Sunday, 27 March 2005

Of apples and oysters

Can an apple a day keep the doctor away? Do oysters really act as aphrodisiacs? Well I happen to think there's a grain of truth in many folk remedies and old proverbs, particularly those relating to health, the body, the things that were important to people's lives and livelihoods (consider for instance "Red sky at night, shepherd's delight, red sky in morning, shepherd's warning").

Now the 26 March 2005 issue of my favourite read, New Scientist magazine, reports in two separate items, coincidentally both in the same issue, that apples do help prevent clogged arteries and reduce cholesterol, while clams (not unrelated to oysters) are rich in a chemical which boosts the sex drive by raising testosterone levels. Certainly, from my own experience, an apple (or at least half an apple) a day is the best thing for, well, keeping me comfortably regular, shall we say. Some people swear by apple cider vinegar for all sorts of ailments as recommended by their grandma.

Often this kind of folk wisdom has been dismissed as superstitious nonsense. But increasingly, when objective scientific research has been carried out to test the efficacy (or not) of, say, certain kinds of herbal medicine, traditional remedies, spices and the like, more often than not it's been found that there is in fact something to it. For example garlic, known for warding off vampires (symbolic for bad stuff?) and generally being good for you, has been shown to be an antibiotic (see this or this) and kills bad stomach bugs too while leaving the good guys alone. The anti-malarial drug artemether was derived from qinghaosu (wormwood extract) which has been used since 168 BC or earlier in traditional Chinese medicine, and has also been used in African medicine. Turmeric, a spice used in curry, is an antibiotic, reduces the risk of cancer and liver damage, and may help fight malaria, cystic fibrosis and leukaemia too - not to mention inflammatory bowel disease and Alzheimer's. And good ol' fashioned honey has been found to be better than conventional antibiotics e.g. in treating burns, and maybe even in fighting antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

None of that should be surprising. Our ancestors, who didn't have the benefit of modern science or medicine, had to learn the hard way what worked and what didn't, through pure trial and error, perhaps over generations - the ultimate field test, with human beings as the experimental subjects, often sick and facing the very real possibility of death if it didn't work, and desperate enough to try anything until something did. Now they may not have understood the theoretical basis for say cinchona bark (from which quinine is derived) curing malaria, but they sure as hell knew it did the job, and when it's a question of surviving or not surviving, that's really all they needed to know. There's a review in New Scientist of a book "Plants, People and Culture" by ethnobotanists Balix and Cox which covers amongst other things how many common drugs today were derived from folk remedies. These days "old wives' tales" is used in a negative, dismissive sense, but if people in those tough times survived long enough to become old wives, then I for one would think it would be well worth listening to what those old wives had learned.
As an aside, I am also very interested similarly in nursery rhymes - how they represent another form of oral tradition, and the surprising facts often embedded in them (see my previous post on the subject).

True, various ancient attempts to explain why something works don't accord with modern science (such as the traditional Chinese idea of things being "heating"or "cooling" and counteracting say a fever with "cooling" food; or the notion of chi energy, and energy paths in the body being disrupted by illness which acupuncture could help restore). But in my view, frankly that's just not good enough a reason to laugh off the underlying fact that there is clearly empirical evidence that it does work.

What scientists and doctors should be doing more of is collecting traditional wisdom from all cultures across the globe (yes, and checking out the medicinal properties of "natural remedies" that animals and birds use, too - we could also learn a thing or two from them, and there is even a new science called zoopharmacognosy devoted to animal self-medication); investigating what really works and what is simply wishful thinking (for I don't believe in gullibly taking it all as gospel either, I just feel that the scientific establishment should be more open-minded about these things); figuring out why and how it works, in modern terms - what chemicals or enzymes etc may be doing the trick, in the case of say folk remedies; and putting it to use in the here and now to help people, perhaps by synthesising drugs with similar effects. Many folk beliefs may be just superstition - but without meticulously checking them out, we're not going to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff (to use another old saying).

If I were a billionaire (helloooo, Billy G?), I'd fund that research, before it's too late. The increasing Westernisation of societies across this planet means that too much traditional knowledge is being lost, forgotten, devalued and dismissed by the Nintendo-playing descendants of those same people who, in some cases, literally gave their lives to discover the very real truths which are embodied in many of the sayings or proverbs which have hitherto been passed down through the generations. The loss saddens and frightens me - it seems such a waste of wisdom and lives.

I've looked from time to time for a cross-cultural collection of medical sayings or proverbs about health or illness, call them what you will, but the best I have been able to find on the Net is an (apparently much linked to) article on English medical proverbs (whose title, appropriately enough, starts with "An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away..."). I think this kind of folklore would be a great starting point for investigations - though I don't know if the books and articles mentioned in that extract are still in print.

At least some people are now researching herbal medicine (there's potentially shedloads of money to be made by the drugs industry, so once they cottoned on, the pharmaceutical companies started weighing in; and there's even a book about the hunt for medicines in the rainforests, Earthly Goods: Medicine Hunting in the Rainforest by Christopher Joyce, reviewed in New Scientist). (One problematic area here is the ownership and exploitation of the intellectual property derived from traditional knowledge about the use of medicinal plants. It is important that indigenous communities receive acknowledgement for imparting that knowledge, and also that they share in the profits which the drugs companies make from them. Which could be the subject of several articles in itself, and has been - see this, for instance.)

The site for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) has free info on clinical trials of alternative therapies and the like. I also found a database Herbmed which summarises research findings, clinical trials and traditional use etc. of selected plants. The alphabetical list is here. Free public access is limited to 40 herbs (though by searching "clinical" from the main page I found 80 I could view, go figure!) and the searching is odd in that it turns up items where the search term doesn't seem to feature, but it's interesting to browse through. Many of the herbs/plants and foods traditionally considered to be good for the health are covered in that database, like garlic, echinacea, and cranberry.

You'll notice I don't mention any of the zillions of sites on alternative therapies, complementary medicine etc which abound on the Net. That's because, as I mentioned above, I don't believe in complementary medicine just for the sake of it. I feel strongly that it's very well worth testing scientifically whether what people say works really does work, but I won't just take their word for it. I know for instance that Alexander Technique is effective, because I've tried it (STAT provides a list of teachers in the UK); I know research is being carried out on homeopathy and the "memory of water" but I'll reserve judgement until more is known, because it's never done a thing for me; and I know that acupuncture has been proven to work, though they are still not quite sure how according to Western medical theories.

I am a true Fortean at heart - I believe there are more things in heaven and earth etc, but I won't swallow something unthinkingly just because it uses the word "alternative" (or indeed "alien"!). I believe that keeping an open mind and looking at all the facts (not just the facts that fit a pet theory) is the true scientific method, not just in this area but in all areas; whereas, to paraphrase Fortean Times magazine, too many so-called "scientists" argue according to their own beliefs rather than the rules of evidence and ignore, suppress, discredit or explain away inconvenient data (which is quite different from explaining a thing). If more scientists and doctors were more Fortean and less dismissive in their attitudes, science and medicine might be further advanced.

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