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Herbal medicine and chemical composition of the human body



Six elements, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium make up about 99 per cent of the weight of the body. Another five elements make up 0.85 per cent of the body. These elements are potassium, sodium, sulphur, chlorine and magnesium. 0.15 per cent of the weight of the body is made up of trace elements. These are dietary minerals that are required in very minute quantities in their functions in the body. They function as co-factors in chemical reactions and assist in the physiological function of organs, muscles etc. Trace elements are also required in the physiological functions of the brain and nerves in the central nervous system.

The molecules in it can also express the composition of the human body. For example, the following molecules can be said to be found in the body: water, carbohydrates such as glucose and the glycogen stores, protein, fats and oils etc. This being the case, these different molecules can be broken down into their elemental components. For example, water is made up of 2 atoms of hydrogen and a single atom of oxygen.

A carbohydrate is a macromolecule of carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O). The hydrogen: oxygen ratio is 2:1 as in water and the basic chemical formula of carbohydrate is Cm(H2O)n. The letters m and n may not necessarily be the same but they represent one of the four different groups of carbohydrates. These groups are referred to as saccharides, a synonym of carbohydrate. The four groups are monosaccharide, disaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.

Glucose, the most basic form of carbohydrates is a monosaccharide with the chemical formula C6H12O6. Smaller carbohydrates, monosaccharides and disaccharides are usually referred to as sugars and they commonly end with the prefix “-ose.” For example, we have glucose (grape sugar monosaccharide), sucrose (cane sugar disaccharide) and lactose (milk sugar disaccharide).

Amino acids are the organic compounds that combine together to form proteins.

Chemical composition of amino acids
Amino acids have a basic amino group (-NH2) and a carboxyl acid group (-COOH). Attached to this basic group is an organic R group that confers uniqueness to the amino acid. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen are the four key elements found in amino acids. After water, amino acids are the most abundant components of proteins found in muscles and cells. They are combined together into peptide chains (polypeptides), which are the building blocks of proteins. Proteins found mostly in the musculature, give structural support to the human body. Enzymes, which are organic catalysts that catalyse the biochemical reactions that take place in the body, are also proteins. On rare occasions, proteins can be broken down for energy generation.

Chemical composition of fats
Fats in the body, otherwise known, as triglycerides are compounds formed by three long chain fatty acids and an alcohol, glycerol. Glycerol is a triol, which has three active hydroxyl (-OH) groups, which will react with three long chain fatty acids to form triglycerides. Fats are generally hydrophobic; they are insoluble in water but soluble in certain other solvents. The shorter chain fatty acids are liquid at room temperature while the longer-chain ones are solid. Because of these different qualities, it is common to refer to those that are liquid at room temperature as oils and the solid ones at room temperature as fat. However, they are all lipids.

Fats partake in structural and metabolic functions in the body. When fats are broken down in the body, some fatty acids are released which are referred to as essential fatty acids. They are essential because they are not synthesized in the body and have to be supplied from the food we eat. The two most important essential fatty acids to human beings are omega 3 fatty acid (alpha-linolenic acid) and omega 6 fatty acid (linoleic acid).

The chemical formula of omega 3 fatty acid consists of 18-carbon chain and the double ester bond that renders the fatty acid unsaturated – CH3CH2(CH=CHCH2)3(CH2)6COOH.
So far, we have seen the three macronutrients, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. From what we have seen thus far, these macronutrients are molecules of the six common elements in the body. These are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, nitrogen and calcium. These elements and more make up the human body.Next week I shall explain why I have had to break down the macronutrient into their elemental forms in relation to the elements found in the herbs and fruits.

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