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Ancient Botanical medicine involved smell and taste. Source: Thomas Mucha/Adobe Stock

Ancient Botanical Medicine Was Driven By Taste and Smell, Study Finds

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With the advent of modern medicine, it’s hard to imagine the role taste had in the preparation of ancient botanical remedies. In layman terms, taste and flavor had a huge role to play in their eventual therapeutic application(s), serving as a foundation upon which ancient health practices were built. A new study has examined how taste influences the utilization of botanical medicine by correlating the impressions of a group of contemporary volunteer tasters with 700 botanical drugs cataloged in the 1st Century AD medical encyclopedia,  De Materia Medica.

The study, published in the journal E Life, revealed that 45 out of 46 therapeutic botanicals were distinctly linked with specific taste characteristics. In fact, taste and smell have influenced medicine since illness was first being treated, something that seems very much absent from the cold, clinical nature of modern medicine.

Taste and Smell: Linking the Senses to Medicinal Healing

“The link between taste and medicine was realized by the ancient Greek philosophers and physicians. To make sense out of clinical symptoms, healing powers and medicine, ancient Greek physicians conceptualized the so-called humoral theory… The then known four basic taste sensations got integrated into this equilibrium model and associated with the four humors: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile by Galen in the 2nd century AD,” said Marco Leonti from the University of Cagliari who co-authored the research.

At the time, the prevailing belief was that medicine could restore equilibrium to the humoral system and rebalance any disruptions. Although this philosophy has been surpassed by scientific medicine, certain correlations between taste and therapy persist in Western herbal medicine. For instance, bitter-tasting remedies for stomach ailments or astringent substances for diarrhea are still acknowledged. Other medical traditions like Ayurvedatraditional Chinese medicine, and indigenous community care also categorize medicinal substances based on flavors to this day.

16th-century German illustration of the four humors: Flegmat (phlegm), Sanguin (blood), Coleric (yellow bile, and Melanc (black bile), divided between the male and female sexes. (Public Domain)

16th-century German illustration of the four humors: Flegmat (phlegm), Sanguin (blood), Coleric (yellow bile, and Melanc (black bile), divided between the male and female sexes. (Public Domain)

While we observe these remnants of ancient medicine in contemporary practice, comprehending the development of early treatments remains challenging without a time machine. To gain insight into the past, researchers sought a method to compare ancient records with present-day human experiences of these drugs, reports Advanced Science News.

The Scientific Method: A Predictive Model, a Thorough Study

The researchers did not set out to test the efficacy of these plant drugs, and clarified that the herbal drugs tested were from ancient medical texts, not modern pharmaceuticals. They explained that it wouldn't be a significant stretch to investigate whether any of the same plant drugs are currently used for similar purposes.

The model they devised is a predictive one, suggesting that the combination of tastes of a specific mystery drug could potentially be used to predict how likely it would have been used in treating a condition in early premedical history.

The 22 chemosensory qualities and 46 therapeutic uses studied here. Each chemosensory quality and use is represented by an icon that is used throughout the manuscript. Therapeutic uses that share an icon are considered to represent the same category of use (25 in total); these are linked by grey bars. (Leonti, M., et al./elife)

The 22 chemosensory qualities and 46 therapeutic uses studied here. Each chemosensory quality and use is represented by an icon that is used throughout the manuscript. Therapeutic uses that share an icon are considered to represent the same category of use (25 in total); these are linked by grey bars. (Leonti, M., et al./elife)

The research team analyzed botanical drugs catalogued in De Materia Medica, a comprehensive resource utilized for over 1500 years to document medicinal materials traded and employed in the Eastern Mediterranean region of the ancient Roman Empire. Trained volunteer tasters were tasked with classifying these drugs using 22 taste descriptors, including bitter, aromatic, fresh, and cooling, and assessing the intensity of each taste. They observed distinct correlations between taste types and the medicinal properties attributed to each plant in the ancient text.

"We found bitter, starchy, musky, sweet, and soapy tasting medicines to be used for more different categories of use. Similarly, botanical drugs with fewer but intense tastes were more versatile,” explained Leonti. Almost all of the 46 therapeutic uses demonstrated significant associations with at least one of the 22 taste qualities, resulting in 99 positive associations and 50 negative associations.

When asked about these connections, the researchers proposed several explanations. For instance, they suggested that the link between sweet-tasting drugs and pain treatment might reflect the known pain-relieving effects of sweet sensations.

Regarding the limited therapeutic versatility of sour-tasting drugs, the researchers speculated that this could be understood by examining the uses negatively associated with this taste. For instance, the significant association between sour taste and the treatment of coughs might be attributed to coughing triggered by acid signaling in the airways.

Interestingly, some tastes retain relevance today. Both starchy and salty flavors were associated with the treatment of diarrhea and dysentery. Contemporary treatments for diarrhea often involve mixtures of glucose, starch, and electrolytes, suggesting that ancient remedies may have provided relief to patients of that era.

“So, the next time you think something has a ‘medicinal’ taste. Maybe it’s a sign that it was once used to treat a medical condition — or even that it might be useful in the future,” concluded co-author Joanna Baker from the University of Reading.

Top image: Ancient Botanical medicine involved smell and taste. Source: Thomas Mucha/Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

References

Leonti, M.,  et al. 2024.  Taste shaped the use of botanical drugs. Elife. Available at: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.90070.3.

Lewis, A. 2024.  How taste shaped the use of ancient medicines. Available at: https://www.advancedsciencenews.com/how-taste-shaped-the-use-of-ancient-botanical-medicines/.

 

Comments

Most plants with historical medicinal use have never been studied properly. Those studies which are undertaken with positive results, are written up in papers stating potential for therapeutic use and recommending further study. This further study rarely happens. Such papers tend to join the large pile of other such papers gathering dust.

Academia places restraints on such papers and these restraints suit the pharmaceutical industry admirably. Whilst one may well understand the extreme caution surrounding plants without historical medicinal use, regarding efficacy, safety or both, those plants that have such historical medicinal use are somewhat known quantities.

The pharmaceutical industry knows many plants are effective medicines and more than a few can cure some cancers. However, the industry is run by über-capitalists for their benefit, not ours.

Indeed, this is only part of the truth. The vaccines rolled out by the pharmaceutical industry are often, effectively, bioweapons designed to make a percentage of recipients sick. Targets include adrenal glands, thyroids, and areas prone to cancer. This has been so since well back into last century, although it has since accelerated.

I, personally undertaking medical self-experimentation, have come down with shingles and a life-threatening episode similar to snakebite and funnelweb spiderbite from vaccines.

The naïve believe that the pharmaceutical industry is there for their protection, as are vaccines. Whilst one should be cautious about embracing older medical theories such as the four humours, or embracing the religious aspects of Eastern herbal use, one should be equally cautious about modern medicine.

I am reminded of two stories from the lives of people I know. In the first, a sick greyhound was diagnosed with not long to live. It was put in a pen to see out its last few days. A pumpkin squash vine was growing on the fence and the greyhound ate all of the vine that it could. The dog's recovery was as rapid as it was unexpected. It was unlikely to have been coincidental.

In the second, someone deficient in pregnenolone, a precursor chemical to some bodily hormones, upon receiving it in an hour of need developed an immediate desire to eat butter on its own. This may seem as odd as a dog eating a pumpkin vine, but cholesterol is another precursor to hormone production and butter contains cholesterol.

Indeed, the demonisation of all cholesterol, prevalent in the latter half of last century coincided with the vaccine roll-out. This was not a coincidence.

I would rather trust taste than the pharmaceutical industry.

Sahir's picture

Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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