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Researchers Discover Supplements Used Thousands of Years Ago
January 10, 2013

People have used the active ingredients in dietary supplements for thousands of years to help health and to treat illness. For example, people have used willow bark tea for centuries to control fever. Now, Italian researchers have uncovered zinc food supplements aimed to treat eye problems from a shipwreck off the coast of Tuscany dating back more than 2000 years ago.


The zinc supplements were very sophisticated with multi-herbal blends of with animal and plant lipids, pine resin and are believed to be the oldest ever found. Starch, bees wax, charcoal, linen fibres, as well as pollen from olive, wheat and other plants was also detected.

The tablets were bound together using corn starch, a common ‘binder’ ingredient used today and commonly found in Roman cosmetics and other products requiring a bulking agent or filler.

They were preserved because they were sealed in oxygen-free 'pyxis' (metal tins) in the holds of the Pozzino, which sank near Tuscany around 130-140BC.

"The results of this work highlights the continuity, up to current days, in the use of of zinc carbonate and hydrocarbonate for the treatment of human diseases, especially in dermatologic and ophthalmic fields," Gianna Giachi, one of the researchers from the Superintendence for the Archaeological Heritage of Tuscany, told us.

"Moreover, the research puts in evidence the care in the choice of the complex mixture of products - olive oil, pine resin, starch, line fibers -- in order to get the desired therapeutic effect and to help in the preparation and application of the same medicine."

"they were very well preserved..."

The 1-4cm supplements were first found in 1990 but are only now being properly examined via mass spectrometry with the findings presented at the National Academy of Sciences.

Another of the researchers, Maria Perla Colombini, professor of chemistry at the University of Pisa said she was, "surprised by the fact we have found so many ingredients and they were very well preserved considering it was under water for so much time".

Giachi said the use of zinc in medicines correlated with publications by Theophrastus (371-286 BC) in his Histora Plantarum and De Odoribus, and Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia" (first century AD) and Dioscorides in De Materia Medica (also first century AD).

"The shape of the tablets of Pozzino seems to be consistent with an ophthalmic use of the analysed product," he relayed.

"The Latin name collyrium (eyewash), comes from a Greek name which indicates small round loaves, which is precisely the shape of the Pozzino tablets."

He said other ancient medical products included a granular gum found around 2000 years ago in London and a plant-based medical preparation near Pompeii in Italy.

Eyewashes in the form of cylindrical rods were found near Lyon, France, dated from the second century AD.

Dating back to early Chinese records from 200 A.D, yet most people have never heard about it, cordyceps has been found in mountainous China, Nepal, and Tibet and boosts athletic performance and aids lung function. It has been used for thousands of years of use in traditional Chinese medicine,

Turmeric, a plant that has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and is a major ingredient of curry has also been found in ancient tombs and artifacts.

John Summerly is nutritionist, herbologist, and homeopathic practitioner. He is a leader in the natural health community and consults athletes, executives and most of all parents of children on the benefits of complementary therapies for health and prevention.

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