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Phytochemistry is the study of phytochemicals, which are chemicals derived from plants. Those studying phytochemistry strive to describe the structures of the large number of secondary metabolic compounds found in plants, the functions of these compounds in human and plant biology, and the biosynthesis of these compounds. Plants synthesize phytochemicals for many reasons, including to protect themselves against insect attacks and plant diseases. Phytochemicals in food plants are often active in human biology, and in many cases have health benefits. The compounds found in plants are of many kinds, but most are in four major biochemical classes, the alkaloids, glycosides, polyphenols, and terpenes.
The list of simple elements of which plants are primarily constructed--carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, calcium, phosphorus, etc.--is not different from similar lists for animals, fungi, or even bacteria. The fundamental atomic components of plants are the same as for all life; only the details of the way in which they are assembled differs.
In most cases, biologically active compounds in Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, or herbal medicine have not been determined. Therefore, it is important to use the phytochemical methods to screen and analyze bioactive components, not only for the quality control of crude drugs, but also for the elucidation of their therapeutic mechanisms. Modern pharmacological studies indicate that binding to receptors or ion channels on cell membranes is the first step of some drug actions. A new method in phytochemistry called biochromatography has been developed. This method combines human red cell membrane extraction and high performance liquid chromatography to screen potential active components in Chinese medicine.
Many plants produce chemical compounds for defence against herbivores. These are often useful as drugs, and the content and known pharmacological activity of these substances in medicinal plants is the scientific basis for their use. The major classes of pharmacologically active phytochemicals are described below, with examples of medicinal plants that contain them. Human settlements are often surrounded by weeds useful as medicines, such as nettle, dandelion and chickweed.
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^ abHietala, P.; Marvola, M.; Parviainen, T.; Lainonen, H. (August 1987). "Laxative potency and acute toxicity of some anthraquinone derivatives, senna extracts and fractions of senna extracts". Pharmacology & Toxicology. 61 (2): 153-6. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0773.1987.tb01794.x. PMID3671329.
^European Food Safety Authority (2010). "Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to various food(s)/food constituent(s) and protection of cells from premature aging, antioxidant activity, antioxidant content and antioxidant properties, and protection of DNA, proteins and lipids from oxidative damage pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/20061". EFSA Journal. 8 (2): 1489. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2010.1489.
^Muller-Schwarze D (2006). Chemical Ecology of Vertebrates. Cambridge University Press. p. 287. ISBN978-0-521-36377-8.
^Turner, J.V.; Agatonovic-Kustrin, S.; Glass, B.D. (Aug 2007). "Molecular aspects of phytoestrogen selective binding at estrogen receptors". Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences. 96 (8): 1879-85. doi:10.1002/jps.20987. PMID17518366.
^Tchen, T. T. (1965). "Reviewed Work: The Biosynthesis of Steroids, Terpenes & Acetogenins". American Scientist. Research Triangle Park, NC: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. 53 (4): 499A-500A. JSTOR27836252.
^ abc"Thymol (CID=6989)". NIH. Retrieved 2017. THYMOL is a phenol obtained from thyme oil or other volatile oils used as a stabilizer in pharmaceutical preparations, and as an antiseptic (antibacterial or antifungal) agent. It was formerly used as a vermifuge.
^Berberine is the main active component of an ancient Chinese herb Coptis chinensis French, which has been used to attempt to treat diabetes for thousands of years, although there is no sound evidence of efficacy.
^Nicotine has "probably been responsible for more deaths than any other herb", but it was used as a medicine in the societies encountered by Columbus and was considered a panacea in Europe, although it is no longer accepted as medicinal.