- Indian Snakeroot
The Indian snakeroot is a traditional Indian herb. This herb is traditional linked with the holy men and mystics of India; this includes the great spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi. Such spiritual men have reportedly chewed the root of the plant called the Indian snakeroot – R. serpentina to botanists – this herb supposedly helps them to achieve a mental state of complete philosophic detachment during the meditation process. This herbal plant is known as the chandrika – in Sanskrit, and literally translated as the “moonshine plant” – has historically been of great esteem in India, as it serves as a sedative and hypnotic drug for the treatment of insanity linked to the lunar phases, or what is called “moon disease”. The Rauwolfia has been traditional used since the dawn of history and has a reputation as an herbal agent capable of lowering temperatures during a fever. This herb is also considered to be an “emmenagogue” or a substance which induces menstruation in the body. Indian folk healers have primarily used this herb as an antidote for the treatment of the bites from poisonous snakes and insects. Disorders such as diarrhea and dysentery were traditionally treated using the powdered roots of this herb; a root extract of the herb was also used to calm down irritable babies and infants.
While the beneficial effects and the time honored and traditional uses of the plant are well documented, the active principles responsible for the plants beneficial effects remained unknown for a long period of time. The medicinal compounds that are responsible for the beneficial effects of the plant were isolated and named in 1952 by a team of Western doctors. One of the compounds isolated from extracts of the plant is the alkaloid called reserpine; this alkaloid is one of the fifty active chemical substances that were isolated from the herb’s root. This compound revolutionized the alleviation and treatment of mental illness as well as high blood pressure problems. As more studies followed and as the compounds were investigated for their properties, clinical researchers would discover that the alkaloid reserpine – nowadays, world famous as “the original tranquilizer”- possessed very powerful depressant and sedative actions. At one point of time, this alkaloid was the only such medication employed as a calming drug on seriously disturbed psychiatric patients. Though used as much these days due to the availability of other classes of tranquilizers that have taken its role in therapy, reserpine is still commonly prescribed to bring relief from hypertension as it has the ability to lower elevated blood pressure. While the compound has many benefits, it also comes with some undesirable side effects; these can include edema and psychological problems like nightmares and despondency, which can give rise to suicidal yearnings in the person using the remedy.
The genus Rauwolfia consists of more than a hundred distinct species of plants. The name of this genus is the Latinized last name of Dr. Leonhard Rauwolf, the 16th-century German physician and explorer. All of the plant species in this genus are found growing in the moist tropical forests along the tropical Pacific coastline, in tropical South America, as well as in the Asian and African tropical regions. Most of these plant species have a milky sap or juice in the stem. They come in a wide range of heights, from species that grow to only six inches to species that tower over one hundred feet or more in height. The Indian snakeroot, R. serpentina is one of the smallest plants in the genus. It grows to a maximum height of one and a half feet tall. The small plant has woody stem and is very graceful in appearance. The snakeroot bears dark green elliptical to oval shaped leaves in whorls of three or four on the stem – the underside of the each leaf has a white color in contrast to the green upper surface. The Indian snakeroot also bears small pink colored to white flowers, these flowers are borne on terminal clusters and will give rise to tiny, oval and fleshy fruits, each of which is about a quarter inch in length. The fruits turn shiny purple black in color when they ripen.
The Indian snakeroot is harvested from the wild and all commercial supplies are gathered from wild populations of the plant. While many big pharmaceutical companies have tried cultivating the plant, these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Most of the world’s supply of this plant used to be sourced from Indonesia; however, the extensive populations of this tree have been exhausted in the wild in that country. India and Thailand supply the bulk of the world’s supply these days.
In old Indian legends and as recounted and discredited by the Anglo-Indian writer, Rudyard Kipling in the story “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” mongooses supposedly eat the Indian snakeroot as a protection from venom before they battle cobras in the jungle. Indians are supposed to have come to know and use the plant as an antidote for snakebites by their observation of the plant being consumed by the mongoose. This belief and the legend are not factual, and mongooses do suffer bites from snakes, however, their thick fur protects them from the fangs of snake while fighting. The fangs of the cobra may not be able to reach the skin of the animal due to the thick fluffed fur and this is the more likely protective device the mongoose employs when dealing with snakes.
The ancient Indian system of Ayurvedic medicine, employs the Indian snakeroot herb in the treatment of bites from poisonous reptiles and insects, this plant has been used for thousands of years in the sub-continent. The Indian snakeroot herb finds mention very early in the history of the Indian sub-continent. The first written reference to the powers of the Indian snakeroot herb are seen in the Ayurvedic text called the “Charaka Washita,” this collection of ancient herbal wisdom has been transmitted orally since pre-history and was probably written down in textual form around 600 B.C. in India. In those times, the remedy made from the Indian snakeroot was employed as an antidote in treating snakebite, used in dealing with mental illness, and in treating insomnia and related sleep disorders. The use of the herb as an aid to meditation is seen even in the modern era, the spiritual leader of India, Mohandas Gandhi, is said to have chewed on the root of the rauwolfia during meditation. The isolation of the alkaloid, reserpine, in 1952 led to the inclusion of the Indian snakeroot as a medicinal plant in Western medicine. In Western medicine, the term “tranquilizer” began to be associated with the effects of the alkaloid reserpine on the central nervous system in the human body. The alkaloid “reserpine” is considered to be the first modern medication that effectively dealt with hypertension. The main actions of this alkaloid are on the sympathetic nervous system where it reduces vascular resistance and affects the cardiac rhythm. Patients with a history of certain specific mental problems are not given this medication; this is because the use of the medication at times leads to psychotic depression and suicidal tendencies.
Habitat and cultivation
The Indian snakeroot herb is indigenous to the Indian sub-continent and populations of this plant can be found in some parts of south-eastern Asia as well. Indian snakeroot is cultivated on a large scale commercial basis in many tropical regions of the world these days.
Starting in the 1930’s, extensive research has been conducted on the Indian snakeroot and the various alkaloids found in it -much of this research is to find potential uses for the many chemical compounds found in the Indian snakeroot. The Indian snakeroot appears to be a safe herb despite some concerns about its use in an article published in 1974, in the British medical journal The Lancet. When taken at normal doses, the herb seems to be generally safe and free of side effects.