How Plants Can be Both Safer and More Effective

Magic Bullets vs. Promiscuous plants

During the last decade, the drug industry has followed an assumption that a single drug hitting a single target was the “rational” way to design drugs. We’re learning that Mother Nature may be a bit too complicated for that. “Strategies for targeting single genes or proteins ignore a very important fact that most, if not all diseases, involve a sophisticated network system.” For example, one little family of immune molecules involves about 50 different keys fitting into about 20 different locks, often acting with redundancy, making selection of an appropriate drug to antagonize one key or one lock ineffective in the long run. A whole list of agents has been developed to target a specific molecule for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease, for example, but they have all flopped. That’s why drug companies are now working on so-called “promiscuous” drugs that try to affect multiple pathways simultaneously.

Meanwhile, since ancient times, natural agents derived from plants—fruits, vegetables, spices, beans, and grains—have been preferred as potential therapeutics for most chronic diseases, not only because of their safety, affordability, and long-term use, but also “for their ability to target multiple cell signaling pathways, a therapeutic virtue.” (See Magic Bullets vs. Promiscuous Plants).

One example of a successful promiscuous plant-based drug is aspirin. It doesn’t just target inflammation and offer pain relief, but can act as a blood thinner and help prevent preeclampsia and even some types of cancer. Curcumin is another hopeful plant-based medicine. Aspirin is an extract of the willow tree bark (and is present in other fruits and vegetables); curcumin is an extract of turmeric root. It’s so anti-inflammatory that it may even work through the skin—a traditional use was to wrap sprains and injuries with turmeric soaked poultices, a use that continues to this day. Curcumin is so anti-inflammatory that it can help counter the effects of mustard gas.

In a petri dish, curcumin extinguishes the response of spleen cells to an inflammatory cytokine. Promising effects have also been observed in patients with a variety of inflammatory diseases. One of the great things about curcumin is that it also appears to be very safe. One of the reasons may be that despite its powerful pharmacological effects, the same pathway promiscuity that may account for its effectiveness may act synergistically to neutralize side-effects. For example, turmeric has been traditionally used as a bronchodilator to open airways in conditions like asthma. Many of the adrenaline-like drugs that do the same thing can raise blood pressure. The reason turmeric doesn’t may be because it has different components with opposing activities, such as calcium channel-blocking effects that may actually lower blood pressure, and so the side effects may cancel each other out.

This strength in promiscuity, though, is also a weakness. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been reluctant to approve plant extracts, which by definition are composed of mixtures of different compounds. It’s a Catch-22. One drug, one chemical, one mechanism of action and you can patent it, get FDA approval, and make a billion off it, but it may not work very well. On the other hand, there might be a safe, natural alternative that works better, but industry and the government may not be interested.

However, there is hope on the horizon. The FDA approved a green tea ointment as a prescription drug for the treatment of genital warts (See Treating Genital Warts with Green Tea), making it the first prescription plant approved in the United States. If you think that’s neat, check out Treating Gorlin Syndrome With Green Tea.

So have drug companies abandoned their model and started pouring money into plants? No. “Having discovered that so-called magic bullet has been largely unsuccessful, they just propose creating non-selective drugs. Instead of magic bullets, magic shotguns.”

I go into more detail about the Catch-22 in my last video Plants as Intellectual Property – Patently Wrong?

Aspirin isn’t just found in willow tree bark, but throughout the plant kingdom, including fruits and vegetables. See: Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods.

My video Power Plants shows how plant foods are not to be underestimated.

More on turmeric curcumin and inflammation here:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Shu / Flickr

  • Thea

    This post is timely for me since I am about 2/3rds of the way through reading the book Whole by Campbell and Jacobson. This post is the bottom line message from Whole I think. And a lovely summary it is. Thanks!

  • Psych MD

    Speaking of curcumin, Swanson Vitamins currently has a BOGO offer on CurQfen, a highly bioavailable combination of curcumin and fermentable prebiotic fenugreek. As I mentioned in a previous topic, a recently published study showed significant and widespread tissue deposition, including the brain, with this specific formulation, . Each 500 mg. capsule contains 175mg. of curcumin. 120 capsules=$14.99

  • Matthew Smith

    Since the foundation of modern medicine, when Dr. Condet used isolated Iodine to treat Goiter, medicine has been obsessed with the idea of a one treatment, one cure, for one disease. Drugs became the rage for this, although, like Iodine, the possibility that one nutrient could treat many diseases is large. Take Diabetes. The nerve pain described is identical to beriberi disease and some doctors have found that large doses of B1, thiamin, can treat this disease. Take Multiple Sclerosis. This disease seems to be treatable by D3, and MS might be a symptom of D3 deficiency. Vitamin C was popularized by Dr. Pauling. He describes heart disease as the accumulation of Lipoprotein(a) in damaged veins when Vitamin C is low. Heart disease is scurvy to Doctor Pauling. Try Osteoporosis. Phosphorus, K2, and D3 can improve bone density This site shows that phylates from beans are good for bone density. Phylates are plant sources of phosphorus. Could you imagine using the right plant or the right nutrient with any disease? Oatmeal for diabetes? Irradiated mushrooms for Multiple sclerosis? Beans for osteoporosis? Perhaps put another way, could you imagine fixing diets and RDAs so that no one gets sick and develops these deficiencies? Plants as fruit have an invested interest in keeping their seed distributors healthy, so they attempt to make a full complement of vitamins and minerals for the health of the animal. We should all eat more fruit knowing that they make almost all nutrients. What is missing can be filled in. What a bird’s diet has might be missing in us.

  • harlan

    The National Institute of Health is pursuing magic bullets in the form of nutritional supplements, rather than a whole plant foods based approach. See for example, 9 September 2015, “NIH awards nearly $35 million to research natural products: Innovative Research Centers Program investigates botanical dietary supplements and other natural products”

    It has already been shown that using those products, while continuing to eat the standard western diet, is ineffective at best.

  • Fred

    Downside? This would be WHY the continual push to regulate supplements like drugs…so they can be patented and the drug companies can charge their exorbitant prices? Not much to celebrate here?

    Aspirin has downsides…willow bark not so much?

    “So should we all run out and start taking aspirin every day? I think there is a better way. It turns out that within a matter of less than 15 minutes, the liver converts aspirin to another substance called salicylic acid. So the researchers reasoned that the effects of aspirin might be from salicylic acid instead of from aspirin itself. So to test for that, they repeated the same experiments using salicylic acid instead of aspirin. And guess what? The results were the same! The salicylic acid did just as well as the aspirin. And salicylic acid does not have the side effect baggage that aspirin has.

    So by taking willow bark, it is possible to get the same mitochondrial-stimulating effects that come from aspirin.” Shallenberger