The Biochemistry of Herbs

Within one cell of any given plant exist thousands of constituents, each playing a vital role its overall “personality”. Simply crediting the action of a plant to its “active” constituent would be to negate its complex, multifaceted nature. Having said that, here is a list of various constituents comprising plant cells:
Acids: Found in all living organisms, Organic acids are characterized by the presence of one or more carboxyl group.
*Monobasic acids have one carboxyl radical. Fatty acids, saturated (Butyric, Isovaleric, Caproic, Caprylic, Palmitic, Stearic etc.)and unsaturated(Palmitoleic, Oleic, linoleic etc.) straight chain acids supply lipids to the diet as well as the essential fatty acids. Aromatic acids (benzoic and Cinnamic etc.).
*Dibasic (oxalic or malic) and Tribasic (Citric) acids have two or three carboxyl radicals.
Alcohols: These are characterized by the presence of the Hydroxyl radical. (Geraniol, Menthol, Thymol etc.)
Esters: Alcohols and Acids combine to form Esters. Fixed oils, Fats and Waxes are simple lipid esters. Lecithins and Phosphatides are complex lipid esters. These are two of the many varieties of Esters.
Carbohydrates: Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen are the basic elements of all carbohydrates, which are a product of photosynthesis.
Monosaccharides (simple sugars) such as glucose, fructose and galactose are the most common carbohydrates.
Oligo-saccharides (di, or trisaccharides) are carbohydrates containing two to nine monosaccharide units. For example: Di: Lactose (in Milk), is glucose and galactose. Sucrose is Glucose and Fructose, etc. Tri: Gentianose is Glucose, Glucose and Fructose.
Polysaccharides are made up of larger numbers of sugar units. Homopolysaccharides contain a single variety of mono saccharides, whereas Heteropolysaccharides contain more. Amylose, Glycogen, Cellulose and Inulin are some examples. Polysaccharides such as Pectin, Algin etc. consist of sugar units as well as other chemicals.
Gums (Tragacanth Acacia, etc.) and Mucilages (from Linseed, Psyllium and Marshmallow) are made up of monosaccharides and uronic acid.
Glycosides: An Algycone (a non carbohydrate molecule) attached to a sugar makes a Glycoside.
Phenolic Glycosides
Cyanogenetic glycosides
Isothiocyanate producing Glycosides
Cardiac Glycosides

Phenolic Glycosides:
a. Simple phenolic compounds i.e. Salicin, Populin, Arbutin etc.
b. Tannins act as astringents, forming a protective layer over tissue, inhibiting invasive organisms.
c. Coumarins and their glycosides. Anti-clotting property, present in over 150 plant species.
d. Anthraquinones and their glycosides have strong laxative properties.
e. Napthaquinones and their glycosides occur in plants such as Alkanna and Henna which are used as natural dyes.
f. Flavones and Flavonoids (Vitamin P) benefit almost every system in the body. Occuring in many species of plants, they have various combinations of Anti-oxidant, Hypo-glycemic, Anti-inflammatory, Hypotensive, Immunostimulating, Sedative, Regenerative, Cardiotonic, Anti-microbial and Diuretic as well as many other properties.
Quercetin is a common flavonoid found in Onions, Asparagus, Boneset etc. Found to have antiinflammatory and Anti-viral properties, as well as inhibitive to tumors.
g. Anthocyandins and Anthocyanins
Volatile Oils and Resins:
Monoterpenes are most often isolated by steam distillation or solvent extraction of plant material. They are antiseptic, antithelmintic and anti fungal, therefore used extensively in external applications as disinfectants.
Some have irritant properties acting as rubefacients and used to relieve pain and neuralgia. Acting on the Central Nervous System is another group of Monoterpenes that have Sedative, Carminative and Anti-spasmodic properties.
Saponins (Steriodal or Triterpenoid), have a bitter taste, hemolytic activity and form soap like foam when introduced to water. Saponins affect the liver, are adaptogenic, reduce cholesterol, blood cleansing, hormone regulating, antimicrobial, expectorant, antiinflammatory, diuretic tonics that stimulate mucosal secretions.
Steriodal Saponins Yarrow, Burdock, Astragalus, Siberian Ginseng etc.
Triterpenoid Saponins: Liquorice, Calendula, Horse Chestnut etc.
Cardioactive Saponins: Foxglove, Hellebore, Lily of the Valley etc.
Alkaloids: There are over 6000 known Alkaloids.
1. Non heterocyclic Alkaloids: Mescaline, Ephedrine, Erythromycin, etc.
2. Heterocyclic Alcaloids:
a. Pyrrole
b. Pyrrolizidine: symphitine, Senecionine
c. Pyridine and Piperidine: Lobeline, Nicotine
d. Tropane: Cocaine, Atropine
e. Quinoline: Quinine
f. Isoquinoline: Morphine, Codeine, Papaverine, Berberine
g. Aporphine: Boldine
h. Norlupinane: Sparteine, cystine
i. Indole or bezopyrrole: Lysergic acid amide, Yohimbine, Ergometrine
j. Imidazole: Pilocarpine (Jaborandi)
k. Purine: Caffeine, Theobromine
l. Steroidal: Solanidine (shoots of potato)
m. Terpenoid: Aconitine

Copyright 2001 Lata Chettri Kennedy