Use The Wisdom of the Past Wisely

National Herbal Prescription Awareness Month is upon us, and this is golden opportunity to discuss using herbs for health.

As many of you know, I am Dr. Jacqueline Soule – but the doctorate is in Botany, not medicine. That doesn’t stop people from asking me health questions, if anything, it elicits more! Everyone has heard of some wonderful plant that is going to cure all their woes, and they want to ask me about it. And here we get to a real dilemma, because over 90 percent of all drugs used today were originally extracted from plants, but the compounds have been purified and dosages standardized.

For over 2000 years Old World peoples followed the “Doctrine of Signatures.” Originally written down by the Greeks, the Doctrine of Signatures is based upon the belief that all plants have a sign or “signature” upon them, telling us humans the use for the plant. The kidney-shaped leaf may not be the part of the plant that is used, perhaps it is the root. Since the root is hidden underground, the plant had to send up a leaf to let us know what it was good for. The persistence of the belief in the Doctrine of Signatures for all these centuries is due to the fact that many of the plant medicines discovered using the Doctrine do work!

For example, the saw palmetto (scientific name: Serona repens) has been variously reported as an aphrodisiac, diuretic, and a cure for prostate problems. The “signature” was noted over 400 years ago by Spanish explorers when they found the plants in Florida. The plants have long, stiff young leaves, not yet unrolled which point skyward like a phallus, plus the rounded fruits cling to either side of a stalk, looking like testes.

Centuries later, medical testing has determined that some types of prostate problems do respond to extracts of saw palmetto. More than half of men aged 50 and older experience some symptoms related to enlargement of the prostate gland. Saw palmetto extracts can reduce symptoms, via an anti-inflammatory effect that appears to target prostate cells alone, reducing prostate swelling, and reducing urinary tract complaints associated with swollen prostate. Since reduced prostate pain and swelling may result in increased feelings of amorousness, “aphrodisiac” qualities may be seen. If you suspect prostate problems, you must be evaluated by a physician to rule out cancer.

Closer to home, Spaniards “discovered” the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and promptly brought it into their medicinal repertoire. It has been used for over 300 years to treat arthritis and asthma. The “signature” is that the leaves that are split almost in two, looking like two lungs joined by the trachea. The leaves contain liposygenase and cyclooxygenase inhibitors, no different from manufactured chemicals now used by physicians to treat asthma and arthritis. The problem is that these compounds can cause also liver damage. Powdered leaves taken internally have caused liver damage, while teas appear to be less toxic.

Herbs can help us, but they also can harm. The average human life-span used to be about forty years. Perhaps it would have been longer if they could have done what we can today; combine the rich lore of the past with the modern chemical analysis laboratory, to find herbs that can truly help us.

If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, Month-by-Month Garden Guide for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $26).
© Article copyright by Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. Republishing an entire blog post or article is prohibited without permission. I receive many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you may use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Photos © Jacqueline A. Soule where marked and they may not be used.

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