Daniel Mowrey, Ph.D.
The number of potentially useful medicinal plants growing in the world's rainforests is estimated to be in the thousands. Certainly, mankind would benefit from the application of these plants. In future years, we might witness the discovery of cures for many serious diseases in rainforest plants. But there are serious questions about how we should go about achieving these goals. For example: who should do it? Drug companies? Herb companies? Indigenous peoples? Government agencies? Other questions are equally important. How do we protect the natural resources from over harvesting? How do we protect the native peoples from cultural shock? Who should do the research? How do you train people for this enterprise and who should hire them? Literally pages of these kinds of questions could be asked; and they are all important.
As much as we would like to see immediate results from rainforest exploration, the rule of thumb must be to go slowly. We can not expect to see a plethora of rain-forest remedies come pouring out of jungles overnight.
The only currently obvious trend in rainforest development is the phenomenon of drug companies rushing to South America and South Pacific Islands, usually under sponsorship of the National Cancer Institute, in search of novel compounds. Tagging along with them are dozens of North American herbalists whose motives are not clear, but which appear to be education, rather than profit-oriented. One of the greatest of all medical ironies is that the very companies that disparage herbal remedies rely themselves on herbal remedies to an overwhelming extent as the source for successful drugs. We have seen video clips of drug seekers gazing in awe at the effective application of rainforest medicinals by local shamans and herbal medicine men, barely able to co
ntain their excitement about getting the herbs back to the laboratory to discover how it "really" works.
Meanwhile, left to his own devices, the indigenous peoples of the rainforest and other 'uncivilized' places on the earth seem to do just fine utilizing methods passed down from generation to generation in accordance with a great variety of ingenious religious, social and medical customs. These people typically try to resist the encroachment of the Western invasion, many refusing to accept Western medicine. Others eventually succumb to the fascination of modern gimmicks and the promise of a better life
Our primary task, it would seem, is to respect and preserve all aspects of the rainforest, including the plants and people, while finding ways to benefit ourselves from these great storehouses of the earth's healing agents.
Important Herbs From South American Rainforests
The remainder of this article will discuss remedies from the rainforests of South America, since this is the area that is currently of most interest to North Americans. Although there are literally thousands of rainforest plants that would make wonderful additions to the world's pharmacopoeia, there are only a handful that have reached that status. While most current attention is directed at the rainforest remedies of Peru, Belize, Columbia, Ecuador and Amazonian Brazil, several of the well-known and
commercially available remedies of South American rainforests come from other areas.
Some of the following herbs you may have heard of and others I am sure you have never heard of. These are just but a handful of the many herbal remedies that plants supply us with. And they are also the same herbal remedies that the large drug companies do not want you to know about.
Lapacho (Tabebuia avellandedae, and T. impetiginosa).
Also commonly known as Pau D'arco, this is perhaps the best known South American remedy available in the U.S. It has been recommended for many ailments, including cancer (esp. Leukemia), candida and a host of other infections, relief of pain in chemotherapy, arthritis, etc. It demonstrates a marked anti-oxidant effect and has been shown to be an effective inhibitor of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi.
In folklore it is also listed as a diuretic, sedative, decongestant, and hypotensive. It is considered one of the world's great tonic herbs.
Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis).
Another popular South American herb, growing in the rainforests, but. now cultivated in large sub-tropical plantations, is this member of the holly family, renowned for its stimulant and nutritive effects. Yerba mate has been used by natives, especially the Guarani Indians, as a dietary staple during times of drought or famine. They thrive on it due to its high nutritive content. Mate is also used as a treatment for hay fever and asthma and is often combined with lapacho to enhance the action of that herb. The plant is often used to improve digestion, to both curb and enhance the appetite, to combat fatigue, as a cardiotonic, and an immunotonic. Like other xanthine-containing plants, mate's most consistent application is as a mild stimulant. Unlike similar plants (coffee, tea, guarana, kola nut), mate use does not lead to caffeinism, upset sleep, physical tolerance, and adrenal stress.
Guarana (Paullinia cupana).
Another xanthine-containing plant, guarana is widely used throughout South America as a stimulant. Certain guarana-based.drinks are also popular in the U.S. and Europe. Considered to
be a more powerful stimulant than yerba mate, guarana exhibits properties and side effects more closely aligned with the other caffeinaceous plants.
Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata).
This is perhaps one of the earliest (1569) rainforest plants to be exported and eventually cultivated in Europe and the U.S. It has always been used as a sedative, to reduce
anxiety and tension. It also has a mild analgesic action. Passion flower is a favorite remedy for PMS and insomnia.
Suma (Pffafia paniculata).
From the Amazonian rainforest, was introduced to the U.S. market in the mid-to-late 80's. Suma is known as 'Para Toda' by the indigenous people of Brazil, and was labeled 'Brazilian ginseng' by Japanese citizens of Brazil, the latter term giving some clue as to what benefits the consumer might expect to realize from its use. Para Toda, the Portuguese term, apparently means "for everything." Among the claims for Para Toda are these: ap
hrodisiac, tonic, energizer, anti-cancer aid, immune enhancer, and diabetic remedy.
Cat's Claw (Uncaria tomentosa).
Also known as "Una de Gato" this is the most recent rainforest product to emerge in commercially available quantities. It hails from Peruvian forests. It is currently being touted as a possible remedy for cancer and AIDS, and appears to demonstrate considerable immunostimulant action. Available research is encouraging. Strenuous efforts are being implemented to prevent endangering supplies, a problem that has threatened both lapacho and suma.
Muira Puama (Liriosma ovata).
A native folk medicine of Brazil, muria puama is best known as an aphrodisiac. Although it has been known for hundreds of years, its popularity waxes and wanes, and it has struggled
to gain a foothold in the U.S. Early Italian research discovered an androgenic action similar to that of yohimbe, but without the side effects that yohimbe is known to possess. Muira Puama is cited in the conservative British Herbal Pharmacopoeia as an astringent and aromatic and reluctantly acknowledges its possible aphrodisiac action. It is recommended in the treatment of dysentery and impotence.
Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana).
The leaf of the stevia plant, a native of rainforest in Paraguay and Brazil, is several hundred times sweeter than sugar, calorie-free, health promoting, completely free of side effects, and poses a great threat to the giants of the artificial sweetener business. For this reason the FDA has banned the import of stevia for many years. Recently, the ban was lifted, probably because some large manufacturer is planning to utilize it in the artificial sweetener industry. Suppliers are still prohibited from making sweetener claims for stevia. At any rate, pure stevia leaf and various extracts of stevia are currently available and make wonderful additions to the diet.
Boldo (Pneumus boldus).
Found in Chile and Peru, boldo leaves have been used by indigenous peoples for liver ailments and in the treatment of gallstones. It is recommended by Western scientists as a diuretic, laxative and liver tonic. Boldo comes to the U.S. via certain European manufacturers. It is still not commonly found in our health food stores, but will certainly become more popular in the future.
Cinchona (Cinchona species).
The entire modern era of ethnobotany and search for drugs in the world's rainforests began with cinchona, the only source of natural quinine, the original cure of malaria. Quinine was eventually synthesized, but it is still possible to obtain cinchona bark and to use it as an immunostimulant. It not only cures (but does not prevent) malaria, but has antiviral and antipyretic properties. It can also be used to as a tonic and stimulate the appetite, treat headaches, leg cramps and colds.
Jaborandi (Pilocarpus annatifolius).
This native of Central and South America is perhaps the only 'true' diaphoretic currently known. Diaphoretics stimulate profuse sweating, usually through the action of glycosides. But in jaborandi, alkaloids have been found that directly and powerfully stimulate the sweat glands and salivary glands. Whereas other diaphoretics require concomitant heat, jaborandi can be consumed cold and still be effective. The drug pilocarpine is derived from this plant, but the action of the whole plant is more effective, and devoid of serious side effects unless consumed in copious amounts.
Papaya (Carica papaya).
Papaya, or the pawpaw tree, is the source of the powerful proteolytic digestive enzymes papain and chymopapain.
Ipecac, lpecacuanha (Cephaelis ipecacuanha).
Hailing from Brazil, ipecac is principally known as an expectorant, but is also an emetic, and care must be used in its application. Many European doctors still use ipecac as the agent of choice in bronchitis. However, in this country, ipecac is seldom used for this purpose, and other products are rapidly replacing ipecac in all areas of application. Nevertheless, for many decades ipecac was one of our most important medicinal agents.
Coca (Erythoxylum coca).
One hesitates to list a plant with dubious reputation and which, as a source of cocaine, is a controlled drug in the U.S., but it should be noted that the indigenous dwellers of the rainforest chew coca leaves on a regular basis to relieve hunger and quench thirst and overcome fatigue, and only rarely become addicted.
Common Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus).
In Peru, this plant is commonly used to improve the healing of wounds. As a plant of commerce, it is the source of an important antibiotic, one of the few to come from a higher plant species. Its advantage over antibiotics from lower plants is a greater margin of safety since patients do not develop resistance or allergies to it.
Although great effort is being expended in cataloging the thousands of uses of rainforest plants, it is very difficult to accurately predict which remedies may emerge as viable commercial products. There is not only the problem of supply, but consideration must be given to legal, political, cultural, sociological, and phytomedical research problems. The recent of emergence of cat's claw represents an apparently successful convergence of these many factors.
Perhaps our most immediate concern should be the preservation of rainforest biodiversity while discovering ways and means to benefit from the potential remedies to serious health problems that exist there. Again, using cat's claw, or even Suma, as examples, should a cure for AIDS be forthcoming, then the exploitation of these plants may be justified.
The excitement surrounding rainforest remedies is building in this country, as is the effort to protect them from destruction. There is a need for all of us to become more involved in this effort if we expect to continue to enjoy our rainforest remedies.