March 5, 2001 -- If you suffer from hemorrhoids, should you heed the advice of an old folk remedy and apply a banana peel to your painful posterior?
Ara DerMarderosian, PhD, who has investigated folk remedies for nearly half a century, says not to dismiss it. "A banana is going to be soothing because it contains slippery components that are starch-like materials," called polysaccharides, DerMarderosian advises. Bananas also contain a sugar that can be applied to topical infections because it has mild anti-microbial properties, he says.
Gray-bearded DerMarderosian, 66, is executive director of the Complimentary and Alternative Medicines Institute of the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia (formerly the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science). He's also a professor of medicinal chemistry as well as pharmacognosy -- the study of natural products used in medicine. So while applying a banana peel to hemorrhoids might seem ridiculous, it doesn't sound weird to a man who reviews scientific research on the use of leeches to stop bleeding and maggots to promote healing.
Indeed, there's a lot of wisdom in many folk remedies that has been forgotten over the years, DerMarderosian says. "Generally, Americans don't pay attention to history," he says. "They tend to forget anything that didn't happen last week."
Still, in recent years, Americans have become more interested in folk remedies, likely in rebellion against impersonal managed care and expensive, high-tech medicine. But many folk remedies still need to be verified, DerMarderosian cautions, and there isn't much medical research available.
DerMarderosian is a first-generation Armenian-American who has taught his college course on natural remedies in Philadelphia and elsewhere since the mid-1950s. He was inspired by his late grandfather, an Armenian native who worked as a pharmacist in Somerville, Mass., and spoke five languages, including Greek, Arabic, and Turkish. DerMarderosian grew up in the same house with his grandfather and observed him practice Old Country remedies from many cultures. "I thought everybody knew this stuff," he says.
He's seen interest in natural remedies wax and wane over the decades. For example, his college course was a requirement in the 1950s and '60s, but then interest declined, and the class became an elective. In the late 1980s, however, folk remedies came back in vogue. People are once again using a tablespoon of sugar to stop hiccups because sugar relaxes muscles, DerMarderosian says. And they are applying yogurt topically to benefit dry skin. Yogurt also has anti-microbial properties that, according to him, make it an effective treatment for yeast and other vaginal infections when used as a douche.
Today, the size of DerMarderosian's class has more than doubled over previous years, even though it's still an elective. The professor is happy to be back in style. He sees the influx of new immigrants -- many of whom still use the old remedies -- as one of the biggest reasons for the revival of interest in folk medicine. "In the Old Country, they still do these things," says DerMarderosian, who in 1998 was a consultant on "The Country Doctor's Book of Folk Remedies and Healing Wisdom," from Lincolnwood Publications. He's also an expert on ginseng and hallucinogenic botanicals, such as peyote, morning glory seeds, and mescal cactus.
The professor recalls stories about grandparents in the Old Country who treated children's fevers by sending them to bed wearing old socks stuffed with raw onions, believing they would draw out the heat. (While that use has not been scientifically established, onions and garlic do contain sulfur compounds that may fight infections, DerMarderosian says, and were used as crude antibiotics in World War I.)
Another old folk remedy involves putting a cobweb on a wound to dry it. It acts like cotton gauze, and hastens clotting, he says. And the ancient Egyptians definitely were ahead of their time: They applied molds to wounds long before penicillin was discovered.
If you think the banana peel treatment is weird, how about the use of leeches and maggots? Forms of hirudin -- a substance derived from leech saliva -- are used as anticoagulants. And maggots, DerMarderosian says, are useful in treating deep wounds because they eat dead tissue and secrete substances that promote healing. He knows of one doctor who has done extensive research on raising maggots for clinical use, and bills himself as "Dr. Maggot."
But don't expect U.S. scientists to be rushing into new research on old remedies like banana skins -- not unless they can patent their discoveries, DerMarderosian says. "I don't think anybody's ever done a clinical, double-blind study on it," he says. And he doubts anyone will.