Trees and plants used by First Nations assessed for modern dermatology


Compounds found in trees and plants used by the North American First Nations people to treat skin diseases have been identified as being potentially relevant to both cosmetic and medical dermatology.

Drs. Sophia Colantonio and Jason K. Rivers conducted a review of some trees and plants used in traditional First Nations medicine, with currently used by Western medicine for cosmeceutical or therapeutic purposes.

Their findings were published in a two-part series in The Journal of Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery: “Botanical With Dermatology Properties Derived From First Nations Healing Part 1—Trees” (Feb. 1, 2017) and “Part 2—Plants and Algae” (Dec. 19, 2016).

“It is important to validate the traditional knowledge that is already there to hopefully help preserve it and also encourage both ecological conservation and cultural conservation,” said Dr. Colantonio, a dermatology resident at the University of Ottawa. “As well, instead of re-inventing the wheel, there are quite a few things that have been documented that we can look back on and then look forward to new treatments.”

Dr. Colantonio became interested in First Nations healing when she studied program and took a course on ethnobotany. Also, for two summers, she lived in the Haida Gwaii islands in Northern British Columbia among the Haida First Nations people. She was researching the ancient murrelet seabird.

Since there are over 2,700 medicinal plants that are used in traditional healing, the investigators relied on the recommendations from expert ethnobotanists (Dr. Thor Arnason, Dr. Jonathan Ferrier, and Dr. Nancy J. Turners) to narrow their focus.

Only a sampling assessed

The trees they included in the report were the Western red cedar, the white spruce, birch, balsam poplar, and black spruce. The plants they investigated included seaweed, witch hazel, bearberry, and mayapple.

“We wanted to write one comprehensive paper, but owing to the wealth of material we had to present it as two manuscripts that highlighted only a few of the many trees and plants used for medicinal purposes. One could write a book on this topic,” said Dr. Rivers, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of British Columbia and medical director of Pacific Derm in Vancouver. “Our selection of the trees and plants discussed in our papers required they were based in part on those used by First Nations in North America and as well had pre-clinical and/or clinical studies that pertained to contemporary dermatology.”

The authors used seven databases including Web of Knowledge, Pubmed, AMED, Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, Natural Standard, Litt’s D.E.R.M. Databse, and Google Scholar. They searched for the plant name and its known active principal compound individually and in combination with “derm” and “skin.” Ethnobotany references and government databases were also consulted.

Western red cedar: thujaplicin The Western red cedar has been used in traditional medicine to treat carbuncles, dandruff, wounds and veneral disease, according to the investigators. Pre-clinical trials have studied its antibacterial, antifungal, anti-oxidant, and antimelanoma role, as well as its potential for promoting hair growth and reducing UV-B damage to the skin.

In an open-label pilot study of atopic dermatitis patients (n=43), the Western red cedar’s active principal compound b-thujaplicin led to symptomatic improvements and a reduced burden of S aureus.

The investigators note that future applications for thujaplicin include its use as a hair growth agent and as a topical anti-microbial agent in the “Many years ago I was introduced to thujaplicin by members of the UBC forestry department. I became interested in this molecule because there was in vitro evidence that it could mitigate sun damage,” said Dr. Rivers. “To me it was quite interesting that this plant material, which had been used by First Nations for many years, had potential utility in the modern medical sphere.”

Birch: belutin, betulinic acid

“Birch bark is one that has quite a bit of research into it and its main active component is betulin, which has been used for [conditions] like [actinic keratosis], rare genetic conditions like epidermolysis bullosa, and it is used also for healing split-thickness skin grafts, so that one is a pretty exciting [tree],” said Dr. Colantonio. Another bioactive pentacyclic triterpenes found in birch bark is betulinic acid, noted the authors.

The investigators stated that the principal compounds in these trees could theoretically be used in the management of psoriasis, actinic keratosis, epidermolysis bullosa, wound healing, melanoma, acne, rosacea, androgenetic alopecia, herpes simplex virus infections, and dandruff. They also have potential cosmetic uses such as for the reduction of wrinkles, skin lightening agents in cosmetics, and topical anti-aging preparations.

“Future possibilities for many of these plant/tree derivatives include new antiaging, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and even anticancer agents,” said Dr. Rivers. “On the flip side, there are many [compounds] used in cosmetics today where there are no clinical studies to support the claims,” he said.

Bearberry: arbutin

Bearberry contains arbutin, a skin-lightening derivative of hydroquinone with less toxic effects. While there is “growing interest” in using it for melasma and solar lentigines, there have been no clinical studies conducted on bearberry.

Regarding the other plants, the authors concluded that “seaweed could be used in the treatment of acne and wrinkles. Witch hazel is an effective and well-tolerated treatment for minor skin injuries, inflammation, and diaper dermatitis . . . The mayapple contains podophyllotoxin, [which is already] a common treatment for condyloma accuminata, molluscum contagiosum, and recalcitrant palmoplantar warts.”

“I think our research highlights that we have literally hundreds of different plants and trees available to us from which future medicinal treatments can be derived for a variety of different skin conditions,” said Dr. Rivers. “Here in Canada, many people have embraced traditional Chinese medicine, but to some degree we have forgotten the insights provided by the First Nations people. I think it is time we give them credit for putting us on a different path, a path that may lead to the development of many novel dermatologic agents.”

He added, “We hope through our research we can raise awareness of the fact that people have this untapped pharmacopeia in our Canadian backyards.”

Dr. Rivers is the founder of Riversol Skin Care Solutions Inc., a company that incorporates thujaplicin into its skin care line.

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