If you happen to fall down and injure yourself, according to football mantra, the best thing to do is to get back up and rub some dirt on the wound. While the bravado behind the action may be recognized as displaying toughness, if the skin is broken, this advice may not be all that helpful. In fact, the mere incorporation of soil into the bloodstream could lead to a number of different infections from tetanus to gangrene to flesh-eating disease.
But there may be a means to show one's hardiness without risking a potentially fatal disease. The arboreal alternative has been used for centuries by indigenous populations and by many in the natural health community. It's plentiful worldwide and can be harvested for use without fear of eradication.
It's birch bark.
Historically, birch bark has been used not only on wounds, but also internally in the promotion of health. However, the science behind the benefits has been sporadic at best with little concrete evidence. Yet over the last two decades, there has been significant progress on understanding not only the components within the silvery-white layers but also how they can help improve health.
Within the bark are a number of complex chemicals, called Triterpenes (TTPs). Each one is a separate compound with a different molecular structure. The most commonly studied TTP is called Betulin (named so because of the Latin name for birch, Betula. It was first isolated in the late 1700s although there was little else done for over two hundred years. Then, in 2003 a group from Belarus published an article demonstrating the anti-microbial activity of betulin against a series of viruses.
This opened the door for further studies to determine just how antimicrobial Betulin and the other TTPS were. Within a year, the antiviral effect was seen by a group in Poland. Soon after that, TTPs were shown to kill bacteria, including tuberculosis. By the end of the birch bark fad, benefits were being seen in combating cancer and even HIV.
The impressive outcomes were hampered, however, by the fact that birch had a dark side; it was causing allergic reactions in children. Further research found that the culprit was not the bark but the pollen. The promise was still present but it was too risky to attempt studies in humans to determine if there was any allergic risk.
To deal with this, in 2010, a team from China and Poland decided to use an animal model, a mouse, to undertake studies to identify any potential for developing an allergic response. They were quite surprised that the result was quite the opposite. Instead of making the immune system go wild, it actually helped to calm it. Although it was an effective antimicrobial, it was also an anti-inflammatory.
The findings led researchers to suggest that the lack of an allergic response and the potential to fight off some of nature's worst pathogens. Unfortunately, there was still the sticky detail of the actual mechanisms that led to all these benefits. Without at least knowledge of the how, there was simply no chance for a clinical trial. Sadly, for the next few years, there was no additional information provided to the public.
Finally, this week, the mechanism was revealed and the results are beyond exciting. A team from Germany undertook an in-depth study of the effects of birch bark on wound healing. By studying the effects of adding birch bark to laboratory-grown human and pig tissue, they looked at all the processes involved in wound healing and protecting the skin from unwanted enemies. What they found, at least in the lab, was akin to a cure-all that had been long ignored.
First, betulin helped the skin to regenerate by stimulating wound healing both in the primary phase -- the ouch -- but also in the secondary phase of scabbing. The chemical also helped to prevent inflammation, leaving the areas free to heal in peace. This helped to speed up healing and make it even more aesthetic. Finally, there was the stimulation of molecules that act as scouts for the immune system. Should there be an unwanted bacterium or virus, these sentries would signal the troops and begin the fight. In essence, betulin was the cure-all for wounds.
The outcome of the study is a fantastic step forward in the study of natural chemicals and traditional herbal medicine. It also has a secondary benefit in that it offers another means to control infection without the use of antibiotics. Far too often, wounds are treated with creams that contain synthetic chemicals; while they are effective, in the coming post-antibiotic era, the option may no longer be available. By harnessing the power of natural ingredients, such as betulin, the future of disease management might be bright after all.
The only observable obstacle might occur when an injury happens to a friend as the retort would have to be changed. Sadly, the new phrase, while accurate, quite simply doesn't have the same ring.
"Rub some birch bark on it."