Natures healing gifts
For many thousand of years, people have been using natural resources to help medicate illness, and modern medicine is coming to appreciate just how knowledgeable those old medicine men were.
Did you know that ‘Gift’ is the German word for poison? A gift, in English, has a far more happier meaning, especially so, when one looks at the wonders of the natural world. The birds and the bees, the flowers and the trees and all manner of strange, sometimes revolting creatures share this earth with humanity. In the mists of times past, witch doctors and shamans would rely heavily on their knowledge of nature, in seeking cures for illness.
It is unfortunate, perhaps, that much of that wisdom was overlooked, as ‘civilisation’ began to spread around the globe, yet today’s scientists are beginning to realize that this could have been a huge mistake. Many creatures can provide answers to ailments that defeat modern medicine, yet we shy away from many of them, even the humble bee. Ancient remedies, it seems, have their place in the modern world, in more ways than one.
Bacteria are, without a doubt, the oldest inhabitants of our planet, and are vitally important to humans living healthy lives. This may seem at odds with the current emphasis on cleanliness, but the fact is that each of us is host to untold billions of them within our bodies, and they play a vital role in maintaining our bodily functions.
There are more bacteria living in your gut than there are cells in your whole body. Benign organisms that help regulate digestive rates, affect the working of the immune system and fight off harmful strains such as salmonella. Recent research shows that these ‘pro-biotic’ organisms are much more effective at combating allergies than so called ‘anti-biotics’.
Indeed, this research by Yakult – Japanese yoghurt manufacturer – seems to indicate that medication based on these same principles could eventually lead to pills being available over the counter that could, for example, stop new babies developing excema, relieve irritable bowel syndrome and reduce the risks of colon cancer, as well as fighting off all manner of gut infections.
Bacteria aren’t all bad, apparently, but then many larger creatures have important medical surprises for us, too, once we can see past the revulsion we naturally tend to feel toward them. From an early age, we are ‘taught’ which beasts to be wary of, for different reasons, but the more science discovers about them, the more irrational some of our fears seem.
Among the slimiest ‘creepy crawlies’ are worms and snails, but our revulsion seems misplaced. Sea-living cone snails produce venom, which paralyses fish in seconds. Scientists have isolated ziconotide from it, a chemical capable of blocking off pain. Half of those tested in US trials achieved significant pain reduction.
This drug should be available within a few years, but needs an operation to use it – a small tube has to be inserted into the spine, so that doses can be injected into the spinal cord – and is likely only to be used as a last resort, for those who are suffering the most.
We shudder, when we see maggots on a rotting corpse. Strangely enough, it is thier taste for diseased flesh, and the associated bacteria that makes them invaluable in medicine. Used during World War 1, and in Napoleonic times, the maggots clean wounds much faster than antiseptics and antibiotics.
One tissue viability specialist, Jacqui Fletcher (University of Hertfordshire, UK), says that ‘The maggots are sealed over a wound, and washed out three days later’. There are 850 hospitals in the UK, which now happily use maggot treatment, and even Margaret, the Princess Royal, has undergone this therapy, for burned feet.
Apitherapy sounds a bit of a tongue twister, doesn’t it? It’s a treatment recognised in large parts of the world, based on 45 million years worth of evolutionary expertise by the bee, the favoured species being the European honey Bee. It’s an amazing fact that 21st century medicine, advanced as it undoubtedly is, has started looking seriously at remedies that were once regarded as myths and folklore, with a far more open eye.
What ancient Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians and Romans were happy to use for curing ailments may seem unpalatable to us, but science is coming to appreciate how well they actually work. Modern doctors look back to their mentor of millennia ago, finding now that he was far more learned than they might at first have thought possible.
The Greek Hippocrates is familiar to all, as the founder of modern medicine. Born in Cos, around 460 BC, it was he who originally used the Agnus Castus fruit – also known as the Chaste berry – for helping women with stomach pain. A brand new study in British medicine has vindicated his use of the plant for menstrual problems, just as St John’s Wort – which he used for ‘demonic possession’ – is becoming recognized as a cure for depression today.
Like other Greek physicians, Hippocrates understood the value of the bee, particularly bee propolis –used by the bees to sanitise their hives and protect the young. Indeed the name comes from the Greek – pro = before, and Polis = city – so the whole word translates as ‘defender of the city’.
Use of this amazing product is widespread, though not in Western Europe, and in some ways, it’s difficult to understand why. Though 0.2% of people will have a natural allergy to the pollen content, the vast majority can use it without side effects. What is it that makes this substance special?
Propolis is composed of resin from plants and trees (50%), Wax (30%) essential oils (10%) and 5% pollen. It also contains amino acids, minerals, vitamins and, most important of all, bioflavonoids – thought to be the active ingredient in healing processes. This combination is also called ‘Bee Glue’, and is used to coat the inside of the hive,
providing a completely sterile environment, with its antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal properties.
Hippocrates used propolis for sores and ulcers. The Egyptians, to whom the bee was holy, used it and Romans, seeing the Bee as a symbol of courage and valour, were happy to use propolis a great deal. Their legends had it that the God Jupiter transformed the lady Mellisa into a bee, just so she could produce the miracle healer.
Strangely, though, the benefits were overlooked in Europe until 1579, when it was referred to in John Gerard’s Historie of Plants as being able to ‘provide swift and effective healing for many conditions’. Still, it is really only in the latter half of the twentieth century that the use of propolis has become widespread in some parts of the world.
Scientific research has demonstrated, in China, that the substance is effective in treating hypertension, arterio-sclerosis and coronary disease, helping white blood cells in cleaning the blood supply. Russian tests found that it can prevent the forming of abscesses and ulcers, while US, and Polish experiments show that it is of great benefit in treating skin disorders, herpes and various allergies.
It is known, in alternative medicine circles, as the ‘woman’s friend’, because it seems to help with painful periods, vaginal infections and sores. Very recent research in London, at the National heart and Lung Institute, have shown that he bioflavinoids in propolis are capable even of destroying bacteria which had developed a resistance to modern, synthetic antibiotics.
The pollen content of propolis is very important, too, containing, as it does, 16 minerals, 16 vitamins, all 18 amino acids, 21 enzymes and a host of other elements. It helps to strengthen the immune system, and provides antioxidant protection against the free radicals, which modern medicine believes are harmful. It also inhibits the release of histamine, and helps to combat allergic reactions such as hay fever.
You may never look at a bee in quite the same way again. Not only can they provide you with delicious honey, but also the means of helping to ensure your good health and well-being. Roman historian Pliny said ‘Current physicians use propolis as a medicine because it extracts stings and all substances embedded in the flesh, reduces swelling, softens indurations, soothes pain of sinews and heals sores when it appears hopeless for them to mend’.
It can be taken in several forms today, and is regarded as a safe, non toxic food supplement, helpful for respiratory problems, Arthritis and Rheumatism, burns, bruises, dental problems and even skin treatment. Can be obtained from most health shops as capsules, solutions and creams.
It would seem, with hindsight, that medical practitioners of ages past were, in many ways, far more forward thinking than might ever have been believed., as the ensuing centuries have shown. Does your skin crawl, on seeing blood-sucking leeches? The answer is probably yes, but this ‘blood-letting’ is enjoying renewed popularity among health professionals. Once employed as a standard cure for almost every ailment, though not seen that way nowadays, the leech still plays a vital role in burns units and reconstructive therapies.
Poor circulation hampers healing, but leeches help to combat this. They feed happily on congested blood, and chemicals released during feeding help to thin the blood so that it flows more freely. Over 100 hospitals in the UK now use leeches to help ensure that grafted or re-attached body parts have a better chance of healing successfully.
Another terror is the snake, some so venomous that a bite can kill in minutes. People naturally avoid them, yet stroke victims can be given unique blood-thinning relief, if treated with Ancrod - the drug purified from the venom of the Malaysian pit viper. US trials showed that 40% of those treated recovered both physical and mental abilities. Its only drawback seems to be that it needs to be administered to a stroke victim within three hours of the attack, in order to be effective.
Few would imagine that mice are beneficial, but US research is showing that a treatment for brain cancer may actually become reality because of them. Mouse cells, when brought into contact with cancerous cells, seem to be able to kill them off, without harming the normal cells around them. Clinical trials in the US show that this effect works in humans treated with them. Professor Gordon McVie, of the Cancer research Campaign, says that trials won’t start in the UK for another couple of years, but that they hope to have a new drug perfected within five.
Finally, the most horrific of them all, the tarantula – that massive, hairy spider with the ‘lethal’ bite – is proving to be yet another wonderful surprise for medicine. Its venom contains an ingredient that can prevent disruptions in heart rhythm, which is a contributory factor in blood clots in the brain, leading to strokes.
US research shows that the venom has no side effects, and Dennis Noble, professor of cardiovascular physiology at Oxford university, has said that ‘This discovery is an interesting advance which could lead to a whole new type of therapy’, though it may yet be some years away.
Where ordinary medicine can prove ineffective, ‘alternatives’ might just provide an unexpected answer to the problems. Just because the scientists can’t rationalize it doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Like so much ‘witch doctory’ that is finding its place in modern society, nature offers a huge range of gifts that we should gladly accept and embrace. They may just provide the solution to the medical condition that has outfoxed your ordinary doctor.
Food for thought, don’t you think? We find ourselves stepping backwards in time to make medical advances, and things we regarded as the ‘old ways’ are turning out to be the best. It seems ‘medicine men’ of folklore knew more than we ever imagined. Perhaps in future, we should all think again about ‘alternative’ treatments. One day, they might save our lives.