Nature's Drugs and Remedies

©Rosemary Jacobs 1999

Our ancestors must have found that identifying substances that had pharmacological properties was quite easy with things that had immediate, dramatic effects such as poison ivy, foxglove (digitalis) or the venom of a poisonous snake

However, it would have been close to impossible with those that were slow acting or useless as well as with those used to treat diseases like the common cold that come and go on their own. I suspect that this is why so many things that our forebears believed had medicinal value never made it into our modern pharmacoepia

When finally subjected to scientific scrutiny, they proved to be as useless as the bags of camphor that my grandmother and all her neighbors hung around their children's necks in 1918 to protect them from the influenza pandemic that killed so many healthy young people so quickly. I don't know why my grandmother thought that a camphor bag would ward off the flu. Perhaps she had heard others say that it would.

It did keep bugs from eating woolens. None of her three children contracted the disease that year. How was gran to know that it wasn't the camphor that stopped the illness from striking her children? How was the hispanic lady living in California in the 1990s to know that it was the pennyroyal tea that she had given her baby to cure him of colic that had in fact killed him? (Bakerink).

There wasn't anyway for them to know. For my grandmother, scientific medicine was still in its infancy. The hispanic lady was practicing folk medicine, the safety and efficacy of which had never been evaluated scientifically. If my grandparents had been born a few decades later both may have lived into their eighties like their children instead of dying at the age of 45, my grandfather in 1927 from pneumonia and my grandmother in 1933 from a stroke caused by hypertension, both of which rarely kill people in their forties today.

Just because one thing follows another in time and space, doesn't prove that the first causes the second even though we humans often think that it does. Of course, if one thing always follows another, the odds are pretty good that the first does cause the second. To make sure though, scientists design tests to isolate the two phenomenon eliminating as far as possible other unnoticed things which could be affecting the outcome.

If, for instance, they find that a new micro-organism has been found in a pond and that all the fish are dying of some strange disease, they will suspect that the newly introduced organism is the culprit. To be certain, however, they will perform an experiment to test their hypothesis. They will introduce the suspected pathogen, or disease causing organism, into a pond of healthy fish to see how it affects them. If the fish develop the same illness as the others, it will indicate to the scientists that they have found the cause of the disease

If not, they will look for another explanation. The more often they repeat the experiment and get the same results, the more certain they will be that the particular organism was the cause of the particular disease. If, however, they discover healthy fish living in water containing the same germ, they will know that they have to start their investigation over again since obviously they have not solved the puzzle yet.

Likewise, if many people notice that their headaches go away after they drink a tea made from the leaves of a particular plant, doctors who practice evidence-based medicine will test it on many others with headaches. They will record the number of people who believe that they have benefited from the remedy. They will also record the number of people who did not experience any improvement as well as the number of those who felt that their pain had gotten worse, and of course, they will be on the look out for unpleasant side effects that the tea may also cause in people drinking it.

To obtain valid results, the experiment must always be conducted with the same substance and the same dose. When the substance is a brew made from a botanical, the chances of that happening are very slim which, of course, is one of the main reasons that medicinal herbs never gave very satisfactory results as drugs.

They presented the same problems as natural dyes. Doctors had to determine which plants contained the greatest amount of the desired beneficial ingredients and the fewest harmful ones based on trial and error. The biological effect produced in the patient was the control that told them whether or not they had guessed correctly or not.

In 1864 John C. Gunn, M.D. wrote of digitalis, "It must be used with care, if used at all." He added that in large doses it was toxic and that symptoms had to be watched for carefully. The remedies he recommended for an overdose were "Brandy, Wine, and other stimulants, and Mustard Drafts to the Stomach, Wrists and Ankles" (p. 841)

Medicine has come a long way since then. My mother takes lanoxin, a form of digitalis, that is very accurately standardized for purity and potency. She also goes for a monthly blood test to check the amount of the drug in her system so that the dose can be properly adjusted.

Regarding Nux Vomica, the seeds of an East Indian tree called Strychnos Nux Vomica, Gunn notes, "Nux Vomica is a powerful and deadly poison, if taken in sufficiently large quantity, and when used, it must always be with caution. You should never take it, except by the direction of a physician. It is from this article that Strychnine is made - one of the most deadly poisons known" (p.886).

By 1937 Blumgarten listed eleven therapeutic uses for strychnine, including an emergency stimulant in cases of shock and collapse and as an antidote to phenobarbital poisoning (p.394-5). While Gunn recognized the toxicity of substances that were fast acting like strychnine and digitalis, he did not realize the danger of slower acting ones.

Speaking of liquorice he says that the root was used in medicine to give a sweet pleasant taste to other medicines. Children especially liked it. At the time he was writing, 1864, most drug stores sold either the root or an extract. According to Gunn, in many cases, the latter was better than the former. He recommended using the extract as a "Cough Candy" saying that, "It can be used freely" (p.871).

According to Dr. R. Frank Chandler, who wrote a monograph on the herb for ADVERSE EFFECTS OF HERBAL DRUGS, today it is generally agreed that liquorice is safe when taken in small amounts as a flavor or extract, but ingesting more than 20 g/day often results in adverse effects ranging from lethargy and muscle pain to cardiac arrhythmias (p.71).

And like the hispanic lady in the 1990s, Dr. Gunn didn't realize that pennyroyal tea is toxic stating that, "PENNYROYAL - (Hedeoma Pulegioides) - This well known herb needs no description; it grows almost every-where, and is known by everybody...It is a pleasant, aromatic diaphoretic, diuretic and emmenagogue. May be used freely in the form of tea, as a sweating and cooling drink in Fevers; in diseases of the Urninary Organs, Suppressed Menses, and Colds generally." (p. 890).

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