|The Bitter Neem Makes You Better|
For a very long time, the Neem tree has been India's best kept secret! Ancient India was envied for its Black Pepper, Cardamom, Saffron, Turmeric, Sandalwood etc. and these prized ingredients were sought after and taken across the seas to Europe for centuries! The colonial powers that ruled India failed to grasp the significance of the presence of the Neem tree in every nook and corner of the country. Perhaps, if they had known about the wonderful array of uses of this tree, it would have become a worldwide phenomenon ages ago!!
For Indians, the Neem tree has always had many fascinating aspects. For the children this evergreen, attractive tree was a haven from sun and rain - they spent hours in its cooling shade, plucked the sweet ripe fruit for a snack and built tree houses, which they shared with butterflies, birds and bees. The Neem was the chosen one because its shade was known to be cooler than any other tree's besides no bugs or insects were to be found around it, because of its repellant action.
For women, the Neem proved an invaluable source of health, hygiene and beauty that was freely available. Having a bath with a decoction of Neem leaves kept their skin supple and healthy. Neem leaf powder incorporated into their packs provided emollient and anti aging action. The antiseptic properties of Neem leaf extracts helped in controlling pimples and acne.
Neem was the mainstay of their beauty rituals. It was also a source of medicine to treat more than 100 health problems, from scratches and skin rashes, to malaria and diabetes. The women also used the leaves of Neem to protect their stored grains and pulses through the year.
For the men folk, the tree provided seeds and leaf, which could be used as natural insecticide and fertilizer in their fields. It also provided medicinal potions for their cattle and livestock. Besides, the breeze that blew through the boughs of the tree kept their homes free of bacteria and viruses and cool through the summer.
No wonder, Indians invariably planted this tree in the vicinity of their homes and practiced gentle and daily interaction with this extraordinary plant. Ayurveda, India's five-thousand-year-old healing system, considers health as a reflection of the proper balance of life forces in a person.
Neem is mentioned in almost one hundred entries for treating a wide variety of diseases and symptoms. As neem is a powerful blood purifier and detoxifier, it reduces fever and toxins involved in most inflammatory skin diseases and is effective in the treatment of malaria; its astringent action promotes healing. It boosts the immune system on all levels while helping the body fight infection.
Recent experiments have shown that one of the neem's components, gedunin (a limonoid), is as effective as quinine against malaria. Malaria affects millions of people and is responsible for about 2 million deaths every year in India and several other countries. China has adopted neem in a big way for its anti-malaria operation. Their formulation "Quinahausu" is going to become available in India as well. Neem oil treated mosquito nets and mosquito-repellent tablets are also becoming popular. Such mosquito nets presently available in the North-East have to be made available in the whole country (Swadeshi patrika, chaitra-vaisakh 2052). Because of growing problems of resistance to conventional treatments, it is becoming more and more difficult to control malaria. Should neem products prove effective cure against malaria, the dream of complete eradication of malaria might become a reality.
Although it boosts immunity, Neem doesn’t over - stimulate the immune system. Indeed, it may help regulate an overactive immune system, minimizing allergic response and inflammation. This anti-inflammatory effect may also underlie Neem’s establishes ability to reduce the severity of ulcers and prevent damage to the stomach lining. Neem may also protect against cancer. It increases the activity of the antioxidant enzyme glutathione-S-transderase in the liver, an enzyme that detoxifies potential carcinogens.
Neem enhances immune function, boosting production of interferon, increasing the ability of macrophages to engulf foreign bodies, and improving the ability of lymphocytes to respond to immune challenges such as a tetanus toxin. Neem extract also stimulate the production of lymphokine, another immune activator. This immune stimulating activity underlies Neem extract’s ability to treat skin conditions such as scabies. In one study of 814 patients with scabies treated with a topical Neem leaf paste for 15 days, 97% were cured.
Neem is also effective against dermatological insects such as maggots and head lice. It is a common practice to apply neem all over the hair to kill head lice. Rural inhabitants in India and Africa regularly use neem twigs as tooth brushes. Neem twigs contain antiseptic ingredients.
That explains how these people are able to maintain healthy teeth and gums. Ayurveda describes neem as herbal drug which is used to clean the teeth and maintain dental hygiene. Neem in the form of powder is also used to brush teeth and massage gums.
Neem has also been used traditionally in India to treat several viral diseases. Even many medical practitioners believe that chicken pox and warts can be treated with a paste of neem leaves - usually rubbed directly on the infected skin. Experiments with chicken pox and fowl pox show that although neem does not cure these diseases, it is effective for purposes of prevention. 'Crude neem extracts absorb the viruses, effectively preventing them from entering unaffected cells'. Recent tests, although unconfirmed, have shown that neem is effective against herpes virus and the viral DNA polymerase of hepatitis B virus. Should these findings be confirmed, neem could be used to cure these dreadful diseases.
Chagas disease is a major health problem in Latin America. It cripples millions of people there. Laboratory tests in Germany and Brazil show that neem may be an answer to this dreadful disease which so far remains largely uncontrollable. The disease is caused by a parasite which is spread by an insect called the kissing bug. Extracts of neem have effects on these bugs. Research has shown that 'feeding neem to the bugs not only frees them of parasites, but azadirachtin prevents the young insects from molting and the adults from reproducing'.
The chemical compounds have a seemingly endless range of anti-bacterial uses and are non-irritating and are known to have a minimum of allergic reactions. Neem is also useful for controlling some bacteria of veterinary importance and against intestinal worms in animals. Neem has been traditionally used against various livestock insects such as maggots, hornflies, blow-flies and biting flies. Patnaik (1993) highlights the livestock friendly medicinal role of neem in the following: "the tree (neem) is revered by Indian herdsman as a gentle but effective veterinary poultice, a virtue confirmed by the 16th century Portuguese botanist and traveller, Garciada Orta in his "Coloquios".
Neem is widely used for treating fevers. It has anti-pyretic (fever-reducing) property. In addition, neem products also have analgesic (pain-relieving) and anti-inflammatory effects, i.e. for most common ailments neem can provide cheap, easily-available and local entrepreneurship medicines.
With revival of interest in Ayurveda as an important, indigenous total health-care system, neem with its therapeutic properties and time-tested usage, more particularly as a household first-aid and safe self-administered medicine, as well as a preventive help is bound to stage a big come back.
Indians have learnt and made use of neem in a variety of ways both for personal and community health by way of environmental amelioration. Despite all the vicissitudes India has gone through over the centuries, neem has managed to remain a friend, philosopher and guide to an average Indian. It is time this heritage is appreciated and in area of promotional and preventive health care, our indigenous knowledge and resources are made use of on an increasing scale as low-cost, effective ingredient for the realization of the lofty goal of 'Health for all'.
As Naveen Patnaik (1993, p. 40) says, "Possessed of many and great virtues, this native Indian Tree has been identified on the five-thousand-year-old seals excavated from the Indus valley civilization". How the tradition lives on has also been graphically brought out, Today the Neem is valued more highly for its capacity to exorcise the demon of disease.
Its effectiveness is enhanced on account of its easy and plentiful availability and low cost along with the advantage-a big and critical advantage of creating income and employment for the poor.
Happily, modern societies today, finding themselves confounded in the web of their creation, are willing to revert to nature for remedies. It is in this context that Neem has staged a comeback and promises to hold centre stage in the coming years.