Not All Good Medicine Comes From a Lab

For as long as humans have banded together in tribes and social groupings, they have relied on one person in their group to act as a healer. We often call them shamans or medicine men. And although we tend not to think of them as useful as modern physicians, their medicines can be far more powerful than anything known by Western cultures.

My friend Mark Plotkin, an important ethnobotanist who explores for plants in the tropics, likes to tell a story about one of his encounters with a shaman and a powerful medicinal plant. He told the story last year at the TEDGlobal conference I attended on the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Plotkin’s tale begins five years ago when a climbing accident left him with an injury common to professional tennis players and a lot of pain in his foot. Despite giving it time to heal and seeking medical treatment, it became both acute and chronic. “I tried every medicine and every drug my doctors could think of, including heat, cold, aspirin and other anti-inflammatories, a narcotic painkiller, cortisone and even acupuncture.” None of it helped.

Plotkin’s work as president of the Amazon Conservation Team, which helps protect uncontacted rainforest tribes, often takes him deep into the Amazon basin. One day a few months after the injury, he was visiting a remote rainforest tribe known as the Tirio, on the border of Suriname and Brazil:

The shaman in the tribe comes up to me and says, “I’ve noticed there’s something wrong with your foot.” So I told him, yeah, it’s in a lot of pain. So he grabs a machete and tells me to take off my boot. Then he goes over to a palm tree, and growing on the palm was a fern. Now, ferns are believed by pharmacologists to be inert as far as containing useful medicinal chemicals. So he cuts off some leaves from the fern and throws them in the fire. Then he takes them and wraps my foot in them. They were very hot and even singed my skin. Then he made a tea from the leaves and had me drink it. The next day, my foot was like new.

Plotkin’s severe pain disappeared for about seven months and then returned. So he went back to the shaman, who repeated the treatment, and the foot has been pain-free since.

Amazon conservation

Mark Plotkin of the Amazon Conservation Team being treated by Tirio Indian shaman Amasina.

Stories like these never surprise Plotkin when he hears them, but they always create a look of “Really?” among Westerners. Although Plotkin admits there is always the possibility of a placebo effect, he is convinced there was a chemical in that fern tea that cured him and he points out that we are still searching the rainforests of the world for medicinal plants, and we are constantly finding new ones.

The basis of early medicine was plants, and we tend to think of a time when people healed themselves with plants as a world of the past.

After all, modern medicines are derived from good chemistry in a lab, right?

We forget, for example, that penicillin is purified from a mold growing on a melon. We can’t make it in a lab with chemicals.

Even today, more than 75% of the people in the world still turn to herbs and plant-derived products as their primary medicines. And there are more than a hundred modern prescription drugs derived from plants. Most people seem unaware that the very first active ingredient extracted from a plant source more than 200 years ago is still our best defense against severe pain — morphine.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

Ed. Note: Get the top investment trends for 2015 in medicine and technology from the former head of the most popular science magazine in the world. Simply sign up for our Tomorrow in Review e-letter for FREE right here. Don’t miss out. Click here now to sign up for FREE.

The Daily Reckoning