Mexican medicinal plants: from tradition to science

31/05/2020

In Mexico, there are about 23,000 plants, of which about 11,600 are considered to be endemic. Many plant species have been used in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times to treat ailments such as intestinal parasites, inflammation, infections, flu, diarrhea, headaches, wounds, burns, cancer, and diabetes, among others.

Medicinal plants: tree known as the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia)
Medicinal plants: tree known as the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia)

Currently, it has been reported that about a third of the world's population still uses plants as a natural remedy. In this regard, even the World Health Organization presents on its website a four-volume compendium of monographs on plants used worldwide with parameters for their safe use.

Medicinal plants are a rich source of bioactive compounds to which their beneficial properties have been attributed and even several drugs used today have their origin in the study of these, such as paclitaxel, a drug used to treat some types of cancer, which has its origin in the bark of the tree known as the Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia).

Of the medicinal plants, both the leaves and the stems, bark, roots, etc. can be used, either alone or in combination, and the most common form in which they are administered is through infusions. It is in these preparations that the compounds responsible for the reported beneficial effects are solubilized. These compounds are known as natural products, of which phytochemicals are the most commonly studied.

Phytochemicals are secondary metabolites that all plants produce and are not involved in their development, but are intended to defend them from adverse conditions such as insects, parasites, herbivores, drought, ultraviolet light, etc. Among the best-known phytochemicals are alkaloids, terpenes, and phenolic compounds. The importance of these compounds lies in the fact that several studies have linked their frequent consumption to the prevention of chronic-degenerative diseases such as different types of cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Among the most commonly used medicinal plant species in the country are peyote (Lophophora williamsii), valerian (Valeriana edulis subsp. procera), cuachalalate (Amphipterygium adstringes), tepezcohuite (Mimosa ternuifora Benth) and oregano (Lippia graveolens), among others. In this sense, the northwest of Mexico is an area rich in medicinal plants that have been little studied, such as poplar (Populus mexicana), basil (Ocimum basilicum), cardon (Pachycereus pecten aboriginum), coup grass (Parthenium hysterophorus), eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp. ), mint (Mentha spicata), mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) and toji (Phoradendron spp.), among others. However, little is known yet about the compounds, mode of action, and bioavailability of phytochemical compounds from a wide variety of plants.

Mexico is the 2nd country with the most medicinal plants in the world

The wide variety of flora and fauna that characterizes Mexico has earned it on several occasions a place at the top of lists that encompass the biological diversity of the planet.

Mexico is the second country with the most medicinal plants in the world, and according to specialists focused on this branch, the use of these plants dates back to pre-Hispanic times.

From infusions, ointments and vaporizations, to massages and plasters, these plants are still used today in regions such as San Martín de las Pirámides and Juchitán de Zaragoza, Oaxaca.

Aloe vera is used to treat cancer, mucile for diabetes, marigold to treat burns, and stomach problems, while the popularity of epazote is spreading as it is very effective for stomach pain.

According to a study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country has a total of 4,500 variants of medicinal plants after China, which only surpasses it with 500 more species.

Most of these plants are consumed directly from nature, and for their extraction, people usually visit forests and jungles to select the species that can help them in their sufferings.

The same document points out that only 15% of plants are cultivated on purpose, and of these, the achiote flower, the cempasúchil, and the epazote are the most sought after.

The achiote flower is used to reduce anxiety and relieve sore throats, while the cempasúchil flower is concentrated for digestive disorders and respiratory tract problems. Epazote, in addition to stomach discomfort, is used to treat swelling or stings from poisonous insects.

Collaboration of Erick P. Gutiérrez-Grijalva, J. Basilio Heredia, source CIAD