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The vast jungle of the Amazon rainforest ensconces some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet with its 1,300 species of birds; 3,000 species of freshwater fish; and an astonishing 40,000 species of plants. It’s no wonder that some of the most potent botanical remedies originate from this incredibly rich ecosystem. Among these species grows the copaiba (pronounced co-pie-EE-ba) tree (Copaifera spp.), towering up to 100 feet tall into the rainforest canopy. Resin extracted from the copaiba tree has only recently caught the attention of Western scientists, but it’s quickly becoming one of the greatest medicinal discoveries of the plant world.
For the healers of the indigenous Amazon tribes, copaiba oil is nothing new. They’ve long used it mixed with honey to ease sore throats and tonsillitis, as well as to treat topical pain and wounds; as an antiseptic to kill bacteria in urinary tract and respiratory infections; and as an antibacterial remedy to treat bronchitis and tuberculosis. In addition, they’ve utilized the copaiba resin to heal stomach ulcers, syphilis, tetanus, and a variety of other afflictions.
Copaiba resin was first recorded in European medicine in 1625, after early Jesuit travelers brought it back from the New World under the name “Jesuit’s Balsam.” Throughout the early 1800s, Dr. R. La Roche praised copaiba in medical journals, particularly for its potential cure in a case of bronchitis. In the 200 years since his findings, almost no mention of copaiba appeared in medical journals again. In the last several years, though, a growing body of researchers has revived the study of copaiba and revealed what the indigenous people have known for centuries: Copaiba has widespread health benefits.
Unlocking the Endocannabinoid System
Recent research reveals copaiba’s effectiveness in relieving pain, reducing inflammation, killing germs and bacteria, inhibiting tumor growth, protecting the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, acting as a mild laxative, suppressing coughs, and expelling phlegm. According to extensive research compiled in Leslie Taylor’s book, The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs, copaiba supports a healthy cardiovascular, immune, digestive, nervous, and respiratory system, and acts as an antioxidant that helps destroy harmful disease-causing free radicals.
The main reason for copaiba’s many health benefits stems from its ability to interact with the body’s powerful endocannabinoid system (ECS). Most people aren’t familiar with this recently discovered body system, as it’s only been studied in-depth within the last decade.
If you’ve heard of cannabis, you’re already somewhat familiar with the ECS; it’s the same system that allows the active compounds in cannabis — the cannabinoids — to interact within the body via cannabinoid receptors on cells. Since discovering these receptors throughout different parts of the body, scientists have determined that there’s a network through which all of these receptors and cannabinoids interface. We can think of the ECS as a nexus between the body and mind. Growing research into the ECS opens up a world of possibility for using this network of cell receptors to combat a wide range of diseases, including neuropathic pain, mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, cancer, atherosclerosis, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis.
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There are two types of cannabinoid receptors that work in tandem to regulate a diverse number of functions in the body: CB1 receptors work in the brain and nervous system, while CB2 receptors primarily function in the digestive tract and immune system. Together, they modulate pain, appetite, nausea, memory, cognitive functioning, and the brain’s reward center. They also work to regulate the immune system, and glandular and hormonal functions.
Three main cannabinoids interact with CB1 and CB2 receptors: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and beta-caryophyllene (BCP). As an example, THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, is received and processed by CB1 receptors in the brain, resulting in feelings of elation. Alternately, CBD and BCP, present in many other plant species, have potent effects on the body through the same ECS network for a host of healing potentials. Copaiba contains high concentrations of BCP, which works exclusively on the CB2 receptors, making it particularly effective for treating digestive and immune system disorders, specifically for the reduction of hyper-inflammation that results from damaged or diseased nerves.
Hope for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases
Because of copaiba’s interaction with the nervous system through the endocannabinoid system, it may hold the potential to counteract neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s disease results from a perpetual death of the dopamine neurons in the brain; but a preliminary study published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy medical journal found that copaiba’s beta-caryophyllene (BCP) interactions with the CB2 receptors might help protect and restore brain and nerve cells involved with the production and regulation of dopamine. With copaiba’s ability to shield dopamine from destruction, it may hold the key to hindering the progression of Parkinson’s disease.
A 2017 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine explored the effects of copaiba on brain cells affected by Alzheimer’s disease, in which researchers found that copaiba provided significant antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and neuroprotective properties. Researchers also found that copaiba prevented the destruction of the brain hormone, acetylcholine, a deficiency of which has been heavily linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
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Pain Relief for Arthritis
Some scientific studies have highlighted copaiba’s anti-inflammatory effects to counteract arthritis pain. In a study published in Complementary Therapy in Clinical Practice, participants who received hand massages with copaiba mixed with a blend of oils known as “Deep Blue” reported 50 percent less pain, improved strength in their fingers, and increased dexterity when compared to those treated with a coconut oil placebo.
Copaiba can potentially be helpful in the treatment of arthritis and joint pain in animals, too. An animal study published in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry found that copaiba demonstrated potent anti-inflammatory activity throughout the body, and reduced the number of free radicals involved in the degradation of joints in arthritic conditions. Melissa Shelton, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, recommends administering one drop of ingestible copaiba oil per 50 pounds, twice daily for animals. You can also apply a drop or two of the oil topically, diluted in a small amount of carrier oil.
Copaiba and Cancer
While research into the effects of copaiba on cancer is in its early stages, the oil has already shown great potential to fight cancers, given its supportive effects on the immune system. In a study published in the European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, researchers found that copaiba stops skin cancer cells from proliferating. Researchers also found that copaiba interfered with the division of colon cancer cells, thereby reducing their ability to multiply. Authors of this study, published in Biomedical Pharmacotherapy, concluded that copaiba may play a role in the suppression of colon cancer, attributing these benefits — at least in part — to copaiba’s anti-inflammatory properties. Copaiba may be beneficial in treating other types of cancers, including melanoma, lung, lymph, and breast cancers, but studies of copaiba’s effects on these cancers are still in the preliminary phases.
The medical journal Phytopherapy Research reports that copaiba demonstrates notable antibacterial properties. The study assessed the effectiveness of various copaiba species, and found that they all had significant antibacterial activity, particularly against bacteria responsible for dental and gum conditions in the mouth. Further research found that copaiba was effective against bacterial strains such as Staphylococcus, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This is particularly hopeful news.
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Healing Damaged Skin
Copaiba has demonstrated effectiveness against skin cancer in some studies, and other research found that the internal or topical application of copaiba oil provided significant improvement in the symptoms of chronic psoriasis by reducing scaly or thick skin. Additional research found that copaiba stimulated collagen in the skin, and promoted new skin growth, which may be beneficial for chronic wounds, burns, or the appearance of aging skin.
Choosing and Using Copaiba Oil
Make sure you select high quality, pure, undiluted essential oils whenever you choose to use them for personal health. While you should always dilute essential oils in a quality carrier oil prior to full treatment, it’s important to note that many oils on the market are diluted with less-than-desirable carrier oils. High-quality oils cost more than the cheap varieties on the market, but they’re worth the increased price, as many cheap oils are adulterated with solvents used during the extraction process, or toxic pesticides used in growing the herbs from which essential oils are extracted.
Some companies may cut down copaiba trees to extract the oil, thereby potentially destroying the delicate rainforest. Choose a sustainable product in which the company taps the trees, similarly to the way maple trees are tapped for syrup, to ensure the life and safety of the trees and ecosystem. After diluting a drop or two in a small amount of carrier oil, always conduct a 48-hour test on a small, inconspicuous part of your skin to determine whether you have any sensitivity to the oil. Discontinue use if you experience any skin sensitivity. Use essential oils with caution and the advice of a qualified natural health practitioner during pregnancy or in the treatment of any health condition.
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Once you’ve chosen your copaiba oil, and have tested it for any allergic reactions, you can safely begin to reap its multiple benefits. There are many ways to use copaiba essential oil: Diffuse it or mix it with water to form an aerosol for inhalation to improve your mood, or apply it topically on painful, wounded, or cancerous areas.
The Future of Copaiba
While the extent of copaiba’s treatments for disease remain to be proven in scientific studies, the early findings in medical research of copaiba oil offer abounding optimism for the future of medicine. Hopefully, copaiba’s healing properties will continue to propel scientific research onward and fortify conclusions about its efficacy.
With more research comes the possibility for more insights into safe dosing and approved methods of application in addressing bacterial infections and disease. A more specific understanding of copaiba oil’s interaction with the ECS could help treat disorders of the immune system and neurodegenerative diseases. Copaiba also holds inspiration for greater research into the possibility of treating and preventing cancer. We have the Amazon rainforest to thank for this amazing tree and its essential oil, which, for now, can provide an alternative way to topically address pain, inflammation, and skin disorders.
Dr. Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, DNM is an internationally best-selling and 20-time book author whose works include: Be Your Own Herbalist, available below, and The Cultured Cook. Learn more about her work at Food House Project and Dr. Michelle Cook.