The Amazon Rainforest is home to more than 80,000 plant species. Of these, more than 40,000 play a critical role in keeping us — all of us — alive by regulating the global climate. And apart from being known as “The Lungs of The Planet,” the Amazon also receives the title of “The World’s Largest Medicine Cabinet.”
In Western modern medicine, around 25% of all drugs are derived from rainforest plants. That’s an impressive statistic, especially considering that less than 5% of Amazon plant species have been studied for their potential medicinal benefits.
Below are some of the most famous examples of modern medicine derived from Amazonian plants, as well as some whose huge potential has been noted but remains — for now — clinically unproven, like so many indigenous Amazonian treatments.
Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is an Amazonian vine used for centuries in traditional jungle medicine. Both its bark and roots are used by indigenous tribes to treat arthritis, stomach ulcers, inflammation, dysentery and fevers. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, studies indicate that cat’s claw “may stimulate the immune system, help relax the smooth muscles (such as the intestines), dilate blood vessels (helping lower blood pressure), and act as a diuretic (helping the body eliminate excess water).” It also has antioxidant properties, and early research suggests cat’s claw might even kill tumor and cancer cells in test tubes. It is also being studied as a possible treatment for HIV/AIDS.
The cinchona tree grows to the east of the Andes in the high jungles of the Amazon Basin. One of history’s most famous medicinal plants, it is well-known globally as the source of quinine, a medication used to treat malaria and babesiosis. Extracts from quinine tree bark have been used to treat malaria since the 1600s, and quinine was first isolated from the bark in 1820. The genus Cinchona officinalis is the national tree of Peru and appears on the Peruvian coat of arms.
Curare (d-tubocurarine) is the common name for an extract from various plants found in the Amazon Basin, including Strychnos toxifera and Strychnos mitscherlichii. Indigenous hunters in the Amazon have long been using curare as an arrow poison. In modern medicine, curare is used for general anesthesia and to treat muscular disorders. It’s not to be trifled with, however, as curare poisoning in humans has the same effect as total locked-in syndrome, causing paralysis of every voluntarily controlled muscle in the body, including the eyes.
Jaborandi is the common name given to certain species of Pilocarpus, shrubby trees that grow in the Amazon. The indigenous Guarani people of Brazil have been using jaborandi to treat mouth ulcers since the 1500s, perhaps even earlier. It’s also used traditionally to fight off colds and flu, and as a remedy against gonorrhea and kidney stones. In modern medicine, a medication called pilocarpine was derived from the leaves of the shrub. First isolated in 1874, it is still used as eye drops to treat increased pressure inside the eye, and orally to treat dry mouth. Pilocarpine is included on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.
Sangre de Grado
I first experienced sangre de grado in Peru when I fell off a motorbike and cut my knee open. A local lady applied a thick red liquid to the deep cut and told me to stay still. Soon, it had set solid. A day or two later it fell off leaving barely a trace of the injury. Sangre de grado comes from the tree Croton lechleri. Cut the bark and a thick red latex starts to seep out. Locals use sangre de grado primarily for healing wounds, but it also has other medicinal properties. In modern medicine, a chemical present in sangre de grado, SP-303, is used in the treatment of diarrhea associated with cholera, AIDS, traveling, and treatment with antibiotics. According to WebMD, various other known or currently explored uses for sangre de grado include as a treatment for cancer, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), viral respiratory infections, fever, hemorrhage, bleeding gums, wounds, broken bones, vaginal infections, hemorrhoids, eczema, and insect bites and stings.
Cayaponia tayuya is another Amazonian vine. Like many plants of the Amazon, it is used extensively in indigenous medicine, but remains largely unproven in modern medicine. Traditionally, tayuya bark is used as a blood cleanser and to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. Clinical studies in the last two decades have shown that tayuya may well have anti-inflammatory properties. As with many other Amazonian plants not featured here, it has the potential to change medicine for the better if only more research could be done — and as long as its continued existence is not threatened, like so many plant and animal species in the Amazon Rainforest.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.