Could ants, and the bacteria they carry, be used as modern medicine?
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In 1968, Gunter Holzmann, a German man living in the Bolivian Amazon as a mining and lumber supply company operator, started to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. Naturally, he sought treatment. But for Holzmann, this didn’t mean going to a doctor. It meant going into the jungle and locating a species of tree typically filled with a particularly nasty species of stinging ant. The local name for these trees roughly meant do not touch these things. But Holzmann did. He wanted the ants to sting him, because he’d believed their venom could alleviate his pain.
Holzmann was not insane. He was acting on local beliefs that ant venom could help with arthritis and other inflammatory disorders. This may sound peculiar to many people today, especially in communities that wholly embrace modern medicine. But it’s actually not that odd. A surprising number of cultures worldwide have long embraced ants as vital medicinal ingredients, using them to treat a host of illnesses. It’s tempting to write the widespread therapeutic use of ants off as an oddly recurrent bit of superstitious crap. But there’s some (qualified) reason to believe healers have embraced these creepy crawlies so often in history because they do contain some curative potential. And that potential could hold some value for modern medicine as well.
Thanks to the movie Apocalypto and a few survivalist TV shows, if most people have any frame of reference for ants in traditional medicine, it’s likely the use of strong-pincered army ant heads as stitches. Sources have attested to this hygienically questionable practice coming into play in parts of Africa, India, South America, and even by one account in Greece as late as 1896.
But far more evidence attests to a wider variety of ants’ use as oral or topical treatments for a wide variety of disorders. Traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, just like the Bolivians Holzmann encountered, used (and still uses) them to treat arthritis, among other conditions. Recent coverage of a rural community in the Indian state of Odisha suggests they are used there to improve eyesight; some medieval European healers may have used them for similar purposes. Moroccans apparently used them to perk up those suffering from fatigue; indigenous Californians used them as an emetic; Australian aboriginals used them to treat headaches. And that’s just scratching the surface. Ants also show up in accounts of traditional Arabic, Central Asian, and Russian medicine. And there are accounts of their usage as aphrodisiacs, dark skin spot removers, cure-all tonics, and even treatments for some ill-defined forms of paralysis.
Very few of these treatments involved allowing the ants to sting a patient, the way Holzmann intended to use them. Instead, ants were consumed whole, or in some other stewed or powdered form. They were brewed into teas, mixed into wine or beer, or distilled into tinctures used to create vinegars or spirits. They were even rubbed onto paralyzed or sore legs as a poultice, or put live into bags and then placed on a stiff or otherwise afflicted limbs for days and left to crawl around on them.
It’s easy to explain away the commonality of ants in traditional medicine, and their diverse uses. Throughout history, “people ascribed medicinal value to many things in their immediate environment,” says Justin O. Schmidt, an ant researcher at the Southwestern Biological Institute in Arizona with an interest in traditional medicine. "Given that ants are ubiquitous, they seem a natural subject for incorporating into virtually all human cultures.”
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“Medicine and cures, even today in Western societies, are based in good part on the placebo effect,” he adds. So, if one wants to be cynical, it’d be easy to say ants stuck around after making it into traditional medical systems because people just felt better for having taken them, even if they had no effect. “But,” Schmidt says, “I think there’s more to it than that.”
Ants are loaded with chemicals, which they use to communicate with each other, subdue prey, or defend themselves from predators or infections, James Trager, another ant researcher working out of the Missouri Botanical Garden, points out. “It's not out of the question that some of these may have therapeutic value,” he says.
Some evidence already supports this speculation. Holzmann, for example, managed to get a few doctors interested in his experience. They, in turn, produced studies through the 1970s and early 1980s suggesting the venom of the ants that bit him really can help with treat arthritic inflammation. Holzmann secured a patent for a treatment based on that research, but despite some support in the 1980s his product, Zonex, seemingly failed to launch. More recent Chinese research on other ant species, though, continues to support their anti-inflammatory value.
Another strand of research has, in the past couple of years, put a focus on the bacteria that some ants grow on their bodies and cultivate in their nests, for protection against aggressive fungi and other predatory species. According to Ethan van Arnam, a professor at Claremont McKenna College and one of the researchers exploring this topic, these growths appear common in most of the 200-plus species in the family of American ants he’s explored, and similar microbes may be present on or in the colonies of lesser-studied ants worldwide. The microbes he’s studying seem to be potent antifungal agents, which could be used to treat yeast infections in humans. Van Arnam is hesitant to connect his work to traditional medical uses of ants, though, as he’s not well versed in them and his research has examined the molecules in the lab rather than the load of them on ants in the wild.
A host of other anecdotes and scraps of evidence suggest even more chemicals in and on ants could lead to a host of additional effects. Take the recent revelation that fire ant toxins may lead, via bites, to corneal lesions. Or the well documented use of red ants, eaten live and by the fistful while fasting, to induce vivid hallucinations in spiritual ceremonies in indigenous communities in California, on the fringes of the Mojave Desert, well into the early 20th century.
Given this smattering of historical uses, contemporary research, and speculation, it’s not surprising that a number of ant-based supplements have sprung up in the West in recent years, for everything from erectile dysfunction to energy boosts to general wellness. But when encountering these supplements, or pondering popping an ant in your mouth to treat whatever might have one down, it’s worth remembering that none of this means every, or any, of the world’s numerous traditional ant cures are effective for their intended purposes. It just suggests that there may be something to the general concept that ants have medicinal value.
With that in mind, Schmidt cautions anyone against forsaking proven modern medical treatments in favor of using an ant cure, for lack of knowledge on their efficacy or mechanisms. But if one wants to eat them just in case they could help, “that is fine, as they probably have some nutritional value, certainly some fiber, and likely do no harm,” he says.
Trager advises more caution, as we don’t yet understand the full chemical profiles of most of the world’s ant species. So we don’t know if eating certain varieties, or making a poultice and rubbing them on our bodies, or mixing them into a fine cocktail for a medicinal nightcap, might have negative effects in high doses or over time.
We should, though, be giving credence to these traditional ant cures as cues to guide research into ants and the chemicals within and on them. Van Arnam’s research could ideally lead to the development of antifungal agents more effective and less dangerous than anything on the market now. The world has, just over the past decade or so, woken up to the utility of the bacteria on and in insects, he says. Following any thread could lead to revolutionary discoveries and the development of highly effective new pharmaceuticals. But these revelations will probably turn into sterile little pills, rather some type of venom tincture vodka-milk mix, which would take a little of the fun out of this unexpected lineage of ant-related antidotes.
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