Herbs of Folklore and Modern Medicine: White Willow, Aloe Vera, and Garlic
Information within this article is for informational and educational purposes only, and is not meant to diagnose nor treat. Seek guidance from a health care professional.
Many of the medicinal herbs we use today have been studied by modern science for application in today’s medical field. These studies have shown that our ancestral folk uses of these herbs were very much correct in their applications. Here we will explore three of the more popular herbs and see how their folk uses compare with the studies and results.
Let’s start with the herb that was responsible for giving us aspirin, white willow. White willow (Salix spp.) was used for many years by Europeans, Asians, and native North Americans as a pain reliever. It is mentioned in medicinal writings as far back as 500 BC. In the first century AD, Dioscordes, a Greek physician, wrote that the mashed leaves should be taken for lower back pain. Early cultures realized that chewing on a willow twig relieved toothache, and minor body aches and pains.
The active pain-relieving ingredient in white willow is salicyclic acid. This constituent was first isolated in 1838, and was later produced as a chemical drug in 1899, and later became the aspirin that we know today. This constituent, when obtained directly from willow, does not irritate the stomach and does not thin the blood. So in its original form, it is safe for those already on blood thinners, and safe for those with stomach difficulties, including ulcers and acid reflux, unlike its chemical derivative, aspirin.
History is not quite clear on why we went from willow to aspirin, since the herb itself was far kinder to the body, and even more cloudy is why it was important to discredit it as a suitable natural remedy in its original state. However, studies being done today do show that willow is just as effective for relieving all sorts of pain and fever, without the possibility of gastric irritation or causing the blood to thin too far from regular use.
Aloe vera is of course very well known for its ability to help the skin heal after a burn. As a matter of fact, its common name in many parts of the world is simply “burn plant”. This was one of its first applications in the world of medicine, along with its cosmetic capabilities. Modern medicine rebuked claims of its abilities to work on burn tissue, as well as claims of its abilities to work on infected tissues, such as infected wounds.
However, recent studies have taken the folk uses of aloe and applied them in clinical studies. The results of these studies were impressive enough that aloe is a standard skin treatment for many burn victims. It is also recommended for its antiseptic properties for treating wounds, radiation burns, and many other afflictions of the skin. It is quite likely that you will find an aloe product in your own doctor’s office, as well as your local hospital.
Studies in laboratory rats have shown that another of its uses, that of internal consumption to protect and nourish the digestive system and vital organs, is not only effective, but is showing that it can actually extend the life of lab rats ingesting aloe. Rats with aloe added to their diets show much less damage to the vital organs at old age than do rats without it. Since many cultures around the world ingest aloe regularly, this is of particular note, and thankfully studies are ongoing.
History shows that Aloe was used by Cleopatra as a cosmetic aid for her skin, which was said to be of legendary beauty. This places the plant in use at least as early as 1500 BC. Arab traders spread it far and wide around the 6th century, trading it as far as Asia. It is said that Alexander the Great conquered areas where the plant grew so that he could use the medicine for his soldiers, other reports state that he kept one particular island for growing aloe for his soldiers. Mention of this remarkable plant is made in 12th century German medical records as well as in the Compendium of Materia Medica to the Chinese Ming dynasty. The Greek physician Dioscorides wrote of using it externally for treating wounds of all sorts. Columbus carried it on board his ships during his ocean voyages. Everywhere it has been used, it has become a very important part of healing. So we are not surprised that studies show that this healing herb is very effective in its native form. No chemical facsimile has ever been developed, helping this plant to become more mainstream than many of the other medicinal herbs.
Now we will take a look at garlic, a misunderstood but very valuable healing herb.
Garlic is well known in folk medicine for treating infections. Garlic is mentioned in ancient medical papyri from Egypt as being utilized as medicine. It is written that workers building the pyramids were given garlic each day to help increase their vitality. It is mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman medical texts for a variety of afflictions, including uterine tumors, and wild garlic was used in the United States by various Native American tribes to treat many different ailments. Chinese medicine also shows a long history of use of this powerful herb. Ayurvedic medicine has a place for garlic as a healer as well, dating back at least to ancient Indian manuscripts, for a variety of uses including abdominal tumors.
These ancient texts, however, as with all information about medicinal herbs, have been in the past discounted by our “modern” medical establishment. But with the resurgence in popularity of folk remedies and natural healing, studies have been ongoing to show the benefits of garlic on the body. Three are very worth mentioning here. In 1997, Gustav Belz, MD conducted a study which showed that the use of garlic provided relief from the stiffening of the aorta, a common occurrence in aging and among cigarette smokers as well as those with nasty diets. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, J.P. Lash, MD, published a study that concluded that garlic had a significant beneficial effect in reducing total and LDL cholesterol levels in kidney transplant patients. That study is being carried further by other doctors and scientists, and are showing that garlic is lowering cholesterol with regular use in other patients as well. In March 2001, a report was issued that showed a professor of pediatrics, Sid Cywes, at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Capetown, South Africa had discovered that an aqueous mixture of garlic administered to children has shortened recovery times from bacterial and viral infections, being especially beneficial to those children who had built a tolerance to traditional pharmaceutical antibiotics. It has been shown to be particularly effective in children that are battling streptococcus infections.
These studies bear out what our medical forefathers knew in their time – garlic is an important healing herb for many ailments, and will help prevent illnesses. It is interesting to note that garlic was used as a field dressing in World War I to prevent infection of battle wounds. Yet it was largely ignored with the advent of chemical preparations, as have been many of the important healing herbs of ancient and modern times. Perhaps it is time that we devoted serious scientific study and resources to re-examining the medicinal herbs of our past folklore, instead of concentrating on how to make a chemical partial fix.
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