Folk medicine

Health cultures

Specialist lists the therapeutical uses of plants and animals in Brazil

Eliana Rodrigues / UNIFESPFruit of the babaçu palm before oil extractionEliana Rodrigues / UNIFESP

Everyone has a lizard that nestles in the middle of one’s chest. The lizard bewitches you when it walks up and down your body. The spell is destroyed if you use herbs that will make the lizard go back where it came from. Understanding the properties of the medicinal plants used in each culture is not a simple issue, but the work of the ethnopharmacologist goes beyond. He has to understand diseases that do not fit into the category of diseases – referred to as “cultural syndromes” by the government’s health system – treated by conventional medicine. This is the mission of Eliana Rodrigues, of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). A biologist specialized in ethnopharmacology, for the last 15 years she has studied the medicinal knowledge of different Brazilian cultures.

“The natives treat the disease and use a specific plant for each illness,” says the researcher, who is the coordinator of the Center of Ethnobotanical and Ethnopharmacological Studies (CEE). “Negroes, on the other hand, use combinations and tend to treat one person’s headache in one way and another person’s headache in another way – the important element is the particularity of each one.” Another difference between these cultures is that each native witchdoctor has his specific knowledge, his own collection of plants from the pharmacy in the forest. According to the researcher, the caboclos [people of mixed indigenous and European forebears] cultivate a more generalized knowledge, which they collect from different cultures and different geographical origins.

This varied pharmacopeia is the topic of Eliane’s research work in seven communities that live in the vicinity of the Unini River, in the North of the State of Amazonas. People who want to go to the nearest towns – Barcelos and Novo Airão – have to sail for at least 250 kilometers up the Negro River. The inhabitants of the region, which is an extrativist reserve, come from indigenous, African, and European stock. In the 20th century, a wave of migrants from the State of Ceará settled in the region in search of work at the huge rubber tree plantations, thus inserting their culture into the local culture.

Juliana Santos, one of the members of the CEE team, has already compiled a list of 122 species of plants and 57 species of animals for 67 therapeutic uses. So far, research studies have shown a wide variety of psychoactive products: stimulants, anxiolytic drugs, aphrodisiacs, tranquilizers, etc. Eliana has already listed 31 species of plants and animals used for these purposes. Plants can provide a variety of parts, such as stem, leaves, bark, seeds and fruit, while animals provide meat, brain, penis, bones and sometimes the entire body. Atta ant tea, for example, is prescribed to do away with laziness, a reference to the reputation that these ants have of being hard workers. “Nowadays, very few river communities use traditional medicine; most of the people from these communities go to the local health care center to get medication, which they use without any discretion,” she laments. This problem arises because this kind of health care is provided without any follow-up by a qualified health care professional, “with very little training.”

Canuaru frog, source of the painkiller for headaches

Crusier (Own work) / via Wikimedia CommonsCanuaru frog, source of the painkiller for headachesCrusier (Own work) / via Wikimedia Commons

The healing qualities of plants
Physician Eduardo Pagani, who took part in a field study in the Amazon, verified that many of the substances used for the so-called cultural syndromes do not have any similar substances in conventional medicine, as is the case of a breakdown, stroke, panic syndrome, uterine disturbances, among others. Some of the medications for these disturbances do not stem from the traditional parts of plants; they come from plant exudates. Examples include breu-branco (protium pallidium) and breu-preto (rattinnickia cf. burseraefolia) as well as lacre (vismia guianensis) which releases an orange liquid.

Plant exudates are not restricted to plants. The saliva of the brown and beige spotted sapo-canuaru frog is prescribed as a painkiller for headaches. The saliva solidifies into a dark substance, which the riverbank inhabitants macerate and wrap in a piece of fabric. Then they burn the substance and inhale it. “Exudates are generally inhaled,” says Eliana. However, she is not convinced that the substance referred to is actually the amphibian’s solidified saliva. The ethnopharmacologist is visiting the communities this month, to learn where to find this substance and check the suggestion made in the 19th century by naturalist João Barbosa Rodrigues: the sapo-canuaru frog collects breu-branco from the rotten trunks of the Protium trees and uses this resin to coat its nest. Therefore, the so-called frog saliva could be the breu-branco enriched with the animal’s skin secretions.

Understanding what these exudates are is currently one of Eliana’s priorities. To this end, she counts on the collaboration of chemist João Henrique Ghilardi Lago, also of Unifesp. Lago is still classifying each exudate as resin, gum, latex, or sap. “This information will provide us with an idea of the chemical composition,” says the researcher. Resins, for example, are rich in terpenoids and essential oils. The second step will be to detail the chemical components and possible active ingredients.

In the meantime, Eliana is listing the plant substances and establishing partnerships with pharmacologists, who analyze the effects on lab animals. Two examples are plants used by the communities of Parque Nacional do Jaú park as painkillers: sucuuba (Himatanthus sucuuba) and cumandá (Campsiandra comosa). According to the inhabitants, the cumandu is the only efficient painkiller for toothaches. The researchers treated mice with extracts from the two plants and corroborated, in some aspects, the folkloric use of those plants, as described in an article published in 2010 in the Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia journal. The researchers detected effects on the central nervous system, such as sedation and weaker motor activity, in the animals that had been given stronger doses of sucuuba extract, Cumunda, on the other hand, did not affect motor coordination and did not relax the muscles. These results, not seen in mice that had been given tree bark extract, were seen in mice treated with extract from the cumunda leaves – which the natives claimed to have stronger medicinal properties. However, the leaves are rarely used for medicinal purposes as they are found on the higher branches, and are out of reach.

Bottles with herb concoctions on the streets of Manaus

Eliana Rodrigues / UNIFESPBottles with herb concoctions on the streets of ManausEliana Rodrigues / UNIFESP

Eliana had already conducted a similar study during her doctorate program. She focused on the Krahô indigenous tribe, found in the State of Tocantins (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 70). Later on, her research work was hampered and restricted by laws that restrict access to the information of the indigenous populations. In addition to working with the caboclos, the researcher also conducted ethnopharmacological studies at quilombola [runaway slave] communities, which have a very distinct culture of traditional medicine.

Eliana discovered the tira-capeta cigarette in the colonial allotment of Mata-Cavalos, in the municipality of Nossa Senhora do Livramento, State of Mato Grosso do Sul. She explains that “it is necessary to live at the site of the study in order to produce  good ethnography.” She observed that Cezário, the local witchdoctor, would light up a scented cigarette after having answered her questions. This cigarette relaxes and alters perception. “This is a celebration smoke,” the witchdoctor described. He had learned the recipe from his native Brazilian grandmother and prescribes the medicine for children and adolescents to enable them to improve their academic performance. The cigarette supposedly “strengthens” the brain. The ethnopharmacologist also discovered that the inhabitants of the region travel for many kilometers in search of a combination of nine plants that help cure marijuana addiction. The tira-capeta cigarette is addictive, but does not carry the social stigma of marijuana, an illegal drug.

The tira-capeta is a combination of native plants such as the erva-guiné (Pettiveria alliacea), and the capitiú (Siparuna guianensis), and non-native plants, such as the eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus) and garlic. The first level of analysis conducted by chemist Giuseppina Negri, described in 2010 in the Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia journal, showed that the smoke of this cigarette contains high quantities of cineol, camphor, and alpha-pinene; these substances are known – based on scientific literature – to sharpen the memory, treat sinus conditions and relieve insomnia.

Misrepresented knowledge
However, if this culture is not maintained carefully, it will get lost. In a survey conducted in Diadema, Eliana and her student Julino Soares noticed that many of the medicinal herbs sold in that town were not really what they should be. When buying one plant, mistaking it for another, clients are at risk of worsening their health issues. Even more serious is the fact that the researchers found high contamination levels, caused by fungi and bacteria. “The vendors are migrants who pick up this knowledge as they cross several states until they come to São Paulo’s Greater Metropolitan region,” says the researcher. However, this knowledge loses accuracy along the way.

“We must retrieve the history of folkloric knowledge which is at risk of disappearing,” points out psychopharmacologist Elisaldo Carlini, director of the Brazilian Center of Information on Psychotropic Drugs (Cebrid), of Unifesp. Carlini was Eliana’s advisor when she was attending her doctorate program. He states that it is impossible for the same person to collect ethnological information at traditional communities and conduct the chemical and pharmacological studies. In his opinion, it is necessary to bring together multidisciplinary teams at well-equipped centers, which, in his experience, are rarely found in Brazil. “The solution is to collect ethnopharmacological data and store it until the country wakes up and realizes it has to invest in the development of medical drugs.” Unless the first step is taken, as Eliana has been doing, nothing will move forward.

One way of changing this scenario lies in the initiative to organize a graduate course in medicinal plants, in Diadema, where Eliana is a professor. Carlini is the mentor and coordinator of the Project, which is in the process of being approved by the office of the president of the university, with the support of the Agency for the Promotion of Post-Graduate Studies (Capes). Carlini hopes that the project’s interdisciplinary characteristics will link the following campuses of Unifesp: the pharmacology course in Diadema, the medical school in São Paulo, and the sociology course in Guarulhos.

The Project
Ethnopharmacological survey among the caboclos from the extrativist reserve of the Unini River, State of Amazonas (nº 2009/53382-2); Modality Regular Support for Research – Biota Program; Coordinator Eliana Rodrigues – Unifesp; Investment R$ 86,130.40

Scientific articles
RODRIGUES, E. et al. Perfil farmacológico e fitoquímico de plantas indicadas pelos caboclos do Parque Nacional do Jaú (AM) como potenciais analgésicas. Part I. Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia. v. 20, n. 6, p. 981-91. Dec. 2010.
NEGRI, G. and RODRIGUES, E. Essential oils found in the smoke of “tira-capeta,” a cigarette used by some quilombolas living in Pantanal wetlands of Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia. v. 20, n. 3, p. 310-16. June/July 2010.
SOARES NETO, J. et al. A rede de comércio popular de drogas psicoativas na cidade de Diadema e o seu interesse para a saúde pública. Saúde e Sociedade. v. 19, p. 310-19. 2010.