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Monday, August 25, 2008

The Medicinal Building Blocks of Plant Life

by Neil McLaughlin

While most have heard of vitamins and minerals, there are 14 other categories of active plant components and they also offer medicinal benefits. Becoming familiar with all of these elements is essential for understanding their benefits and combinatorial effects. This article summarizes the 16 active constituents found in plants.

1) Minerals - Minerals are essential trace elements such as Copper and Magnesium. They are the simplest form of matter: basic elements found in the Periodic table. The best raw sources include Blueberries, Almonds, Broccoli and Cauliflower.

2) Vitamins - Vitamins are essential molecules required in order for cells to function properly. Without ingesting all vitamins we will suffer disease and die. Lack of Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), found in citrus fruits, causes Scurvy for example. Some plants contain more vitamins than others, but all plants contain at least trace amounts of vitamins, often playing synergistic roles with other elements found in the plant. The best sources of vitamins include raw Spinach, Beans, Oranges, Carrots and Apples.

3) Tannins - This element should be familiar to wine drinkers, and especially those who cannot drink wine as tannins can cause headaches. Produced by all plants, tannins are the harsh, astringent taste of bark and leaves designed to repel some life forms, namely insect pests. They are used to "tan" leather. They cause contraction of tissues, whether a saddle or your tongue. The best sources of tannins include Pomegranates, Grapes and Persimmon.

4) Flavonoids - Found in a wide variety of plants, flavonoids are anti-inflammatory components that have useful actions, mainly serving to improve circulation. The best sources of flavonoids include Citrus juice like Lemon, Lime and Grapefruit.

5) Volatile Oils - One of the most important medicinal aspects of plants, volatile (or essential) oils offer the main fragrant element and are used for aromatherapy. Different fragrances have vastly different effects on mood. Volatile oils are strongly antiseptic and normally have anti-inflammatory properties. The best sources of volatile oils include Tea tree, Peppermint, Lavender and Sandalwood.

6) Mucilage - Mucilage is a component of many plants that contains polysaccharides (large sugar molecules) that retain water to produce a jelly like mass that offers soothing effects on skin in the mouth, throat, digestive tract and even extends to the lungs and other organs. The best sources of mucilage include Mullein, Aloe Vera and Psyllium seed husks.

7) Alkaloids - The most active ingredient, these (normally nitrogen bearing) molecules have various medicinal and even cancer fighting effects on the body. The best sources of (healthy) alkaloids include Garlic and Onions.

8) Bitters - An essential food group (and one of the five flavors we sense, including sweet, salty, sour and umami), bitters have largely been factored out of our diets. Bitterness however is key to digestion as it causes the secretion of important salivary enzymes that nourish and strengthen the body. Swedish Bitters is a great way to get all of your bitters in one shot. The best sources of bitters include Coffee beans, Dandelion, and Aloe vera.

9) Phenols - Also called Salicylates, Phenols are a component of many compounds that include salicylic acid (the organic form of Aspirin). Phenols are antiseptic and anti-inflammatory components that actually have an irritant effect when applied directly to the skin. The best sources of phenols are dark berries like Raspberries, Blueberries, Cranberries and Goji berries.

10) Saponins - A group of two expectorant elements that induce hormonal activity, saponins (including triterpenoid and steroidal) have similarity to the human body's own naturally occurring hormones. The best sources of saponins include Licorice, Peas and Soybeans.

11) Coumarins - Found in many plants, coumarins offer widely divergent strengthening mechanisms including sunscreen protection, blood thinning and muscle relaxant action. The best sources of coumarins include Mullein, Vanilla grass and Tonka bean.

12) Glucosilinates - Glucosilinates have irritant effects, causing inflammation and blistering. They are used to increase blood flow to an affected area, helping facilitate waste removal and joint problems and reducing thyroid function. Glucosilinates are found exlusively in the Mustard family that includes Radish, yellow mustard seed and brown mustard seed.

13) Anthraquinones - These natural laxative components (found in Senna, Cascara Sagrada and Chinese Rhubarb) relieve constipation, having an irritant effect on the large intestine that causes peristaltic action. They are also natural stool softeners. The best sources of anthraquinones are Senna, Aloe Vera and Chinese Rhubarb.

14) Anthocyanins - These are the pigments that give fruits and flowers their blue, purple or red hue, and they help keep blood vessels healthy. The best sources of anthocyanins include Grapes, Blackberries and Rainforest herbs like Samambaia.

15) Cardiac Glycosides - These natural diuretics have strong, direct action on the heart, strengthening the rate of contraction when it is failing. They improve the circulatory system and urinary tract while lowering blood pressure. The best sources of cardiac glycosides include Yellow Foxglove, Woolly Foxglove and Common Foxglove.

16) Cyanogenic Glycosides - Though based on the poison cyanide, these have a helpful sedative effect on the heart and muscles in small doses. Cyanogenic glycosides are used to suppress and sooth a dry cough caused by irritants. The best sources of cyanogenic glycosides include Wild Cherry Bark and Elder flowers.

As you can see, there are many other important elements besides vitamins and minerals and while they have powerful health benefits themselves, they just don't sound the same on a cereal box. A balanced diet ideally will includes all of these substances.


The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants - Dorling Kindersley and Andrew Chevallier (page 14-15 has pictures of all of these components).

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