Rainforest Rx: Ensuring Miracle Cures Aren’t Lost Forever

Indigenous people and animals who call the rainforest home have long known how to self-medicate, using plants growing in their natural habitat. Leaves of certain plants are sometimes eaten and digested whole to help clear intestines of parasites, and medicinal plants and insects are rubbed into skin to provide protection against insect bites and fungal infections. They learn this by observing others, passing the knowledge on from generation to generation. (People, and animals, have even learned to use some plants for more pleasurable means like getting drunk on fermented fruit, or hallucinating on mushrooms.)

As we lose rainforest, we are also losing its inhabitants, the keepers of all this medicinal knowledge. In the year 1500, an estimated six to nine million indigenous people lived in the tropical rainforests of Brazil. By 1900, that number had dropped to one million while the world population grew from 450 million in 1500 to 1.6 billion in 1900. Today, as the world’s population hovers around 7 billion, there are less than 250,000 indigenous people left in Brazil.

The number of indigenous people living in our rainforests is rapidly dwindling, and with them the invaluable knowledge of rainforest medicinals. Photo by Kellee Laser.

The number of indigenous people living in our rainforests is rapidly dwindling, and with them the invaluable knowledge of rainforest medicinals. Photo by Kellee Laser.

Prescription drug spending in the U.S. was estimated at around $246 billion in 2009. At least half of those medicines have active ingredients derived from rainforest plants. Yet, we have not even scratched the surface of this incredible natural apothecary. Only 10% of the rainforest plants used as medicinals by Amazonian Indians have been examined by modern scientists. Of the few that have been studied, treatments have been found for childhood leukemia, breast cancer, high blood pressure, asthma, and scores of other illnesses. Furthermore, 70% of the plant species identified by the US National Cancer Institute as holding anti-cancer properties come from rainforests. If a cure for cancer or AIDS is to be found, it will almost certainly come from the tropical rainforests.

Some evidence and testing strongly suggests that a cure for diseases like cancer and AIDS may be found in our rainforests. Photo by Beth Doane.

Some evidence and testing strongly suggests that a cure for diseases like cancer and AIDS may be found in our rainforests. Photo by Beth Doane.

Some think it’s already been discovered. Graviola (which is called guanabana in Brazil and soursop in the U.S.) is an evergreen tree that grows in the Amazon region. It can grow to be nearly 50 feet high and is covered with green, long and glossy leaves. The green-yellow fruit is shaped like a human heart and has a skin reminiscent of a cactus. It is widely available and hugely popular at local markets. In the Amazon it is eaten fresh, but we are more likely to see it used in juices, smoothies or sorbets. For centuries, Indian tribes have used Graviola for medicinal purposes. Every part of the plant has healing powers and is used to treat conditions like fever, diarrhea, coughs and flu, asthma, hypertension and diabetes. It’s also used to ease pain caused by rheumatism, arthritis and osteoarthritis, and as a sedative.

Graviola, also known as guanabana or soursop, is an evergreen tree that grows in the Amazon. It contains an acetogenin that has 10,000 the potency of a commonly used chemotheraphy drug. Photo by Tatiana Gerus, Creative Commons.

Graviola, also known as guanabana or soursop, is an evergreen tree that grows in the Amazon. It contains an acetogenin that has 10,000 the potency of a commonly used chemotheraphy drug. Photo by Tatiana Gerus, Creative Commons.

In a 1976 plant screening program by the National Cancer Institute, the leaves and stem of Graviola showed active cytotoxicity against cancer cells. Much of the subsequent research on Graviola focuses on a novel set of phytochemicals called annonaceous acetogenins. Three separate research groups have isolated compounds in the seeds and leaves of Graviola which have demonstrated significant anti-tumorous and anti-cancerous properties. One study demonstrated that an acetogenin found in Graviola had 10,000 times the potency of adriamycin, a chemotherapy drug currently used to treat many types of cancer. Active compounds from Graviola and other Annona plants are also being studied for their effect on AIDS.

Only 10% of the rainforest plants used as medicinals by Amazonian Indians have been examined by modern scientists. Among them, treatments have been found for childhood leukemia, breast cancer, high blood pressure, asthma, and scores of other illnesses. Photo by Beth Doane.

Only 10% of the rainforest plants used as medicinals by Amazonian Indians have been examined by modern scientists. Among them, treatments have been found for childhood leukemia, breast cancer, high blood pressure, asthma, and scores of other illnesses. Photo by Beth Doane.

Earlier this year, a potential cancer drug called EBC-46 was deemed ready to be tested on humans after successfully treating solid tumors in over 150 animals. EBC-46 is derived from the seeds of the Blushwood Tree, a tropical rainforest shrub. Testing results have indicated that the drug could work to counter a range of malignant growths, such as skin cancers, head and neck cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Results have not yet been published in any scientific journal and further testing is needed, but the prospects are very exciting.

As often the case when it comes to natural medicine, the scientific community has divided opinions about natural cancer drugs. Some feel that they are being kept out of the market because their naturally derived ingredients mean that cannot be patented, and thus lack the prospect of profitability.

If we continue at the current pace of destruction, half of the world’s rainforests—and all the medicinal plants that grow in them—will be gone by 2025, and all of them by 2060. We cannot afford to loose this valuable resource. Photo by Beth Doane.

If we continue at the current pace of destruction, half of the world’s rainforests—and all the medicinal plants that grow in them—will be gone by 2025, and all of them by 2060. We cannot afford to loose this valuable resource. Photo by Beth Doane.

Circling the Earth’s equator like a belt, the tropical rainforests maintain a near constant temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and receive anywhere from 160 to 400 inches of rain per year. These favorable weather conditions allow all life forms to flourish year-round. However, we are losing an area of rainforest the size of two football fields every second. Almost half of the world’s original four billion acres—an area that equals the combined size of Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada and Arizona—of rainforest are now gone.

If we continue at the current pace of destruction, half of the world’s rainforests will be gone by 2025, and all of them by 2060. That’s just fifty years from now. We cannot afford to loose this valuable resource. In New York, where I live, a new corner pharmacy seems to be popping up every day, the most common reaction being “What! That used to be a cute restaurant/gay bar/punk rock club/awesome boutique!” Let’s work hard to avoid a future where we are left looking upon a clear-cut field of what was once rainforest, saying “That used to be the cure for cancer.”

This story was written in collaboration with Coco Eco Magazine.

Top photo by Kellee Laser.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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