Tag Archives: immune support

What is the Difference Between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

We have billions of microorganisms living in our guts, and having the right organisms in our bodies can have a powerful effect on our overall health. Imbalanced gut flora is common due to antibiotics, disease, stress, or diets high in meat and saturated fats. The wrong population of bacteria in our guts can contribute to digestive distress, but they can also contribute to less obvious issues. An imbalance of gut bacteria can deactivate digestive enzymes, stimulate dysfunctional immune responses, activate carcinogens, and contribute to migraines. On the other hand, beneficial bacteria help optimize digestion, stimulate immune function, improve the intestinal barrier, and prevent colonization of the gut by pathogens. In addition, they can break down certain toxins and synthesize some of our vitamins like vitamin K. Beneficial bacteria may also help prevent colon cancer by lowering intestinal pH.

Probiotics are normal, healthy bacteria that inhabit the gastrointestinal tract. These are the organisms like the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria species you see in most probiotic supplements used to restore and repopulate normal intestinal flora. Some of my favorite probiotic supplements also include prebiotics. These are medium length carbohydrates that feed our good bacteria. The most common prebiotic in supplements is fructooligosaccharide, also know as FOS. Food sources of prebiotics like FOS include garlic, beans, carrots, onions, honey, beer, rye, asparagus, banana, maple sugar, oats, and my favorite Jerusalem artichoke. Eating high fiber foods is another way to support proper gut bacteria. So feed your good bacteria so they can in turn support your health.

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Save American Ginseng: Save Yourself

A new show on the History channel, Appalachian Outlaws, highlights the politics of one of this region’s most valuable herbs, American ginseng. Many of us here in the Ozarks also have a personal attachment to this medicinal plant. A good friend of mine had the ginseng patch he had nurtured for over 20 years decimated by poachers looking to make quick cash by illegally harvesting his ginseng out of season. On top of trespassing and stealing, poachers like these are endangering future ginseng harvests. There is a ginseng season, legally mandated by the state, to ensure the ginseng plants have mature seeds that can be planted in place of the roots that are harvested. My husband’s great uncle, Lloyd Brisco, taught my husband how to ethically hunt ginseng or as he called it “sang.” Since we use the roots of ginseng, the plant is killed during harvest so either the smaller roots need to be replanted or the seeds placed in the hole left by pulling the roots. Ethical wildcrafters also don’t take every single plant. Ideally, you only harvest 1 out of every 20 plants.

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt "sang"

Lloyd Brisco geared up to hunt “sang”

American ginseng is in such demand because it is one of the true longevity herbs. American and Korean ginseng are both known to compensate for the impact of stress on the body. They do this by modulating our cortisol levels. Ginseng can reduce elevated cortisol, which is implicated in many chronic health conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. By reducing the impact of stress, American ginseng can improve digestion and immune function. American ginseng can also help symptoms related to insufficient cortisol due to prolonged stress like fatigue and some types of depression. I find that it gives me more stamina and helps me work long days in the office and on the farm.  American ginseng is also a nootropic herb that helps enhances cognitive function and memory.

American ginseng is so monetarily valuable because it has these amazing medicinal benefits but takes a long time to grow and grows best in the wild. A lot of our American ginseng is exported to China and wholesale prices are on the rise, but people looking to make quick cash off the high demand for ginseng are putting this native treasure at risk. Local herb enthusiast, Madison Woods, has published a short book on Sustainable Ginseng available online as a paperback or ebook that can help people who want to grow wild-simulated ginseng on their own property. She also offers ginseng habit consultations where she personally helps you find the right wooded areas to plant ginseng for future harvest or preservation purposes. So let’s do what we can to protect this local jewel so we can continue to benefit from it for generations.

American Ginseng

American Ginseng

Natural Flu Prevention

This seems to be shaping up to be a particularly bad flu season. So far, nearly forty people have died of influenza here in Arkansas. My husband recently had a mild case himself, and it made me think I should share what I did to prevent myself from getting it. These interventions can also help prevent colds and other upper respiratory infections and reduce the severity of a cold or flu if you come down with one.

Astragalus

Astragalus

When the cold and flu season starts, I begin taking astragalus, which has been shown to boost the immune system especially when taken long term. That is why I start it at the beginning of flu season, so I get the full immune benefits. But it is worth starting at anytime since astragalus also has a mild antiviral activity. Astragalus also helps with the body compensate for stress and reduces cortisol, which has been shown to suppress immune function. In addition, astragalus can help increase stamina. Because of this combination of immune and energy benefits, I choose astragalus over Echinacea for the flu season. I still use Echinacea sometimes, especially if my preventative strategies haven’t been enough and I start to feel a cold or flu coming on.

Another lesser-known immune booster is larch arabinogalactan. These are polysaccharides derived from the larch tree. Polysaccharides are the immune stimulating compounds in many of the best-known immune herbs like Echinacea and aloe. In addition to supporting the immune system, larch arabinogalactan can help with inflammation and joint pain. I also like larch arabinogalactan because it is a mild tasting powder that is safe to for children.

In addition to an immune booster, I take my daily fish oil and vitamin D. Fish oil and vitamin D are again obvious choices because of their multiple health benefits. The polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish oil help with optimal immune function, while also supporting mood, fighting inflammation and helping prevent heart disease. Vitamin D has been shown in numerous studies to help reduce rates of influenza. People who are deficient in vitamin D are much more likely to get the flu. In fact, lack of vitamin D production from sunlight is possibly one of the reasons the flu season is at this time of the year. If you already have adequate vitamin D levels, taking more vitamin D isn’t necessarily helpful. In fact, excess vitamin D might slightly increase the rate of influenza.

Elderberry

Elderberry

I always keep elderberry syrup in my house, and when my husband or I start feeling sick, this what we reach for. Elderberries have been shown in test tube studies to reduce the rate of influenza virus replication. Studies have also shown it to reduce the severity and duration of flu symptoms. In one study, 87% of the people taking elderberry had nearly complete resolution of symptoms in 3 days, while only 33% of those given the placebo felt as good at that point.

There are many other herbs and supplements that I could write about to help fight the flu, but lifestyle considerations are even more important. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to reduce stress, get adequate sleep, and allow yourself extra rest when you feel like you need it. When our stress goes up, so does our cortisol, which as I mentioned suppresses the immune system. Additionally, inadequate sleep hampers our immune system partially through causing elevated cortisol output. So get 8-9 hours of sleep a night and establish stress management techniques like deep breathing, exercise, yoga or meditation so that every day stress won’t leave you more susceptible to the flu.

Vitamin C: Powerful Protector

For colds, most people reach for vitamin C to help them get back on their feet sooner. They might chose it because they can tell it helps them feel better, or they might have heard about one of the numerous studies supporting its use. Most studies show that vitamin C reduces the severity of cold symptoms. Even one famous “negative “ study showed that vitamin C reduced the severity of cold symptoms by 20%. This was only considered a negative outcome because these results were not deemed significant. Other studies show that vitamin C accelerates recovery, especially if taken early in the illness. One study using 3000-6000 mg daily showed an 85% reduction in cold and flu symptoms compared to the control. I notice that especially toward the end of a cold, taking vitamin C has a marked effect on my energy levels, helping me get back to work.

Vitamin C can be beneficial for other respiratory issues. In epidemiological studies, increased vitamin C intake is correlated to lower rates of asthma. Supplementation with vitamin C also has been shown to reduce exercise-induced airway reactions such as narrowing of the airways. Additionally, vitamin C may be helpful for asthma that is related to pollution. These benefits are partially due to vitamin C’s anti-histamine effects, which are augmented by the presence of bioflavonoids, compounds that occur in foods alongside vitamin C that potentiate its activity.

Vitamin C’s well-known antioxidant capabilities provide part of its protect of the respiratory tract. When we are exposed to pollutants and toxins, free radicals cause cellular damage, which in turn contributes to inflammation that can exacerbate conditions like allergies and asthma. It is probably these antioxidant actions that help me feel more energetic at the end of a cold. When the immune system is working hard it creates free radicals as part of the process, and these free radicals can contribute to fatigue. By helping remove these free radicals, vitamin C can help you feel normal again. Likewise, vitamin C can protect vital molecules in the body, such as proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and DNA from damage by free radicals that can be generated during normal metabolism as well as through exposure to toxins. This preserves crucial cellular functions and can help prevent cancer. Finally, vitamin C can regenerate the antioxidant capacity of vitamin E, which is in turn one of the most important fat soluble antioxidant that supports heart health by preventing the oxidation of cholesterol. Again, bioflavonoids also can work as powerful antioxidants supporting the activity of vitamin C so I always look for these when I buy vitamin C.

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Essential Oils for Cold and Flu Season

It is that time of year again. The cool weather is hitting us and I have been seeing more people with colds and other contagious illnesses. One of my strategies to stay well when interacting with sick patients is to use antimicrobial essential oils like peppermint and eucalyptus. While many essential oils have antimicrobial benefits, I particularly choose these two for their additional decongestant nature.

Peppermint essential oil is a very versatile and inexpensive remedy to have around for cold season as well as other times of the year. Inhaling peppermint oil can help relieve sinus pressure because of its high concentrations of menthol, which helps open up congested nasal passages. Peppermint also has analgesic and anti-inflammatory benefits so it helps ease the discomfort that comes along with sinus issues. Peppermint also helps reduce coughing so you nearly always see menthol added to cough drops. Due to its cooling action, adding 10 drops of peppermint oil to a tepid bath can also be useful for fevers or sunburns. For all times of the year, peppermint oil can be a wonderful digestive soother. Add 2-3 drops to 1-2 teaspoons of a carrier oil like almond or coconut oil and massage some of that blend on the back or tummy to reduce indigestion or nausea. Peppermint oil also works well for headaches that are related to digestive or sinus issues. Finally, inhaling peppermint oil has been shown to increase alertness as well as memory and concentration.

Eucalyptus Leaves

Eucalyptus Leaves

A great essential oil to combine with peppermint during cold season is eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is a relative of tea tree and has nearly as potent antimicrobial action as its well-known cousin. It also helps reduce inflammation in the respiratory tract. It is a popular choice for sinus congestion and bronchitis because it helps to break up mucus. Eucalyptus oil can also be a very useful headache remedy. Combined with peppermint it can be used topically for numerous issues from joint pain to repelling mosquitoes. Always dilute them with water or oil before applying to the skin.

For colds, I add 5 drops of an essential oil to a boiling hot cup of water and inhale the steam for several minutes. In addition to easing respiratory symptoms, these oils can also help prevent upper respiratory tract infections. Inhale these essential oils when you have been around sick people or are travelling by plane to create your own essential oil vapor shield.

Immune Boost!

The first cold of the season has been working its way through my patients, so this is the perfect time to talk about boosting the immune system. A strong immune system can help us avoid colds and flu during the winter months to come. The first step is to avoid the things that suppress the immune system like improper nutrition, lack of sleep, and stress. Okay, I admit we can’t avoid all stress, but we can do things to reduce the impact stress has on the body. As I have mentioned in many of my blogs, stress suppresses the immune system. The purpose of this mechanism is to prioritize our body’s use of energy: for instance, when it is time to run from the bear, our bodies divert energy away from our immune system, because who cares about that virus that might kill us in a week if we don’t survive the bear in the next hour! But now in our society, we often have continual low-grade stress that can still suppress our immune system even if we are not facing a bear.

To reduce the impact of stress, we can use medicinal herbs known as adaptogens to balance out our response to stress and strengthen our adrenal glands. Examples of adaptogens include holy basil, astragalus, ashwagandha, and cordyceps. If I could only take one supplement, it would be one of these herbs or a blend of them. I find them to be extremely useful for supporting my energy and stamina as well as keeping my immune system healthy.

Many mushrooms like reishi are well known for helping enhancing the immune system as well as acting as adaptogens. Their immune enhancing capacity is due to the special polysaccharides found in their cell walls, such as beta glucan. Most mushrooms have these polysaccharides, but the type and amount varies between the different varieties. Reishi has been shown to activate several types of human immune cells such as macrophages and natural killer cells.

Another medicinal mushroom to use during cold and flu season is agarikon. One study showed it to have exceptionally strong antiviral activity against a range of viruses including the bird flu H5N1. It even out performed an antiviral drug for fighting the flu virus. For more information on agarikon, check out what mushroom expert Paul Stamets had to say about it on the Huffington Post.

Refresh and Fight Stress with Holy Basil Tea

People sometimes ask me if I could grow only one medicinal herb what would it be. My answer is Holy Basil, because it has so many useful medicinal actions and it is very easy to grow. Holy Basil is one of the many herbs that help us cope with stress, but it is easier to work with than many of the others in this category like ginseng because we use its leaves instead of the root. And it makes a pleasant tea. Some of you might have already tried the popular teas made from Holy Basil, where it is often sold under its other name Tulsi.

My Holy Basil, just from one plant

My Holy Basil, just from one plant

Holy Basil has been demonstrated to reduce the impact of stress on the body and brain. Stress can have a serious impact on our health and contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure, immune dysfunction, and memory issues. Holy Basil has been shown to counter act some of the negative changes that happen in the brain when we are exposure to prolonged stress. Holy Basil may reduce insulin resistance and thereby help lower elevated blood sugar. It can also help decrease elevated cholesterol. Holy Basil helps fight inflammation in the body and therefore pain, partially by being a COX-2 inhibitor. Holy Basil modulates immune system activity and can be a good choice for people who get frequent infections. I like to use it during cold and flu season because it has some antiviral properties too. Finally, Holy Basil is rich in antioxidants and can help protect us from cellular damage, even from radiation.

To make Holy Basil tea from the loose leaves, put 1-2 teaspoons in a cup of water that just came off a boil. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably with a lid over the tea. Strain (if you didn’t use a tea ball), sweeten if desired, and enjoy this awesome wellness boosting, stress-fighting tea. Or try it iced.

And if you want to grow your own Holy Basil plant next year, I got my seeds from High Mowing Seeds sold at Ozark Natural Foods and online. I may also be selling the plant starts next spring when I do the annual plant sale for our farm.

Rainbow of Antioxidants

I often come up with the ideas for my blogs while working in my garden. This one started with a very simple thought: I love purple. I was admiring the purple cayenne we are growing this year. They have that lovely deep purple like eggplant.

Purple cayenne

Purple cayenne

We are growing several other purple varieties in our garden this year like carrots, tomatillos, and okra. The presence of this purple color indicates that these vegetables provide a specific type of antioxidant known as anthocyanins. Other sources of anthocyanins are purple cabbage, purple potatoes, blue corn, black beans, plums, dark grapes, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and black berries, as well as herbs like elderberry, hawthorn, and acai. Anthocyanins are considered to be one of the best antioxidants for protecting our brains, hearts, and blood vessels.

Our Purple Crops

Our Purple Crops

Even though purple is so enthralling, we need other colors to round out our intake of antioxidants. Leafy green veggies are a great source of chlorophyll, which can help protect our DNA from damage and aid the detoxification process. Leafy greens also hide a bunch of beta-carotene under that green. So along with carrots and other orange foods, we can eat our greens to help maintain our vision and enhance the ability of white blood cells to neutralize carcinogens. Lycopene is one of the most potent antioxidants for cancer prevention, especially prostate cancer. It is found in the pink foods: tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit.

Overall the goal is to eat a rainbow of foods so we are getting a diversity of antioxidants to protect our cells from damage and help prevent cancer.

If you want to try some of my purple okra, we are now selling it in the produce department of Ozark Natural Foods.

Vitamin D: Getting Your Right Dose

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.

Cooking Like a Farm Wife

Recently my husband asked me why I hadn’t made a certain dish in a while. My answer was that I was trying to cook like a farm wife by focusing on the ingredients from our farm, whereas the dish he wanted featured spinach, which I don’t have great luck growing. My husband and I run a small organic farm, Downstream Farm Organic Produce, about 8 miles west of Fayetteville on Clear Creek. We mostly grow food for ourselves and sell the extra produce to friends, restaurants, and Ozark Natural Foods.  We raise chickens and grow vegetables like okra, tomatoes, tomatillos, bell peppers, and too many others to name.

Oyster Mushrooms, Wood Ears, Coral Fungus, and Boletes. FYI, I didn't eat all of these mushroom varietes

Oyster Mushrooms, Wood Ears, Coral Fungus, and Boletes. FYI, I didn’t eat all of these mushroom varieties.

Recently, my husband found a bounty of wild mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms and wood ear mushrooms, so I made a special dish to feature them. My venison and wild mushroom stew also included our venison, radish greens, fresh herbs, and tomatoes. Not all ingredients have to be from the farm. For instance, this farm wife happened to have some red wine around. The carrots and potatoes were also from the store since we had run out of our own a few months ago.

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I know that everyone can’t grow as much of their food as we do, but you can still incorporate some of my thinking into your own cooking by focusing on local and seasonal ingredients. Local foods can be fresher and therefore higher in nutrients. Seasonal ingredients tend to be more affordable and often shipped shorter distances so fewer resources are used to get them to us. I try to avoid buying certain summer foods, like melons, in the middle of winter when the only ones available have been shipped from South America or even further away. And these foods aren’t necessarily appropriate for our bodies during the winter. It makes sense that we need cooling foods like melons and cucumbers in the summer and warmer, higher calorie foods in the winter. Part of my process is to be creative with substitutions. For instance, I still look at recipes to get a basic framework for a dish, but readily add or subtract vegetables and other ingredients based on what is available at that time of the year.

I also focus my cooking on nutrient dense foods, as in foods that provide a lot of our necessary vitamins and minerals per calorie. Or in the case of the wild mushrooms, add medicinal benefits to the dish. Nearly all culinary mushrooms strengthen the immune system and help reduce inflammation. Oyster mushrooms may also help lower cholesterol. Consumption of mushrooms like these may help prevent cancer, partially because of the beta-glucans they provide. Oyster mushrooms are fairly commonly available in stores, so you don’t have to find them on a log after the rain like my husband did. And you can grow your own using a mushroom kit or mushroom logs. Since some mushrooms are poisonous don’t eat wild ones unless you know them well like my husband does.