Going herbal, thanks to a little help from the pharaohs

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Ancient herbal remedies got the science right, say experts

CAIRO: Natural foods and medicines are all the rage in many European and North American cities, but, according to author Lise Manniche, the pharaohs were way ahead of the trend.

The Internet overflows with resources for an all-natural lifestyle, and any visit to your favorite search engine will showcase everything from tofu recipes to environmentally friendly dish soap. In her new book, “An Ancient Egyptian Herbal, published by the American University in Cairo Press, Manniche shows that for the ancient Egyptians, herbal was not just a trend; it was a way of life. And according to some experts, they unwittingly got the science right.

The author’s research is wide-ranging, and although the book is relatively slim at a mere 180 pages, it provides a broad and in-depth look at the role of herbal products in the highly complex society of ancient Egypt.

Physical beauty was highly valued in the civilization that built the pyramids, and to help preserve it the ancients came up with a line of all-natural products that would make today’s cosmetic companies green with envy. Manniche writes that ancient Egyptians used carob, incense and porridge as a natural deodorant; chewed frankincense to freshen their breath; and even removed unsightly body hair with a fast-drying compress made of “boiled and crushed bones of a bird mixed with fly dung, oil, sycamore juice, gum, and cucumber.

While fly dung may be the last ingredient that most of today’s savvy cosmetic shoppers want to read on the back of a makeup bottle, you have to give the ancient Egyptians credit for creativity.

The simplicity of the ancient Egyptian diet, the author added, was healthy despite its reliance on a few hearty staples such as bread and onions. “There were, however, many health hazards in ancient Egypt which not even a healthy diet could ward off: pollution caused by man himself, cramped living quarters, multiple use of water in canals and pools, and ignorance of the causes of contamination.

Surprisingly, little has changed over the millennia.

This is especially true considering the Pharaonic roots of many of today’s popular herbal remedies. According to Dr. Mohamed Hussein, professor of biochemistry at Ain Shams University, the ancient Egyptians did not know it at the time, but there is a sound scientific basis for many of their most trusted remedies.

“Khufu the pharaoh used to order his workers to eat 10 bulbs of garlic a day or they would go to jail. He says, “Later it was proven that garlic increases vitamin absorption and prevents hypertension and cardiac diseases. It has also been proven that garlic oil has anti-carcinogenic effects. It helps prevent cancer because it contains anti-oxidants which prevent the formation of some molecules that lead to the formation of cancer cells.

Hussein has spent much of his career studying the benefits of natural remedies. Among his research contributions was a 1988 study on the uses of garlic and onion oils in the treatment of hypertension and heart disease, which are caused by high cholesterol.

“We were very successful, he says. “Within 30 days the garlic and onion oil treatment worked in 100 percent of the test subjects, which were albino rats. We achieved cholesterol reduction to a healthy, normal level in all of our test subjects.

According to Hussein, patients are better off taking herbal remedies than pharmaceutical drugs.

“Natural remedies work better in the long term without any serious side effects, he says. “When you use artificial drugs, they work better in the short term but they can cause serious side effects like cancer or anemia.

But most Cairenes still shy away from natural remedies, preferring the convenience of the local pharmacy and the quick fix promised by pharmaceuticals.

“If you had a disease, which would you choose? he asks. “Most people are used to artificial drugs. Only sometimes here in Egypt, do people in the villages use herbal treatments and prefer them over artificial drugs because they have inherited the knowledge from the past.

“In cities like Cairo it is hard to find herbal remedies. In the countryside people can just grow the ingredients they need, like garlic, he explains. People in Cairo take the easy way, and just go to the pharmacy across the street. In the countryside people don’t know why these remedies work, they use them because they inherited them. It’s their culture.

But Hussein is sure that there is room for compromise between artificial drugs and all-natural treatments.

“Some companies are working to use natural remedies in pharmaceutical products, as a kind of compromise, he says, “Garlic pills, for hypertension, are one example of this. There are other pills that contain all-natural vitamin E for hair, nails and skin.

Like Cairo itself, the world of medicine is big enough to hold both the urban trend toward ever-faster convenience and a rural attachment to the natural remedies of the ancient Egyptians. The Pharaoh Khufu would no doubt be pleased.

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