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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Natural medicines

In 1994 my husband and I spent 4 months traveling in South America and were ‘blown away’ by the cultural diversity and the never-ending species of plants we encountered that were used by them as natural medicines.

We started off in Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru where we visited many amazing Inca sites and incidentally learned that their medical practices were extremely advanced. Continuing south, we flew into Bolivia. After landing on a barren windy plan, we descended by bus into the huge ancient crater that took us into the heart of the busy city of Le Paz whose streets thronged with stocky women with their voluminous skirts and bowler hats.

The picture shows the stalls with their local medicines and herbs being sold and because of my interest, learned of a specific case where a Bolivian ‘medicine man’ saved the lives of many men when the Panama Canal was being built.

We learned more when we were the shores of their sacred Lake Titicaca. There, a center had grown up around the building of the reed boats that sailed its waters. There were reed huts for the workers and we were invited to visit one of them where a very old medicine man who spoke English, welcomed visitors. We sat on reed mats and as he smoked in the dim light of his small fire he told us the story.

As a young man in his teens he had been chosen by his grandfather to be the one he would pass on his knowledge of how and where to gather medicines so that when he died, he could take over as his tribe’s medicine man, or curanderos. To that end the two set out for a year traveling north through the jungles and mountains collecting plants, tree barks and minerals while he was taught their use and dosages. They eventually reached Panama where they soon learned that so many men were dying from malaria that the whole project was in immanent danger of being abandoned.

He and his grandfather had collected the bark of the cinchona tree that contained quinine and that remedy was so effective, the men were able to recover and were able to complete the canal in 1914.

In the chemistry department of my university, a whole section was devoted to natural products research where students were taught to separate all the compounds in a substance used as a natural medicine and characterizes the active ingredient that they could then synthesize in the lab and the drug companies could produce and sell. For instance the bark of the willow tree contains acetylsalicylic acid that’s sold to you as aspirin.

I have a tendency to trust herbal medicines and those drugs I’ve learned come from natural products and one of my experiences in China may appear as one of these posts soon. Rie

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