The text, found between the legs of a mummified body in an Egyptian tomb, has instructions on which plants to consume to treat various diseases, giving 811 prescriptions for a wide range of disorders from mental illnesses to crocodile bites.
Later came "the Hippocratic Corpus" often attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who is widely regarded as the father of modern Western medicine (although scholars today think the collection was written by numerous healers who followed Hippocrates). Remedies included honey to treat insomnia and infected wounds, winter cherry to improve eyesight and cure toothache, basil used to soften the bowel and help with inflammation, and gum arabic for birth control. In total, 40% of the remedies in the collection were made from 44 plants – 34 of which were also consumed as food.
The use of foods to help ensure a long life has been addressed in traditional Chinese, Mediterranean and Ayurvedic medicine and many more ancient texts. Even today, these continue to inspire contemporary wellness trends. And in some parts of the world, indigenous people and tribal communities continue to utilise hundreds of edible plants as medicine by including them in their diet.
The majority of the world's population, however, rely on modern healthcare systems in which food has a relatively small role to play in treating or preventing disease. Instead, food has been largely vilified as an underlying cause of metabolic and cardiovascular diseases through overconsumption and poor diet. But there is now growing consensus that a healthy diet may not only be a way of staving off these health problems, it has the power to treat diseases too.
How can we improve the diets of people around the world to prevent disease? Might food once again be used as medicine?
Many everyday edible plants have inspired medicines that you might find at home. Their abilities to synthesise compounds that are useful to us make them helpful chemistry aides. "Plants are actually brilliant chemists, they've already done much of the work for humans," says Melanie-Jayne Howes, a research leader in phytochemistry and pharmacognosy (the study of drugs from natural origin) at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the UK.
"Rather than having to start from scratch to synthesise a new drug, which can involve a lot of time and effort, and a lot of chemical resources, it can be more efficient to use a plant chemical as the starting material to design and develop a drug, because the steps involved to produce that particular drug may be reduced," adds Howes.
The first discoveries of certain chemicals in edible plants that inspired the development of new drugs might have been accidental or serendipitous in some cases, or based on how those plants were used traditionally, but their occurrence in widely grown edible crops can help scientists source them more easily.