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What is Plant Medicine? A Guide in 4 Answers

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Depending on the corner of internet that the algorithm sweeps you, plant medicine can mean a few things. Here is how I have come to frame the answers.

(1) Plant Medicine Therapy — Psychedelics in the Biomedical sphere


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In recent news, medical, business conversations, it predominately includes a the broad category of pscyhedelic compounds being used for clinical treatment —compounds like psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, iboga. (Psilocybin predominantly derives from members of the fungal kingdom not plant and ketamine is a synthetic, which already reveals the fuzziness of terminology ). In the last decade, well-done clinical trials and observation studies have shown immense potential for treating depression, PTSD and addiction with some of these substances.

(They had shown similar promise in the last “renaissance” of medical research in the 1950s and 60s but this was abruptly halted by the “War on Drugs” which classified several of these compounds as Schedule I, which led to elimination of federal funding for this research, but this is a story for another day)

The emergence of robust data from academic research studies has led to a modern psychedelic therapy movements using psychotherapy and other mental health treatment modalities— some supervised and some not. Additionally multiple biotech companies are investing, examining and testing these compounds as pharmaceutical products for targeted treatments. The unsupervised use has also expanded into non-pharma commercial spaces.

(2) Psychedelic Plant Medicine — Healing Traditions of Indigenous Communities

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But much before this, plant medicine ceremony was a way to describe how these substances in some form or another have been used in multiple indigenous communities on every continent for thousands if not tens of thousands of years. The contexts are specific and the specificity matters — but at least in many recorded histories, hallucinogenic plants and mushrooms were often used in the context of health and spiritual practice (which were not usually distinguished, in the larger world outside Cartesian dualism) — to find the gods, reflect on mortality, mark the milestones of life, and heal suffering.

(The brutal colonization, murder, theft and attempted systemic destruction of many of these indigenous communities while then extracting and profiting from their knowledge is also a story for another day but one that fundamentally frames how to think about this field)

(3) Plant Medicine beyond the Hallucinogenic as “Natural Medicine”

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People may discuss plant medicine as that which is more immediately derived from plants (or fungi) without much processing. Sometimes it is used as term to contrast with “medications” or “pharmaceuticals” — as something more “natural” and (incorrectly) thought to be intrinsically less risk or have fewer side effects. Several have robust clinical evidence have shown effectiveness of these herbs for ailments (garlic for reducing cholesterol, saw palmetto for prostatic hyperplasia, St. John’s Wort for mild-moderate depression). But many do not, or have unpredictable side effects, or may be packaged with harmful contaminants in this unregulated industry.

But more broadly, plant medicine study can be empowering and allow for healing reconnection with the natural world and our histories. Herb gardens, dried teas, poultices are familiar to most people. People grow or purchase plants and fungi and animal parts for cooking, pleasure, beauty as well as medicinal treatment. Sometimes the use is wrapped up in family, cultural or personal rituals and traditions.

There is a lot to say about the role of this “everyday” medicine has in our daily lives, as well as the binary of “natural” as a contrast with “processed,” or “modern,” also for another day.

(4) Plant Medicine as…Medicine (the Root of It)

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There is also the larger context that essentially all of our medicines derive from the natural world (plants, fungi, animals). Even the medical marvels of synthetic compounds are either copies of the naturally occurring substance or rearranged from the building blocks of organic materials. The natural sources of our medicines can be more apparent in systems like traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic medicine, in which the treatments are still resemble their sources and might be less processed. But it is no less true for biomedical pharmaceuticals. Examples:

Aspirin, or salicylic acid, which is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDS) used for pain, inflammation and even the prevention of strokes and heart attacks — derives from the bark of the willow tree (as well as a few others)

Quinine a long standing anti-malarial drug and that I prescribed for babesiosis while in the Northeastern US, derives from Cinchona clisaya tree. The medicine was used by the Quechua tribe in the Amazon, observed by the Jesuits, who then brought it back to Europe.

Penicillin our first tolerable antibiotics (treating syphilis with mercury did not go well) and mother of the beta-lactam antibiotics which are still some of our most powerful weapons against microbes, was isolated by Alexander Fleming from bread mold

Paclitaxel is a powerful chemotherapy that derives from the North American Pacific Yew tree bark. The trees were nearly wiped out in the attempt to harvest the drug, which required killing the tree. The drug is now “semisynthesized” using liquid plant cultures.

This a brief sampling to show that all of our pharmaceuticals are fundamentally still “plant medicines,” that modern biomedicine still is part of traditions that stretches tens of thousands of years of humans collaborating with the other lifeforms on this Earth. Which is not to say that pharmaceutical companies industrializing these medicines on a massive scale for profit and sequestering and balkanizing knowledge through intellectual property laws have not had dire consequences.

In addition to the binaries of “natural”/“plant-based” with “medicine”/”pharmaceutical” there is are also other binaries made apparent — mental versus physical health, spiritual versus health, pleasure versus treatment. I hope to continue to parse out this landscape.

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