Project Investigates Use of Medicinal Plants for Diabetes in Cree

The 12,000 Cree of Eeyou Istchee live in a vast area of sub-Arctic boreal forest bordered by the Eastern coast of James Bay, Quebec.

Although diabetes was not common in these communities prior to the 1980s, the number of individuals with diabetes has been rising significantly in the last few years. In 1989, just 4.1% of this population suffered from diabetes; by 2002 this had increased to 12.5%. The rate of diabetes in the Canadian population is around 7%.

So far, attempts to control diabetes through dietary interventions in the Cree population haven't been especially successful.

And yet, the Cree, along with other aboriginal groups, have had success using medicinal plants to treat illnesses and diseases for centuries. The aboriginal peoples of Eastern Canada alone have recorded 400 species of medicinal plants with over 2,000 uses listed, many including diabetes-related conditions.

So far, some of these plants have been investigated for their antioxidant potential, but none have been studied for their effectiveness in treating diabetes or its symptoms.

In response, Health Canada is supporting research investigating the use of traditional medicinal plants in the treatment of diabetes by the Cree nation of northern Quebec.

According to Dr. Pierre Haddad, one of the key project researchers, "It is important to explore ways of dealing with diabetes that are in harmony with aboriginal peoples' culture and lifestyle. Medicinal plants represent a timely and worthwhile avenue to explore."

Laboratory Investigation of Plant Potency

In collaboration with Cree healers, researchers will select a number of medicinal plants that show potential for treating the symptoms of diabetes and that are generally regarded as safe.

Extracts will be taken from the selected plants and prepared in a traditional manner. They will be assessed for both their chemical and antioxidant properties.

The plant extracts will then be fed to rats specially bred to be prone to diabetes. The rats will then be monitored over time to see whether their diabetes symptoms are affected by the plant extracts. Researchers will also look for any signs of toxicity resulting from the plant extracts.

In addition, surgically removed rat pancreas and insulin-sensitive tissues such as liver, muscle and fat tissue will be exposed to the extracts to see how they respond.

Working in Harmony with Cree Culture

Dr. Timothy Johns at the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill University, in collaboration with the Cree Council of Health and Social Services of James Bay, will then initiate a diet survey within the Cree communities. This survey will help identify ways to incorporate plant preparations in ways that are popular with the Cree.

For example, plant products in the form of teas, skin creams, tinctures, and in sachets for addition to food, are most often used by the Cree. They tend not to use the kinds of herbal tablets and capsules that are quite popular in southern Canada.

According to Haddad, "This project represents an innovative way to integrate traditional medicine with modern science in a combined effort to improve the health of the Cree of northern Quebec."

Alain Cuerrier, ethnobotanist at the Montreal Botanical Garden and member of the research team, adds, "While it is important for humankind to evaluate and document the global diversity of medicinal practices, compilation of this heritage is particularly important for First Nation peoples who strongly believe that healing can only come from the land. Our project will help reinforce this threatened element of their culture."

This study is supported by Health Canada's Natural Health Products Directorate in partnership with the Institute of Aboriginal People's Health and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Members of the interdisciplinary research team include Dr. Timothy Johns, Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill University, Dr. J. Thor Arnason from the University of Ottawa, Manon Dugas, Director of Uschiniichisuu Myupimaatisiiun, Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, Dr. Alain Cuerrier, ethnobotanist at the Montreal Botanical Garden, and Dr. Marc Prentki and Dr. Pierre Haddad from the University of Montreal.

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