In 1021, Avicenna introduced the medicinal use of Taxus baccata for phytotherapy in The Canon of Medicine.
I hope that when I explain what this means you will find it all as fascinating as I did……
Firstly, Avicenna, who is he?
Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) was born c. 980 in Qishlak Afshona, a village near Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan), the capital of the Samanids, a Persian dynasty in Central Asia and Greater Khorasan. His mother, named Setareh, was from Bukhara; his father, Abdullah, was a respected Ismaili scholar from Balkh, an important town of the Samanid Empire, in what is today Balkh Province, Afghanistan.
The teenager achieved full status as a qualified physician at age 18,and found that “Medicine is no hard and thorny science, like mathematics and metaphysics, so I soon made great progress; I became an excellent doctor and began to treat patients, using approved remedies.” The youthful physician’s fame spread quickly, and he treated many patients without asking for payment. div>
Secondly,what is The Canon of Medicine (Arabic: القانون في الطب al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb) is an encyclopedia of medicine in five books compiled by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and completed in 1025. It presents a clear and organized summary of all the medical knowledge of the time. The Canon is considered one of the most famous books in the history of medicine.one of the chapters is dedicated to cardiology and treatment of hear conditions.Avicenna dedicated a chapter of the Canon to blood pressure. He was able to discover the causes of bleeding and haemorrhage, and discovered that haemorrhage could be induced by high blood pressure because of higher levels of cholesterol in the blood. This led him to investigate methods of controlling blood pressure.
Avicenna introduced the medicinal use of Taxus baccata for phytotherapy.
Phytotherapy is the study of the use of extracts from natural origin as medicines or health-promoting agents. The main difference of phytotherapy medicines from the medicines containing the herbal elements is in the methods of plants processing. Traditional phytotherapy is a synonym for herbalism and regarded as alternative medicine by much of Western medicine. Although the medicinal and biological effects of many plant constituents such as alkaloids (morphine, atropine etc.) have been proven through clinical studies, there is debate about the efficacy and the place of phytotherapy in medical therapies.
Despite Western medicines reservation about the use of herbs the herbal drug “Zarnab”(derived from Taxus baccata)was as a cardiac remedy by Avienna. This was the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drug, which were not in wide use in the Western world until the 1960s.
Taxus baccata is a conifer native to western, central and southern Europe, northwest Africa, northern Iran and southwest Asia. It is the tree originally known as yew, though with other related trees becoming known, it may now be known as English yew, or European yew.
There has been a long association of yew trees in churchyards and there are at least 500 churchyards in England which contain yew trees which are older than the building itself. It is not known why there is this link but there are many theories- from yews being planted over the graves of plague victims to protect and purify the dead (as in All saints,Isleworth where there is a lage Yew growing over a large Plague pit)
to the more mundane in that yews could be planted in churchyards as it was one of the only places that cattle did not have access and therefore would not be poisoned by eating the leaves. Yew trees are taken as symbols of immortality in many traditions, but are also seen as omens of doom. For many centuries it was the custom for yew branches to be carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. In Ireland, it was said that the yew was ‘the coffin of the vine’ as wine barrels were made of yew staves. As the wood is so robust, in Medieval times it has been used in making long bows.
A yew tree that many of you may have seen is the one at the entrance of the door to St.Mary’s ‘Perivale our local lovely venue for concerts.
When I read about Avicenna and his herbal medicine Zarnab, a patient called Clifford I looked after about 33yrs ago sprung to mind. This was when I worked as a GP in Maesteg,South Wales. He had been a miner but what I remember most was that he was a pigeon fancier and I remember visiting him regularly and in his lounge the walls were covered with framed photographs of various pigeons he had raced or tossed. He was now virtually bedbound and the he was considered a ‘Cardiac cripple’ which meant he could barely move without getting angina. Angiograms, coronary bypass or modern drugs for angina weren’t available and the few patients that were referred for surgery had to travel to London to the Hammersmith or the Brompton. Then one day I saw a pharmaceutical rep in surgery and he told me about a new drug called Nifedipine (Adalat) that was being recommended for angina aswell as hypertension and it was proving to be very effective, also if the patient bit the orange capsule(NO longer recommended) relief from angina was longer lasting than GTN tablets which was all that was available. I immediately thought of Clifford and was able to offer them to him and it was marvellous to see him come to the door on my next visit. This was my first experience of a Calcium Channel Blocker and experiencing its great value. Incredible to think it took the Western World mealy a 1000 yrs to rediscover this medication. Now a more refined drug called Amlodipine is first line in all patients >55 yrs and Black people for hypertension and we very rarely see patients so incapacitated by angina.
Read more fascinating facts about Yew in my next blog
Posted by Dr Bayer