Don Elijio Panti, right, collects medicinal plants in Belize

Ethnobotany is the study of indigenous cultures and their use of herbals for healing. And while Belize is a hotspot for ethnobotany, it’s actually happening every day in our own community.

My path through this rainforest of knowledge began on a small island in Belize. I was completing a masters in neuroimmunology and was on winter break after having spent a month in Vancouver, B.C., working with the world’s expert in the inflammatory mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease. I was relaxing in a hammock in the breeze after a day of bonefishing when an older couple asked for help with their motorboat.

While tinkering with their outboard motor, we shared our views on the relationship of the mind-body. My experience building custom automobiles was actually coming in handy as Anita told me about her lupus that had flared up during meetings of the Citrus Growers Association, of which she was the president, forcing her to bed for a week each time.

Then she had heard about a medicine man in the mountains along the Guatemala border. He treated her and she went three years without a flare-up. In fact, she said she had more energy and strength without any symptoms.

She said I had to meet this man. As payment for fixing their boat she offered to take me to meet him. That is how, on the next morning, I found myself sitting in a different hammock outside of San Ignacio in the highland rain forest listening, spellbound, to a 100-year-old man sharing his life and treatment philosophies. This man was known throughout Central America as the last of the Mayan healer priests, who worked in both the physical world of pulse diagnosis, touch therapy and herbal medicine, as well as the ethereal world of the energy of nature and the interaction with our spiritual base. I was mesmerized by his words and ideas. And he was fascinated by my bright-eyed, open-minded skepticism as I embarked on the mind-body-spirit path that combined wellness, natural medicine and science for healing.

“Everything in life has a signature,” he said, “as does nature, to show us the way to use this as healing medicine.”

Hmmm … signature. I had heard this before in my Ayurvedic teachings as well as from Native American medicine men. Chinese medicine approaches disease in much the same way. So off we went down his Medicine Trail through the rainforest, this five-foot tall, 100-year-old Mayan man with a cane and a large sack showing me this concept of “signature” and nature’s gifts.

Validating my thoughts, two National Cancer Center institute scientists appeared. Together, we dug up a Mexican yam, looking for breast cancer and menopausal cures. The signature was strong in this plant. It has been used for centuries for menstrual irregularities and cramping as well as symptomatic relief for elderly women. This yam, from which the Cancer Institute scientists have since found five active estrogen compounds, looked exactly like the full uterus of a pregnant woman.

There were many more signatures that week. A vine that was twisted in a particular fashion, used for indigestion, looked exactly like the small intestine. A young child was burned falling into a campfire, and to help him we walked the trail, and he pointed to a tree whose bark looked like that young child’s burned skin. We peeled it off, made a poultice and applied it daily to the burns. By the end of the week the skin was nearly healed.

This Mayan healer also had a stone he kept with him that he used as a grounding stone. He was given his when he was a child during his apprenticeship. His father and his father’s father as far back as their oral tradition carried were all healers. He was taken as a child into a dark cave, and his father handed him various herbs, which he came to recognize by their unique vibrational energies. He used this along with the energy of the patients and their illness to match the healing energy with the deficit.

This healer’s name was Don Elijio Panti, and you can visit his Medicine Trail at the Ix Chel Medicinal Farm in Belize. He left me with a thought about cancer that I revisit every day: “Why must we poison the body in order to heal it? Continue to look to nature to fortify the body rather than weaken it.”