Humans have utilized Natural Products (NPs) as medicines for millenia. Natural Products are compounds derived from natural sources, such as plants, animals, fungi, and micro-organisms, which have biological activities. NPs have been used as traditional medicines, remedies, potions and oils without any knowledge about the bioactive compounds contained inside, and are results of hundreds of centuries of human experimentation.
Plant NPs are also known as secondary metabolites, which wield biological activities in humans such as anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, cardiovascular, immune and cognitive benefits. Around one-third of leading pharmaceuticals are natural compounds or their derivatives. The yield of plant secondary metabolites from natural sources can be highly variable depending on the source plant, location, season of harvest and the prevailing environmental conditions.
The use of NPs as medicine, contrary to what many may think, is not without side effects. Some may even have serious safety concerns. “Natural” does not always mean that it’s a safer or better option for your health. An herbal supplement may contain dozens of chemical compounds, and all of its ingredients may not be known.
For example, kava, a plant native to South Pacific islands, often used as a dietary supplement for anxiety, may be associated with severe liver damage. Ephedra, a plant native to central Asia and Mongolia that has been used for centuries to treat a broad spectrum of illnesses, is associated with heart problems and risk of death. In 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids for safety reasons.
The high-value nature and low abundance of many natural products often results in their unreliable harvests from natural sources which negatively impacts both patient treatments and clinical evaluation requirements. These outcomes have driven efforts towards the development of renewable and environmentally friendly production processes.
The use of NPs as medicines has a long history, and NPs have played an important role in improving our health. However, the full potential of these compounds remains to be exploited because they are often complex and difficult to synthesize, found only in low quantities, or produced by undomesticated and sometimes rare sources.