What’s he building in there?
THOUGH TRADITIONAL MEDICINE has been around for thousands of years, only recently has modern science started showing interest in the craft. In the past, peoples, such as the Maya and Native Americans, practiced herbal medicine and developed an extensive knowledge of their environment.
Today, many traditional healers wish to have their methods validated. Their wide expertise on vegetation and medicinal plant properties could provide modern medicine with new pharmaceuticals and a greater appreciation for biodiversity.
John Arnason is a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa. His work focuses on ethnopharmacology, which studies the medicinal properties of plants. Like traditional healers, he seeks to validate folk medicine and better understand the role it can play today.
Arnason was invited to Central America by Maya healers to collect plants believed to have medicinal properties. Back in Ottawa, the plants were grown and examined for active compounds, which can be recognized by their similarities to well-known drugs. These plants were then tested on animals in collaboration with the Royal Ottawa Hospital.
Arnason’s team was shown over 70 active and previously unknown plants by the Mayan healers, many of them used for psychiatric purposes. The team applied this knowledge to identifying avenues for further research.
The results clearly show the strength of traditional medicine. The traditional beliefs are grounded; natural medicines can work. The breadth of plant life uncovered shows the value of biodiversity.
“Working with native healers is wonderful because they have a cosmocentric world view,” said Arnason, “I think the world needs a little more ecological vision right now.”
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