What Is Plant-Based Medicine? [Your Guide to Nature’s Farmacy]
There are oh-so-many approaches to healthcare, including plant-based medicine. If you're like many people, right about now you're scratching your head and wondering, "What is plant-based medicine, exactly?"
Ponder no more! In this post, we'll discuss:
- What plant-based medicine is
- How it can benefit your health
- Ways to incorporate plant medicine into your life
Gary Richter, MS, DVM - named as "America's Favorite Veterinarian," by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) discusses natural medicine as part of his integrative care specialization, CBD and the benefits from"Choosing from both plant-based and western medicine."
Intro to Plant-Based Medicine
Plant-based medicine is a term used two ways:
- The healthcare practice of using plants as medicine
- Botanically-derived medicines
As an approach to healthcare, plant-based medicine prioritizes and promotes plant medicines in the form of herbs, supplements, and functional nutrition. However, standard (aka Western) treatment modalities are still welcomed into the mix. Sometimes therapies like surgery and synthetic drugs are needed!
Your beauty care routines can take advantage of plant medicines, too. You’ll notice that nowadays botanical elements are popular in cosmetics, skincare, haircare, and other personal grooming and hygiene products.
Plant-based medicines can be administered in different ways — orally, topically, etc. The precise method depends on the medicine and what it’s being used for.
Both humans and other animals can, and do, benefit from plant medicine.
It May Go by Another Name...
English is a vast and malleable language. We bring this up because you might hear other terms that relate to plant-based medicine. We want to make sure you have clarity around the words you come across.
Plant-based medicine may also be referred to as plant medicine, herbal medicine, or natural medicine. Sometimes, less formal implementations of plant medicine are called "traditional" or "folk" medicine.
There may or may not be nuances in these different phrases. It depends a great deal on the particular person or publication that's using them. The main thrust is that they all rally around a care protocol that uses shoots, flowers and leaves sprung from the earth instead of chemicals and synthetics cooked up in a lab.
Here's a quick overview of related medical approaches — all of which incorporate plant-based medicine as is appropriate for the patient:
- Homeopathy holds that the body can heal itself, with a little help from medicines. Typically, homeopaths employ tiny doses of plant- or mineral-based medicines as catalysts for the healing processes.
- Naturopathy uses a wide range of treatment modalities — everything from nutrition to massage to counseling. And, of course, medicinal plants.
- Holistic medicine, functional medicine, lifestyle medicine, integrative medicine. These are similar in many ways and stress treating a whole person rather than just the part of the body that's ailing. They address every dimension of a person’s life (e.g., lifestyle, diet, exercise, occupation, environment, etc.) and strive to diagnose and resolve root causes of illnesses instead of only relieving symptoms.
- Ayurveda and Chinese herbal medicine (Traditional Chinese Medicine) are Eastern systems of medicine that use many different treatment options.
- Aromatherapy uses scented plant oils to effect positive physiological and emotional changes.
- Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is how conventional medicine refers to anything that's outside the very narrowly defined "mainstream." CAM can include things like light therapy, medical or personal-use cannabis (including cannabinoids such as CBD, CBG, CBN, THC, etc.), meditation, yoga, etc.
Age-Old Remedies from Mother Nature
We know — with documented certainty — that our ancestors used plants to address all sorts of physical and mental health issues. People on every continent harnessed the healing powers of their local herbs, flowers, leaves, and so on since before there were "doctors" and "medicines."
According to the U.S. Forest Service, there's proof that plants were used medicinally at least 60,000 years ago.(1) That's pretty mind-blowing!
Hemp oil extracts in a glass jar also known as green oil. For years, humans have cultivated cannabis for its fiber, seeds, and medicinal properties.
How Plant Medicine Can Help Your Health
There’s no one answer to this because each plant and each person is unique. Every flower and root has distinct chemistry and resulting therapeutic potential.
And no two people are alike. Everyone’s body has its own make-up — including an endocannabinoid system (ECS) as personalized as the loops and swirls of your fingerprints — and processes substances in its own way.
So Many Plant Benefits!
- Chamomile has anti-anxiety properties that may help you destress and improve sleep. Scientists are also looking into possible anticancer qualities.
- Cannabis is chock full of healthful compounds. Besides THC and CBD, more than 100 other cannabinoids have been discovered. Not to mention the terpenes, flavonoids, and other nutrients. Each of these substances has its own potential to help your physical, mental, and emotional well-being through balancing your endocannabinoid system...which regulates bodily functions.
- Echinacea is likely a household word these days. It's thought to shorten the duration of cold symptoms. and fortify the immune function.
- Evening primrose oil is reputed to alleviate menstrual-related complaints, pain, MS symptoms, and certain skin conditions.
- Garlic is an antibiotic and antiviral that can give respiratory illnesses a wallop. It's also great for heart health.
- Ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities that benefit a host of health conditions from osteoarthritis to cholesterol levels and beyond. It's also sort of famous as a digestion aid and nausea buster.
- Ginko is used to bolster brain health and is being studied to see if it can play a role in diabetes and bone healing.
- Lavender is known for its calming effects and is also an anti-inflammatory. As such, it may help with stress, blood pressure, and headaches.
- Turmeric is an antioxidant-rich anti-inflammatory that many people with arthritis use to ease joint pain. It's also been proven to help dermatologic and cardiovascular disease. And, it’s even more powerful when combined with black pepper.
- Tea tree oil is a hard-working anti-fungal and antimicrobial agent. It's been assigned to deal with everything from acne to wound care to dandruff to bug bites.
These are but a mere few of the thousands of medicinal plants. There are tons more, probably ones you haven't even heard of before!
And, keep in mind that a lot of plant medicines don't parade around using their original names. The common aspirin and mighty morphine originated from plant sources — willow bark and poppies, respectively.(5)
Plus, it's popular to combine multiple medicinal plants into special formulas targeted at specific outcomes, like weight loss or increased energy or focus.
Now, the different plants and compounds have varying amounts of research into the safety and efficacy. So you really have to investigate each medicinal plant or blend you're considering. Sadly, due to years of marijuana prohibition, the FDA has been slow to evaluate the medical benefits of the cannabis plant — despite widespread acceptance and legalization.
Both natural medicine and pharmaceutical research include how plants can support our health and play a role in the creation of new drugs. New medications sourced from or inspired by plants is constantly evolving. Stay tuned!
A Deeper Look
Plants are full of compounds like vitamins, minerals, and other phytochemicals — over 25,000 of them have been discovered to date!(6) These are what cause the antioxidant and other healthful responses mentioned above.
When you use plant medicines, the plant compounds interact with your tissues (e.g., skin), fluids (e.g., blood), and systems (e.g., circulatory), including your ednocannabinoid system (ECS). These phytocompounds then work with your body to execute some sort of reaction that results in a health benefit. Here’s an illustration of this incredible process:
- You take a dose of CBD. (Those CBD gummies are tasty, so it’s really no bother!)
- The CBD diffuses into your bloodstream, where it engages with your ECS.
- This triggers signals and responses in your body that may reduce inflammation and nurture your gut microbiome.
- When your gut’s in better condition, your digestion might improve.
Easy Does It
One of the other bonuses of plant-based medicine is that treatments usually have fewer or less severe adverse reactions than manufactured drugs.
Because many of the base elements of plant medicines are also food items, we often have a lot more information on their toxicity (or lack thereof) and know their track records as allergens. And, as foods, many of the plants commonly used medicinally are recognized as safe by the FDA.
What else do plant-medicine advocates like about their botanical remedies? They appreciate that plant medicines:
- Have more natural ingredients
- Frequently undergo less processing
- May be less expensive than other treatment alternatives
- May be easier to access than other therapies
Consult with your physician or health care professional about adding CBD to your wellness routine. Functional Medicine and Integrative Medicine Doctors versed in natural and plant based medicine are learning even more about hemp and marijuana plant products with the proliferation of legalization and patient access.
Plant-Based Medicine — Precautions
While plant-based medicine may, in general, be gentler on your body than most pharmaceuticals, you still need to proceed with care.
Possible Downsides of Plant Medicine
Any substance — foods, beverages, medicines, make-up, particles in the air — can cause unintended adverse reactions like:
- Side effects
- Harmful drug interactions
This is why it’s so important to keep your doctor in the loop. If you’re dealing with an everyday wellness issue or a more chronic or severe condition and are interested in natural options, it’s wise to discuss this with your care team.
They’ll be best able to assess your circumstances and let you know critical info about safety and efficacy. (Many plants — used as food or medicinally — are contraindicated for certain health conditions.) Your doc may also provide suggested plant medicines, doses, and resources.
It’s worth mentioning that many plants used medicinally are not FDA cleared or FDA approved for such purposes. Some plant-based or derived products are approved as foods, medicines, or dietary supplements; others aren’t.(7,8)
This doesn’t mean plant-based medicine is unsafe, ineffective, or untrustworthy. It just means that it hasn’t been regulated, yet. It also highlights the importance of securing reputable sources of information and anecdotal experiences.
Regulation is often driven by new research, shifting cultural norms, emerging health imperatives, commercial interest, technological advances, and so on. For better or worse, the laws and regulations surrounding plants used as medicine are ever-changing and not always entirely just.
Unfortunately, this cracks the door wide open for consumer confusion and creates a knowledge void. And it puts the responsibility to sort it all out squarely on your shoulders. However, awareness of the regulatory landscape is half the battle!
How To Get Started with Plant Medicine
You’ll want to begin by assessing your current health and your wellness goals. This way, you’ll have a benchmark and target by which to gauge your success.
We always advise checking in with your healthcare provider prior to starting a new medical regimen or self-care overhaul. Especially for those who’re:
- Addressing a health condition
- Children (under 18/under 21 for cannabis)
- Grappling with multiple or complex wellness concerns
- Pregnant or nursing
- Taking over-the-counter or prescription medications
- Taking supplements
That said, so long as not contraindicated (best evaluated by a healthcare professional), adults may opt to dabble in the world of plant-based medicine. If this sounds like you, we suggest that you do your research before buying or using plant medicines. A little due diligence can go a long way!
Here are some quick tips to guide you:
- Gather info from a variety of quality sources.
- Read the product labels and evaluate the ingredients’ quality and purity.
- For cannabis products, validate the composition and purity by examining the test results in the product's certificate of analysis.
- Only use the highest-caliber and independently lab-tested products.
- Only buy from a reputable retailer.
- Look for social proof (e.g., ratings, reviews, testimonials, case studies, online presence) that the plant-medicine, product, and seller are legit. (And then take what you find with a big grain of salt — or shall we say sand!)
It may take some trial and error to find natural solutions that work for you. So, have a little patience. It’s also a good idea to keep a diary or log of the plant medicines you’re trying and how you feel before and after usage. This will help you measure results.
Grow Your Know & Appreciation for Plant-Based Medicine
Plant-based medicine uses botanicals — herbs, flowers, leaves, bark, etc. — as treatments to address health concerns.
While plant-centric, standard medical treatments are still used as needed and can be very helpful as an adjunct therapy. (For example, many people with chronic pain have reported reduced dependence on opioids after adding cannabis to their pain management regimen.)
Plant-based medicine has many potential benefits for your health. It can help you work towards specific goals — like losing weight or reducing your risk of heart disease — as well broader objectives like improving your overall health.
However, it's important to consult a doctor before taking any plant-based medicine to make sure it's safe for you. Just as with pharmaceuticals, there are risks associated with some plant-based medicine, such as the potential for adverse reactions from supplements and herbs.
If you're trying to address any health conditions or are looking for more natural ways to support your general well-being, consider incorporating plant medicine into your self-care protocol. Go ahead — nurture your “bee leaf” in plant power!
FAQs Buzzin’ Through the Hive
What is plant-based medicine?
In the simplest terms, plant-based medicine is a healthcare approach that uses plants to prevent or treat disease or maintain or boost wellness.
What are the benefits of plant-based medicine as compared to traditional (Western) medicine?
Both “regular” and plant medicine approaches can be effective. But, plant medicines are more natural and tend to be associated with having fewer and less severe side effects. They may also be more affordable and more accessible than pharmaceuticals.
Is plant-based medicine “real” medicine?
A resounding YES to that question! Using botanicals as medicine is probably as old as mankind and is the foundation of modern pharmaceutical products. You can find records dating back thousands of years that give evidence of plants — like cannabis! — being used for everything from cancer to labor pains. Furthermore, many of the manufactured drugs stocking the pharmacy shelves are derived from plants or synthesized to mimic plant mechanisms or chemistry. Lastly, there are formal training programs and accreditation for doctors, herbalists, naturopaths, medicinal botanists, and similar occupations.(9,10,11)
Is plant-based medicine just for people?
No! Other animals benefit from plant medicine as well, whether they’re wild critters consuming the biomass directly from nature’s buffet or in the form of pills, balms, or drops you give to your pets. In fact, all animals — with the exception of insects — have endocannabinoid systems.
Watch & Learn Even More
- 2022. Medicinal Botany. Fs.fed.us. 2022. https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/medicinal/index.shtml
- Deering, S. 2019. Nature’s 9 Most Powerful Medicinal Plants and the Science behind Them. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/most-powerful-medicinal-plants
- Vickers, A. 2001. Herbal Medicine. Western Journal of Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1136/ewjm.175.2.125
- 2021. Herbal medicine. Better Health Channel. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/herbal-medicine
- 2015. This List of Plant-Derived Medicines May Surprise You. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/drugs-and-medicine-made-from-plants-608413
- Metcalf, E. 2012. Phytonutrients. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/diet/guide/phytonutrients-faq
- 2020. Guidance on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Products. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/regulatory-information/search-fda-guidance-documents/complementary-and-alternative-medicine-products-and-their-regulation-food-and-drug-administration
- 2018. Regulatory - Natural Products Association. Natural Products Association. https://www.npanational.org/regulatory
- Edwards, M. 2021. How Wayne States Medical School Became the First in the U.S. To Require Plant-Based Nutrition Education. Forks over Knives. https://www.forksoverknives.com/wellness/how-wayne-states-medical-school-became-the-first-in-the-u-s-to-require-plant-based-nutrition-education
- Dreher, A. 2022. What Is Naturopathy – and Who Is Allowed to Practice It in Washington State? The Spokesman-Review. https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2022/feb/02/what-is-naturopathy-and-who-is-allowed-to-practice
- 2018. MEDICINAL PLANTS Cornell Certificate Program. ECornell. https://ecornell.cornell.edu/certificates/healthcare/medicinal-plants