Unveiling the Medicinal Powers of the LeechJessica Rea, D. ATCM, D. CHM, CHP July 1, 2012
The leech might be a creature that makes you shudder, but you will likely change your mind after you gain some knowledge about the medicinal leech, a cousin of the earthworm, and what it can do for your health.
In fact, it has been said that without treatment with leeches, Cleopatra would never become pregnant.
Leeches have a long history as part of a doctor’s arsenal for treating their patients, which extends back more than 5,000 years, further back than the Great Pyramids. Leech therapy remained as a popular and accepted medicine right up until the end of the 19th century. In the 1800s, France alone was importing as many as 40 million leeches from Russia annually for medical purposes.
While hirudotherapy, as it is called (hirudo from the Latin for medicinal leech), has declined in popularity as a medicine over the last century, there is still an area of the world that is working to advance the understanding of the leech and its effects on the human body. This is Eastern Europe, mainly Russia and its neighbouring countries, which are currently the leading experts in medicinal leech breeding and treatment methods.
For professional medical therapy, the leeches used in treatment are never taken from the wild. The medicinal leech is almost extinct in its natural environment and is a protected species. Today, leeches are grown under strict conditions which replicate their natural environment. This ensures the safety and health of the leeches for use on humans and protects them from being overhunted in the wild.
In the West, the most widely used application for leech therapy is in cosmetic and reattachment surgeries. Usually, when severed body parts are reattached, the blood is able to flow into the new tissues, but is unable to flow back out because it is too difficult to attach the small veins. The tissue becomes stagnant, dark, and can die. However, when leeches are applied to the reattachment area, they suck out the stagnant blood and inject a powerful blood thinner, among other substances, that works to reform small blood vessels.
Today, it is evident that more and more people are taking control of their own health; they are returning back to the old ways of medicine. People are waking up to the fact that most pharmaceuticals are just band-aid fixes for many health problems, and they are looking for ways to address their health problems from the inside or from the root cause. That is where hirudotherapy excels.
It all boils down to blood flow in the micro-circulation and the body’s cellular health. When the micro-circulation of the body is disrupted, the whole body suffers. Red blood cells, which carry oxygen to all the tissues, are small enough that one red blood cell would have to bend in half to get into the smallest blood vessels. When red blood cells start to lose their flexibility or stick together, they can no longer get through the smaller vessels. Cellular exchanges of nutrition and waste disposal are disrupted and the body tissues are no longer oxygenated. The leech’s saliva offers a solution.
The leech salivary gland secretion has many bioactive substances, which are given to the host in exchange for some blood taken. These include anti-coagulants, blood-thinners, vaso-dilators, anesthetics, antibiotics and histamine-like substances. Some of the well known substances are chloromycetyna, hyaluronidase, destabilase, bdellines, and eglines. Leech salivary glands also secrete lipolytic enzymes which break down fat, such as cholesterol esterase, lipase, and triglyceridase. These enzymes work together against the aging process and prevent diseases. Thus hirudotherapy can be a powerful treatment for diseases that already have a foothold in the body.
Hirudin is the most known and studied bioactive substance; it is a potent anti-coagulant that leeches use to thin the blood to make it easier to extract from the host. After the leech has finished feeding, it is hirudin that allows the wound to keep bleeding for a few hours. This is of benefit because the bleeding cleanses the wound from any bacteria. The bleeding also allows other turbid substances to leave the body with the blood, such as lymph fluid, inflammation, and toxins. The compound hyaluronidase is what spreads the “cocktail” of salivary substances through the patient’s body from the moment the leech bites.
Hirudin and hyaluronidase (in combination with other compounds) affect the micro-circulation and strengthen the body. Depending on how leeches are used, the treatment can have a positive impact on the cardiovascular, immune, lymphatic, and neurological systems.
When a leech bites the host, it analyzes the blood and adjusts its salivary output based on the problems detected. The leech spends a few minutes simply inputting the substances into the host’s body and then begins to take some blood for itself. When the leech is full, it just drops off.
There are no harmful side effects with hirudotherapy, which is a major reason for its current success.
The most common side effect is itching. The bite area can get itchy, like a mosquito bite for some. A cold compress with lemon usually provides relief.
Health Conditions Treated
Currently, hirudotherapy is one of the fastest growing alternative medicine treatments worldwide. It has been said to be the closest thing to a universal cure.
Having such a profound impact on the blood circulation, leech therapy is well known in Eastern Europe, Australia, Indonesia, and Russia for treating cardiovascular disorders. Leeches can be of benefit for all three stages of a heart attack; before, during, and afterwards. Hirudotherapy has also been used to treat heart problems, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, thrombosis, and angina.
Leeches are also known for their immune strengthening abilities and are used to treat infections, from common urinary tract infections to skin problems, such as acne and psoriasis. Pain relief by leeches is used for conditions such as glaucoma, arthritis, broken bones, and carpal tunnel syndrome. The possibilities are so many that it is easier to list the circumstances when leeches cannot be used rather than list conditions they do treat! (They can’t be used to treat patients with feverish illnesses, leukemia, anemia, HIV, cirrhosis of the liver, or those using blood thinners or chemotherapy. It is also not suitable during pregnancy.)
The amazing ability of hirudotherapy to fight the body’s aging process gained attention when actress Demi Moore revealed that it’s the use of leeches that keeps her looking young by detoxifying her blood. Both Demi Moore and Cleopatra owe a lot to the amazing leech.
Leeches are truly nature’s gift, strong enough to treat disease but gentle enough to use on the most delicate of body conditions.