Cretan Herbal Medicine ~ Fighting the Flu With

An increasing number of chemical and pharmacological studies, which strongly support traditional medicinal uses of Greek herbs against various illnesses such as a sore throat, cough, and gastric ulcer, have been reported recently. One of these herbs is an endemic plant of the island of Crete, which has been widely used as a traditional medicine since antiquity: the dittany of Crete, Origanum dictamnus (Lamiaceae family). A variety of compounds, including flavonoids, lipids, and terpenoids have been identified from the plant. Current studies have shown that its extracts and the essential oil possess important antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-ulcer pharmacological properties.

The use of herbal medicine has its roots in the Bronze Age. The Homeric texts describe herbal wound healing treatments during the Trojan War. Ancient Greeks had developed a considerable medical knowledge based on systematic observation in order to heal their precious human capital. The Mycenaean palatial centers systematically produced and exported huge quantities of aromatic and essential oils to the kingdoms of the Mediterranean basin and exchanged them to copper and tin for their weapons and tools. Were they also used as medicines? The tradition is still preserved and the consumption of aromatic plants as a component in curing common diseases is still on population’s practices in many islands and rural areas. Though observations show that persons in Crete that consume Cretan herbal teas, mainly dittany and sage, are more resistant to viral induced infections. Until recently, there hasn’t been any double-blind trial conducted on the effectiveness of Cretan herbs in the prevention and curing of common diseases.

The last decades Christos Lionis, Professor of General Practice and Primary Health Care, School of Medicine, University of Crete, studies the therapeutic properties of certain Cretan traditional herbal remedies. In 1988 he reported the antioxidant effects of herbs in Crete, and his research was published in Lancet (Vol. 352). This research has documented the antioxidant activity of certain Cretan plants and has shown their extracts decrease lipid peroxidation in cultured lung cells exposed to iron or ozon. Recently, through a mutual collaboration, the School of Medicine, University of Crete and the University of Leiden, Netherlands, focused on the evidence-based innovative therapeutic medicine of Cretan plants. Some of their results are particularly encouraging.

They reported the effectiveness of an essential oil extract of three Cretan aromatic plants in olive oil, Origanum Dictamnus, Coridothymus Capitatus, Salvia Fruticosa, in the treatment of cases with an upper respiratory tract infection. These three plant species that grow in Crete, the dittany, the thyme, and the sage are used in traditional healing practices by the local population. This was the first attempt in Europe to examine the effectiveness of an essential oil extract of the three Cretan aromatic plants through a double-blind randomized controlled trial, designed and implemented in rural Crete on patients with upper respiratory tract infection. The trial was implemented between October 2013 and February 2014 and published in 2015. Eligible patients were those presenting for clinical examination in the selected setting with signs and symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection that had begun within the previous 24 hours. One hundred and five patients completed the study; 51 in the placebo group, and 54 in the intervention (treated) group. Both groups’ baseline characteristics were similar. An essential oil extract of Cretan aromatic plants in olive oil was administered as 0.5ml soft gel capsules, twice a day, for 7 days to the intervention group. Placebo treatment was 0.5ml olive oil in soft gel capsules. Descriptive differences have been reported in favorable direction especially in the virus-positive population. The medicine reached the market. These days an over-the-counter drug, in soft-gel capsules, under the name of “Cretan Iama” (“Cretan remedy”) is circulated in the Greek market by the Olvos Science SA, and sells a lot.

These encouraging results underline the need for further research on the preventive and therapeutic potentialities of Cretan herbs.

dittany-of-crete1Another research on the same direction was a recent joint attempt between the Clinic of Social and Family Medicine and the Department of Experimental Endocrinology at the School of Medicine, University of Crete, under the support of the National Strategic Reference Framework Program, which focused on the effectiveness of a functional extract of Mentha Spicata (mint) encapsulated in yogurt with honey on lipids profile of health patients in rural Crete. The first results of a cross-over study were in a favorite direction. These results converged with the animal-based study that was carried out within the same project.

Prof. Lionis believes that “in conclusion, the two first studies on the Cretan medicinal and aromatic plants support the potentialities of the use of ethnobotanical methodology to move the needle of innovation on viral infections and lipids metabolism” (Hell J Nucl Med. 2015, 18 Suppl. 1:145).