Wednesday, October 1, 2014

From Deep in the Jungle

     Since prehistoric times, mankind has used herbs and plants for many different purposes: to contact the 'spirit world' (see posts: Altered States of Consciousness and Mother Nature's Psychedelic Roadside Drug Store), to poison his adversaries (see post: The High Priest), in religious rites (see post(s): Drugs Used in Religion-The New World; Drugs Used in Religion-The Old World) and to entice love (see post: Jet Fuel for the Sex Machine).
Contacting the Spirit World

     But, perhaps most importantly, mankind has used many of the products of nature to treat disease, to cure illness, to relieve pain. One of the best known of the early uses of 'nature for medicine' is the opium poppy, a plant which has provided both the wonder of pain relief and the scourge of addiction.
     Indigenous cultures in Africa and Native America used herbs in their healing rituals. Other cultures developed traditional medical systems, such as Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used. Researchers have found that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.
Ayurvedic Medicine

     Today, 25% of all prescription drugs sold in the US, contain plant chemicals as active ingredients. About half of those plant chemicals derive from species found in temperate climates and half from species found in the tropics. The value of medicines used today which have their derivation from tropical plants is more than $6 billion every year.
     Of all the plant species in the world, only 95 are the source of the approximately 120 plant-based prescription drugs used today. Of the more than 250,000 plant species world-wide, only 5000 have been closely examined in the laboratory to assess their therapeutic potential. In just one small corner of the planet (Brazil), little or nothing is known about 98.6% of the plants in that country's jungles.
Traditional Chinese Medicine

     Today, the field of ethnobotany  examines the relationships that exist between plants and human beings; the use of plants for food, clothing, construction, ritual and many other diverse purposes.
     The use of plants as medicine is older than recorded history. Carefully buried around the bones of a Stone Age man in Iraq have been found the remains of marshmallow root, hyacinth, and yarrow, all three plants still in use today as medicinal herbs.
     Marshmallow root is soothing to inflamed or irritated mucous membranes, such as a sore throat or irritated digestive tract.    
     Hyacinth is a diuretic, ridding the body of excess fluid. Yarrow has been used as a cold and fever remedy that may once have been used much as aspirin is used today.
Marshmallow Plant

     In 2735 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nong wrote a treatise on herbs, a work that is still used today. Shen Nong recommended the use of Ma Huang (ephedra), for example, to counter breathing problems. Ephedrine, derived from ephedra, is used as a decongestant, synthetically produced as pseudoephedrine.
     King Hammurabi of Babylon (1800 BC) prescribed mint for digestive disorders. Today, peppermint has been shown  to relieve nausea and vomiting by mildly anesthetizing the lining of the stomach.
     Other texts from the ancient Middle East (Mesopotamia, Egypt, even India) describe the use of medicinal plant products, such as castor oil, linseed oil, and white poppies.
Shen Nong

     The Book of Ezekiel (6th century BC) declares: 'and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and leaf thereof for medicine'.
     Egyptian hieroglyphs show physicians treating constipation with senna pods, and using caraway and peppermint to relieve digestive upsets.
     Throughout the Middle Ages, home-grown botanicals were the only medicines available, and no self-respecting household would be without a carefully tended herb garden. Generally, herbal healing lore was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth - mother taught daughter; the village herbalist taught his apprentice.
     One of the first attempts to scientifically catalogue plant species was carried out by the Greek surgeon, pharmacist and botanist  Dioscorides in 77 AD., who published the five-volume 'De Materia Medica', a catalog of about 600 plants in the Mediterranean, including information on how the Greeks used the plants for medicinal purposes. 'De Materia Medica' remained an important source of knowledge for the next 1500 years.

     The drugs used in modern medicine are, in effect, the benefactors of many ancient herbal remedies. Today, there are many drugs considered to be conventional medications that were originally derived from plants.
     Salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin (ASA), was originally derived from white willow bark (and the meadowsweet plant). Salicylic acid is a phyto (plant) hormone and plays a roles in plant growth and development.
     A stone tablet of medical text from the Third Dynasty of Ur (present day Iraq), dated about 2000 BC, lists willow among other plant and animal-based remedies. The earliest specific reference to willow and myrtle (another salicylate-rich plant) being used for conditions that would likely be affected by their anti-fever, pain-killing and anti-inflammatory properties comes from the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text from 1543 BC.

     In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates wrote about the bitter powder extract of willow bark which was used to ease aches and pains and treat fevers.
     The Cherokee and other Native Americans used an infusion of the inner bark of the willow for fever and other medicinal purposes for centuries. Celsus, the famous Roman encyclopedist wrote in his De Medicina ( 30 AD), of using willow leaf extract to treat the four signs of inflammation: redness, heat, swelling and pain.
     In 1828, Johann Buchner, professor of pharmacy at the University of Munich, isolated a tiny amount of bitter tasting yellow, needle-like crystals, which he called salicin.
     By the seventeenth century, the knowledge of herbal medicine became widely disseminated throughout Europe. In 1649, Nicholas Culpeper wrote 'A Physical Directory' and 'The English Physician'. These herbal pharmacopeia were some of the first manuals that the layperson could use for health care.
Third Dynasty of Ur

     It was not until the 1700s, however, that interest in botanical exploration grew. Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) was a Prussian naturalist, geographer and explorer.
     Between 1799 and 1804, he travelled in Latin America, exploring and describing it for the first time in a manner considered to be a modern scientific point of view. His descriptions, including botanical drawings, was published in an enormous set of volumes over 21 years.
     Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779) was a British explorer, navigator and cartographer) whose voyages brought back collections and information on plants from the South Pacific. It was during this period in history that major botanical gardens were started, most notably the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London.
Captain James Cook

     Kew Gardens was established in 1759 and holds the world's largest collection of living plants.  The living collections include more than 30,000 different kinds of plants, while the herbarium (the collection of preserved specimens) has over seven million species.
     Once scientific methods were developed to extract and synthesize the active ingredients in plants, pharmaceutical laboratories took over from providers of medicinal herbs as the producers of drugs. The use of herbs, which for most of history had been mainstream medical practice, began to be considered unscientific, or at least unconventional, and to fall into relative obscurity.
     Many reactions which the body experiences in response to ingestion or exposure to certain plants is due to the chemical compounds called alkaloids found especially in tropical species. Alkaloids are found in the drugs and chemicals used in nearly every culture on earth.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

     Alkaloids provide the pain-killing effects in opium, morphine and codeine, the toxicity in poisons such as strychnine, the addictive qualities found in heroin, cocaine and nicotine, and the hallucinogenic effects in mescaline and psilocybin (see post: Drugs Used inReligion-The New World). Alkaloids taste bitter and this astringent 'flavor' was often a clue to the native healer that the plant possessed therapeutic properties.
     Quinine, one of the bitterest substances known, is one of over thirty alkaloids found in the bark of the cinchona tree and is the original malaria-fighting drug, first discovered by South American natives thousands of years ago in the area of today's Peru and Ecuador.
Cinchona Tree

     Malaria is a wide-ranging disease and still kills more people every year than AIDS. But in the past, malaria was much more wide-spread, affecting Paris, Rome, Washington DC, Madrid and even as far north as London. Malaria likely killed both Oliver Cromwell and Alexander the Great.
     Vincristine is a drug used to treat certain types of cancers, derived from periwinkle. An herbal preparation of the foxglove plant has been in use since 1775. The powdered leaf of this plant is known as the cardiac stimulant digitalis.
     The gingko is one of the oldest living tree specimens on earth and the leaf extract of the gingko has been used in China and Japan for over five thousand years to treat illnesses such as asthma and allergic reactions.
     Today, gingko extract is widely sold and brings in revenues of over $700 million per year world-wide. Gingko acts as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow and is often used in the elderly to 'increase flow to the brain'. It has also been used in modern medicine to treat asthma, toxic shock, kidney disorders as well as to counter rejection of organ transplants.

     Prior to the discovery and synthesis of antibiotics, the herb echinacea (from the plant known as purple coneflower) was one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the United States. Today, research suggests that the echinacea boosts the immune system by stimulating the production of disease-fighting white blood cells.
     Taxol is a modern day example of a new drug discovered through the examination of plants native to a various regions. Since 1960, the National Cancer Institute had been randomly collecting plants and testing  then for their therapeutic effectiveness.

     Native North Americans had been using the yew tree for centuries for a number of purposes. The Potowatomi used the crushed leaves, applying them to venereal sores. 
An Old Gingko Tree

     The Menominee, Iroquois and Chippewa all used the plants, boiling the branches and leaves and bathing in the steam as treatment for arthritis and rheumatism.
     In 1992, taxol, the alkaloid found in the bark and needles of the Pacific yew tree of the American Pacific Northwest, is used in the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer.
     The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, even today, over 80% of the world population still use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Herbal medicine is a major component in all indigenous peoples’ traditional medicine and a common element in Ayurvedic, homeopathic, naturopathic, traditional oriental, and Native American Indian medicine.

     Besides the National Cancer Institute, major pharmaceutical companies are now conducting research on plant materials gathered from the rain forests and many other places for their potential medicinal value. Over the centuries, there have been so many 'new' discoveries, many of which have been used for thousands of years by native cultures.
Pacific Yew Tree
     There are surely further great discoveries to be made from deep in the jungle (or even from your own back yard) - drugs to cure diabetes, drugs to cure AIDS; perhaps even a drug that will cure 'old age' and allow us to live forever.
     *The search for botanical medicines: subject of research for the novel The Judas Kiss- Amazon Kindle


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