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Medicinal Application of Caribbean Herbs

by Tricia Tikasingh(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 163 - October 2009

The Caribbean region is more than just a sun and sand holiday destination. It is considered to be one of 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world and is certainly a 'hotspot' for medicinal plants.

The medicinal use of many Caribbean herbs is wrapped up in folklore and oral tradition, which makes it challenging to distinguish real benefits from myth. Many plants were brought to the region through slavery and indentureship, and therefore, though plants such as ginger (Zingiber officinalis), turmeric (Curcuma longa) and Sorrel (Hibiscus sabdariffa) are well known and used throughout the islands. They are not indigenous to the region, but originate in other countries such as India and Africa. Additionally, there are many plants which are indigenous to the region which are traditionally used, but much less well known. Each plant has a range of different common (local) names, depending on the island and the language spoken there, so it is important to be clear of the species via the scientific name. So what are some of the herbs and spices that have a strong tradition of use in the region?

Aloe vera (Aloes) is used for its laxative effect, but also used to treat colds and asthma. It is also applied externally to the skin to heal wounds, bruises and burns. Another popular laxative is Senna (Senna alata);
Cocos nucifera (Coconut oil) is used as a massage base for rubbing, and is used in scalp massage since it is believed to prevent hair loss and premature greying. There are many older people who attribute their full head of black hair to the consistent use of coconut oil;
Coffea arabica (Coffee) is gaining popularity in spa products which include ground coffee beans in body scrubs and other detoxifying treatments. The coffee from the region is best recognized under the 'Blue Mountain' label. Alongside coffee, the cocoa (Theobroma cacao) from the region is also unique. The species grown in central range of Trinidad is amongst those considered to be of the finest flavour in the world. Much research has been done in the last few years which demonstrated the anti-oxidant properties of cocoa in general;
Myristica fragrans (Nutmeg) is a spice which is mainly produced in Grenada and in greater quantities in Asia. It is used largely for pain relief, being a key ingredient in topical pain preparations. It is also a key ingredient of Caribbean cooking;
Cymbopogon citrates (Fevergrass) is also known in the western world as Lemongrass. It is used in South East Asian cooking and gives their food a distinct flavour. In the Caribbean it is used for fevers and colds/flu as a tea, and is sometimes combined with ginger and honey;
Gracilaria species (Seamoss) are used in drinks or punches with the suggestion that they may increase vitality. It is believed to be aphrodisiac, and is also used for hypertension, gout, goitre and gallstones. Because it is a type of seaweed, it is also a rich source of vitamin and mineral nutrients. It is also becoming a key ingredient in spa products as a detoxifying agent;
Curcuma longa (Turmeric) is used in cooking primarily. Originating in India, it is used topically for skin conditions and now has significant scientific evidence to suggest that it has strong antioxidant properties. It is mixed in milk or taken as a tea for a variety of conditions;
Hibiscus sabdariffa (Sorrel) is used to make a red coloured drink at Christmas. It is spiced with Nutmeg, Allspice, Cinnamon and Cloves. In recent years, Hibiscus sabdariffa has been included in commercial tea preparations for its vitamin C content. Its anti-hypertensive properties have also been investigated, with some positive results;
Annona muricata (Soursop) has been well researched in recent years for its cytotoxic action to cancer cells. There are some side effects associated with over-use of the fruit; however, the fruit which is full of flavour is commonly used in ice creams and punches. The leaves are also used to promote sleep.

These are only a few of the tropical plants which are well known and have nutritional and therapeutic value. In recent years, with the advent of 'nutraceuticals' and 'superfoods', other plants from the tropics have emerged as potent antioxidants and nutritional powerhouses.

Some of the fruits which have gained in popularity and recognition include Guava (Psidium guavaja), Mango (Mangifera species), Passion flower (Passiflora edulis), Pomegranate (Punica granatum), Acerola (Malpighia glabra) and Açai (Euterpe oleracea). These are not just found in the Caribbean but in other tropical regions of the world. Pomegranate and Açai in particular, have been called 'super antioxidants', and it is suggested that they slow down free radical damage. Many of these claims are not supported by conclusive scientific evidence however, so consumers do need to be wary of exaggerated or unethical advertising around the 'miraculous' benefits of some of the nutraceutical, cosmeceutical and functional food products being sold.

The Caribbean region is small and fragmented; however, it is a source of many valuable plant resources. It is true that many of the plants are found in other tropical regions of the world, but there are still undiscovered and unproven remedies which are unique to the Caribbean islands. Considered to be 'exotic' in the western world, many of these fruits, herbs and spices have emerged as 'super foods'. With continuing research, it is possible that scientific evidence will lend some credibility to the traditional and folkloric medicinal claims.

References

Seaforth CE, Tikasingh T et al. Study of selected Caribbean herbs for Industry. Phase 1. (The Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation (CTA), the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)).  2005.
Seaforth CE, Tikasingh T. Caribbean herbs and nutritional supplements. (The University of Trinidad & Tobago). 2007.                                                                                                              
Robineau L. Caribbean Herbal Pharmacopoeia (TRAMIL, Santo Domingo). 2007.

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About Tricia Tikasingh

Tricia Tikasingh BSc MSc  qualified in Nutritional and Herbal Medicine, has been involved in research and regulatory programmes and initiatives in the UK, USA and the Caribbean. She is currently Programme Leader in Complementary Medicine at Thames Valley University, Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health, Brentford, London. She  may be contacted on Tel: 0208 568 8735;   tikkimaria@yahoo.com

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