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Medicinal Value of Tropical Rainforest Plants: A Reference to the Amazon Rainforests

Introduction

According to both written and archaeological evidence, plants have been a reliable source of medicine for human beings over a span of many thousand years. The first medicinal plants were probably discovered accidentally when a person tried the edibility of a plant and in the process discovered that it cured him of an illness that he was suffering from. The remains of valuable medicinal plants have been discovered in archaeological sites that date back to approximately 8,000 years ago.

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In modern times, about four-fifths of today’s world population is still dependant on plants for medicinal products. Tropical rainforests have especially been a very important source of these medicinal plants. This is mainly because a high percentage of the world’s total number of plant species available, are today found in these forests. In an environment supporting a great number of plant species, chances are quite high that some of these plants may contain chemicals that have a medicinal value.

Tropical rainforests are also a host to many species of animals and insects that rely on plants for their food. Some of these plants have evolved a defense mechanism by producing potent chemicals that are either unpleasant to the taste or could even be poisonous. A good number of these defensive chemicals have turned out to be very important ingredients of medicines or medicines (Marshall Cavendish Corporation et al., 372).

Medicinal Value of Tropical Rainforest Plants

Tropical rainforests have been the source of a good number of very important drugs. One of the first and also very important medicinal plants to be discovered in the tropical rainforests was quinine. During the Spanish conquest of South America, the Spaniards, the Spaniards came across the cinchona or sing-KOE-nuh trees whose bark they carried back to Europe. When cooked in water, this bark popularly referred to as the Indian fever bark produced a type of medicine that was used for the treatment of all kinds of fever, especially malarial fever. In due course, people discovered that the Indian fever bark contained quinine which cured the malaria.

As a result of this discovery, the cinchona trees were nearly destroyed from South America because of the large amounts of bark that were being transported across to Europe. But luckily enough, these trees grow equally well in other warm world regions such as South East Asia and India. In these regions, the cinchona tree is grown in very large plantations, providing a good supply for the world’s demand for its bark (Marshall Cavendish Corporation et al., 373; Clark, Gordon & Harris 295).

Other more recent discoveries are chemicals called phytoestrogens extracted from wild yams growing in the Mexican forests which were used in the production of the first birth control pills. The Rosy Periwinkle, a wild plant growing in the forests of Madagascar has been a source of medicine to the local people for many generations. But it was not until the 1960s that analysis of the plant by modern chemists revealed that it contained the chemicals vinchristine and vinblastine which have now become very important in the control of children related leukemia. Due to pest destruction of this plant in Madagascar, it is now being cultivated in pest-free regions of India.

Indian people living in the Amazon rain forests extract certain juices from plants that contain the poison curare which they use to coat their arrow heads during hunting. When monkeys are shot with the curare coated arrows, the muscles relax and the monkeys have to let go of their grip and this makes them fall to the ground. Modern-day anesthetics were originally produced from the chemical curare, extracted from woody vines that have been growing in the Amazon forests.

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Modern doctors are today injecting a synthetic version of the chemical curare to patients being prepared for major operations inorder to help them relax ((Marshall Cavendish Corporation et al., 374-375; Clark, Gordon & Harris 295).

The Amazon rain forest is home to the largest number of plant and animal species; a number that stands out greater than that found in all the other ecosystems combined. An estimated 35,000 to 80,000 plant species grow in the Amazon rainforest and these include plants that the natives highly value for their medicinal properties. For generations, the native tribes of the Amazon have used medicinal herbs without modern physicians, prescriptions and laboratories. The Amazonians have relied on medicinal plants to strengthen the immune system, regulate blood pressure, enhance the functioning of the nervous system, and restore hormonal imbalance among other physiological applications (Clark, Gordon & Harris 295).

Unlike Westerners who largely rely on modern medicine, native inhabitants of the Amazon rainforest are still highly dependant upon plants for their medicine, and most of them hardly ever call a doctor when illness strikes. These people have for a long time relied upon their knowledge about the healing properties of plants growing in the forests around which they live and such knowledge has been passed on by word of mouth for many generations.

Due to lack of written documents indicating where and when such plants can collected, as well as how they should be used, oral narrative has been the main medium through which such knowledge is passed on from parents to their children. Various parts of these plants used as medicines include barks, leaves and roots which are either boiled or boiling water is poured upon them to produce the infusion that is drank as medicine. Infusions that contain chemicals that evaporate easily are drunk immediately while the rest of them are left for some duration so that all ingredients can dissolve in the water.

But many natural ingredients cannot dissolve in water and many of the Amazonians grind the parts of particular plants and dissolve them in alcoholic beverages. Today, such medicine is even bottled and sold within the communities they are produced or even neighboring communities. Native Amazonians also cook medicinal plants with a little water and sugar to produce healing syrups often used for the treatment of colds, coughs and various other chest problems. Juices extracted from leaves and other plant parts as well as latexes produced by some plants when they are cut are also used for medicinal purposes. The Amazonians are especially known for the use of these latexes as anti-inflammatories and tonics for strengthening the lungs (Marshall Cavendish Corporation et al., 373-374).

By the beginning of the century, about an eighth of all prescription drugs produced in the U.S. contained active ingredients which are plant chemicals obtained from the Amazon tropical rainforest. Amazonian medicinal plants or herbs used in the U.S. include una de gato (Uncaria tomentosa), jaborandi (Pilocarpus jaborandi), quebra pedra (Phyllanthus niruri) and pau d’arco (Tecoma impetiginosa).

However, only the herb jaborandi has been used for pharmaceutical purposes while the rest are used as herbal treatments. The jaborandi plant produces the chemical ingredients for the production of pilocarpine, a drug used in the treatment of glaucoma. It is also used in the production of salivation drugs used during chemotherapy treatment. Pau d’arco is used orally for the treatment of boils, wounds and infections, as well as control of yeast and fungus overgrowth. It is also highly reputed for its usefulness in reducing pain and increasing red blood cell production in cancer patients.

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Research studies have shown that una de gato helps to increase white blood cells by at leas 34%. It also contains oxindole alkaloids that help in the reversal of sicknesses like acne, ulcers and viral infections such as herpes besides reducing side effects of chemotherapy. Studies conducted by Keplinger have proved that una de gato is extremely beneficial in treating symptoms in patients going through various stages of HIV infection.

Other Amazonian herbs used in the U.S. include catuaba (Erythroxylon catuaba), Jatoba (Hymenaea courbaril), guarana (Paullinia cupana), muira-puama (Ptychopetalum oficinale) and chuchu-huasi (Maytenus Krukovit) among other herbs. Over two hundred medicinal substances used by Native American tribes are listed in U.S. Pharmacopeia. Constituents found in the herb chuchu-huasi are highly inflammatory and the herb has been used to produce remedial treatment for rheumatism and arthritis for many decades.

Jatoba, which is largely used by Native South Americans to maintain high energy levels throughout the day is also used for the treatment of many lung conditions and has very strong antifungal properties. The herb has also been used to alleviate prostatitis symptoms. Catuaba is an aphrodisiac and has been used in combination with muira-puama for impotency treatment (Clark, Gordon & Harris 295-296).

Currently, researchers have only been able to assess the medicinal value of only about 1% of plants growing in rainforests throughout the world. This leaves about 99% of plants out there which could be having the cure for many human ailments but which are yet to be discovered. But such discovery may never materialize because of the massive destruction of these forests and secondly because of the high expenses of research to find such plants and subsequently develop drugs out of them.

Unless the rich nations of the world are willing to provide the resources necessary for careful research, most of the world’s rain forests will be destroyed before more life-saving medicines can be discovered (Marshall Cavendish Corporation et al., 375).

Conclusion

Research has revealed that few of the Native Amazonian therapies are actually curative and many of them only help to alleviate symptoms by causing the patient to emotionally feel better; a state which may eventually lead to the desired physical improvements. It is the medicine producing plants whose products provide direct physical effects that have today become of great interest to most pharmaceutical companies. Research on the capabilities, functions and benefits of medicinal herbs from the Amazon rain forest has been going on and once such research comes up with useful findings, the Amazonian herbs could be used to produce cures/remedies for various ailments in future (Marshall Cavendish Corporation et al., 374; Clark, Gordon & Harris 295).

Works Cited

Clark, Carolyn Chambers, Gordon Rena J. and Harris Barbara. Encyclopedia of Complementary Health practice. Warren, MI: Springer Publishing Company, 1999. 372-375.

Marshall Cavendish Corporation, Johnson Rolf E, Greenway Theresa and Kraucunas Nathan E. Rain Forests of the World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2002. 52, 294-296.

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