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Bitter kola: antidote to malaria at no cost?

By Sade Oguntola - Nigeria

Madam Ogunni is very popular among drivers and roadside mechanics who gladly patronize her items on display – Kola nut or bitter cola.

The attractive nature of the kola nut and bitter cola stashed in a basket nicely placed on her head and their affordable price of ten for $1.50 makes it a desirable cheap snack for refreshment.

Consumption of kola nut and bitter cola in the African community dates back to pre-historic times. In fact, it is the custom of the Ibos from Nigeria to present kola nut to visitors as a way of welcoming them. Their neighbours in Yoruba also see it as essential requirements for a marriage ceremony.

               Kola nuts

Consumption or serving of bitter kola is however not restricted to ceremonial events or as snack. Its medicinal uses for malaria make it the relish of many people in Ile Ife, the cradle of the Yorubas.

“I started eating Bitter kola when researchers working in Ile Ife told me that it is good in preventing malaria. I always insist on my office assistant buying me some whenever he goes to the Oje market, fruit market in Ibadan” says Professor Juwon Arotiba Professor at the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan & University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria.

Bitter kola

Bitter kola is a medium sized forest tree found throughout West and Central Africa. The seed, also known as “false kola” is eaten as refreshment in Nigeria as a cure for general aches in the head, back, etc., and also as a de-wormer. Igbo medicine men prescribe the fruit for arthritic conditions.

Mastication of bitter kola relieves coughs, hoarseness, bronchial and throat troubles. It is said to be a remedy for dysentery, osteoarthritis, antidote against poisoning and considered aphrodisiac.

Considerable experimental evidence has been adduced to support its chemical constituents against several ailments in the community, including malaria.

“We extracted its chemical constituents, which is called Kolaviron and when it was tested on malaria parasite, we found it had significant anti-malarial activity,” says Professor Olusegun Ademowo, a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Medical Research and Training, College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, South West of Nigeria.

 “What we are now trying to find out is the right dosage of its extract that would be required in treating malaria. Also, we are looking at what other effects its use will have on the human cells. But at the moment it is in the preliminary stage.”

No doubt, traditional healers had been prescribing bitter kola for the treatment of malaria. Researchers, who reported that bitter kola had anti-malaria effect in the 2010 issue of Journal of Medicinal Plants Research, from a survey of plants used by traditional healers in the Democratic Republic of Congo attributed this to its quinones content.

In 1999, a group of researchers in Kinshasa, Congo, attested to why people should consider feeding more on bitter kola to ward of malaria. Under laboratory conditions, they found that extracts from bark, stem and seed of bitter kola tree inhibit the growth of malaria parasite (Plasmodium falciparum) by at least 60% at a low concentration of 6 mg/ml.

Interestingly, Nigerian researchers have also developed herbal cures for malaria that can take care of resistant strains from a cocktail from local plants that includes bitter kola.

A typical cocktail developed by a plant taxonomist at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and Ebonyi State University, South- east of Nigeria, Professor Jonathan Okafor, consists of Morinda lucida (commonly called local cinchona or Brimstone tree.), Nauclea latifolia, lemon grass, male pawpaw leaves, Moringa oleifera (drumstick tree), mango bark, bitter kola and guava leaves and bark.

74 year-old Okafor claimed that he has successfully used the concoction for the last 25 years to treat malaria and hopes to start producing it in commercial quantities.

So when another Madam Ogunni passes you by, remember to patronize her because eating bitter kola is medicinal and can save you from the deleterious effects of malaria.

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