history of medicine

The Travelling Botanist: Cinnamon, a spice of many tales

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Guest blog by: Sophie Mogg

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Cinnamomum cassia

Cinnamon is a spice that we have all had the opportunity to try, whether in fancy coffees, liqueurs or delicious buns. Whilst the “true” cinnamon species is Cinnamomum verum, the most common source of cinnamon is Cinnamomum cassia. Both species originate in Asia, with C. verum being native to Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) and C. cassia originating in southern China. In order to distinguish the cinnamon produced by the two species in the spice trade, cinnamon refers to C. verum whilst cassia refers to C. cassia.  This is because, C. verum is  more expensive of the two due to its sweeter taste and aroma as less than 30% of cinnamon exports come from Sri Lanka. 

Cinnamon has been traded for many thousands of years, with the imports into Egypt reported as early as 2000 BCE so it is no surprise that there are countless tales and historical events that surround this spice. From Sieur de Joinville believing cinnamon was fished from the Nile at the end of the world and Herodotus writing about mystical giant birds (such as a phoenix) that used cinnamon sticks to build their nests, the history of cinnamon is rich in legends of its origin as it wasn’t until 1270 that it was mentioned the spice grew in Sri Lanka. However as sweet as this spice may be it also appears to have a bloody history. Aside from the countless wars raged over the right to trade cinnamon, it was also used on the funeral pyre of Poppaea Sabina, the wife of Nero, in 65 AD. It is said that he burned over a years supply as recompense for the part he played in her death.

There are a total of 5 species (C. burmannii, C. cassia, C. citriodorumC. loureiroi and C. verum)  that produce cinnamon however C. verum and C. cassia are where the majority of international commerce is sourced from. Production of cinnamon is fairly straight forward albeit time-consuming. The outer bark of the tree is shaved off exposing the inner bark which is the cinnamon layer. This inner bark is also shaved off and left to dry, naturally curling as it does. By comparison the cinnamon of C. verum has a more delicate flavour than that of C. cassia  as well as having thinner bark that is more easy to crush and produces a much more smooth texture. cinnamon-comparison

Cinnamon is prominent in the practice of Ayurveda medicine as well as traditional Chinese medicine, being one of the 50 fundamental herbs. Traditionally it has been used to treat a wide variety of ailments from digestive problems, respiratory problems, arthritis and infections. In traditional Chinese medicine it is believed that cinnamon is able to treat these ailments through it’s ability to balance the Yin and Wei as well being a counterflow for Qi. These terms are aptly explained here for those who are interested. While there is little scientific evidence for the treatment of digestive and respiratory disorders, cinnamon does appear to possess antibacterial, antifungal and antimicrobial properties which may help to fight infections although at this moment in time it is inconclusive in studies trialled on humans. Cinnamon produced from C. cassia coumarin, which thins the blood, can be toxic to the liver in high concentrations so it is advised that only a few grams per day be consumed.

For those avid tea lovers out there I’ve found instructions to brew your own cinnamon tea.

For more information check out the links below

Cinnamomum verum

Cinnamomum cassia in Chinese medicine

Rainforest Alliance – Cinnamon farms

Leave a comment below to tell me what you think or what you’d like to see next!

The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Doping with Strychnos nux-vomica

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Strychnos nux-vomica‘s bumpy nuts

Guest post by Laura Cooper

Strychnine is an infamous poison. It is most well-known by its appearance in the novels of Agatha Christie as an effective but unsubtle method of murder. It was widely available in the 19th century from chemists as a rat poison, but this was taken advantage of by a number of real life serial killers including Dr Thomas Cream who gave disguised as a medicine and in alcohol. But strychnine had another side to it. Its caffeine- like stimulating effects means it has been used as a performance enhancing drug in competitive sports.

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Herbarium sheet of Strychnos nux-vomica

Strychnine, along with the toxin brucine, is present in the seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica. Though its name is lurid, it does not have anything to do with vomiting, “nux vomica” translates as ‘bumpy nut’. S. nux-vomica is in the family Loganiaceae and is native to South-East Asia and India. It is a medium-sized tree with large smooth oval leaves. The flowers have a repellent smell and the fruit is apple-sized with a hard shell that is orange when ripe. Inside, the seed are held in soft gelatinous pulp. The seeds are flattened disks covered with fine hairs, their flatness gives them the nickname ‘Quaker buttons’. The strychnine is concentrated in the seeds, but the wood also possesses poisons including brucine. Strychnine in the S. nux- vomica plays the same role as abrin in Abrus precatorius, it prevents herbivore species evolving which specialize in eating these seeds, as the poison is so general that it will likely kill any animal that eats the seed.

Strychnine poisons by blocking glycine from binding to specific neurons in the central nervous system. Strychnine prevents glycine from carrying out its inhibitory role, so causes the central nervous system to over-react to the smallest stimulus.

Initially the muscles become stiff, which is followed by hyperreflexia, where small stimulus trigger powerful reflex reactions. Later, increasingly frequent whole body convulsions occur. These resemble those in tetanus, an explanation often used to cover up strychnine poisoning. Eventually the respiratory muscles become paralysed and death by asphyxiation  occurs usually within a few hours. Strychnine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victim is fully conscious throughout, making strychnine poisoning one of the worst ways to die I can imagine.

The main method of treating strychnine poisoning is crude. The patient is given barbiturates and muscle relaxants and removed from stimuli to prevent convulsions until the strychnine is metabolised by the liver which takes a few days.

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Botanical illustration of Strychnos nux-vomica

However, S. nux-vomica extracts have been used in herbal and alternative medicine. It has been recommended for many different health issues from abdominal pain, heart disease and migraines though there is no evidence for its efficacy as a drug. However, a low dose of strychnine stimulates the central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine, but to a greater extent. This gives it great potential to act as a placebo, which is likely why it was reported to treat a wide range of illnesses, as well as to help spur athletes to victory.

S. nux-vomica‘s stimulating effects were used in 19th and early 20th century Europe and America in competitive sports as one of an arsenal of performance enhancing drugs, which were even deemed necessary for some endurance sports. Strychnine helped the American Thomas Hicks secure an Olympic Gold Medal. He was given strychnine and brandy during the 1904 Olympic marathon when he was flagging, though he collapsed after crossing the finishing line he later recovered. To this day, strychnine is on the list of banned stimulants in the World Anti-Doping Agency International Standard Prohibited List.

For more information, see the Poison Garden’s page on the species and Ian Musgrave’s article on strychnine in sport.