Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tales from the Medicine Trail

This week, I read "Tales from the Medicine Trail: Tracking down the health secrets of shamans, herbalists, mystics, yogis, and other healers". It is a wild adventure narrative (true story) of a medicinal plant hunter's trips through the Amazon, India and other exotic locales.

Of particular interest to me was the description of various Ayurvedic clinics in India. Ayurveda is the oldest medical system in the world, over 5000 years old. All medical systems since have their foundations in Ayurveda. I have taken several courses in Ayurveda. You can determine your own prakruti (elemental constitution) by taking a quiz-they are online as well. This book explains how Ashwagandha, or Withania Withania somnifera is the universal Ayurvedic tonic. It is one of my favourite herbs, as an adaptogen for stress and regulating sleep cycles. It can be used in any formula, for any purpose, with no reported side effects.


The root is in remedies for coughs, rheumatism, gynecological disorders, fatigue, emaciation, low libido, impotence, inflammatory conditions, ulcers, sore eyes and diminished brain function. It is regarded as the most effective nerve tonic among all Ayurvedic herbs, and it is used widely against stress. Studies in India demonstrate the it alleviates anxiety. In the Ayurvedic texts, it is the herb that can be used with some good effects in all cases.

Turmeric root

The aromatic herbs and spices in an Indian masala, or curry, are medicine. Curcumin extracted from turmeric root can be ground and cooked in hot oil to make a curry, along with garlic, hot chillies, cardamom, cumin, cinnammon, black pepper, clove, and any other spices you like. Curcumin can be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, it is anti-inflammatory.  It can also be used to treat respiratory disease. It is cardioprotective, reduces itching and pain from external cancerous lesions and speeds healing of infected and noninfected wounds.  Curcumin also supresses the growth of pathogenic, food-borne bacteria, which is probably why it is used in cultures where there is no refrigeration. It is also hepatoprotective (liver protective) against potent toxins.

Cat's claw

The book also mentions una de gato, cat's claw Uncaria tomentosa, of which I made a tincture. It is anti-inflammatory, contraceptive, cytostatic (slows the growth of tumors), immune stimulant and antiviral. It contains antioxidant polyphenols and is anti-mutagenic.


Kava Piper methysticum has no side effects, relieves stress, anxiety, and restores sleep. It is a traditional indigenous plant used as a social, mood-enhancing beverage. It is used for a wide range of conditions. The main use is for urogenital inflammation and cystitis. It is also drunk to relieve headaches, to restore strength, to promote urination, to soothe an upset stomach, to relieve whooping cough in children, and to decrease symptoms of asthma and tuberculosis. Applied topically, it treats fungal infections and soothes stings and skin inflammations. It is also valued for its ornamental and spiritual significance. It is central to the rituals and several life passages of the people of Oceania. The plants are exchanged and used at all significant occasions and ceremonies. The plants are often cultivated to grow in specific shapes, and presented as gifts at weddings and other special occasions, decorated. In Hawaii, cultivated kava is called awa.

These plants have been used safely for millenia, but I still stress using local, or at least Canadian herbs as a first choice, when possible, because it is more ecologically responsible. There is also a belief that the herbs growing in our environment are indicators of our health needs. Whatever we need may be in our backyard. They are also simpatico, being influenced by the same environmental influences as ourselves, they are more easily taken up and assimilated in our bodies. 

The traditional kava drink

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