Healing with nature

The use of traditional herbal medicines in Vietnam is chronicled in a handbook produced by a prodigious researcher in the field.

By Jon Anderholm on March 15,2015 08:09 AM

Healing with nature

Photo: Shutterstock

Several years ago, while attending a meeting of the Climate Change Working Group at the Hanoi NGO Center, I met Dr Tran Cong Khanh. He was attending the meeting, I believe, because he saw the use of Vietnam’s traditional herbal medicines as a means to reduce our planet’s rising fever due to global warming. His book, the ‘Handbook of the Use and Development of Medicinal Plants in Viet Nam’, is his magnum opus, his life’s work, comprising the description and use of more than 300 plants. So far it is only available in Vietnamese.

Dr Khanh spent more than 40 years at the Hanoi University of Medicine and Pharmacy, doing research and teaching. Earlier, between 1954 and 1959, he conducted practical studies in ethno-traditional medicines at the same university. He has a PhD in Botany (1971) and a Doctorate of Science in Plant Taxonomy (1985) from Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany.

Community training

Community training

He established an NGO called CREDEP - the Center for Research and Development of Ethno-medicinal Plants - in 1993. The organisation consists of biological scientists, professors, physicians, pharmacists, lawyers and traditional healers. Some of their work is in basic research and the survey of biodiversity, conservation, and the sustainable use and development of p

lant resources, especially medicinal plants. Another of their projects is to study and propagate valuable and/or threatened plant species in the forest or home gardens for community needs. A good part of the NGO’s goals can be seen as leading to poverty alleviation and providing for the healthcare needs of ethnic communities. Ecological benefits from the forest conservation and restoration are also realised.

Given that Vietnam has a history of using over 4,000 plant species in its traditional medicine pharmacology, the economic benefit from local traditional medicine production is also a motivating factor. Ninety per cent of the pharmaceutical materials currently imported into Vietnam could be replaced by an indigenous traditional medicine industry.

The following are only a few of the traditional medicine plants contained in Dr Khanh’s handbook. All of the information on the plants in the book is accompanied by a photograph or sketch, most of which were taken or collected by Dr Khanh. The handbook is well cross-referenced with scientific names, Vietnamese names, and uses in treatment. There are plans to translate it into English, in the hope of bringing its information to a wider audience.

Virgin Crila (Trinh nu crila)

Crinum latifolium L.
Crinum latifolium L.

Leading botanical scientists of traditional medicine in Vietnam have found a plant called Virgin crila (Crinum latifolium L.), a beautiful white lily that has special chemicals and biological properties shown to be useful in the treatment of tumours and the reduction of prostate inflammation. There is much anecdotal and clinical research confirming these claims. This new variety - Virgin crila, which belongs to the Royal Virgin (Trinh nu hoang cung) species discovered in the 1990s - is unique to Vietnam. Virgin crila can only be grown in a dry and hot climate and should be propagated in a clean organic environment with no artificial chemical pesticides.

Gac Fruit (Qua Gac)

Though known as Gac Fruit (Momordica cochinchinensis) in Vietnam, it is actually more associated with the cucumber or gourd family. The gac fruit is indigenous to East Asia but more extensively used in Vietnam for its nutritional and medicinal properties.

The brilliant-red fruit is harvested before the Tet holiday (Lunar New Year) and used to colour, decorate and enrich foods such as sticky rice, cakes and other pastries.

Photo: Shutterstock
Gac fruit. Photo: Shutterstock

Seeds from the gac fruit have a flesh covering that is rich in nutrients. This covering is made into gac oil that is then transformed into capsule or liquid form. Some of the rich nutrients of the gac fruit include Vitamin E, Beta-carotene Vitamin A (15 times more than carrots and 68 times more than tomatoes in the same quantity), Lycopene, proteins, and essential fatty oils.

The gac oil has healing characteristics for skin disorders, burns (even radioactive burns), open wounds, treatment in surgical recovery and vision problems. Studies have shown that the protein-rich gac fruit has been used for the alleviation of malnutrition in the diets of poor children. The essential gac oil, acting as Vitamin A, can foster healthy bodies in children and pregnant breastfeeding women. The gac seed, meanwhile, is used for the treatment of breast inflammation and for boils.

Small farmers cultivate gac fruit to enhance their incomes. It is easily grown on a trellis and takes up only a small amount of space in the garden.

Jiaogulan (Giao Co Lam)

Gymnostemma pentaphyllun
Gymnostemma pentaphyllun

Jiaogulan (Gymnostemma pentaphyllun) is a traditional medicine of northern Vietnam, China and much of East Asia. It is a climbing vine with small white flowers, and is usually used in the form of tea.

It’s commonly called the ‘immortality herb’ locally. Jiaogulan is widely thought of as a herb that promotes longevity and youthfulness and is considered a powerful antioxidant useful as a tumour inhibitor. Research has shown that Jiaogulan has proven effective against hypertension, reducing high blood pressure. A number of clinical studies have demonstrated that LDL (‘bad’ cholesterol) levels can be reduced while raising HDL (‘good’ cholesterol) levels. Pregnant or breastfeeding women as well as children should not use this traditional medicine.

Aloe Vera (Lo Hoi)

Aloe vera. Photo: Shutterstock
Aloe vera. Photo: Shutterstock

Even though the aloe vera (Aloe vera L.) plant is not endemic to Vietnam it has been used in traditional medicine for ages. Its origins are most likely from Africa, as it was used commonly in ancient Egypt. Carvings from Egypt 6,000 years ago show images of the plant.

Aloe vera is a green, short-stemmed succulent plant. Its leaves are thick, fleshy and full of liquid. Leaves of the aloe vera can often be found in the local supermarket, as local people use it extensively. Often it is grown in home gardens or offices for decoration and for use when needed.

The liquid from aloe vera is used in a variety of skin treatments. The juice can be used for the treatment of burns, sunburn, acne, skin irritations, cold sores, herpes and frostbite. Aloe vera is often used in soaps, shampoo and cosmetic products. The plant’s juice can also be ingested to support the health of the digestive system. Its anti-bacterial effects are important for internal healing, but take care not to have too much due to its toxicity.

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