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MagazineAugust 1993 (Vol. 4 Issue 5)Asthma

Modern medicine's so called breakthroughs in treatment for asthma are in fact adaptations of age old know how of medical herbalists

Modern medicine's so called breakthroughs in treatment for asthma are in fact adaptations of age old know how of medical herbalists.

Since around 2800BC, the needle like branches of a plant found in China called Ma-Huang have been used successfully there against asthma of light to medium severity. In the 16th century AD the physician pharmacologist Li Shih-chen listed it as an asthma treatment in his massive reference work, which is still seen as the authoritative reference for oriental herbal medicine.Ma-Huang, a member of the Gnetales family, resembles a horsetail. It is closely related to the Welwitschia mirabilis of South Africa. Ephedra helvetica, another relation, is used by herbalists in Switzerland, Spain, Italy and France. Another botanical relative is Ephedra distachya, the joint pine of Persia and India which quickly relieves bronchial spasm (RF Weiss, Herbal Medicine, AB Arcanum, Gothenburg, 1988).

In 1926, the drug company Merck produced a synthetic version of Ephedra, the alkaloid ephedrine. This, like the herbal remedy, has been widely used and both have been critically investigated over the years (Br J Clin Pharmacol, 1976, 3). However, the natural version has proved to have several advantages over the man made product: it is better tolerated by the patient, causing fewer heart problems like palpitations and hypertension.

Interestingly, if the Ma-Huang root is included in the preparation made from this plant's branches, heart problems are reduced. Proprietary asthma drugs made from synthetic ephedrine, Benylin and Sudafed, are well known for their strong stimulant effect on the heart.

Khellah a member of the carrot family which grows wild in Egypt and countries of the eastern Mediterranean can either prevent asthma attacks or significantly reduce their frequency and severity (GV Anrep and others, J Pharm Pharmacol, 149, 3; and W Martindale, The Extra Pharmacopoeia, vol 1, Pharmaceutical Press, London 1958). Khellah is rapidly absorbed if taken by mouth, so injections are not needed. Although it is usually regarded as a preventative rather than therapeutic measure, its antispasmodic action lasts for around 6.5 hours, longer than that of modern asthma drugs. Toxicity is extremely low and there are practically no side effects, even when taken over a long period (RF Weiss, reference as above).

The latest orthodox drug derivative of Khellah is disodium chromoglycate (DSCG), marketed by Fisons as Intal. It is intended to stave off an asthma attack. In some patients it may cause a cough, throat irritation and bronchospasm (MIMS, July 1992).

Myrrh on the other hand, is a useful treatment, taken along with other asthma relieving drugs where the asthma is caused by catarrhal infection of the respiratory tract and bronchioles (R W Davey and others, Comp Med Res, Jan 1990). It has been shown to be effective against 20 strains of microbial organisms, including those that are regarded by orthodox medicine as multi drug resistant.

Harald Gaier is a registered naturopath, osteopath and homoeopath.


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