Recently in class we discussed “folk remedies.” Some students struggled with the lack of endorsement from science on some majorly trending health practices. My friend who suffers from knee osteoarthritis got a platelet-rich plasma treatment recently.1 It’s experimental and being the inquisitive person she is, she asked every doctor and nurse how does it work? The answer was consistently, we don’t really know.
Long before salicylates were isolated and then synthesized into pills, people made decoctions from willow bark and other plants (salicin: white willow, meadowsweet, black haw; methyl salicylate: birch, wintergreen, meadowsweet).2 These anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving, fever reducing herbs were (and still are) “used worldwide in many different cultures for thousands of years.”2 The etymology of salicylic acid recalls its plant based relatives, inspired by the latin for white willow, Salix alba.2 Aspirin also relates to meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria, given by German chemist Heinrich Dreser.3 The a- in the beginning signifies acetylation and -spir, inspired by the plant containing the same compound, Spiraea ulmaria.3
Eating plants we consume salicylates often; one study found vegetarians had a similar amount of salicyluric acid in their urine (a metabolite), as someone taking daily low dose aspirin.2 Lower doses of salicylates from natural sources (or baby aspirin) don’t target the COX1 and COX2 pathways and instead reduce pain and inflammation via other routes.2 Inhibition of the HMGB1and GAPDH pro-inflammatory routes are two such ways plant sourced salicylates may exert their action, possibly with fewer side effects.2
I love when I’m able to find corroboration between scientific studies and folk wisdom. It really brings me a unique kind of joy. Yet this doesn’t always happen. Kitchen medicine has many examples of remedies with few scientific studies to back them up, bone broth and apple cider vinegar being two understudied but widely promoted cure-alls.
I do put a significant amount of trust in long standing traditions and systems of medicine with epistemologies much different than the biomedicine. So when I hear about something humans thought was important enough to pass down to the next generation, and it’s gone through thousands of rounds of oral transmission, I’m impressed enough. I think that must count for something. Of course everything is vetted with some critical thought.
Something I noticed in the reading in my class last week was a profound statement, nonchalantly snuggled amongst introductory remarks in chapter one of Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, and Disease Prevention.4 After introducing the notion that humans have been seeking out plant medicines since their earliest days, the authors remark, “Our ancestors did not know why those plants produced the observed effects, and the discovery of medicinal properties of specific plants and foods was probably accidental or the result of trial and error.”4(52)
This is frequently offered as an explanation of how humans first got acquainted with medicinal plants, accidentally or through trial and error. Considering the biodiversity of the Amazon and other places of the globe, and the sheer number of actual, possibly fatal experiments you’d have to do, this does not seem logical. I’ve been curious about this question since I first encountered herbal medicine back in 2005. Jeremy Narby’s book, The Cosmic Serpent,5 radically shifted how I looked at this question and opened my mind to possibilities I didn’t even know were on the table.
Narby shares his work in the book as a material anthropologist living with the Ashaninca people of the Peruvian Amazon. He set out on his residency collecting cultural data on rainforest resource uses to help justify protecting their land from ecological destruction.6 While there, his hosts exposed him to another way of seeing, an entirely different way of gathering knowledge.6
When asked what the Ashaninca taught him, Narby shares it’s that plants and animals are intelligent, sentient, and communicating with them is possible.6 He explains that this is how the Ashnainca learn which plants are medicinal, by asking the plants themselves, sometimes in altered states of consciousness using Ayahuasca, a plant brew.6(19:19) Narby with his academic, rationally trained mind, says, “it took me about a decade just to stand in front of that statement and take it at face value and try and scratch my head and think about it, what could it mean.” He eventually came to accept it as factual.
The Cosmic Serpent is certainly a compelling investigation of this question, and showed me that there are other avenues to get confirmation and insight from the universe, beyond the RCT. Healing traditions are rife with mystery, including biomedicine; sometimes we must lean into the magic. Some truths are found through intuitive bushwhacking, communing with other beings, and by making altars for the answers we court.
Mugwort can be a magnificent helper in softening and opening to the voices of plants or spirit in general. This is the potent time for connecting----to each other and to cookies of course, but also to spirit.
What if through dreams we could access greater clarity? What if through dreams we could get better acquainted with our place and purpose or receive flashes of divine insight?
A sprig of mugwort under your pillow or adorning your bedroom wall may usher in a vivid technicolor to your REM cycle and greater likelihood of remembering it. I’ll never forget the six year old in our class who said he put mugwort under his pillow and dreamt of blueberries the size of footballs… Now you'v got to try it, right?
Want more of mugwort (a.k.a. cronewort)? Check out these videos from Guido Mase and Susun Weed.
1. Gato-Calvo L, Magalhaes J, Ruiz-Romero C, Blanco FJ, Burguera EF. Platelet-rich plasma in osteoarthritis treatment: review of current evidence. Ther Adv Chronic Dis. 2019;10:2040622319825567.
2. Klessig DF, Tian M, Choi HW. Multiple Targets of Salicylic Acid and Its Derivatives in Plants and Animals. Front Immunol. 2016;7:206.
3. Awtry EH, Loscalzo J. Aspirin. Circulation. 2000;101(10):1206-1218.
4. Paliyath G, Shetty K. Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, and Disease Prevention: A Window to the Future of Health Promotion. In: Paliyath G, Bakovic M, Shetty K, Nair MG, eds. Functional Foods, Nutraceuticals, and Degenerative Disease Prevention. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated; 2011:50-125.
5. Narby J. The Cosmic Serpent. Penguin; 1999.
6. TreeTV / N2K Need to Know. Jeremy Narby on Nature & Life Intelligence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWpbNTfgjXY. Published February 21, 2015. Accessed November 28, 2020.