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Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) photo by Robert Seago

Here is an interesting and horrifying flower!  This is henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) which also goes by the name “stinking nightshade.”  It is one of the noteworthy poisons of classical antiquity.  Henbane is a member of the Solanaceae family—the nightshades—one of the most important of all plant families to humankind.  The Solanaceae family includes eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, but also nightshade, datura, and tobacco!

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane Illustration/diagram

Henbane too is rich in psychoactive alkaloids.  Small doses result in dilated pupils, restlessness, flushed skin, and hallucinations.  Other symptoms of henbane poisoning include a racing heart, vomiting, extreme body temperature fluctuations, the inability to control one’s muscles, convulsions, coma, and, uh, death, so it’s probably well to steer clear of eating (or touching or taunting) this particular plant.  The ancient Greeks and Romans did not read my blog, so they sometimes ingested henbane.  In particular, Pliny documented its use by fortunetellers. The priestesses of Apollo would take the plant in order that they might fall into a hallucinogenic trance and then pronounce auguries. It should be noted that priestesses of Apollo tended not to last too well.  Henbane also had associations with the world hereafter, and dead souls wandering the margins of the underworld were said to wear henbane laurels.

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Two apothecary vessels for storage of Hyoscyamus niger (ca. 19th century) photo by Bullenwächter

Henbane originated in southern Europe and western Asia, but classical civilization spread it widely across all of Europe (from whence it traveled to the rest of the world). Incompetent medieval pharmacists used it as an anesthetic and for other sundry “medicinal” uses.  It was also popular with poisoners (scholars think it is the most likely candidate to be “hebenon” the poison from Hamlet) and was the means of death for many murders even into contemporary times.  It also has a sad place in the witch panics that affected Europe during the dark ages and the early modern era.  Witches were said to use it in their potions.  Domestic animals would also sometimes eat it accidentally and run wild or perish. Thus witch-hunters would look for the plant and use it as evidence in their trials (although it grows wild as a weed).  Also, because of its powerful psychoactive properties, henbane could well give a user the impression of flying and of various supernatural happenings.

Witches' Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

Witches’ Sabbath (Hans Baldung Grien, 1510, woodcut)

On a more mundane level, brewers used henbane to flavor beer until this was recognized as a bad idea (which occurred much later than you might hope) and it was universally replaced with hops.  Evidence of henbane’s use as a flavoring agent for beer goes all the way back to the Neolithic era.  There is clearly evidence that henbane does something for (to?) humans, but there is even clearer evidence that it is tremendously dangerous and toxic.  Maybe it’s best to appreciate this ancient plant through reading about it and looking at pictures of the strange weedy flowers.

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pink_grapefruit

Grapefruit is one of my favorite fruits.  Incongruously I associate the sweet semi-tropical fruit with the most bitter part of winter.  When I was growing up (on a hill farm in central Appalachia), we had crates of the big yellow citruses during winter–an annual gift from some unknown relative.  My mom would read long novels while the wind roared outside and we set by the wood stove listening.  If my father was home from the oil & gas fields, he would peel grapefruits for us (not that Dad was a roughneck, he was a geologist with poorly organized yet relentless employers).  In order for the fruit not to be bitter and tough it is necessary to peel it correctly, which requires patience and deft hands (not only must you strip off the rind, you also have to carefully pull the leathery endocarp away from the juice-filled vesicles). I didn’t master the fruit on my own until I was an adolescent.  As an aside, I feel like those evil serrated spoons are cheating…plus they don’t work.

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Grapefruit is a human creation—and a comparatively recent one at that.  It was first hybridized in Barbados during the 18th century from two very different ancestral citrus fruits–the giant pomelo from Southeast Asia and the Jamaican sweet orange (itself a hybrid fruit with ancient Asian antecedents). A Welsh clergyman, Rev. Griffith Hughes, first documented the tasty new hybrid in the 1750s.  Apparently it intrigued and scandalized the English planters (or maybe the Welsh cleric?) to such an extent that it was initially called “the forbidden fruit.”  I guess this earns the grapefruit a place with other fruits known as “the forbidden fruit” such as quinces, citrons, figs, apples, and datura (to say nothing of knowledge…or sensuality, or GMOs, or post-humans or other metaphorical forbidden fruit).

A beautiful grapefruit tree

A beautiful grapefruit tree

Grapefruit trees are shapely evergreen trees which grow to a height of 5–6 meters (16–20 feet).  They have beautiful but tiny four-petaled flowers which, when fertilized by bees (or other insects) grow into the large fruits.  The name grapefruit originates from the fact that growers thought the heavy clusters of ripe fruit looked like grapes (throughout much of the nineteenth century they were named “shaddocks” after an enigmatic & profligate ship captain who was evidently some sort of Johnny Appleseed of the high seas) .  The flesh of grapefruits can be white, yellow, pink, or red.  According to farming lore, pink and red grapefruits were of twentieth century origin—the famous “ruby red” grapefruit was patented in 1929.  The subsequent search for richer color lead growers to irradiate bud sticks with neutrons in the hope of creating exciting new mutants!

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues...

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues…

Grapefruits are healthy fruits filled with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and other possibly wholesome phytochemicals (to say nothing of fiber) however they also contain a chemical which inhibits the activity of a human metabolizing enzyme CYP3A4.  This not-very-euphonically named enzyme allows the liver and the intestine to break down drugs–so grapefruit are potentially dangerous to people taking certain prescription medicines.  According to pharmacologists, more than 40% of drugs can interact with grapefruit!  This sort of thing is why biochemistry is so interesting and challenging!  Maybe there is a rightful reason grapefruit should be called forbidden fruit…but until the doctor actively forbids it, I am going to go have some more…

Um, not THAT much more...

Um, not THAT much more…

 

 

Bacteria from the surface of a human tongue

For once, Ferrebeekeeper has a very important point which I desperately want you to walk away with. If you don’t want to wade through my carefully crafted exposition (which builds gradually to this important public health message by first contemplating the nature of Earth’s dominant living things), click here and the WHO will provide this message with brevity and decisiveness.

Today I would like to write briefly about the true masters of planet earth, the bacteria and discuss some very important aspects of our relationship with them.     Bacteria are everywhere and inside everything.  Our bodies contain more bacterial cells than cells which are our own.  They live in kangaroos, grapes, arsenic springs, molten-hot sea vents, and inside the earth’s mantle. In the depths of time, they altered the planet’s oxygen-free atmosphere into one where oxygen is plentiful and they alone among organisms (other than chemists) can fix molecular nitrogen from the atmosphere into ammonia. There are estimated to be more than five nonillion (5×1030) bacteria on Earth–which together vastly outweigh the biomass of all other living things combined.  They were here first (by billions of years) and they will probably be here last, when the sun expands into a red giant and swallows the earth like a cocktail onion.

I should probably write more and think more about bacteria.  We all should. Not only is the planet is theirs, but they are more diverse than all other organisms.  They likely exist in parts of earth we have never even reached. They may even live in a shadow biosphere which is based on biochemical reactions we have never thought of as life-like.  Who knows?

The Diversity of Life: Bacteria (prokaryotes) are in blue.

Unfortunately, like most people, when I think of bacteria, it is usually as a disease.  Even though pathogens only make up the faintest fraction of the teaming bacterial world, bacterial illnesses are terrifying.  Tetanus, typhoid fever, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera, bubonic plague, staph, pneumonia, leprosy and tuberculosis are all bacteria, as are many other wicked diseases.  For most of human history we knew these bacteria only by the results of their work and we lacked any means of dealing with them other than our immune systems and crude poisons like iodine, bleach, and alcohol.

However all of this changed in the twentieth century with the miraculous accidental discovery of penicillin, a substance produced by a certain mold which killed or inhibited bacteria.  Humankind discovered that many fungi and actinomycetes contained similar compounds, the antibiotics, which have made human life incalculably better and saved lives beyond the telling.  Of course, as with all good things, we have also abused these miracle drugs to cure minor ailments, market unnecessary household cleaners, grow fatter livestock, and treat viruses (which antibiotics don’t even cure).  Overuse of antibiotics stresses the healthy bacteria which live inside our bodies perhaps contributing to a host of autoimmune and degenerative diseases.  Even worse, bacteria reproduce with inhuman speed and, when not killed outright, quickly mutate into antibiotic resistant strains.  These antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming widespread.  Many people in hospitals are dying.  Drug-resistant pneumonia, tuberculosis, and staph infections are beginning to spread.

A Diagram of Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics

All of this is leading up to a pointed conclusion. Today is world health day and the WHO (world Health Organization) has launched a campaign to combat antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance.  They wish to combat drug resistance by (1) curbing overuse of antimicrobial compounds, (2) making sure that people receive the correct prescription and finish the entire course, (3) stopping the sale of substandard products, (4) curtailing agricultural and industrial use of these compounds, (5) convincing laboratories and drug companies to reengage and reinvest (antibacterial or antimicrobial drugs are not as lucrative as heart medicines, erection pills, and weight-loss medicine).  Here is the World Health Organization statement again and here is a link to a thoughtful piece about the problem in the Economist.

Most scary things you read in the news are inflated bogeymen that people have hyped up so you will click on their websites and watch their daft advertisements.  The nuclear meltdown in Japan will not hurt you unless you live in the shadow of an affected plant. You will never be bitten by a shark.    Your plane is profoundly unlikely to crash and even less likely to be blown up by terrorists.  The world is safer (for you) than ever.

But now you could die of an antibiotic resistant disease you catch in the hospital during surgery, and the odds for such an end will go up unless we all become more conscientious. Drug resistant superbugs could harm or kill your loved ones if we don’t act to fix these problems. So listen to the WHO, help out the many friendly bacteria (which help us all sorts of ways), and don’t abuse antibiotics or antimicrobial compounds.  Also, if you happen to be a powerful capitalist, some sort of executive, or a legislator, please try to work with the WHO to provide more rational incentives and rules for the sale, use, and creation of these compounds.

Thanks! Happy World Health Day and bonne santé to you all.

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