We’ve all heard that famous saying many times and nodded our heads sagely. If only we actually heeded the timeless advice it embodies, however, the world would surely be a better place. Pick up any daily newspaper, look at the headlines, and ask yourself if the Santayana principle has been at work yet again. Scary, isn’t it? George Santayana, by the way, was a distinguished American philosopher and a very smart man (that’s redundant.)
But here’s the thing: as smart as Santayana was, he apparently overlooked the other side of the historical coin. For it could also be said, at least in one context, that those who have forgotten the past may be fortunate enough to relive it. That is what is happening in the world of modern medicine, which is continually rediscovering and reinventing many of the long-forgotten secrets of ancient folkloric medicine – to the inestimable advantage of us all.
With gathering momentum, modern scientists are using the powerful techniques of organic chemistry, molecular biology, pharmacology, and other sciences to confirm and explain and exploit the knowledge that legions of our distant ancestors acquired painstakingly over many centuries through keen observations and endless trial and error. Many of the errors, of course, resulted in sickness or death, and it’s a safe bet that the survivors took careful note not to repeat those trials.
Mastic Is Rediscovered
One of the recently rediscovered secrets of our forebears is that of mastic, a resinous gum with an astonishing medicinal property that is particularly useful in the modern world: it can kill the bacterium that causes most peptic ulcers. Mastic gum is exuded by the bark of the mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus, which grows primarily on the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean Sea.
Actually, the people of Chios (pronounced key´ose) and throughout the Mediterranean region have been using mastic as a medicine for gastrointestinal ailments for several thousand years, so it has never really been a secret over there. Somehow, though, the rest of the world managed to overlook the virtues of mastic ever since the Middle Ages. It was not until the early 1980s that Arab researchers in the Middle East (including Iraq) began looking at mastic through the prism of modern science and reporting what they saw. Before we get to that, however, let’s backtrack a few millennia and find out how all this got started.
Dioscorides Was Right About Mastic
The origins of the use of mastic are lost in the mists of time, but our formal knowledge of this wondrous plant begins with its description in the classic botanical/pharmacological treatise De Materia Medica (“About Medical Substances”), written in the first century by the Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides (see the sidebar on this remarkable man). He observed that mastic was an effective agent for treating various forms of internal bleeding, a fact that had apparently already been known for a long time.
He also said that mastic “is diuretic makes unstable teeth firm when washed with it, and its green sprigs are effective in cleaning teeth. The resin alone, when drunk, is good for bleeding exportations, old coughs, the stomach (but it causes belching), stimulating hair growth on eyebrows, and is good in toothpaste because it cleans, makes white, strengthens, and gives good breath.”1 (If he were alive today, he could get a job writing ad copy!)One or two or those claims may be questionable (the bit about eyebrow hair is somewhat of an eyebrow-raiser), but most are on the mark. We now know – again, after two millennia – that mastic is good for internal bleeding caused by ulcers, and it’s good for oral hygiene as well.
Mastic Kills H. pylori
What the Arab researchers demonstrated two decades ago was scientific evidence of the effectiveness of mastic in treating duodenal ulcers. Subsequently working in England with British colleagues, they found that mastic shows antibacterial activity against a number of different species of bacteria, most notably Helicobacter pylori. This nasty and extraordinarily hardy bacterium is the primary causative agent for most gastric (stomach) and duodenal ulcers, which are collectively known as peptic ulcers.
The Legacy of Dioscorides
If there is a patron saint of herbal medicine, it is Pedanios Dioscorides, a Turkish-born Greek who served as a surgeon in the Roman army under the dreadful emperor Nero. Born around 20 A.D. (or maybe around 40 A.D. – no one is sure) in Anazarbus, near Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, Dioscorides became a physician and a botanist (which were not all that different in those days, as most doctors were basically herbalists). He developed a passionate interest in the use of plants as a source of drugs. This led him eventually (around 70 A.D.) to write one of the great classics of medical literature, De Materia Medica.
Dioscorides (pronounced die-os-kor´ih-deez) was a keen and objective observer of the natural world. The details of his botanical and pharmacological writings were highly accurate and free of superstition – he was a scientist at heart.
De Materia Medica, a magisterial work in five volumes, was the world’s first really systematic pharmacopoeia. It contained detailed descriptions of about 600 plants that Dioscorides studied on his extensive travels throughout the Mediterranean world, in both Europe and Africa, and it discussed about 1000 medications derived from these plants. It eclipsed every other work of its kind and remained the final authority in botany and pharmacology for about 15 centuries.
Among countless other astute observations, Dioscorides noted in De Materia Medicathat garlic “cleans the arteries.” He was correct – we now know that certain chemical compounds in garlic are indeed effective in reducing the arterial plaque that is the hallmark of atherosclerosis, and it is used with chelating agents such as EDTA in formulations designed to do just that.
Dioscorides, ever alert to anything unusual, also reported the intriguing observation that mercury sometimes condensed on the underside of the lid of the vessel containing it. This was the first known mention of the principle of distillation, which would become immensely important in chemistry many centuries later.
No one knows when Dioscorides died, but it was probably around 90 A.D. It would be fascinating to know to what extent, if any, he may have prolonged his own life through the judicious use of some of the herbal products he studied and described with such great mastery.
Researchers in Australia made that startling discovery about the true cause of ulcers in the early 1980s, at about the same time that mastic was being rediscovered by the Arab scientists in the Middle East. The Arab and British researchers subsequently (in the late 1990s) found that mastic kills H. pylori. By then it was known that H. pylori typically infects the stomach and intestines, but it is also commonly found in the mouth (which is, after all, part of the gastrointestinal tract), because there’s no way to prevent the bacteria from migrating up and down the esophagus.
Mastic Keeps Stomachs Healthy
H. pylori is found not just in a few stomachs and mouths, but in billions of them. Public health experts estimate that about half the world’s population is infected with H. pylori.In most people, most of the time, the presence of these bacteria does not seem to cause much trouble – which is fortunate, considering those huge numbers.
Who Are Those Berbers?
The Berbers are aboriginal Caucasoid peoples of North Africa whose culture is at least 4400 years old. They now form a large part of the populations of Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. Although some Berbers, notably the fabled Tuareg, are nomads, most live on small farms and in tribal villages. Like almost all indigenous peoples of the world, they cultivate a variety of plants, not just for food and construction materials, but also for the herbal medicines that can be extracted from many of them.
The Berbers are primarily Sunni Muslims and have a long, bloody history of conquest and liberation. In the 1960s they helped drive the French from Algeria.
But the bacteria can, at any time, become active enough to cause or exacerbate a number of gastrointestinal ailments, notably gastritis, a chronic inflammation of the stomach. In the worst-case scenario, it causes peptic ulcers. Actually, an even worse scenario than that is stomach cancer. It’s not believed to be caused by H. pylori, but it is more likely to occur in people with gastritis or other chronic gastrointestinal disorders than in those whose stomachs are healthy. Thus, by eradicating H. pylori from the stomach and keeping it healthy, mastic can indirectly help prevent stomach cancer.
Mastic Keeps Mouths Healthy Too
In the mouth, using oral mastic products such as mouthwash, toothpaste, and chewing gum can help prevent tooth decay and diseases such as periodontitis and gingivitis by reducing the levels of oral bacteria (eliminating all bacteria from the mouth is impossible). And killing H. pylori bacteria that find their way into the mouth helps prevent infection of the stomach – or reinfection, if eradication of the bacteria from that organ had previously been achieved. Because H. pylori is communicable through intimate contact, such as kissing, it can fairly easily be transmitted from parents to their children, and vice versa.
This One Is Hard to Believe, but True
Are you ready for a real surprise? Recent research (in Greece, appropriately enough) has shown that H. pylori infection is related to the incidence of glaucoma and that eradicating the infection reduces the risk of developing this terrible disease. Stomach and eye? What’s the connection? Nobody knows – it’s a mystery. Stay tuned.
And Now for Something Completely Different
Mastic’s beneficial effects against H. pylori are by now well established, and we have written about them numerous times (with abundant literature citations) in this magazine.* The benefits are clearly related to mastic’s antibacterial action. Now, however, we have learned about another potential benefit of mastic – related, surprisingly, to an antiviral action. Bacteria and viruses are entirely different categories of microorganisms, and most agents that are effective against one category are not effective against the other, so this dual action of mastic would likely not have been predicted.
Berbers Are Well Versed in Herbal Medicine
A team of ethnobotanists and pathologists from Canada and Morocco have collaborated on the first systematic study of the antiviral activities reported on 75 endemic and Berber and Arab species of Moroccan medicinal plants that have been used by the Berbers in their traditional medicine.2 (In case you don’t know any Berbers and are hazy on exactly who they are, see the sidebar on this subject). The researchers tested extracts of these plants in the laboratory on three pathogenic viruses of particular interest to them: herpes simplex, poliovirus, and Sindbis.*
The plants – including Pistacia lentiscus, mastic – were selected from among about 600 known medicinal plants in Morocco. They were chosen specifically because of their reported uses in treating infectious diseases such as colds, flu, dysentery, and various poxes and fevers, as well as wounds, rashes, diarrhea, and other ailments.
Mastic Has Antiviral Activity Against Herpes Simplex
Cut to the chase: 45 of the plants were found to have antiviral activity. Of those 45, nine showed a strong correlation between this activity and the plant’s traditional use by the Berbers. And one of those nine was mastic, which the Berbers have long used for stomachache and ulcers.
The researchers found that mastic had antiviral activity against herpes simplex, which causes skin infections characterized by blisters that usually appear around the lips (cold sores) or on the genitals. The initial infection probably occurs during infancy or childhood, and it subsequently becomes dormant. The reappearance of blisters later in life may be triggered by factors such as fever, exposure to sunlight, menstruation, or pregnancy.
Four Mastic Recipes from Greece
The Greeks use mastic not just as medicine, but also as a food preservative, owing to its antibacterial properties. In addition, they use it as a food flavoring and as a beverage – and even as chewing gum.
The following four recipes using mastic powder for flavoring are from Stefanos Kovas, a chef at the Chandris Hotel on the island of Chios, where he teaches at the Chios School for Chefs. The recipes (translated from Greek) have been adapted for American kitchens.
Where the recipes call for a drop of mastic powder (i.e., the amount obtained by grinding up one average – size “drop,” or “tear,” of mastic gum), you may use mastic powder according to your own taste.
OK, but what’s wrong with this picture? It’s that stomachache and ulcers have nothing to do with the herpes simplex virus, as far as we know. Thus the Berbers’ use of mastic apparently has nothing to do with its antiviral activity, but rather with its antibacterial activity – just as other peoples of the Mediterranean have been using it for millennia. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to learn that mastic has a hitherto unknown dimension to its medicinal value – one that might be of practical use if further investigations confirm it.
Fighting the Good Fight
From birth to death, we are all at the mercy, to one degree or another, of the multitude of environmental hazards – including ubiquitous bacteria such as H. pylori – that are a part of our world. What we can, and must, do is fight back with every means at our disposal, such as mastic for gastrointestinal health and oral health, and even eye health (and, perhaps, for skin health too, as we now know). We should enjoy the fight, because it’s a good fight – and we’re winning! Besides, as George Santayana also famously said, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”
See, e.g., “Protect Your Stomach from Deadly Bacteria” (May 2001); “Got Heartburn? Try Mastic!” (August 2001);“Mastic for a Healthy, Happy Stomach” (March 2002); “Mastic for Improved Oral Health” (May 2002); “Children’s H. pylori Infection Can Endanger the Family” (June 2002); “Eradicating H. pylori Infection Improves Glaucoma” (September 2002); “Parents Can Infect Their Children with H. pylori“ (October 2002).
- Riddle JM. History as a tool in identifying “new” old drugs. In Buslig B, Manthey J, eds. Flavonoids in Cell Function, pp 89-94. Kluwer/Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York, 2002.
- Mouhajir F, Hudson JB, Rejdali M, Towers GHN. Multiple antiviral activities of endemic medicinal plants used by Berber peoples of Morocco. Pharmaceut Biol2001;39(5):364-74.