Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Note on the Use of Minerals in Ethiopian Traditional Medicine

Blogger's Note: This is a reprint of an article written by Dr. Fekadu Fullas and was originally posted on Ethiopian discussion listserv. I am reposting it here with kind permission of the author.
Dr. Fekadu Fullas
Minerals are essential substances that are also found in the human body. They are ingested as food supplements to enhance health. They are also consumed for disease preventative reasons. In the affluent West, the proliferation of dietary mineral supplements in the market is noteworthy. A good number of them include mineral/vitamin combinations. Chromium, copper, manganese, iron, and zinc products are some of the supplements that are widely used in the West for health benefits.

Historically, a number of mineral substances have been used in Ethiopian traditional medicine, either by themselves or in conjunction (by admixing) with medicinal herbs. It has been recorded that during the various Ethiopian historical periods many mineral substances were used in traditional healthcare; 150 minerals, each during the Axumite Kingdom (7th-11th C) and the Zagwie Dynasty (11th-13th C); 140, during the Gondar Kingdom (1636-1865); 200, during the period covering the reigns of King Libine dingil to King Hailemelekot (1540-1870); 130, during the reign of Emperor Menelik II over a hundred years ago; 90, during King Hailemelekot through Emperor Haile Selassie I (1870-1973).

More recently, results of surveys which were published in the 1980's (Abebe, 1984, 1986) in Gondar area, northwestern Ethiopia, indicated that 4 to 6 per cent of the traditional prescriptions contained minerals as ingredients of multi-component (herbs, animals) preparations. The most common mineral substance was found to be the common salt (sodium chloride). Abebe and Ayehu (1993) have found that minerals accounted for about 2% of the traditional remedies they recorded from the northern parts of Ethiopia.

There is no sufficient study conducted to support the use of many of the minerals in traditional Ethiopian healthcare. If fact, most of them can potentially be toxic. However, some of the uses may have scientific rationale behind their purported effects. This short article attempts to summarize the application of a few minerals in Ethiopian indigenous healthcare system, followed by comments at the end.

Alum (Aluminum sulfate)---Amarigna (Am): Sheb: This mineral has been used to treat wound in the mouth. It has also been applied in the eyes after mixing with lime juice.

Copper sulfate---Am: Kibre semay: After mixing with other plants, copper sulfate has been used for a number of medical problems. It has been used in this manner to treat eye problems, wounds, and mitch (a generic term perhaps designating sunstroke, or conditions caused by excessive exposure to sun). Copper sulfate is also used by itself for trichiasis.

Dross---Am: Ye' biret ar: Mixed with other plants, it is used for enuresis (involuntary loss of urine), venereal diseases and syphilis. It also finds application in the treatment of eczema (Am: chife) and vitiligo (Am: lemts).

Galena (Lead or lead sulfide)----Am: Shir kul: Galena has been used in traditional medicine in Ethiopia for eye problems, as a vulnerary (for wound and inflammation treatment), for prosperity and acquiring money !

Gold----Am: Worq: Traditionally, gold has been used for prosperity and acquiring money (interesting, considering the fact that gold is itself of high value).

Mercury (as a sublimate)----Am: Bazuqa: It is used in vapor baths for the treatment of syphilis----the treatment is called wesheba in Amarigna. In the 1880's, wesheba (as mercuric sulfide) was common in Tigre.

Sapphire---vernacular name: Sihn anfar; Shim anfar: Mixed with other plants, sapphire has been used for hemorrhoids and wounds.

Sulfur---Am: Dign: It has been used to facilitate the contraction of the uterus (as an oxytocic agent) during child birth by direct fumigation of the female organ with sulfur vapor. After mixing with other plants, sulfur is also used for cough. Compounded with another plant, it is also used for treating Tinea nigra (Am: quaqucha). Another application is in the treatment of syphilitic conditions.

Although employed not in the traditional sense, a number of other substances, including arsenic, mercury, and salts of gold and bismuth were used in the Leprosarium of Harar in the 1930's.


Rationalizing the use of the above substances in Ethiopian traditional healthcare is a difficult exercise. Some of them may prove to be fatally toxic when used inappropriately, while others may require fine-tuning of the respective doses to derive any therapeutic benefits. Yet, a few of the uses may fall in the realm of magico-medical or simple psychological beliefs as in the case of galena and gold, which are also used for acquiring wealth. Some minerals may have inherent healing properties.

Alum (aluminum sulfate) is known to have astringent (protein-precipitant) effect, thus perhaps aiding in the healing of wounds. Copper is a mineral supplement that---when taken in trace amounts---helps in the prevention of cardiovascular (heart) diseases, anemia, to boost immunity, and for treating arthritis. Red mercuric sulfide (known as cinnabar) occurs in nature, and may possess antibacterial activity. Sulfur has been used for a long time for the treatment of acne (Am: chifta, bigur?), as a shampoo for dandruff (Am: for'ofor). Arsenic triioxide used to find application for treating dermatitis (inflammation of the skin). Elemental sulfur has scabicidal (Am: le i'kek) properties.

Several of the minerals used in traditional healthcare in Ethiopia may be readily available in various parts of the country, while a few of them might have originated from outside. One wonders if some of the effects noted above have any relevance to the application of these substances in Ethiopian traditional medicine. It is also important to note that while organic molecules have structural diversity and complexity, and are thus a rich storehouse of medicinal agents, inorganic substances on the other hand, especially simple mineral substances, lack these important features, and hence are not a good source of therapeutic agents.

In sum, a few of the mineral substances employed in Ethiopian traditional medicine may have some science behind their uses. However, the use of mercury, lead, and arsenic in indigenous healthcare should be discouraged, considering their extreme toxicities.

Disclaimer: Do not try the above remedies on your own, without advice from a qualified and licensed health professional.

References and Suggested Readings:

Abebe, W. (1984). Traditional pharmaceutical practice in Gondar region, Northwestern Ethiopia. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11: 33-47

Abebe, W. (1986). A survey of prescriptions used in traditional medicine in Gondar region, Northwestern Ethiopia: General pharmaceutical practice. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 18, 147-165.

Abebe, D. and Ahadu, A. (1993). Medicinal Plants and Enigmatic Health Practices in Northern Ethiopia. BSPE: Addis Ababa

Pankhurst, E. (1990). An Introduction to the Medical History of Ethiopia. The Red Sea Press: Trenton, New Jersey.

Zewdu, M. and Demissie, A. (2001). Conservation and Sustainable Use of Medicinal Plants in Ethiopia. Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and Research: Addis Ababa.