4 Natural Substances That Actually Have Real Medicinal Value

There often seems to be a bit of divide between scientific medical treatments and "alternative medicine" these days — many people think of alternative and natural medicine as totally useless when it comes to solving actual health problems, nothing but a bunch of incense smoke and claims about how water has feelings. But stating that all "natural medicine" a fraud is actually incorrect; certain natural substances have enormous medicinal value for humans, and have, in some cases, been used effectively for thousands of years (even if we haven't quite always understood how they've worked). Just because a medicine doesn't come in a pill form doesn't necessarily mean it's worthless or hippy-dippy; if it proves its worth in empirical scientific testing, it's classed in the same category as the fanciest tablet in your drug cabinet.

That's not to say there aren't pretty strict boundaries. Just because a certain substance has some medical value, doesn't mean it's actually a cure for all ills. Humans are pretty prone to finding a substance that helps with certain problems, and deciding that it is useful for all problems; we like panaceas, things that could conceivably provide an answer for everything from depression to bad skin. (See the current craze for coconut oil for examples.) Alas, as research has shown again and again, if it seems too good to be true, it might be. For example, the scientific world went nuts last year for a study that seemed to find that collagen from fish skin might be the next big thing for wound dressing; but the scientists responsible had to quietly retract their article after some of their calculations and interpretations were found to be off. So take it all with a pinch of salt.

But even if a natural substance doesn't turn out to be a wonder drug, it's still pretty amazing to see what kinds of weird and wonderful aids the natural world can offer to human health. Here are four natural substances that actually have a lot of medicinal benefits for human beings. But remember most of them are a component in other medicines, not DIY, so don't go rummaging in your cupboards for fish skin to put on your burns...

1. Crab Shells

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This is actually a relatively recent discovery. Crab shells (and the shells of many crustaceans) can be broken down pretty easily into a substance called chitosan, and since the early 2000s, experiments have been done on bandages made of chitosan, to see if they can improve healing times and reduce possible infections. Back in 2003, the New York Times ran a feature on chitosan as the future of bandages on the battlefield (it doesn't produce allergic reactions and is seriously excellent for clotting blood, among many other advantages), and a 2010 study conducted on mice found that chitosan bandages healed wounds faster and reduced inflammation more thoroughly than normal bandages.

Though you can't just plop a crab shell on a skinned knee and expect it to help you heal, chitosan is getting closer to something you can get from your supermarket. The website I F*cking Love Science just reported that the University of Bolton has produced the first crab-shell bandage, combining it with a brown algae substance called alginate. One day, we may be able to make them at home with a chemistry kit and a bit of leftover seafood dinner.

2. St. John's Wort

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In medieval times, this herb was used in concoctions to protect against witchcraft. Its modern application, however, is a bit more specific: it's now being used by some as a remedy for mild to moderate symptoms of depression (though not without a fair amount of debate about its risks and effectiveness). The University of Maryland points out that while St. John's Wort appears to improve mood, we're not entirely sure how; it may block the re-uptake of certain brain neurotransmitters, rather like commercial anti-depressants, but the mechanism isn't fully known.

The National Center For Complementary And Integrative Health is cautious in recommending it as a treatment, though. While a variety of studies have shown St. John's Wort is better than placebos and as effective as SSRIs for mild and moderate depression levels, the NCCIH's own studies found it doesn't show a lot of difference. Plus, St. John's Wort interacts with a whole heap of other medications, including anti-depressants and birth control, so this is not one to go gobbling willy-nilly — consult with your doctor first before you start taking it.

3. Willow Bark

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This is a fascinating one. Willow bark in its normal, woody form has been recommended as a pain reliever by basically every physician in history, from Pliny the Elder to the Egyptians to Hildegard Von Bingen. With that sort of pedigree, it was likely there was some scientific truth to its reputation, and so it turned out that there is. Willow bark contains a chemical called salicin, which is converted in the human body into the natural pain reliever salicylic acid.

By 1899, the drug company Bayer had developed a way to synthesise something called acetylsalicylic acid using salicin. If it doesn't sound familiar, you'll definitely know what Bayer made out of it: a little product called aspirin. Yep, the aspirin in your cupboards comes directly from the active ingredient in willow bark. Now that's a natural cure.

4. Honey

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It turns out that honey isn't just for toast. It also has seriously interesting antimicrobial properties, and has been used as a wound dressing for thousands of years. It turns out that putting pure, sterile honey on a wound may actually have been one of the greatest medical innovation the ancient Greeks and Romans ever worked out.

There are actually several awesome things about what honey can do for wounds. It helps keep the wound moist, which aids healing. It also seems to have a serious antibacterial effect: studies have shown it inhibits up to 60 different types of bacteria. And it's slightly acidic, which increases the amount of oxygen released by the haemoglobin in the wound's blood. Plus, if that's not enough, the high sugar content helps draw out lymph. But it's only medical-grade honey on specific types of wounds that fits all these criteria, so watch out — don't go dripping some cupboard honey on your cuts and scrapes.