The agave plant is perhaps best known as the primary source of tequila. Brady Bunte however emphasizes that this plant is so much more than the alcoholic beverage that has made it internationally famous. The agave plant has for centuries held pride of place in Mexican culture as a sacred plant. Even before the Spanish explorers came to the region, the Aztecs were already using the plant for medicinal purposes.
Although often mistaken for a species of cactus, the agave is actually a succulent perennial that grows long fleshy leaves. At maturity, these leaves that grow from the base of the plant can achieve a height of over 6 feet. When it comes to medicinal use of the agave, it is the sap taken from the leaves and roots that is considered most important. According to Brady Bunte, this sap has been found to contain highly beneficial components including estrogen like isoflavonoids, blood thinners, alkaloids and vitamins A, B, C, D and K. These components are believed to be contributing factors to agave’s anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antibacterial properties.
One of the key ways in which agave sap was used by the Aztecs was as a poultice to treat skin problems. Brady Bunte explained that it would be mixed with egg whites and applied to burns, cuts, knife wounds and insect bites. The sap’s anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and restorative properties were very useful in healing these kinds of varied skin problems. This remedy is also said to ease pain with stories told of prisoners about to be whipped applying the sap beforehand to make the punishment more bearable. Brady Bunte believes that the anti-inflammatory and pain relieving properties are also likely to be the reason the leaves were crushed and applied as a treatment for toothaches.
The sap was also used to create tonics that were ingested orally. It helped in a number of ways, such as soothing bronchial inflammations, ulcers and digestive problems. The demulcent properties of the sap have been found to create a soothing coating over mucous membranes. It is also said to function as a laxative and was traditionally used to treat constipation. Despite having laxative abilities, Brady Bunte reports that the remedy was still successfully used in the treatment of conditions like diarrhea and dysentery.
Brady Bunte identifies this traditional tonic as the aguamiel, or waterhoney. It was prepared by roasting one of the leaves until brown, and then squeezing out the juice that was then allowed to simmer over a low heat. Sometimes additional ingredients, like ground gourd seeds and cinnamon sticks, were added to the tonic before being administered to the sick person.
The sap has also been found to contain coumarins. This blood thinning action, along with the anti-inflammatory response and pain relief, would account for its traditional use in the treatment of menstrual problems. Brady Bunte also pointed out other illnesses that were reportedly treated using the sap including jaundice, tuberculosis, flatulence, syphilis and some liver diseases.
The efficacy of the agave sap in traditional medicine has been documented as far back as the mid 1500s. It is however important to note that much like with other herbal remedies, there is no accurate dosage recommendation that can be made. Moderation is recommended, with small quantities to be applied by first time users.
Brady Bunte recommends this as there have been some cases of allergic reactions. It is also believed that high ingestion may lead to digestive and liver problems. Pregnant women are advised to abstain from using agave entirely. The agave plant should be very carefully harvested of its leaves as they have sharp tips. Brady Bunte recommends drying the leaves and roots, as these parts can be stored for a long time.