Monday, 2 April 2012


Jamu: Why Isn't Indonesia's Ancient System of Herbal Healing Better Known?


 
An herbal seller gives a jamu drink to a customer in Jakarta on Jan. 15, 2010. Many Indonesians believe in its effectiveness as health tonic, while men take it to increase stamina and sexual power
Romeo Gacad / AFP / Getty Images
In 1990, Irish journalist Susan Jane-Beers noticed an herbal-medicine clinic in the corner of a hair salon in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, her adopted home. A victim of age-related chronic knee pain that conventional pharmaceuticals couldn't numb, let alone heal, Jane-Beers decided to try jamu — traditional Indonesian medicine.
The results astounded her. After three days of taking only one-third of the prescribed dose of herbal pills, the pain had vanished, making her wonder if she'd found "the magic bullet of all time."

Jane-Beers spent the next decade researching the origins, myths, tightly guarded recipes and commercial applications of herbal medicine in Java, where plants have been used for medicinal purposes since prehistory. Her 2001 opus Jamu: The Ancient Art of Herbal Healing remains the only definitive English guide on the subject. It's also the most widely read outside Indonesia since Herbarium Amboinense, a catalog of plants completed by German botanist Georg Rumphius in 1690 — more than three centuries earlier.


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A holistic therapy based on the notion that if disease comes from nature, then so must the cure, jamu uses a dazzling array of teas, tonics, pills, creams and powders to cure — or prevent — every ailment imaginable. The ingredients are by definition cheap, widely available and simple: nutmeg to treat insomnia, guava for diarrhea, lime to promote weight loss and basil to counter body odor.

Jamu has also been used to treat cancer. In her book, Jane-Beers writes of a traditional healer in the city of Jogjakarta who apparently cured what had been diagnosed as a terminal case of cervical cancer with a tea made of betel nut, Madagascar Periwinkle and mysterious benala leaves. By combining the tea with a strict soybean diet, the patient was said to have made a full recovery in 18 months.

Sound far-fetched? A 2011 study by Virginia Tech's Department of Food Science and Technology on the soursop tree — whose leaves are used to relieve gout and arthritis in Indonesia — found evidence showing that extracts from soursop fruit inhibit the growth of human breast cancer. Vincristine, one of 70 useful alkaloids identified in Madagascar Periwinkle, radically ups the survival rate of children with leukemia, while turmeric is being looked at as a treatment for Alzheimer's.


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