ingredient of a medicinal preparation. Medicinal plants may, therefore, be defined as a group of plants that possess some special properties or virtues that qualify them as articles of drugs and therapeutic agents, and are used for medicinal purposes. Nowadays people are being bombarded with thousand of unhealthy products, the level of sensibility in the wake of diseases is very high and thats why the use of medicinal plants can represent the best solution.

Plants have formed the basis of sophisticated traditional medicine (TM) practices that have been used for thousands of years by people in China, India, Pakistan and many other countries. Plants have also been used in the production of stimulant beverages (e.g. tea, coffee, cocoa, and cola) and inebriants or intoxicants in many cultures since ancient times, and this trend continues till today. Tea was first consumed in ancient China (the earliest reference is around CE 350), while coffee was initially cultivated in Yemen for commercial purposes in the 9th century. Nowadays, tea, coffee, and cocoa are important commodities and their consumption has spread worldwide.

Nowadays plants are still important sources of medicines, especially in developing countries that still use plant-based TM for their health care. In 1985, it was estimated in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO) that around 80 per cent of the worlds population relied on medicinal plants as their primary healthcare source. The importance of medicinal plants becomes more patent at the present time in developing countries. In Pakistan it is estimated that 80 per cent of the people depend on plants to cure themselves, 40 per cent in China. In technologically advanced countries as United States, it is estimated that 60 per cent of the population use medicinal plants habitually to fight certain ailments. Even though a more recent figure is not available, the WHO has estimated that up to 80 per cent of the population in Africa and the majority of the populations in Asia and Latin America still uses TM for their primary heal and the care needs. In industrialized countries, plant-based traditional medicines or phytotherapeuticals are often termed complementary or alternative medicine (CAM), and their use has increased steadily over the last 10 years.

Around 700 plant species are used for medicinal and aromatic purposes in the Himalayan region. Pakistan has a diverse flora containing about 6000 plant species. About 80 per cent of the people belonging to the rural areas still depend upon the local herbal medicines. A diversity of medicinal plants has been reported in Pakistan at different localities from the low lying coastal areas to peaks of ice glaciers. The small fraction of flowering plants that have so far been investigated have yielded about 120 therapeutic agents of known structure from about 90 species of plants. Some of the useful plant drugs include vinblastine, vincristine, Taxol, Podophyllotoxin, camptothecin, digitoxigenin, gitoxigenin, digoxigenin, tubocurarine, morphine, codeine, aspirin, atropine, Pilocarpine, capsicum, Ellison, curcumin, artemesinin and ephedrine among others. In some cases, the crude extract of medicinal plants may be used as medicaments. About 121 (45 tropical and 76 subtropical) major plant drugs have been identified for which no synthetic one is currently available. Since today a lot of indigenous medicinal plant species are still unexplored and needs to be documented and studied for its status and traditional uses.

It has been estimated that more than 400 traditional plants or plant-derived products have been used for the management of type-2 diabetes across geographically. Galegine, a substance produced by the herb Galega officials, provides an excellent example of such a discovery. Experimental and clinical evaluations of galegine, provided the pharmacological and chemical basis for the discovery of metformin which is the foundation therapy for type-2 diabetes. Moreover, plant derived agents are also being used for the treatment of cancer. Several anticancer agents including Taxol, vinblastine, vincristine, the camptothecin derivatives, topotecan and irinotecan, and etoposide derived from epipodophyllotoxin are in clinical use all over the world.

In conclusion, plants have provided humans with many of their essential needs, including life-saving pharmaceutical agents. Recently the WHO estimated that 80 per cent people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some aspect. Many developing countries have intensified their efforts in documenting the ethnomedical data and scientific research on medicinal plants but we are still lagging behind even having more enriched flora in the world.

There are more than 270,000 higher plants existing on this planet but only a small portion has been explored phytochemically. Our herbal scientists should be active in this regard to explore such hidden resources. So, it is predictable that plants can provide potential bioactive compounds for the development of new leads to combat various diseases. As a vast proportion of the available higher plant species have not yet been screened for biologically active compounds, drug discovery from plants should remain an essential component in the search for new medicines and the scientific study of traditional medicines, concerned medicinal plants are thus of great importance.

The authors are associated with the University of Agriculture Faisalabad, Pakistan.

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