It’s versatile, but will it make you smile?
One of my ethnobiological research projects deals with traditional uses of zootherapies. In many parts of the world animals, their tissues or their products are used as medicines in the form of solids, potions, powders and soups to be ingested, as lotions and creams to be applied and even as steams and fumes. One of the most widely used animal-derived treatments involve bile, i.e. the green fluid in the gall bladder of vertebrate animals produced by the liver. Bear bile has been used for perhaps thousands of years by the Chinese as a remedy for a wide range of ailments and bear farms exist in China, where bile is collected from live bears without killing them. Elsewhere, wild animals and not just bears are used.
What makes bile so special? The bioactive compound in bear bile has been identified as ursodeoxycholic acid. But as with biles from other vertebrates such as humans and fish, the fluid consists of mostly water (ca. 98%) plus a variety of bile salts, the pigment bilirubin, small amounts of cholesterol, fatty acids and lecithin. Bile is released from the gall bladder into the small intestine (the duodenum) in humans, where it acts as an emulsifier and surfactant upon the fatty components of the food. Without the bile most of the ingested fats would be wasted and not available to the body for growth and maintenance; the bile therefore has a very important function. Whether it is that understanding or the observation that bile medicines can apparently exert a positive effect on a sufferer from an illness, injury and allergy that have made bile therapies so popular, is difficult to know, but fact is millions believe in bile remedies.
It has been reported that tribal people in Burkina Faso treat earaches with the bile of a hedgehog, but from Brazil it is known that some people purchase the vulture bile, dry it and then turn it into a powder, which is put it into the drink of an alcohol addict to cure his addiction. According to E. Costa-Neto there are reports that this works. Wild cat bile apparently acts upon the liver and helps in cases of cirrhosis, as has also been reported for bear bile. The latter is used for so many different maladies and afflictions that it is difficult to list them all, but just like the bile of many other animals it is supposed to help against malaria, stomach ache, dysentery and even rheumatism. Most commonly bile is mixed with boiling water and drunk, but carp bile may be swallowed raw to lower a fever and porcupine bile soaked in rice to fight dysentery is used by North-East Indian tribals. Naga people use the bile of the mithun ox mixed with rice and eaten twice a day for a week to treat asthma. Cat bile and that of the flying squirrel are also said to have anti-asthma properties and that of a large monitor lizard (taken orally and raw) is meant to work as an antidote to spider bites. Porcupine bile helps in cases of impotence, but enlarged spleens are said to need pangolin bile treatment (but sadly it won’t help this globally most trafficked of all wild animals).
The big question is how one bodily secretion (the bile) can have so many different therapeutic functions and effects. It is of course possible that pre-treatments like drying, smoking, mixing with rice, herbs or minerals and different kinds of uses like external application or ingestion with or without water at specific day times may liberate and/or activate separate bioactive chemicals in the bile. They could then possibly act directly or indirectly by activating the recipient’s defence systems. As sad and awful these traditional bile uses are, they seem to have stood the test of time and we must find the reason for that. Once we have the answer, we may be able to save the animals that supply the bile -and let them live and smile.
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021.
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