When I was little, I used to complain to my grandmother about the home remedies that she concocted out of traditional Chinese medicinal ingredients. She would make them for me whenever I got sick, and that did not sit well with me, of course, as most of the remedies were incredibly nasty. Yet, the results never failed to amaze me, and I am forever grateful for her wisdom. One time when I was eight years old, I got infected by the fungus Malassezia furfur, which caused the disease pityriasis versicolor that led to discolored patches on the skin of my upper back and shoulder. It was a pretty common condition in the summer, as sweating can increase the risk of infection. Because it would take a long time to make a doctor’s appointment, my grandmother and I decided to take matters into our own hands by following our ancestors’ medicinal recipes.
As a little boy, I was quite spoiled; I would complain a lot when I smelled something intolerable. “Alright, lay down on the couch,” my grandmother told me after I had taken a shower with pine tar soap. She brought out a freshly made ointment composed of raw garlic, onion and a hint of white vinegar, and she applied it onto my skin. For a kid who hated garlic and vinegar, the treatment was dreadful. Not only did I smell like raw garlic, which seemed to me like stinky feet, the strong and foul odor of the remedy lasted every day during the two weeks of treatment. Incredibly, the infection went away completely, and I did not get a relapse. For almost a decade, as someone who had mostly taken prescription drugs, I had questioned the efficacy of these home remedies as they didn’t seem effective to me; however, I believe that this perception is outdated as scientists are now exploiting these home remedies (most of them derived from natural products) and developing them into medicine.
Since ancient times, garlic (Allium sativum) has been appreciated for its numerous health benefits as well as the delicious meals that can be cooked with it. Different cultures have different uses for garlic, but the most famous use in pop culture is its vampire-repellent property. In Chinese culture, it was historically used as a medicinal ingredient, and studies over the last decade have found that allicin (the active ingredient found in crushed or chewed raw garlic) has several antimicrobial, antifungal, anti-atherosclerosis properties; some even suggests that allicin is also anticancer. With this newfound knowledge, I now understand why my grandmother’s remedy treated my pityriasis versicolor infection. Furthermore, allicin is not the only compound with roots in traditional medicine; many other groundbreaking medications and their respective active ingredients used today were extracted from traditional folk medicine.
Malaria, a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite (Plasmodium spp.), has killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly children, every year. While it is a devastating disease, the incredible stories of the various medicines used to cure malaria demonstrate the importance of studying traditional medicine in the field of medicinal chemistry. Quinine, the world’s first antimalarial cure, is made from the bark of the Cinchona tree, native to South America. Indeed, the ancient Peruvians were the first to discover its medicinal uses; the bark was later brought to Europe by Jesuits for medicinal purposes.
Perhaps a more astonishing story of another antimalarial cure was the discovery of artemisinin by Chinese chemist Tu YouYou, who shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work. In the 1970s she was working as part of the Chinese government’s Project 523, which was established to aid the Vietcong’s military in fighting against malaria. After reading and testing many recipes in the Chinese Medica Materia (literally means medical materials), she finally found artemisinin, which is extracted from the qinghaosu plant (Artemisia annua), a traditional Chinese herb. Artemisinin and its derivative, dihydroartemisinin, later became artesunate, which is used today in the form of ACT (artemisinin-based combination therapy) to treat cases of malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly strain of the disease. The cure has saved millions of lives since its creation, and it is but one example of what traditional folk medicine has given us over the past several decades.
At this point, you may be wondering: if these folk remedies are indeed effective in treating infections, why are doctors still prescribing antibiotics? Although it is true that folk remedies are effective in treating some illnesses, antibiotics such as penicillins or sulfonamides are still the most efficient and preferred treatment for infections. They are truly the pièce de résistance of modern medicine; however, this paradigm shift from traditional remedies to modern antibiotics has come at the price of new resistant strains of bacteria. The abuse of antibiotics has led to the rise of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which causes a variety of illnesses, among others.
Perhaps it’s just nostalgia for the past. My grandma has always told me, “You need to take this everyday, it will prevent illnesses,” referring to her remedies. In the modern world, we often take synthetic medicines because they work much more efficiently than natural remedies, which heal sickness with a “holistic” approach that takes a longer time. Still, as ambitious scientists are studying them, perhaps these “foul-scented remedies” may one day be the norm again in medicine.