Renaissance and science eras

The 14th to 16th centuries gave rise to a renaissance of interest in the arts and sciences, leading to a pandemic of knowledge across Europe. Of particular interest in the field of medicine was the radical thinker Paracelsus (1493-1541), an alchemist, pharmacologist and professor of physics and surgery at Basel, Switzerland. By challenging the then accepted theory of “humoral pathology” with treatment of disease being a non-specific panacea of induced sweating, vomiting and bloodletting, and conceiving a philosophy whereby “like cures like” (i.e. there is specificity in the relationship between the disease and its remedy) Paracelsus shifted the focus to treating the cause rather than the symptoms, and placed an emphasis on the special attributes of certain minerals. This paved the way for the development and introduction of new, specific remedies and reduced the overdosing that was prevalent in that period, improving pharmacy and therapeutics for succeeding centuries. The 16th and 17th centuries saw the development of several paramount discoveries that set the stage for future research including:

  • Treating gout with colchicum (colchicine) and restriction of wine intake
  • Treating malaria with ‘Jesuit’s bark’ (cinchona, containing quinine)
  • Preventing scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) with oranges and lemons
  • Treating fever with willow bark (today known as Aspirin)
  • Treating dropsy (today known as oedema) with foxglove (digitalis)

Finding the magic bullet

During the 20th century, medicine made enormous advances, leading to therapeutic revolutions in all areas of medicine. At the beginning of the 20th century, therapies commonly used were: aspirin and codeine as analgesics, sodium bicarbonate and glycerine for gastrointestinal problems, sodium bromide as a sedative, and sodium salicylate as an anti-inflammatory and antipyretic analgesic. However, all of these were still formulae for symptomatic relief, rather than targeting the etiology, or cause, of the symptoms. The discipline of medicine continued to evolve with scientific advances and a greater knowledge of chemistry and physiology, and new methods were developed to increase the specificity of medicines and enable them to target particular conditions. The search for the “magic bullet”, or ideal medication to target a disease with no side effects, took precedence in this era. With an understanding of structure activity relationships (the relationship between the structure of a chemical and its biological activity) came the ability to identify, design and develop a medicine to optimize its effect (e.g. altering hormone production). One of the chief accomplishments to emerge from this understanding was the discovery of antibiotics, both natural (penicillins) and synthetic (sulfonamides).

Going au naturel

Natural products and medicines have been derived from several main sources:

  • Microorganisms, e.g. fungi used as sources of antibiotics, bacteria and yeasts genetically engineered to produce medicines such as human insulin
  • Plants, e.g. Atropa belladona (atropine), Coffea arabica (caffeine), Digitalis Purpurea (digitalis), Eucalyptus spp. (eucalyptus oil), Papaver somniferum (opium, morphine)

The leaves, roots, seeds and other parts of plants may be dried, crushed, boiled or preserved for therapeutic use. The constituents in a plant that provide therapeutic properties can be extracted and put in any number of forms, such as tablets, capsules, powders, or liquids. As Sir Isaac Newton once stated:

“every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction.”

This ingenious formulation is still ingrained into modern science and strikes true with the people of the 21st century, particularly in regard to a rising awareness of the carcinogenic potential of food additives, preservatives and synthetic products. As a consequence, there has been a shift towards complementary and alternative therapies, with people turning their backs on synthetic medicines in favor of holistic, natural remedies. Other reasons stated from users and practitioners of complementary and alternative therapies include: Dissatisfaction with conventional medicine if access is difficult, or technologically orientated The belief that natural methods are better and safer than scientific methods and products The perception that only complementary and alternative therapies treat the whole person Regardless of the reason, the general public is now, more than ever, in favor of taking personal responsibility for their own health and well-being.

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