By Alixandra Laub Plant life represents more than 98% of the earth’s total biomass. The diversity of plants across the world allows us to apply them to about every area of life, even when we are not noticing. We rely on plants for oxygen, food, shelter, industrial products, clothing, warmth, medicine, and more. Human […]
By Alixandra Laub
Plant life represents more than 98% of the earth’s total biomass. The diversity of plants across the world allows us to apply them to about every area of life, even when we are not noticing. We rely on plants for oxygen, food, shelter, industrial products, clothing, warmth, medicine, and more. Human existence depends on these pretty little living beings and we are not so different from plants afterall. According to Dr. Joseph Pizzorno, “human beings are natural organisms. Our genomes are developed and expressed in the natural world. The patterns and processes inherent in nature are inherent in us.” Both plants and humans rely on water, nutrients, and vitamins to convert and release energy. In both cases, our genes dictate our hormones and our growth and maturity depends on cell division. Both plants and humans partake in a circadian rhythm coordinated by their surroundings. While plants do not move voluntarily like humans, plants make movements to maximize efficiency of water, nutrient or light uptake by functionally shifting and nodding, twining, or contracting. These elements dictate each plant’s unique personality in the way they grow, shape, and form. As such important, unique living beings, what is not to love about them?
Plants as Medicine
Studies have shown meaningful physiological effects of just being around plants. It is believed that these effects are achieved by simply breathing in nature and inhaling the naturally occurring plant compounds. Many countries have adopted forest therapy as a positive psychological and physiological benefit to humans. In Germany, there has been great success with their version of forest therapy, called Kneipp therapy. In Japan forest therapy is called Shinrinyoku which means, “taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing.” Actually, the major phytochemicals of the forest atmosphere are terpenes, which are the largest class of organic compounds with more than 40,000 creating each plant’s unique fingerprint. In Tahoe, surrounded by conifers, the forest contains phytochemicals rich in pinene, limonene, and caryophyllene among others, which have been shown to be great for the respiratory system, the brain, and general inflammation.
Great power and great healing takes place when we look into the world of plants for some of today’s complaints. In the 1700s, all doctors were gardeners and botanists because most medicine was made directly from plants. In America today, conventional medicine aims to diagnose and treat a particular disease or condition, typically using a one size fits all approach. However, plants are still considered the most consistent sources for the discovery of new drugs. In fact, all medicine came from plants, fungi, or bacteria. Though health is not just the absence of disease, but rather the ability for our mind and body to be functioning at an optimal level. In alternative medicine, an herbalist or holistic health practitioner searches for the cause of the symptoms at many physical, emotional, and spiritual levels to create an individualized plan using natural, un-invasive modalities. Though plant medicine is not always suitable for every condition or situation, clients who use alternative medicine often see positive results on overall health and wellness, in particular improvements in fatigue and energy, pain, inflammation, digestion, mental and emotional function.
Outside of the United States, many countries rely on herbal medicine as a part of standard healthcare. Thousands of years of practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) created different versions such as Kampo in Japan, Ayurvedic in India, Jamu in Indonesia, and Hanyak in Korea. The differences of herbs, beliefs, and custom was mostly decided by the bioavailability of plants in the region. Herbal medicine is still a part of everyday life and important in healthcare in New Zealand, African, South American, Eastern Mediterranean, and European regions.
Beyond using plants for medicine and healthcare, one of my favorite ways to integrate more herbs is to use more plants when cooking. Not just veggies though, heavily integrating the tiny bottles of flavor blasters we shake over our food to make it taste exciting. So many of the common herbs and spices used for cooking, like ginger, garlic, turmeric, parsley, basil, fennel, and thyme, are combined in higher doses in herbal medicine. Some of the more uncommon herbs like ashwagandha, dandelion leaf, and medicinal mushrooms like shiitake, lions mane, and maike are powerhouses that make great additions to dishes. Looking for desert recipes? Licorice root is 30-50 times sweeter than sugar and is a diverse medicinal plant, covering a wide range of benefits.
Plants in Products
The mass production of synthetic ingredients used in skincare products is damaging to human health and the environment. Although humans have almost always been exposed to chemicals, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a public report in 2008 indicating that the increase of industrialization has “dramatically changed the quality and the quantity of human exposures.” Certain chemicals added to everyday products have been shown to cause allergies, irritations, endocrine disruption, cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity. A known carcinogen called 1,4-Dioxane has been added to as many as 22% of cosmetic products. This chemical has been directly linked to cancer. The FDA does not require manufacturers to add the chemical on the ingredient list, making it difficult to avoid. Harmful chemical preservatives like butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) have been linked to organ-system toxicity and cancer. Products containing these chemicals include but are not limited to sunscreen, hair and nail products, makeup, fragrance, dental hygiene, skincare, and anti-aging products.
The EPA website suggests purchasing green products to reduce toxic exposures, air pollution, water pollution, climate change, and waste disposal and provides information on safer ingredients. Evidence shows that chemicals like Triclosan, a strong antibacterial, have been added to soaps and detergents introduced in the ‘70s. Since, it has been found that the chemical enters the water supply, killing algae, crustaceans, and fish.
Surrounding yourself with house plants (from your local nursery) will not only bring life into your space, but many plants can be useful for air purification. Speaking of space, in 1989 NASA cleared a number of plants that demonstrated the ability to filter potentially toxic organic chemicals to use on the space stations. Some of these plants include heart leaf (P. oxycardium) and elephant ear (P. domesticum) philodendron, golden pothos (S. aureus), and spider plants (C. elatum).
Environmental Protection Agency. (2017). Why Buy Greener Products? Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/greenerproducts/why-buy-greener-products
Jiang T. A. (2019). Health Benefits of Culinary Herbs and Spices. Journal of AOAC International.1;102(2):395-411. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5740/jaoacint.18-0418
Pizzorno, J. E., & Murray, M. T. (2013). Textbook of natural medicine.
Marieb, E. & Hoehn, K. (2018). Human anatomy & physiology (11th ed). Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN: 9780134756363
Safe cosmetics. (2020). Chemicals of concern. Retrieved from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chem-of-concern/
Wolverton, B. C., Douglas, W., Stennis, J., & Bounds, K. (1989). As study of interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement. NASA. Retireved from https://archive.org/details/nasa_techdoc_19930072988/mode/2up