Green Medicine: How the Rainforest Heals

Friday Aug 22 | BY |
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Mountain rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon along the upper Urubamba River.

For urban dwellers, the forest has a sense of otherworldliness. And for many, the forest is frightening.

For me, it is like home. Among the trees, vines, and plants there is an indescribable calm, a sense of harmony that pervades the forest. It feels as if all is as it should be in creation. Like a divine snapshot, there is a momentary perfection. All things are organically proportional and appropriate according to Nature’s design. One has a sense of being in the womb of the world’s mother, the biological incubator of life.

Like a biological clock, the rainforest keeps perfect time with evolution. If left alone, nature heals itself in time. The forest also provides healing plants for all living things, including humans. For tens of thousands of years, we used plants as medicine. Those plants are still there, waiting for trained eyes to find them and knowledgeable hands to prepare them. The forest can heal us too.

Amazonian Indigenous Medicine

FamilyI recently returned to the Amazonian rainforest for ethnomedical fieldwork among the Shipibo, an indigenous people of the Peruvian upper Amazon along the Ucayali River, and with whom I’ve worked with for more than two decades. (Shown here: Don Alfredo, a respected native healer with his extended family.)

The Shipibo describe themselves as having once been Incas who fled into the jungle beyond Machu Picchu to escape the Conquistadors. If you were to follow the Vilcanota River (Willkamayu) that flows at the base of Machu Picchu, its name changes to the Urubamba, and then enters the Ucayali River, which is Shipibo-Conibo territory. Riverboats equipped with modern outboard motors take weeks of steady travel to reach the Ucayali. Traditionally, indigenous people of this area used balsa rafts and dugout canoes, which require a months-long winding river voyage.

This remote area is home to one of the world’s richest biodiversity in plants, birds, and animals. I refer to it as the biological ark of our times. Noah escaped the flood and preserved animals and plants to start over. We are entrusted with the task of preserving areas like the upper Amazon for the wellbeing of future generations.

The Shipibo hold a knowledge base for an extensive system of healing. Specific diets play important roles in all of their healing practices. They know that certain foods contradict specific plant medicines, so have to be avoided according to which plants are prescribed.

Water is important in Shipibo medicine. They employ herbal and floral baths to remove negative energy accumulation from the body as a preparation for healing regimens. They use herbal steams to facilitate sweating to cleanse the pores and benefit the skin. They use plants to facilitate vomiting in order to clean the stomach, and others as laxatives to cleanse the intestines.

Herbal teas factor high in Shipibo green medicine. Plants are always picked fresh and used the same day. Brewed as herbal teas, they are consumed in large amounts, mainly in the morning, but also during the day. Trees resins are also used as powerful antiparasitics. Most of the medicinal plants used in Shipibo healing are without toxic effects. However, some like Datura flowers, are highly toxic when taken in large dosages and should only be used by a skilled curandero.

Body therapies are commonly used. Bone setting, vertebral realignment, and deep and soft tissue release therapies are employed for treatment of chronic pain. I’ve had many of these therapies performed on me, and find they are very similar to modern trigger point therapy, chiropractic, and acupressure.

The most profound medicine used by the Shipibo, as well as other Amazonian indigenous groups, is ayahuasca. A mixture of two plants—the vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and leaves from Psychotria viridis—ayahuasca is an extremely potent psychedelic. Among the Shipibo, it is believed to return peace, harmony, and balance in a person’s life.

Both plants are rich in alkaloids, chemicals that have medicinal qualities. The vine contains beta-carboline harmala alkaloids and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOs). MAOs are used in modern medicine as treatment for depression. The MAOs in the B. caapi vine allow the primary psychoactive compound, N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in P. viridis, to work. How indigenous groups discovered this plant synergy remains a mystery.

The Shipibo inform me that plant intelligence taught their ancestors after long spiritual practices alone in the forest. I tend to believe them. DMT can produce vibrant visions, but for the Shipibo, the goal is personal and communal healing, not individual visionary experience. Ayahuasca is a sacred plant teacher. The forest has an ancestral wisdom that humans can attune to and learn from.

Ways of Shipibo Healing:

  • Food and diets
  • Water for herbal baths and steams
  • Emetics and laxatives
  • Herbal teas
  • Massage including soft tissue release and vertebral realignment
  • Ayahuasca
Ancient Ecosystems

Rainforests are ancient. They are the oldest living ecosystems on the planet. Scientists believe that rainforests originated about 100 million years ago. The Amazon rainforest is thought to be 55 million years old. Humans are believed to have settled there about 11,000 years ago. Because of the yearlong growing cycle, highly specialized plants with countless chemicals useful as medicine have evolved in the rainforest.

Rainforests are their own biome. Like what happens in the human body, a disturbance in one part sets off a complex trail of events that have results in seemingly unrelated parts. Over such a long history, rainforests have a way of restoring balance. However, they are under attack by humans and may disappear within this century.

Trees in the tropical rainforests can live to be over 1,000 years old. The Shipibo call these “master trees” that teach knowledge of the forest. It is through these master teachers that Shipibo healers learn the heart of rainforest green medicine.

Rainforest Are The World’s Pharmacy

Equatorial rainforests are among the planet’s last remaining repositories of wilderness biodiversity. The Amazon River basin covers about 40% of the South American continent, and is the largest rainforest on Earth, representing more than half of the world’s remaining rainforests. Home to about 2.5 million insect species, tens of thousands of plant species, and 2,000 bird and mammal species; it is the richest of all ecosystems.

About 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources. Twenty-five percent of pharmaceuticals are derived from rain forest ingredients, yet scientists have tested less than one percent of tropical plants.

The U.S. National Cancer Institute has identified 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells. Seventy percent of these plants are found in the rain forest. Twenty-five percent of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rain forest. Vincristine, extracted from the rain forest plant, periwinkle, is one of the world’s most powerful anticancer drugs.

Oxygen Heals

Rainforests crank out a lot of oxygen. The Amazon rainforest produces about 20% of the earth’s oxygen. Other rainforests produce another 20%, for a cumulative 40% of the world’s oxygen supply coming from rainforests.

The air among dense foliage in the rainforest contains between 30-35% oxygen. Normal air is about 21% oxygen. Oxygen deficiency is defined as less than 19%. The air in big cities, like Los Angeles, may only have 15% oxygen, much lower than allowed for workers by government standards. When I’m in the rainforest, I feel like I can breath again. We need oxygen for healing.

Equatorial rainforests get 12 hours of sunlight all year long. Most of the sunlight falls on an umbrella of green leaves, the forest canopy. Trillions of leaves form the canopy where they serve as miniature living solar panels, providing the source of power for the forest by converting sunlight in to energy through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen. Leaves also make simple sugars. The rate of photosynthesis of canopy trees is very high, allowing trees to produce abundant fruits, seeds, flowers, and leaves that fall to the forest floor and attract and support a wide diversity of animal life.

The rainforest canopy also plays an important role in regulating regional and global climate because it is one of the planet’s principal sites for the interchange of heat, water vapor, and atmospheric gases.

Green Medicine

Rainforests are healthy for you. Like European high mountain air, hot spring retreats, and ocean beach vacations, the rainforest also has the ability to heal. City people are in great need of the green medicine that rainforests provide.

Ways the Forest Heals:

  • Restores natural biological rhythms
  • Regulates the body’s natural processes
  • Increases oxygen levels
  • Provides herbal medicines
  • Expands our consciousness

I often wonder if what’s missing from integrative medicine is that doctors haven’t learned the heart of healing from a master teacher, like a 1,000-year-old tree. And, what’s missing from helping patients get better is a way to restore complete natural body balance, a healing process that the rainforest alone can provide.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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