Scientists Put Shamanic Medicine Under The Microscope

Categories: Health & Nutrition

In an unlikely collaboration with Amazonian shamans, medical researchers seek a cure for autoimmune disease.

Ten years ago, Mark Pischea, then a 42-year-old political consultant and father of five from Williamston, Michigan, was rushed to the hospital with severe stomach pain.

Pischea was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a chronic autoimmune condition that can cause extreme abdominal discomfort, weight loss, fatigue and fevers. For the next decade of his life, the formerly healthy husband and father lived in a constant cycle of flare-ups, surgery and recovery.

After his fifth surgery, Pischea was bedridden for six weeks. At that point, he was told his only remaining options were a sixth surgery or the removal of his stomach. He said that he felt ready to die.

But there was, in fact, one other option, albeit an unconventional one. At his wife’s insistence, Pischea got out of bed, boarded a plane and made his way down to a rustic healing center in San Roque de Cumbasa, a tiny village in the Peruvian Amazon.

Pischea spent most of the next three weeks in solitude, following a strict dieta of rice, plantains and specially prepared plant teas. Several times a day, he met with a shaman named Antonio, who prescribed him local plants known to induce vomiting, as a way to cleanse the body and "reboot" the immune system. The shaman's recommendations also included ayahuasca, a potent hallucinogenic brew, and kambo, the venom of a rain forest tree frog.

Four months later, Pischea is free of not only his Crohn’s symptoms, but also the depression that had developed alongside his sickness.

“For me, being symptom-free is nothing short of a miracle,” he told The Huffington Post. "I'm thankful for each day that I'm feeling well."

Looking for answers

Pischea is one of a rapidly growing number of Americans struggling with cancer, chronic disease, mental illness and other ailments who have turned to the Amazon for answers that modern medicine has failed to provide them.

“I went to the top Crohn’s clinics in the world and saw the top doctors in the world, and none of them could help me,” Pischea said. “There is a curative quality to the plants in the jungle that you really need to be there in that environment to experience. I think it really does work.”

But the potential medicinal resources of the Amazon -- especially the 80,000 plants native to the region, and the shamanic knowledge that often exists only in oral form among the disappearing tribes -- remains largely untapped. Despite the fact that 25 percent of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from rain forest plants, currently less than 1 percent of tropical plants have been analyzed for medical purposes.

Even the plant medicines that are commonly used by shamans, as the indigenous medicine men and women are called, are poorly understood by Western doctors. So far, there has been little research aimed at evaluating indigenous plant medicine and shamanic treatment protocols.

But that’s beginning to change. Now, a large-scale new research project is creating the opportunity for a meeting of the minds between traditional and modern medicine, between shamans and scientists.

In Ecuador and Peru, the Runa Foundation -- a nonprofit that does conservation work in the Amazon and provides opportunities for economic advancement to indigenous peoples -- is working with a new initiative, PlantMed, to build medical clinics for the research of plant medicine, facilities that will be the first of their kind.

"What we’re doing is trying to put together a multidisciplinary team that involves Western-trained physicians and psychologists as well as the shamans that are indigenous to these areas," Dr. Mauro Zappaterra, a Harvard-trained physician who is on the advisory board of the forthcoming clinics, told The Huffington Post. "It’s bringing together the best minds from Western medicine and from Amazonian, or shamanic, medicine... to create an even better medicine that incorporates all of it."  

Looking to the rain forest for the next miracle drug is hardly a new practice. Pharmaceutical companies have been sending ethnobotanists to the rain forest for decades to test and collect plants with potential medicinal properties. But for all this exploration, there’s been little collaboration between these medical researchers and the people who have been harnessing the healing powers of these plants for thousands of years.

That kind of collaboration is at the core of PlantMed's mission. At the Naku Center, located in an area of rich biodiversity deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon, researchers from Stanford, Yale and other institutions will work with healers from the Sapara tribe, an endangered society of fewer than 600 people. At the Rios Nete center in Peru, researchers will work with the Shipibo, a larger tribe whose members are well-known for their medicinal wisdom.

At each center, an M.D. and a shaman, with the support of a team of wellness practitioners and clinicians, will care for an initial group of 15 patients using shamanic protocols, while the researchers analyze their treatments using modern technology. The facilities are slated to open early next year.

While modern medicine is the most sophisticated healing system ever designed, it’s “still got a lot of holes in it,” said Dr. Mark Plotkin, an Amazonian ethnobotanist, conservationist and author of the 1994 book Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice.

“All you've got to do is look at pancreatic cancer, insomnia, acid reflux, stress -- all these things that Western medicine can't cure -- to realize we need alternatives or additions,” Plotkin told HuffPost. “As Westerners, we're taught that anything that isn't done by a white guy in a lab coat isn't science, but that obviously isn't true.” 

Dr. Gerard Valentine, a psychiatrist and researcher at the Yale School of Medicine and an adviser for Rios Nete, says that PlantMed's clinics are “poised to translate an overlooked trove of botanical knowledge into novel, practical and evidence-based modes of treatment.”

Patients will stay at the clinics for anywhere from three weeks to four months, depending on their diagnosis and disease progression. They’ll be assigned both a lead M.D. and a lead traditional healer, who will work together on their case.

For each patient, the shaman will conduct a holistic assessment of his or her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual state. The patient will then be given a plant medicine treatment protocol intended to address what the shaman has determined to be the root cause of the patient's ailment. Meanwhile, the researchers will analyze the shaman's treatment methods and plant prescriptions, measuring various biomarkers of disease in the patients before and after treatment, and noting both positive and adverse effects.

“It’s creating not only a research center, but a healing center," Zappaterra said. "Doing research is how you move medicine forward. You ask questions to investigate. Collect the data, analyze the data. See what the effects are, see what the side effects are."

The first order of business at the clinics? Finding a cure for autoimmune disease.

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