Issue 1

What is autoimmune disease and why might Amazonian traditional medicine help?

Autoimmune disease/disorder happens when the immune system backfires and attacks its own cells. There is no clear cause for it, and it can be a temporary dysfunction, or a permanent disability. For many, it is episodic, at times feeling perfectly healthy, and then having significant relapses.

It occurs in about 3-5% of the US population, and has a clear preference for women. There are over 80 identified types, some of which may have only a few identified patients. The most common identifying factor is increased inflammation. Whether this is the cause or the effect is not well understood.

There are many possible triggers for autoimmune disorders, including viruses, bacteria, chemicals, vaccines, environmental factors. There has even been speculation about diet, and a recent report out of Yale blamed salt.

There is almost certainly a genetic predisposition for the disorders. This has been shown clearly in inflammatory bowel disease, but not as clearly in other diseases. Most likely, multiple genes are involved, which may explain why some get much more debilitating disease than others.

Diagnosis is difficult, since the symptoms are often vague and general and there are few tests to definitively identify a particular disorder. It is often called a diagnosis of exclusion - all other possible diagnoses are excluded, leaving only the suspected disorder.

Treatment has been elusive. The use of monoclonal antibody treatments such as infliximab and retuximab has given some hope, and left others frustrated. A common treatment of last resort is steroids, which cause a host of side effects and long-term issues. Often what works initially slowly decreases its effectiveness, leaving the patient in search of newer treatments.

Why would Amazonian plant medicine help?

There are many reasons for plant medicine to be effective. There are such a wide range of plants available, with so many possibilities that have not yet been studied. The indigenous healers in the Amazon are the only ones with experience in working with these plants. Their knowledge and experience are invaluable to the process of healing.

There are an extraordinary number of anti-inflammatory factors available in Amazonian plants. By significantly decreasing the inflammation present in the system, it is possible for the immune system to return back to a state approaching normal.

But another reason is that stress is a major factor in the course of autoimmune diseases. The opportunity to be in the Amazon without everyday stresses and strains AND to be able to use a wide array of anti-inflammatories is probably enough.

Are there other factors? Very likely. We will be studying these when we begin our retreats in Peru in the very near future.


The Disappearing Sapara People

Manaria Ushigua, a member of the Sapara indigenous group, healer and activist protecting his people, their land and traditions. Photo Credit Brian Bowen Smith

Manaria Ushigua, a member of the Sapara indigenous group, healer and activist protecting his people, their land and traditions.

Photo Credit Brian Bowen Smith

When the Sapara sleep, Ushigua explained, their spirits leave their bodies and travel the forest to look for answers to their problems. “In a polluted environment there are no answers,” Ushiguia said. “But in the jungle you can find inner peace. And the answer to many things.”

The jungle, the place of this inner peace and renowned healing, is in danger. Despite being one of the world’s most diverse tropical forests, housing one-third of the Earth’s plant and animal species, one-fifth of the world’s free-flowing water and one very small and disappearing indigenous population, it is being compromised and threatened again, this time by a Chinese attempt to find for oil.

In the last few weeks, members of the Sapara population have become quite vocal and active in their pursuit to stop the Ecuadorian government from allowing Chinese oil companies to enter a pristine area of land. This bit of the Amazonian Rainforest belongs to the Sapara people. It is a segment of land considered to be a gateway to the depth of the forest, one regarded with critical importance for preservation. 

Despite the small group of indigenous folk who gathered in protest as an attempt to hold their land, the Ecuadorian government officially sold oil exploration privileges to a consortium of Chinese state-owned oil companies. Two Chinese state-owned firms purchased the “rights to explore” oil blocks in the Amazon totaling 500,000 acres of land, worth roughly $80 million USD. With the price of crude oil at such a low, the Ecuadorian government is grasping onto something to keep their economy afloat. Unfortunately, this is severely compromising the people indigenous to this land, a group considered by UNESCO to be an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”

The Sapara are descendants of a pre-Columbian ethnolinguistic group who built a language and tradition around their close connection to the forest, the flora and the fauna. This language they developed is now a defining aspect of their identity; through a strong oral tradition of songs and stories, they passed on myths, cultural practices and the memory of an entire region.

The population initially suffered severe devastation during colonialism, many died from unfamiliar illness brought by the Spanish, others were forced to convert to Catholicism, while many others simply died and lost territory during war and conflict. Today, according, to UNESCO, “the current situation of the Sapara is critical, and today they are in very serious danger of disappearing altogether. In 2001, their population numbered no more than 300 (200 in Ecuador and 100 in Peru), of whom only five, all aged over 70, still speak the Sapara language”. Today, no more than 5 in the younger generation are still able to speak it.

Despite so much destruction and continued threat to their existence, the Sapara people persevere. Their incredibly rich experience with how to heal with plants from the Amazon is in need of preservation. Most of the medicine men and Shamans possessing this knowledge are men over 70 years old. Not if, but when, they pass and move on from this world, their skills and healing abilities will go with them. Many paint the visual of it being the equivalent of a library burning down.

The Sapara territory is not only a gateway to the rainforest arounds its borders, it is a swath of incredibly rich culture – a unique identity – a tremendously large piece of land with few but powerful people possessing an abundant knowledge of medicinal plants. Their gathered wisdom and way of relating with the natural world is something incredibly special to preserve. 

These people have a beautiful way of seeing the world. Below is a beautiful passage by Manari Kaji, on Dreams and Healing:

“For the Sápara people, happiness is living in a healthy environment and as much in the spiritual world as in the material. Because we live with dreams and we know the importance of nature’s rights, we recognize that all plants have life and a right to be here just like we do.  We value the spiritual world, which lends itself to a spiritual, healthy environment.  We humans, like spirits, need energetic space with balance and without pollution.  This way, we get answers during our dreams to then live by when facing the challenges presented by the material world.  When all of this is integrated, a healthy natural world, and a balanced spiritual world of knowing, what comes through our dreams and what will occur in our lives, a profound feeling called happiness comes into our bodies.”

We are part of everything and nothing is more important than nature.  The proliferation of the Sapara people is a direct result of other cultures, of our material world and its pursuit of things outside of the body and mind. We are committed to the steps we are taking to preserve these powerful populations through our work in both Ecuadorian and Peruvian populations.



Community Announcement

The Vibrant Kitchen will be donating 10% of all proceeds from her marketplace to PlantMed in an effort to support our mission to unlock the healing power of the Amazon! Michelle has a beautiful selection of organic skin care, things for the home and special treats. We would be so grateful if you would check out her site to pick up a special Valentine’s Day gift for yourself (or a loved one) and fuel the growth of our incredible mission.


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p.s The surprising reason Channing Tatum went to the Amazon

p.s The surprising reason Channing Tatum went to the Amazon