Welcome to Ask Doctor Zac, a weekly column from news.com.au.
This week Dr Zac Turner delves into the world of Indigenous medicine.
QUESTION: Hi Dr Zac, I am intrigued by the world of natural remedies and want to learn more. With it being NAIDOC week this week, it got me thinking about Australian natural remedies used by Indigenous Australians. Do you know of any that we should all incorporate into our lives for better health? Since I can’t travel overseas, I’m more inclined to explore Australia and its natural world – especially its plants! – Weryk, 24 Brisbane
ANSWER: Hi Weryk, the theme for this year’s NAIDOC week is, Always Was, Always Will Be. During parts of my life, I’ve dedicated time to learn about bush medicine from Indigenous Australians.
Growing up I was lucky to live on farms in small rural communities like Bourke, Dubbo and Emerald where both my parents worked on the land as well as in youth support programs. During this time I had my first exposure to local bush medicine from some truly inspiring Aboriginal elders. Learning about these traditional medicines that have been shared and passed along for millennia was one of the key factors in me wanting to study biomedical science and eventually medicine.
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We’ve known from tracing back in history that plant medicine has been used for quite some time – that’s more than 20,000 plus years if you factor in Aboriginal Australians.
One of the fascinating things about this is that for a lot of us (including many doctors and avid bush enthusiasts) is that Australian bush medicine remains somewhat of a mystery. Indigenous knowledge is passed on through speaking, song and dance and as this practice is becoming more limited, we are at a significant cultural loss.
First – I’m not advocating a walk in your local park and eat anything you find is an ideal replacement for a doctor visit, but I am recommending you consider more natural ways to help your body heal.
Here are some common Australian plants you can use for basic ailments.
Did you know the Kakadu plum, found in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, is the world’s richest source of vitamin C? It has 50 times the amount of vitamin C than oranges, and local Indigenous tribes use it when community members are sick. I recommend Kakadu plum the next time you have the flu, it’s far better than a glass of OJ. If you can’t find it in your local health food store, you should be able to order it online.
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Tea Tree oil from Tea Tree and paperbark leaves has been proven to have antiseptic qualities. Indigenous people crush the leaves and apply the paste to skin wounds or brew them into a tea for sore throats. These days people use it for almost about anything including acne and fungal infections. You can find Tea Tree oil easily in chemists and even some supermarkets.
The science behind why a plant may have medicinal value is fascinating. Tannins, mucilage, and oils are the main three chemicals found in plants that can have medicinal effects.
Tannins and mucilage, usually found in bark, fruit and leaves, are complex chemicals which act as an astringent; meaning they are perfect for treating inflamed mucous membranes – which is the cause of nasty coughs and colds.
Certain types of oil that come from oil glands in plants, such as latex, have been proven to have antimicrobial action. Latex contains enzymes, which digest proteins that can be useful if applied topically to skin eruptions such as warts. Eucalyptus oil is a famous Australian aromatic that can clear airways and soothe sore throats.
Alkaloids are another subset of oils that you definitely will have come across before in your life. Caffeine, morphine, quinine, atropine, nicotine, codeine, strychnine and even cocaine are all alkaloids that have been isolated from oils in plants.
Goat’s foot is a common plant found along sandy shorelines across Australia that can be used as pain relief from stingrays, blue bottles and spiky sea critters. Indigenous communities from Northern Australia and New South Wales, crush, heat and apply the leaves directly to damaged skin. You’ll also find snake vine in these areas which can be used to treat headaches and rheumatoid arthritis.
I can go on and on with the vast range of Australian plants that can help make you healthy, I recommend you supplement today’s quick guide with your own research.
Australia is truly unique and you will be well rewarded if you give our natural landscape and Indigenous culture a greater appreciation.
Dr. Zac Turner has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney. He has worked as a Registered Nurse, both in Australia and internationally and is also a qualified and experienced biomedical scientist. | @drzacturner
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