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sa happy pillAn indigenous South African plant and traditional San medicine has made its debut in a high-profile international medical journal. The Namaqualand herb, Sceletium tortuosum, has been used for centuries by the San as a medicine, stress reliever and mood enhancer. Research conducted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) professors on Zembrin, a patented pill form of the herb, showed it had an impact on the parts of the brain involved in managing anxiety.

 The research was published in the medical journal Neuropsychopharmacology during August this year. One of the researchers, Dan Stein, chair of the department of psychiatry and mental health at UCT, said: "It is very prestigious for a paper to be published in Neuropsychopharmacology and shows the high scientific value of the research." Sixteen research subjects, half of whom had taken Zembrin, were shown images meant to provoke fearful reactions. Their responses were recorded through magnetic resonance imaging of their brains.

Doctor and botanist Nigel Gerike is the man behind Zembrin, the pill form of the plant extract known traditionally as Kanna. He has spent 18 years trying to "validate the indigenous knowledge of the San people with science". This study was the third clinical trial on Zembrin he has been involved in.  

Gerike won an award in July from the Indigenous Plant Use Forum for his work in developing science to support the traditional medicine. He and the pharmaceutical company producing Zembrin had "done more than anyone in this country to try and demonstrate the safety and value of this traditional medicine", Gerike said. Medical doctor and consumer activist Harris Steinman said it was a good thing the natural medicine was being studied. "Most natural over-the-counter products are not supported by any clinical evidence to show if they work as advertised or are safe." But Steinman cautioned against anyone using Zembrin: "These are preliminary studies and there is no data to show the plant extract is safe for long-term use."  

Associate professor of pharmacology at Rhodes University Roy Jobson said: "We have no idea of what would happen with longer-term use of the product."Research on the Sceletium plant by his faculty had produced "highly variable results", he said.But Gerike countered that the medicine had been used safely for hundreds of years by the San. "We have a world-class product dossier for Zembrin addressing safety, quality and efficacy, and this is being subjected to international scrutiny by overseas regulatory authorities," he said.

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