Plants as Medicines | Medical Landscape

by David S. Keisler, JR., MD

It can be assumed that the value and use of plants as therapeutic agents to treat ailments and some diseases is something that our ancestors appreciated thousands of years ago. Before the first pharmacy sold pills, herbal medicine was thriving. Most likely a good bit of trial and error was involved before useful plants were identified. Surely some of those uses of plants are still utilized today for medicinal reasons.


Gout is a form of arthritis related to the build-up of uric acid crystals in the joint spaces. Purines are substances found in all of the body’s cells and most foods. Uric acid is a substance that is formed when purines are broken down or when a cell dies. If uric acid levels become too high, monosodium urate crystals are deposited in the tendons and joints and inflammation occurs.

Colchicine is a medication commonly used today to treat gout. This is not a new medication but is one that has been used to treat rheumatism for at least 1,500 years, according to Egyptian records. Plants of the genus Colchilum or “meadow saffron” have been used to treat gout probably since 550 AD. Ben Franklin, a gout sufferer, brought Colchilum back to North America after his diplomatic service in France. It has been in pill form in the U.S. and Europe for many years, but because it was such an old drug, it was untested for safety and efficacy. In July of 2009 the FDA gave UHL Pharma exclusive marketing rights to colchicine. After UHL’s testing of this centuries-old drug for safety and efficacy, the price rose from nine cents a pill to $4.85. Because of this FDA decision, the cost of health care here in the U.S. has increased for treatment of patients with gout. I have recently learned of a drug that used to cost about $11 a pill which now is about $700 a pill because of “research” costs.

Everyday Preventives

There are other medical conditions that you may be able to treat without having to buy an expensive pill. Cinnamon helps to lower blood sugar and is often recommended as a form of blood sugar control for diabetics. Ginger has been recommended to help reduce nausea and even vomiting in motion sickness and nausea of pregnancy. There is even an inexpensive chewing gum called Anti-Nausea Ginger Gum sold by SEA BRAND.

Peppermint and spearmint are helpful for dyspepsia or indigestion. Also some kinds of anise have been used to treat bloating, as have celery, cinnamon, fennel, ginger, parsley and dill. Peppermint has also been used to treat some forms of irritable bowel syndrome.

The best medicine, however, may be in non-pill form such as the lifestyle modifications mentioned in the September Bella article. Why take a pill if you can help prevent disease through healthy living?

Preventing Gout

Now, getting back to gout, this is a disease that affects 1 – 2 % of Americans. It is also called the rich man’s disease mainly because of the association of consuming excessive calories of certain foods and spirits. This list includes fish, such as sardines, anchovies, and salmon. Alcohol may trigger an attack of gout, but the blames lies particularly at the door of hard liquor and wine. Organ meats, fried foods, and beef should only be consumed in moderation. Rich sauces, shellfish and sodas are to be limited as well. Purines from vegetables and dairy products do not seem to increase the risk of an attack of gout.

Gout is the most common inflammatory arthritis in men, and it is associated with the metabolic syndrome, hypertension, and coronary artery disease. The list of luminaries who have had gout is impressive. This includes Ansel Adams, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, and Sir Isaac Newton.

Plant-based medicine can be a good thing. It should be inexpensive. The FDA missed the boat on Colchicine and now many patients cannot afford the drug. Therefore preventative measures may help to alleviate the modern cost of this thousand-year-old natural treatment.

Dave Keisler

Dr. David Keisler was an Army brat who lived all over the USA and North Africa. A graduate
of the Citadel and the Medical University of South Carolina, he trained in the U.S. Army where he was a GI fellow and then staff physician in San Francisco at the Letterman Army Medical Center. He is board certified in internal medicine and gastroenterology and is a partner with Aiken Internal Medicine. An Aiken resident since 1983, he and his wife Jane have two daughters and five grandchildren nearby.