Role of phytochemicals in healthcare system

Medicinal plants are a significant source of synthetic and herbal drugs in India and China and have been on the forefront when one refers to phyto drugs. The traditional systems of medicines: Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani, Western Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Homeopathy have roots in medicinal herbs. A number of distinguished researchers have dealt with herbal medicine and due to its accessibility to traditions; it is still practiced even by lay practitioners.

Sterneur isolated morphine from Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and showed the medical profession that certain phytochemicals produced in plant cells are responsible for pharmacological activity. Later, other alkaloids isolated from opium poppy were investigated for their pharmacological activities. Codeine showed antitussive activity and papaverine antispasmodic activity. The opium based extracts have been utilized for various pharmacological activities, and a number of alkaloids distributed in the plant have different pharmacological activities.

Scientific validation of phytodrugs has been always questioned, but with recent advances and publication of clinical trials, the researchers and the public are viewing herbal products with more of an open mind. In the commercial market, medicinal herbs are used as raw drugs, extracts or tinctures. Isolated active constituents are used for applied research. There has been a dramatic rise in the sale of phyto products like Allium sativum, Hypericum perforatum, Spirulina, Echinacea angustifolia, Ginkgo biloba and Silybum marianum.

Among phytochemicals distributed in plants, flavonoids sterols and xanthones are of particular interest for a wide range of medicinal activities. Recently several research papers have been published favoring efficacy of these specialty phytochemicals as medicinal agents (see the table below).

Table 6.3 Number of recent publications on flavonoids, sterols and xanthones.

S.no

Class of flavonoids

Number of publications

1.

Epigallocatechin gallate

433,000

2.

Epigallocatechins

1,180

3.

Polyphenols

1.920,000

4.

Proanthocyanidins

446,000

5.

Pycogenol

1,850

6.

Sterols

1,870,000

7.

Xanthones

2,73,000

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