When the body breaks, Helen Boudreaux leans on faith and nature for the solution.
“Take the illness and pain away from Helen Boudreaux I treat you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” prayed Boudreaux with the sign of the cross.
Helen is a traiteuse or a Cajun faith healer. It’s a tradition passed to her from her aunt, who learned healing prayers and natural remedies as a teen from an elderly Native American woman.
“It's a family, community thing,” said Boudreaux of the traiteuse tradition. “The prayers I have are like 300 years old.”
In addition to the healing prayers, Boudreaux uses folk medicine remedies. For example, Helen says flower of the elderberry plant- picked in June and dried for three days- can break a fever when put in a tea. She says the crushing the leaves of the plant and placing them in your pocket or hat for three days can help relieve inflammation.
Other south Louisiana folk remedies are now the focus of research at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Researchers there are trying to prove scientifically what Boudreaux and others have claimed for generations.
Pennington's Botanicals Research Center was created in 2005 through a federal grant from the National Institute of Health. For ten years, the center has looked at plants from all over the world and their potential to help treat diabetes and other disease. The process is a lot of trial and error, involving countless tests and combinations of natural compounds.
"It's very challenging and it's not something that happens overnight," said associate executive director of basic research Dr. Jacqueline Stephens.
In that time, scientist have proven that several plants have the potential to treat or prevent for metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity, the main focus of Pennington.
There three major projects at different phases. The project furthest along is one using Russian Tarragon to prevent diabetes. That project has advanced to human trials within Pennington.
“We know how to prevent diabetes with diet and exercise. If we can find a nutritional way or a component in the diet that could aid that, that would be important,” explained Pennington’s Executive Director Dr. William Cefalu.
Cefalu explains that about a third of modern medication had its genesis in plants. For example, the most popular diabetes treatment is derived from French Lilac. Cefalu hopes the center can lay the foundation for a new treatment that is both inexpensive and natural.
Researchers are also looking deep into the roots of South Louisiana folk medicine for direction.
"If Creole culture has been using it for hundreds of years there's a reason for that usually," said Stephens.
Research at Pennington has shown that common south Louisiana plants like lizard’s tail, groundsel bush and elderberry all have the potential to help treat the same diseases that run rampant in Louisiana. While testing is still in the early stages, the next step is finding out why and exactly how these plants impact the disease. The research is exciting to scientists.
However, finding new treatments or benefits of natural products is not the only goal of the Botanicals Research Center. Cefalu explains that Americans also spend billions of dollars each year on natural remedies and herbal supplements even though there is little regulation of the industry.
“These products are complex. It's not a drug where there is one component treating this one condition,”
said Cefalu. “When you take a natural product you may have hundreds if not thousands of compounds.”
These compounds may have bad interactions with the body or other modern medicine, or they may not work at all. Stephens explains that their research also hopes to help establish a scientific standard for natural supplements, proving what works and what does not.
“There's no guarantee that the plant you think your buying is actually in the container that you bought,” said Stephens.
Meanwhile, the center is applying for another five year grant from the National Institute of Health. It is one of five centers nationwide that are federally funded, and therefore held up to federal health and safety standards.
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