Costa Rica's Natural Remedies
Before moving to Costa Rica, the closest I'd been to a natural remedy was applying pressure between my thumb and index finger to relieve headache pain before the "real' meds kicked in. I was about to be educated.
Within weeks of my arrival, I had my first introduction to natural cures. After finishing a delicious meal topped with a generous serving of smoky, hot chipotle peppers, I was standing over the sink, arm-deep in soapy dishwater, when I felt the unwelcome stirrings of heartburn/acid reflex. It was already dark, and with no antacids in my medicine cabinet, I trekked over to my neighbor's house in search of relief. Over the last few weeks, we had become close -- I would soon refer to her as my Costa Rican "mom' -- and she was always willing to help. When I explained my problem and asked if she had any antacids, she shook her head no, but then added that there was something she could give me.
We went out to the front yard, where a huge aloe plant sprawled at least four feet in diameter. She snapped off a green stalk and headed back to the kitchen. A minute later, I was guzzling a blend of freshly harvested aloe gel, milk and a few drops of honey; before I knew it, the burning in my esophagus had completely disappeared.
Over the years, I've learned more about traditional and herbal remedies. I still use pharmaceuticals, but for common or recurring maladies, I'm happy to give natural remedies a try. There are least 270 medicinal plants in Costa Rica, and many treat more than one ailment. It's not uncommon to find medicinal plants and herbs at the plant nurseries or growing in backyards and along the roadside.
Medicinal plants and herbal remedies are used not only to treat diseases, but also to increase quality of life. Regular ingestion of herbal infusions, mainly as tea, helps strengthen the body against future illnesses. Additionally, scientists research medicinal plants very closely, and many pharmaceutical cures are based on ancient traditions. In fact, over half of the world's cancer treatments are derived from plant sources.
It is important to note that most medicinal plants are actually mildly poisonous -- their medicinal properties are the result of the toxins on the human body. For this reason, medicinal plant prescriptions must be followed closely. Local health food stores (macrobioticas) are a good source of information, but my top recommendation is a visit to Heredia's Ark Herb Farm, the country's largest producer of medicinal plants. The farm's caretaker is an expert in natural remedies.
Noni (Morinda citrifolia), also called the great morinda or Indian mulberry, is one of the rainforest's most valuable fruits. Noni grows abundantly in Costa Rica, and its plants can reach up to 20 feet in height; it is also readily available in liquid form at almost every supermarket. This miracle plant, often referred to as "nature's cure,' has been found beneficial in cases of cancer, digestive problems, gout, high cholesterol, hypertension, infections, lung disease, pain relief, and Type II diabetes.
Common Natural Remedies:
Anti-Inflammatory: Ginger, tumeric
Anemia: Brazilian cherry seeds, chaney (chainy) root
Burns: Aloe vera and papaya
Cough & Sore Throat: Oregano, honey, mango, lemongrass, spilanthes extract (Spilanthes oleracea)
Dehydration: Coconut water from young coconuts (known locally as pipa, pronounced "pee-pa')
Diuretic: Allspice, cinnamon, dandelion, boldo and papaya
Fungal Infections: Brazilian cherry sap, cotton plant oil
Heartburn (acid reflux): Aloe vera
High Cholesterol: Noni
Hypertension (high blood pressure): Noni
Immune System: spilanthes extract (Spilanthes oleracea)
Indigestion/Bloating: Papaya and ginger
Insomnia: Carpenter's bush (Justicia pectoralis), chamomile
Itch Relief: Impatiens flower buds, sorosi vine
Liver: Greater/common plantain (known locally as llanten, pronounced "yahn-tain')
Stomach Upset & Diarrhea: Bitterwood, cinnamon, boldo, peppermint, chamomile, lemon balm, bushy matgrass (known locally as juanilama, noni, pronounced "whahn-ee-lama'), and bitter orange
Type II Diabetes: Brazilian cherry tree bark, noni, wandering Jew/inch plant