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Walnuts in Ancient Medicine
The theory of the walnut in medicine began in the ancient Mediterranean world. The walnut was a pillar of a healthy diet in Greece before the modern era. Its medicinal virtues were detailed in a variety of Greek and Roman medical writings. Dioscorides, a Greek physician in the Roman army living in the first century C.E., traveled extensively and came to know many of the plants of the Mediterranean. His only surviving work, Materia Medica, was completed about the middle of the first century. In it, Dioscorides explains how walnuts were cures for a variety of ailments.
Walnuts Resemble Brains and Were Used as Ancient Cures
It was in his writing work that Dioscorides first considered, in his expert opinion, that walnuts looked like brains and could be used to heal mental conditions. This list was broad, ranging from Autism to concussions and even to allergies. The writings of Dioscorides talk about his belief in this as a serious medical practice. Many of these recommendations would appear in subsequent medical works for almost two thousand years.
This focus of study was shared by Aelius Galenus, also known as, Claudius Galenus, Galen of Pergamon, and Galen. He lived from approximately 129 AD to 200 AD. Dioscorides and Galen both promoted versions of the “doctrine of signatures”, which said that plants resembling various organs and features of the body made effective remedies for those parts of the body. This included a variety of foods, including walnuts. The Greeks called walnuts karyon, or “head”. Most likely because the shell resembles the human skull and the kernel bears a resemblance to the brain.
Doctrine of Signatures
The doctrine of signatures was revived and expanded on in Europe during the Renaissance. It was popularized by Paracelsus, a sixteenth-century German/Swiss physician and botanist. Paracelsus, and healers in many disciplines, called walnuts “the perfect signature of the head” and “the very figure of the brain”. Using the doctrine of signatures, the walnut was considered very beneficial for the brain. Not just supportive for the brain when ingested, but also used in an oil or paste to cover the exterior of the head.
Few other Renaissance era herbalists or physicians believed that walnuts could cure maladies related to the head. Some researchers are quoted, referencing walnuts within the doctrine of signatures. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the doctrine of signatures was being referred to in a mocking way. Considered absurd and an example of debunked “science” that has no place in modern medicine.
Walnuts in Medicine Today
Recent studies have suggested that consuming walnuts might actually improve cognitive functioning after all. The black walnut was promoted in the past as a cancer cure on the basis that it kills an unnamed “parasite”. However, according to the American Cancer Society, “available scientific evidence does not support claims that hulls from black walnuts remove parasites. [They are not] effective in treating cancer or any other disease”.
In conclusion, walnuts are still a superfood worth adding to your diet regardless of their ability to cure ailments. To clarify, the recent data on walnuts arrives as the result of modern day studies and continuous research. Not simply because they resemble brains in appearance.