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Mexico's traditional plant remedies help with diabetes

University Of Bonn (Universit : 16 March, 2007  (Technical Article)
Shamans in the highlands of Mexico traditionally prescribe specially prepared medicinal plants for diabetes. After many years of field studies and laboratory tests researchers from the University of Bonn have been able to confirm that these natural remedies really are highly effective and, what is more, have few side effects.
In Mexico a factory is now planned which will produce plant-based anti-diabetes capsules. The know-how of traditional healers could thereby contribute towards solving a pressing problem: the WHO estimates that by 2025 every seventh Mexican will be suffering from diabetes, that would be just under 12 million people.

The traditional healers (shamans) recognise their diabetes patients by taste: 'If the patient has the appropriate symptoms, feels very thirsty, has a strong urge to pass urine, is tired and has lost weight, the healer tests to see whether the patient's blood or urine tastes sweet,' the Bonn phytochemist Dr. Helmut Wiedenfeld explains. 'If so, the diagnosis is obvious.' 'Sweet blood' is by no means rare in the Mexican highlands: in many villages eight out of ten adults 'have sugar', Dr. Wiedenfeld adds. Scientists suspect that the reason is genetic predisposition and the wrong diet.

Traditionally, Mexican village doctors rely on specific medicinal plants when treating diabetes. Together with his staff Dr. Wiedenfeld has tested different natural preparations on diabetic rats. 'Initially without much success,' he recalls. This changed when his assistant Ivan Pérez was allowed to look over the shaman's shoulder for several months in the highland village of Xochipala. 'The key often lies in the preparation,' Dr. Wiedenfeld explains. The healer in Xochipala mixes the medicinal plant with maize, for example, or other ingredients, and allows the mixture to stand for some time. 'Molecular scissors' in the maize then cut up the component substances of the anti-diabetes plant into smaller fragments. 'And one of these fragments is effective against diabetes.'

From this mixture the healer obtains a drink which he calls 'agua de uso', water for everyday use. His patients have to drink half a litre a day of this water. In the meantime the scientists have managed to manufacture capsules of the powdery active substance involved. Three capsules contain as much of the active substance as 250 grams of the plant material, corresponding to a day's dosage. The first clinical trials are already underway. A company producing natural medicine has expressed an interest in this new organic medication. Provided the tests run successfully, there will soon be a factory built in the highlands to produce anti-diabetes capsules. The farmers will obtain a guaranteed commitment to purchase the medicinal plants which have been collected or grown and the locals will benefit from the newly created jobs.

Most of the locals suffer from what is known as 'type II diabetes' or 'non-insulin-dependent diabetes', what used to be called 'adult-onset diabetes'; however, in the meantime it is known that type II diabetes can occur before adulthood. The factors which trigger or exacerbate the disease are diets rich in carbohydrates and fat combined with lack of exercise. Treatment mainly involves using synthetic substances which, however, may result in side effects such as nausea, allergic reactions or changes in the blood count. 'One problem with this disease is usually the late diagnosis: since, in the early stages, the blood glucose level does not increase as sharply as in type I diabetes, for instance, it is only rarely detected in routine check-ups,' Dr. Wiedenfeld points out. Especially since the routine checks are usually carried out on an empty stomach, when the patient's blood glucose concentration is low. If it is treated too late, the patient can expect severe follow-up effects which may include blindness or the loss of limbs.

Traditional healers, too, are aware of the importance of the correct diet to prevent diabetes developing. 'In 1993 a new village was discovered in the Mexican highlands. One of the first marvels of civilisation to reach it was a well-known sweetened soft drink,' Dr. Wiedenfeld says. The village shaman is sceptical of the enormous consumption of this sugary beverage. 'In the meantime he recommends his diabetics to switch to the sugar-free light version.'
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