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Killing pains with local herbs

By Chukwuma Muanya, Assistant Editor
03 May 2018   |   4:30 am
Nigerian researchers have provided scientific evidence on how local herbs could be used to alleviate pains without unpleasant side effects and are even more effective in clinical studies than conventional painkillers.

Syzygium aromaticum (Cloves)

Are you having joint pains? Is your back aching? Do you have toothache? Not to worry. Scientists have identified and validated local herbs that could be used singly or in combination to soothe aching body and joints. CHUKWUMA MUANYA writes.

Nigerian researchers have provided scientific evidence on how local herbs could be used to alleviate pains without unpleasant side effects and are even more effective in clinical studies than conventional painkillers.

Until now, several studies have shown that conventional analgesics such as paracetamol (Tylenol or Acetaminophen) come with very unpleasant side effects such as nausea, stomach ulcer, liver and kidney damage among others.

It is believed that given that widely used painkillers like aspirin and morphine were originally derived from natural sources, turning to herbal and traditional medicine for new products is a rational approach.

Top on the list of the herbal painkillers are: Jatropha curcas (physic nut); Stachytarpheta indica (snake weed); Syzygium aromaticum (cloves); Zingiber officinarum (ginger); Curcuma longa (turmeric); Shea nut oil; and Cannabis sativa.

However, the search for pain relieving herbs have yielded other herbs and natural substances such as Aloe vera, camphor, nutmeg and castor oils, cat’s claw, devil’s claw (atale pupa in Yoruba; gangamau in Hausa) and eucalyptus.

Physic nut compares with aspirin in pain relief
An extract of the poisonous shrub Jatropha curcas acts as a strong painkiller and may have a mode of action different from conventional analgesics, such as morphine and other pharmaceuticals.

The study titled “The evaluation of the analgesic activity of the methanolic leaf extract of Jatropha curcas (Linn) in experimental animals” was published in the International Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Technology.

Commonly called physic nut, pignut, fig nut, purging nut and Barbados nut, Jatropha curcas belongs to the plant family Euphorbiaceae.

In Nigeria, Jatropha curcas is called mbubok in Anaang, bilit in Angas, habb el meluk in Arabic-Shuwa, oru-ebo in Edo, kokolaji in Fulani, kwotewi in Gwari, urieroh in Urhobo, and lapalapa (meaning ringworm) and olobotuje in Yoruba.

According to The useful plants of west tropical Africa, Volume 2 by H. M. Burkill, Jatropha curcas is a shrub or tree to six metre high, native of the American tropics and now dispersed and naturalised throughout the tropics.

Previous studies showed the plant’s fruit is combined with the stem bark of Cochlospermum planchonii (Gbehutu or Feru in Yoruba) in Nigerian medicine for treating diabetes mellitus and is also used traditionally as a painkiller. Other medicinal activities have been reported. The plant’s seeds have been used for making soap, candles, detergents, lubricants and dyes and the seed oil is used in biodiesel.

The Nigerian researchers Micheal Okpara University of Agriculture in Umudike, Abia State, include Omeh Yusuf and Ezeja Maxwell.

The researchers extracted what they believed to be the physiologically active components of the leaves of J. curcas using methanol as solvent. They compared the effects of this extract at 100, 200 and 400 milligrams per kilogramme of body mass, against 400 mg/kg of acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) in standard laboratory animal tests for assessing the strength of painkillers.

They found that 100 mg/kg was an inadequate dose, however, 200 and 400 mg/kg doses produced analgesia comparable to aspirin, affirming the use of the plant for pain relief in traditional medicine. The team suspects that the extract may be acting through both peripheral and central pain mechanisms.

Stachytarpheta indica
Nigerian researchers have concluded: “It may be possible that the methanol stem bark extract of Stachytarpheta indica contains biologically active substances with potential value for the treatment of painful and feverish conditions.”

The study published in British Journal of Pharmacology and Toxicology is titled Analgesic, Anti-Inflammatory and Antipyretic Potential of the Stem Bark Extract of Stachytarpheta indica.

Stachytarpheta indica is commonly known as snakeweed. A well-branched herb, two to three feet high with very long narrow spikes, flowers deep blue with white centre. The plant is known by various names in different parts of Nigeria, such as Tsarkiyar kuse (Hausa), Iru amure (Yoruba).

The plant has been used locally in the management of asthma, headache, alopecia, bronchitis, bruises, constipation, diarrhoea, skin sore, dysentery, dysmenorrheal, fever, inflammation, liver disease, poisoning, tumor, venereal diseases, cataract, sedative and rheumatism. In Northern Nigeria, a decoction of the leaves is given for dysentery in humans and for similar conditions in horses.

The researchers from the Ebonyi State University, Abakaliki; College of Medical Sciences, University of Calabar, Cross River State; and College of Health Sciences, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra State.

The researchers validated the claim that Stachytarpheta indica is used as herbal remedy for pains in Nigeria. The analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antipyretic effects of the stem bark extract were examined in mice and rats by using acetic acid-induced writhing, tail immersion, xylene and egg albumin-induced paw oedema. While yeast and amphetamine induced pyrexia were used to study antipyretic activity in rats. LD50 of the stem bark extract was carried out to determine its safety.

The results showed the methanol stem bark extract of Stachytarpheta indica showed significant dose dependent effect in the parameters assayed. The activity of the extract was comparable to acetylsalicylic acid and morphine respectively. The acute toxicity test was greater than 5000 mg/kg.

Syzygium aromaticum
Commonly called clove, Syzygium aromaticum belongs to the plant family Myrtaceae. The locals, especially in Lagos call it conofro. It is one of the important herbs used as an indigenous medicine and spice in many Asian countries, Africa and other parts of the world.

The employment of clove as analgesic have been reported since the 13th century, for toothache, join pain and antispasmodic, being the eugenol the main compound responsible for this activity. The mechanism evolved has been attributed to the activation of calcium and chloride channels in ganglionar cells. The voltage dependant effects of eugenol in sodium and calcium channels and in receptors expressed in the trigeminal ganglio also contributed to the analgesic effect of clove. Other results show that the analgesic effect of clove is due to the action as capsaicin agonist. Daniel et al, showing significant activity at doses of 50, 75 and 100 mg/kg, reported the peripheral antinociceptive activity of eugenol.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) monographs on selected medicinal plants, Flos Caryophylli, which consists of the dried lower buds of Syzygium aromaticum (cloves) are applied externally or locally for the treatment of toothache, and minor infections of the mouth and skin; and also used as an antiseptic for dressing. The report reads: Flos Caryophylli of minor wounds, and, in the form of lozenges, for sore throats and coughs associated with the common cold. The essential oil (one to five per cent) is used in mouthwashes. Uses described in folk medicine, not supported by experimental or clinical data include; treatment of asthma, bleeding gums, dyspepsia, fevers and morning sickness.

Shea nut oil
Scientists have found that extracts of Shea nut oil, ginger and turmeric top lists of local herbs for joint pains.

Taiwanese and Nigerian researchers have validated the efficacy of Shea nut oil extract in knee osteoarthritis (OA) patients.

The scientists from China Medical University, Taichung and Asia University, Taichung, Taiwan, concluded: “The effectiveness of treatment of knee OA using Shea nut oil, an extract from the indigenous African Vitellaria paradoxa tree, is proven. After sufficient dosage and intervention, its effects include decreased inflammation, increased collagen, amelioration of pain, and improved muscle function.

Although improved muscle function was observed, including greater control and an increase in muscle strength to achieve a functional goal, the subjective feeling of improvement in the activities of daily living was not significant.

“The findings have proven the efficacy of shea nut oil extract as a complementary option to improve the symptoms and function in relation to knee OA.”

The study was published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Commonly called Shea butter in Nigeria, okwuma in Igbo and ori in Yoruba, Vitellaria paradoxa, is a tree of Sapotaceae family, indigenous to Africa. The shea fruit consists of a thin, tart, nutritious pulp, surrounding a relatively large, oil-rich seed, from which “shea butter” is extracted.

The butter has been used locally as food, providing a major source of dietary fat. In the West, shea butter is most commonly used in cosmetics. Extracts from the seed have also been used for the treatment of arthritic conditions.

OA, also known as degenerative arthritis, degenerative joint disease, and osteoarthrosis, is a group of mechanical abnormalities involving degradation of joints, including articular cartilage and subchondral bone. OA is the most common form of arthritis and the leading cause of chronic disability.

Also, United States (U.S.) research suggests extract of a spice used in curry, turmeric, could help prevent rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.

Turmeric has been used for centuries in Asian medicine to treat inflammatory disorders and its extract can be found in western dietary supplements.

Now laboratory work by University of Arizona researchers, in Arthritis & Rheumatism, shows just how the spice’s curcuminoid extracts have a therapeutic effect.

Experts say new drugs may be found, but eating more spices is unlikely to work. The researchers said clinical trials were needed before turmeric supplements could be recommended for medicinal use.

Earlier work by the University of Arizona team showed turmeric could prevent joint inflammation in rats. In their latest study, they set out to find exactly what ingredient in turmeric was having the anti-inflammatory effect.

They prepared extracts from the rhizome, or root of the turmeric plant, and compared them against the commercially available products that contain turmeric extracts.

A version of turmeric extract that was free of essential oils was found to most closely match the composition of the commercial supplements. And it was this extract, containing curcumin that was most effective at blocking the onset of rheumatoid arthritis in the rats.

Scientists have also validated ginger for the treatment of joint pains including arthritis, OA and Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). A study published in Research Spices & Arthritis, the chemical analysis of Zingiber officinale (ginger) has found it to contain over 400 active constituents.

It contains three per cent volatile oils and a number of pungent compounds, including gingerols and shogaols. It is also a source of antioxidant vitamins and minerals, poly phenols and flavonoids.

Research into these concluded that apart from its medicinal properties, ginger could be used effectively as an antioxidant supplement.

Many of ginger’s active constituents have been found to have anti-inflammatory and pain reducing effects and as such have been researched for their benefits in helping to treat arthritic conditions.

As with curcumin, research has found ginger’s ability to inhibit COX and LOX enzymes. A study of 56 patients (28 with RA, 18 with OA and 10 with muscular discomfort) used powdered ginger for their conditions. The study found that three-quarters of the arthritis patients experienced some relief in pain and swelling and all the patients with muscular discomfort experienced relief in pain.

Ginger consumption ranged from three months to 2.5 years. The study suggested that the mechanism by which ginger shows its benefits is in its effects on the COX and LOX enzymes, and the inhibition of prostaglandins and leukotrienes biosynthesis.

Research was also carried out on patients with OA of the knee. In this study 247 patients were either given ginger extract or a placebo for six weeks. The study found that those given the ginger extract had a significant reduction in knee pain after walking compared to the control group.


The only downside reported was a mild gastro-intestinal upset from some of the patients taking the ginger extract. The rationale behind the mild stomach upset may have been from the extract, where many of ginger’s beneficial constituents for the digestive system may have been removed during processing. Whole ginger is clinically proven to reduce nausea and other gastrointestinal problems.

Recent research compared the use of ginger to Non Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), in the treatment of OA. Whilst NSAIDs form a common part of the conventional treatment for arthritis, it is also recognised that they are a leading cause of gastro-intestinal problems.

Therefore, this study aimed to compare Gastro Intestinal (GI) health in OA patients either taking ginger or diclofenac.

The study found that there was no difference in the overall effectiveness in the treatment of OA but that the ginger had a protective effect on the stomach mucosa compared to the diclofenac.

Ten medicinal plants in the management of arthritis in Ibadan
Also, a recent ethnobotanical investigation revealed the use of ten medicinal plants in the management of arthritis in Ibadan, Oyo State.

The study published in African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology is titled “The mineral, proximate and phytochemical components of ten Nigerian medicinal plants used in the management of arthritis.”

The researchers include Gbadamosi, I. T. and Oloyede A. A. from the Department of Botany, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Oyo State.

The study screened the plants for mineral, proximate and phytochemical components that could be responsible for their therapeutic value in arthritis. The powdered plant samples were analysed for nutritional constituents and phytochemical compounds using standard laboratory protocols. The use value of plant-parts was 50 per cent leaves and 50 per cent roots.

Three out of the 10 plants had high calcium content: Oncoba spinosa (180.0 mg/100 g), Nymphaea lotus (160.0 mg/100 g) and Solenostemon monostachyus (125.0 mg/100 g).

N. lotus had the highest iron content (8.0 mg/100 g).

Phosphorus content was highest in O. spinosa (150.0 mg/100 g). Magnesium was highest in Phyllanthus amarus (14.0 mg/100 g). Crude fibre was highest in Solanum aethiopicum (15.90 per cent) and the least in O. spinosa (14.00 per cent).

Oncoba spinosa, according to Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, belongs to the plant family Flacourtiaceae. In Nigeria, the Birom call it epúnun the fruit and tin púnún the plant; kokochiko in Fula-Fulfulde; kóókóócikoo a rattle in Hausa; icákiricá in Idoma; okpoko in Igbo; amurikpa in Jukun; and kánkán dìká in Yoruba.

Nymphaea lotus (water lily) belongs to Nymphaeaceae family. It is a perennial plant that grows up to 45 cm in height; it is herbaceous aquatic plants, whose leaves floats or submerge in water.

Phyllanthus amarus is locally called Iyin-olobe (Yoruba, south-west Nigeria), or kidney stone plant.

Solanum aethiopicum (African eggplant), also called garden eggs (Hausa: dauta; Igbo: afufa or añara; Yoruba: igbagba)

The researchers wrote: “S. aethiopicum had the highest protein content (18.50 per cent) and O. spinosa the least (14.75 per cent). All the medicinal plants tested positive to alkaloids, carotenoids and flavonoids. The plants contained minerals and secondary metabolites that are implicated in arthritis viz. calcium, zinc, carotenoids and flavonoids. The presence of these compounds in the test plants might alleviate pains associated with arthritis.

“O. spinosa had high potential in the management of arthritis due to its high calcium and phosphorus components.

“Lecaniodiscus cupanioides; Carpolobia lutea; Microdesmis puberula; Oncoba spinosa; Calliandra portoricensis; Phyllanthus amarus; Solenostemon monostachyus; Tetracera alnifolia; Solanum aethiopicum; and Nymphaea lotus are used for the management of arthritis in Ibadan, Nigeria.”

Lecaniodiscus cupanioides belongs to the family Sapindaceae. It is a tropical plant widely distributed in Africa and Asia. It is identified by various names in Nigeria, such as Ukpo (in Igbo), Utantan (in Edo), Kafi-nama-zaki (in Hausa) and Akika (in Yoruba).

Carpolobia lutea, commonly called cattle stick or poor man’s candle belongs to the plant family polygalaceae. The common names, which the plant is known include cattle stick (English), Abekpok Ibuhu (Eket); Ikpafum, Ndiyan, Nyayanga (Ibibio); Agba or Angalagala (Igbo) and Egbo oshunshun (Yoruba).

Microdesmis puberula belongs to the plant family Pandaceae. In Nigeria, its local names include Mkpiri or Mbugbo in Igbo; Idi-apata in Yoruba and Ntabit in Ibibio language.

Calliandra portoricensis (C. portoricensis) is also known as snowflake acacia or powder-puff.

The researchers said although the plants are of therapeutic importance in managing arthritis, they are used for other health problems in folk medicine. The aqueous root extract of Some medicinal plants have been reported to be useful in the management of rheumatoid arthritis.

Linum usitatissimum (flaxseed) oil can be an effective part of a rheumatoid arthritis treatment regimen. It is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids like alpha-lipoic acid, which have anti-inflammatory properties.

Also useful is Tripterygium wilfordii (thunder god vine), which has unique immune suppressant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Other plants with anti- inflammatory properties are: Ageratum conyzoides, Artemisia copa, Bauhinia tarapotensis, Croton pullei and Maytenus ilicifolia.

Ageratum conyzoides belongs to the family and tribe of Asteraceae and Eupatoriae, respectively. It is traditionally called ufu opioko and otogo by the Igedes in Benue state, Nigeria. In Southwestern Nigeria, it is known as Imí esú.