Have you ever been told to have a drink of green tea at the early signs of a cold or flu? Or to rub aloe vera gel on a burn to heal it faster? These popular recommendations go much deeper than simple tradition.
What is it that gives these plants the power to heal? Modern scientific research has come a long way with uncovering how and why these simple recommendations work. When we combine this research with traditional insights, it becomes clear that plants have something real to offer.
What is the Power of Plants?
The power of plants is certainly an interesting topic and is something we as humans have acknowledged from the very beginning.
Early shamanistic healing practices explained a plant's power as a spirit living within the plant itself.
Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicines suggest that the power of plants come from their innate qualities like hot or cold, wet or dry. They use these qualities to balance the body's systems.
Homeopathy describes the “vital force” of plants and use this to promote healing. Whether for healing or food, plants have always played a central role in human development no matter how we describe where this power comes from.
In today's technology and science-driven world, scientists are looking deeper than we ever have before to discover the true power of plants. As new techniques are developed, we are painting an ever clearer picture of the composition and characteristics of plants. Many modern practitioners recognize the power of a plant as what is contained in its chemical makeup.
Aside from a few strains of bacteria, plants are the only organisms on earth that have the ability to take the sun's energy, convert it into a molecule, and store it in a usable form. This process is called photosynthesis and is one of the most important chemical processes taking place on the entire planet.
Using this stored energy, plants build their structures using the essential chemicals of life. They take carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, and numerous other minerals to create its structures. When we eat plants, we are in effect consuming all of these minerals, elements, and stored energy in a useable form.
In this way, the power of plants as food comes down to its chemistry as well. Whether sugar, protein, or fat, the source of energy is a molecule designed and built by the plant itself.
Plants have been used as medicine since the early stages of human development. Generally, when a plant is used for its medicinal components it is termed a “herb”. They are like little chemical factories. They take in the raw materials; light, water, minerals, and CO2, and convert them into an array of different chemicals. Some of these chemicals are key principles for nutrition like the energy-storing sugars and fats, the all important amino acids, as well as a nearly unlimited array of other chemicals that can exert either a medicinal, neutral, or toxic effect on the body.
The Power of Plants is Contained Within its Phytochemicals
A chemical manufactured by a plant is known as a phytochemical. This stems from the latin word phyto, which means plant. Many modern herbalists and natural practitioners consider the “power” of a plant to be contained in its phytochemical makeup.
In modern times, there is a lot of research looking into the mechanisms behind the various phytochemicals present in nature. Researchers are interested in understanding what it is that makes a plant medicinal or nutritious, and how we can use it more effectively to promote healing and overall wellbeing. As these chemicals become better understood, we are beginning to learn why many of the traditional recommendations for these plants actually work, and how we can make them work even better.
You probably know some of these phytochemicals
One of the most well-known classes of phytochemicals are the alkaloids.
These can be further classified into all kinds of more chemically-specific and equally complex sounding chemical groups. A good example of this is a class of alkaloids known as the xanthine alkaloids such as caffeine and theobromine. These alkaloids are found in many species of plants spread the world over, but the most famous examples are tea (Camellia sinensis) and coffee (Coffea arabica).
The phytochemical, caffeine, works mainly by causing a stimulating effect on the central nervous system, which is what gives you that sensation of focus and alertness.
On the opposite spectrum, the well known alkaloid morphine, which you may know as the powerful painkiller often given after surgery in hospitals, is actually extracted from plants.
A morphine molecule works by physically blocking your body's pain receptors so that it cannot deliver the message of “pain” to the brain. Thus the sensation of pain disappears!
Alkaloids are just one class of powerful phytochemicals found in the plant world, other famous examples are the free-radical scavenging “polyphenols”, the aromatic “terpenes”, and the blood cleansing “saponins”.
We need oxygen to survive. It plays a crucial role in our mitochondria's ability to turn sugar and fat into the energy we use to run, talk, chew, digest, and any other activity we do throughout the day. The problem is that oxygen has a destructive influence on our cells as a side effect.
Have you ever heard of the term free radicals? Well, oxygen is the king of free radicals. It is not the strongest, but it is by far the most common.
Think of oxygen as greedy, it’s always looking for new additions to its structure which we call electrons. If it cannot find another atom that offers the exact amount of electrons it needs, it will steal them from the atoms making up different parts of your cells.
If this happens too often, it will cause the cell to fall apart and die.
When you consider the amount of oxygen we breath in and out each day for the duration of our lifetime, this can have a profound effect on the cells within the body.
The answer to this problem is antioxidants. Our bodies produce a few of these chemicals on our own, but it is not enough to keep tabs on the huge amounts of oxygen floating around in our cells.
Plants produce a lot of antioxidant chemicals that can be delivered to the cells directly from the digestive system. These chemicals work by finding oxygen and other electron stealing free radicals and gives them exactly what they need from its own chemical structure.
In effect, they neutralize all the nasty cell destroying free radicals by satisfying their greed for subatomic particles. This prevents them from stealing pieces from our cells instead.
It is easy to consume antioxidants from plants, as they are chalked full of them. Plants have become exceptionally good at releasing antioxidants into its own tissues to prevent this sort of damage from occurring to itself.
Without a doubt, one of the most interesting classes of plants, and the best examples of the incredible power plants contain within their roots, leaves, and seeds are the adaptogens.
This class of herb is defined as producing a general balancing and health promoting action on the body. They are especially interesting because they do not have just one mechanism of action. Instead, they tend to work in a broader sense for a much larger variety of diseases and disorders.
Have you ever seen those infographics on Pinterest, or those herbal product ads suggesting the benefits of a certain plant where the list seems to go on forever? How can one plant offer so many benefits, especially when many of these benefits seem totally unrelated? The answer is that the herb is most likely an adaptogen.
They really do offer such a broad level of support to the body that they have been found useful for a long list of different conditions.
Some work by influencing areas of the brain that control homeostasis, some are powerful antioxidants, and others replenish the body's neurotransmitters and messenger molecules so that it can better communicate within itself to oversee and manage healing and repair.
The power of plants runs deep, but our understanding of this power still has a long way to go. Modern analytical techniques, combined with traditional insights have helped us theorize and test where this power truly comes from and how we can best put it to use.
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