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How to live to 100 or even longer - a Handbook of Canary Folk Medicine by José Jaén

Updated on February 20, 2016

There are many centenarians living in the Canary Islands

Many old people have lived to 100 years of age or over in Tenerife and the Canary Islands and author José Jaén Otero wrote a book in which he interviewed some of them to find out their secrets. Handbook of Canary Folk Medicine the secrets of our old herbalists, published by the Centro De La Cultura Popular Canaria in Gran Canaria is the book he wrote. It has a foreword by well-known Canary Islands botanist and author David Bramwell.

Handbook of Canary Folk Medicine was published back in 1999 but is still available in bookshops on the islands. It is illustrated with black and white and colour photos of various herbs and some of the old people with and without the author, as well as drawings of the plants featured in the book. I bought mine in the Visitor's Centre up on Mt Teide in Tenerife and it cost me 7.95€.

Handbook of Canary Folk Medicine

Handbook of Canary Folk Medicine by Jose Jaen book cover
Handbook of Canary Folk Medicine by Jose Jaen book cover

The secrets of longevity revealed

Obviously it makes a lot of sense to ask someone who has lived a very long life what their secrets to longevity are and this is what José Jaén set to find out. He spent time talking to many of the oldest men and women living on the Canary Islands and asked them about what they thought kept them in such good health.

Altogether Jaén conducted 200 interviews with elderly people aged between 90 and 114 years of age and was able to draw many conclusions from what he was told.

The author writes in the Acknowledgements section in the front of his book: "My greatest respect and veneration goes to the elderly people, who as 'Masters of Life', have taught me to observe Nature with patience and live without fearing illness and death."

Most of the very old people told him that they don't watch TV and avoid loud noise and noisy environments. They all get up and go to bed early so get plenty of rest and are active by day.

They all avoid modern processed and packaged foods, including tinned ones, and they recommend simple foods, especially locally produced ones. "Gofio" that was a staple food of the Guanche people before the Spanish Conquest but is still popular today and is made up of roasted and ground maize, wheat and barley flour is one of their basic foods. Vegetable soups and stews that contain marrows, courgettes, watercress and cabbage (brassica) greens all come highly recommended, as do those made with potato, garlic and onions. Curdled milk and soft unpasteurised cheese are other recommendations, as are olives.

The author reveals that it is said that there were once two brothers from Lanzarote, who were said by the 16th century chronicler Torriani, to have reached the incredible ages of 140 and 137 on a sole diet of toasted barley, camel milk and chamomile tea.

The centenarians that Jaén talked to mostly had faith in God and had strong religious beliefs which they thought were essential for a long and happy life. They thought that worry and lack of any occupation shorten our lives.

Most of them avoided alcoholic drinks and smoking and they use herbal teas to treat themselves if they do fall ill on occasion. They don't agree with taking modern drugs and having vaccinations. Popular medicinal herbal teas he was told are ones made from Nettles, Pennyroyal, Walnut leaves, Canary Island mint, Chamomile and Horsetail.

Most of the very elderly Canary Islanders lived in the countryside and had spent a lot of their lives there and had worked on the land. The majority have done a lot of walking in their lives too, even barefoot, the author tells us.

Canary Islands herb photos

Canary Island Lavender
Canary Island Lavender
Passion Flower
Passion Flower

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Herbal remedies

Most of the Canary Island folk medicine remedies use herbs. either as teas and infusions or sometimes as poultices and ointments. Amongst illnesses and ailments covered are Alcoholism and drug addictions, Asthma and Bronchitis, Cancer, Baldness, Debility, Fatigue and Anaemia, Diabetes, Stress and Nervous Tension, Psoriasis and Rheumatism and Arthritis.

In a section dealing with throat complaints the author points out that those who use the folk medicine of the Canary Islands say that there were nowhere near as many people suffering this sort of trouble in the days when sweets and ice-cream, as well as preserved and packaged foods were rarely consumed.

One remedy for throat problems is a simple gargle with salt and lemon juice in warm water. The Canary Island Sorrel (Rumex lunaria) is recommended to be chewed to help conserve the voice in good condition.

The herb known as Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) prepared as an infusion is recommended to treat diabetes. For headaches Basil, Lavender, Vervain and Rosemary are some herbs that can be used as remedies.

There is even a chapter about dealing with pests. In it the author suggests that a way to get rid of cockroaches is to place "a lettuce leaf with a handful of bread yeast or crushed Castor-Oil plant (Ricinus) seeds on the floor."

Lemon Balm, Lemon Verbena and Lavender are all remedies for stress and bad nerves. Passion Flower and Valerian can be added to your bath to help treat these complaints too.

Towards the end of the book is a chapter entitled Proverbs - Sayings About Health. In this section there are many recommendations and examples of traditional wisdom that has been passed down such as: "Heavy suppers fill the cemeteries." This makes a lot of sense as it is a widely held belief in some alternative health circles that eating before bedtime is not a good idea because you give the body work to do while it should be resting.

Another saying is" "Poppies and lettuce will help you sleep." This is again based on what is known because these herbs both have sedative properties, especially the Opium Poppy.

And finally here is some advice on getting a good night's rest: "Off to bed at ten, better before than later."

This is a book with plenty of fascinating information it would be hard to come by elsewhere.

© 2011 Steve Andrews


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    • Tenerife Islander profile image

      Steve Andrews 6 years ago from Tenerife

      Yes, it's not easy to manage a life like they have done, which I suppose is why there are so few very old people about!

    • teresa8go profile image

      teresa8go 6 years ago from Michigan, USA

      Hmmmmm, seems like I'm doing everything wrong if I wanted to live a long life. :D