The herbal prescription
Most of us who grew up in the good old days remember all too well that nothing worked better than Ma’s old-time remedies –– for every cough, cold, tummy ache and bruise that we suffered.
Who can forget the weekly dose of castor oil or coconut oil for purging; the magical effect of aloe on burns and bruises; lemon grass or cerasee tea for fevers and the cold; or ginger to relieve gas and an upset stomach.
For generations, Barbadians and their Caribbean counterparts have been using herbs and plants to naturally heal pain and ward off illnesses. Today, it’s a multibillion dollar industry even as scientists around the world research herbal remedies for proper evidence that they work.
Right here at the medical faculty of the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, pharmacologist and lecturer Dr Damian Cohall has been leading extensive research over a four-year period on local wonder plants. His work is well documented in a new book –– Medicinal Plants Of Barbados For The Treatment Of Communicable And Non-Communicable Diseases, officially launched today.
“Folklore practices inclusive of the use of herbal remedies have been long entrenched in Caribbean societies — Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana have seen a wide expansion of these practices inclusive of the use of herbal remedies.
“We need to capture this folklore information not only on medicinal plants and their use; and, because of my distinct interest in pharmacology, I thought it was worthwhile to fill this knowledge gap in terms of the retention of this information and put it out there to society in a formal way such as the publication of a book,” Dr Coholl said.
The 120-page book identifies 65 medicinal plants –– a snapshot of the vast and rich variety of medicinal plants in the Caribbean that have been used in folklore medicine.
“To treat diabetes we have been discussing the efficacy of the possible use of the cerasee bush for the management of diabetes, and those studies that we have done in the Caribbean have been inconclusive.
“Moringa, of course, is very topical these days. Everyone is taking some form of moringa. The data which has been published so far has outlined very important nutritional values associated with moringa.
“There’s a plant which we see growing in our garden and right throughout Barbados and other Caribbean territories –– the Madagascar periwinkle. The periwinkle exploration started five decades ago.
“Initially, it was investigated for what was considered to be then the increasing prevalence of diabetes among Caribbean nationals . . . . Later, we were able to identify plant alkaloids from the periwinkle which proved to be very efficacious and very effective anticancer agents in chemotherapy.”
These, Dr Cohall said, were just a few examples of plants in the Caribbean, which could be developed to be very effective pharmaceutical agents, and the intention of the book was to move away from just the retention of that folklore knowledge but move to further scientific exploration of these herbs.
“This information can inspire further research which would look at identifying new drug molecules, identifying new drug targets which of course then propel some local or regional pharmaceutical industry, which could then look at the development of these plants to possible medicines which could help to combat non-communicable and communicable diseases.
Dr Cohall however stressed that Barbados and the Caribbean must be savvy about retaining and protecting its raw material resources and how it would be developed.
“In terms of intellectual property, we should look much further than saying that we do just have the raw material which are the plants, but we should be identifying methodologies on how to extract the compounds, how to test the compound and to identify single compounds which are good drug candidates for further development into potential pharmaceutical agents.”
In Barbados, the use of herbal medicine remains widespread. He pointed to a study conducted two years ago among people who attend church, which showed that just under 35 per cent used herbal remedy. Another study among the wider population revealed similar findings.
“That percentage just under 35 per cent was consistent with other studies conducted by Dr Sonia Peters at the Barbados Community College who also has interests in medicinal plants –– that study was done among wider Barbados and the figures were consistent, so we believe there is a strong likelihood that the numbers we reported were fairly consistent with what is happening in wider society.”
Dr Cohall however acknowledged that there remained prevailing strong scepticism and reluctance by some members of the medical fraternity to wholeheartedly embrace the practice. He insisted there was no need for a tug of war since herbal remedies could in fact lead to the development of better drugs.
“The difference between a pharmaceutical drug and a herbal remedy is that a pharmaceutical drug has been through the process of investigation. It starts with pre-clinical testing, then it goes into clinical development.
“In animal studies, apart from looking at the desirous effects, we also note other important effects such as toxicity. So at the end of that, your synthetic drug is regarded to be efficacious and safe–– meaning that it is able to bring about that response that should be therapeutic and while being safe after its administration; meaning that it’s adverse effect profile is low.
“When you compare that to a plant extract, unfortunately that plant extract has not been through the extent of those studies.
Dr Cohall advised physicians against chastizing patients who use herbal remedies, but he urged users to first seek medical advice before taking herbal treatments. It is important not to take herbal remedies with conventional dugs without proper scrutiny due to the possibility of drug-herb interactions. Additionally, he urged users of herbal medicine to use prescribed methods to take the medication. Take for example teas.
“You should use the dry leaves of the plant. You boil the water first, and then you pour boiling water over it which as we know is the process of steeping or infusion. That to me would be the safest way of how to extract or make a cooling tea, as opposed to doing a decoction which is boiling the plant material which we expect to get far more compounds being extracted from the plant. This can be toxic.”