During my pharmacy doctorate internship at the American Botanical Council (ABC) in October, I took advantage of the fantastic opportunity to go on their annual trip to the Peruvian Amazon and Machu Picchu. ABC has teamed up with the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER) to offer this unique educational experience that focuses on medicinal plants from the Peruvian Amazon and Andes. People who sign up for the ABC/ACEER tour come from a variety of backgrounds, including physicians, pharmacists, nurses, chiropractors, students, herbalists, and anyone interested in learning about the medicinal uses of plants.
I first heard about the Amazon trip 10 years ago when my father, a pharmacist, and my mother went on the trip. They came back raving about how wonderful and educational the experience had been. Ever since then I have wanted to experience the rainforest, but I did not know at the time that I would also become a pharmacist. I grew up around pharmacy, alternative medicine, and the idea of using foods and herbs to help treat disease states and promote well being. My parents own an independent compounding pharmacy in Dallas called Abrams Royal Pharmacy, which specializes in natural products, including herbs. Because of my background in herbs and pharmacy, the trip to the Amazon was a must.
Our tour group arrived in Lima, Peru, on the first day of our trip. On the second day we flew by local plane to Puerto Maldonado near the Madre de Dios River, a major tributary of the Amazon in southern Peru. There we boarded a boat and traveled about an hour down river. We spent three nights at the beautiful Reserva Amazonica lodge located in the middle of the rainforest and on the banks of the river.
During our stay we saw amazing wildlife and plants that cannot be seen anywhere else. The ecosystem and species in the rainforest are unlike any other. Reserva Amazonica has built a series of hanging bridges and towers called the Inkaterra Canopy Walkway. Located 100 feet above the forest floor, the walkway spans the top of the rainforest, allowing us to walk among the treetops. We were able to learn about and see medicinal plants at the top of the rainforest on the canopy walkway, as well as on the rainforest floor below. Considering the height of the trees, it seems logical that the animals and plants on the floor of the rainforest would differ greatly from life found in the canopy. During our canopy tour we were lucky enough to see a group of Saddleback Tamarin monkeys make their way across the treetops against a background of beautiful purple flowers that grow only on a vine at the top of the rainforest. These flowers are easily seen as purple patches as one flies over the Amazon.
Later we were taken to the ACEER facility upriver where we met shaman Don Antonio Montero Pisco, who walked us around the facility, pointing out the different plants and local uses. He later performed a traditional ceremony called the bath of tranquility, in which we all were able to participate.
As a pharmacy student at the University of Texas in Austin, I learned about the biochemistry, chemical structures, and medical uses of most prescription medications available. Most consumers are not aware of the fact that very few prescription medications are made from natural plant sources. Examples of plant sources currently used in prescription medications include digoxin (foxglove, Digitalis purpurea L., Scrophulariaceae), scopolamine (Jimson weed, Datura stramonium L., Solanaceae), and colchicine (autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale L., Liliaceae).1 Due to patent regulations and ease of production, most prescription medications are made from synthetic material in a laboratory, a far cry from the origin of pharmacy, which was based on plant material.
The Peruvian Amazon trip gave me the opportunity to observe some of the myriad ways in which the indigenous people of the rainforest use plants and herbs to treat disease states. As a future pharmacist, I can also appreciate how these same plants and herbs could be used in the future to treat diseases around the world. A good example is the medium-sized tree called sangre de drago (Croton lechleri Mull.Arg., Euphorbiaceae), or dragon's blood, which has been used for centuries by indigenous people for its wound healing, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-diarrhea,1 and antiviral properties.2 Currently an American pharmaceutical company has filed patents on some preparations made from the red sap of the sangre de drago. The company is also performing human clinical trials using oral preparations to treat respiratory viral infections and persistent diarrhea, and using topical preparation as an antiviral for herpes.2 A multi-chemical drug from the sap is also being marketed in India and China for treatment of chronic diarrhea.3
Part of the accredited educational portion of the trip included lectures about different aspects of medicinal herbs. An extremely interesting lecture was given by ABCÕs Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal on the history of herbs in medicine and pharmacy. On another day we took a trip to a local farm on the Madre de Dios River and learned about Amazonian food and farming from James Duke, PhD, an economic botanist retired from the United States Department of Agriculture and a perennial workshop leader on ABCÕs trips.
After our tour of the Amazon, we traveled to the sacred Urubamba Valley and the exciting Incan mountaintop citadel, Machu Picchu, a World Heritage site. We enjoyed two days exploring the Inca ruins, including guided tours of the ruins and some of the surrounding areas. We had the choice of hiking up one of the two peaks, either the Sun Gate or the peak of Huayna Picchu (the needle-like spire often seen in photos of Machu Picchu). Both peaks provide a stunning view of the ruins below. To comprehend the beauty and awe of Machu Picchu, viewers must experience it for themselves.
For me this trip brought to life the vast possibilities of herbs and plants in future medicine. It also expanded my vision as a pharmacist to educate the public on the many medicinal benefits available from herbs and plants. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to participate in this wonderful experience, and I would recommend it to everyone, especially pharmacists wishing to expand their knowledge of medicinal plants.
1. Blumenthal M, Hall T, Goldberg A, Kunz T, Dinda K, Brinckmann J, et al, eds. The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 2003.
2. Taylor L. The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs: A Guide to Understanding and Using Herbal Medicinals. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers; 2005.
3. Purcell K. New Anti-Diarrhea Medication Produced from Amazonian Tree. HerbalGram. 2005;No. 68:20.