Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons
Medical marijuana gets all the headlines, but many legal weeds have traditions as medicines too. Although homeowners often consider these plants as lawn outlaws, weeds can serve as a floral pharmacy. However, would-be patients of the plants should consult a doctor before self-medicating.
Cichorium intybus, the light blue flower frequently seen along roads, provides the main commercial source of the compound inulin. Patients take inulin to fight high blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides, according to WebMD. Research published in Diabetes & Metabolism Journal suggests that inulin intake benefits women with type-2 diabetes by reducing the rate of blood sugar increase after eating. Inulin promotes the growth of certain bacteria in the intestines. While some believe this can help digestion, others suffer serious flatulence when the inulin-fed bacteria build up.
Some people add the dried and roasted root to coffee. Chickory coffee is especially popular in New Orleans.
Böhringer Friedrich, Wikimedia Commons
Trifolium pratense contains chemicals known as isoflavones. These chemicals can act like the female hormone estrogen in the body. Doctors have examined the clover chemicals as a treatment for hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. However, doctors warn that women with a history or risk of breast cancer should avoid isoflavones, since estrogen-like chemicals have been associated with increased incidence of some cancers.
H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons
Silybum marianum has a 2,000 year history as a liver medicine. Modern research has looked at thistle extracts as a treatment for alcohol-induced liver damage. Substances in milk thistle, particularly the chemical silymarin, may protect the liver from damage after a person takes an overdose of other medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol). Milk thistle may also be an antidote to poison from the deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Animal studies found that milk thistle completely counteracted the poison if given within 10 minutes of poisoning, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Muffet, Wikimedia Commons
Native Americans used the milkweed (Asclepias sp.) as a contraceptive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The milky, white sap that gives the plant its name served to remove warts. However, milkweeds also contain chemicals known as cardiac glycosides. These chemicals can cause severe illness in humans and livestock. Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat milkweed and build up high concentrations of glycosides, which makes the insects nasty tasting to predators.
Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Greeks and Romans used horsetail (Equisetum arvense) to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. My wife drinks horsetail tea to flush out her body’s system and help lose weight. The tea has a mildly bitter flavor, similar to chamomile. Research published in Ethnopharmacolgy found that horsetail tea increases urination which corroborates my wife’s contention that the plant is a diuretic, or a substance that increases urination. However, doctors recommend taking a multivitamin when drinking significant amounts of horesetail tea, because it can flush nutrients, such as vitamin B1, thiamin and potassium, out of one's system as well.
J. Carmichael, Wikimedia Commons
In the past, Europeans used remedies made from dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) roots, leaves and flowers to treat fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine take dandelions for stomach ailments and breast problems, such as inflammation or lack of milk flow. Dandelion leaves taste similar to spinach and contains vitamins A, B, C, and D, along with iron, potassium, and zinc.
Uwe H. Friese, Wikimedia Commons
Urtica dioica can put the hurt on an hiker in shorts, but historically the plant has served to treat aching muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis and gout. People still use the plant to treat joint pain, and some studies have suggested that the plant can treat arthritis. Another study found that capsules of dried stinging nettle may reduce the symptoms of hay fever. Europeans frequently use stinging nettle root to treat bladder problems. Boiled nettle makes a side dish similar to collared greens.
For those who brush alongside stinging nettle, a remedy to the sting is often found growing nearby. Applying crushed up dandelion, horsetail, Aloe vera, jewelweed or the leaf of a dock or lock plant can counter the acid in the sting.
Forest and Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons
Like many of the medicinal weeds in this list, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) also makes a healthy snack. The plant contains a high content of omega-3 fatty acids. I ate some that grew in my yard and found it was somewhat sour. A little bit was good, but too much would be overpowering in a salad. In traditional Chinese medicine, purslane treats genito-urinary tract infections. Research published in Phytomedicine found that the plant reduced problems with cognition in older mice.
Robert Steers/NPS, Wikimedia Commons
Since the age of the ancient Greek doctors have used plantains (Plantago sp., the weed in sidewalk cracks, not the fruit) to speed wound healing. In the training manual Survival, Evasion and Recovery, the U.S. Department of Defense recommends plantain as a poultice on wounds or as a nutrient-rich tea to treat diarrhea.
Julia Adamson, photographer in the Saskatoon area, Wikimedia Commons
Traditionally, healers use burdock (Arctium sp.) to clear toxins from the blood and increase urination, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The plant also is used to treat skin ailments, such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis. The leaves and roots of burdock are edible and contains inulin, like chicory, so they may aid digestion and/or cause a nasty case of flatulence. Burdock also contains high quantities of antioxidants that can prevent damage to cells.
Stanislaw Burzynski, a doctor whose unorthodox cancer therapies have been touted for decades, has come under fire for providing false hope to patients. Burzynski, who has been treating patients in his private Houston clinic since 1977, has some prominent supporters, including TV’s “Dr. Oz” and a documentary filmmaker who has created two films championing his cause and treatments. But most doctors and cancer centers claim that Burzynski is profiting from preying on the sick and vulnerable.
Because his treatments have not been proven effective, most medical insurance will not cover them and patients are often asked to pay for his services up front—as much as $20,000 to start and $7,500 per month thereafter to continue. There are several aspects about Burzynski’s practice that have raised red flags, including that he claims a cancer cure success rate far higher than other therapies, and that he is not a trained oncologist yet claims to have made amazing breakthroughs in oncology. Specifically, he claims that cancer can be caused by a patient’s lack of antineoplastons (a naturally-occurring compound found in blood and urine), a finding that no other cancer researchers have been able to verify.
In fact, according to a news story in “USA Today,” “the National Cancer Institute says there is no evidence that Burzynski has cured a single patient… He has not backed up his claims by publishing results from a randomized, controlled trial — considered the gold standard of medical evidence — in a respected, peer-reviewed journal. And Burzynski’s drugs pose a risk of serious harm, including coma, swelling near the brain and death, according to the NCI and informed consent documents that patients sign before beginning treatment. While Burzynski has touted his treatments as an alternative to chemotherapy, a 1999 NCI study found that antineoplastons can cause many of the same side effects as conventional chemo: nausea, vomiting, headaches, muscle pain, confusion and seizures.”
In fact not only has Burzynski failed to publish a single study of his “breakthrough” research in medical journals, but according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, he has completed exactly one of the over 60 medical studies he has begun over the years. If his therapy is as successful as he claims, it is curious that there appears so little research to back it up. The status on virtually all of his studies are “unknown” or “withdrawn,” meaning that there are no results to report and therefore no evidence that his miracle therapy is effective.
Cult of Personality
Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski is no newcomer to alternative medicine. According to Dr. David Gorski of the Science-Based Medicine blog, “Dr. Burzynski first gained fame for his cancer therapy back in 1988, when ‘Sally Jesse Raphael’ featured four ‘miracle’ patients of Burzynski’s, who, according to her, had had incurable cancer and failed conventional therapies but were rendered cancer-free, thanks to Dr. Burzynski. Unfortunately, four years later in 1992, ‘Inside Edition’ followed up these four patients and found that two of the four had died and a third had recurred, while the fourth had had bladder cancer with a good prognosis. In that report, the widow of one of Raphael’s guests reported that her husband and five others had sought treatment from Burzynski and that all had died.”
Though doctors and cancer centers are unimpressed (if not alarmed) by Burzynski work and research, he has many defenders, some of them very passionate. Part of the reason he is so popular is that he has become something of a cult figure, feeding on conspiracy theories and anti-Big Pharma sentiment. He is portrayed in many profiles as a misunderstood maverick doctor trying to help people despite being rejected by “the medical establishment” as too radical.
It’s a powerful, populist narrative—the story of “Lorenzo’s Oil,” made into a popular 1992 film starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, had a similar theme — but, as emeritus professor of physics at the University of Maryland Dr. Robert Park noted, “Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.”
The truth or falsity of Burzynski’s claims will not be decided by popular vote nor anecdotes on TV talk shows; it will be decided by well-constructed, valid scientific studies — if and when they are done. It seems unlikely that any of Burzynski’s studies will ever be published, because according to a Food and Drug Administration report released last week, the baseline scans for all the patients in his clinical trials had been destroyed.
Burzynski has had nearly four decades to prove his claims, but unfortunately his patients can’t wait that long for a miracle cure.
Image credit: Corbis