Scientists Put Shamanic Medicine Under The Microscope

Categories: Health & Nutrition

When the body attacks itself

More than 50 million Americans -- that’s 1 in 5 people -- suffer from some form of autoimmune disease, of which there are more than 80 known types, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Of those 50 million people, 75 percent are women.

While treatments with varying degrees of efficacy have been developed, there is no known cure. Some patchwork solutions exist, but rarely are doctors able to identify and address the root causes that have led the immune system to start attacking its own healthy tissue. Often, doctors rely on immunosuppressant drugs such as corticosteroids to shut down the immune system. These drugs carry many side effects and are not always effective.  

“There are many autoimmune disorders that affect millions of people around the world, for which there are no cures, and treatments are far from successful," Runa co-founder Tyler Gage told HuffPost. "So we see a major window for plant medicine to contribute."

Autoimmune diseases are difficult for doctors even to diagnose, since they're often heralded by a nebulous constellation of symptoms like fatigue, clouded thinking, frequent colds and feelings of general malaise. For U.S. patients who have been diagnosed with some kind of autoimmune disease, it takes an average of five years and five doctors just to receive a diagnosis, according to the American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association.

These diseases are mysterious and multifaceted. One possible reason that many anecdotal reports have found shamanic treatments to be effective in treating autoimmune conditions is that they look at the patient holistically, taking into account mental and emotional factors.

“Many researchers are now focusing on ‘psychogenetic’ components of autoimmune disorders, and understanding the psychosomatic origin and nature in these diseases,” said Gage. “The treatment strategies in Amazonian medicine invariably focus on the patient's interrelated psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being, and often target the intersecting points of these layers.”

In his 2003 book on the link between stress and sickness, When The Body Says No, the Canadian physician Dr. Gabor Maté writes that in nearly every autoimmune patient he has worked with, "underlying emotional repression was an ever-present factor."

Indeed, a growing body of research has found that stress, childhood trauma, anxiety and other psychosocial factors can play a role in the development of autoimmunity. One study found that patients with rheumatoid arthritis often report having experienced emotional neglect and abuse in childhood, while another found that MS patients exhibit "insecurity that drives their need to seek greater love." Similarly, lupus patients frequently report histories of childhood emotional deprivation.

This is just one possibility. It could also be the case that some aspect of the Amazonian plants' unique chemical makeup is particularly well-suited to addressing immune system disregulation.

“It may be that the nature of autoimmune disorders -- which in many cases is the body's inability to distinguish between itself and ‘not itself’ -- involve more of a simple on/off switch that something within the plants' biochemistry or the way they're administered is able to address,” Rios Nete co-founder Luke Weil told HuffPost in an email.

It’s important to note that shamanic medicine is no magic bullet for autoimmune disease, and it may not be effective for many or even most patients. Still, it seems likely that by learning more about plant-based medicine, we can help advance our understanding of these mysterious diseases, and we just might move toward better treatments in the process.

“The shamans say that God didn’t create a disease without creating a cure,” Pischea said. “The cures are there. We just need to find them.”

Tribes on the brink of extinction

There’s a very good chance that we won’t find these cures, however, if the rampant destruction of the rain forest continues. At a time when people in the West are living longer and sickerthan ever before, and chronic diseases have a yearly impact of over $1.3 trillion on the U.S. economy, the Amazon is a largely untapped resource that we can’t afford not to utilize. 

As indigenous cultures like the Sapara and Shipibo teeter on the brink of extinction -- the Sapara, once a thriving tribe of more than 200,000 people, has dwindled to a group of just 575 -- their vast medicinal knowledge, much of which is not preserved anywhere in writing, is likely to disappear along with them.

This would be a grave loss. The Sapara have made profound advances in plant medicine, having established numerous uses for more than 500 different local plants, but little of this knowledge has made its way into Western medicine.

As the Sapara chief told PlantMed, the tribe's members have a vision of spreading their knowledge.

"They are eager to share their medicine and traditions with the world in a way that is respectful and scientific," said Gage.

PlantMed is in a unique position to make this vision a reality. The organization has had relationships with the tribes for close to a decade, and is devoted to sharing their knowledge in a respectful way.

Such a collaboration, unfortunately, would be the exception, not the historical norm. The knowledge of native peoples has been exploited by pharmaceutical companies too many times to count. As Plotkin pointed out last year in a popular TED talk, when a billion-dollar AIDS drug was developed from the venom of a Brazilian snake long used for medicinal purposes by native peoples, the Brazilians didn’t see a penny of that money.

“There's a wrong way to [work with these tribes], which has been done before, and a right way to do this, which we have an outline for, but it isn't being done,” Plotkin told HuffPost.

The new research centers could be that “right way.”

“We see the clinic as a platform to nurture and empower the knowledge held by these communities, as well as the plants that underpin these treatments -- particularly as both are disappearing rapidly,” Weil said. “We aim to demonstrate their value to the rest of the world with the hope of arresting this destruction.”

Pischea, too, hopes that these treatments will be available to others who are struggling with chronic diseases. Today, he is enjoying good health and renewed energy. There’s always a risk that his symptoms could return, as is the case with any autoimmune condition, but he’s taking it one day at a time.

“The potential is that a lot of people who are suffering unnecessarily could feel better,” he said.“I think even many Western doctors are starting to see that there are answers that are beyond textbooks, and that they need to be open to whatever will do right by their patients.”

For more information on Naku and Rios Netes, or to support the project, click here 

by Caroline Gregoire / via HuffingtonPost

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