There are many different medicinal lichens, Robert Rogers (1) neatly notes all the medicinal lichens in his work “Medicinal Lichens”.
Robert Rogers states: “Did you hear the one about the fungus and the alga… they took a lichen to each other” – commenting on how the lichen was first formed.
Lichen means “leprous” in Greek, the plant was named by Dioscorides, he thought it resembled the skin of people with leprosy, and this encouraged the Doctrine of Signatures to use the lichens as an attempted cure for leprosy. In 16th century Europe they thought the lichens were secretions of soil, rocks and trees. Then in the 19th century some experts thought lichens were composed of air and/or water, while others though they found an example of spontaneous generation. However, lichen’s are a slow growing symbiotic combination of fungi and algae – it is believed that it is a mutually beneficial partnership, as the alga is green and can utilize sunlight and carbon dioxide to make food, while the fungus holds water and provides structure.
Many scientists now believe, following laboratory studies, that the fungus is really a parasite. When lichens were experimentally separated in labs and grown apart, the algae grew more quickly and the fungus more slowly; however, when the two join forces, they can survive where neither would make it on its own. In fact, scientists could only get the two to re-join when the conditions would not support their individual growth – a survival technique perhaps?
In 1869, the German, Simon Schwender wrote: “This fungus… slaves are green algae, which it has sought out or indeed caught hold of, and compelled into its service. It surrounds them, as a spider its prey, with a fibrous net of narrow meshes, which is gradually converted into an impenetrable covering, but while the spider sucks its prey and leaves it dead, the fungus incites the algae found in its net to more rapid activity, even to more vigorous increase.”
The term helotism, suggesting a master-slave relationship, may be describe lichens.
Lichen’s are very adaptable to becoming dormant during dry periods and at low temperatures, they can remain this way for years, reviving when the conditions improve. They have the ability to grow in the coldest, snow-free alpine and boreal forest, often growing less than a milimeter a year, and if left alone can reach an incredible 2000 years old! Typically, lichen’s prefer to grow on tree trunks – however, it must be noted that they are not parasites, as they do not penetrate the bark. Often lichen’s grow on the North facing side of the tree, this was an advantage to traveller’s, especially travelling in the woods at night.
It is estimated that there are 13,000-30,000 lichen species that inhabit the plant. Within over 20 species added to the list in British Columbia each year.
The great mystery when it comes to lichen’s, is their chemical “secondary compounds”, which are not by-products of normal plant metabolism, due to the energy required to produce them. During World War II, both the Germans and Americans investigated lichens for their antibiotic potential, and found over 50% of species tested showing activity. Over 700 secondary lichen substances have been identified, with new compounds being described all the time. Aromatic compounds, such as depsides, desidones and carotenoids, are unique to lichens. Studies out of India have shown species of Lepraria to exhibit hypotensive, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and neuro-muscular-junction-blocking activity.
There are two notable exceptions within the lichen’s: Wolf Lichen (Letharia vulpina) and Powdered Sunshine (Vulpicida penastri), both contain pinastric and vulpinic acids – both of which are extremely poisonous. Be careful if ever collecting L.vulpina as it can cause severe respiratory irritation and nosebleeds in closed environments.
Lichens, especially Usnea spp., are an indicator of pure air. They are more susceptible to damage from sulphur dioxide than other plants, and good monitors of air quality. Researchers from Italy, in a 1997 article in Nature, suggest a strong correlation between lichen biodiversity and lung cancer. The lichen Hypogymnia physodes is the most tolerant macrolichen to sulphur dioxide pollution, and will incorporate it into cellular tissue, as a measure of toxicity in the area. Lichen’s are resistant to radiation, and in one experiment they survived 1000 rads a day for nearly two years from a distance of 8 metres and continued to grow - a single exposure of 400 rads will kill a human.
Two of the very few organic chlorine containing substances occurring in nature, gangaleoidin and diploiein, have been isolated from lichens.
We will be looking specifically at Iceland Moss as a medicinal lichen.
Iceland Moss, Cetraria islandica, although called a moss, this brown lichen attaches to rocks in open sub-alpine forests. It is best collected when green and fully-grown between May and September. An average yield of 700kg per acre or air-dried Iceland moss could be expected if solidly covered, the exception rather than the rule.
The lichen is symbolic of health, and associated with the birth date January 16th. It is associated with the second Rune, UR.
In Iceland, it is called Fjallagros, and as far back as 1280 AD, the first written laws of that country banned people picking it on one another’s land. The Chipewyan used Tsanju as a source of both food and medicine. Iceland moss is used as a source of glycerol in the soap industry, and because of its lack of odour, in cold cream manufacture. In Russia, during World War II, Iceland Moss, Alectoria ochroleuca and various Cladina spp. were used to make a type of molasses, with the glucose yield from Iceland Moss at 78% of dry weight. Bread Moss, or Brodmose, is a Scandinavian name for Iceland Moss due to its use in extending wheat flour or potatoes in times of famine.
Iceland Moss is both antibiotic and heat stable and safe for human consumption. Water extracts of the lichen have been found to inhibit development of the tobacco mosaic virus – even at 1:500, it reduced the number of brown lesions on leaves by 80% due to an enzyme called ribonuclease.
Lobaric acid, glucans lichenin (polysaccharides 30-40%), isolichenin (10%), lichenan (17%), galactomannan (7.6%), various usnic, salicylic, cetraric, physodalic and fumaric acids, estrosterol peroxide, protolichesterinic acid (0.1-0.5%), lichester-inic, protocetraric acid (2-11%), aromatic lichen acids (1-1.5%), cetrarin, pocrolichenin, oxalic acid, furan derivatives, iodine, vitamin A, trace minerals including iron, iodide and calcium salts, fatty acid lactones, terpenes, mucilage, fibre, and gums.
Historically, Iceland Moss has been used to manufacture antibiotic to inhibit tuberculosis, 1kg of antibiotics from 40kg of plant material. In Finalnd, an anti-fungal cream called USNO is made for treating athlete’s foot and ringworm. The lichen entered the Finnish Pharmacopoeia in 1915. In Switzerland, Iceland Moss is used for sore throat pastilles and as an additive to luncheon meats and pastries to retard spoilage.
Iceland Moss is a nutritious and soothing tonic, with slight laxative effect. It helps improve the appetite and digestion of the elderly and those recovering from a debilitating illness. The bitter principles benefit the stomach in both tincture and infusion form, stimulating the production of saliva and gastric juices. It, therefore, can be used like Queen of the Meadow, for both hyper- and hypo-acidic stomach conditions.
Decoctions are used for chronic diarrhoea and respiratory problems. Like Lungwort, it increases the flow of breast milk but not with inflamed or sore breasts. Both low thyroid and anaemia conditions are helped by trace levels of iodine and iron and other nutritive properties as well.
Lichenin is soluble in hot water and upon cooling forms a gel; while isolichenin, present in smaller amounts, is soluble in cold water. Lichenan is a polysaccharide similar to beta glucan, found in Oats and Barley. Stubler et al found lichenan exhibited strong anti-viral activity.
It soothes nausea from gastritis and vomiting, combines well with Borage and Chickweed for peptic ulcers, hiatal hernia, and esophaheal reflux. In fact, for those individuals with a fluid deficiency, it would work better than a straight astringent herb.
In an open clinical trial, 100 patients with pharyngitis, laryngitis or bronchial ailments were given lozenges containing 160mg of an aqueous extract of the lichen. There was an 86% positive response with good gastric tolerance and lack of side effects. Perhaps it should be considered in cases of diverticulitis and even cystic fibrosis in children.
Mild infusions of Iceland Moss can be used as a vaginal douche for its soothing, demulcent properties. Tincture form is best for whooping cough, asthma, TB, and kidney/bladder complaints; especially those related to a dry, irritating conditions. Here, the sweet, moist and astringent nature of Iceland Moss helps address the underlying concern. It may also be used for night sweats or fevers, but is taken during the day to prevent re-occurrence. Do not use Iceland Moss when a fever is present.
Protolichesterinic acid has been found to exhibit anti-tumour activity in mice. More recent studies have shown protolichesterinic acid to be a potent inhibitor of HIV. Other components, such as polysaccharides, have been found to stimulate the immune system. Studies have shown that the polysaccharides identified are comparable to the fungal polysaccharide lentinan (Shiitake) used for clinical cancer therapy in Japan. Whilst Iceland Moss also appears to suppress the growth of Heliobacter pylori, which contributes to gastric and duodenal ulcers.
Lobaric acid, another constituent, has been found to be significantly anti-carcinogenic with regards to two breast carcinoma and erythro-leukemia cell lines as well as anti-inflammatory properties. Studies by Haraldsdottir et al found lobaric acid very effective against a number of human cancer cell lines in vitro. While studies by Gulcin et al determined that Iceland Moss contains significant potential as a natural antioxidant.
In homeopathy, Iceland Moss is used for acute and chronic bronchitis; asthma and pains in the chest while coughing. Dose: 10-20 drops of tincture as needed. The mother tincture is prepared from the dried lichen.
Iceland Moss is steam distilled to produce a brownish essential oil. The bulk is composed of aliphatic acids are saturated (66.8%), composed mainly of palmitic, stearic, and behenic acid. Unsaturated acids compose the rest, with oleic and linoleic acids being the most common.
Iceland Moss and its spiritual properties are related to the signature of this lichen. Individuals struggling with their personal spiritual evolution, or those in difficult environments, physically and emotionally, will benefit from this lichen. When an individual comes close to achieving deeper awareness of God, there is often great fear and unwillingness to continue. This is often related to the incorrect belief that nothing will remain to be done on earth. Those working towards spiritual goals based in Eastern philosophies will also be helped. In the martial arts, one seeks to let go of the mind, and yet be ready for full physical response. Iceland Moss will help develop this trust as well as help an individual discover and feel comfortable with their own level of spiritual purpose.
1. “Medicinal Lichens” by Robert Rogers