“If we accept that Africa is the cradle of mankind and that the use of herbs is as old as mankind itself, it stands to reason that African medicine is the oldest, most tried and tested form of medicine known to mankind,” says a leading African herbalist. He may just be right. While many of the herbs traditionally used in Europe and North America have been scientifically investigated attention has now, somewhat belatedly, turned to Africa’s botanical treasure trove and its indigenous knowledge systems.

The Abundance of South African Herbs

South Africa is blessed with a plant heritage of around 30 000 different species, 10% of which are used in traditional medicine. Using plants to heal is such an important part of many different customs that more than three-quarters of Africa’s population still relies on, indeed prefers, herbal treatment. Increasingly these herbs are being cultivated, processed and packaged for even wider national and international markets.

Several South African universities and institutions are busy assessing the therapeutic effects of some of the most popular herbs. The government also needs to be actively involved in helping to establish a South African pharmacopoeia, which would ensure that our best medicinal herbs are rigorously investigated, quality assured and sustainably harvested or grown. This will help to maintain our biodiversity but also provide a source of revenue for local communities.

Herbs in Modern Medicine

Many of modern medicine’s most effective drugs are plant-derived: aspirin, morphine, digitalis etc. The purified or synthetic derivatives are superior to the original herb in that the dosage of the active ingredients can be fully controlled.
However, each herb does not only have one active ingredient and the full healing power of a herb often depends on multiple ingredients acting in concert. For instance Buchu is known as an effective diuretic and urinary antiseptic. Some diuretic drugs can cause excessive potassium loss and this must be monitored during treatment. Buchu, however, is also a rich potassium source and so provides the very nutrient that may be compromised by its diuretic action. As more medicinal herbs are analysed researchers continue to be impressed by their ‘balanced and intelligent’ healing properties.

Some of South Africa’s rising herb stars are featured below.

Sutherlandia frutescens, commonly known as the Cancer Bush, has demonstrated significant immune-boosting and anti-tumour actions. This herb could therefore have a wide therapeutic application in all disorders of the immune system, from bacterial and viral infections, including HIV, to cancer, allergies and autoimmune disorders. The North Sotho name for Sutherlandia means ‘spear for the blood’, which graphically describes its immune-boosting properties. The compelling San name means ‘the one that dispels darkness’ suggesting a strong anti-depressant action as well. Sutherlandia is undergoing clinical trials but initial toxicity research has shown that it appears to be safe in recommended dosages.

Cyclopia, commonly known as Honeybush, may help to stop the development of breast cancer. Recent research by Dr Koch Visser of Stellenbosch University showed that Cyclopia extract prevented the estrogen-induced growth of breast cancer cells. It did this by targeting and inhibiting the estrogen receptor subtypes that promote the growth of these cells. Furthermore, Cyclopia had no effect on the growth of the uterus. This is important as certain breast cancer drugs can increase the risk of uterine cancer. Visser’s research also found that Cyclopia is totally nontoxic, even at high concentrations. This herb could therefore significantly benefit mature women, who are at greater risk of developing breast cancer. More research is needed but, in the meantime, adding Honeybush tea to your daily routine can only be beneficial.

Sceletium tortuosum is a succulent herb which is also known as Kanna or Kougoed. The plant has been used as a mood-enhancing medicine for centuries. The first known written account of the plant’s use was by none other than Jan van Riebeeck in 1662. Traditionally, the roots and leaves were fermented and then chewed. It has also been used as snuff, smoked and made into a tea or tincture. Research suggests that Sceletium may indeed elevate mood and decrease anxiety, stress and tension. The plant is not hallucinogenic, contrary to several reports, and no adverse effects have been documented. This does not mean it is totally safe – only that more research is needed to establish a comprehensive safety profile.

Devil’s Claw, or Harpagophytum, is a desert-dwelling plant which has garnered global attention because of its remarkable effectiveness as a treatment for osteoarthritis. It is not yet clear how it works but it appears to block several pathways that cause joint inflammation. Although uncommon, Devil’s Claw can cause serious side effects of abnormal heart rhythm and bleeding. Other mild side effects can include rashes, stomach upsets, headaches and loss of appetite.

Most herbal treatments are not recommended during pregnancy and breast feeding. Caution should be exercised if you are on medication as some herbal ingredients may interact with the drugs. It is also advisable to only buy herbs from reliable producers or companies and follow dosage instructions.
It has been said that everything man needs for health and healing is provided in nature; the challenge of science is to find it.