To say the coca plant has had a colorful history would be an understatement of criminal proportions. After helping to build the biggest brand that the world has ever known, it went on to become the lifeblood of the most powerful drug cartels in history, and the reason for their interminable war against the authorities. Yet according to a new paper in the journal Molecules, the plant that gave us Coca-Cola and cocaine may also yield numerous medicinal properties.
Two species of the plant, known as Erythroxylum coca and Erythroxylum novogranatense, have been used across South America for millennia, as remedies for everything from altitude sickness to stomach ulcers. Yet it is the plant’s stimulating effect – caused by the presence of an alkaloid called cocaine in its leaves – that first caught the attention of Western entrepreneurs in the 20th century.
Early scientific interest in the coca leaf led to the creation of the first surgical anesthetics, but cocaine’s potential for abuse soon became apparent, leading to widespread prohibition of the coca plant. Soft drink manufacturers began using decocainized coca leaf extracts in their products, and most research into the positive effects of coca was halted. However, the study authors write that the species may “contain untapped resources for the benefit of mankind in the form of foods, pharmaceuticals, phytotherapeutic products, and other high-value plant-derived metabolites.”
Collating all the existing research into the biological impact of the components found within the coca plant, the authors explain that the plant promotes fatty acid metabolism, thereby increasing the availability of glucose around the body. Not only does this enhance physical performance, but it also generates a decrease in appetite. As such, the researchers conclude that coca could find a beneficial use in weight management programs.
Other findings indicate that coca use thins the blood, which is why thrombosis is so rare among the Andean populations that traditionally chew coca leaves. Based on this, the authors state that coca products could be used in stroke prevention.
Several of the anesthetic alkaloids present in the coca plant have also been found to interfere with communication between the central nervous system and the intestines, resulting in the relaxation of digestive muscles and greater regulation of secretions. This, in turn, is believed to prevent gastric tract ulcers and lesions, as well as nausea and diarrhea.
As if that weren’t enough, several Brazilian varieties of coca, including Erythroxylum vacciniifolium and Erythroxylum ovalifolium have been found to kill cancer cells, alleviate snake venom, and increase libido.
Naturally, there is a general resistance to using compounds related to cocaine as medicines, although the study authors claim that the coca leaf in its unadulterated form is entirely safe. This is because the cocaine that is naturally present in the leaf is not stabilized as a salt, as is the case when it is used as a drug. For this reason, an unpublished report conducted by the World Health Organization and the UN in the mid-90s “could not identify evidence of negative health consequences for coca leaf chewing or whole coca product formats.”
It must be noted, however, that much more research is needed before the safety and efficacy of medicinal coca can be confirmed, and given the plant’s current legal status, it’s unlikely that research will be conducted any time soon.