A pharmacologist today may regard traditional and plant medicine as primitive, and may entirely disregard thousands of years of use and thousands of modern-day testimonies of positive outcomes because it has not been through the rigors of hard science. On the other hand, the massive spread of anti-science misinformation has cast sometimes unreasonable doubt on modern medicine, a doubt often tinged with drug snobbery to the tune of, “My plant medicine is better than your prescription drug”.
In the past few decades, many Westerners have been turning toward traditional or plant medicine. This phenomenon is not entirely due to the misinformation of snake oil salesmen. Americans face the most expensive healthcare in the world despite having poorer outcomes than other advanced nations (Nunn et al., 2020). As hospitals and healthcare organizations expand into behemoth empires, and more and more Americans go bankrupt from being sick (Watson, 2019), trust in the healthcare system erodes (Sweeney, 2018). In a hysterical over-reaction to the opioid crisis, physicians en masse have been implementing a new crisis by refusing to prescribe pain medication for fear of losing their DEA license to prescribe controlled substances, even in cases where the patient is in extreme chronic pain or dying of cancer. Many of these tortured pain patients are turning to suicide (Kline & Lamb, 2018). Many others are turning to street opioids or kratom.
The business of modern healthcare and not the science is turning people off.
Another reason Westerners are turning to herbs, plants, and traditional medicine is that this approach often works, either on its own or alongside today’s medical technology.
Human use of plants for medicinal purposes goes back 60,000 years. The Chinese were the first to develop a science around plant medicine, and even used the equivalent of “clinical trials” that we are expecting will happen with kratom science in the near future. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is about 5,000 years old (past KratomScience guest and kratom advocate Nina Ajdin has seen a TCM practitioner for topical steroid withdrawal). The Greek Unani practice goes back 2,500 years. The Japanese Kampo is 1,500 years old. The majority of the world uses some form of Traditional Medicine to this day. Such medical practices created the building blocks of modern medicine. (Yuan et al., 2016).
Though the first synthetic drug, chloral hydrate, was not discovered until 1869 (Jones, 2011), the advent of modern drugs made from isolated alkaloids began around the time morphine was isolated from the opium poppy in 1805. With the development of synthetics, plant-derived medicines took a back seat. Yet, drug developers continue to rely heavily upon plants. “Among anticancer drugs approved in the time frame of about 1940–2002, approximately 54% were derived natural products or drugs inspired from knowledge related to such” (Yuan et al., 2016).
A recent study shows that two of the 40 diverse kratom alkaloids, mitragynine and speciociliatine, when combined with the chemotherapy drug cisplatin, can increase toxic effects on nasopharyngeal carcinoma (throat cancer) cell lines, thus enhancing the effectiveness of the chemo. Another kratom alkaloid, paynantheine, was not effective in combination with cisplatin (Dominic et al., 2021). Weather the diverse alkaloids that come from consuming the whole plant would be just as effective combined with chemo, or only the isolated mitragynine and speciociliatine, remains to be seen with further research.
Other plant-derived compounds have been shown to act as chemosensitizers, including curcumin (derived from turmeric) and Teng-Long-Bu-Zhong-Tang, a TCM herbal formula (Lin et al., 2019).
CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids are being studied for their effects alone or in combination with other drugs and therapies on multiple types of cancer. In one study on glioblastoma, researchers wrote, “treatment of human GBM by the triple combination (CBD, γ-irradiation and KU60019) could significantly increase cell death levels in vitro and potentially improve the therapeutic ratio of GBM” (Ivanov et al., 2019) (KU60019 is a kinase inhibitor drug used to fight cancer, and y-irradiation is radiation treatment.) Cannabis is well-known to help cancer and AIDS patients by elevating mood, aiding in sleep, and increasing appetite.
While we wait for the science on plant medicine, thousands of people are experiencing mostly positive outcomes with plants like kratom and other herbs. These stories cannot be discounted. For example, in an unpublished anecdotal case from this spring, my wife consumed kratom tea (extracted from 6 grams of kratom per day for two days) to deal with the side effects of the second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. She was sluggish and achy with flu-like symptoms. Like many others, she reported that kratom gave her the energy, focus, and enough relief of her symptoms to get out of bed and walk to her computer to work a full day. In other possibilities that haven’t been adequately explored by science, many cancer patients including my mother have used ESSIAC tea and felt it was effective in combination with chemotherapy (Kratom Science Podcast #10).
While “natural” does not always equal “non-toxic” or inherently superior to synthetically derived drugs, many of these plants have evolved alongside humans, some of them selected for their effects and therefore already subject to an ancient scientific process.
“Natural products, which have evolved over millions of years, have a unique chemical diversity, which results in diversity in their biological activities and drug-like properties” (Yuan et al., 2016).
A divide between traditional/herbal/plant medicine and modern/high-tech/synthetic medicine is therefore unnecessary. Researchers like past Kratom Science Podcast guest Andrew Tait are taking traditional herbal formulae, putting those formulae through the rigors of modern science, and bringing medicines backed by thousands of years of success to the modern Western world.
- Domnic, G., Jeng-Yeou Chear, N., Abdul Rahman, S. F., Ramanathan, S., Lo, K. W., Singh, D., & Mohana-Kumaran, N. (2021). Combinations of indole based alkaloids from Mitragyna speciosa (Kratom) and cisplatin inhibit cell proliferation and migration of nasopharyngeal carcinoma cell lines. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 279, 114391. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jep.2021.114391
- Ivanov V. N., Wu J., Wang T. J.C., Hei T. K. Inhibition of ATM kinase upregulates levels of cell death induced by cannabidiol and γ-irradiation in human glioblastoma cells. Oncotarget. 2019; 10: 825-846. Retrieved from https://www.oncotarget.com/article/26582/text/
- Jones A. W. (2011). Early drug discovery and the rise of pharmaceutical chemistry. Drug testing and analysis, 3(6), 337–344. https://doi.org/10.1002/dta.301
- Kline, T., Lamb, M. (2018, May 11). Suicides associated with forced tapering of opiate pain treatments. JATH Educational Consortium, LLC. https://thomasklinemd.medium.com/opioidcrisis-pain-related-suicides-associated-with-forced-tapers-c68c79ecf84d
- Lin, S. R., Chang, C. H., Hsu, C. F., Tsai, M. J., Cheng, H., Leong, M. K., Sung, P. J., Chen, J. C., & Weng, C. F. (2020). Natural compounds as potential adjuvants to cancer therapy: Preclinical evidence. British journal of pharmacology, 177(6), 1409–1423. https://doi.org/10.1111/bph.14816
- Nunn, R., Parsons, J., Shambaugh, J. (2020, March 10). A dozen facts about the economics of the U.S. healthcare system. The Hamilton Project, Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/research/a-dozen-facts-about-the-economics-of-the-u-s-health-care-system/
- Sweeney, J.F. (2018, April 10). The eroding trust between patients and physicians. Medical Economics. https://www.medicaleconomics.com/view/eroding-trust-between-patients-and-physicians
- Watson, L. (2019, September 11). How greedy hospitals fleece the poor. The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/155013/greedy-hospitals-fleece-poor
- Yuan, H., Ma, Q., Ye, L., & Piao, G. (2016). The Traditional Medicine and Modern Medicine from Natural Products. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 21(5), 559. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules21050559