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Researcher Explores Native American Herbal Remedies

Many modern medicines have their origin in natural remedies, and some researchers say traditional herbal cures hold clues for modern medicine. A pharmacology professor who studies Native American healing is sharing what he has learned.

Hikers often explore the foothills of the Angeles National Forest, but this group of hikers has a purpose. They are learning how Native Americans used the local vegetation in their healing, including plants like Yerba Santa, adopted by early Spanish settlers for lung problems.

The hike is led by James Adams, who teaches pharmacology at the University of Southern California.

“The science of pharmacology originally was the science of going out, talking to traditional healers, finding out which plants they used in their healing, and then taking those plants back to the lab to figure out why they work,” Adams said.

Aspirin, for example, was derived in the 19th century from salicylic acid, a long-time remedy for pains and fever found in plants like willow and meadowsweet. It was developed and marketed by the German company Bayer.

Adams says each society has developed a form of medicine based on plants.

“Of course, in India, they have Ayurvedic medicine. In China they have traditional Chinese medicine. In the Arab countries, they have traditional Arabic healing. The Jews have traditional Judaic healing, on and on. Everybody has their own traditional healing that depends on plant medicines,” Adams said.

In California, Adams says, the Chumash people learned from experience which plants helped with specific ailments.

“We have, of course, the sagebrush, which makes a very powerful pain-relieving liniment that I think we should all learn how to use, because it is much safer than the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents. It is much safer than the opioid drugs,” Adams said.

Besides easing aches and pains, Adams says the pleasant aroma of the California sagebrush helps people relax. He says a plant called Spanish Bayonet was used by American Indians for food. Its leaves and roots produce a kind of soap, and the fiber from the stems can be used as a poultice for wounds, and for making clothing.

The plant called chamise can be used in a balm that helps with skin problems, and the anesthetic qualities of California bay help with toothaches.

Adams warns that some plants are poisonous, and says knowledge of vegetation is essential. He learned traditional native healing from a Chumash healer, and sometimes takes plant samples back to his laboratory to learn how they work.

He says modern pharmaceuticals remain important in medicine, but are often overused and can be harmful.

“Certainly if you need a drug that can help you, then you should use that drug. But the thing that we keep forgetting is first and foremost to balance your health. Get your body back into balance so that your body can heal itself,” Adams said.

Adams says a good diet and exercise are two keys to a healthy life, and that an educational hike looking for medicinal plants is another good way to keep the body in balance.