This invited paper was presented by Vic Cherikoff to the World Self Medication Association conference in Sydney. It outlines the many Australian plant resources used by Aborigines to treat the ills of everyday life. It looks at some of the science and actives in natural plant extracts and gives a perspective on traditional Australian herbal medicine. A strategy of approaching the development of this resource is addressed with some of the products already available through Vic Cherikoff Food Services P/L described.
Its hard to gaze further than you can see.
To scope this topic, we can look back before gazing forward.
As Geoff Blainey wrote in Triumph of the Nomads, "The average Australian knew more about botany 1000 years ago than they know today. The knowledge supplied them not only with much of their food but also with drugs." If applied biology were a hallmark of civilisation, then Aborigines were successfully reaching in that direction over a millennium ago…. adapted from Australian Medicinal Plants by Lassak and McCarthy 1983.
Aborigines had effective treatments, stop-gap first aid and placebo processes for all manner of ills, ranging from internal problems more often ascribed to be caused by magic through to those symptoms of more relevance to modern health professionals. These would include skin burns, lesions, (possibly even skin cancers), infections, growths and irritations and pains from headaches, toothaches and gum diseases, earaches, trauma and arthritis. Some pain controlling plant extracts were so effective that they could stop death from the shock of sea wasp stings or allow amputation as a surgical procedure. There were treatments for eye irritations, superficial bleeding, fever, cramps and tiredness, asthma and other respiratory ailments as well as a host of botanicals used for "women's problems" from moderating lactation and menstruation or universal problems such as digestive complaints from flatulence to diarrhoea or its opposite.
Life is a chemical reaction
Then there were the life style drugs. These included some to alter consciousness from narcosis, through pick-me-up, tonic effects and all the way to Valium-like sedation. Some plants and plant extracts removed the inconvenience of unwanted pregnancies, the stress of autism or other debilitating conditions and a few as practical hunting tools to stun emus or asphyxiate fish.
Aborigines also responded to foods as medicines recognising cravings for specific foods at distinct times. I have been shown foods which were particularly sought by women when menstruating or pregnant or eaten by men if they were recovering from injuries with blood loss. Analysis of some of these foods showed high levels of copper, zinc and iron. One fruit described to me as dog food, which meant that it was not highly regarded but eaten by children not adults, gained status in the early 1980s after my analysis proved it was the world's highest fruit source of vitamin C. Suddenly, it was elevated to "we always eat this to treat flu" (no-one gets colds these days). Ignoring this warping of evidence, the traditional consumers of this Top End, tropical fruit would have ingested mega-doses of the vitamin daily for a few days to several weeks a year.
Considering all of the above comments on functionality of bush medicines, it should also be mentioned that the division of continental Australia into 600 language nations meant that each land area needed to offer equivalent resources to nearly all of these treatments. Where alternative medications exist the most convenient may have been the initial choice then the most efficacious was sought as time, trade or travel permitted. It is interesting that trade across Australia involved the movement of people (information and cultural exchange), ornaments, tools and drugs. Food as a resource was rarely traded but often offered during ceremonies or corroborees to which many groups could have been invited.
The general nature of native foods as nutrient dense foods with typically slow release, low glycaemic index carbohydrates was also a contributing factor to the maintenance of good health. The low fat, high mineral, high complex carbohydrate, fresh food (organic, GM free), high exercise lifestyle protected the Aborigines against most of today's diseases of civilisation.
Their nutritional status and ancient preparative methods also facilitated the detoxification of anti-nutritional and deleterious substances in a few abundant or preferred foods.
A rose by any other name could still prickle (with apologies to Shakespeare)
So of what relevance are bush medicines to us today?
Considering that even excess water consumption can intoxicate and induce kidney shut-down, the notion that therapeutic drugs are poisons in sub-lethal doses has some substance. As sources of herbal medicines, Australian plants growing wild in different habitats (or even different plants, same species same habitats) add a degree of difficulty reduced by cultivation of selected varietals. Natural variation within a plant species can move it from powerful to ineffective or from innocuous to less so. An example of the first is in the knowledge that the best pitjuri was found in the Gulf country (around Borroloola) from where it was traded over many hundreds of kilometres. An example of the second may be from the leaves of aniseed myrtle, which contain the delicious, highly stimulant and harmless flavouring, trans-anethole. Three trees growing next to one another in a natural stand near Belingen, NSW could be so different chemically that one is high in the sympathomimetic, phytoestrogenic, trans-anethole, another less flavoured tree has leaves with more estrogole (methyl chavicol) and the third may contain the isomeric carcinogen, cis-anethole.
Unfortunately some functionality may also be due to chemicals which are deleterious even at therapeutic levels. The classic case of the treatment being totally successful but the patient died. Examples could include wilga as a toothache treatment which contains high levels of the liver toxin, nor-nicotine or the kava-like sedative tea made from sassafras bark containing the carcinogen, safrole. Another example, is the Australian black bean or Moreton Bay chestnut which contains no less than five alkaloids which act to inhibit carbohydrate metabolism. This has been shown to be effective in treating certain cancers. However, the therapeutic dose is also, unfortunately, lethal.
Although Aboriginal use of bush medicines was obviously well developed and intimate knowledge of varietals of plants combined with adequate nutrition and a supportive social structure provided a longevity which was twice that of Europeans at the time of first contact, this knowledge has suffered over the last 200 years. Oral traditions were either not recorded at all or details on species, season, locality, preparation or application ignored, mis-understood, confused or distorted.
Where to from here? It should be apparent that the foregoing must temper the simple uptake of traditional Aboriginal medicines as complementary treatments. Scientific scrutiny is now a necessity, both ethically and legally. However, this continent offers 25,000 plant species and many times this in plant parts, extracts and isolates (even ignoring some mineral and animal products of potential). Applying some limits using the above scoping of the resources does allow us to stack the odds in our favour of developing an effective range of active botanicals. Additionally, can we really afford to ignore this potential when recognising its value can also add to the motivation to maintain our natural eco-systems as future resource banks?
There are also the benefits from a cultural appreciation of Aboriginal traditions and the spin-off from a viable complementary medicine market paralleling the native food industry.
The first step may be the topical applications for skin conditions and deep tissue ailments. Apart from teratogenesis, here we must recognise that actives are being absorbed into the system and many deleterious compounds can also enter our bodies via our largest organ so some attention is due. Side effects may include general or organ-specific toxicity, photosensitivity, sensitisation or allergy or even tissue necrosis. However, the topicals also represent the most powerful group of actives with pain, irritation, infection or trauma relief from numerous medicines being very dramatic. A second strategy is to look to the commercialised species currently used as food ingredients and evaluate their primary flavour components, many of which also have biological activity (see following table):
Some of the above active components are well understood and either using the native ingredient as a minimally processed additive or purely as a novel source for the refined or extracted constituent, brings us to the challenge of the legislators.
While the promotion of a food ingredient for consumption in the treatment of a particular condition can be achieved through education over time, the quality of source material is an issue as well as dose response considerations. How much is too much? Where is the public mind in thinking if some is good, is a whole lot more better?
The next stage is to have the novel source formally listed as a therapeutic but herein lies the commercial reality. The cost of listing is in the tens of thousands even for well documented actives from little known sources. Efficacy and safety concerns and the onus of proof set a minimum price tag of no less than $10,000 per ingredient. The first to effect the listing is compromised both financially and strategically as listing puts the researched advantage into the public domain. The copycats come out with me-too products to shred the profitability and commercial advantage.
Another group of medicinals is the non-food botanicals. Here we can add an additional order of magnitude to the listing costs as a minimum since so little is known about the actives, non-actives or even the ideal extraction or purification methods. And yet the anecdotal evidence is so strong and mounting that it appears the opportunities are significant. This list would include skin healing agents, anti-arthritics, anaesthetics, sedatives, abortifacients, anti-microbials and haemostatics. Anti-tumour and anti-carcinogens may be included as well.
The reality of the present situation in Australia is that knowledge as well as the resources themselves is disappearing. Traditional lore is as disrupted as the environments and culture of the Aborigines as a collection of nations. There is an imperative that the opportunity is researched, documented and kept available for humans as a species. Legislators need to understand that stifling or impeding development of new medicines is not in the long term public good even if safety is a concern. Naturally, some common sense and basic scrutiny is essential considering the fore-going.
Are we to make pharmaceutical companies richer as they market bio-active chemicals which are far from clean, with the argument of their greater safety when volumes are written on the side effects of these supposedly specific drugs? Should we not be concerned more with the quality of life and appropriate treatments rather than the markets of multi-nationals?
There are obviously issues of intellectual property rights and it is only fitting that opportunities be inclusive of Aboriginal communities. Joint ventures may be a preferred option instead of royalty handouts. We are beginning to address environmental problems, our dependence on petrochemicals, our human rights attitudes (at least in some parts of the world) and are beginning to recognise our relationship with the land and our need to live within the carrying capacity of our ecosystems..
There is little doubt that we still have much to learn from traditional cultures, particularly the oldest, continuous culture on Earth.