Photography by Sun Sentinel
“Pandemics are as old as humanity and since ancient times we have turned to plants to find solutions to health-related problems,” writes Instituto Botánico de Barcelona PhD researcher Sònia Garcia in her review of traditional plant-based remedies in the Era of COVID-19.
From the onset of what has become a global endemic known as COVID-19, many have argued that official resources (local, national, and international governments) have been insufficient, too late, misinformed or under-informed, all further exacerbated by a lack of worldwide cooperation and universal action to slow the spread of the deadly disease. As we enter nearly two years of tragic loss, fear, anxiety, new strains, and “new”/“long” versions of the virus, it’s only natural that people are looking to ancestral wisdom to provide insight into potential pathways forward benefiting everyone.
From the Black Death in the Middle Ages (1347-1351) to the Spanish Flu (1918-1920), pandemics have sparked the curiosity of researchers, healers, and “alternative” medicine practitioners seeking plant-based remedies to replace or complement traditional medicine.
Keeping in mind the multi-potentiality of herbs, it should come as no surprise that both symptom-treating approaches and spiritual aids were popular as early as the Black Plague (Black Death). Carrying sweet smelling herbs in the Middle Ages was said to clear “the evil air”, while foods such as garlic, lavender, and chamomile aimed to clean specific organs (kidney and liver, stomach). Vinegars, opium mixed with approximately 50 different herbs, and even flea repellents were among the remedies used by the European population around this time. Lamentably, despite a long history of use across cultures, “there is little applied research on these plants” and finding effective flu treatments remains urgent today “as the fear of a pandemic similar to the one in 1918 is still a sword of Damocles in the concerns of most epidemiologists” (frontiers in Plant Science, 2020).
At the onset of COVID-19, many indigenous communities around the world felt abandoned by local authorities, exceptionally vulnerable to the virus because of diverse factors such as their proximity to commercial endeavors (oil rigs, etc.) that continued beyond their control.
At this point in the COVID-19 story, there’s hardly anyone on the planet who hasn’t been affected. So, we hope the information we’re sharing here can help to support your proactive health journey in these troubling times. Remember, fear releases hormones that may slow or shut down bodily functions ranging from digestion to eyesight! If we’re able to really face the reality that this endemic is going to be with us for a while longer, our plant teachers are here to hold us in optimal mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health for the long road ahead.
While Jamaican home remedies, vitamin C, and North American forest grown mushrooms turkey tail and agarikon have all claimed to help slow death rates and other symptoms of COVID-19, we’re honing in on 10 of the herbs long used in Latin America to combat viral infections, pandemics, and more recently, COVID-19. Today, we’re taking a look at some of the anecdotes, herbs, and other remedies the people who know the land best say have helped protect them against the Coronavirus. Looking at Ecuador, Brazil, and Peru to start gives context for why we’re highlighting these herbs.
In Ecuador, “the Siekopai people have developed and used herbal remedies to treat illnesses for thousands of years. They have now created a plant-based remedy to help relieve the symptoms of COVID-19 and boost the immune system” (The New Yorker, 2020).
The indigenous Siekopai people of Ecuador tap into their tradition of plant-based remedies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alfredo Payaguaje, a Secoya herbalist in the Ecuadorian Amazon, likes to describe the jungle to “an open-air market” because there you can find things to eat, build with, and remedies. And while the Siekopai aren’t claiming to have found a cure for COVID-19, their remedy—which includes umu’co (cat’s claw) to treat fever; wild ginger for cough relief; and bitter bark from the cinchona tree (rich in quinine) to soothe inflammation—the tribal remedy has helped alleviate viral symptoms. Alfredo and others felt compelled to seek plant-based medicine for themselves and their neighbors when, at the onset of the pandemic, it seemed they had no support from government or other officials.
Like in Ecuador, in Brazil, indigenous communities have claimed “local and state governments were called to assist to no avail. With the Amazonas state health system saturated, indigenous people turn[ed] to their ancestral knowledge about the region’s nature to stay healthy and treat possible symptoms of the novel coronavirus” (AFP, 2020).
Andre Satere Mawe, a tribal leader from a small village on the outskirts of Manaus, largest and capital city of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, told AFP: “We’ve been treating our symptoms with our own traditional remedies, the way our ancestors taught us. We’ve each used the knowledge handed down to us to gather treatments and test them, using each one against a different symptom of the disease.” Similarly, the tribes of the Ecuadorian Amazon also employed an approach whereby they looked at each symptom (headaches, diarrhea, fever, shortness of breath, etc.) one by one, using curative herbs already known to be effective in treating each to see if they would also be useful for minimizing pain and suffering caused by COVID-19. Other herbs used in Manaus by Andre and others to fight virus-related symptoms included carapanauba, saratudo, and caferna.
The elders of the Peruvian Amazon saw COVID-19 spreading quickly through the Indigenous Shipibo community, and “decided to turn to the wisdom of their ancestors” as hospitals reached capacity, and many feared the hospital visit itself could be deadly (AP News, 2020).
Robert Wikleff, a 49 year-old Shipibo man, echoed the sentiments of his neighbors in Ecuador and Brazil when he turned to Comando Matico founder Mery Fasabi for herbal treatments: “We’ve always been forgotten. We don’t exist for them [the government].” With so many in the Amazon feeling a mixture of sadness, anger, fear, and abandonment, it is clear the necessity of looking to the past to help inform the future may have led these communities to (re)discover the greatest gifts of madre tierra in their own backyards. We are so fortunate to be able to learn from their herculean efforts to soothe, heal, and protect their loved ones when no outside help was to be found.
10 HERBS USED IN LATIN AMERICA TODAY TO COMBAT VIRAL INFECTIONS, PANDEMICS & YES, COVID-19
When we begin to expand our knowledge base beyond the United States and other European ways of thinking about health, wellness, medicine, viruses, and all the COVID-19 media bombarding us daily, we can truly benefit from the wisdom and expertise of Latin American peoples, both indigenous and non-indigenous. Here are some of their most trusted antiviral herbs, which are relevant and useful for our lives now more than ever, for centuries past and for those to come.
Matico leaves have long been used throughout the Amazon by Indian tribes as antiseptic wound closers, healing accelerators, and infection preventers. Specifically, the Shipibo-Conibo Indians infuse these same leaves to treat many symptoms, including those also known to affect those who may have contracted the Coronavirus, such as inflammation, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever, among others. In South America, upper respiratory conditions ranging from bronchitis and pneumonia to sore throat, cold and flu are also treated with matico, which is also notably effective for treating a range of infections and infectious diseases thanks to its demonstrated antimicrobial actions.
Parts used: Whole plant
A broad spectrum antiviral, chanca piedra has been confirmed as an effective herbal medicine in the treatment of viruses as diverse as herpes, HIV, influenza, flu, and many others. According to Raintree founder Leslie Taylor, “The accumulation of a great deal of research over the years confirms that chanca piedra can kill viruses in people, animals, and plants.” Leslie also speaks directly to chanca piedra’s likelihood to help fight COVID-19: “Research shows that chanca piedra has the potential ability to prevent or interrupt the cytokine storm [which causes lung tissue damage and cell death] with proven immunomodulatory actions.” Even more impressive is the plant’s ability to produce and activate targeted immune cells that “kill” foreign invaders (think: bacteria, viruses, inflammation) allowing immune cells to boost immunity production, lower likelihood of secondary COVID-19 infections and relapses, and promote faster healing.
While often confused with Cinchona, these two trees are not related, though they contain similar properties. Indigenous to Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, Colombia, Argentina, and Guyana, the beautiful red flowers and fruits of this tree may appeal to the eye, but its bark is where indigenous peoples have extracted virus-killing, anti-malarial and fever-fighting herbal medicines. Similar to quinine bark, amargo (also known commonly as quassia) also has antiviral, antimicrobial, and antibacterial properties.
Cinchona, once used to cure malaria and now endangered, is “the tree that changed the world map” and one of the major “tools of imperialism” according to historians. While Nataly Canales, a biologist tracing the genetic history of cinchona who grew up in the Peruvian Amazon, shares that the tree is perhaps not well known by most people, she also notes its heroic legacy: “a compound extracted from this plant [quinine] has saved millions of lives in human history.” Because of the desperation of malaria-carrying Europeans—the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Algeria, the British in India and elsewhere, etc.—seeking the “fever tree”, locals were hired to find cinchona, scrape its bark, and deliver it to cargo ships in Peruvian ports awaiting the precious medicine, thus quickly rendering it scarce, and then practically extinct. Due to the overharvesting of quinine worldwide, from its earliest “discovery” (and longstanding knowledge by indigenous people) as a curative botanical to the present, it must be sourced and used sustainably and mindfully in order not to further damage its limited availability for all. In a comparative study of homeopathic and allopathic medicine, researcher Ahsan Shafi Memon argued, “Cinchona [. . .] and Zincum Metallicum (homeopathic drugs) have the same properties and are very cheap as compared to allopathic drugs. Hence, it is recommended to use both homeopathic drugs in place of allopathic drugs for the treatment of patients suffering from [COVID-19].” Fever reducer, antibacterial, nerve calmer and pain reducer, and heart strengthener, cinchona is a true antiviral warrior.
In South America, herbalists consider pau d’arco to be an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, and astringent. As such, it is employed in the treatment of a range of ailments such as ulcers, cancer and diabetes, in addition to gastrointestinal problems, yeast and urinary tract infections, and allergies, among many other conditions. In the shared symptoms that translate to those associated with the Coronavirus—fever, respiratory problems, etc.—pau d’arco has also been proven effective as an analgesic (pain reliever), anti-inflammatory, and cardiotonic (heart health optimizer). The quinoids contained in this herb inhibit virus replication by damaging both RNA and DNA inside the viral protein that would attempt to attack a healthy human cell, and then replicate.
JATOBA / GUAPINOL
Comprising two dozen species of tall trees distributed throughout tropical South America, Mexico and Cuba, Hymenaea is known for its use by Indians in the Amazon in magic rituals, love potions, and wedding ceremonies. Jatoba is a natural stimulant, cough suppressant, tonic (toning, balancing, and strengthening overall body function), anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial plant. Experimental evidence in a 2017 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology showed promising results for the use of jatoba in treating inflammatory disorders, asthma, diarrhea, and “some microbial infections.” The “Amazonian tree that does not rot” is a potent remedy, cleansing the body of fungal infections, reducing swelling and combating harmful viruses, organisms, and bacteria.
Native to the Amazonian rainforest and other tropical regions in South and Central America, this large, thorny vine has been documented as an anti-inflammatory, antimutagenic (cellular protector), antioxidant, immune stimulant, and antiviral agent. Additionally, it has antidepressant and pain-relieving properties that help strengthen the overall immune system, which is one of our best defenses against viruses and dis-eases of all kinds. Findings in a 2020 study of this “promising herbal medicine” concluded there was potential effectiveness of cat’s claw “as a complementary and/or alternative medicine for COVID-19 treatment.” The researchers added: “Furthermore, all components found in U. tomentosa could work in synergism by different mechanisms to combat the spread of SARS-CoV-2.” Warding off diseases for 2,000 years among South and Central American indigenous peoples, cat’s claw may also prove invaluable globally.
Amazonian rainforest superfruit camu camu boasts the highest dose of vitamin C you can get from any fruit on the planet! In just 100 grams of camu camu, we find 700 milligrams of vitamin C. Unlike the other herbs on this list, camu camu’s known health benefits and usage are much more recent, as its demand was created by US and Japanese markets because indigenous people didn’t initially favor its sour, acidic flavor. Today, it’s used to fight colds and the flu, and as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant immunostimulant that can heal wounds, lower cholesterol and obesity, and protect cells. New research has suggested “most critically ill COVID-19 patients have low vitamin C values,” which is one of many reasons we look to nature’s pharmacy to supplement us.
Treating respiratory, antiviral and other infections are just a few of the countless uses of simarouba by the rainforest shaman and herbalists throughout Latin America. Also known as “paradise tree”, a tea made from simarouba bark treats diarrhea and other internal parasites, reduces fever and protects cells, in addition to being antibacterial and antimalarial (a pattern among many of the potential COVID-fighting herbs on our list). Its leaves and leaf extracts have traditionally been used by indigenous healers to treat fevers, colds and dysentery, and to raise the body’s natural immunity so its autonomous capacity to fight illnesses and other common ailments would significantly increase. Just this year, researchers in India confirmed, “Plants of the Simaroubaceae family can be emphasized for their chemical richness in addition to ethnopharmacological uses.”
A rainforest understory plant, jergón sacha is much more than just a snakebite antidote. It’s also one of the more unusual and interesting Amazonian remedies. Its “signature plant” status as a snakebite remedy is well known and highly regarded throughout South America. In addition to using the extract of cat’s claw vines (see above) as immunostimulants, Peruvian physician Dr. Roberto Inchuastegui Gonzales conducted experiments in the 1990s with the rhizome extract of jergón sacha as an antiviral that showed “a majority of HIV patients treated has tested negative for the HIV virus and returned to normal lives after taking these two plant extracts for an average of six months.” Regrettably, according to Leslie Taylor of Raintree, “not a single clinical study has been published on its [jergón sacha’s] actions.” However, it may take time for this herbal remedy to become a part of the popular plant pharmacopeia in North America and elsewhere beyond Latin America’s borders. Still, it is believed jergón sacha may kill viruses, neutralize toxicity, expel worms, dramatically reduce inflammation, and that it may also act as a potent antiviral, a protease inhibitor (typically used to fight viral infections), and an immune stimulant. In the Amazon, its folk uses include: viral infections (HIV, hepatitis, whooping cough, influenza, parvovirus, etc.), upper respiratory problems (cough, asthma, bronchitis, etc.), and topical wounds. It is our hope that, with increasing sales in Peru and Eastern Europe, researchers will answer the call to provide answers regarding its potential applications for treating deadly viruses.
*BONUS: Check out Herbal Treatments for Coronavirus Infections Used in Asia written by Master Herbalist and Scientist, Stephen Harrod Buhner, on our blog.
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