Sunday, May 4, 2014

5000 B.C.-1700 A.D.: Natural remedies for asthma in Mesoamerica

If you had asthma or asthma-like symptoms and lived in America around 5000 B.C., chances are you'd pray to the various spirits for health and healing just as your ancestors did in Asia.  Although, as time passed, there were a variety of other options that were available for you to try, including an inhaler of sorts.

According to Plinio Prioreschi, in his 1991 book "A History of Medicine," most of what is known about pre-Columbian medicine in America comes from Spanish writers.  The reason for this is many older texts are either too primitive and too vague to provide such knowledge, or they have simply disappeared. Or, they were destroyed. (1, page 548)

It's a sad truth in world history that often when a new culture takes over many structures and the documents they contain are destroyed.  Prioreschi says that most pre-Columbian medical documents were destroyed by the Spanish because they contained religious components.  Since part of the Spanish mission was to spread Christianity, anything resembling other religious beliefs had to be destroyed.  So it's unfortunate that in the path of this destruction, not even medical knowledge was spared.  

Prioreschi says the following of pre-Columbian American medicine:  
"Medical paradigms of the various pre-Hispanic populations of Mesoamerica and Peru are similar: there is a mixture of supernaturalistic and naturalistic medicine common in ancient and primitive cultures, and a knowledge of anatomy limited to experience acquired in the kitchen, in war, and at the sacrificial altar; the knowledge of physiology is practically nonexistent. In ancient Mexico the main organ of the body was believed to be the heart, which was also considered to be the source of feeling and thought.  The importance of the heart in other cultures of pre-Hispanic America is underlined by the widespread practice of human sacrifice performed by ripping the heart from the chest of the victim." (1, page 548)
So there were basically two forms of medicine: (1, page 548)
  1. Supernaturalistic: Health and healing involved incantations, prayers and exorcisms
  2. Naturalistic:  Health and healing involved the use of preparations of the various plants, of which there were over 1500 used for medical purposes (compared to 200 in Europe and 350 in China)
Based on present knowledge, it appears, that unlike other cultures, the Americans made a clear distinction between naturalistic and supernaturalistic medicine.

While they were both options, as is true in most primitive and ancient worlds, the Americans tended to keep them as separate entities.  As noted by Prioreschi, the Inca healers may have been the first to create a separation between Naturalistic and Supernaturalistic medicine: 
"At one time, the medical properties of such drugs were probably attributed to the power of the gods (in other words they were effective because the gods had endowed them with magical properties) but subsequently the divine origins of those properties were forgotten.  The drugs, therefore, became effective because of their inherent capacities, according to a naturalistic paradigm, which also considered diseases as due to natural causes."
So there was obvious trickery used by the American Medicine Man.  He would approach the sick with a series of drums and rattling charms, and he'd dance and chant incantations.  Then he'd take his mouth and place it over the mouth of the patient, and he'd pretend to suck the disease out of the body
"...They were extracting blood, worms, or small stones and would show these things to teh patient saying that the disease was now cured.  In reality they had brought those things themselves and had put them in their own mouths just before sucking." (2)
If you were having trouble breathing, the medicine man may also offer you a naturalistic remedy.  One Spanish chronicler described one Mayan remedy that would be fitting for our history:
Difficulty in breathing -- take one co-ac, a piece of husk or outside, and two clothes-moths adn a little of the ak-max (monkey-vine).  Mash them all and give it to drink to stop it." (3)
If your short of breath was due to heart or kidney failure, there was a specific remedy for this.  Now, these Americans would have no idea about heart or kidney failure, but they surely could see the signs that water was building up under the skin of the ankles.  For this, the following Mayan remedy would suffice:
Retention of urine -- The remedy is the Bursera graveolens, Tri & Planch., and the tuber of the chinchan-cal-pakam (small-neck-tuna), and the tuberous root of the Bixa orellana, L. (Achiote), the Capsicum annuum, L.  After these are poulticed on the man's rectum, let it be warmed with a hot stone where the remedy is placed." (4)
 There was an Aztec inhaler that may have also been used, although it really wasn't an inhaler but a "tobacco tube" or a crude pipe:
Itzietl.  It is somewhat tall, slender, straight.  And its leaves are like picietl, green hairy, wide.  It grows in Xochimilco.  It is pounded with a stone, placed inside a tobacco tube, mixed with pine resin. It is smoked.  (5)
Now, whether this was used for asthma-like symptoms is your guess as good as mine, although it was definitely a pseudo-inhaler.

Another remedy that might benefit a person with difficulty breathing was the sweat house.  Mayans would place a patient in"a small room with a fire chamber wehre the patient, as the name implies, would sweat profusely.  The sweat-house was used in the treatment of a number of ailments by other Mesoamerican cultures as well." (1, page 560)

Mark Jackson, in his article, "'Divine Stramonium': The Rise and Fall of Smoking for Asthma, explains that ancient South American civilizations recommended "inhaling smoke from burning certain plants for both recreational and therapeutic reasons."  He writes:
"The smoke generated from narcotic agents, such as opium, henbane, and thorn-apple, was inhaled for its hallucinogenic properties, and tobacco smoke was regularly employed as a diagnostic and therapeutic agent in shamanistic healing rituals. (6, pag 173-174)
 Any of these remedies might have benefited an asthmatic.  The "mind numbing" qualities of opium, henbane, and thorn-apple* would have helped take the edge off of the feeling of air hunger, and these medicines are also now considered to be mild bronchodilators, so they might even have opened the lungs up to make breathing easier.

Even tobacco was used as a remedy for asthma by some asthma experts in the 19th century. There's no evidence the Zopatec smoked tobacco for asthma, although Joseph C. Winter, in his book "Tobacco use by native North Americans, explains that "tobacco leaf was mixed with lime and chewed all day to fortify the body and maintain strength, to combat colds and cure asthma, and to treat earaches, headaches, and hay fever... the Yucatec Maya assign world directional colors, with red, white and black tobacco used to treat asthma." (7, page 54)

Dr. Henry Hyde Salter recommended for kids to smoke tobacco until they puked, because he believed this opened up the air passages.  Lacking a true asthma remedy, such remedies, once introduced to the modern world in the 19th century, were not so primitive at all.

*Thorn-apple is another name for stramonium.  It is a herb that was inhaled by some primitive and ancient people for its noted hallucinogenic effect, and it's ability to make breathing easier.  In the 19th century atropine was found to be the active ingredient.  Modern medicines such as Atrovent, Combivent, and Spiriva contain this active ingredient, or a synthetic (made in factory) of it.

  1. Prioreschi, Plinio, A History of Medicine: Primitive and Ancient Medicine," Volume I, 1991, UK, The Edwin Mellen Press
  2. Prioreschi, ibid, page 549, referenced from: Bernabe Cobo, Historia del Nuevo Mundo, Seville, Sociedad des Bibliofilos Analuces, 1890-1895, IV, pp. 139-140. Translated by P. Prioreschi
  3. Prioreschi, ibid, page 558, referenced from:  Ralph L. Roys, The Ethno-botony of the Maya, New Orleans, The Tulane Univeristy of Luisiana, 1931, p. 9.
  4. Prioreschi, ibid, page 559, referenced from:  Ralph L. Roys, The Ethno-Botany of teh Maya, New Orleans, The Tulane University of Luisiana, 1931, p.195
  5. Prioreschi, Plinio, ibid, page 570, referenced from Florentine Codex, translated by Charles E. Diffle adn Arthur J.O. Anderson, The University of Utah, Book 11, 1961, p. 147
  6. Jackson, Mark, "'Divine Stramonium': The Rise and Fall of Smoking for Asthma," Medical History, 2010, 54: 171-194
  7. Winter, Joseph C, "Tobacco use by native North Americans: sacred smoke and silent killer," Joseph C. Winter, editor, 2000, University of Oklahoma Press


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