Diabetes is an epidemic disproportionately affecting recently colonized cultures mainly due to the introduction of the seemingly unlimited supply of potent simple and complex carbohydrates (grains, flour, sugar). Diabetes is predicted to affect 1/3 of children born after 2000. I have relatives and friends that have diabetes or have recently been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. I have a very personal stake in this since I also have had high blood sugar before--thanks to botanical medicine, I don't have diabetes. Hawai'i Island faces high risk due to dependence on expensive imported anti-diabetes drugs. There are many "non-compliant" diabetics who can't afford or get access to medicine. Our remote location puts us at even higher risk if/when supplies get cut off as happened during storms, shipping strikes, and war.
Diabetes remedies for aboriginal, indigenous and native people
Diabetes affects every ethnicity and all the cultures that have adopted the modern western diet and lifestyle, but luckily pretty much every culture has their ally plant relatives they have been living with for a LONG time. Native plants often offer anti-diabetic foods and medicines and traditional active lifestyle provide the exercise needed to avoid diabetes.
Back to the friend and relative of Hawaiians, kalo. Kalo thrives in what some would consider to be the worst conditions where most agricultural crops cannot survive. Kalo can also withstand severe neglect and or even rototilling (bad idea though). This is interesting because the traditional food plants of the Tohono O'odham also do well in conditions in which nearly all major food plants perish without large amounts of outside inputs and extra effort. Resilient plants that thrive in difficult conditions create resilient people. Provide too many poor-quality nutrients on those resilient plants and they will become affected with disease, pests, and fail to thrive as they once did. As with the plants, so with their human relatives.
One of the Tohono O'odham food plants, Prickly pear cactus, has leaf pads that have been proven to regulate blood sugar levels and reduce cholesterol. It is important for indigenous people to eat traditional foods for health and to keep their culture alive. People are like plants in that they become adapted to the conditions they live in--the longer there, the more they create and depend upon mutually beneficial relationships with their plant and animal co-inhabitants.
Ko’oko’olau is a traditional Hawaiian plant medicine that according to Kahuna Ikaika Dombregues is useful for diabetes. It is quickly losing its habitat to “development”, so wildcrafting/gathering is becoming less of an option each day. The price per ounce is ~$5-15, so it few can afford to buy this botanical medicine. This plant grows well with kalo and other useful plants like Moringa in restorative agroforestry systems that can offer increasing diversity and production from just one planting while the plant community lives together to naturally beat the weeds and pests, fertilize, biotill, and much more which can lower labor and input costs. There is potential for a producer and consumer cooperative to create a way to support development of the local “industry”, guaranteed sales, and provide a more reliable and affordable method of controlling diabetes. Agroforestry lets the land and people have more options.
Integrating non-invasive ally plants with agrofororestry
There probably aren't a lot of people who only want to eat the foods their native homeland before colonial contact. Many people who have migrated have little idea what their ancestors ate before the introduction of grains, and more recently, high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils. There are non-invasive food and medicine plants that lower blood sugar levels and some even heal restore the part of the body that makes insulin. Plus there are lots that taste delicious and are diabetic safe or blood sugar moderating!
So what's the solution to the big mix up of the diaspora of humanity and chronic disease and ecological devastation? Agroforesty systems that integrate edible and medicinal perennial, shrub, and tree crops and support species (nitrogen fixing groundcovers and green manure trees). Perennials and woody crops offer nutrient dense super foods (2-3 times more nutrition according to UK based Agroforestry Research News). Many perennials are also in low carbohydrates and simple sugars. There are also numerous herbal medicines that have been proven to reduce blood sugar levels.
The ecological crisis caused by relying heavily deforestation for demanding annual crops like grains is severe. The amount of top soil loss, pollution, and species eradication associated with western annual agriculture. For every boom, there is a bust. This situation has led Jared Diamond, UCLA professor to call agriculture "the worst mistake in the world".
Luckily, agroforestry systems can reduce erosion and pollution in addition to increasing local species diversity including native plants and animals. There is the potential to produce more too--so we can have our greens and eat them too. Studies consistently reveal well designed agroforestry can produce more while restoring the environment.
I believe that improved nutrient cycling between the soil and plants improves the nutritional content of plants. Wild grown and agroforestry grown medicinal herbs likely have more nutrition than monocrops herbs. There are many medicines that agroforestry can provide.
Scientifically proven botanical medicine
One example comes from India, where the bark of the tree Pterocarpus marsupium (vijasar) has been scientifically proven to significantly reduce blood sugar levels. While it is 8% less effective than tolbutamide, dietary changes would likely reduce of diabetes. Pterocarpus marsupium doesn't have the long-term side effects of synthetic drugs and can be considerably more affordable. Reseachers are speculating that Pterocarpus regenerates the islets of Langerhan in the pancreas--that's where insulin is created.
Information about Pterocarpus marsupium's potential is lacking, so it is best not to chance it in Hawaii unless the situation changes. Luckily, Moringa aka Kalamungay aka Marungay also regenerates the beta cells in the Islets of Langerhan. Perhaps Marungay is the reason why many Filipino folks live long lives and look young and vibrant. It's been said there is a plant for every illness, and use for every plant. Finding and utilizing the non-invasive plants for your specific conditions and goals takes time to reach fruition, but harvests of food and some medicine can begin within 2 weeks with "Successional/Sequential" edible and medicinal agroforests.
Developing Hawai'i food and medicine security
Transitioning to a site specific polycultural/intercropping agroforestry system is much easier said than done. Here on the Big Island of Hawaii, we have just about every growing condition one can imagine, including over 100 soils types. Go two miles and there can be completely different set of growing conditions. The varied conditions make it difficult to expand successful models.
The flip side is that Hawaii's diverse conditions offer ideal habitat for an incredible number of plant species. Kalo won't grow everywhere people live, but likely it never did. The prickly pear cactus can grow where kalo cannot. Thankfully, Luther Burbank bred a spineless prickly pear--which happens to be excellent cattle fodder too.
There are other uncommon plant species that regulate blood sugar levels that grow well in East Hawaii such as Dragon Fruit (Hylocereus undtatus), Yacon (Polymnia sonchifolia), and Miracle Fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum). Many uncommon food and medicine plants have been bred through traditional agroforestry practices and thrive in those conditions. But many need humans to keep them living and reproducing, who knows how many edible, medicinal, and useful plants have been on the edge of disappearing due to the big change up?
More funding is needed to identify, protect, propagate, and research the uses and interaction of rare, uncommon, and underutilized species. We need to keep the traditional foods alive because they kept humans alive for eons--they offer us the gift of "new" superfoods and biomedicines. If 25% of the money spent on pharmaceutical research for diabetes was spent on researching and advocating restorative agroforestry production of biomedicines for diabetes that lower blood sugar and revitalize the pancreas we would be getting to the root of the problem rather than medicating the symptoms. Do your part--let your food be your medicine. Even better, let food from your home garden be your source of medicine and exercise.
There is great need and potential to develop a locally based biomedicine industry that also supports native forest & species restoration and the indigenous people of Hawaii, Kanaka Maoli. The development of scientifically proven products like herbal anti-diabetes treatments, species specific and broad spectrum herbal anti-microbials (anti-biotics (Staph, Strep)), anti-virals (Flu), anti-fungals (candida), anti-parasite (rat lung worm, Leptospiros, ukus...) could help revitalize communities, cultures, and our island economies. I envision a consensus based hui of Hawaiian cultural practitioners, La'au lapa'au experts, the ag sector, university and research sector, distribution, and health care sector could spark the drive towards local medicine (and food) security and sovereignty.
If there is anyone out there with interest and/or access to resources to support developing locally grown/processed biopharmacueticals, please let me know. Let’s aim to be two steps ahead and prepared rather than two steps behind facing emergency.
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