Malaria is a deadly disease. Because of its reliance on tropical mosquitos for transmission, it disproportionately affects people living in the developing world: of the more than 600,000 deaths from malaria every year, over 90% occur in sub-Saharan Africa where resources are few and transportation to care facilities is difficult.1 What’s more, over the last fifty years the malaria parasite has evolved considerable resistance to tried-and-true treatments (such as chloroquine, quinine and its derivatives, along with other drugs such as sulfadoxine) in most areas where the disease is widespread.2 That’s why most physicians in the developing world are now using a class of drugs derived from a molecule called artemisinin. This compound is very effective against the malaria parasite, and is derived from Artemisia annua (Sweet Annie, or quing hao as it is known in the Chinese materia medica).3 It forms the cornerstone of current antimalarial therapy in the developing world. Unfortunately, isolating artemisinin from the whole plant has led to the development of drug resistance – still localized mostly to Southeast Asia, and not very widespread.4 Nevertheless, as combination artemisinin therapies […]
Whole Plants Versus Pills: The Cases of Curcumin and Quercetin
Herbalists, though we’ve been known to use isolated constituents from plants, often prefer traditional, whole-plant preparations like teas, tinctures, or powders. These “crude” extracts, we often claim, may appear to be less concentrated but are actually more effective than isolated molecules when given by mouth to a living, breathing human being. But is there any evidence to support this claim? If a certain constituent has therapeutic activity, it seems counterintuitive that refining and concentrating it might somehow make it less effective.
The issue, in the end, is one of bioavailability: the ability of medicinal chemicals to reach the target areas in the human body where they can exert their effects. It does us little good to take high doses of molecules that never reach tissue at appreciable concentrations. This, of course, is one of the problems with petri dish research: a given chemical may have an effect on neurons in a lab, but that’s far from a guarantee that it will enter our bloodstream, leave the liver unchanged, cross our blood-brain-barrier, and have the same effects on neurons in our central nervous system.
One of the most famous, and researched, examples comes to us from the traditional Indian spice turmeric (ground rhizome of Curcuma longa). Curcumin and its molecular relatives the curcuminoids are polyphenolic pungent chemicals found in turmeric. They have attracted substantial attention, especially over the last decade, as potential medicinal compounds. But as a recent review article discovered,1 this rarely translates […]
Jacob’s Bridge (Gesher Benot Ya’aqov) is an archaeological site in Israel, at a historic crossing of the river Jordan, just north of the Sea of Galilee. It has been a crossroads for thousands of years – for trade, for culture, and for migration of human populations. But in one particular area, archaeologists have been working on a site that is much older – closer to 800,000 years – where a wealth of evidence from stone-age culture has been preserved under layers of mud and water. The prehistoric humans who lived here (archaeologists estimate they occupied the site for close to 100,000 years!) were part of an ancient migration from Africa and into Europe and Asia.
Nira Alperson-Afil, who works at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been studying this site extensively. She has been part of the research team that, at this site, uncovered perhaps the earliest evidence of human control of fire,1 as well as what seems to be a basic organization of the living and working spaces into sleeping, cooking, and manufacturing areas.2 Inhabitants created advanced stone tools, using rock hammers but also more subtle tools such as animal antlers, that were used for building, hunting, and (presumably) preparing and cooking plants for food.
It is usually difficult to accurately characterize botanical remains form that long ago, because plants spoil very […]
Ayurveda, the “science of life” and traditional healing system of the Indian subcontinent, is perhaps the oldest formal medical system on the planet. Some of its seminal texts may date back over 4,000 years. As is the case with most traditional medicine, Ayurveda relies on an exquisite understanding of how human sensory perception and keen observation can be used to understand patterns of health and disease, as well as assess the therapeutic potentials of substances such as plants, animals, mushrooms and minerals.
One of the important concepts in Ayurveda is rasa, loosely translated as “taste”. A substance’s rasa is how it tastes and feels to us when we put it in our mouths, chew, swallow, and experience it. The taste framework described by the rasas is similar to our modern understanding of taste, though there is little attention given to the “umami” taste in Ayurveda, and “astringency” (normally thought of as an element of mouthfeel) gets more prominent placement. The Ayurvedic tradition recognizes that the taste of a substance conveys an objective and perceptible attribute of that substance which accurately and consistently represents its elemental composition and therapeutic potential.1 That is to say, similar tastes mean similar energetics and, in all likelihood, similar effects.
What gets interesting is that the link between taste and medicinal effect doesn’t necessarily imply identical chemistry at the molecular level. When two substances have similar rasa, they can be similar in […]