Written by Sebastian Pole
However hard we might try not to be; we are all interconnected. Each living being interacts with its environment which includes, people, plants and the elements. Here we discuss why this is so important at achieving harmony.
We live in a time where the dominant mechanistic world-view is becoming more and more exposed as a naïve interpretation of the interdependent nature of life. That this ideology has infiltrated how we grow our food, rear our animals, raise our children, heal our society and look after our planet means we have largely forgotten quite how important the web of life is. And plants take a lead role in this mysterious play of life providing, in one way or another, most of our clothes, much of our shelter, all of our food and medicine. Holding such a pivotal position in our success, I want to reflect on this mutually beneficial plant-human bond and how re-engaging with the web of life keeps the future looking bright.
A generous start
The story of life is really one of sharing and reciprocation. Ever since the earliest blue-green cyanobacteria such as spirulina ‘learnt’ 2 billion years ago to harness the sun’s energy, green plants have been generating the energy of life. We have been interacting, communicating and growing with our environment since time began with plants and animals developing into the incredible life-forms they express today because of this incessant sharing. As we evolved together with the plant kingdom we both learned how to use each other for mutual advantage. For example, its testimony to the success of this evolutionary relationship that our body is able to recognize and benefit from the natural phytochemicals developed within plants. A relationship so successful that the health of our cardiovascular, digestive, immune, respiratory, nervous, endocrine and psychological systems is largely dependent on plants. As we shall see, it’s two-way all the way, and a relationship that we ignore at our peril.
The power of attraction
Because of their innate creative desire, plants have developed strategies that attract insects, animals or the wind to carry their procreative-pollen far and wide. A spectrum of colours, tempting aromas and the reward of some sweet nectar lie in fair exchange for this fertile foray. We have all seen bees buzzing from lavender flower to lavender flower collecting nectar and spreading pollen far and wide. However, in more defensive modes plants have developed protective compounds that help guard them against damage from a plethora of microbes, such as peppermint which has developed powerful essential oils to ward off fungal invasions. However, these little microbes have an agenda of their own and over time have evolved new challenges to threaten the plant’s defences. And so the dance continues; the plant develops novel and useful compounds to respond to the microbes’ ever-evolving reproductive intentions and visa versa. Mankind’s use of these botanical species over millennia suggests that bacteria, fungi and viruses have less ability to develop resistance to a broad-spectrum botanical pharmacy than to a narrow pharmaceutical one as used in our modern health system. Plants long used by cultures all over the world, such as andrographis, neem and elderberry, all display a potent ability to ward off infections and avoid creating the dread of antibiotic resistance.
After the longest waltz in history, plants have developed a plethora of these healthful phytochemical compounds, empowering them with broad-spectrum protection; for example, essential oils, polyphenols or steroids that help to protect and strengthen the plant. Many species have 1,000-plus compounds at very low levels of concentration. Animals and humans have discovered how to use these plants for a wide range of health benefits and over the years we have learned how to use 50,000 of the 250,000 flowering plants. The history of medicine is largely the history of herbal medicine, with the great cultures of medicine from the Americas, Europe and Asia collated by such giants as Hippocrates, Galen, Culpepper, Charaka, Sushruta, Huang Di and Li Shi Zhen, harnessing these insights into codified and systematic scientific medical traditions. As we learned to tap into nature’s innate healing vitality we also learned one of the great secrets of life; that plants help our body and mind heal; they help us fulfill our potential.
Being selfishly wise and wisely selfish
Flipping everything on its head, some evolutionary biologists think that plants have used humans to spread their seed, piggy-backing on ourown evolutionary adventure. You can trace the spread of many species across the planet by following human migration and trade; apples, cannabis and mushrooms walked with us side by side as we globe-trotted over the face of the earth.
Mutually beneficial reciprocity, sharing and learning are found at the heart of most symbiotic relationships. It’s the idea of being selfishly wise and wisely selfish; you look after yourself so you are well enough to look after others, and look after others so they are well enough to look after you, be you bee, butterfly, blueberry or human-being. Not to say it’s all one happy ‘love-in’, because some species are certainly dangerous, but if we can heighten our already remarkable knowledge of how certain plants can benefit our health, they will flourish and so will we.
Diversity wins the day
Until about 100 years ago we used to keep healthy by eating over 100 species of plants, but for most people today it’s down to around 10-20. It means we are exposed to much less of nature’s phytochemical health-soup everyday.Because the variety of plants and herbs in our diet has radically diminished we are no longer bathing our cells in as broad a spectrum of plant protection as we have done through all of our earlier evolution, and this is one of the reasons our society’s health is suffering today.
A study illustrating the benefits of a broader plant-based diet was carried out a couple of years ago by the perfectly named Professor Blanchflower; it showed how our happiness is directly connected with the amount of vegetables we eat, peaking at about seven a day. The work of Paul Clayton and Judith Rowbotham describing how our diets have declined in nutritional diversity since the Victorian 1870s when chronic disease rates were 90% lower than today also exemplifies the value of diversity.One way of broadening our nutritional horizons is including more of the less well-known plants in our diet, such as those used in the herbal tradition such as licorice, lemon balm, limeflower; for example, a cup of herbal tea has the approximate equivalent in beneficial plant-ness that half a portion of vegetables does. It’s a simple way to sip our way to happiness.
Plants inspire our destiny
The ability that plants have learnt to protect themselves from invading microbes and extreme climates is remarkable. That these same evolutionarily familiar qualities can help our life flourish is plain common sense. Just as the spicy compounds, aromatic terpenes, and colourful flavonoids that you can find in ginger, tulsi or turmeric help the plant flourish, they also interact with our whole mental-emotional-immune network to optimise our response to just about everything. They can help stop a virus replicating, they can kick-start our nervous system to ameliorate pain, boost our fertility and they can lift our mood when we feel threatened. As they interact with our genes, cells, tissues, organs and spirit, plants literally help us to influence our destiny.
This is no simple thing. We have an extraordinary and complex physiology, and yet minute levels of plant compounds can profoundly influence our health. Our human genome has evolved by selecting a vast array of low-level plant compounds to benefit its progress. Over the last 10 million or so years our human genetic experiment has been the story of how we utilize infinitesimally small amounts of phytochemicals to help us thrive. Conversely, the last 100 years has been a health experiment in how we use high-dose single chemicals resulting in some, albeit isolated, remarkable success stories as well as some more infamous tragedies.
As we face an explosion of system-wide disorders, such as diabetes, cancer and emotional disorders, imbalances that do not hugely benefit from the single chemical approach, it’s not a big leap to reflect on the story of life and conclude that we need a more developed system-wide approach to healing. Billions and billions have been spent to tell us the obvious; that the basis of good health is good diet, exercise and lifestyle. Billions more have been spent trying to prove that single-molecule medicine works. But the ‘truth will out’ and despite all the corruption within so-called Evidence Based Medicine’s skewed results, the dangers of the ‘magic’ bullets of modern pharmacology are rearing their ugly heads, with modern medicine now known to be one of the biggest causes of death today and antibiotics implicated in the alarming increase in Type 1 diabetes, allergies, respiratory disorders, psychological imbalances and inflammatory bowel diseases. With drug companies routinely fined for illegal marketing, covering up life-threatening side-effects and blatant result fixing, it’s time for the magic ‘web’ to take back centre stage; the plants and the tradition of herbal medicine are all around to help.
On a softer note, and beyond just their compounds, plants have a character unique to themselves expressing a knowable personality. We don’t just need to know what’s ‘in it’, we need to know ‘who’ it is. Quantum physics lauds the value of observation as the keystone to understanding reality; Einstein, Bohm and Goethe, in contrast to Descartes and Dawkins, all champion the value of the phenomena above the theory, and this makes each of us the most important scientist in the world. Experiment for yourself and see; some plants are lively (chew some ginger) and some are much more mellow (sip some chamomile). Some awaken our hearts (just look at a rose) and others make us damn happy (too many to mention, but lemon balm and tulsi sing from the treetops). Whatever they do, plants share life with us and we have developed complex physiological systems to understand them. We just need to open our hearts and minds as we see, smell, taste, touch and listen.
Traditional health systems, such as Ayurveda, teach us to open our senses and read the language of nature; their insights offer an amazing way to tell the story of plants and how we can benefit from them. How one plant, like ginseng, surviving through the harshest winters, can bring us warming strength or another, like aloe vera, thriving in the hot desert, can soothe our burns. Or we can appreciate for a moment that just as cinnamon thrives in the humid jungle, its drying heat can help protect us from drizzle and damp, or how sweet elderberry fruits help soothe us through the winter. Understanding more about how plants cope with extreme conditions can tell us a lot about their beneficial health properties. Observing nature, as opposed to just measuring her, teaches us that our perception is more important than anything else; our life is literally ours to perceive.
As we experience the power of nature, and we come to terms with the awe of her magnificence, we end up in a place of mystery and wonder. How we live together as a community, how we perceive our environment, as we engage on a global level with all the plants, people and planet, is the story of life…not one of the selfish-gene but of one of sharing and reciprocation as part of the wholeness of the universe.
A paper from the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association (EHTPA) for the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology’s antimicrobial resistance (AMR) inquiry.
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