Medicinal Purposes

Indigo was not only used for dyeing and other artistic purposes. In many cultures, indigo, in various forms (as an herb, a color on amulets, its roots, seeds, etc) has been used as a form of medicine for treating ailments, both physical, mental, and spiritual. It would be taken orally, when mixed with other substances such as castor oil or egg white, or applied externally.

Scholars note that in many cultures, indigo was considered to be a “cool” and “magical” color, and was often associated with cooling feverish conditions. Additionally, throughout the world, indigo has mixed associations. In India, indigo is considered to be both an ill omen and an embodiment of the god Krishna. Similarly, in many Arabic cultures, indigo is considered both lucky and inauspicious and thus  would sometimes even describe the color as ‘green’ rather than say ‘blue’ in order to avoid bad luck. It was also a color that was considered to attract the ‘evil eye’, so anyone who wore blue, especially pregnant women and children, were given blue beads–such as nazars-or amulets to ward off the evil eye. By contrast, in some parts of the world, women indigo dyers were considered healers. 

Image: Persian cheshm nazar

Indigo is not the world’s foremost herb in medicine, but it has a large range of what people believed it could heal. To narrow it down, indigo was most often associated with antiseptic, astringent, and purgative healing, but many believed that it could also cure mental conditions, such as hysteria or depression. In many cultures, indigo was also associated with healing stomach or digestive conditions, as well as problems with the eyes.

Of course, like many other chemically potent herbs, indigo is toxic if consumed in large enough amounts, so much so that when it is discussed in Chinese traditional medicine, pregnant women (who were advised to take indigo leaf juice for their health) were advised to not take too much due to its potential danger. 

Recent research into the medical efficacy of indigo points in a positive direction; in China, new trials suggest that infusions of indigo can successfully treat mumps, eczema, chickenpox, and meningitis. Additionally, indirubin (which is present in varying degrees in indigo plants) can help treat certain cancers.

Image: Structure of Indirubin