Guinea hen weed: Miracle drug or not?

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Guinea hen weed: Miracle drug or not?

Adella Campbell

Monday, January 20, 2020

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For some time I have listened to the debate on the use of “miracle herbs” by Jamaicans. Not only are these herbs perceived as miracle workers, they also form part of treatment modalities for ailments such as prostate cancer. Further, it is not uncommon for patients or family members to advise health practitioners that they concomitantly use herbs and other “support” while on conventional medicines.

One such miracle herb is the guinea hen weed or Petiveria Alliacea, which is from the phytolaccaceace family of plants. These plants are native to the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Africa. They are known by several aliases, including gully root, and are widely used for a number of ailments. It is sometimes used to make a concoction with other plants such as shama macka (mimosa pudica) for respiratory ailments; for example, the flu. It may also be soaked in rubbing alcohol or other forms of alcohol, such as white rum, after which it is placed on a cloth and applied to affected areas, often the forehead for headaches. As a matter of fact, in some cultures the herb is used for its antiviral, immune stimulant, anti-candidal, antibacterial, antispasmodic, diuretic, menstrual promoter, and diaphoretic properties. Similarly, it is used to relieve birthing pains, facilitate easy childbirth, and as an abortificient (Taylor, 2013).

In addition, the herb is said to contain anti-tumour/anti-cancerous properties. Biologically active compounds discovered in the guinea hen weed include phytochemicals, triterpenes, steroids, and sulfur compounds, inter alia.

Local scientists and their counterparts from Germany further discovered an anti-cancer compound, Dibenzyl Trisulphide (DTS) in the herb (Vendryes, 2015; Williams, 2015). This form of DTS is considered more potent than other forms and is said to be absorbed through the intestinal walls then binds to albumin (a protein in the blood which transports hormones and fatty acids, and regulates acidity levels). This action significantly increases the anti-cancer properties. Use of the herb as a cancer treatment is even more popular since it selectively targets cancer cells. In other words, it differentiates between normal cells and cancer cells, killing only those that are cancerous. This is unlike chemotherapy which kills cancer cells but has the potential to destroy normal, healthy cells.

Locally, individuals utilise the herb to treat diabetes, cancers, and myriad ailments as previously mentioned. Men diagnosed with prostate cancer seem to be the greatest beneficiaries. In talking with men affected with this condition they agreed that following the consumption of guinea hen weed in the form of tea, they felt healthier, as well as energised; and, when tested, their prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels were usually lower in comparison to test results with non-herb use. Testing the PSA in men with prostate cancer is utilised mainly to monitor the effectiveness of treatment. A PSA level below 4 ng/mL is considered safe. It is worth noting, however, that these men were concomitantly using the herb with prescribed drugs.

Despite guinea hen weed being widely used, there is a dearth of scientific data on its use generally, as well as its effectiveness among men diagnosed with prostate cancer. In 2016, however, a group of fourth-year nursing students at Caribbean School of Nursing, University of Technology, Jamaica, investigated the use and perceived effectiveness of the guinea hen weed among a sample of 15 Jamaican men living with prostate cancer. Respondents were in the age range 60 to 75 years old. While the study is limited in its scope to generalise to other populations, it may serve as an impetus for further studies.

The findings of the study revealed that 93 per cent admitted to experiencing positive effects from the use of the herb. They also said they would highly recommend the herb to other affected men. Importantly, some referred to the herb as the miracle herb and lamented the fact that their doctors were supplying them with pills instead of the herb. One respondent articulated this about the herb: “A miracle herb that cures everything... A very good herb that doctors are not recommending, instead they pack us up with pills to kill us.” On the contrary, however, the respondents noted that among the people introducing them to the herb was the doctor (26.6 per cent) (Kwok, Brown, Doyley, Powell & Campbell, 2016).

The findings also suggest a strong reliance on the herb by patients and family members. One respondent said, “There is no day that I will go without my herb; my family usually reminds me if I forget to take my 'medicine'; they encourage me all the time.” One cannot ignore the fact that these men were also on prescribed drugs such as Avodart, Bicalutamide, Finesteride and Goserelin (Kwok et al, 2016). These drugs were prescribed in combination or singly. What's more is that there was concomitant use of the herb with these prescribed drugs. While there were no reports of negative effects as a result of this practice, it has the potential for deleterious effects if it is not judiciously managed.

Based on the aforementioned, the improved health status of the respondents cannot conclusively be attributed to the consumption of the herb. This is so because there was concomitant use of prescribed drugs. Recommendations from the study, however, included further research on guinea hen weed and its use among men living with prostate cancer, and regulating its use because the herb's medicinal properties are not well researched.

Adella Campbell, PhD, JP, is an associate professor and head of the Caribbean School of Nursing at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or adcampbell@utech.edu.jm.


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