My grandfather had multiple sclerosis, which is an illness that is more prevalent in northern latitudes like South Dakota where he lived. Some researchers are investigating whether lower vitamin D levels might contribute to this trend. Data like this has increased our awareness of the need for vitamin D over the last few years. There seems to be an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in this country especially since Americans are spending more time inside and doing a good job of using sun screen when outside. As I noted in a previous blog, exposure to toxic chemicals like pesticides might also be interfering with our ability to make vitamin D from sunlight. There is strong evidence showing that appropriate levels of vitamin D reduce falls and fractures and improve bone density. Vitamin D is also useful for helping prevent influenza and maybe even asthma attacks. Additionally, vitamin D might also help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. Finally, I always make sure my patients that are taking calcium have adequate vitamin D levels. Without adequate vitamin D in the body, calcium supplements might increase heart disease, but when given together they reduced mortality by 9% in a recent study.
However, more isn’t always better. With all of the hype about vitamin D, I have seen people taking high doses for long periods of time. All medicines and supplements have optimal dose ranges: too little isn’t enough to help, but too much can cause problems. A common dose of vitamin D used to be 400 IU, but now the thinking is that this is probably too little. Likewise, regular dosing over 2000 IU might offer no additional benefit and in some cases may even diminish the desired outcome. For instance, in a study on influenza, Japanese children given vitamin D had a 64% reduction in the rate of influenza compared to placebo. But when children already taking vitamin D had more vitamin D added, their rate of the flu increased by 11%. This number wasn’t high enough to be sure it wasn’t just random fluctuations, but at the very least, it showed that more vitamin D didn’t lead to greater benefits. For Caucasian women with osteoporosis, higher doses didn’t necessarily have any negative consequences, but the increases in bone density were the same between two groups with one taking 800 IU and the other taking 6500 IU. While I sometimes recommend vitamin D testing, it is important to know that there are different optimal levels for different ethnicities. For instance, Caucasian women whose vitamin D levels less than 20 ng/ml had a significant increase in fracture risk, but African-American women whose levels were above 20 ng/ml had 45% increase in fracture risk. So while vitamin D can offer us several benefits, it is important to figure out your right dose.
Posted in Health
Tagged cancer prevention, cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular health, colds, health, heart health, immune booster, immune support, influenza, mood support, nutrition, osteopenia, osteoporosis, upper respiratory infections, vitamin d deficiency
It seems like nearly everyone I know is either sick right now or just getting over a cold. This is typical for this time of year when the seasons change. One of the first herbs people think of for this season is Echinacea, and probably rightly so. Echinacea is a very well studied and is widely regarded as an immune stimulating herb. A study where participants use 1 gram of Echinacea three times a day did show increased immune function. Also, Echinacea appears to have some antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties. For instance, one study showed that taking Echinacea for ten weeks helped prevent the recurrence of yeast infections in women.
Echinacea is probably most effective when used before you get sick or as soon as you start having symptoms. Not all of the studies have found Echinacea to be valuable for fighting colds, but nearly all of the studies that showed no benefit from Echinacea used low doses of this herb. There is also debate on how long Echinacea should be used. Many people say don’t use if for more than a few weeks, but this might be a misinterpretation of a study that showed that the immune response started dropping when Echinacea was discontinued. Still, Echinacea is generally not used for more than 2 months at a time.
Butterfly milkweed is one of my favorite roadside wildflowers. It has another common name pleurisy root, earned from its traditional use for conditions of the lungs. Pleurisy refers to an inflammation of the lining around the lungs, as sometimes results from coughs and other disorders. Pleurisy root was traditionally used to ease this painful condition, partially because it can help reduce pain and inflammation in the lungs. Pleurisy root is also used for wet coughs that are due to upper respiratory tract infections. Pleurisy root is a stimulating expectorant, which means it helps to encourage a productive cough so mucus is more efficiently expelled from the lungs.
Pleurisy root also supports the body during infections in less direct ways. Pleurisy root is used to induce sweating during a fever. This can help break an uncomfortable fever, but for this effect it is best to take it with a hot beverage like tea. It can also be used to support suboptimal fevers, where the temperature isn’t high enough for the full immune benefit of a fever. Pleurisy root also stimulates the circulation of the lymphatic system, particularly around the lungs. This action can also contribute to a more effective immune response. For all of these pulmonary benefits, pleurisy root has earned a place in many herbal blends used for coughs and bronchitis. It is usually used in fairly low to medium doses because higher doses can cause nausea and vomiting.
September is the beginning of American ginseng season here in Arkansas, or as the old-timers call it ‘sang. We are lucky to have such an amazingly beneficial plant growing nearby, but we need to make sure that we protect it. If you are lucky enough to know a ‘sang hunter or are one yourself, make sure the rules are followed about planting the red berries 1-2 inches deep when the root is harvested. American ginseng grows throughout the Eastern United States, but it tends to grow in small clusters and has a lot of harvesting pressure on it. Since it is monetarily valuable, unscrupulous hunters will over harvest an area. For instance, trespassers stole my friend’s ginseng patch that he had been cultivating for over 20 years. Efforts need to be made to insure that we will continue to have this jewel of a plant in our region, by buying American ginseng from organically grown or ethically wild harvested sources.
American ginseng is so invaluable because it helps relieve stress and soothes the digestion. Its actions on the digestive tract are partially through direct action, but many of ginseng’s effects are due to the stress reduction. When we are stressed out, our ability to digest food is diminished. By calming the impact of stress on the body, American ginseng may help many cases of indigestion. Use of American ginseng has also been shown to reduce the incidence of colds. Again, the immune system is suppressed by stress through excess production of cortisol, the stress hormone. American ginseng can also be useful for diabetes, because, you guessed it, stress contributes to insulin resistance. It is also a good herb for fatigue, especially tiredness due to over work. American ginseng probably also shares the ability of its close cousin Asian ginseng to help prevent cancer. In the regions where the most Asian ginseng is consumed, cancer rates are significantly lower.
Don’t expect these fabulous benefits overnight. American ginseng is used long term since it may take weeks or months for the full effect to be noticed. This is a very safe herb that most people can use, but it is a little bit stimulating and, in some people, could contribute to insomnia. Taken early in the day, most people have no issue with American ginseng, and it may even improve their sleep.
Posted in Health
Tagged adaptogens, American ginseng, colds, diabetes, digestive health, flu, GI Health, immune support, indigestion, insulin resistance, stress, upper respiratory infections
My husband just harvested the garlic I planted last fall. We go through a lot of garlic in our house so these approximately 250 bulbs will last the two of us most of the year including what we will plant for next year’s crop. I was surprised to realize I hadn’t yet blogged about garlic since it is one of my most commonly used herbs and not just in the kitchen. My reliance on garlic began when I was first in college. I would get bronchitis after nearly any cold. When I started taking garlic during colds and for short while after them, I no longer had the lingering bronchitis. Garlic can also be used to prevent colds and other upper respiratory infections. A study from England showed that garlic taken daily for 12 weeks reduced the risk of colds by 2/3 compared to placebo.
While I was mostly taking advantage of garlic’s antimicrobial benefits, garlic is also one of the best cardiovascular tonics. Garlic can help improve cholesterol, and as an antioxidant, it helps prevent the oxidation of cholesterol. When cholesterol becomes oxidized, it is more harmful to our arteries. Garlic also can help to slowly reduce the amount of plaque in the arteries according to one 4-year placebo controlled study. Finally, garlic is a mild blood pressure reducer, partially by increasing the dilation of blood vessels.
There are a few choices in how to use garlic. Cooked garlic seems to retain many of the heart protecting qualities, but I add it to my food towards the last 5-10 minutes of cooking as opposed to the beginning like in most recipes. For the antimicrobial properties, raw garlic or supplements need to be used. Raw garlic can be upsetting to the stomach so I always take it on a full stomach. I mix minced garlic with honey and swallow it without chewing. Another option recommended by one of my instructors is microwaving 3 cloves of garlic with their skin on for 30 seconds. There is the issue of breath and body odor, so on days I am going to be around others, I tend to take the odor controlled garlic supplements instead.
Here is a picture of my cat Persimmon enjoying our garlic harvest.
Spring isn’t quite here, but it is starting to feel like it. As much as I love spring, these shifting temperatures can be stressful on the immune system. That is why early spring tends to be a prime season for cold and flu. I have personally added the herb Astragalus to my daily regimen to help strengthen my immune system since I am around sick people often. Astragalus is categorized as an immune modulating herb, meaning that it helps rev up or calm down the immune system based on what the body needs. I prefer this type of “wise” herb to the ones that just stimulate the immune system like some species of Echinacea. Also unlike Echinacea, astragalus can be used long term. Astragalus also has some antiviral properties, and research shows that it may help to prevent upper respiratory tract infections.
In addition to its immune benefits, astragalus has other powerful benefits that make it worthy of our consideration. Astragalus is an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body compensate for long-term stress. Stress can have a negative impact on our bodies, particularly our adrenal glands that help regulate our metabolism among other things. Our adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress. Disrupted cortisol production can be associated with fatigue, insomnia, and even high blood sugar and blood pressure. By balancing adrenal output, astragalus may help with these issues. Adaptogens may also help increase stamina during exercise. Another advantage of astragalus is it is high in antioxidants and helps to protect the liver. Because of this range of very useful benefits, astragalus is definitely an herb to get to know better.
It is the first day of winter, and though the weather has been slightly warmer than usual here, I am still having some trouble adjusting to the cold. It is no wonder that many of the traditional holiday treats involve warming spices to help us feel cozy. Some of my favorites are mulled apple juice with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger and hot teas that have similar spices in them. Warming spices can also stimulate our digestion to help us with heavy holiday meals. Cinnamon, cloves, or ginger can help ease discomfort associated with indigestion.
Cinnamon is a favorite herb of mine because of its diverse benefits. It is antimicrobial and breaks up mucus making it useful for colds, flus and cough. It is also astringent and can help slow down bleeding, such as with heavy menstrual periods. It can also help reduce blood sugar. Many people look for the true cinnamon that goes by the Latin name Cinnamomum zelanicum, but in this case the more common Cinnamomum cassia is a better choice, according to a study. Many cooks also prefer the cassia cinnamon for its more robust flavor. I have personally found cinnamon to be a little bit stimulating. Once I drank so much of a spicy tea that contained cinnamon that I had insomnia. When I backed off, my sleep normalized.
Ginger is another powerhouse herb that has many uses beyond making gingersnaps. It addition to the digestive benefits I already mentioned, ginger is a very popular herb for nausea and motion sickness. Ginger is also a great inflammation fighter that can be considered for nearly any inflammatory issue from colds to arthritis. Ginger has antimicrobial benefits that make it further useful as part of protocol for upper respiratory infections. Ginger is also one of the many foods that help reduce the formation of new blood vessels by cancerous tumors. Without increased blood supply from new blood vessels, cancers cannot grow as quickly. Finally, ginger can help protect blood vessels, kidneys, and the liver. I hope I have given you plenty of reasons to add these tasty herbs to your winter recipes or enjoy them as teas to help you stay warm and healthy.