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Ancient Remedies in Use Today

April 2001

By Jeffrey Laign


China's reverence for natural therapies stretches back to the mythical days of Emperor Sheng Nung, who began recording the healing properties of plants in 2,800 B.C.

Today, Chinese doctors use about 3,000 types of herbs, much as their ancestors did.

“We're devoting a great deal of time to researching these ancient herbal cures,” says Yang Wei Yi, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “We are studying herbs to treat cancer, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes and even AIDS.”

Chinese scientists also are attempting to develop life-extending supplements by isolating polysaccharides from woody mushrooms; treat age-associated illnesses with schisandra; and promote blood circulation with dan shen, a cousin of our garden sage.

Image with Caption
Many of the old herbal preparations
work as effectively or better than
pharmaceutical drugs.

Researchers in India also are making great strides in corroborating ancient medical practices. More than 5,000 years ago, Indian healers devised a program of diet, exercise and meditation called Ayurveda. Today, thanks to endorsements by advocates such as Deepak Chopra, M.D., Americans are beginning to embrace the ancient healing regimen.

“Ayurveda is usually translated as ‘the science of life,'” says Chopra, author of the best-selling Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide.

Ayurveda, in fact, may be mankind's oldest form of mind-body medicine, says Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D., coauthor of A Woman's Best Medicine: Health, Happiness and Long Life Through Ayur-veda.

“It was the Vedic seers who first recognized the unified field, now described by quantum physicists,” Lonsdorf says. “These healers first understood the science of the integration of human consciousness and the material world.”

Ayurvedic therapies are tailored to specific body types and lifestyles, says Vasant Lad, author of The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies. “As a science of self-healing, Ayurveda encompasses diet and nutrition, lifestyle, exercise, rest and relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises and medicinal herbs, along with cleansing and rejuvenation programs for healing body, mind and spirit.”

One of the best-researched Ayurvedic herbs is ginger, which has been used for centuries to treat stomach upsets caused by influenza and other illnesses. Researchers have discovered that ginger root contains chemicals called gingerols and shogaols, which relax the intestinal tract, relieving vomiting and diarrhea that often accompany stomach flu. The herb, in fact, has demonstrated a success rate of 75% in curing stomach flu. And Japanese scientists have discovered that ginger extracts inhibit gastric lesions by as much as 97%.

The Americas

The indigenous people of North and South America turned to the forest when they were under the weather. Today scientists are turning to laboratories to investigate and fine-tune Indian medical prescriptions.

In North America, Indians considered echinacea to be nothing less than a panacea. The Sioux applied a freshly scraped echinacea root as a poultice to treat the bites of rabid animals; the Cheyenne used echinacea to heal mouth ulcers; Choctaws took echinacea when they came down with a bad cough; and Delaware Indians used echinacea to treat venereal diseases.

“Echinacea was used more than any other plant by Indians in the Plains states,” says anthropologist Melvin Gilmore.

Today scientists know why the Indians relied on this common wildflower. In the last 30 years, more than 500 scientific studies have been conducted to determine the herb's safety and efficacy.

The most consistently proven effect of echinacea is in stimulating a process called phagocytosis, which encourages white blood cells and lymphocytes to attack invading organisms. Among other scientifically proven actions, echinacea:

  • Increases the number and activity of immune system cells, including anti-tumor cells.
  • Promotes T-cell activation.
  • Stimulates new tissue growth for wound healing.
  • Reduces inflammation in arthritis and inflammatory skin conditions.
  • Induces mild antibiotic action against bacteria, viruses, fungi and other germs.
  • Inhibits the enzyme hyaluronidase, to help prevent bacterial access to healthy cells.
  • Slows the spread of infection to surrounding tissues and helps to flush toxins from infected areas.

In South America, Indians were equally knowledgeable about healing plants. Today scientists think that the hardy, disease-resistant plants that grow in the rain forests of the Amazon contain chemical compounds that may one day provide cures for cancer and AIDS, and perhaps extend our life spans by decades.

Pharmaceutical giants such as Merck, Abbott, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, Monsanto and SmithKline Beecham have sent hundreds of “bioprospectors” to look for medicines in the jungle. Among those discovered:

Vincristine. Extracted from a species of periwinkle that grows in the rain forests of Madagascar, this drug has dramatically increased survival from childhood leukemia. Thanks to vincristine, eight out of ten children stricken with the devastating disease recover fully.

Quinine. For decades this medicine made from South American cinchona bark has been used to save millions around the world from perishing from malaria.

Curare. South American Indians dip their arrowheads in this plant-derived poison. But curare has far more valuable uses. It yields d-turbocurarine and other alkaloids used to treat multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. And it's an essential ingredient of anesthesia.

In addition, researchers in Europe are testing an extract from cat's claw as a treatment for cancer and AIDS; an extract from the muira puama plant may provide a Viagra-like cure for impotence; the pau d'arco tree yields lapachol and 20 other compounds that may be useful in treating cancer, lupus, diabetes and Hodgkin's Disease; and Italian researchers have found that an extract from the chuchuhuasi tree fights tumors and reduces inflammation.

Image with Caption
In North America, Indians considered echinacea
to be nothing less than a panacea. The Sioux
applied a freshly scraped echinacea root as a
poultice to treat the bites of rabid animals.

David Kingston, a Virginia chemist, has conducted more than 14,000 tests on more than 3,000 plant extracts he found in the Amazon jungles of Suriname. “It's hard to know just how many plants are out there,” he concedes.

And even with our many technological resources, it's hard to know what life-extending medical secrets may have been lost through the centuries.

“We are just now beginning to understand what ancient people knew all along,” says Maya Bloom, a botanist in Millburn, N.J. “Many of the plants on this earth have the power to heal us and extend our lives.”

Jeffrey Laign, a contributor to Life Extension magazine, travels the world in search of life-extending remedies.


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