Tag Archives: influenza

Spice Things Up: Warming Spices for Digestion

Now that we are getting some true fall weather, it is a good time of year to enjoy some of my favorite warming spices. I love hot beverages spiced with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger just to name a few. I usually choose a tea that has some of these spices, but for special occasions it is fun to make a mulled cider or wine for your guests.

For instance, here is a delicious mulled cider recipe.

2 quarts unfiltered apple juice (or 1 quart of apple juice and 1 bottle of red wine)

4 cinnamon sticks

1 orange, zested and juiced

8 whole cloves

15 whole allspice berries

½ teaspoon nutmeg, grated

7 cardamom pods

½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns (optional)

1 inch slice of ginger root (optional)

¼ cup honey (optional)

Combine all of the ingredients including the orange zest and juice, bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for 10-20 minutes. Strain and pour into mugs garnished with a cinnamon stick or strip of orange peel and serve.

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The spices used in these seasonal beverages tend to be called warming spices because they stimulate blood flow and help us feel cozy on cool fall days. They also increase blood flow to the digestive tract, helping it to work more efficiently. All of the spices in my mulled cider recipe are also medicinal herbs known as carminatives. These are herbs and spices that are rich in volatile oils that help ease digestive discomfort and reduce gas pain. Other examples of carminative herbs are anise, fennel, chamomile, peppermint and turmeric. Many of these spices also have antimicrobial properties so they may help prevent colds. Additionally, cinnamon is well known for helping improve blood sugar. Your guests can just enjoy themselves without even knowing how much you are benefiting their health.

Let me know if you have a favorite way of enjoying these spices.

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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.

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.

Herbs of the Ozarks

I believe that if we know the local herbs in any region well enough, we can rely on them nearly exclusively to treat most common complaints. This holds true for the Ozark region, where many classic American herbs grow and many introduced species also tend to flourish. In fact, the Ozarks are part of the native range for herbs in very high demand—like goldenseal and American ginseng.

Another well-known plant from this part of the country is black cohosh. This herb is found in nearly every blend for menopausal symptoms, but it is most effective for women that have a particular constellation of symptoms, such as hot flashes, depression, and achy muscles or joints. Studies are showing that black cohosh may reduce the hormone surges associated with hot flashes. Black cohosh might also have constituents that act similarly to the medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which could explain its possible mood benefits. Furthermore, black cohosh also has pain-relieving attributes that make it an ideal herb to choose for discomfort and complaints not related to menopause. It contains analgesic and inflammation modulating constituents that make it a promising consideration for joint and muscle pains. Women can use it to address menstrual cramps because it relaxes smooth muscles, such as those found in the uterus. Black cohosh is also an herbal option for men who have low back and knee pain, especially if they also have prostate issues or are under a lot of stress.

 Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.


Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.

Japanese honeysuckle is a plant that is probably known to every Arkansan, but few know about its health benefits. Japanese honeysuckle isn’t native to the Ozarks. It was introduced and is now invasive, but one way to combat invasive plants is to harvest them for herbal medicine. The flowers of Japanese honeysuckle are antimicrobial, antiviral, inflammation modulating, and mildly detoxifying. The most common traditional use of honeysuckle flowers is as a component of Chinese herbal blends for colds and flu. A modern use of honeysuckle flowers is as an addition to pharmaceutical or herbal antimicrobial agents to increase their effectiveness. Additionally, Japanese honeysuckle flowers can help block the pumps that harmful bacteria use to disseminate the antimicrobial agents out of themselves. Apart from supplementation, Honeysuckle flowers are also mildly cooling and can make a refreshing summertime iced tea.

So we don’t necessarily have to search exotic lands for our medicinal herbs. Instead we can use our local plants provided by Mother Nature to help our environment and ourselves.

And you can check out my recent appearance on a local Harrison TV station talking about some other common herbs found here in the Ozarks.

Willow Bark: Herbal Aspirin?

Many people consider willow bark to be an herbal aspirin substitute. This is true for many of its actions, but there are some differences that are important to know about. The main commonality is that willow bark has analgesic and inflammation modulating effects that make it useful for pain. Willow bark is used for headaches and body pain. Studies have even shown it to be helpful for low back pain and osteoarthritis. Willow bark also can be a good choice when dealing with influenza. Willow bark shares aspirin’s ability to help reduce fevers. It can also reduce the body pain and headache associated with the flu.

Aspirin was not originally created from willow bark, but it could have been. Aspirin was derived from meadowsweet, a plant that contains salicylates just like willow bark does. Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, and the addition of this acetyl group gives aspirin its blood thinning capacity. Unlike aspirin, willow bark does not reduce the stickiness of platelets or thin the blood. Otherwise, they are very similar in their actions, but willow bark is less likely to irritate the stomach compared to aspirin. The liver activates the compounds in willow bark after they have been absorbed into the blood stream, so they are not present in the gastrointestinal tract to cause irritation. Because of this activation step, willow bark doesn’t work as quickly as aspirin. But once converted to the active form, it can be effective for several hours.

P.S. There is a connection between the last 15 herbs I have blogged about recently (except the posting on Medicinal Kitchen Spices). Extra credit to anyone who can tell me what it is.

salix-alba

Echinacea for Winter Immunity

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.

Echinacea

 

Antiviral Elderberry for Colds and Flus

Whenever I have a cold or feel like one might be coming one, I reach for elderberry. Mostly, I use a syrup made from the berries, because it is a pleasant herbal remedy that always seems to revive me a little. The berries of the elderberry plant are well known for their moderately strong antiviral benefits that may work by reducing the ability of viruses to invade our cells. Though I use it for colds, elderberry has also been shown in two small studies to help relieve some of the symptoms of influenza compared to placebo. The doses used in these studies were between two to three teaspoons of the syrup multiple times a day. This matches my experience. I feel a greater boost from a larger dose of elderberry as opposed to the teaspoon many products recommend. Also, elderberry needs to be consumed often. Peak levels in the body are reached an hour after consumption and drop off quickly after that. Since elderberry is a very safe herb these fairly high frequent doses are usually not an issue.

Though my main reason to use elderberry is to help fight colds and sore throats, this isn’t the only benefit of elderberry. Elderberry has some immune stimulating attributes, but may also be an immune modulator. This means it may balance out either an overactive or underactive immune system. The berries are also very rich in antioxidants, particularly catechins similar to those in green tea. The flowers of elderberry are occasionally used in cold and flu blends since they can induce sweating and thereby help break a fever. Similarly, they can act as a diuretic and increase urinary output. A less common use of elderberry is to help with symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, maybe mostly because of this diuretic action. Elderberry is also thought to help the nerves and has been used for neuralgia and sciatica.