Saturday, 17 December 2011

Exploring the Hype - Raw Chocolate and Argan Oil

Being in the natural health industry, I am frequently confronted by the testimonies extolling the virtues of the latest miracle food, miracle beauty treatment, miracle ingredient or simply a 'miracle'! Recently, I have been exploring the hype behind 2 such 'miracle' products or rather the ingredients in them, their sources, manufacturing processes and health claims. One of them is raw chocolate and the other is argan oil. My default setting is to always examine the science behind such claims and to represent a balanced viewpoint which may not always be popular but I do believe that enabling informed choices is always the preferred option compared to contributing to a marketing frenzy based on the minset of the gullible. Of course, there is no accounting for stupidity which is precisely what markeing campaigns are geared to operate on.
Raw Chocolate Raw chocolate first made an appearance in Europe only very recently (some original pioneers of the raw food movement first introduced raw chocolate to the UK as recently as 2003) and although chocolate per se has been in existence as part of the Mayan and Aztec cultures since time began (200BC), it was only ever consumed in its cooked form. It was often given as a hot drink to soldiers on their way to war. So the Mayans and Aztecs would have known about chocolate's unique powers and health benefits even then.
The refined and cooked chocolate that we have come to know and love as confectionery is made from the cacao (cocoa) bean of the Theobroma cacao tree. Its highly processed nature (it is heated to above 130 degrees celcius) and the addition of ingredients such as milk, cocoa solids, cocoa butter, hydrogenated fats, preservatives and refined sugar make it highly desirable in taste but incredibly addictive and unhealthy if consumed in large quantities. However, raw chocolate is not subject to such processing (the cocoa bean is never heated to above 45 degrees celcius) and the only ingredients added are natural sweetners (which invariably come from fruits such as goji berries, acai, red and black berries or agave syrup), natural fats (cocoa or coconut butter, natural essential oils) and nuts for flavourings. These ingredients are added to counteract the bitter taste of raw chocolate but despite 'smoothing over the rough edges' of raw chocolate's taste, some still subscribe to the notion of it being a 'acquired taste' due to its bitter flavour!
Health Claims So what of the claims made of the health benefits of raw chocolate? Well, there is a wealth of scientific evidence on some of the health benefits associated with cooked chocolate especially dark chocolate. These include conferring protection against heart disease, cancer-fighting properties, combatting depression, generating a feeling of well-being and aphrodisiac properties. Given that cooked chocolate has a fraction of the nutritional ingredients of raw chocolate, it would be reasonable to expect raw chocolate to confer the same health benefits except in a more powerful manner. Comparative data shows that raw chocolate still retains its active consituents intact including important antioxidants & flavonoids, enzymes and minerals such as iron, zinc, copper, calcium and magnesium. Interestingly, it also contains fibre which cooked chocolate does not. Moreover, the addition of 'superfood' fruits such as goji berries and acai berries provides vitamins such as C, A, B, D and a host of other antioxidants. Over 300 nutrients have now been identified in raw chocolate. Of the other chemicals, there is tryptophan (a natural chemical that is involved in antidepressant properties being a precursor to serotonin), other neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and anandamide, theobromine (a bronchodilator and blood vessel dilator) and polyethylamine or PEA which has been given the dubious honour of being labelled the 'love molecule' (some studies have reported its association with a feeling of being in love along with anandamide (which comes from the sanskrit word 'ananda' meaning extreme delight or bliss). Anandamide also has a chemical structure similar to that of tetrohydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in cannabis so PEA and anandamide in combination may account for the euphoric state experienced when being in love. Raw chocolate is reputed to be an aphrodisiac but there is very little scientific evidence to support this at present.
Ethical Trade The raw food movement has generated much discussion over ethical trade and energy consumption in the manufacturing process. The former is more controversial than the latter as the making of raw chocolate at low heat does not lend itself to high energy usage so little can be argued over this. The packaging and labels used is also very minimal and from recycled sources. With regards to ethical trade, all of the raw chocolate companies are supposedly working with South American cooperatives, mostly in Peru and Equador which are part of the fairtrade organisations such as the Fair Trade Federation. It remains to be seen how much of the actual profits go to the indigenous populations that serve and support our desire for this 'new' miracle food.
A Miracle Food? Whilst raw chocolate has many benefits, one needs to exercise caution when buying into the health claims. Though it may be a healthier substitute for cooked chocolate, one must not forget that the caffeine content, theobromine and other ingredients exert physiological effects in the body. Caffeine for instance is a powerful stimulant and some can be sensitive to this ingredient so too much of it is never good. My advice as always, is moderation with the old adage: a little of what you fancy does you good!
Argan Oil This new 'miracle' product has many uses: medicinal/ health, culinary and cosmetic. Argan oil has been touted as a panacea of all ails and the answer to long life, vitality and vibrant skin health. But what is the real deal?
Argan oil has a long tradition of use in the Berber tribe of Morocco who extract the oil from the seed of the fruit of of the evergreen Argan tree (Argania spinosa) also known as the Moroccon Ironwood or more popularly, the Tree of Life for its many properties and uses.. Its life span is said to be anywhere between 125 to 450 years and the tree may not come into full production until it is at least 40-60 years old. The tree grows mainly in the southwestern regions of Morocco (and found sparsely in Algeria and Israel) but due to its popularity in the West, the oil from this tree has become almost synonymous with Morocco. So what is so special about Argan oil? There are essentially 3 categories for which argan oil is sought after for:
1. medicinal (internal use)
2. culinary (internal use)
3. cosmetic (external use)
Medicinal & Health Benefits The unique and powerful health benefits of argan oil has given rise to it being labelled as 'liquid gold'. Analysis of the oil has shown that it contains twice as much essential fatty acids (EFA) than olive oil as well as containing other key nutrients such as Vitamin E, polyphenols, antioxidants, carotenoids and plant sterols. Because of this, it is easy to see the appeal regarding health benefits: it will lower cholesterol (probably by promoting the 'good' cholesterol or HDL cholesterol in relation to the 'bad' cholesterol or LDL cholesterol), therefore it promotes heart health. It also promotes liver health, blood circulation, immunity, prevents cancer (antioxidant properties), alleviates arthritis and rheumatism (probably due to its high EFA content), it is anti-imflammatory (involved in endogenous pain-relieveing pathways probably due to prostaglandin production), alleviates dry skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis and relieves the pain and skin symptoms of chicken pox.
Culinary Uses The culinary uses of argan oil is really based on its EFA content in addition to the other key ingredients which confer numerous health properties. It can used as a cooking oil without degrading the chemical configuration of the oils, as a salad dressing (it has a very pleasant and nutty flavour), or as a dip for bread using the paste traditionally made from the residues of the kernels after oil extraction. This 'amlou paste' is sweeetened with honey and served as a bread dip for breakfast.
Cosmetic Uses The appeal really comes from the fact that argan oil contain superior quantities of vitamin E, a key nutrient for the skin. Traditionally, the Berber people use argan oil to nourish and beautify the skin, hair and nails, make handmade soaps and cosmetics. More recently, the big cosmetics companies have started advertising the benefits of their product by dint of them containing argan oil (usually skin creams and moisturisers by way of preventing wrinkles)... always a bestseller for the vain and suggestible!

Other Uses The reason that the argan tree is often referred to by the Berber people as the 'tree of life' is simply bacause it serves numerous other useful purposes for the sustenance and their community. For instance, the tree itself is felled for timber (provides basic building material and for furniture making), as firewood (heat for cooking), ornamental (decorative boxes and handmade crafts for the tourists), charcoal (heat for cooking) and animal fodder (food for their livestock: goats, camels and sheep).
Production, Manufacturing & Quality Traditionally, the Berber tribespeople (women actually) used to crack the kernels of the fruits and extract the oil by hand. No solvent or heat is used so this is truly an authentic organic, cold-pressed oil of high quality. Recently however, due to the high demand for this oil combined with commercial interest has meant that this process has been largely replaced by mechanical presses which considerably reduces the time it takes for extraction, allowing the argan oil business to grow into a viable business option for the Berber tribe. Since no water is added to press the dough, the oil has a much longer shelf-life, of up to 2 years than the hand-made product. However, given that the product may linger in storage (conditions of which are not known), there is a risk of oxidation which is subject to spoilage and degradation of the oil. No quality control of this process (as far as I know) has been carried out to date.
Ethical Trade or Exploitation? Nothing annoys me more than needless exploitation of poorer communities by richer economies and global corporations. Very little is stated about this now but it will be only a matter of time before a traditional custom and the livelihoods of age-long tribes and cultural practices become completely globalised and dominated by commercially-driven companies. I refer to the mass production and exporting of argan oil; a product traditionally produced by the Berber tribe of Morocco serving a myriad of functions for the local community. Due to the overwhelming demand for argan oil, the Argan tree was been added to the world heritage list in 1999 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in order to protect it from encroaching desertification. The oil came to the attention of the outside world in the 1990s and is now highly sought after for the benefits it presents. But it is has been an important resource for the Berber people for centuries and hopefully will continue to be so. As demand for argan oil has grown since the beginning of the boom (around 1999), there was a drive to ensure a fair and honest trade that not only benefitted the Berber tribe but also made this a commercially feasible and responsible business to meet the demands of interest of the outside world (actually, Western Europe and more recently, the US). By preserving the forests where the argan tree grows, ensuring the best deal for the Berber people, the Moroccon government, UNESCO and the German Government Development Agency (GTZ) are committed to limit the commercial exploitation of the Berber tribe (by the Swiss and French entrepreneurs) and preserve ecological areas dedicated to the growth and sustainability of the Argan trees. Without fail, with continued demand for this oil, it is only a matter of time before the world is devoid of this wonderful plant species that has served the local people for centuries.
For more information about raw chocolate visit for resources, recipes and information about raw foods.
For more information about Argan Oil and its trade please visit the Argan Oil Society
For purchasing products of ethical trade try Wild Wood Groves ( or Evolve Beauty (

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Art of Aroma

Our sense of smell is one of the most undervalued sense organs compared to our other senses and is by no means comparable to those of wild animals who are proficient masters at detection and hunting. In fact, their very survival depends on their sense of smell unlike humans - small wonder that we even know we have this capacity. However, over the centuries, we have moved away from using our sense of smell as a survival strategy and started using fragrances to enhance our sense of well-being, mood and a range of basic emotions but how this is achieved on a physiological level is still a mystery. Scientists are still eluded by the actual mechanisms, biochemical pathways as well as the nerve and synaptic connections in the brain that trigger these responses, particualrly emotions. There is still a lack of total understanding of the links that exist between the nose (olfactory system) and the brain (limbic system which controls our emotional centres). Of course, the area of the brain responsible for smell is closely aligned to memory and could part explain why an aroma, fragrance or smell can almost instantaneously trigger an early childhood memory.

The History: Fragrances date back to ancient Egyptian civilisation when the earliest perfumes were made. Perfumers and perfumed materials were used for purification, personal adornment, daily hygiene and seduction! It was indeed the Egyptians who developed an extraction process for precious resins, frankincense and myrrh (both of which are still used today in modern Western Herbal Medicine). Perfume reached its zenith in Egypt during the time of Cleopatra and evidence of this rich history is still in existence today in the numerous outlets and shops that sell an extensive range of perfume oils. Many of these stores supply the larger international perfume houses across the world especially France which now dominates the European perfume industry.

However, an association between pleasant smells and good health was widespread so there was considerable overlap between perfumery and healing. This knowledge and skill was further enhanced through ancient Greek and Roman civilisations with much of it being principally used for religious ceremonies. From the 9th Century, there was extensive trade between Byzantium and Venice bringing perfumes into Europe. There was much trade also with Arabia bringing perfumes from Bagdad to muslim Spain. The great Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (Abu Ali Sina) or Ibn Sina (980 -1037) discovered the process of distillation, heavily influencing the art of perfumery in Arabia. Ingredients were used from China, India and Africa producing perfumes on a large scale (they had been using distillation since before the 9th Century). The Arabs brought a highly developed perfume culture to Europe which flourished with the influx of aromatic spices, fragrant ointments, musks, essences and perfume oils.

Traditionally, the musks were derived from animal sources especailly from deer but since determining the chemical formula of the aromatic ingredient in it, synthetic versions were possible which not only prevented animals being used (and abused) for this purpose but it was possible to mass produce it for large scale distribution as a perfume ingredient.

The introduction of alcohol (also produced by the distillation process) in the 13th Century expanded the perfume trade into mainland Europe, particularly France, Germany & Hungary which perpetuated the alignment of fragrances with royalty and nobility. Names such as Guerlain, Fougere, Eau de Cologne and Hungary Water have very long histories in the perfume business, some of which continue to this day in some form or another.Newer perfume houses such as Coco Chanel, Coty, Dior, Estee Lauder, Nina Ricci, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Paco Rabanne, Revlon and many others continue to be big names in the fashion and perfume industries.

Creating Perfumes: The art of aroma and creating perfumes is not easy. It takes an expert (known as the 'nose') , a true artist with many years of in-depth training and experience in the industry to compose a fragrance. Their abilty to distinguish between each of the thousands of ingredients (alone or in combination) is truly remarkable! There are 8 themes (accords or families) upon which a perfume is based and this is just one such classification system:

Floral eg. rose, lemon (citrus), jasmine, lavender, neroli

Chypre eg. patchouli, vetiver, bergamot

Oriental (masculine) eg. ginger, patchouli, bay oil, sandalwood

Oriental (feminine) eg. vanilla, amber

Woody eg. pine, cedarwood, sandalwood, oakmoss

Aromatic eg. frankincense, myrrh, musk, cinnamon

Hesperide (masculine) eg. lemon, orange, citronella

Hesperide (feminine) eg. citrus blend, neroli, lime, bergamot

All (cosmetic) perfumes have top, middle and base notes:

Top-provides the first scent impression of a fragrance once it has been applied to the skin. They are usually lighter, more volatile aromas that readily evaporate. The scents don't last for long (usually 5-30minutes)

Middle-sometimes referred to as 'heart notes', they make up the body of the fragrance. They make take up to 10-30minutes to fully develop on the skin. They are usually the notes that classify the family (eg. floral, chypre, oriental etc...)

Base-these are the heavier fragrances (of larger molecular weight) and last the longest on the skin. They are slow to evaporate and are fixatives and so give the fragrance a long-lasting effect/holding power that can linger for hours. Common ones are musks, woods, vanilla and patchouli amongst others....
The price of a perfume depends on the quantity of perfume oil that it contains compared to the solvent used to dilute it (solvent being light-grade alcohol and/or water). Perfume oils are the most concentrated and therefore the most expensive. They can only really be bought from specialist stores/outlets but getting a good grade of oil very much depends on the brand, the reputation of the company as well as the source (origin), type of extraction process and storage conditions for importing/exporting. In Europe however, the Eau de Toilette and Eau de Parfum are the most popular and widely available product:

Perfume Oil (15-30% perfume oil - in oil rather than alcohol or water)

Parfum/Perfume (15-25% perfume oil - sometimes referred to as extract or extrait)

Soie de Parfum (15-18% perfume oil)

Eau de Parfum (8-15% perfume oil)

Eau de Toilette (4-10% perfume oil)

Eau de Cologne (2-5% perfume oil)

Eau Fraiche (usually 3% or less perfume oil)

Health Benefits of Perfumes: Whilst scientific evidence on the mechanisms that bring about postive changes in the body upon olfactory triggers and stimulation is insufficient, it is without doubt that perfumes and fragrances greatly influence mood, memory, emotions, anxiety, stress, arousal, sustained attention to problem solving, sexual attraction, the immune defences, hormonal (endocrine) system and the ability to communicate by smell without knowing it:

mood benefits-nerve links to our sense of smell mean that fragrances have a significantly measurable effect on mood states.
These include a beneficial effect on:





Fragrances also enhance:





As a consequence of notable research evidence in this area, many toiletries & proprietary products regularly perfume their products to influence consumer choice.

hygiene-although difficult to prove scientifically, it is more likely that a perfumed cleaning product, hygiene product or simply a fragrant environment will result in a more frequent hygiene routine (which is always good!).

pain relief-the pain pathways (detection & sensory) is a complex and highly subjective process. Interfering with the sensation of pain can be achieved through use of pleasant smelling odours and fragrances which trigger other nerve pathways associated with natural painkillers/ analgesics (known as opioids). Another hypothesis suggests that because smells/fragrances influence moods and memory, it is possible for the power of association to be utilised to deflect the sensation of pain towards these other pathways.

stress relief-a significant biological relationship between positive mood states and health is now emerging. Aromatherapy has long been known to exert a positive influence on stress effects but more recently, other benefits have been discussed eg. benefits on the cardiovascular system, immunity, positive mood states, reducing blood pressure, reducing muscle tension, reducing headaches, increasing skin barrier function and reduce startle reflex. The fact that all these are linked to the stress response may have something to do with such beneficial influences of fragrances.

work performance-we all know that we are more productive in a pleasant-smelling environment. Recent studies have shown that periodic administration of pleasant fragrances during a sustained attention task improves performance. Fragrances such as muguet, peppermint, jasmine and lavender are among the many that have been studied. It is suggested that improvement in performance is due to the facilitation of nerve pathways that are stimulated in visual detection tasks or enhancement of the allocation of attention resources to visual detection.

sexuality-manufacturers of fragrances continue to pursue the enhancement of sexuality through their products both overtly and subtly. The study of pheromones and their role in human attraction and animal behaviour is significant, being more established in animals than in humans. Immitating and reproducing pheromone-like fragrances to promote this notion of sexual atttraction is the ultimating manufacturing challenge and marketing drive for perfume-makers. There is ample evidence of human neuroendocrine responses to pheromone-like substances even though the mechanisms for processing such substances remains controversial. Further work is needed to demonstrate the link between feelings and behaviours such as mood, reduction in negative moods, effecting psychological state, increasing courtship display patterns in social settings and imparting feelings of confidence and attractiveness.

Without our intricate knowledge of plants and their constituents gained through a rich history of culture, art, tradition and trade, we will not be enjoying the many benefits that perfume products offer, not least of which is the promotion and enhancement of mood, well-being and balance. We owe a great deal of this to the numerous perfumers who were genuine masters of creation and incredibly talented artists of their generation.

For more information:

International Fragrance Association:

Fragrance Foundation UK:

Aromatherapy Council:

For Aromatic Waters:

For Essential Oils by Robert Tisserand:

Recommended Book: The Perfume Handbook by Nigel Groom (1992) Published by Chapman & Hall. ISBN 0 412 46320 2 Includes an A-Z of perfume ingredients plus receipes! Cost up to £50

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Big C - reducing the risk

Cancer - the big C as it often labelled, still represents fear, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness in many people. Chances are, we all know at least one person who has had the disease, is in remission from the disease or has been successfully cured of the disease. According to Cancer Research UK (a leading charity which offers advice, information and funds research into treatments for cancer), more than 1 in 3 people in the UK will develop a form of cancer throughout their lives. In the US, the statistic stands at 1 in 2. Cancer is alarmingly common across the globe and the reasons for why it appears to be more common has been debated from improved early diagnosis to a better medical understanding of the many different types of cancer (arguably, more than 200 different diseases share similar characteristics to cancer), not to mention the gamut of risk factors and predisposition to the disease.

However, many have espoused novel methods and natural approaches not only in treating the disease but in reducing the risk in the first place. In recent times, research has certainly shown that making changes to our lifestyle go a long way towards reducing the risk of developing cancer,. The obvious ones remain: stopping smoking, limiting alcohol, increasing fibre intake, increasing fruit and vegetables and taking more exercise..... amongst other strategies. And of course, one cannot ignore the stress element, nor indeed genetic factors, constitutional differences and environmental influences. These aside, the following are certainly noteworthy if the risks are relatively high (for whatever reason) and drug treatments or surgery is simply not an option:

Natural Approaches - Foods:

  • 5-a-day - getting 5 portions of fruit and veg a day continues to be part of the mainstay for health & well-being. It is important to vary the foods which ensures that all the vitamins and minerals are acquired rather than just a few in their correct quantities. It may help to choose by making sure all colours of fruit and veg are eaten (the 'red, amber and green' rule). Important nutrients such as carotenoids (compounds which determine the pigments in these foods) have significant health benefits including cancer-protective action.

  • green vegetables - there was always a reason why our parents were insistent on eating our greens! Green vegetables such as the brassicas (eg. broccoli and Brussels sprouts) contain compounds known as glucosinolates which are sulphur-based compounds with important cancer-fighting properties. It is thought that they are broken down when consumed into isothiocyanates which have a crucial function in the elimination of cancer-causing molecules known as carcinogens. They are also thought to have other mechanisms of action which effectively disrupt the signalling pathways needed for the initiation of normal cells into abnormal cancer cells.

  • high dose vitamin C (intravenous) - this continues to be highly controversial, namely because the scientific evidence is sadly lacking despite amazing case histories and success stories involving IV injections of high doses of vitamin C in cancer patients. Of course, this treatment is not licenced in the UK (nor indeed the US) but many patients are encouraged by the numerous cases of 'cure' and ease of burden with chemotherapy. The health benefits of vitamin C are well established but determining scientific evidence, experimental rigour and mechanism of action in cancer patients has a long way to go especially when the credibility of such studies remains disputed and sometimes unfairly criticised by the scientific and medical community.

  • berries - we are really talking about red and blue coloured berries, both types containing important antioxidants (compounds that confer protection against cancer) called anthocyanidins. Strawberries in particualr contain a very important cancer-fighting compound called ellagic acid. Antioxidants are chemicals (most of which are naturally occuring in fruit and vegs), which fight free radical damage. Free radicals are molecules that are released from toxic damage to cells and are inextricably linked to the ageing process. Many advocates of holistic healing and natural therapies have long supported consumption of antioxidants in the preservation of health & well-being and it is now known that these compounds have other equally significant health benefits.

  • raw chocolate - this is quite different from the sugar-laden confectionery that we have come to know and love! Raw chocolate has all the health benefits of cocoa beans (also known as cacao) but is minimally processed which includes leaving out the heating process, a main part of chocolate making. The cacao bean is packed with nutrition from flavonoids, antioxidants and polyphenols (all of which, to varying degrees and ways confer protection against cancer). Although there is adequate evidence to support the numerous health benefits of dark chocolate especially in heart health, it is worth investing time (and money in some cases) on good quality raw cholcolate.

  • fibre intake - part of all health regimes include some advice about increasing our fibre intake. This is because, not only does fibre (roughage) maintain the health and function of our bowels), it also helps to regulate cholesterol levels and eliminates toxins by attaching to it thus enabling it to be removed along with the fibre. Toxin build up in the body has long been thought to be a culprit in some cancers and therefore removing it from the body can only help to keep our systems clear of toxic build up limiting a predisposition to cancer. There is strong evidence to support that a high fibre diet is instrumental in protecting again bowel cancer, and of course the other health benefits remain.

  • reducing dairy - the entire dairy debate rages on.... First of all, as human beings, is our system actually designed to tolerate milk from a cow, or indeed any other processed product from it? Secondly, and probably more important for many, what of the nutritional content of cow's milk given the various additives used to market the final product such as hormones, antibiotics and nutrients added to it by way of fortification? It is more than a mere coincidence that the number of cases of gastrointestinal disorders and gut pathologies arise from modern diets; there continues to be much discussion and debate within the scienttific and medical community on this matter alone. That being said, milk is still a nutritious food and it certainly provides many of the essential vitamins and minerals especially for children. It is more a case of campaigning for a better quality product (including the conditions under which cows are kept, fed and milked) than a case of dairy being a contender as a cause of cancer.

  • increasing tomatoes in the diet (lycopene) - there is much research into the humble tomato, not least of which is because it is full of vitamin C and beta-carotene (a pro-vitamin A substance), both of which are powerful antioxidants thought to confer protection against cancer. Tomatoes also contain a more powerful anti-cancer sunstance called lycopene and recent research confirms its protective function in cancer.

  • essential fatty acids (EFAs) - these are the 'good fats' and especially the omega 3 fatty acids are thought to offer protection against many cancers including bowel and prostate cancer. Shop bought oils are best cold pressed (this means that they have been extracted without the use of heat therefore higher in quantity, so more expensive). However, natural sources of omega 3 oils include all fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, tuna etc...) as well as flaxseed oil, hemp seed oil, nuts seeds and avocado.

  • reducing processed meat - if you think about it, processed meat is not a naturally occurring food. It is hardly siurprising therefore that those who consume large amounts of processed meat risk compromising their health and a link has previsouly been made between this and the risk of cancer. However, consuming red meat is also controversial but in its natual form, it is a part of a healthy diet as long as it is consumed in moderation and balance with other fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables. If you are concerned, it is best to consider a part vegetarian, wholly vegetarian or a vegan diet. Meat alternatives/ substitutes such as fermented soya products are also an option (see my previous post on vegetarian options).

  • reducing salt intake - there seems to be a perennial drive to limit or reduce the daily salt intake. This is because there is so much salt already in food at purchase, particularly ready made meals, take aways and processed foods. Despite this however, somehow we seem to want to add more salt after preparation. A high salt intake has long been linked to high blood pressure but now, increasingly to a form of stomach cancer. This is because a high salt diet can induce a condition known as atrophic gastritis, a precursor to stomach cancer.

  • going organic (avoid processed foods) - the debate about organic food being better than non-organic rumbles on.... However, most health conscious folk don't really need convincing of the health benefits of organic over non-organic but remain limited due to the high cost for organic produce. Whether it is more nutritious remains contentious simply becasue it is nigh on impossible to prove scientifically due to the many constraints of trialling a scientific experiment into this comparison. Organic foods have many benefits and if reducing the risk of cancer is the mission, then it would appear to make sense to limit processed foods, limit or avoid foods grown non-organically, avoid synthetic ingredients and adopt a far healthier approach to food consumption and lifestyle. However, it is isn't as simple as this (as we know with cancer). Other measures must also consider the notion of consuming foods with a low GI (glycaemic index) or GL (glycaemic load).
Other Theories:

  • the raw food diet - this concept has progressed enormously since it was first introduced and there are an increasing number of food outlets (including restaurants) serving dishes solely prepared in such a way that preserves the integrity of the ingredients and therefore the nutritional elements of the foods. Suffice it to say, the notion of raw food lends itself to vegeraian food rather than any meat-based product (for obvious reasons!) and the advantages of a vegetarian diet has previously been demonstrated showing the reduced risk of certain diseases including cancer amonst vegetarians. The raw food concept still has a long way to go because nutritionists and scientists alike argue that a lack of processing (heating) that constitutes the cooking process does not mean that foods are more nutritious. This is because some foods release important enzymes only after heating even though some enzymes and nutrients are destroyed by cooking. Despite the debate, there is a logic to raw foods, not least of which is the limit to toxic burden, a recognition of our ancestral diet and a compatibility with our natural constitution. What may appear to be distinctly unappealing and unpalatable to most may actually turn out to be of real value in reducing the risk of cancer.

  • angiogenesis - cancerous growths are thought only to survive because of their ability to establish their own blood supply, a process known as angiogenesis. This has previously been shown to be the case in a number of controlled animal studies and clinical evidence. The remit now is to target drug treatments that will effectly hamper, halt or impede the progress of such a process and proliferation of a blood vessel network that firmly establishes not only the grwoth of the original cancer but also its spread (metastasis). This is a new and significant area of cancer reasearch which holds much promise for future treatments without the need for invasive or radical surgery.

  • high dose vitamin C - it's hardly surprising that this powerful antioxidant and nutrient is being investigated as a means of reducing cancer. One only has to have a look at its beneficial impact on the immune system to see how this would work. The immune system is inextricably linked to our health and well-being. A compromise to this at any level can have profound effects on our health including the onset of disease such as cancer.

  • reducing acidity - reducing the consumption of acidic foods is thought to help in the protection against some of the biggest diseases such as heart disease and cancer. It's a diet that is essentially composed of fruits, root vegetables, tubers, nuts, legumes and only very small amounts of meats and dairy products. The premise being that meat and other high protein foods contribute to uric acid production thereby increasing the acidity of the system, and increasing the risk of disease. It is true that our systems and body cells are slightly alkaline therefore a high acid diet will counteract the natural inclinication of the cells to be alkaline but unless the diet is extremely acidic (which means a deficiency of other foods), the body has its own complex set of mecahnisms to tackle variations in the acid-alkaline balance of its cells and tissues. There is no evidence to support the claims of a low acid diet and what is being touted as a novel diet in the fight against cancer is ostensibly a menu for a healthy, natural and wholefood diet.

  • reducing pesticide exposure - there is no doubt that the introduction of synthetic chemicals into our food and environment over the years has had a detrimental impact on our health, cancer being one of the outcomes. As yet unproven for some chemicals, there is a wealth of evidence and data on disease prevalence and patterns where the correlation between pesticide use (with pesticide residue being a complication) and disease is apparent. The bioaccumulation of these chemicals is another facet which is currently being debated across all quarters of the medical and scientific community.

  • the integrative approach - this is a complex area because much of this philiosophy is about individual focus and what is suitable for one person may not necessarily be relevant or effective for another. But what is clear is that examining all the factors and influences on a person may give valuable insignt into the risk profile as well as applying this same approach to treatment. Therefore dietary, environmental and genetic factors in addition to the profound influences of stress provides a holistic framework to examine such risk. It is vital to consider this because cancer is essentially an individual disease and it's the person's response and predisposition that must be emphasised rather than regarding it as a standard disease with a pathophysiology that is the exactly the same in all individuals.

Further Information:

angiogenesis - view the website for the National Cancer Institute which also gives information about treatments using angiogenesis inhibitors

reducing acidity - this is a useful webpage:

antioxidants and reducing cancer risk - this is a very interesting article: Goodman, M., Bostick, RM., Kucuk, O., Jones, DP. Clinical trials of antioxidants as cancer prevention agents: past, present and future. Free Radical Bio Med, 2011; 51(5): 1068-84

Useful websites:

Cancer Research UK

MacMillan Cancer Care

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Natural and Herbal Approaches for an Underactive Thyroid

Nothing galvalises me more than campaigning for better health care services, particularly when it comes to women. In the past week alone I have spoken to 3 female patients who report classic symptoms of an underactive thyroid gland, yet battle with their doctors and health care providers for further and thorough examinations to investigate their concerns. Part of this story should involve stating that that relevant and suitable blood tests reveal 'healthy' values within 'normal' ranges for the hormone(s) in question. As far as the doctors are concerned therefore further examinations into their concerns are not warranted.Be that as it may, to understand the condition of an underactive thyroid, one must explain what the gland does and the consequences of its underactivity. The thyroid gland is an endocrine (hormonal) gland that secretes 2 of the most important hormones responsible for regulating the body's metabolic rate and a range of physiological actions in maintaining body function. This includes all major organs, fertility, metabolism, body temperature, development and growth.

The gland itself secretes T4 (thyroxine) and T3 (tri-iodothyronine) which are detected as circulating hormones in the bloodstream. T4 is secreted much more in abundance than T3 by about a ratio of 20:1 but T3 is about 3-4 times more potent than its precursor T4. However, the action and regulation of the thyroid gland is under the influence of the Thyroid-Stimulating-Hormone (TSH) which is secreted from the pituitary gland (located in the brain). Therefore any abnormality in circulating levels of thyroid hormones, or indeed the gland itself, must explore underlying causes and perhaps an exhaustive primary analysis of symptoms, family history, autoimmunity, diet and previous history/medication for an overactive thyroid.

An underactive thyroid is more common than people think and it is one of the most routinely underdiagnosed conditions in the medical profession. So how will one know if the thyroid is underactive - well, one needs to start at the symptoms which can include any or many of the following:

1. feeling tired and sleeping a lot

2. feeling the cold easily
3. dry and/or pale skin

4. course, thinning hair & brittle nails

5. sore muscles, slow movements & weakness

6. a hoarse or croaky voice

7. a change in facial expression

8. depression

9. problems with memory & concentration

10. weight gain

11. constipation

12. fertility problems & increased risk of miscarriage

13. heavy, irregular periods which may last longer than normal

14. a slow heart rate

The thyroid gland may also be enlarged which appears as a swelling in the neck; this is called a goitre.

Detecting abnormalities of the thyroid invariably involves a blood test to determine circulating levels of hormones: TSH, T3 and T4. However, this is the debate since the range of normal values for TSH is very broad so determining what is normal for one individual requires information of TSH levels prior to symptoms. The same may also apply to T3 and T4 levels. Although some experts disagree, most doctors believe that if the TSH is on the higher side of the normal range, and if all other results are fine, then treatment is not required. This heavy reliance on blood test results is also an issue in itself - 'normal' ranges vary between laboratories, and whilst they are useful as an indicator, they do not suit everyone. Two women may feel very differently with the same set of thyroid blood test results.

What's really frustrating for those women affected by this diagnostic process and experience is that they are incorrectly deemed healthy for an underactive thyroid based solely on their blood test results despite the overwhelming set of symptoms exhibited. A suspected underactive thyroid may go unrecognised and undiagnosed for many years based on the 'normal' test result. Women approaching the menopause are told that it is their raging hormone fluctuations and in some cases, antidepressants are prescribed! For women who experience unexplained weight gain are told to go away, eat less and exercise more (fine if the diagnosis was correct). As a result of this lazy attitude to diagnosis, many women feel misunderstood, chronically disregarded and neglected by the medical profession. Worse still, they feel that they have wasted their doctor's time. Family and friends may also be unsympathetic especially when test results come back 'normal'.

Although the current system has a very important remit, its value and purpose in determining underactive thyroid function needs to be rigorously examined since its anomalies and discrepancies has condemned millions of women to a low quality of life. Conventional treatment (if one is lucky to have the problem recognised) usually involves taking a synthetic or animal-derived (from pig thyroid called Armour Thyroid) thyroid hormone medication on a daily basis. Levothyroxine is the most common drug prescribed and treatment is life-long. Whilst this drug has benefitted many women, there are other thyroid hormones, notably, the significantly more potent T3 and this is made from the conversion of T4. Some women are unable to effect this conversion efficiently, and so whilst their T4 levels are normal, they have hypothyroid symptoms. T3 is not always tested and relies very much on the doctor making a special request for it. Yet another battle for the patient! However T3 supplementation is controversial with a greater risk of side-effects requiring regular monitoring of levels and dosage adjustment as necessary.

Another strand of this problem is subclinical hypothyroid which is when there are no symptoms of an underactive thyroid yet blood tests reveal lower than normal ranges of TSH, T3 and T4. Cases are normally given Armour Thyroid which has many advantages not least of which is that extracts from pig thyroid contain other ingredients (as yet, undefined cofactors) thought to be a more natural substitute to human thyroid deficiency and not just T4 supplementation. Another option (for milder thyroid underactivity) is a glandular hormone-free extract called Nutri Thyroid. These products contain cofactors to support the thyroid and can be used alongside conventional medications. As with all conventional medicines, side effects (heart palpitations, shakiness, increased appetite, insomnia and overdosing giving rise to hyperthyroid activity) are a real issue and requires regular monoitoring by a physician or doctor.

Natural and Herbal Help

By far the most popular route for addressing symptoms of an underactive thyroid is through natural interventions especially when there is incompatibility with conventional medicines. Dietary approaches include the avoidance of foods that depress thyroid activity. These include:

1. broccoli

2. Brussel sprouts

3. cauliflower

4. kale

5. spinach

6. turnips

7. soy

8. beans

9. mustard greens

Given the nutritious element of these vegetables, it is essential that proper nutritional advice is sought to prevent vitamin & mineral deficiencies by replacing the diet with suitable alternatives.

Other measures would be to avoid overly processed foods, limit dairy, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine and alcohol intake.

Herbal remedies can be taken to support optimum thyroid function:
1. bladderwrack (Fucus versiculosus) - a natural source of iodine, a key part of thyroid hormones

2. makandi (Coleus forskohlii) - extensively studied for its supportive role in thyroid activity(clinical trials have shown that the active ingredient in makandi (forskohlin)may help to support thyroid hormone secretion)

3. Shilajeet-Asphaltum puniabiunum - an Indian herb considered a 'wonder drug' by many due to its high mineral content which may contribute to its suportive role in an underactive thyroid

4. oats straw - high mineral content so highly nutritious and supportive to the thyroid

5. horsetail (Equisetum arvense) and centella (Centella asiatica) along with oats straw facilitate the function of oestrogen that disturbs the normal function of the thyroid

6. another popular choice is kelp - it is mineral rich food especially in iodine. However, advice should be sought before any self-medication with herbal supplements

Hypothyroidism due to iodine deficiency is rare in the Western world since many of the foods we eat are fortified with this mineral. However, given that iodine is an essentail part of thyroid hormones, eating natural sources of iodine from foods is the preferred choice. Good sources are marine fish, shellfish and seaweed. Other nutrients are essential fatty acids (animal or plant sources), calcium and magnesium. Taking regular exercise to manage stress is also advisable.

Synthetic Thyroid, Natural Thyroid, T4 and T3 should only be prescribed by a doctor. DO NOT purchase any of these via internet sources.

A good book to read is Tears behind closed doors: Failure to diagnose a thyroid condition 2nd edition by Diana Holmes (2002) Normandi Publishing.

Another good book is by Dr. Gordon Skinner entitled: Diagnosis and management of hypothyroidism. Published in 2003 by Louise Lorne Publications.

Further information and support from Thyroid UK:

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Herbs for Holiday Health

For those of us lucky enough to be able to afford a holiday this summer, here are some tips for staying healthy using natural or herbal remedies without overloading the system with synthetic chemicals and medications. You can avoid the usual pitfalls by good preparation and that involves boosting immunity and getting fit at least 2-3 weeks before departure. A good immune booster such as echinacea or Siberian ginseng should help. The latter will be good at helping you cope with stress too as we all know that travelling can be quite a shock to the nerves (especially the airport experience!).

Apart from the usual vaccinations that are necessary for the final destinations, there are the usual and common problems:

skin health (sunburn, prickly heat, allergic skin rashes)

gut problems (diarrhoea, travel sickness, nausea, vomitting)

headaches and hangovers

digestive upset and bloating

insect bites and insect stings

I always advise plenty of mineral water (not tap water as one cannot be guaranteed the level of water safety in a foreign country). Other sensible precautions include wearing a wide-brimmed hat and avoiding the midday sun wherever possible without protection (ususlly 10am-4pm depending on the climate and location of that country). Desisting in sunbathing is something that can never be legislated for but if one must..... a good sunscreen with a high enough sun protection factor (SPF) is vital. Fair skins require extra protection as this kind of skin tends to burn rather than tan. Eye protection with a good brand sunglasses with adequate polarised lenses is also necessary to protect the eyes. Pack insect repellent (lavender EO is just as good and smells much nicer than most!) as well as an OTC antihistamine cream, a good brand probiotic supplement (see my previsou post on commercial brands) and a range of teas (see below).

Herbal Help:

sunburn (aloe vera gel, chamomile cream, calendula cream)

insect bits & stings (lavender EO, citronella EO, witch hazel or plaintain cream)

diarrhoea (strong black tea or charcoal tablets)

upset stomach (peppermint oil, ginger lozengers or fennel tea)

travel sickness & nausea (ginger tablets, sweets or as a tea)

irritability and stress (chamomile, lemon balm, passion flower all as teas)

natural antihistamines (bromelain or quercitin supplements, nettle tea)

hangovers/headaches (water and plenty of it! feverfew or willow bark tablets)

general pain (willow bark tablets)

fevers (initially elderflower and/or yarrow tea or see a doctor if temperature does not fall)

It is essential that you read up on the health advice issued for travel to the country of your destination and take sensible precautions before, during and after the holiday. There is usually plenty of information provided by the Tourist Boards of each country and please take the time to read through what is provided to avoid the usual pitfalls. Have a happy holiday!

Monday, 27 June 2011

A Medicated Nation

I recently read an article about the thousands of American children who are being given potent drugs to treat a disorder that may not even exist (refer to 'The rise of the bipolar kid' in New Scientist 4 June 2011; 210(2815: 44-47). This comes as no surprise to me as I have been banging on about our 'medicated nation' for as long as I can remember to anyone who would listen and quite frankly, anyone intelligent enough to have the foresight to worry. Some would argue that this is not a new trend; for years we have had the valium women (prescribed for the aptly named 'change of life' aka the menopause), the the raft of antidepressants (remember the book 'Prozac Nation' that became a bestseller?) which has dominated ever since.... surely it was only a matter of time before children were targeted? We only need to see the boom in antiobesity drugs and bariatric surgery to understand the mindset. I am hoping I am not the only one to worry...

Time and time again, we see the pattern of resorting to drugs to either resolve a difficult problem or worse still, to deal with complex yet preventable issues because they are a downright inconvenience and the preference is to take the easy route to fixing them. The New Scientist article highlights the dangers of misdiagnosing and categorising children as patients with a condition as serious as bipolar simply becuase their parents cannot deal with their behaviours. One should ask, how this has arisen (were they abducted by aliens soon after birth and removed from this whole process of parenting??). This is the mystery.... given that we have been having children (forever) and parenting is not a new concept! It's surely worrying to misdiagnose bipolar but more so in children simply because the description, diagnostic process and true incidence of the condition continues to be debated by psychiatrists and other consultants specialising in this field. Children are developing in mind, body, behaviour and emotion - to prescribe drugs at this crucial stage of developent will only lead to long-term, devastating consequences on so many levels.

Take my esteemed colleague who, in amongst his glittering career as a physicist and researcher, had humble beginnings as a maths teacher at his local school. He was shocked and amazed at the number of children on ritalin, prescribed to abate the worse excesses of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). He is still trying to work out if the mere prospect of maths was the trigger point despite my assurances that poor parenting and the culture of drug prescription and diagnosis was more likely to be at the heart of it! This is not to say that ADHD does not exist, the worry emanates from the sheer numbers being diagnosed and easy access to medication in cases of neglect, lack of appropriate intellectual and emotional stimuli and poor parenting. I would like to think that the culture of change has already started with many parents worried about the long-term effects of these drugs on their children, as well as better education and information about child health, setting appropriate challenges for children and helping parents take greater responsibility for their children. A tall order perhaps.......

For more information, help and support visit the following:

Saturday, 14 May 2011

A taste of things to come

I have never really shown a great interest in politics nor had a huge enthusiasm for politicians or the policies of their parties other than what has affected national and local health services which impact on members of the public. However, I am finding myself increasing interested in politics especially in the aftermath of the recent UK local elections and given the national (and global) economic down turn, I wonder where the stopping point will be for the endless stream of cuts and closure of services. Social issues and health problems of any society are inextricably linked to its economy and we will undoubtedly, if not already witness a raft of problems from alcohol and drug abuse to mental health decline and social issues within our communities. Job losses are no joke and incredibly difficult to reconcile with particularly in light of bankers' bonuses and ill-judged, mispent taxes diverted to the affluent and over-indulged 'on of us' brigade. People have become disillusioned with politicians and their 'promises' as evidenced by the usual poor turnout in elections. Hard to imagine that any country can be represented by allegedly only 10% of the voting population. Hoorah for democracy eh?!

A professional workforce is vital to any country and needless cuts can turn out to be more expensive than any cost-saving initiative by its government. The health of these professionals is even more important and given the general economic climate, we need to look after and support the professionals not only for addressing the skills & knowledge shortage now but for preventing a further brain drain as a result of talented and unique individuals looking elsewhere for opportunities making the UK a poor competitor in global business, science, technology and innovation. Protecting the health & well-being of those remaining in jobs is equally important as those who are fortunate enough to have work are often having to extend the remit of their job description, work very long and unreasonable hours and accept the loss of many employee rights for fear of losing their job. The social and health consequences is going to be devastating and recent events are only a taste of things to come.

I vividly remember visiting my father at his hospital workplace as a child and being a Consultant, I was duly shown around the key places including the doctors' common room. I remember the smoke-filled rooms with their bars serving copious amounts of alcoholic drinks to the visibly tired and overworked junior doctors who were looking distinctly ragged from being on call all night and having to work through continuously through the next day. Not much seems to have changed in the levels of stress in the workplace, nor in drinking behaviour among the middle-class professionals if the current statistics are anything to go by. The current concern and emphasis on teenage binge-drinking is masking and overshadowing an even bigger problem among the professionals who are consuming on average, one or two bottles of wine per person every night. This is surely a daming indictment on this society which is clearly failing a significant percentage of its workforce. The focus on curbing antisocial behaviour emanating from binge-drinking has deflected attention towards teenagers and young adults. But there is a large percentage of older adults who drink at home after work simply to unwind. There are those of course within this group who are drinking far in excess of their daily allowance simply to cope with unemployment or block out the worry of it, the constant threat of redundancy and mounting debts. The Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB) recently reported that the single, largest group of the population seeking help with debt counselling and mental health services is the young, professional workforce.

The profile of the A&E patient presenting with alcoholic stupor does not readily fit the middle-class professional . But with an increasing incidence of alcohol-related liver disease including liver cirrhosis in the age groups as youngs as the 20s and 30s (previously rare), not to mention the numerous other health risks of excessive consumption, more needs to be done to educate and inform on the health risks associated with alcohol. More importantly however, the culture of work in Britain, with its unhealthy workloads, a skewed emphasis on presentation and packaging rather than on substance and value as well as an obsessive love of money and profit has to surely change and very soon, before it is too late.

This must address important issues related to the breakdown in the family unit, working patterns, stress in the workplace and in the community, support networks at work and in society, effective management at work, and lambast any excessive workload policy for those remaining in work, in an attempt to tackle this worrying trend.

Adapted from 'Shan's Shout' column previously published in Mental Health Practice journal December 2007; Vol 11(4): 11

Mental Health Practice is a Royal College of Nursing publication.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

In search of the 'Elixir of Life'

It always amuses me and annoys me when a new 'miracle cure' enters the market promoting what I refer to as the proverbial 'elixir of life'. I have now had at least three people asking me for advice on the increasingly popular acai berry and its extracts, commercial blends of the juice containing freeze-dried extracts of this berry not to mention the numerous other proprietary products including health and beauty products such as cosmetics. But is there any validity to the manufacturers' claims and is there any scientific evidence to support such claims?

In attempting to answer this question, we need to start at the history and the context of all this fuss. The acai berry is reddish-purple berry plucked from the acai palm tree (Euterpe oleracea) which is native to Central and South America. It is the fruit of this palm that is harvested as food but the majority of it (about 80%) is really the seed. Therefore the most beneficial part (the outer part) is actually quite a small proportion of the whole fruit. The ripe fruit is a deep purple colour which also constitutes the pulp of the fruit. It is this fleshy part of the ripe fruit that is harvested as food.

Culturally, the locals consume acai combined with other foods such as tapioca or granola (a mix of rolled oats, nuts, honey and/or rice), serve it hot or cold or either salty or sweet depending on preference. Acai is also popularly used as a flavouring (eg. in ice cream, juices, sorbets and liquers). However, acai berry perishes within 24 hours but freezing has made it possible to transport it for commercial use. Additionally, freeze-drying the pulp has enabled manufacturers to add it to commercial blends of juices that include acai berry juice.

Demand for acai berry is so high and the recent surge in popularity has resulted in commmercial supplements, specifically formulated to retain the nutritional value of the fresh fruit itself. There are also various companies that market supplements that contain inferior levels of acai berry, coupled with exagerated claims of miracle weight loss and a number of other health claims, none of which have been proven.

Much of the scientific research on the acai berry has focussed on its antioxidants, long purported to protect against diseases caused by free radical damage. Antioxidants reduce the destructive power of free radicals and so may help lower the risks of diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants are plentiful in red and blue/purple berries such as cherries, blueberries, blackcurrants, cranberries, pomegranate and blackberries to name but a few!

Ethical considerations and issues of sustainability

Many environmentalists were concerned that the expanding popularity of the acai berry, particularly in the US was depriving the Brazilian jungle dwellers of a protein-rich nutrient they have relied on for generations. However, this has been argued on the basis that acai farming actually enhances the subsistence of the harvesters providing a sustainable livelihood without damaging the Amazonian Rainforest. This ensures that the trees remain intact for this purpose rather than being cut down as the acai is a renewable resource and has been used in fact to reforest already degraded forest lands.
Investigating the Claims
The claims by some manufacturers of acai berry seem almost so extraordinary that it seems impossible that a small berry could possibly offer all these benefits. The list includes:

  • antioxidant properties 5 times that of blueberry - acai berry is very high in anthocyanins and flavonoids, already shown to have proven antioxidant activity. This also relates to the freeze dried acai pulp, seed extract and powder which contains notable quantities of these antioxidants

  • increased energy and stamina - by strengthening the immune system. The claim is that the body can then reserve the energy used for fighting infection to other uses. There is no evidence whatsoever of the immune mechanisms or cellular processes at work to make this happen

  • fighting obesity - it is asserted that the nutrient packed berry makes the body function more efficiently including the processing and burning of food. This is incredibly poor science as there is no evidence to suggest that eating a nutritious food increases the metabolic rate nor indeed to improve weight loss

  • preventing cancer - only one study so far has shown that acai is directly has anticancer activity by destroying the proliferation of human cancer cells in vitro. This doesn't mean that acai is a cure for cancer, but it does support the preventative function of antioxidants by strengthening cells and fighting damage from free radicals

  • protecting against heart disease - the berry contains essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6) already shown to confer protection against heart disease

  • aiding digestion - the berry is high in fibre and a host of other nutrients that are beneficial to the gut

  • highly nutritious being packed with a host of vitamins, minerals, essential fat, phytosterols, antioxidants and fibre

  • improve sleep - there is no evidence of this but to be honest, if acai berry is being eaten in a bid to improve diet and lifestyle, then of course the general well-being is bound to improve and this will indirectly result in better attributes including sleep

Examining the evidence

The numerous and potential benefits of antioxidants have already been demonstrated in many previous studies therefore it is easy to see why the acai berry presents as a highly nutritious option. However, clever and aggressive marketing has fed into the mindset of those in perennial search of the elixir of life which has resulted in significant sales of the commercial preparations by some manufacturers making such extraordinary and unsupported claims. The cost of these preparations, particularly the juice blends are so ludicrously high that it is hard to believe that anyone would be foolish enough to buy them in the belief that the claims can all be met. However, it is not available in stores so it has clearly not passed the stringent checks of the relevant authorities, merely sold via what resembles a pyramid scheme. This should surely ring alarm bells?!


Comparative studies, particularly of the juice blends show that acai berry juice is no better than juices of the notable grape, blueberry or black cherry in its antioxidant content but is higher than cranberry, orange or apple (admittedly, manufacturers of the latter do not make the same health claims as the makers so acai juice blend!). Importantly, these commercial juice blends of acai do not disclose the pecentage of acai in them so it is hard to conduct a proper study into these claims. The extent to which polyphenols (as dietary antioxidants) promotes health is unknown as there is no credible evidence to indicate antioxidant activity for polyphenols in vivo. There is also some concern with some of the additives, particularly a preservative used in the juice blend which may present carcinogenic (cancer-promoting) properties although the quantities used in commercial preparations should be safe. In conclusion, it would be safe to say that acai berry is a nutritious fruit but no better or worse than any other red/blue/purple berry. As part of a healthy diet, it presents numerous benefits but to attribute these benefits to acai berry alone is poor science and until there is incontrovertible evidence to suggest otherwise, the jury is still out on this wonderful fruit.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Modern Living, Holistic Health & Herbal Medicine

Due to popular demand, I have at long last relented to pressure to finish and release my long-awaited book on herbal medicine in the context of modern living and holistic health. The book provides advice and informative guidance on maintaining optimum good health and well-being. It is aimed at those who are concerned about the indiscrimate use of prescription drugs for a number of common ailments that can be treated and most certainly prevented through natural and alternative methods of treatment including Western herbal medicines, diet and lifestyle changes.

The book offers realistic solutions and advice to the consumer and the modern patient who gives due regard to the constraints of modern living and the holistic approach to treatment and healing. It tackles health for men, women and children and for our health as we grow older. Consumer concerns are highlighted and common myths about Western herbal remedies are dispelled. Critically, important advice and guidance is also given on the criteria for choosing and buying herbal products, what to look out for and how to seek help for an existing medical condition from a medical herbalist.

Aspects of Integrative Medicine are discussed in relation to herbal medicine, holistic health and modern living as well as examining its concepts and benefits within modern society, and a national framework for healthcare and medicine. It therefore serves as an ideal companion to students embarking on studies in either herbal medicine or medicine generally.

If you are keen to learn and want a greater understanding of your health and well-being, this book will answer all your questions. It will also provide realistic and practical solutions to some of its own questions such as:
  • what is good health and what is ill-health?
  • how is the body designed to heal and why does it fail us?
  • how does modern living cause illness and what can you do to stay fit and healthy?
  • how can herbs be used to optimise health and well-being?
  • how do you choose the right herbal product?
  • what are the A-Z of common ailments and herbal alternatives for each condition?
  • how can we improve health essentials including diet, sleep, mood and energy?
With contributions from Dr. Catherine Whitlock, a Science Writer and Research Immunologist, specialising in areas of scientific and medical interest ( After studying for a BSc in Biological Sciences, she trained as an Immunologist, gaining a PhD from the University of London. This was followed by medical research into autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and the intricate pathways of immune cell movements in the human body. She is based in Kent, UK and has recently completed a Diploma in Science Communication.
The foreword is written by the English actress Jenny Seagrove, well known for her screen and theatre performances. More importantly to her, she is a staunch campaigner for animal welfare, the environment and holistic health. This comes from her deep belief that nature is our great teacher and we should work with it and not against it, giving due respect to everything that has life. She is also a 2nd degree reiki practitioner.

The book is on sale now from most major booksellers, from Amazon and from Go to to order your copy.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The Science of Weight Loss

A sign of the time has surely got to be the advertising of weight loss surgery and over the counter (OTC) tablets of a potentially risky weight loss pill. It was only a couple of years ago that I wrote a feature article on this whole issue of surgery in the context of a national obesity crisis but little did I realise at the time that even the slightly overweight have such an aversion to diet and exercise that there is a clear demand for drastic measures and quick fixes which has resulted in radical surgery being the only solution. Do we live in such a superficial, fickle, image-driven and highly materialistic world that surgery has become the first resort (as opposed to the last) and even the most reluctant have been duped into thinking that somehow they should scrutinise their figures simply because having the perfect, slim body is aligned to happiness and success. And let's face it, the entire world of work and business profile conspires to support this notion - in simple terms, image and visual presentation has become a commercial commodity and talent, skill, ability and being unique is somehow loathesome, breeds resentment, has become secondary and is to be discounted, even, discarded. Together with its equally obsessive promotion of youth, this is a damning indictment on a society!
There is something very wrong and very paradoxical about the psyche of people living in the Western world. We have extremes on every level. On the one hand we have those that are obsessed with the way they look, even resorting to surgery to rid themselves of a few pounds when a stint at a gym would have done the trick! It wasn't that long ago when the whole debate on size zero purported by the fashion industry raged on into the public arena. The backlash from many quarters doesn't seem to have had any impact and once again we see the increasing demand for acquiring the physique of a stick insect. At the other end of the spectrum of course, the UK has one of the highest rates of obesity in Western Europe. The US has similarly alarming rates of incidence but where cosmetic surgery is king, why would anyone who can afford it worry? And why would a minor matter of health and well-being influence or dictate changes in eating habits or lifestyle? Perish the thought!

OTC slimming pills such as Alli has been made available for some time now in the UK. This is essentially a drug that prevents the breakdown of excess fat from the food. And whilst, the chronically obese may gain some benefit, the fact that it presents a number of side-effects barely gets a mention. The main side effect relates to the gut and digestive function. Because the drug prevents the absorption of fat after a certain level, any excess fat from the food just passes straight out which means faecal incontinence; stools are oily and diarrhoea-like. Other problems can include wind, frequent or urgent bowel movements and abdominal bloating. Of couse, there are also certain groups of people who should not even consider taking this drug such as:
  • those who have problems absorbing nutrients and have poor digestive function
  • pregnant women or women who are breast-feeding
  • those on any other medication especially immunosuppressant drugs such as cyclosporin or anticlotting drugs such as warfarin
  • those who have problems with bile flow from the liver
However, monitoring the sale and usage of this drug is now impossible given that it is OTC. Anyone wishing to lose weight really needs to do the maths before embarking on such quick fixes. The science of weight loss is really simple. In short, output must equal input if weight gain is to be avoided. That is, the amount of food eaten (energy content) must equal the amount of calories burned through daily energy consumption and/or activity. By no means does this factor in the quality of the diet and any health practitioner worth their salt, will advise and focus on nutrients in as much as quantity. Of course, there are always going to be variations such as age, gender differences, metabolism (the rate at which we burn food), activity levels, food requirements and other factors. With age, the metabolic rate declines, so we need to take more care about the quantity of food eaten. The quality of our diet is paramount and the emphasis should be on the unique requirements of each system and responding to the changes in those requirements as we age. Many people don't realise that the body shape also changes over time and exercise patterns needs to change to reflect these changes. Varying the types of exercise to work all the muscle groups is important - exercise has a host of benefits not least of which is to increase the metabolic rate.

One of my recent clients gave me chapter and verse about all the various diets that she has been on over the years and was seeking my advice on gastric banding or whether she ought to consider any of the OTC slimming pills. What was glaringly obvious was her detailed knowledge of food (even down to the calorie content of the average peanut and the mineral content of a typical cabbage leaf!) but very little about the body nor indeed the consequences of such drastic measures to lose the desired weight. She wasn't even that particularly overweight either! After a radical overhaul in changing her attitude to weight loss regimes and giving her a better understanding of risky measures and the consequences to health, we did work out a more sensible plan of diet and exercise. Importantly, her obsession with her weight and reminding herself why she wanted to lose it had shifted towards something more positive and dare I say... healthy.
Britain has certainly got a ticking timebomb regarding its obesity levels, particualrly in children. We have to gain a healthier, more holistic perspective and a better education of food before promoting potentially risky quick fixes. This would make a significant cost saving for the NHS and allied health services in treating and managing obesity-related illnesses and the desire for immediate solutions or indeed surgery could be non-existent if the crisis can be prevented in the first place.

For more information, advice or a consultation with a nutritionist, go to or for help with herbal approaches or dietary and lifestyle changes.