The Kalu Yala Blog

Doctor Mother Nature

July 19, 2010

by Kimberly Kyle Hall
Posted In: Adventures in the Tropics

So if you haven’t figured out by now, I am a science nerd. I like to read about space travel and quantum mechanics. I love sci-fi movies, especially old ones, when scene backgrounds were made of paper mache and painted string. Lately, my science fascination has turned to nature of our own bodies and how we are affected by the environments we live and work in.

In college, studying architecture, you learn about how certain spaces affect human inhabitants in different ways, lower ceilings may cause visitors to want to sit, filtered light can produce the feeling spiritual experience (known by anyone who has visited a European cathedral full of stained glass). During my time at Vanderbilt, there was a not one class offered that studied nature’s affects on us, although I hear that many universities are now tackling this subject.

I really appreciate how sometimes pop culture points out a new cultural fascination or trend long before we are consciously aware of them. The 2008 thriller, the Happening, translated our lack of understanding with our relationship to nature, in this case with trees, to fear. Could chemicals emitted by trees and plants harm us? The good news is that they do just the opposite.

Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel

It was just the beginning of this month when the New York Times reported “exposure to plants and parks can boost immunity.” The article reported that recent study of “shinrin-yoku” (forest-bathing) in Japan greatly increased health benefits such as lowering concentrations of cortisol in the body. While cortisol is positive at low levels in the body, at higher levels it can be extremely harmful decreasing muscle tissue and bone density, higher blood pressure and blood sugar imbalances. What increases cortisol levels? STRESS. Cortisol is famous as the hormone for being released during “flight or fight” response.

My mind swam with thoughts of the New York Times article this weekend on my drive up Kalu Yala. I was going to visit the Earthtrain team, a non-profit in Panama that develops leaders in the world of rainforest conservation and watershed management. They were there for the day to plant bougainvillea, also known in Panama as veranera, in the grounds of one of their headquarters located in San Miguel (but also to enjoy a dip in the river and some sun-bathing on the river rocks).

bougainvilleaSwimming in the River

Perceiving that positive effects of time spent in nature can be deceiving. As a nature lover, I want to believe that my trip to the river on Saturday made me feel less stressed, more focused and physically…better. Or is that we are simply more active in natural environment?

A runner, my favorite places in the City to run are not much a surprise, street-lined neighborhoods with few cars and little pollution. My need to get out of the urban environment once a day to exercise speaks for itself, but am I missing nature or the exercise when I don’t make it out for 3-4 days?  This is an important phenomenon for us to understand given that Kalu Yala focuses on wellness, our connection to nature and our food. For the kayakers we saw in the river that day, exercise and nature can not be separated. I wish I had gotten a chance to talk to them to ask them what they like most about the sport, but all I got was a friendly hello.

Kayaking claims weight loss, strength and flexibility as its health benefits. Most of us are aware that constant physical activity is proven to increase blood circulation and help our bodies fight sickness and disease, (increased immunity). Even if you are not yet sold on the plant chemical-emitting case or are one to spend much time out in the woods, you might be interested in Mother Nature provides in terms of natural medicine.

More than 120 prescription drugs worldwide have been derived from forest plants but less than 1% of tropical plants have been tested by scientists.  Today, over 100 pharmaceutical companies have research and development programs to identify and develop new drugs based on plants, particularly those found in the rainforest.

Last October, Discover Magazine reported treating disease with nature’s deadliest toxins. There are all kinds of fascinating plants that are making up modern medicine, and many with great rich histories. The Deadly Nightshade (seen here on the left) is known as the poison used to kill two Emperors in ancient Rome. In today’s world, It’s primary active agent, atropine, counteracts the negative affects of anthrax and can be used to resuscitate patients suffering from cardiac arrest. The more I read, the more I wanted to learn which natural medicines were coming from Panama. If we have the greatest plant biodiversity on earth, there has got to be some great stories from our own backyard.

Back in 1993, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture funded a $3mm study for the Smithsonian Tropical Institute in Panama (STRI) that hoped to provide evidence that “rainforests can be protected if the pharmaceutical industry establishes Third World laboratories and hires local researchers to look for new medicines extracted from plants that evolved defenses against insects.”

Bioprospecting Panama

Called bioprospecting, this field joins ecoforestry and ecotourism for this generation’s list  saving the rainforest and conservation. It seems that the scientists leading the 1993 study understood the importance of having Panamanian scientists be the ones to find the plant extracts and develop them into medicines. This study was widely publicized for its foresight to acknowledge the need for a bioprospecting project to create local jobs and that those jobs rely on a healthy rainforest.

The STRI projects have created results. In the mid-90’s, Active chemicals from 3 local plants chemicals proved to prevent against leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal disease caused by parasites transmitted by a species of sand fly. In 2005, Coral species in Coiba, Panama’s “Galapagos” on the Pacific side show anti-malarial properties.

Even with successes like the ones in Panama, bioprospecting has had some large challenges. Opponents refer to the practice as biopiracy claiming that patent rights are not being retained by the country where the disease preventing species is found.  This why the approach in Panama 1993 was so fresh. Instead of sending samples to the U.S. or Switzerland, the projects being conducted by the Smithsonian keep most of the drug discovery process local so that the economic and educational benefits stayed in-country.

This year in April the UN is taking an approach to combat bio-piracy by through a program designed to help developing countries develop their biotechnological resources by learning the capabilities required to develop medicines and other commercial uses from their biological resources. In the past, the use of low-grad technology by these countries has resulted in lower quality, making it difficult for the products to pass 1st world standards resulting in decreased consumer confidence. For the products to reach their full potential a country needs to invest in its biotechnology capabilities. Like deforestation programs, this program matches a donor country with a developing country to supply funding. With the support of the Smithsonian, Panama will likely not need this assistance, instead we need to focus on not losing the ecosystems where this research can take place.

While the Kalu Yala team itself will not be bioprospecting, we hope that our conservation efforts preserve species that may one day cure diseases.


Mother Nature Network: The Secret to Good Health

Planting Empowerment: Tree Species in Panama

Live Science: Getting out in Nature, What the Studies are Saying

SciDev: All about Bioprospecting

Plants Used as Medicines: A Wikipedia List

Picture Credits

One Response to “Doctor Mother Nature”

  1. Kimberly says:

    New article up from the World Wildlife Federation on conserving biodiversity. “”Scientists are discovering that species extinctions fuel the rise and spread of infectious diseases”

    How is that true?

    Here is an example:

    “In the case of West Nile, the strongest carriers tend to be the kinds of perching birds that predominate in disturbed, fragmented and less-diverse habitats. They include common backyard species such as house sparrows, grackles, robins and crows. By contrast, the types of birds that predominate in undisturbed woodlands, wetlands and prairies tend to carry little West Nile virus in their bloodstreams. “As a result, where many bird species exist, very few mosquitoes get infected, and so we humans are at lower risk,” says biologist Brian Allan of Washington University in St. Louis. Allan’s studies have shown that across the nation, bird diversity is a significant buffer against the spread of West Nile virus to humans.”

    Check it out: