I love rainforest herbs. I had the lucky fortune of being introduced to rainforest herbs from the Amazon River Basin in the late 90s and have been ingesting them daily ever since. Rainforest herbs have had a magical effect on my body, giving me strength, endurance and protection from illness. These results were unexpected given my previous history with herbs from China that caused no noticeable improvement in health or well-being. Even more unexpected were the spiritual effects of rainforest herbs. I feel the plants guiding me lovingly toward my purpose and life mission.
The ancient shamanic traditions of the Amazon continue in the present-day medicinal uses of rainforest plants. Under the green canopy of the Amazon rainforest, curanderos – healers, shamans or ‘medicine men and women - have traditionally prepared healthful concoctions from the more than 200,000 plant species that flourish in the area. The curanderos say that they learned of the medicinal properties of rainforest plants from the spirits of the plants themselves. Curanderos are able to communicate with the spirits of rainforest plants through the consumption of ayahuasca, a psychotropic plant mixture known to cause intense visions that is made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis tree, which is commonly known in the Amazon Basin as chacruna. During these visions or journeys, curanderos are able to speak with the plant spirits, receive teachings from them, know the plants’ specific properties, and understand how best to prepare the plants in order to heal their patients. Today Western science is proving what curanderos of the Amazon Basin have known for millennia; rainforest plants are indeed good for you!
Shipibo healer singing icaro to spirits of the plants
Cat’s Claw: The Opener of the Way
Uña de Gato is named for its claw-like thorns
The queen of the plants I take daily is a fast-growing vine called Uña de Gato, Uncaria tomentosa, also commonly known as “Cat’s Claw”. Uña de Gato gets its name from the claw-like thorns that sprout from beneath the leaves and allow the vine to climb to 100 ft or more in the rainforest canopy. In the Peruvian rainforest, Uña de Gato is known as “The Opener of the Way”.The Aguaruna, Ashaninka, Cashibo, Conibo and Shipibo tribes of Peru have been using the Uña de Gato medicinally for over 2,000 years. These tribes have used the plant for so many purposes that it is one of the most highly revered plants of the rainforest. The flowers, leaves and inner bark all have medicinal uses, and the vine when cut releases pure, mineral-rich water that is potable. The inner bark has been most studied for its medicinal properties, which are varied and effective.
According to the Natural Health and Longevity Resource Center studies on the medicinal properties of Uña de Gato have revealed that the inner-bark “may be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis, bursitis, allergies, diabetes, lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, herpes, organic depression, menstrual irregularities and disorders of the stomach and intestines.”
Shipibo man removes uña de gato's inner bark
Centuries before Western health clinics studied Cat’s Claw for its medicinal properties, the people of the rainforest discovered the plant’s effectiveness in treating a variety of common ailments including asthma, arthritis, rheumatism, ulcers, diabetes, inflammation, recovery from child-birth, menstrual irregularities, viruses, constipation and cancer. In order to release its healthful properties, the bark would sometimes be boiled for days, producing a deep red broth that is taken like tea. The Uña de Gato that I consume daily is carefully and sustainably harvested by the Shipibo Tribe of Porveneer, Peru. Because Uña de Gato is highly-revered and considered by the Shipibos to be an intelligent, spiritual plant teacher, traditionally a curandero or medicine woman would sing an icaro or shamanic song to the plant to ask permission that it be harvested.
Scientists have discovered several groups of plant chemicals that account for Uña de Gato’s healing effects. The most widely studied of these is a group of oxidole alkaloids that have show powerful immune stimulating properties as well as anti-leukemic effects. Uña de Gato includes another group of chemicals called quinovic acid glycosides that have documented anti-inflammatory and antiviral actions. Antioxidants, tannins, catechins and procyanidins, as well as plant sterols account for the plant's anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, research shows the presence of still more phyto-chemicals called alkaloids, glycosides and phytosterols which hold promise in helping to maintain cardiovascular health.
Dr. James Duke’s Ethnobotanical Database contains a wealth of information on rainforest plants including Uña de Gato. His research shows that Uña de Gato has multiple chemicals showing anti-HIV, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. No wonder the herb is so highly revered in the forest.
Uña de gato for sale in Iquitos market. Photo by Peter Gorman
Yerba Mate: the Jesuit Tea
Another herb I’ve been having a love-affair with is the yerba mate, commonly known as Jesuit Tea. In the 1600s, the Jesuits arrived in the South American rainforests and discovered the widespread use of wild-crafted yerba mate among the indigenous peoples. While the Guarani of Paraguay are known to be the first people to cultivate yerba mate, the Jesuits became so involved with its cultivation, production and use that they spread the habit of drinking mate as far as Ecuador.
Yerba mate, Ilex paraguariensis, is a species of holly that is native to the subtropical rainforests of South America. The plant itself is a shrub or a small tree native to Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. The most healthful wild-crafted yerba mate is harvested in Southern Brazil. Yerba mate leaves are dried and then steeped in hot water to produce a tea. Mate is Spanish for gourd. The habit of drinking yerba mate from a hollow gourd with a metal straw (bombilla in Spanish), shared between friends, is common throughout South America. Yerba mate, or simply mate, is the preferred drink of South America, like coffee is to North Americans.
The wild harvesters of yerba mate are called yerbateros. Yerbateros typically harvest the plant between May and October when the tree is in full leaf. Yerba mata can be produced sustainably by yerbateros who choose to harvest leaves from the same tree only once every third year in order to protect the parent tree. Most of the mate in commerce today, however, comes from large cultivation projects in Paraguay and Uruguay. Many experts will contend that the wild plant is superior to the cultivated for offering enhancement of health, including pain relief, enhanced immunity, improved digestion, treatment of headaches and arthritis, elimination of excess fluids and toxins, weight-loss, and increased energy.
The baby sprout of a yerba mate tree
Yerba mate is both energizing and healthy. Juan de Solís, a Spanish explorer of South America's famed La Plata River, reported that the tea "produced exhilaration and relief from fatigue." Indigenous forest dwellers relied on the tea for strength and stamina, and in times of scarcity, mate been used as a meal-replacement. Mate has been such a staple of indigenous life that the Incan conquerors are said to have sometimes banned its use in order to control their captives.
Yerba mate has a long list of health benefits derived from a multitude of active compounds including 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, and 11 polyphenols, which are powerful antioxidants. Mate is high in chlorophyll and can boast higher polyphenol and antioxidant counts than either green or black teas. Yerba mate provides a unique sustaining energy by its complex combination of xanthine alkaloids: mateine, theophylline, theobromine and trace amounts of caffeine, significantly less caffeine than black or green teas. Vitamins include A, C, E, B-vitamins, biotin, choline, and inositol. Minerals include calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, potassium, magnesium, silicon, phosphorus, and sulfur. Mate also contains fatty acids and flavenols. Mate is also shown to reduce inflammation, restore regular adrenal function, and balance blood pressure by relaxing the blood vessels.
Though yerba mate is widely thought to contain caffeine, some scientists claim that mate contains not caffeine but mateine, the stereoisomer of caffeine (ie it’s opposite.) Mateine is said to offer stimulation without the addictive side-effects of caffeine. Also, it is known to help induce better sleep when taken before bed, a practice which I engage in frequently.
Many doctors believe in the therapeutic properties of yerba mate. Yerba mate has been recommended for ailments as diverse as arthritis, headache, hemorrhoids, fluid retention, obesity, fatigue, stress, constipation, allergies, and hay fever. Some doctors say that mate cleanses the blood, tones the nervous system, retards aging, stimulates the mind, controls the appetite, stimulates the production of cortisone, and is believed to enhance the healing powers of other herbs.
I like the smooth effect of mixing the yerba mate with the Uña de Gato. Talk about a power drink! I take my mate and Uña de Gato tea with a nice organic home-made almond milk which suffices for a meal when I have no time to make breakfast. My slogan? Latte, schmatte! Give me a mate!
Chocolate Lovers, Take Note!
Wild-growing cacao in the Amazon rainforest
If chocolate as a bad reputation as far as health is concerned, it is strictly because of the sugar and lard that commercial chocolate contains. Otherwise, pure cacao is becoming increasingly known as a health-food, especially fair-trade dark chocolate with 70% or more pure cacao content.
When Hernando Cortes first arrived in the Americas, the indigenous people were commonly using cacao to make a bitter health-tonic – a medicinal drink that contained burned and ground cacao beans, maize, water, and spices. The Spanish refined some of the recipes, adding sugar and using heat to improve the taste. It was only when the Swiss added milk to the mixture that the chocolate we know, and love, now was invented.
Chocolate, and cacao, is said to be an aphrodisiac. This is due to phenylethylamine, a chemical found in cacao that is related to amphetamines, which raises blood pressure and blood glucose levels. Anandamide can be produced in the brain when we are feeling great, cacao makes anandamide stick around longer.
Cacao has many other nutrients that will keep you happy. Pure cacao is increasingly being recognized as a rich source of antioxidants, including polyphenols like catechins, the antioxidants in green tea, and proanthocyanidins, the antioxidants in red wine. Cacao also prevents the oxidation of LDL-cholesterol making it a heart-healthy supplement, and the antioxidants and other nutrients improve overall health and immune functions.
So, for those of us who want to eat more chocolate, science has given us a great reason!
Of the thousands of rainforest plants that have remarkable benefits for human health and well-being, Uña de Gato, yerba mate, and cacao are by far my favorites. Many of us know the importance of taking vitamins and eating well, but few of us consider the additional benefits that medicinal herbs, especially rainforest herbs, can offer. The medicinal plants of the Amazon rainforest have offered me a level of health that far surpasses what I had previously dreamed possible. It is my pleasure to share their amazing properties with you.
Photos courtesy of Gregg Woodward.
Amazon Herb Company
Dr. James Duke’s Ethnobotanical Database
Raintree Nutritionals Rainforest Plant Database
Natural Health and Longevity Resource Center
Healthy Chocolate Website
Julia Droste Stege’s website