The healing power of poisons

In nature, countless plants rely on toxic chemical compounds, in order to survive. These toxic metabolites react with the human body in a variety of ways, from euphoria and intense ecstatic reactions to organ failure and death. On one hand these are the symbol of addiction; on the other they can be powerful sources of healing. The following plants are better known as illegal drugs than lifesaving medicines.

1. Cannabis (Cannabis sativa indica): also known as Marijuana; the term “marijuana” was a slang word made popular in the 1930s by Mexican soldiers who smoked cannabis. The plant has more than 400 active compounds; sixty of them are active compounds and are collectively known as cannabinoids. Some of these cannabinoids have a medical interest in reducing pain and inflammation, controlling epileptic seizures, increasing appetite and reducing nausea, possibly treating mental illnesses, other addictions, or even destroying certain cancer cells.

2. Peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii): the name “peyote” comes from Spanish and means “glisten”, “glistening” or “divine messenger”. The plant contains several psychoactive alkaloids of which mescaline is the most well known. Despite that peyote is considered a recreational drug, it is also used for treating fevers, joint pain (rheumatism) and paralysis. Traditionally, people apply it to the skin for treating fractures, wounds and snakebite.

3. Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum): the opium is produced from the milky fluid that seeps from cuts in the unripe poppy seed pod; then the gummy, sticky liquid is scraped off and air-dried. Opium’s medical properties were known since ancient times, Greek and Roman physicians used it as a powerful pain reliever and sleep inducer. The principal ingredient in opium is morphine, which is used in clinical pain management (especially for terminal cancer pain and post-surgery pain) and remains the standard against which new pain relievers are measured. Heroin was synthesized from morphine by the Bayer pharmaceutical company of Germany and sold as a remedy for morphine addicts. Also, it was marketed as a treatment for tuberculosis. Codeine and Oxycodone are other substances synthesized from opium. These are used as moderate pain relievers and Codeine also as cough suppressant medicine.

4. Coca (Erythroxylum coca): the leaves of coca are a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin B2 and vitamin E, minerals such as Calcium (Ca) (they contain more calcium than milk!), Iron (Fe) and Phosphorus (P). They are also an excellent source of proteins. The psychoactive alkaloid from its composition, cocaine, made coca famous throughout the world. Nowadays cocaine is used as a local anesthetic in certain cases of eye, ear or throat surgeries. Funny fact: in 1864, chemist Angelo Mariana created a sweet wine named “Vin Mariani” from coca leaves. The wine was popular among those times celebrities such as Queen Victoria or Thomas Edison.

5. Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum): is a plant native to the Americas, the main source of nicotine. This is the active ingredient in the tobacco, used in cigarettes, cigars and snuff, and is an addictive drug. In small quantities (inhaled or smoked), nicotine has a stimulant effect, but when ingested in larger doses is a highly toxic poison. It is considered to be the world’s most common addiction. Tobacco use causes serious health problems, such as cancer and emphysema and is responsible of millions of deaths every year. On the bright side, nicotine has some positive benefits, making it a wonder drug: it may soothe symptoms that come with depressive-spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, adult ADHD, neurodegenerative disorders (Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, mild cognitive impairment), reduces appetite, is an effective painkiller and improves attention.

6. Psilocybin mushrooms (Psilocybe genus): also known as “magic mushrooms”. There are more than 200 species of mushrooms (psilocybin mushrooms) that naturally contain the prodrug compound psilocybin (a hallucinogen active ingredient that has similar effects to LSD). These plants predate recorded history, their image being painted on prehistoric murals and rocks. It is thought that psilocybin mushrooms were consumed in spiritual and divinatory ceremonies. Nowadays studies show that psilocybin can be used to treat anxiety and depression experienced by people with advanced forms of cancer for six months or even longer.

7. Betel nut (Areca catechu): is the seed of the Areca palm. The nuts are chewed with betel leaves or with tobacco leaves to enhance the liveliness sensation. It is considered to be the fourth most-common psychoactive drug in the world (following nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine). Consumption of it is linked to serious health problems, such as oral and esophageal cancer. Studies suggest that betel nut may have anti-inflammatory and wound healing properties. Also, the nuts are used for the treatment of schizophrenia and of glaucoma.

8. Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi): is a South American vine used as the main ingredient to prepare a traditional spiritual medicine (a psychoactive drink) of the same name. The brew is used by the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin to generate intense spiritual revelations. Studies suggest that Ayahuasca may be the next medicine to treat addiction, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and degenerative illnesses (such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease) by stimulating tissue protection and neuroregeneration.

9. Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia genus): is a genus of seven species of flowering plants that are closely related to genus Datura and sometimes even confused with it. Because of its hallucinogenic action and the easy availability of it, the plants are used by young people as a substitute for LSD, to induce hallucinations and euphoria. The ingestion of even a few flowers of Angel’s trumpet can cause symptoms of poisoning and even death, which is why it should be differential diagnosis in patients presenting confusion and hallucinations of uncertain origin, especially during the summer months. The plant has some medical benefits too: antiasthmatic, analgesic, narcotic, anesthetic, antispasmodic and even aphrodisiac effects.

10. Salvia (Salvia divinorum): is a potent psychoactive plant native to Mexico, which can induce visions and other spiritual experiences. The native people of Oaxaca, Mexico, believe that the plan is an incarnation of Virgin Mary. It grows in shady and moist locations of the cloud forest. People used it as a recreational drug because gives hallucinations when it is chewed, inhaled or placed under the tongue. There is an intensive research to explore the therapeutic potential of salvia as a new treatment for dementia, addiction and other central nervous system diseases.

11. Jimson weed (Datura stramonium): is a powerful hallucinogen and deliriant, being used for the intense visions it produces. Its name comes from Jamestown, Virginia. The plant contains tropane alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine and atropine, primarily in the seeds and flowers. Medical benefits of the herb include treatment of asthma, relieving symptoms of depression, of pain, treatment of malaria, of heart arrhythmias and palpitations, of insomnia or other sleep disorders, of baldness, strengthens the immune system. A popular use of the plant in traditional medicine was to increase sexual energy and boost libido and fertility.


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