Power Plants

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

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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 eating healthy enough that you don’t need either one. But it is an illustration of the power of plants; or in this case, a fungus.

Doctors prescribe diabetes drugs like candy (even though some may increase the 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; ipecac. This is where we get a drug to treat emphysema; Alzheimer’s; 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 discovery 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 two 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.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

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 eating healthy enough that you don’t need either one. But it is an illustration of the power of plants; or in this case, a fungus.

Doctors prescribe diabetes drugs like candy (even though some may increase the 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; ipecac. This is where we get a drug to treat emphysema; Alzheimer’s; 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 discovery 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 two 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.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Doctor's Note

Be sure to check out my other videos on medications, and don’t miss all my videos on nutrition myths.

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

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

15 responses to “Power Plants

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  1. 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!




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  2. 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_A._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: http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/).




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    1. 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 Nutritionfacts.org.




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  3. 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?




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  4. 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.




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  5. 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?




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  6. Dear Dr. Greger,
    Is there a natural plant based remedy for the fungus that lives under people’s toe nail? Is there any plant based way to strengthen the body to fight off such an attack? I have read that the fungus is athlete’s foot fungus that is present everywhere and that sometimes it gets under a toenail if the bodies ability to fight infection is compromised? Is there a way to prevent this by eating certain plants?
    Thank you for all you do to help so many!!!
    Dawn




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    1. Dear Dawn,

      Great question i have athlete’s foot fungus under my right little toe.

      Hope someone can reply to us about this.

      Thank you and much appreciated.

      Tim




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  7. There are contradicting articles and studies about Red Yeast Rice and its side effects nowadays. It would be interesting if you could review this topic since there are new studies out by now. I found a couple of them that claim red yeast rice has no side effects causing liver damage or muscle problems. While another study showed an association between those side effects and red yeast rice.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/28749884/?i=1&from=red%20yeast%20rice
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/28521773/?i=12&from=red%20yeast%20rice
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/28093797/?i=22&from=red%20yeast%20rice




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