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Balsam Tolu (myroxylon Balsamum)Balsam Tolu (myroxylon Balsamum)
August, 31 2005


Balsam of tolu (Myroxylon balsamum), a tall tree native to northern South America, is found predominantly in Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and some areas of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. A closely related species called balsam of Peru (M. pereirae) is native to Central America farther north. Balsam of Peru was named such because it was originally assembled and shipped to Europe from the ports of Callao and Lima, Peru, but the species is not indigenous to Peru.

Both trees grow up to 35 meters in height and produce white flowers and winged seed pods. Balsam trees are tapped like rubber trees to collect their resin like gums that are used commercially and sold as "balsam." A tree must be at least 20 years old before it can be tapped for its gum, and one tree produces only about 3 kg of gum annually. Today, El Salvador is the main exporter of balsam of Peru (exporting approximately 50 metric tons annually), and Colombia and Venezuela are the main producers of balsam of tolu. The gum has a vanilla-like smell and taste and is used as a food additive and flavoring in cough syrups, soft drinks, confectioneries, and chewing gums.

TRIBAL AND HERBAL MEDICINE USES: The indigenous tribes of Mexico and Central America use the leaves and fruit of M. pereirae for asthma, colds and flu, rheumatism, and external wounds. The Choco Indians use the powdered bark as an underarm deodorant. The sap of M. balsamum has documented indigenous uses for colds and lung ailments, and Amazon rainforest tribes have employed it for abscesses, asthma, bronchitis, catarrh, headache, rheumatism, sores, sprains, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, and wounds.

The indigenous use of Balsam of Peru led to its export to Europe in the seventeenth century, where it was first documented in the German Pharmacopeia. It was used as an antibacterial, antifungal, and antiparasitic agent in cases of scabies, ringworm, lice, superficial ulcerations, wounds, bedsores, diaper rash, and chilblains. In Britain, balsam is used topically for scabies, prurigo (chronic inflammation of the skin), pruritus, and acute eczema, as well as taken internally for asthma and bronchitis and to generally lessen mucous secretions.

Balsam of Peru has been in the U.S. Pharmacopeia since 1820, with documented uses for bronchitis, laryngitis, dysmenorrhea, diarrhea, dysentery, and leucorrhea. Today, it is used extensively in topical preparations for the treatment of wounds, ulcers, and scabies. It can be found in hair tonics, antidandruff preparations, and feminine hygiene sprays and as a natural fragrance in soaps, detergents, creams, lotions, and perfumes. Balsam of tolu was also included in the U.S. Pharmacopeia in 1820 and is used much as balsam of Peru. Additionally, it is a cough suppressant and respiratory aid used in cough lozenges and syrups, for sore throats, and as a vapor inhalant for respiratory ailments. The internal dosage is reported to be to 1 gram taken three times daily.

PLANT CHEMICALS: Balsam contains 50% to 64% volatile oil and 20% to 28% resin. The volatile oil contains benzoic and cinnamic acid esters. The benzoic and cinnamic acids are believed to be the main active constituents of the resin. The oil contains about 60% cinnamein, a volatile oil that is extracted by steam distillation and used commercially in the perfume, cosmetic, and soap industries.

Many chemicals are found in balsam of Peru: alpha-bourbonene, alpha-cadinene, alpha-calacorene, alpha-copaene, alpha-curcumene, alpha-muurolene, alpha-pinene, benzaldehyde, benzoic, benzoic-acids, benzyl-alcohol, benzyl-benzoate, benzyl-cinnamate benzyl-ferulate, benzyl-isoferulate, beta-bourbonene, beta-elemene, cadalene, calamenene, caryophyllene, cinnamaldehyde, cinnamein, cinnamic-acids, cinnamyl-benzoate, cinnamyl-cinnamate, cis-ocimene, coumarin, d-cadinene, dammaradienone, delta-cadinene, dihydromandelic-acid, eugenol, farnesol, ferulic-acid, gamma-muurolene, hydroxyhopanone, l-cadinol, methyl-cinnamate, nerolidol, oleanolic-acid, p-cymene, peruresinotannol, peruviol, resin, styrene, sumaresinolic-acid, tannin, toluresinotannol-cinnamate, vanillin, and wax.

BIOLOGICAL ACTIVITIES AND CLINICAL RESEARCH: Balsam of Peru and balsam of tolu have been documented to have antiseptic, antiparasitic, and antibacterial properties as well as to promote the growth of epithelial (tissue) cells. The plants have been reported to inhibit Mycobacterium tuberculosis as well as the common ulcer-causing bacteria, H. pylori in test-tube studies.

At least six clinical studies published in recent years indicate that balsam can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Allergic reactions reported are generally skin rashes and dermatitis when the balsam comes into contact with the skin - even in small amounts found in soaps, perfumes, and other common body care products. These allergic reactions are attributed to the gum`s benzoic acids, which some people are highly sensitive to.

CURRENT PRACTICAL USES: Balsam of Peru and balsam of tolu are widely available now in the U.S. natural products market. The resinous gum or the essential oil distilled from the gum is sold in small bottles and used topically, in aromatherapy, and taken internally in small amounts. Generally its topical use is recommended for skin rashes, eczema, and skin parasites. In aromatherapy, it is considered warming, opening, and comforting and is used in various nervous tension and stress formulas. It is taken internally (5-10 drops) for upper respiratory problems and excessive mucus.

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