Feature Archive

Ulcers: An Old Cure

Can ancient oils serve as modern-day medicine?

By Charles Downey
WebMD Feature

May 29, 2000 -- To raise funds for his famous expedition, Christopher Columbus reportedly promised he would bring back four precious commodities: gold, spices, cotton, and mastic.

Gold? Of course. Spices? Certainly. But mastic? Mastic oil comes from the sap of a rare cousin of the pistachio tree. In ancient times, doctors, including Hippocrates and Galen, prized it for its ability to cure stomach ulcers and gum disease.

Now researchers are beginning to confirm that mastic kills Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium responsible for most ulcers in the stomach and small intestine. Prompted by this finding, in March 2000, a British pharmaceutical company began marketing this ancient remedy in capsule form.

Out of Favor

Until recently, mastic was hard to find because the bushy Pistacia lentiscus tree grew only on the island of Chios, Homer's legendary birthplace in the central Aegean, seven miles off the coast of Turkey. For centuries, people of the Mediterranean have cooked with the tree's oil and chewed gum made from its resin to freshen their breath and soothe stomach pains. But it long ago fell out of favor with Western doctors.

"Mastic disappeared from medicine for many centuries because when universities were established, pharmacological knowledge was not included," says John Riddle, PhD, professor of history at North Carolina State University. "Learned men of the time did not trust folk cures based on herbs."