Nature’s poisons: What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger

The word “poison” evokes images of mayhem and murder, especially at this time of year. However, throughout history, healers and scientists have harnessed the power of poisons, toxins, and venoms as medicines. Today, we use many toxic plant and animal substances to create potent treatments for cancer, Type II diabetes, and infectious diseases. In fact, yesterday, I told you about nightshade plants that were once considered poisonous, but became important sources of foods and medicines.

Biologically active compounds in plants can act as medicines or poisons, depending upon the forms and doses, just like pharmaceutical drugs. From ancient times around the globe, doctors and healers gave the right doses of hemlock, henbane, mandrake, and opium to reduce pain and as anesthesia before minor surgical procedures.

But in larger doses, these plant compounds brought death, as in the legendary case of Socrates being made to drink hemlock. During the 17th century, chemists combined poisonous extracts into cough medicines. These kinds of events led Sir Francis Bacon to comment, “the remedy is worse than the disease.” That saying continues to apply to many mainstream medical treatments down to the present day–which is the scariest of all things I’ll tell you about this week.

During the 19th century, chemists typically included arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals in popular remedies and drugs. In 1860, during an address to the Massachusetts Medical Society (publisher of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine), Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, “If the entire materia medica, as presently practiced, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind–and all the worse for the fishes.”

Ultimately, these dangerous practices led to the promotion of much-welcomed “drugless” approaches at the turn of the 20th, such as Mesmeric, or “magnetic,” healing, chiropractic medicine, and osteopathy.

More than 400,000 plant species contain compounds that may be toxic to varying degrees. As I often explain, plants are sessile (fixed in position). So these toxins help protect the plants from heat, sun, insect and animal predators, and even other plants.

Caffeine and nicotine are both plant products with well-known physiological effects and health properties. Salicylic acid is the active ingredient in the pain-reliever aspirin. It’s found in a number of plants, including the white willow tree, Salix alba, a Native American remedy. Of course, today manufacturers use another plant–meadowsweet grass–for large-scale aspirin production. Like any herbal remedy or drug, caffeine, nicotine, meadowsweet and white willow can all become toxic at high doses (much higher than those that produce their beneficial effects).

Modern manufacturers also use an alcoholic extract of the herb called sweet wormwood, Artemesia anna, to make vermouth, an ingredient in the popular drink martinis. I hope these revelations will find you stirred, but not shaken. Interestingly, the word “wormwood” comes from Old English. It would imply they knew about the herb’s activity against parasites long before modern science.

Indeed, the new anti-malarial drug artemisian derives from sweet wormwood. The herb is especially valuable because the drug is so effective against malaria, which has become resistant to the old quinine and chloroquine drugs due to overuse around the world during the 20th century.

During mid-1990s, I participated in a UN-sponsored expedition to the Upper Amazon to determine whether Artemesia could be grown locally to combat chloroquine-resistant malaria, since the new drugs were unaffordable and unavailable there. Even the Nobel Committee in Sweden has recognized the importance of these approaches by awarding the Nobel Prize earlier this month to a traditional Chinese doctor who used ancient herbs to come up with a better treatment for malaria

We are all, appropriately enough, concerned about the development of drug-resistant infections, such as malaria and MRSA. But we should look to Nature for alternatives. Nature is like a big “arms race” where algae, bacteria, fungi, and molds all develop their own natural antibiotics to fight off other competing species.

All these microbial toxins are potential sources of medicines, as penicillin was.

While modern science has figured out how to create some of these complex biochemicals in the lab at extremely high pressures and temperatures, plants manufacture them naturally at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. There is still no substitute for Nature’s laboratory.

The animal world is another potential source of new medicines.

Experts estimate 100,000 animals–from lizards and snakes on land, to anemones and jellyfish in the oceans–produce venoms that contain hundreds of different toxins. About 10,000 animal toxins have been scientifically identified and 1,000 have been studied specifically for drug development. In fact, scientists have made blood thinning drugs from the venom of the African saw-scaled viper, as well as from a simple substance secreted by blood-sucking leeches.

Gila monsters, large venomous lizards found in the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico, have a compound in their saliva that increases insulin production and lowers blood sugar. In fact, big pharma used the compound to make a new Type II diabetes drug. (However, I still recommend staying with Metformin for Type II diabetes, which derives from an ancient European folk remedy called French lilac).

ACE inhibitors, the first drugs developed to control high blood pressure, work by influencing angiotensin-converting enzyme. I researched this enzyme in the mid-1970s. Scientists based the drug design on the Brazilian pit viper, called Bothrops jararaca, which kills its victims with venom that causes a drastic drop in blood pressure.

Poisonous plants, snakes, spiders, vipers and Gila monsters all make popular themes for the likes of the Addams Family and other spooky tales at this time of year. For natural healing remedies, I think of this twist on the old admonition, “one man’s poison is another man’s meat.”