Why Do The Powerful Healing Plants Always Hail From Distant Lands?
They don’t (and I’ll demonstrate this). But first, a little background. I recently watched a really wonderful documentary called “The Sacred Science” (you can check it out here: http://www.thesacredscience.com/). Briefly, eight people travel to the Amazon rain forest and spend one month with curanderos (similar in many respects to a shaman) to be healed of their ailments (ranging from depression to cancer). The documentary takes us through some of the healing ceremonies and shows the local healers gathering plant medicines from the rain forest. There is no doubt this would have been a wonderful opportunity. But, I do feel this documentary speaks to our biases about the local landscapes we interact with and the way many people view them—routine, usual, and without wonder.
For example, if you look critically at children’s books and note which wild animals are often included, you will notice a lot of reference to elephants, lions, tigers, zebras, and such animals. Children learn about the animals of distant lands (which is great), but it sits in stark contrast to indigenous stories where people learn about the animals they will actually encounter in their forests. How many children’s books have you seen that feature, as the main characters, species like pokòmk (fisher), apistanewc (martin), and espons (raccoon). I’m not saying they don’t exist, but many children’s books feature the exotic wild animals of distant lands. It speaks to the way we view the landscapes that we regularly see—routine, usual, and without wonder.
This bias against our backyards is so pervasive that sometimes we will acquire herbal medicines from places such as China, India, and South America even though we have safer and/or more effective remedies here in the United States. For example, the plant sweet-flag (Acorus calamus), native to Europe and Asia, is used in many traditional cultures to heal various ailments. It was brought here by Europeans and can be ordered on-line through many companies specializing in natural remedies. It turns out this species contains β-asarone, a known carcinogenic compound. However, we have a species of sweet-flag native to North America called Acorus americanus. This species does not contain the β-asarone phytochemical (or contains miniscule amounts) and would be much safer to use (especially in quantity and/or for long periods of time). Most people who utilize herbal remedies do not know this, in part, because of the way we view the landscapes we regularly see—routine, usual, and without wonder.
Now, back to the documentary. Let me demonstrate some of the powerful and sacred healing remedies that grow wild here on the North American continent (using the local indigenous names to maintain secrecy and generate mystery) that could have been used by those in the documentary. One gentleman travelled to Amazonia to cure diabetes. Aside from the fact that Type 2 Diabetes is completely preventable (through diet), diabetes can also be cured (not just treated) through diet. However, to jump start the healing process, there is a mushroom that grows in northern areas called wapilatuwan by the northeastern indigenous people that has been shown to retard the absorption of glucose by digestive organs. This remedy helps to insure that the body does not experience a spike in blood sugar levels following meals, thus helping alleviate the issues faced by diabetics. One lady travelled to Amazonia to find a cure for breast cancer. There is a well-known herbaceous plant that has been documented as beneficial for breast cancer patients called aqotuwaluwèhc by the indigenous healers of the northeast (among other names). Another woman travelled to Amazonia to find assistance with Parkinson ’s disease. There are several Native American plants that would help (along with dietary modifications), including skitapewi-wocòpsq and kikcokalokiqeminsimùs, which are used in healing throughout eastern North America by Native Americans. These two plants would beneficially alter dopamine levels and supply key nutritional elements needed by those dealing with Parkinson’s disease. All of the participants in this documentary took part in rituals that included entheogens (substances that aid in awakening and connecting with the divine within). There are several plants and their accompanying ceremonies that could have been experienced without flying thousands of kilometers, including the eastern kawisi-minùs, a species used by many indigenous and traditional cultures (even outside of the United States). All of these remedies are here for our use, and we would know this if only we changed the way we view our local landscapes—dynamic, exciting, and with wonder.
I think the issue might be that we feel we need to travel to distant lands to meet people who know their local plants this intimately.
The local cultures where most Internet-users live are more dependent on global trade, rather than intimate local knowledge.
There've also been concerted efforts to demonize, exterminate, and discredit indigenous medical knowledge.
Some distant cultures have retained their cultural knowledge of which local plants are useful in what ways, or how to research plant-based medicines by direct observation instead of pharmaceutical extraction.
We also tend to segregate the remaining herbal lore. Reliable medicines are often refined to white purity and converted to concentrated pills or powders, making their botanical origins hard to recognize or honor.
Powerful 'magic bullets' like antibiotics are used indiscriminately, for example in antibacterial hand soap. We believe that if something is "good," more is better; patients expect a quick, chemical cure.
The remaining field of herbal medicine is crowded with 'alternative' devotees who don't like this approach. Maybe because it failed to treat a complex condition, or maybe because it doesn't fit with their personal philosophy or beliefs, or sometimes out of deep and abiding interest in a more direct or natural approach. But a whole lot of these folks have little or no training - either scientific or tribal.
In their zeal, the Alternative Believers often muddy the waters by embracing snake-oil and unreliable cures, or being easily convinced by a sham 'proof'. For example, my mother-in-law recently got excited about a gallbladder-stone "removal" remedy that has been widely discredited. It makes it harder to share her excitement about other 'cures' she's researching, like anti-cancer foods and remedies. (I will eat all the fresh fruit juice you like, but I won't believe it's curing me of anything without some further proof.)
Another friend was surprised to discover that their 'diagnostic' test produced the same "telltale" results regardless of whether there was a person present in the testing setup.
It was a system that was supposed to 'diagnose toxins': the patient puts their feet in a bath, the system runs a mild electrical current through a special electrolyte solution. If the solution darkened, it meant that the person had 'toxins' which could be treated with the other proprietary equipment. With the owner's permission, we tried running the diagnostic in a clean bath with no feet in it. The solution darkened identically.
My simplest explanation would be that the dramatic effect was due to the current and electrodes interacting with the solution; it would not be hard to duplicate with metal salts that have colored and clear forms. I can't help but think the 'test' was developed by someone who knew the chemistry, and was deliberately defrauding the users. Our friend who had just bought the equipment and wanted to become a healing practitioner had been sold on the idea without the curiosity or skepticism to question the process.
Many, many people do not seem to have enough direct observation skills, scientific training, or skeptical curiosity to verify a result.
Quackery is often more dramatic than genuine healthy practices, and seems to thrive on the Internet as well as word-of-mouth. Fortunately, the Internet also makes it easy to pass along warnings. My first response to new 'cures' is to google the name or ingredients of the cure, plus "hoax" or "fraud," and see if anything comes up. I don't trust all fraud warnings any more than I trust all miracle cures, but at least if there's a controversy I will be informed.
Other friends credit 'ancestors' with imparting ancient wisdom, but prefer to re-invent their particular field rather than interact with living, experienced elders.
I am honored to have access to several more-experienced elders, and friends who've studied natural and traditional as well as conventional medicine, who can help me sort fact from fantasy.
The unreliable reputation of the whole 'alternative' field then creates a division of opinion: dogmatic skeptics won't try it, and dogmatic believers or credulous folks will try anything without regard to reliability.
Good information from non-academic sources can be hard to find in all the noise.
In other words, we have made herbal medicines into a matter for religious belief, not reasoned debate or observant testing.
I don't mean to offend anyone on this site; I know a number of people here who do practice alternative health and herbal medicine with excellent, well-researched success, and are careful to do no harm.
When I do get a chance to discuss herbal medicines with reliable sources, I'm hard-pressed to absorb enough information in these brief encounters.
I suspect the training period to fully understand and practice effectively may be as long or longer than a Western MD's medical schooling.
But we can learn a little bit at a time, and become better first-aid and home-care resources for ourselves and our families.
I agree that we have great resources in our climates and regions.
We have more medicinal plants in our landscape than I know what to do with -
I harvest and use yarrow and Oregon grape for things like pet skin infections, and have learned to identify various rose-family plants, balsamroot, and a few others.
I use astringents (rubus berry leaves / buds) and demulsents (chickweed, licorice) to manage minor digestive upsets or uncomfortable menstrual flow.
I would love to know more about plants that regulate blood sugar as I'm not diabetic but prone to hypoglycemia - but this, even more so than diabetes, can definitely be managed with good dietary habits.
If there was a way to reduce my sensitivity so that I could fast for a day or two, or eat snacks containing refined sugars, without ill effects, I'd love to learn it.
However, it might just be that eating a healthy diet is a basic requirement for staying, and feeling, healthy.
That's one of those inconvenient facts that tends to crop up when considering holistic or systemic interactions. Sometimes there's no 'magic bullet' medical treatment; the reliable answer is consistent, healthy practice.
Maybe it's because we know that learning our local plants and living a healthy life, here, with what we have, is not easy.
It takes practice, discipline, study, and hard choices.
What kinds of risks and experiments can you tolerate in order to learn how a new medicine works?
If you are willing to travel thousands of miles for a chance at a cure, you have probably got a condition that is not among the easier ones to diagnose, treat, or cure - or you aren't satisfied with the answers and want some other option.
The idea that the grass is greener over the fence, that a mystical shaman from a remote tribe has "the answer", and distance is the only reason we haven't found it already, is an attractive fantasy.
Erica, as a "regular" doctor and die-hard skeptic, I think your post is *absolutely* spot-on, and really highlights the problem here. It's not that there are "different ways of knowing" - there's really just science if we want to strive to be reliable - but there *are* different ways of asking scientific questions, and different ways of formulating hypotheses. Like you, I am horrified by the over-use of antibiotics & antibacterials in soaps etc, or even the approach of "we must kill all germs; germs are all bad". These are not approaches based in real science, but in a sort of naive "scientism" that has more in common with bad science fiction - and it's killing us and our ecosystems.
I appreciate a lot of folks in Permies might be horrified that I think homeopathy and crystal therapy and the like (very purple!) are a pile of pants, and a lot of the poo-pooing of "traditional medicine" that comes from the skeptic community (such as it is) results from association with practices that are really pretty poor. That's sad, because I think we have a shed-load of stuff to learn about the plants and people around us, and their potential health effects and medical benefits. Of course there is nothing traditional about homeopathy, and many "traditional" items such as bear bile, rhino horn or shark fins are based in pure unadulterated quackery. Also, there are many shameless charlatans going around claiming cancer cures and the like for vacuous nonsense like "neoplastons" etc, and they sadly suck in many people who are desperate for a cure. But there are good things too, and we need to ensure these are available to people.
When we look at modern medicine, and how it arose, we're back to Ancient Egypt and Greece and Mesopotamia, with *significant* influences from India and China. Ironically there is a much stronger thread connecting modern medicine with ancient and traditional practices than there is for most "alternative" modalities. But we need to break down the barriers, particularly with regard to plants. These organisms have been evolving and surviving for millions of years without our help, acting as little bioreactors, trying out many many different compounds in many different circumstances. We have a lot to gain by understanding what they do and how they act, and we need to figure out good ways of collecting solid reliable scientific data in order to inform our decisions in relation to our own and other people's health.
Yet that's where I think the value of permaculture lies - not in the woo-woo, but in the *science*. We *can* and we *must* generate solid scientific data, because this is the basis on which governments and organisations (which we're shackled with for now, I think) make decisions. As you guys know, and as Paul and Joel Salatin and Willie Smits know, it's no good talking flowers and rainbows - human beings are very easy to fool, but if an effect - *any* effect - is real, it can be scientifically measured, and then you just slap the nay-sayers in the face with a big wad of data. In the most caring and compassionate way, of course
Interesting comments everyone. For what value it may be, I practice an approach that appears little used: I combine historical information (from evolution, indigenous and traditional use, archeology) with modern scientific study to find the union of those kinds of information. When we disregard one or the either, we end up with a strong bias in our belief systems and our practices. Here is an example from medicine: Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) has a history of use as an antimicrobial here in North America. It also has testing that demonstrates it is highly effective against a suite of bacteria and fungi (i.e., peer-reviewed study). The history of use can (at least anecdotally) speak to an effectiveness (it wouldn't be used by many groups if it were worthless) and can speak to safety (it wouldn't be used by many groups for a long time if it were dangerous). Modern study helps elucidate its efficacy and its safety (and can determine the exact mechanisms of action). Now, let's take a dietary example. Vegetable oil has no long history of use (not really), to extract oil from corn takes modern industry. Certainly the lipids in corn have been consumed within the corn, but not as an isolate. It turns out, corn oil is a very damaging food--it is chemically reactive due to a preponderance of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are prone oxidation, making this food contribute to cardiovascular disease. No long history of use means you are taking a gamble, especially when the scientific evidence for its health (to an extent) is generated by the companies wishing to sell the new product. I have to write that I wish people applied the same skepticism to pharmaceutical drugs and novel diets that they apply to natural remedies. If they viewed everything through a filter of (1) long history of beneficial use and (2) modern (unbiased) scientific research, we would see a very different level of health among our general population. Here is another piece of writing that may help people understand how I have come to my views (it is not meant to be confrontational, though I have has some interpret in that way).
What’s In a Name? A request for the healthcare system to change its name or change its practice.
[Note: This article includes some critical remarks about the healthcare industry. They are directed at conventional doctors who see illness as an opportunity to prescribe medication. No doctor should take offense to this writing—it is a record of my personal experience. I applaud those doctors who are focused on addressing root causes through improvements in diet and lifestyle (such as those doctors featured on Primal Docs).]
To begin this brief article, let’s state what might not be obvious to everyone: doctors specialize in pathology, not health. Said another way, they treat injury and illness, restoring people back to the state of health they were in prior to the ailment in question. But many people are in poor health to begin with, which is why various issues arise. Unfortunately, doctors are not considering those ailments as symptoms of poor diet and lifestyle, but rather as the issues of focus. Most doctors, despite being genuinely interested in their patient’s well-being, do not address underlying root causes (in diet and lifestyle) that prevent ailments from ever occurring. You might immediately react by stating that doctors do attempt to deal with obesity and addictive smoking and drinking. However, it can be effectively argued that these too are a result of other diet and lifestyle issues that manifest as damaging behaviors (but that is a topic for another article). I believe an experience from my past will help illustrate this problem.
I practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a form of submission wrestling that involves close contact with other people. Before I studied traditional diet and medicine, I used to frequently succumb to staph infections as a result of this sport (sometimes several a year). I would visit the doctor, who would diagnose the Staphylococcus aureus infection and then prescribe me a round of antibiotics to treat the infection. Two or three months later I was back, for another diagnosis and another round of antibiotics. The infections were extremely painful and quite debilitating. I eventually began to perform research regarding the immune system and infections of this kind and realized that experiencing frequent infections didn’t have to be the case. I learned that vitamin D up-regulates an antimicrobial peptide in the skin (called cathelicidin). And that independent research shows adults need 10 times the amount of vitamin D that the USDA is recommending. This level of vitamin D is difficult to achieve from diet alone. So sunlight exposure is critical (something I’m told to avoid), where a special form of water-soluble vitamin D is manufactured from a precursor made of cholesterol (which I’m told is bad for me). I then learned that in order for our body to manufacture vitamin D, it is critical that the oil on our skin (sebum) be present. However, washing head-to-toe with soap (as I had been taught to do) removes the sebum and impairs our ability to create vitamin D.
Additional research showed vitamin A is also critical for enhancing our immune function, and some of the foods that are rich in this vitamin (e.g., butter, eggs) have been demonized by the mainstream (and well-intentioned doctors). Further, I learned that antibiotics interfere with vitamin A absorption, so the more antibiotics I took, the further my immune system was compromised (this was never mentioned to me by the doctors that prescribed the drugs). Perhaps worst of all, I learned there is a positive correlation between the number of rounds of antibiotic treatment someone receives and the chance of contracting cancer. (And we could go on with additional vitamins, essential fatty acids, etc., that I learned about and was not told by my doctors). For what it is worth, following a suite of guidelines developed by researching traditional cultures, I’ve been staph infection free for years even though I practice the same sport and have the same exposure.
So this is the important piece: all the doctors did was treat my infection—which means they returned me to my previous state of health. My previous state of health was one of compromised immune function (hence, the frequent infections). I just showed back up a few months later and repeated the whole process. They shared none of the information about nutrition and infection prevention I just shared with you, which means they either did not know it, or they knew it and did not share it with me. In either case, the doctors failed to generate health. This is not my lone experience. I’ve helped tens of people treat various staph infections (e.g., cellulitis, MRSA, impetigo) using plants that can be gathered wild or grown here in the northeastern United States. In no case did any doctor tell them how to boost the functioning of their immune systems so that they can avoid staph infections (or at least reduce their frequency). The doctors knew the treatment (i.e., the correct dose of antibiotic to prescribe) but not how to generate real health. In fact, it can be said in this case, their treatment further compromised everyone’s health. By focusing on the real issue (poor immune system), the doctors could have also provided vital defense against colds, influenza, cancer, periodontal infections, etc. This is very important to understand—focusing on root causes strengthens the body against additional health insults.
Let me provide one more example of how doctors provide treatment for ailments but do not generate health. Cholelithiasis is defined as the presence of one or more gallstones in the gall bladder. The usual treatment: if the gallstones are symptomatic, cholecystectomy (removal of gall bladder) may be performed. For those who can’t or won’t undergo surgery, bile acids can be administered orally to dissolve the stones. I’m hoping that you are asking how any of this treats the underlying cause. Removing a location for gall stones to accumulate or dissolving the stones are ways of treating a symptom. The doctors should be asking: what caused the stones to form in the first place (and then address that issue). There is good evidence to suggest that gallstone formation is largely a result of poor diet, specifically, a diet high in vegetable oils and trans fatty acids. Again, following the treatments provided by many doctors, the patient has not been given health.
When someone who is suffering a health issue visits a doctor, they are looking for definitive care (i.e., conclusive care that treats all the symptoms AND corrects the underlying causes). No one actually wants to experience a relapse of illness or disease. However, most doctors actually perform symptomatic care, as they are focused on the pathology and not the whole human (this is especially true of cancer treatments, where a tumor-centric approach fails to protect the patient from future occurrences of neoplasms). They are not focused on how to prevent disease. It appears to me (from a perspective of someone looking from the outside) their education paradigm has led them to believe that if the symptoms are not present, a cure has been effected. This is exacerbated by the fact doctors in this country really do not have the opportunity to witness true health. They don’t have a gauge by which to measure well-being, which makes it difficult to understand the goal they should aspire to for their patients.
Unfortunately, most of the public considers doctors to be good purveyors of information and practices that generate health. To the contrary, there are studies showing that in some circumstances, if people follow their doctor’s advice regarding nutrition, they die earlier than people with the same ailment who chose not to follow their doctor’s advice. Please know that this writing isn’t meant to speak poorly of doctors. I believe they genuinely want health for their patients (I personally know doctors who I would consider to be some of the most caring people I’ve ever met). However, from discussions I’ve had with them, I don’t think they are always cognizant of what their practice actually does—it treats ailments but does not generate health. The problem with this approach is that many Americans who are not actively dealing with disease are still overweight, pre-diabetic, possess poor cardiovascular health, and have compromised immune function. Therefore, doctors are part of a system of treatment care, one that unfortunately (and not necessarily intentionally) maintains a constant stream of patients. If all doctors were truly part of a healthcare system, they would rarely see their patients because they would address underlying causes that infringe on their patients’ vitality (and through addressing those causes they were correct or prevent future issues). Treatments aren’t supposed to be the final answer. Health is the answer. Health is generated through deep nutrition and a lifestyle that maximizes exposure to a clean environment, caring community, emotional fulfillment, and natural experiences. Changing the system’s name to treatment care would provide an accurate accounting of what the healthcare profession of today actually does. It would also let discerning people know that their health is currently in their own hands.
Of course, the healthcare profession could also remedy this incongruity by learning about nutrition (as some doctors have done). And not the politically correct nutrition touted by the industry (e.g., low fat, low cholesterol, pasteurized everything, high grain and vegetable oil intake). It would need to research healthy populations (especially those that used to exist) and identify the commonalities in their diets and lifestyles (rather than create a novel diet and wait to observe the consequences on the subjects—in this case, the American people). They would need to question so many commonly held diet truths, those same truths that are creating progressive degeneration in health. They would need to learn the real difference between saturated and polyunsaturated fats (and understand the latter’s role in promoting cardiovascular disease). They would need to appreciate the real difference between wild and free-range animal products compared with cage-reared, grain-fed animals. They would need to learn about proper food preparation and the importance of deactivating antinutrients in plant foods. It would be critical that they recognize that cholesterol has no more role in vascular disease than do the white blood cells that also play a part in plaque formation (hint, cholesterol is healing a lesion created by a food recommended by the healthcare profession). In short, the doctors would have much to learn, but they would better serve their patients. They could cure disease without drugs or scalpels. Through this knowledge they could produce health. They would practice definitive care. And then they could refer to themselves properly as the healthcare industry.
Thanks Arthur - some meaty stuff there for careful digestion! Needless to say I think you have some very good points. In the UK there are now quite a few doctors who are bucking the trend (such as Asseem Malhotra and Des Spence), and it turns out that actually quite a lot of doctors are not at all happy with the commercialisation & commodification of "health care" into "health marketing". There are some important lessons here.