Gaultheria and Equisetum: Eclectic Materia Medica

by William Bloyer, M.D.

Medical Herbalism 10(4):1,9-11

We continue our reprint of excerpts of the comments on Materia Medica of Professor william Bloyer of the Eclectic Medical Institute in Cincinnati, in the 1900 volume of the Eclectic Medical Journal. Here we present his commentaries on two urinary tract herbs best suited to irritability, inflammation and tension in the urinary tract, rather than to deficiency, congestion, or laxness of the pelvic organs.

Wintergreen: Gaultheria procumbens

This is the partridge berry or tea berry that was so popular with some of the old Eclectics[Ed note: Mitchella repens has also been called partridge berry.]. It is an active remedy and in our opinion does not receive the attention at the present time which it deserves. According to the ordinary methods of classification, gaultheria is a stimulant, an astringent, and aromatic. Experience teaches that its chief action is on the genitourinary organs, and especially upon the neck of the bladder. Its effect is direct and certain. It relieves an inflammation or allays an irritation of the neck and base of the bladder and urethra, in male or female, as quickly as any remedy we know. Because of this effect it is an excellent anaphrodisiac in all cases in which the increased sexual excitement is due to some disease of irritation to the reproductive organs, and not of a central nervous or mental origin.

Wintergreen, because of this local action, is an excellent remedy in many cases of dysurea, in which the chief problem is in or about neck of the bladder or prostate. Our experience with the drug does not prove it to be an active diuretic, provoking a greater flow of urine. But it relieves irritation of the sphincter vesicae, and the flow is then unobstructed. Some writers claim for gaultheria a special action upon the kidneys, as in tubal nephritis, suggesting its use only in cases accompanied by irritation.

Wintergreen should be studied as a remedy for spermatorrhea and prostatorrhea. It will not do well where there is laxness of tissues and depression It allays irritation, and is the remedy in those cases in which there is little or no impairment of the venereal functions.

Gaultheria has been variously recommended because of its astringent and other properties as a remedy for chronic diarrhea, hemorrhoids, and as a carminative in infant colic, and as a cholagogue and as an emmenagogue. But we have so many better remedies for these purposes, that we prefer to think of and to use wintergreen as suggested above, in urethral and vesical irritations.

Our expeience with gaultheria is based upon the specific medicine, of which the dose is from five to ten drops. We have often wondered whether the alcohol extracts all of the medicinal virtues of the plant. Old Eclectics used the powdered leaves and infusions.

Equisetum hymenale, Scouring rush, horsetail

The specific medicine equisetum is the standard preparation among Eclectics, and is used in from 5-30 drops every 2-6 hours. In the old classification of drugs we find this remedy among the astringent diuretics. In proper doses the action is simple and mild; in overdoses it is sufficiently active to produce hematuria.

Equisetum is an invaluable remedy in the so called “gravel”of the laity. Commonly this term covers a great number of nephritic and vesical affections, and this drug relieves many of them in a very satisfactory way. It is indicated when there is dysuria – an irritation of the urinary organs, expressed by a constant desire to urinate. The flow is neither free nor copious, the color of the urine is dark, even to a brown, and there is usually more or less of a mucous deposit. There is pain after urination, and tenderness, and feeling of distension over the bladder. In some cases of suppression of urine, and generally where there is tenesmus, equisetum is an excellent medicament. Many cases of dropsy are benefitted in a short time by equisetum, especially where the above symptoms or indications are present, and in hematuria, in small doses, I will frequently relieve when Triticum repens fails. It may be useful in chronic gonorrhea, bedwetting in children etc, when the above indications are present.

EMJ Volume LX January to December 1900 p 63-64

Editorial Comment

Today gaultheria is mostly pidgeonholed as an antirheimatic, due to its volatile oil, from 0.5 -1.0 % of the plant, composed of about 98% methyl salicylate (See Gaultheria: Methyl salicylate below) The anti-inflammatory methyl salicylate is produced by enzymatic action that releases it from its bound form in the glycoside gaultherin during maceration, steam distillation, or heating. Gaultheria also contains the constituent arbutin, a urinary disinfectant also found in such traditional urinary tract plants as uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva ursi) and pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata). The plant contains a variety of other flavonoid constituents, as well as astringent tannins and gallic acid. Felter states that wintergreen oil (without the other constituent of gaultheria present) will prevent the putrefaction of urine, but the action described by Bloyer would seem to be due to a combination of constituents rather than just the methyl salicylate, with both arbutin and the astringent constituent possible playing a role. The Specific Medicine referred to in the article was a pharmaceutical liquid extract sold at the turn of the century whose composition has been lost. Traditionally wintergreen’s botanical cousin from the Northwest coastal forests, Salal (Gaultheria shallon), has been used in a similar manner as an anti-inflammatory astringent, though the presence of arbutin or methyl salicylate have not been demonstrated in that little-researched plant.

Bloyer positive statement that horsetail can cause blood in the urine in overdose is a caution not listed in modern herbals. German phytotherapist R.F. Weiss, for instance, states that no adverse reactions have been reported (Weiss). Bloyer does not does not suggest a toxic dose. It is conceivable, if speculative, that kidney toxicity could develop from excess amounts of silicon in a large overdose of horsetail or its persistent use. Some authors recommend that daily doses of dietary silicon – much of that bound by fiber – not exceed 50 mg per day (Brown), and it is possible to greatly exceed this amount with decoctions of horsetial. An ounce of horsetail decocted in a liter of water, for instance, might yield as much as 15 times the upper limit of the recommended safe intake of silicon, in a form more readily assimilable that that customary in food sources. Silicon, usually in the form of inhaled silica has been shown to cause kidney damage (Hotz et al; Giles et al.), and silicic acid itself as also viewed as a possible toxic contaminant of drinking water (Suslikov et al.)

Gaultheria: Methyl salicylate, wintergreen oil

Wintergreen oil, composed almost entirely of methyl salicylate, was the “aspirin” of the late 1800s, used topically and sometimes internally for arthritic and other pain. Overdoses, which can be absorbed through the skin, are potentially lethal. The toxic sign of ringing in the ears is easily obtainable with skin applications and was used as a sign to lower the dose. Methyl salicylate has complex pharmacological actions, with large doses depressing heart function and causing nausea and vomiting. Toxicity can produce acidosis, kidney damage, pulmonary edema, pneumonia, and convulsions. The mortality rate is 50-60% once these signs appear. Aspirin was developed as a safer synthetic alternative to methyl salicylate around the turn of the century.

Most methyl salicylate today is synthetically produced rather than extracted from plants. Wintergreen oil is a component today of some over-the-counter liniments and is used in Chinese patent medicine plasters, often mixed with camphor or menthol. Oil absorption into the skin is enhanced by covering the application with the plaster. Once abosrbed, the skin forms a termporary reservoir for the oil, which gradually is absorbed into the systemic circulation. Thus a plaster or liniment on one part of the body can relive pain in others. In overdose topically, it may cause necrosis of the skin and underlying tissues as well as kidney damage (Heng).

References

Beckstrom-Sternberg, S.M. and Duke, J. “The Phytochemical Database.” http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/

Brown, M.L. (Ed) Present Knowledge in Nutrition, 6ht Editionh. Washington D.C.. International Life Sciences Institute 1990, Cited in Murray M Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements, Rocklin, California, Prima Publishing, 1996

Carlisle, E.M. Silicon. In: Frieden, E, ed., biochemistry of the essential trace elements. New York: Plenum Press, 1984; 257-291

Felter, H. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology, and Therapeutics. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1985 [Reprinted from the 1925 original].

Giles RD, Sturgill BC, Suratt PM, Bolton WK. Massive proteinuria and acute renal failure in a patient with acute silicoproteinosis. Am J Med 1978 Feb;64(2):336-42

Groff, J.L. Gropper, S.G., Hunt, Sara M. Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism, Second Edition. Minneapolis: West Publishing Company, 1995

Heng, MC. Local necrosis and interstitial nephritis due to topical methyl salicylate and menthol. Cutis 1987;39(5):442-444

Hotz P, Gonzalez-Lorenzo J, Siles E, Trujillano G, Lauwerys R, Bernard A. Subclinical signs of kidney dysfunction following short exposure to silica in the absence of silicosis.Nephron 1995;70(4):438-42

Piekos R, Paslawska S. Studies on the optimum conditions of extraction of silicon species from plants with water. I. Equisetum arvense L. Herb. Planta Med 1975 Mar;27(2):145-50

Suslikov VL, Semenov VD, Liashko LS. Establishment of the maximum permissible concentration of silicic acid in drinking water. [Russian language] Gig Sanit 1979 Nov;(11):17-22

Weiss, R.F. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, 1988
 
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner  




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