How flowers help modern medicine

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Its thought that lavender, like paxil, has an effect on brain chemicals involved in anxiety. Picture: Jason Boud

London - Flowers have long been used as traditional remedies, but they’re now being used to treat a conditions from depression and insomnia to cancer.

A third of new pharmaceuticals since 2008 originated or were inspired by natural products including flowers, says the Society of Chemical Industry.

What makes the chemicals in flowers so potent - even on something as complex as brain functions - is not clear. But it could be due to the sophisticated processes they’ve evolved to deter predators or attract pollinators.

Here, we identify the flowers that are finding their way into mainstream medicine . . .

SNOWDROP

This small, white flower blooms in the late winter.

Traditional uses: Rub-on treatment for headaches, painkiller and poison antidote.

Modern uses: Reminyl, one of the main type of drugs used to treat mild to moderate dementia, is derived from galantamine, a compound found in snowdrop bulbs.

It helps increase levels of acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in the transmission of messages from nerve cells. Alzheimer’s is associated with a drop in acetylcholine levels - galantamine stops or delays the decline, helping to maintain memory.

“Galantamine was originally tested for use in conditions such as eye, gastric and heart disorders. It wasn’t until the Eighties that it was explored for potential benefits in dementia,” says Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

CROCUS

A member of the iris family, the crocus - and saffron, a spice derived from its flower - are used in traditional medicine.

Traditional uses: Remedy for indigestion, low libido, pain, poor concentration, depression, asthma and rheumatism.

Modern uses: Saffron is being tested for toothache and the eye condition age-related macular degeneration.

When it comes to the eyes, saffron affects the amount of fat stored by the eye, making vision cells tougher and more resilient, according to Sydney University researchers.

In separate trials, Alzheimer’s patients treated with saffron showed improvements in mental functioning comparable to patients who were given the drug donepezil.

Saffron and crocus petal extracts also reduced mild depression in clinical trials.

Crocin, the compound that gives saffron its vibrant colour, has been shown to boost memory and improve mental functioning in a study at the University of Tokyo.

Meanwhile, an Iranian study found saffron may increase libido.

Extracts from the autumn crocus, or meadow saffron, contain a compound called colchicine. This works as an anti-inflammatory and could be used to prevent or treat attacks of gout, according to the Mayo Clinic in the US.

It is also thought to have anti-cancer effects, and researchers at the Institute for Cancer Therapeutics at the University of Bradford have shown it can attack a number of cancers.

“Saffron is expensive and research is needed to see if it has advantages over cheaper plants that have similar effects,” says Dr Howes.

LAVENDER

A native of the western Mediterranean, the word lavender comes from the Latin lavare, which means ‘to wash’. It may have acquired its name because it was used in baths to purify body and mind.

Traditional uses: Used since Roman times as a sedative, relaxant and antidepressant

Modern uses: Oil from the fresh plants has been shown to help with insomnia, alopecia, anxiety, stress and post-operative pain, according to a review of studies by the University of Maryland.

Trials have shown lavender oil improves mood, and is a possible antidepressant, which might help explain its pain-killing effects.

When given to adults with anxiety disorder, it was as effective as the drug lorazepam, according to a German study in Phytomedicine. It’s thought to act on the brain chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Rubbing on lavender oil has been shown to improve well-being and sleep, increase alertness and reduce aggression and anxiety in dementia patients in studies at the University of Oodate in Japan.

It is also being studied forantibacterial and anti-viral properties.

MILKWORT

A plant with rose pink flowers, its Latin name polygala means ‘much milk’. Folklore had it that dairy cows who ate the plant would produce a lot of milk.

Traditional uses: Widely used in the Middle Ages as an infusion to increase a nursing mother’s milk. Other uses include remedies for anxiety, forgetfulness, insomnia and restlessness

Modern uses: Research by psychiatrists in Seoul found it has a protective effect on brain cells.

Men and women who took a plant extract three times a day for four weeks showed more significant increases in recall and made fewer mistakes than those given a placebo. Root extracts have also shown promising effects on memory in humans in two trials. It is not yet known how it works.

DAFFODIL

Also known as narcissi.

Traditional uses: Daffodils have been used to induce vomiting, and as a poultice for burns and wounds.

Modern uses: As with crocuses, the bulbs are a source of galantamine, used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

Daffodils contain compounds that can get through the blood-brain barrier (a semi-permeable barrier that prevents many drugs from entering the brain).

These are being investigated as depression treatments at the University of Copenhagen. Daffodil compounds are being used to piggyback antidepressants into the brain to make the drugs more effective.

A Chinese study also suggests daffodil compounds can kill off certain cancer cells (such as leukaemia). - Daily Mail

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