9 Ancient, Natural Medicines That Actually Work, From Maggots To Myrrh

Think all the medical knowledge of the ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans was total rubbish? Think again. While a good deal of it has now been debunked — we aren't all controlled by the amount of yellow bile in our bodies, for instance — there are some herbal remedies and treatments that have been around for thousands of years for a good reason: they work.

Some are still doing what they were first discovered to do (what's up, willow bark extract?), while others are being discovered to have new uses (leeches with a new lease on life), but one thing's clear: we can't be as snobbish about medieval medicine as we though. Except when it comes to trepanning. That one is definitely a no-go.

Willow Bark Extract For Pain

This is one of the most notable examples of medieval medicine turning out to be spot-on: ancient examples of willow bark extract, which is rich in an acid called salicylate, being used as pain relief abound, from the Egyptians to the Middle Ages. It was generally boiled as a kind of tea.

Willow bark extract itself is actually of limited usefulness as pain relief because it irritates the stomach — but once a synthetic, less irritating version was developed in 1897, modern aspirin was born. Yep, that aspirin.

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Leeches For Arthritis

Leeches as medical aids are completely medieval and grotesque, right? Wrong, as it turns out. Even though leeches were popular as methods of “bleeding” for thousands of years — the Greek doctor Galen was a particular fan — it turns out that the creepy crawly practice is indeed actually beneficial.

Researchers into osteoarthritis have found that treatments with leeches greatly improve patients’ pain levels — and the same goes for people suffering from tennis elbow and repetitive strain injuries. Plus they help to keep blood flowing in damaged areas. The FDA made it legal to use leeches in medicine in the US in 2004, and hospitals like Johns Hopkins use them regularly in surgery.


Onions, Garlic, And Cow Bile For MRSA

Researchers made big news last week when they revealed that a recipe for a medieval eye salve — which included onions, garlic, and cow bile — is a successful killer of the “superbug” MRSA.

The concoction, which is mixed with wine, killed 90 percent of the MRSA bacteria, which is a lethal variation on a staph infection that’s become resistant to antibiotics. Where penicillin can’t help, though, it looks like cow bile can.

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Maggots For Cleaning Wounds

Maggots eat dead flesh. That’s just a reality of life. But medical professionals are now using that particular talent as a clean, sterile, and effective way of cleaning wounds. It’s called debridement, and it’s increasingly the go-to option for getting rid of dead cells in a wound.

It’s an option that’s been used since medieval battles, and was incredibly popular during the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War and World War I. So not only is this medieval medicine coming back into vogue in American hospitals as so-called “larval therapy” — it never really went away.

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Feverfew For Migraines

If you know anything about folk or traditional medicine, you’ll probably have come across the herb feverfew. It’s had a strong tradition as a method of pain relief in medicine, most famously by the Greek physician Dioscorides, who used it to reduce fevers.

It turns out Dioscorides was on the right track: research by the University of Maryland shows that it’s actually a pretty decent treatment for migraine. Nobody’s exactly sure why, but it might be down to an anti-inflammatory chemical called parthenolide, which feverfew has in spades. Feverfew supplements are available in the U.S. in pill form.

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Cinnamomum Subavenium For ... Skin Whitening

Skin-whitening creams are a highly problematic but extremely popular trend in Asian countries — and many have toxic affects. In a bid to make the practice safer, Taiwanese scientists turned to an ingredient used in ancient Chinese medicine: Cinnamomum subavenium, an evergreen tree closely related to the cinnamon spice tree.

The researchers showed that isolated elements of the herb made zebrafish lose their stripes, as they block the production of skin-coloring melanin. It’s not yet known if they’re completely safe for humans, though.

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Silver For Fighting Infection

Silver isn’t just for jewelry and fighting werewolves. Hippocrates used shavings of it in fighting infections and ulcers, and it now looks as if the Greek physician was correct: silver, when dissolved into ions, greatly increases the efficiency of antibiotics.

However, silver’s use in keeping us infection-free is a bit problematic — as it’s also pretty poisonous. So no rubbing silver dollars on an infected cut.

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Honey For Wounds

“Surgihoney” is the new wonder product on the lips of medical professionals — but it’s hardly a new idea. It’s been used as a wound dressing for thousands of years, embedded in bandages: the ancient Egyptians used it as a critical part of their wound treatment.

Why does it work? Studies show that, when sterile and medical-grade, honey is antiseptic, kills staph and E-coli bacteria, and is anti-inflammatory — a great treat to be slathered on a wound or burn.

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Myrrh For Pain Relief

We mostly known myrrh as the precious substance given as a gift, along with frankincense and gold, by the Biblical Three Kings. But the ancient substance, which is the resin from a small thorny tree, actually has a history of use as a painkiller in Persian and Hippocratic medicine — and several studies now think it may be effective.

Myrrh, when given to mice, appears to reduce their pain levels by reacting with the opioid centres of the brain. It’s hard to get hold of, though — so no popping it for headaches.

Image: Wikimedia Commons