Wednesday, May 25, 2011


The number of ingenious concoctions we have derived for keeping ourselves healthy says as much about the number of ways we can get sick as it does about our inventiveness. We have many daily soothers and preventive medicines in our bathrooms. Laxatives and cough drops go back at least to ancient Egyptian times. We didn't know what vitamins were until it was discovered that the lack of them causes serious health problems-their discovery in the 20th century  revolutionized health.

Early natural laxative: high-fiber diet, castor bean oil, saline solution
The Latin constipare means 'to pack tight'. Constipation of the bowels has long been a problem, and people have sought laxatives to ease their suffering. Anthropological research suggests that the high-fiber diet of early people who gathered roots, berries, and grains and seldomly ate lean meat made them less susceptible to bloating and constipating than the higher fat diet of agricultural societies, who fed on livestock and milk. By the third millenium BC, people were reaching into nature's medicine cabinet for relief from irregularity.

The Egyptians and Mesopotamians of that time used a cathartic that remained popular until a few generations ago-castor bean oil. This pale, viscous oil was also used as a skin lotion. It lubricated the lining of the intestine. The beans themselves are poisionous, and too much oil can make constipation worse.

The Assyrians in the second millenium BC knew much about the science of laxatives. They used bulking agents such as bran, saline solutions o pull water into the intestine, which helps bulk up stool, and motility stimulants to create the bowel contractions (peristalsis) that move waste through the system. These three approaches are still used today-leafy vegetables and cereals, Epsom salts, and motility drugs. Another time-tested remedy is drinking lots of water.

Vitamin C

In 1971, Linus Pauling published a paper entitled 'Vitamin C and the Common Cold', he later said that the vitamin had anticancer properties, and recommended up to 200 times the recommended daily dose of 60 mg. He said that our ancestors lost the ability to make vitamin C, initiating the necessity for obtaining it from an outside source. Its collagen making role prevents illness by strengthening skin and blood vessels.

 Vita=life and amine=organic compound
The first breakthrough in the field of vitamins was a study of scurvy.

Almost all animals used vitamins. They are organic compounds essential for metabolism; they are either consumed in the diet or manufactured in the body. The need for vitamins becomes clear when the body isn't getting enough. They were unknown when scurvy was studied among sailors in the 1740's. The 'wasting disease', marked by weak gums and bleeding in the skin, killed more sailors than battle. Observing thousands of cases, and the habits of Dutch salors of the 1500's, it was recommended that lemon juice and citrus fruits be eaten on long voyages. In 1795, the navy adopted this simple fix, and when it did, scurvy disappeared right away. It was an ancient disorder, but when citrus was supplied on the vessel, the missing nutrient-ascorbic acid, vitamin C, was supplied. Dietary science was born. A Japanese physician similarly cured sailors' beriberi with supplements of meat and vegetables in 1882. The disease was caused by lack of thiamine, vitamin B1. In 1897 it was shown that unpolished (unhulled) rice protected against berberi. Vitamins, are organic compounds vital to life. Scientists persisted  in trying to isolate these accessory food factors, substances not in the basic fats, carbohydrates, proteins, minerals and water. The first vitamin isolated in pure form was thiamine, in 1926.

Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12) was isolated in 1948, but in previous decades a medical scientist isolated what he called an intrinsic factor. It was found in normal gastric secretions, but not in the secretions of people suffering from pernicious anemia. He also noticed that anemia patients who ate lots of liver improved. Further study showed that there was an extrinsic factor that somehow got into the body from outside. The helpful bacteria interacted with gastric juice to synthesize a protein substance that aided in digestion.  These bacteria contain extrinsic factor, vitamin B12.

Cough drops
Early use 1200 BC Egypt
Also known as 'attractive woman' in South Africa

Medicines to suppress coughs by relaxing the throat date back to about 1200 BC Egypt in the form of hard candies in flavors such as elm bark and citrus. Some cough candy lozenges are flavored with an alcohol of mint oil called menthol, which has a mild numbing effect.

First Aid

What do we do when we cut ourselves, get a headache or have indigestion? Often we do what people did thousands of years ago. First aid items from the forest include an aspirin-related compound from the willow tree, an astringent of witch hazel distillate, and time-honored formulas for antacids, which worked for ancient Sumerians and works as well an anything now.

Derived from salicylic compouns in willows
Developed into a drug in the 1890's
Common name: acetylsalicylic acid

The world's most famous medication, aspirin is the common name for acetylsalicylic acid. It was not made in a lab until the 1830s, but a related salicylic compound found in nature has been used for thousands of years.

Prescriptions on the 4000 year old Sumerian tablet of Nuppir show the cuneiform sign of the white willow. The Ebers Papyrus from 1500 BC Egpyt lists a willow decoction, likely from the bark or twigs, which was mixed with fig, frankincense, and beer, and boiled, strained and taken for 4 days to 'cause the stomach to receive bread'. Hippocrates (circa 460-377 BC), the Greek father of medicine, knew about the effects of this plant and prescribed a tea made from its leaves.

When 19th century science began exploring the mysteries of natural medicine, one the of the first plants investigated was willow. An active substance in the bark was extracted and named salicin. Later,  acetylsalicylic acid was produced, but it was a difficult process and was not an improvement over salicin for reducing pain and fever. In the 1890's, acetylsalicylic acid was rediscovered. Looking for a drug to help his arthritic father, a scientists made a new product out of it. Instead of using willow, he extracted salicin from meadowsweet (genus Spirea).

Classic Painkiller
Aspirin's forerunner, willow, has long been touted. Specific observations on its analgesic properties were made by Dioscorides, surgeon and botanist to Roman Emperor Nero in the first century AD. Using the Latin name Salix, he remarked on its painkilling and anti-inflammatory qualities: "the juice out of the leaves and bark ...doth help the griefs of the ears...and the decoction of them is an excellent fomentation for the gout." Next century, the famous Greek physican Galen recommended willow bark extract for cleansing and healing eyes that were inflamed or infected.

The use of sodium bicarbonate originated with the ancient Sumerians

Sumerians 6000 years ago used medicines to settle their stomach-peppermint leaves were a useful tonic for indigestion. People living father back and eating a low of raw food may have used similar remedies for neutralizing stomach acids. The best-known antacid, Pepto Bismol, was developed as a  formula to help children suffering from diarrhea and vomiting, and contained oil of wintergreen.

Witch hazel
Popular wtih 8th century Anglo-saxons
Is thought to have magical properties
Common uses: antiseptic, cleanser, painkiller

Distillates of witch hazel bark have long been used as an ingredient in astringent and soothing lotions. The Anglo-saxons in the 8th century and beyond used the leaves and bark from this shrubby tree to make alcohol for cleaning cuts and burns. The plant is unusual in that it flowers in late fall. The thin-petaled yellow blossoms have a spidery, gnarled look, and they often cling to the bare limbs into winter. Another unusual trait is that the fruit capsules, after contracting in autumn, eject the seeds up to 30 feet.

The aromatic tree must have seemed very spiritual to the early dwellers of the British Isles. They believed it was magical. They believed a priest could use a witch hazel twig to locate a criminal in a crowd. A forked branch was applied as a divining rod-the forks were held in the hands, and the long end would dip down where there was underground water. In North America, Native peoples long knew of its healing properties. In the early 1600s, Native Americans taught the pilgrims in Massachusetts a way to brew witch hazel bark for a topical lotion to sooth aches, bruises and abrasions. In succeeding generations, Americans used Native Hamamelis virginiana prepations for a variety of purposes-as an anti-inflammatory, painkiller, antiseptic, deodorant, facial cleanser, and cosmetic foundation. One of the first commercial preparations was in the 1860s. It was sold to pharmacies in kegs, then bottled for sale to individuals.

Witch hazel has become a medicine chest standard. Its antiseptic tingle on a cotton pad is for many American women a standard skin care routine step, and a bottle of witch hazel sits in many home cabinets next to the hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol.

Bloodletting was a standard practice even last century; it was derived from the ancient Greek idea that illness was caused by an excess of one of the four humors-blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile).

Cauterization used to be done by using hot oil, and wounds were cleaned with wine and water.

Ancient Egyptians put honey on wounds because not only did the sticky substance form a natural seal that kept bacteria out, but it also contains hydrogen peroxide, which acts as a healing antibiotic against sepsis.  Other cultures used bread or cakes on open wounds, having learned without fully knowing why that the naturally occuring penicillin-like molds that form on yeast-based foods counter bacteria well.

Pregnancy Tests
Primitive verions date to Egypt 1350 BC. A papyrus from that period described a pregnancy test in which a woman would urinate on wheat and barley seeds. If the barley grew, she was pregnant with a boy, if the wheat grew, it was girl, if neither grew, she was not pregnant. A 1963 test of this method showed that was not simple divination-70 percent of the time, urine of pregnant women helped the plants grow. Other Egyptian diagnostics included examining a woman's skin, her nipples for unusual pigmentation, and having a woman drink breast milk from a woman who has borne a son-vomiting would confirm a pregnancy.

In the Middle Ages, 'piss prophets' foretold pregnancy by examining the color of urine-pale lemon with a cloudy surface meant pregnancy., Another test mixed wine with urine, and since alcohol reacts with some proteins, the test may have been mildly useful.

Medicine droppers
These handy little devices derive from the common laboratory instrument, the pipette. A pipette, or dropper, is used to carry a measured amount of liquid from one place to another. In the case of the medicine dropper, with a rubber bulb top, it is used to bring liquid medicine from bottle to cup, or from bottle to mouth.


Profession dates to ancient times
It was eradicated in  the Middle Ages, revived in the 17th century
Midwifery has been largely replaced by hospital care, but is making a comeback as there is increasing demand for it.

The English word 'midwife' means 'with woman', and ever since there was more than one female alive, women have been helping other women through the process of labor and delivery. The role was socially and culturally sanctioned. The Bible makes reference to midwives in several places, and in ancient Greece there was a requirement that a midwife be a woman who had herself already given birth.

English, colonial and later midwives had little or no access to medical texts, training, or proper supplies. Many midwives then and today believe that childbirth is a natural process, learned through the experience rather than classroom training. Midwifery became a victim of scientific advances that were needed, but crowded out the experience and wisdom of many 'old-fashioned' practices in childbirth, such as allowing a woman to sit, stand or lean during labor pains instead of being placed in lying position. Automatic cesarean sections, internal fetal monitoring, and twilight sleep anesthesia were not called into question until relatively late in the 20th century, during the 1970s, when women began to ask for midwives and new, accredited training courses and groups began to support them.

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Singing Nettles Herbal Clinic by Amanda Dainow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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