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Power Plants

Many of the most powerful drugs in modern medicine’s arsenal came from natural products, from penicillin to the chemotherapy agents Taxol® and vincristine.

January 16, 2012 |
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Doctors are skeptical of the ability of plant foods to treat disease. We have no problem believing a drug like lovastatin can lower cholesterol, but red yeast rice? Come on! It has been used in Chinese herbal medicine for over a thousand years; but what did they know back in the Tang Dynasty in the year 800?

But guess what’s in red yeast rice – lovastatin - literally, the exact drug. Instead of us synthesizing it in a lab; some purplish mold synthesizes it on rice and has since forever. Now the drug levels in the moldy rice are too variable to be reliable, so I don't recommend anyone take red yeast rice supplements. I don't recommend people take lovastatin either; I recommend eat healthy enough that you don’t need either one, but it's an illustration of the power of plants in this case - fungus.

Doctors prescribe diabetes drugs like candy ( even though some may increase risk of heart failure, heart attacks, and death), but at the same time are skeptical that cinnamon could possibly help with blood sugar because it’s just some dried bark scraped from some tree. Well guess what Taxol is the revolutionary chemotherapy drug that’s routinely used against half a dozen human cancers, it's some dried bark scraped from the Pacific yew tree. Now we just grow tree cells in a tank and make it that way, but originally they were just scraping thousands of trees.

Still don’t think plants can be powerful? This is where cocaine comes from, morphine. This makes a glaucoma drug, anesthesia, this shrub cures malaria. This is where Aspirin came from; Digoxin, colchicine, quinine, and ipecac. This is also where we get a drug to treat Emphysema, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s.

Periwinkle is what we use to treat childhood leukemia, even though on the bottle we call it vincristine.

In the middle ages, they rubbed moldy bread into infected wounds—it was a staple European folk remedy. What quacks! Until, a couple hundred years later when penicillin went on to become the greatest discoveries in all of medicine.

Thanks to a moldy cantaloupe found in a market in Peoria Illinois—no joke—the United States went from having just enough penicillin in 1942 to treat ten people to 2 million doses in time for the invasion of Normandy.

Over the last 25 years about half of new drug discoveries have come from natural products. Plants can powerfully affect our health.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by MaryAnn Allison.

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Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. Be sure to check back for the other videos on medications and don't miss all the videos on nutrition myths. And there are 1,449 subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them!

Also, please check out my associated blog posts for more context: Amla: Indian gooseberries vs. cancer, diabetes, and cholesterol, Is Caffeinated Tea Really Dehydrating?Stool Size and Breast Cancer Risk Treating PMS with SaffronIncreasing Muscle Strength with Fenugreek, and Cinnamon for Diabetes

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. Be sure to check back for the other videos on medications and don’t miss all the videos on nutrition myths. And there are 1,449 subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them!

  • BPC

    Thanks Dr. Greger for another outstanding video. With this fabulous website, you have distinguished yourself as one of the greatest public educators on nutrition!

    Some of those who are intrigued by the topic of this video may also wish to read some of the work of Dr. James Duke (, who has done painstaking work for years to try to tabulate all of the phytochemicals in food plants and herbs. He has written several excellent popular books and has even made his extensive phythochemical database freely available to all (see:

  • BPC

    Don’t you think that the problem of phythochemical variability is solved by using standardized herbal formulas?

    • DrDons

      Standardization would help. However as Dr. Greger mentions the goal is to eat a variety of whole plants, spices and herbs. Supplements are fine but shouldn’t be the focus. Remember the amount of information on antioxidants and good things in foods is changing all the time. Compare what we know now vs what we knew in 1980 and imagine what we will learn in the next decades. While it is interesting and useful to look at the science and let it guide us we have to remember that we are dealing with complicated metabolic processes performing in complex/adaptive systems so the science should be taken with a grain of salt. In the meantime keep up with the latest in nutrition by staying tuned to

  • hcdr

    Great video. There are many claims of exotic animal products too (bear bile, fermented snakes, etc) that we’d like to believe have no merit to them, due to the dismal treatment of animals, and effects of species elimination, in this trade. Are there any studies you know of to support or refute these kinds of treatments?

  • Rcaiken

    Wouldn’t it be interesting and possibly important to understand the reasons these plant secondary metabolites are useful as medications in humans?  What is the function they have in the plants that make them? Perhaps if we knew that analogue we could better search for new medications or, better, know what whole plant foods to include in our dietary mix to avoid developing certain diseases.

  • Jason

    Are there any foods you would suggest to help with wound healing after surgery

  • grsr3

    What is your opinion of Saw Palmetto on prostate health??

  • craig ward

    what cures tinnitus, anything

  • GeoffB

    Is there any evidence on the effectiveness of Pacific Yew tea (made sustainably from the leaves of that Yew tree, not the bark) in treating or reversing cancers?