Old-time cures, 21st-century science

Published by Prevention magazine in 2010.  For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Over the past century, Americans have embraced modern pharmaceutical science and the life-saving medicines it has produced. In the process, many have come to think that the cures our grandparents relied on are mere “folklore.” As it turns out, that trove of old-time remedies is rich with effective treatments.

            In fact, plants still occupy a central position in modern medicine, says Catherine Ulbricht, PharmD, senior attending pharmacist at Massachusetts General Hospital and chief editor of Natural Standard Research Collaboration, which evaluates scientific data on herbs. “Practically all of the most widely used drugs have an herbal origin,” Ulbricht says. “The number-one over-the-counter medication, aspirin, is a synthetic derivative of a plant compound. Opiates are derived from the poppy, many statins are based on fungi, and Tamiflu, a flu medicine, originated from Chinese star anise.”

Many recent scientific studies have analyzed the plants that figure prominently in folk medicine. Here are traditional palliatives that research has confirmed effective, often with strong endorsement for their original use. Because botanical medicines can be powerful, use them only under the direction of a qualified health-care practitioner, says Ulbricht. The only exceptions are common food items, such as onions or parsley, when consumed in natural form and conventional amounts by healthy people.

Tradition says: It relieves pain. Practitioners of folk medicine still use the irritating chemicals released by the fresh leaves of stinging nettle, or Urtica dioica, to ease the discomfort of arthritis. Ethnobotanist Linda Different Cloud-Jones, MSE and a Montana State University doctoral candidate, reports that elders on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota, tap their swollen knuckles with bunches of this perennial herb. “In summer, you may see older people sitting on their front porches doing this,” she says. A portion of a very old Standing Rock botanical garden, full of traditional healing plants, is shown here.
            Research says: Arthritis sufferers who applied stinging nettles once a day for 30 seconds effectively relieved their discomfort by the second day, according to a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. After a week of treatments, their pain relief was “significantly greater” than that of participants who used a placebo; the greater degree of relief lasted into the next week, during which no treatments were applied by either group. 
Different Cloud-Jones explains that when applied topically, fresh nettles produce a substance that blocks your ability to perceive pain in the problem area.
For a DIY topical remedy, you can use a glove to hold a small bunch of the fresh plants and tap them lightly on the affected area. The result is not a long-lasting allergic reaction, like that of poison oak or ivy, but rather an immediate tingling sensation followed by a temporary, localized rash. (These side effects were deemed acceptable by most of the study participants described above.) You can grow nettles yourself with seeds from horizonherbs.com; since the plant is a common weed, you might find it while hiking (you’ll know if you do). You can also ask greenmarket farmers if they have any. Don’t apply to broken skin, as you will cause further irritation.
Boiling or steaming nettles removes their prickle, so they can be consumed as a spinach-like dish. When taken internally, studies show, they appear to be beneficial for the genitourinary system —preventing prostate enlargement, urinary tract infections, and kidney stones. Because the plant contains natural antihistamines, when taken under the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner, it appears to open up bronchial passages and relieve allergies. It is available in tea, capsule, or extract form.

Tradition says: From Native America to Europe to China, herbalists have long used hawthorn’s leaves, white spring flowers, and tart red fall berries to make heart tonics, as well as remedies for acne and sore throat. During the 1st century, the famed physician of Ancient Rome, Dioscorides, wrote about it in De Materia Medica, which became the most influential medical treatise of the next 16 centuries. In Europe and America, we have also long consumed hawthorn in the form of jam and jelly. 
Research says: Antioxidants and other compounds in hawthorn may strengthen the heart and prevent or reduce the symptoms of coronary artery disease. In extensive analyses done by Cochrane Research in 2008, hawthorn extract increased the heart’s strength and exercise tolerance, diminished its oxygen needs, and reduced cardiac patients’ shortness of breath and fatigue.  Eric Yarnell, ND, assistant professor of botanical medicine at Bastyer University, describes a case in which he added hawthorn to a multi-herb preparation he was using to treat a man in his late 70s. The patient had high blood pressure, among other problems. “We quickly had him off all his blood-pressure medications,” recalls Yarnell.
Hawthorne is available as a tea, tincture, capsules, and solid extract. Overall, according to Natural Standard Research Collaboration, it appears to be safe and well tolerated by most people when used under medical supervision. You should not, however, use it if you are taking another heart medication, such as a beta-blocker or ACE-inhibitor, as it may alter its effect.

Tradition says: Plantain, a low-growing oval-leafed plant found all over the globe (not to be confused with the banana-like fruit of the same name) is an effective remedy for skin ailments. Hildegard von Bingen, the renowned 12th century Benedictine abbess, healer, composer, and eventually saint, suggested applying the leaves to insect bites in her medical treatise, Physica. In addition to applying plantain poultices to insect stings, wounds, burns, infections, and more, Cherokees and other Native American tribes have drunk plaintain tea for its laxative effect.
Research says: Plantain, Plantago major, owes its effectiveness for skin ailments to its antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory properties, according to scientists from Norway and Brazil. Different Cloud-Jones uses it on the Standing Rock reservation. “I find that mashing it up with water and applying it as a poultice dramatically reduces pain and blistering,” she says.
The herb’s soothing effects work internally, too: A type of plantain seed called psyllium provides the mucilage that makes Metamucil and other laxatives work.
Look in your own backyard for the plant, a weed found in lawns across the country. The young leaves have a pliant texture and mild flavor, and Different Cloud-Jones gets their good effects by putting them in salads as well as brewing them as a tea. Consult your practitioner about how much tea or fresh plant material you should consume, or you may discover for yourself plantain’s laxative properties.

Tradition says: Columbus is credited with transporting cayenne peppers — also called chili peppers, after their Aztec name, “chil” —from the New World to the Old. Consumed in the Americas for some 9,000 years, the fiery-flavored pods reminded the explorer of black pepper, a highly prized, and pricey, spice in Europe at the time. The easy-to-grow chili quickly assumed a central role in traditional cookery and remedies worldwide; folk medical practitioners have long used it for everything from pain relief to aphrodisiacs. The Eclectics describe it as a heart stimulant, digestive aid, and cold and fever remedy that also helped recovering alcoholics get through the discomfort of withdrawal.
Research says: Red carpet alert! Beyonce, Angelina Jolie, and other celebrities are reportedly shedding pounds because they’ve added cayenne to their diets. New science supports their claims: Studies indicate that the pepper’s effect on digestion assists in weight control. According to a 2009 paper in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN), compounds related to capsaicin — the constituent that gives chilies their heat — helped subjects lose abdominal fat.
The sizzling spice also appears to control blood sugar. Study participants who ate a lunch containing capsaicin had higher blood levels of a sugar-regulating hormone and less ghrelin, the so-called hunger hormone, than those who had a bland meal, reported The European Journal of Nutrition last year.
Chili peppers can be enjoyed in innumerable fresh and hot dishes. They may be used fresh, in powdered forms like paprika, and in prepared salsas and hot sauces like Tabasco.
Capsaicin is also well known as an ingredient of preparations that ease muscle aches, postoperative discomfort, and arthritis. By reducing a certain neurotransmitter, it temporarily interferes with pain messages to the brain. For pain relief, follow package instructions on the OTC topical ointments and creams available. Do not apply to tender or broken skin.

Tradition says: They have powerful medicinal properties. In Middle Eastern traditional medicine, they’ve long been used to ease diabetes. In ancient Greece, Olympic athletes scarfed down onions and drank their juice and rubbed it on their bodies. In the United States of the early 20th century, an influential medical tract, Homeopathic Materia Medica, by William Boericke, MD, recommended using these members of the Allium plant family to cure respiratory and digestive problems.
Research says: Onions, or constituents within them such as quercetin, protect against diabetes, asthma, allergies, cardiovascular disease, and cancers, including those of the esophagus, breast, and colon. In fact, eating onions may keep the doctor away even better than apples do. Your body absorbs quercetin — an antioxidant that fights cancer, boosts heart health, and is anti-inflammatory, antihistaminic, and anti-hypoglycemic — three times faster from onions than from apples (or from tea, another top source), according to a report for the Federation of European Biochemical Societies. Your heart also benefits from onions’ thiosulfates, or sulfur compounds, which raise good cholesterol and thin the blood.
And it looks like those ancient Olympians had it right: a 2009 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that quercetin extract increased oxygen uptake and the length of time subjects could ride a stationary bike — meaning onions may well be a perfectly legal performance-enhancing substance.
Onions’ advantages are multiplied when chopped. When their cell walls are broken, reactions produce the thiosulfates responsible for their smell and their cardio-protective benefits, according to Michael Havey, PhD, University of Wisconsin professor of horticulture. “The more colorful the onion, the higher the amount of thiosulfates,” he says. “Red is better than yellow, and yellow better than white.”
Because cooking diminishes the value of the antioxidants and the sulfur compounds, use prepared onions immediately in salads, stir-fries, and other recipes that call for them raw or lightly cooked, Havey advises. “However, there’s no way to quantify how much you should eat daily, because of the variations between types of onions and methods of preparation,” he adds. Bottom line: Make them a regular part of your daily diet, along with plenty of other fruits and vegetables.

Tradition says: In 1629, botanist and apothecary John Parkinson extolled parsley root in an herbal he prepared for the Queen of England. When “put into broth,” he wrote, the root stimulated urination, opened kidney obstructions, and helped patients pass stones, presumably from the bladder and kidneys. Centuries later, Boericke’s Homeopathic Materia Medica recommended parsley for urinary-tract ailments and menstrual difficulties, as did the Eclectic Materia Medica, a manual created by the Eclectics, a group of U.S. medical doctors who practiced from the mid-1800s to the 1930s and were famous for their research on and use of Native American botanicals.
After you’ve eaten all those onions, you’ll also need this breath freshener of yore. “The strong smell of onions is quite taken away by eating parsley leaves,” counsels Parkinson.
Research says: The roots (as well as the fruits, commonly referred to as “seeds”) are a diuretic, increasing urine output, according to a review of animal studies published in World Journal of Urology in 2002. The German Commission E, a government body, has approved parsley root for use as a diuretic.
Parsley contains potent phytoestrogens as well — comparable to those in soy, according to the Chemical & Pharmaceutical Bulletin in 2000 — which may be why traditional healers found the plant helped ease menstrual trouble.
Parsley leaves have fewer benefits than the roots or seeds but are still good for your urinary tract, says Yarnell, who was lead author of the 2002 World Journal of Urology study. So, munch on that green sprig decorating your restaurant meal rather than setting it aside. At home, add chopped parsley leaves to omelets, salads, and hot dishes. Parsley root and seed are available in extract, tincture, and whole-seed form.
Finally, keep in mind that Parkinson’s breath-freshening advice works just as well today, thanks to parsley’s odor-zapping chlorophyll.

Tradition says: This lemon-scented member of the mint family was used in Europe during the Middle Ages to banish anxiety, boost memory, aid sleep and digestion, and treat insect bites and wounds. It is “good against the biting of venomous beasts, comforts the heart, and driveth away all melancholy and sadnesse,” wrote Elizabethan-era herbalist John Gerard in 1597.
Research proves: Got a test, presentation, or other stress-filled occasion coming up? As in days of old, lemon balm may well help you get a good night’s sleep ahead of time and keep you calm and focused at the moment of truth, says a 2003 article in Neuropsychopharmacology. Research suggests this plant is effective in extreme situations, too. Four weeks of lemon balm aromatherapy cut agitation in patients with severe dementia, reports a 2002 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, while four months of treatment with an alcohol tincture significantly reduced dementia and agitation in Alzheimer’s patients, according to a 2003 article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.
Lemon balm also appears to regulate an overactive thyroid (Grave’s disease). It fights bacteria and viruses; recent studies, including a 2008 report in Phytomedicine, indicate that it can be used topically to treat oral and genital herpes lesions.
If you plant this easy-to-grow perennial in your garden, you can gather the leaves to make a hot or iced tea. Lemon balm is also available in extract, tincture, oil, and bulk-tea form. If you wish to use it topically, use an OTC cream or dab on the tea with cotton balls.
Since lemon balm has a calming effect, be wary of using it if you take sedatives or must drive a car or operate heavy machinery. It may affect thyroid production, so don’t use it if you take thyroid medication.

Text and photograph c. Stephanie Woodard.

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