An 800-year-old herbal potion used by medieval monks to curb the appetite could soon find new popularity among 21st century dieters.
Archaeologists investigating an ancient hospital site founded by Augustinian monks about 845 years ago have found evidence that they used to chew on the bitter vetch plant to stave off hunger pains.
Now the component of the plant that suppresses appetite could be turned into a wonder pill for dieters.
After months of research and excavation experts have identified the remains of plant tubers belonging to lathyrus linifolius, the bitter vetch plant, in the drains of a 12th century monastery at Soutra Aisle, south of Edinburgh.
Samples of the plant have been sent for research to Highland Natural Products at Muir of Ord, in Ross-shire, which specialises in providing organically produced plant extracts for ingredients used in the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic and chemical industries.
The monks, who used to run the religious retreat as a hospital and medieval medical research facility, are believed to have used the plant extracts to make a potion to stave off hunger.
"According to more than 300 reports, these tiny tubers, which have a leathery liquorice taste, were chewed to help people forget to eat and drink," said Brian Moffat, the director of the Soutra Aisle dig. "They feel no need to eat and drink and this lasts for weeks, sometimes into months." It is believed the appetite suppressing potion was used to help their patients lose weight or cope with the effects of a failed harvest.
The managing director of Highland Natural Products, Richard Constanduros, was reluctant to talk about the project, which he described as "commercially sensitive" information. "We have initiated research but it is very early days and we will have to wait and see what happens," he said.
The monastery at Soutra Aisle in the shadow of the Lammermuir Hills was founded in about 1160 and became one of the most important medical centres in Scotland. It was dedicated to looking after the poor, travellers and pilgrims as well as the sick and infirm.
For centuries the monks were dedicated to finding cures for a range of afflictions and have been credited with recognising the benefits of blaeberries in the treatment of cryptosporidium food poisoning, the value of juniper berries for inducing childbirth and the effect of hemlock as an anaesthetic.
Other evidence found at Soutra hospital has indicated that the monks also knew how to amputate limbs, make surgical instruments, stop scurvy and even cure hangovers.
Fragments of pottery vessels unearthed by archaeologists contained traces of medicines, such as an analgesic salve made from opium and grease and treatment for parasitic and intestinal worms. Scientists also discovered quicklime (calcium oxide), which they believe was used as a disinfectant and a deodorant.
By trawling through literature of the period the researchers have been able to identify many of the remedies the herbs could have been used to create.
Over the past 20 years of archaeological excavations, traces of medicinal products from all over the known world have been found, including cloves from east Africa. Juniper seeds and ergot fungus were probably used to help induce birth, despite a ban on men in holy orders assisting in childbirth, while another find of clumps of watercress lying close to a pile of teeth suggests the monks had devised a cure for scurvy.
Dr Moffat, an archeo-ethno-pharmacologist, said the monks' knowledge was so great it could be used to influence medicine today.
"You would not bother with strange plants at a monastery unless they were going to be used and these medieval brothers knew what to do. They knew more about plants than anyone alive today," he said.
The House of the Holy Trinity at Soutra, as the hospital was known, fell into decline during the 1460s. The master of the hospital caused a scandal by his bad behaviour and the Crown confiscated most of the estates which financed the hospital as a punishment.
Soutra was reduced from an establishment of international importance to little more than a local hospital.
Other medicinal uses for plant extracts
Watercress appears to have been used by the doctor monks to treat scurvy, but it has long been used for a number of other ills including to prevent baldness, as an aphrodisiac, as a cure for hangovers, to cleanse the blood, and as a cure for toothache
Hemlock was used as an anaesthetic for surgical operations but in mediaeval days it was also mixed with betony and fennel seed as a cure for the bite of a mad dog. Due to its sedative properties the plant has also been used for treating teething in children, epilepsy, cramp and to relieve bronchitis, whooping cough and asthma
Blaeberries, or whortleberries as they are known in England, were used by the monks to treat food poisoning but they have a number of other medicinal uses. They are known to thin the blood and help lower blood pressure and reduce clotting. They have also been a used as a treatment for stomach problems, diarrhoea, relief of nausea and indigestion
The monks used juniper berry seeds to induce childbirth as it increases contractions of the uterus. Extracts from the berry - which acts as a diuretic - can also be used to treat kidney and bladder conditions, including gout and kidney stones, rheumatism, arthritis and to stimulate digestion
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