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Ethnopharmacology: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Ethnopharmacology studies natural medicines derived from plants and other substances that have been traditionally used by groups of people to treat various human diseases. In this lesson, learn more about this incredibly important science!

What is Ethnopharmacology?

Over 5000 years ago in Sumeria, a man lies in his bed with a broken leg. He is in a lot of pain and needs to sleep so his leg can start to heal. Luckily, he manages to get some medicine derived from a common flower, which is known to him as the 'joy flower'. He takes it, and soon his pain decreases and he begins to feel better. Today, we call the Sumerian 'joy flower' the opium poppy, and we still use it to make medicines to ease pain.

The common pain killer, morphine, is derived from the opium poppy, and it also can be used to make drugs such as heroin and codeine. While the famous opium poppy has certainly proven to be extremely important in medicine, it's far from the only plant to have medicinal properties. For thousands of years, people have used naturally occurring plants, including the opium poppy, to treat diseases and relieve pain.

Many of the medicines we rely on today, from aspirin to morphine to the anti-cancer drug, Taxol, were derived from plants. The cross-cultural study of medicines derived from naturally occurring substances like plants and fungi is known as ethnopharmacology. Although these plants have often been used in traditional medicine for many, many years, there is still a lot to learn from them.

Poppy flowers, like this one, have been used to produce pain relieving drugs for thousands of years.
A red poppy flower

Examples of Drugs Developed from Ethnopharmacology

Pain killing drugs like morphine and aspirin, which was originally derived from the bark of willow trees, are some of the most well known plant derived medicines that ethnopharmacology has given us. However, they are far from the only modern medicines that have been derived from naturally occurring substances.

Another important plant-derived drug is digitalis, which comes from the foxglove plant. It is still used to treat heart failure even today. The remarkable properties of the foxglove plant were first discovered by the medical establishment in 1785, but they had been known to certain groups of people long before this.

How did we come to learn about digitalis? It's a very interesting story, that begins in 1775. In that year, a Scottish doctor named William Withering had a very sick patient. After diagnosing him with a severe heart condition, he told the patient that there was nothing more he could do for him and he was likely to die soon. The desperate patient, unwilling to accept the diagnosis of his doctor, decided to buy a cure from a local gypsy healer. To the surprise of Dr. Withering, the gypsy's treatment actually worked and the patient started getting better!

Dr. Withering managed to find the gypsy and convince her to give him the recipe for her miraculous 'cure'. It turned out that the active ingredient was an extract from the foxglove plant. Withering launched a scientific trial of this new medicine. After treating 163 patients with foxglove extract prepared in various ways, he decided that it was most effective when he gave patients doses of dried, powdered foxglove leaves. He began regularly using this new, extremely effective medicine in 1785. Even today, medicines extracted from the foxglove plant are still very commonly used to control heart rates and treat heart failure.

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is another plant that has been used by people for centuries and has many medicinal properties.
Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is another plant that has been used for centuries and has many medicinal properties.

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