Plants and Your Health: The ABCs of Herbal MedicineBy Larry Rettig (LarryR) on October 6, 2010
|Did you know that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, actually use plants in the wild to medicate themselves? Incredible, but true.|
Richard Wrangham, a Harvard professor who does research at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, has actually documented the medicinal use of young Aspilia leaves by the chimpanzees he studied. He and his fellow researchers observed chimps "wadding up the leaves whole, then holding them under their tongue for a while, then swallowing without chewing. The leaves passed through the intestines undigested and intact in the stools." Occasionally throughout the meal the chimps would make sour faces. "Apparently it was no tasty treat," he concluded in his research report.
Wrangham was quite intrigued by this behavior and sent samples of the plant for analysis to a biochemist at the University of California in Irvine. The result showed that the leaves contain thiarubrine-A, an oil already known to be a very effective toxin against fungi, bacteria, and parasitic nematodes. As Wrangham noted earlier, the chimps much preferred the youngest Aspilia leaves over older ones. The analysis showed that the younger the leaves were, the richer they were in the bioactive oil. It was also quite significant that all the chimps kept the "drug" under their tongues before gulping it down. Dense with minute blood vessels, the tongue is able to absorb a substance held there, thus bypassing the digestive juices of the stomach and going directly into the circulatory system. For more on this chimp behavior, see The Medicinal Use of Plants by Chimpanzees in the Wild, by Michael A. Huffman.
So Where are the ABCs?
This is, after all, an article about the human use of medicinal herbs, not one about chimps. I simply wanted to demonstrate that if chimps can practice herbal medicine successfully, then it certainly is no stretch to acknowledge that humans do, too. And we certainly do. Just think about all the medicine men on the continent of Africa, those in Native American tribes, and even the pioneers that settled our country. If you're interested in pursuing the use of medicinal herbs in the U.S. and want a good read in the bargain, I highly recommend Sharon Brown's Aunt Bett stories. They offer a treasure trove of medicinal practices in Appalachia. You can find them here.
The First ABC
I've often read that claims about one herbal medicine or another have not been substantiated. Indeed, some assert that all claims about the efficacy of herbal medicines are false. So I set about to find out what is known scientifically about medicinal plants and their healing properties. By great good fortune, I stumbled upon the American Botanical Council (ABC). The ABC is a nonprofit educational/research organization that provides information about and promotes the safe and effective use of medicinal plants and phytomedicines. (Phytomedicines incorporate plant extracts, but mix them with other substances to produce a beneficial effect.)
The ABC's mission is to "provide education using science-based...information to promote responsible use of herbal medicine - serving the public, researchers, educators, healthcare professionals, industry and media." Part of that mission is to collect all published scientific studies dealing with the efficacy of herbal medicines from around the world--a monumental task, not only because there are so many clinical trials, but also because many of them have to be translated into English. Currently there are 277 plants listed, some with over 50 clinical trials. I gladly paid the $9.95 it cost me to access the scientific article database for 48 hours.
The Second ABC
The time and space required to list all 277 plants with their accompanying articles and their scientific results doesn't allow me to show you the entire body of science regarding the effectiveness of the plants listed, but let me at least give you a sampling. In the table below, I've listed the studies alphabetically, according to plant. From articles indexed under each letter of the alphabet, I selected one study per letter, more or less at random.
I certainly didn't expect to find such a large number of clinical trials nor such a large number of plants in the database. Granted, as clinical trials go, these involved relatively few subjects. More research must be done before the scientific world is satisfied that any given plant substance is truly efficacious. The fact remains, however, that patients in these trials found relief and even cures for their ailments. I look forward to the results of continued research and further clinical trials.
Endnote: When I began to prepare the table above, just as I was entering the information for Aloe vera, I noticed that the fire in the living room fireplace was almost out. I got up to stoke it and, in the process, accidentally burned my left knee. Although quite painful, I decided that it didn't require a doctor's care--completely disregarding my own admonition above--and headed straight for the Aloe vera plant on a windowsill in the kitchen. I cut off a small piece, slit it open, and rubbed the cooling gel on the burn. I reapplied gel three or four more times, waiting each time until the application had dried before applying more. I expected a large blister, but none developed. Within three hours the pain was completely gone. My own mini clinical trial was a complete success!
Aloe image courtesy of Wikimedia
|"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itâ€™s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.|
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