The early 90's seemed hopeful for the merging of western and alternative medicine in the Philippines. There was a burgeoning global movement towards alternative therapies, a new-age allure for "natural" remedies; and in the Philippines, the beginnings of herbal medicinal research & development. In 1992, during the term of Juan Flavier as Secretary of Health, a brochure of 10 medicinal plants (akapulko, ampalaya, bawang, bayabas, lagundi, niyog-niyogan, pansit-pansitan, sambong, tsaang-gubat, yerba buena) for common health problems was published and commercial production was pursued. In 1997, the TAMA (Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act) was passed, providing a legitimizing boost to the alternative medicine movement in the Philippines.
The internet is testament to the exploding global alternative movement, the rush for the green, the herbal and the natural, with cybermarts glutted with the latest in noni juices, virgin oils, new and improved erectile naturaceuticals, new, re-discovered, or recycled treatment modalities, embellished with come-on components of qi, magnets, gems, or herbs in all of its various forms – .extracts, powders, capsules, tablets and teas - some profusely laden with testimonials, catering to or preying on the needs of the new-age and the aging urban and burgis markets.
It is uncertain how this global-cyber-alternative-rush will trickle down to benefit the rural poor who has always relied on alternative modalites and healers and wild-crafted herbal plants as mainstay therapies for its sundry of healthcare needs. While it has gained in-roads into the alternative commerce of urban-burgis markets, alas, but its a long way from the impoverished rural dirt roads.
The "rolling stores" with its promise of affordable and accessible herbal medications - together with day-to-day commodities and needs - to the indigenous populace was a short-lived political play, palaver and political fanfare for the expectant "masa" that sputtered and stalled on first gear.
We have a very diverse flora, with about 1,500 of over 13,000 species with identified medicinal value. A $100-million global market for medicinal plants has caused renewed interest. Yes, it will be a great opportunity for private enterprise. Alas, for the poor. These capsules, tablets, ointment and teas will never be affordable.
Research and development of herbal medicinal plants and the commercial production of some have not made any measurable benefits to the impoverished rural poor. The commerce and trade remains in the profit-fueled markets of urban and suburban milieu.
There continues the difficult divide between the practitioner of western medicine and the advocates of alternative medicine. For the most part, the "old" medical establishment continues to present an unyielding front, big-city practitioners far removed from the economics and realities of rural life and health care, suspicious and derisive of non-allopathic modalities, denigrating the practice of alternative medicine to the hilots and albularyos.
And, so goes herbal medicinal plants, denigrated to medical bags of albularyos and the hand-me-down use of many of the rural folk.
Alas, such a waste.
The study of Philippine medicinal plants may well provide the crossroad for a merging of allopathic and alternative medicine. The rural areas provide a hexiological environment for the study of herbal therapies and other alternative modalities. Studies in search for scientific validity involves only a handful of the more than 1500 species of plants with medicinal value: Lagundi for cough and asthma; sambong as a diuretic and to prevent kidney stones; tsaang gubat for abdominal pains and as antimotility agent; yerba buena for fever and body aches; niyog-niyogan for ascariasis (antihelminthic); bayabas for wound disinfection (antiseptic); akapulko for skin (antifungal) infections; ulasimang-bato for arthritis and gout; bawang to lower cholesterol; and ampalaya for diabetes mellitus.
Philippine pharmacopeia released in 2004 lists 30 crude plant drugs that has been in study for potential benefits: Dita bark, sinta herb, kintsay leaf, sampaguita flower, ipil-ipil seeds, makahiya herb, apatot fruit, malunggay bark, ikmo leaf, paminta, oregano leaf, mayana leaf, granada rind, romero leaf, akasya leaf, duhat bark, sampalok pulp, makabuhay stem, ginger and banaba.
There are thousands of herbal plants that folklore has attributed medicinal benefits to. Only a few have claim to some scientific validity. Many continue to thrive in the esoteria of folkloric and rural pharm, part of many alternative rituals and treatment modalities. And for many, in its wild-crafted use, it is the only affordable form of therapy.
A comprehensive and in-depth study of herbal plants should address the needs of the rural folk who use wild-crafted herbs as mainstay therapy for a variety of illnesses, in lieu of unaffordable and consequent intermittent and ineffective use of prescription pharmaceuticals. The study must translate into a comprehensible, practical, and user-friendly compendium of information that can guide the rural folk in their use and preparation of herbal therapies, in a manner sensitive to rural mythologies and folkloric anecdotes. separating the wheat from the chaff, sorting out the useless and the toxic, and providing more specific indications and less arbitrary dosing.The hope is that research and studies will lead to the formulation and manuafacture of herbal medicinal therapies that will be made available and affordable to the rural folk as an alternative to cost-prohibitive prescription pharmaceuticals. But that's shooting for the moon.
For most, rural economics and the mathematics of existence place healthcare low in priority, prevention and health maintenance perpetually unaffordable or non-existent, and traditional treatment usually a last resort or only after having tried various rural alternatve treatment modalities, a few consultations with the albularyo, and often a too long a trial of "tincture of time."
And change is nowhere in sight. For many, it is Mother Earth who provides an easy source of initial therapy, a vast array of wild-crafted herbal medicinal plants - decocted, infused, juiced, tinctured, powdered, pounded and poultice - providing relief in the uncertain mechanisms of tincture of time, placebo, or a possible heretofore unknown pharmacologic effect.
The effort of compilation and providing graphics and photos to the medicinal plants has brought me to conversations with countless rural folk and healers, taken me to the winding footpaths of many countrysides, booting through the thickets and bushes, peeking and intruding into gardens, sherlocking through countless botanical gardens, for that "new" plant or that flower that catches the eye.
The compilation has also been extended to include many ornamental plants and unfamiliar weeds and shrubs plants which on internet search reveals established folkloric use and ongoing research in other countries.
It has been a wonderful and serendipitous journey of learning and discovery. And, I hope you enjoy your SX visit and cyber-journey through the flora and folkflore of Philippine herbal medicinal plants.