Exotic Herbs From The Amazon Basin

old message Exotic Herbs From The Amazon Basin Darrell Miller 06/22/07

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Date: June 22, 2007 05:07 PM
Subject: Exotic Herbs From The Amazon Basin

Although many traditional herbal medicines have yet to find complete scientific corroboration in the West, it follows logically that people wouldn't use an herbal product for centuries if it didn't work.

Many of the popular herbs we all recognize as having great health benefits were only recently considered pretty exotic. Even green tea - a staple in China for centuries -has only lately gone main stream.

So it will likely be with herbs from the Amazon basin and its environs. The Amazon basin is one of the most bountiful environments on the planet. Explorers and botanists from the West have looked to this region for generations for the "next big thing." Of course, in many cases, the "next big thing" has already been in use for centuries.

In this issue of Ask the Medicine Hunter, we're going to look at some energizing and life- stimulating herbs that also happen to have great antioxidant properties, too. Best yet, many of them are available to us here from companies that practice fair trade policies.

Let's take a look at some of the herbal powerhouses coming out of the Amazon (and its nearby neighborhoods):

Maca (Lepidium meyenii) has been cultivated for a long time at least 2000 years. Related to brassica family plants like radishes, mustard and cabbage, its foliage does actually look somewhat radish-like, but grows close to the ground.

Maca is cultivated by the Andean people in Peru's central highlands, and contains a plethora of beneficial compounds that enhance overall health and vitality. The tradition of cultivating maca is an old one some strains have been found in Incan sites that date from 1600 B.C. During early European colonization, maca was used by the local native culture as a form of currency, much of the way cocoa was used by the Aztecs, further north in pre-Columbian Mexico.

Maca thrives in high altitudes - between 10,000 and 16,000 feet. The harsher the conditions, the better it grows, or so it seems. In fact, efforts to grow the plant in Central Europe haven't been as successful - maca seems to enjoy its home turf the best. In Peru, maca is a popular and beloved nutrient-packed superfood, and is commonly powdered and mixed into drinks at roadside stands throughout the Andes.

Q. I've heard of maca being used for healthy libido - are there any other benefits?

A. Maca is a natural energizer, and although it is recognized for it's libido enhancing abilities, it has other uses, too, acting as an adaptogen - similar to rhodiola or ginseng. In fact, in South America, maca is known as "Peruvian Ginseng." Though maca is not ginseng at all, some of the benefits of both plants are similar.

In any event, maca is recommended for boosting the immune system, menopause support, and hormonal balance in general. For daily use, maca is most recognized as a great source of energy and all-day endurance. Alkaloids from maca root may be partially responsible for both maca's energizing and libido boost. Research shows that maca affects the hypothalamic-pituitary (HPA) axis - boosting energy and overall aphrodisiac prowess in men and women. Maca contains novel compounds called macamides and macaenes, which have been proven in animal studies to significantly enhance energy, stamina and sexual function reasons people have been so consuming maca for 2000 years.

There are other serious reasons why maca is such an excellent plant. One group of compounds in maca is the isothiocyanates-aromatics constituents that are responsible for the "hotness" of mustards and radishes - fellow members of the brassica family. Isothiocyanates from other members of the brassica family may reduce the risk of breast and stomach cancer. Although the same constituents specifically from maca haven't beentested, it's plausible that they could have the same effects.

Q. I've heard a little about guarana extracts - is it just caffeine?

A. Guarana is widely loved for its mild stimulating effect, which is due to caffeine. But this is by no means this Amazonian herb's sole beneficial compound. Guarana (Paullinia cupana) is so logically ingrained in the culture of Brazil that it's practically a rival (actually out-sells) Coca-Cola in its soft-drink form. Like many other indigenous herbs, guarana was in use locally well before European settlement. Its Latin name comes fromthe German botanist C.F. Paullini, who first encountered the herb in the 1700s. This evergreen vine typically climbs fairly far up the Brazilian forest trees. The seed is the part that gets used. In one clinical study, guarana boosted the memory alertness of participants, even when the caffeine level per dose was a low 9 mg., as compared with approximately 100 mg for a cup of coffee. This effect suggests that other agents than caffeine contribute to a feeling of well being.

Guarana also contains powerful antioxidants including catechin, epicatechin and proanthocyanidins, which protect cells against destruction from free radicals, and impart benefits to the body's tissues and blood. The small seed of this plant is powerful in its health benefits.

Catuaba Bark:

Catuaba (Erythroxylum catuaba) is a common tree found in South America from Brazil to Peru, in the same genus as the coca plant. Catuaba contains components known as alkaloids. These alkaloids (called catuabine A, B, and C) are probably responsible for themental boost most people get when they take catuabe-based supplements or mixes.

There may be little confusion regarding catuaba, because various species and genus typesuse the common name. As a result, "catuaba" gets bandied around a lot, and one person'scatuaba may not be the next. Read labels carefully. The catuaba I've had the best luck with is Erythroxylum catuaba.

Coffee Fruit:

One of my favorite drinks in the world is coffee, and I'm sure at many people reading thisconsider it the essential part of their morning, too.

The part of coffee that we use the most is the seed of the coffee fruit - which appears as a bright, red berry. Most of the time, this fruit is sloughed off and left behind in the process of making coffee - it's really too delicate to last long in hot conditions.

But advances in technology have tapped a previously discarded resource. Though the fruit of coffee is available in any coffee-growing economy, a high antioxidant commercial extract of "coffee cherry" is now available from the fruits of coffee plants in Mexico.

Coffee fruit has many of the attributes of other dark-colored, anthcyanin-rich fruits. Coffee fruit (also referred to as "coffee cherry") appears not to be just another antioxidant, however. Current research on this once-forgotten, former castoff shows impressive abilities to decrease tumor size, and possibly even prevent their formation in the first place. It seems that the elements in coffee berry activate T-lymphocytes in such a way that mammary tumors are shrunk or simply put on hold. It will be fascinating to see how this science plays out.

Muira Puama Bark:

Muira puama (Ptychopetalum olacoides) grows between 15 to 45 feet high. Native to theAmazon basin of Brazil, the dried bark has been used for centuries as a traditional energysupport. Components include beta-sitosterol, campesterol and lupeol.

Muira puama, like other central nervous stimulants has been researched lately for its ability to boost memory retrieval and protect neural (brain) tissue. Who knows? Maybe this traditional ingredient could someday be on the cutting edge of natural medicines fighting Alzheimer's, much the way green tea and turmeric are currently. In one unpublished French study of 262 men with low libido and poor erectile function, 62% experienced significant improvement after taking an extract of Muira puama for two weeks.

Acai Berry:

Acai (Euterpe acai) berry is a traditional favorite (and readily available) food source for people in the Amazon. The tree is a tall-growing palm with berries that provide - a rich source of anthocyanins, potent purple pigments with extraordinary high antioxidant activity.

Once harvested, acai fruits decay rapidly. As with coffee fruits, special processing is the surest way to make certain the nutrients of acai berry make it to those of us outside the Amazon basin.

However, these wonderful fruits not only fight against free radical damage, but help our natural digestive enzymes and boost natural immune defenses, too. In fact, current research is investigating whether compounds in acai may have a fighting effect on leukemia, too. So far, the results have been very positive.

Look for supplements made using organically-grown, fair trade acai berry. The best companies ensure that the local people harvesting acai and the communities where they live gather more than just short-term benefits. The best companies work not just to provide jobs, but better lives for generations to come.

Q. What is sustainability and fair trade, anyway?

A. Sustainability refers to a set of naturally occurring circumstances, or intentionally designed practices and principles, which ensure that all parts or members of a situation are adequately nourished to promote their healthy continuance. In current parlance, sustainability often refers to practices and programs designed and implemented to keep natural systems healthy and flourishing. Many such programs focus on environmental protection and preservation of traditional cultures. In the world of medicinal plants, sustainable practices include organic agriculture, species management, fair trade, and benefit-sharing programs.

In other words, sustainability pays people fair wages, puts resources back into their communities, and ensures that the resources that benefit us all are going to be around for a long time. It is an earth-friendly, people-friendly concept of commerce that happily, is taking root around the world.


The traditional cultures that use - and have used - these ingredients for generations wouldn't have done so if they hadn't been effective. Fortunately we live in an era when formerly locally-used herbs are now available far beyond their previous range. We are also fortunate to have companies and individuals working hard to make sure that the people who tend and care for these precious resources are paid fairly for their efforts, andthat their families and communities benefit from this commerce as well.

The great thing about using traditional herbs and ingredients that have been gathered in this manner is that you know they'll be around for a long time.

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