Three years ago, the Golden State Warriors’ guard Leandro Barbosa shredded his left anterior cruciate ligament. For a guard reliant on speed to fuel his game, losing any of it could have been a career-ender.
Amazingly, the 33-year-old Brazilian was able to return to the court a scant eight months later, and, more importantly, regained a great deal of the juice in his legs. What revolutionary medical procedure did he undergo? None.
Barbosa partially credits a Brazilian folk remedy derived from a local plant called arnica do mato. It’s wholly unavailable in the United States, but Barbosa began swigging down glasses of a syrupy green juice extracted from the shrub on the advice of his personal trainer, Alex Evangelista, who told him that it had been used to treat a different species of competitor.
“It’s a medicine you give horses,” Barbosa explained to the New York Times. “Whenever they get hurt, it helps them recover very quickly. Because they have to run.”
In the article, Barbosa kvells about the substance’s curative powers, though he’s been unable to convince his fellow Warriors to join him. He’s not only procured “vats” of it—at the beginning of his rehab, he was bathing in it.
These days, he’s down to guzzling two glassfuls a day even though by all accounts the taste of arnica do mato is pretty noxious. “It burns going down,” Barbosa said. “You kind of feel dizzy if you’re not used to it. I got used to it.”
Lousy flavor profile notwithstanding, Barbosa swears by its effectiveness to the point that he sounds like he’s selling magic beans. “It cleans out all the bad things that you have in your body. All natural,” he said.
And despite sticking to a fairly rigorous health, exercise, and training regimen gleaned from picking the brain of his fitness-obsessed former teammate, Steve Nash, Barbosa seems to be convinced that imbibing the arnica do mato extract has not only aided in his ACL recovery, but has helped to keep him injury-free the last three seasons.
The Times reached out to “several plant science experts” and Mount Sinai’s co-chief of sports medicine, none of who had ever heard of this strain of arnica, let alone its use as both an analgesic and antioxidant. Barbosa’s teammate and fellow countryman, Anderson Varejao, however, told the Times that yes, it was a common and well-known home remedy.
Quickly scan Brazilian heath blogs, though, and you’ll find plenty of mentions of arnica do mato and a history of the plant being doled out by grandmothers to not just treat minor bruises and reduce pain, but combat a wide variety of physical issues. One site states that it additionally “facilitates the secretion of urine and regulates the menstrual flow, combats cough, tones the body and clears the intestines,” and “Assists in skin and gonorrhea problems.” Others claims it’ll deal with ingrown toenails and pesky bouts of flatulence. You can buy pills of it online, though this site cautions against ingesting more than 1500 to 3000 milligrams per day.
Whether Barbosa exceeded that limit is unknown, but a spokesperson for the Warriors confirmed that the team’s training staff had given him the thumbs up to continue using it. (They declined to explain how they’d gone about vetting arnica do mato or what research they might have done to come to this conclusion.)
The question is, does it work? A plant in the same family, arnica montana, which grows in Russia and Central Europe, is widely sold throughout the West, but some clinical studies have shown that it is no different than swallowing a placebo, does not speed the resolution of post-laser treatment bruises, is ineffective in the treatment of osteoarthritis, and is about as impactful as ibuprofen, particularly when it comes to improving soreness after running.
Vocativ spoke with William Milliken, an ethnobiologist with the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens who has extensive experience researching traditional knowledge and medicinal plants in Brazil. He pointed to the scientific studies that have been done showing that yes, arnica do mato is an effective anti-inflammatory and painkiller. “That in itself suggests that it has medicinal properties,” he said, “the fact that it’s widely used and that there’s multiple references to use.”
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