Plants as Food AND Medicine?

The dividing line between “food” and “medicine” may not always be clear. Are lemons, papayas, onions, and oats food or medicine? What about turmeric, kelp or burdock root? In many instances they are both. Herbal remedies only really come into their own once the distinction between food and “medicine” are removed.
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Or perhaps the intersection of culture and science?

The huuman body is much better suited to treatment with herbal remedies than with isolated chemical treatments. Our species evolved side-by-side with plants over hundreds of thousands of years, and our digestive system and physiology are geared to digesting and utilizing some plant-based foods, which often have a medicinal value as well as providing sustenance.

The dividing line between “food” and “medicine” may not always be clear. Are lemons, papayas, onions, and oats food or medicine? What about turmeric, kelp or burdock root? In many instances they are both. Herbal remedies only really come into their own once the distinction between food and “medicine” are removed.

Throughout our blog, FAQ and product information panels you will notice that we often refer to active components (plant constituents or the chemistry of the plants); whether in food, fruit, veggies or herbs. Herbology has been hailed as quackery for many decades, it is only recently that active constituents responsible for the medicinal actions of plants (fruits, veggies and / or herbs) have been isolated and observed, so much so that whole fields of study has evolved called pharmacognosy (the study of plants or other natural sources as possible sources of drugs) and zoopharmacognosy (the study of non-human animal behaviour in self-medication using plants). Curcumin in turmeric is what helps to counter or manage inflammation. Piperine in pepper helps to activate curcumin in turmeric, increasing its bioavailability during intake. The adult monarch butterflies preferentially lay their eggs on toxic plants such as milkweed which reduce parasite growth and disease in their offspring caterpillars. The compounds found in plants are of many kinds, but most are in four major biochemical classes: alkaloids, glycosides, polyphenols, and terpenes. Knowing a little about the chemicals contained in plants helps you to understand how they work within the body.


All plants produce chemical compounds which give them an evolutionary advantage, such as defending against herbivores or, in the example of salicylic acid, as a hormone in plant defences. These phytochemicals have potential for use as drugs, and the content and known pharmacological activity of these substances in medicinal plants is the scientific basis for their use in modern medicine, if scientifically confirmed. For instance, daffodils (Narcissus) contain nine groups of alkaloids including galantamine, licensed for use against Alzheimer’s disease. The alkaloids are bitter-tasting and toxic, and concentrated in the parts of the plant such as the stem most likely to be eaten by herbivores; they may also protect against parasites.

Even more interestingly, plant chemistry includes the miracle of photosynthesis, plant respiration, structure, growth, development, and reproduction. Much of the chemical basis of life is common to both plants, mutts, pups, nobles, masters, muggles and huumans. In essence, the whole of the plant must be respected as an integrated biologically evolved unit that is beyond the analytical comprehension of science.

  • Acids
  • Alcohols
  • Carbohydrates
  • Phenols & phenolic glycosides
  • Tannins
  • Coumarins & their glycosides
  • Anthraquinones & their glycosides
  • Flavones & Flavonoid glycosides
  • Volatile Oils
  • Saponins
  • Cardioactive glycosides
  • Cyanogenic glycosides
  • “Bitter Principles”
  • Alkaloids

We discuss but a few below.


Alkaloids are bitter-tasting chemicals, very widespread in nature, and often toxic, found in many medicinal plants. There are several classes with different modes of action as drugs, both recreational and pharmaceutical. Alkaloids (Wikipedia) are a class of naturally occurring organic compounds that mostly contain basic nitrogen atoms. In addition to carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, alkaloids may also contain oxygen, sulfur and, more rarely, other elements such as chlorine, bromine, and phosphorus. Alkaloids are produced by a large variety of organisms including bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. Depending on the type of plants, the maximum concentration is observed in the leaves (black henbane), fruits or seeds (Strychnine tree), root (Rauwolfia serpentina) or bark (cinchona). The role of alkaloids for living organisms that produce them is still unclear. It was initially assumed that the alkaloids are the final products of nitrogen metabolism in plants, as urea in mammals. It was later shown that alkaloid concentration varies over time, and this hypothesis was refuted. Several plants are suggested to also produce alkaloids as venom components; however, the exact biosynthesis pathways have not been empirically demonstrated. Medicines of different classes include atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine (all from nightshade), the traditional medicine berberine (from plants such as Berberis and Mahonia), caffeine (Coffea), cocaine (Coca), ephedrine (Ephedra), morphine (opium poppy), nicotine (tobacco), reserpine (Rauwolfia serpentina), quinidine and quinine (Cinchona), vincamine (Vinca minor), and vincristine (Catharanthus roseus), to name but a few.


In chemistry, a glycoside is a molecule in which a sugar is bound to another functional group via a glycosidic bond. Glycosides play numerous important roles in living organisms. Many plants store chemicals in the form of inactive glycosides. These can be activated by enzyme hydrolysis, which causes the sugar part to be broken off, making the chemical available for use. Many such plant glycosides are used as medications. Several species of Heliconius butterfly can incorporate these plant compounds as a form of chemical defense against predators. In animals and humans, poisons are often bound to sugar molecules as part of their elimination from the body. Anthraquinone glycosides are found in medicinal plants such as rhubarb, cascara, and Alexandrian senna. Plant-based laxatives made from such plants include senna, rhubarb and Aloe. The cardiac glycosides are powerful drugs from medicinal plants including foxglove and lily of the valley. They include digoxin and digitoxin which support the beating of the heart, and act as diuretics.


Polyphenols of several classes are widespread in plants, having diverse roles in defences against plant diseases and predators. They include hormone-mimicking phytoestrogens and astringent tannins. Plants containing phytoestrogens have been administered for centuries for gynecological disorders, such as fertility, menstrual, and menopausal problems. Among these plants are Pueraria mirifica, kudzu, angelica, fennel, and anise.

Many polyphenolic extracts, such as from grape seeds, olives or maritime pine bark, are sold as dietary supplements and cosmetics without proof or legal health claims for beneficial health effects. In Ayurveda, the astringent rind of the pomegranate, containing polyphenols called punicalagins, is used as a medicine.

Phenolic acids, such as rosmarinic acid, are strongly antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and can also have antiviral properties. Phenol derived from thyme, called thymol, have been found to be highly effective in reducing the minimum inhibitory concentration of several antibiotics against zoonotic pathogens and food spoilage bacteria.


Terpenes and terpenoids of many kinds are found in a variety of medicinal plants, and in resinous plants such as the conifers. They are strongly aromatic and serve to repel herbivores. Their scent makes them useful in essential oils, whether for perfumes such as rose and lavender, or for aromatherapy. Some have medicinal uses: for example, thymol is an antiseptic and was once used as a vermifuge (anti-worm medicine).


Medicinal plants, also called medicinal herbs, have been discovered and used in traditional medicine practices since prehistoric times. Plants synthesize hundreds of chemical compounds for functions including defence against insects, fungi, diseases, and herbivorous mammals. Numerous phytochemicals with potential or established biological activity have been identified. However, since a single plant contains widely diverse phytochemicals, the effects of using a whole plant as medicine are uncertain. Further, the phytochemical content and pharmacological actions, if any, of many plants having medicinal potential remain unassessed by rigorous scientific research to define efficacy and safety.

The earliest historical records of herbs are found from the Sumerian civilisation, where hundreds of medicinal plants including opium are listed on clay tablets. The Ebers Papyrus from ancient Egypt, c. 1550 BC, describes over 850 plant medicines. The Greek physician Dioscorides, who worked in the Roman army, documented over 1000 recipes for medicines using over 600 medicinal plants in De materia medica, c. 60 AD; this formed the basis of pharmacopoeias for some 1500 years. Drug research makes use of ethnobotany to search for pharmacologically active substances in nature and has in this way discovered hundreds of useful compounds. These include the common drugs aspirin, digoxin, quinine, and opium.

Not all safe for us or our fur kids, but you get the jist. Dr Marisa Marciano maintain a fantastic blog titled The Naturopathic Herbalist for further reading and learning.

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