Saturday, 1 December 2012

Herbal Treatments for Arthritis

Cayenne pepper (chilli) - contains capsaicin,
a very powerful analgesic and anti-inflammatory
ingredient, so very useful in arthritis
Joint disorders cover a wide variety of conditions such as arthritis (rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis), gout, lumbago (backache) and osteoporosis. The main joint problem that people commonly experience is arthritis. There are essentially 2 types of arthritis, the type that is caused by ‘wear and tear’, through age and overuse of a particular joint called osteoarthritis and the type that has an autoimmune basis with complications affecting other organs and systems beyond the joint and this is called rheumatoid arthritis. Both types of arthritis are characterised by joint swelling, pain, tenderness, heat in the joint and loss of mobility. The nodules that are often seen on the hands and other joints of the body is a classic hallmark of arthritis and this is usually the indicator of joint disorders but at this stage it is difficult to distinguish the type.

The herbal approach is to use a combination of herbs that tackle the pain and swelling whilst using internal mixtures to detoxify and cleanse the system in order to reduce the immune challenge that is resulting in inflammation. The long-term aim is to increase mobility and whilst there is no cure for arthritis, the focus is to manage the symptoms whilst improving the lives of many patients through pain management.

Joints and muscles require special attention, especially as we get older because of the risk of injury and symptoms that creep up due to wear and tear. To strengthen bones and connective tissue, horsetail, centella and comfrey can be used. To relax tense and cramped muscles, arnica, cramp bark or valerian can be used. Arnica is also known for its ability to reduce bruising. However, a consultation with a medical herbalist can identify specific areas for attention and they can prescribe the most suitable combination that is individually tailored.

Herbs that are used topically include oil of wintergreen, cayenne pepper or prickly ash in a base cream of chamomile or arnica. Internally, supplements of devil’s claw have had profound results as have turmeric and boswelia. Other herbs include white willow bark meadowsweet, prickly ash, nettle, Jamaica dogwood or devil’s claw. As in all inflammatory conditions, it is important to look at the immune system since inflammation is very much an immune response, particularly in rheumatoid arthritis. Modulating the immune responses can be achieved through echinacea. However, liver herbs are equally important and in this respect, herbs such as dandelion and milk thistle are effective. Detoxification of any substances that are challenging the system can be addressed through burdock, cleavers or poke root, given in combination with good circulatory stimulants such as ginkgo to improve elimination. Bowel function is also important; a herbalist should be able to prescribe herbs that will optimise this function so as to prevent the build-up of any waste or toxins in the system that could be the cause of inflammation.

Meadowsweet - contains salicylic acid, an
important active ingredient that reduces inflammation
and alleviates pain; 2 of the main aymptoms of arthritis
Lifestyle changes such as gentle exercise (swimming and walking are both good for osteoarthritis and it is important to maintain joint mobility by taking exercise rather than letting them stay rigid). Some patients report that taking supplements of glucosamine sulphate and chondroitin sulphate helps as well as a sulphur based compound called MSM. It is best to seek the advice of a herbalist before buying any brand, especially products online which are not always regulated. Climate also helps and patients usually report that their condition significantly improves in the summer months. The key thing is learning to manage the condition and making attempts to be as mobile as possible and being able to do things without the constant agony of pain.
 
Key herbs for arthritic symptoms

Willow tree - the bark is used as it contains
salicylic acid, a very useful anti-inflmmatory
and pain-relieving agent
Arnica is a herb that herbalists only use externally and never on broken skin. Commercial preparations containing arnica are usually designed to treat the symptoms of joint and muscular pain, stiffness or injury and it has excellent healing properties too, particularly for bruises since it encourages blood flow to the skin surface. Oil preparations, lotions or creams are usually combined with other herbs such as rosemary oil, lavender oil or silver birch bark oil and sometimes comfrey base cream. Arnica is also good for rheumatism, varicose veins, sprains, muscular aches and pains.

Echinacea is one of those herbs that practically everyone has heard of because we have all experienced the common cold. As a prophylactic for the cold and flu, this herb is excellent and some people swear by it for their general immunity and resistance to infection. It is almost too late to start taking it once symptoms appear so it really is best to take it as a supplement if you are susceptible to recurring colds. It is also used topically for minor infections, cuts & grazes as it is a great antimicrobial and antiseptic. Equally, it is also very good for healing wounds and boosting energy levels in debilitated patients. As a supplement, it is best taken as a standardised extract in capsule or tablet form. For general debility and weakness tinctures are probably better and in combination with other immune boosters, infection-fighting herbs and tonics.

Devil's Claw (the secondary tubers
are used because they contain harpagoside,
a very potent and effective anti-inflammatory
and analgesisc ingredient. OTC tablets or
capsules can be bought and taken for a
convenient method of administration
Devil’s Claw is a popular herbal supplement taken for the pain and discomfort of arthritis. It is also useful for other joint problems too such as gout and tendonitis. It contains important pain-relieving chemicals as well as anti-inflammatories, both characteristics of arthritic conditions. Many patients find that taking regular supplements of this herb improves mobility and lessens the pain, particularly in chronic cases. Many people who enjoy sporting activities and regular physical exercise who are hampered by joint injury or pain, find this a useful supplement in managing their symptoms. Devil’s claw also has other benefits including being a digestive stimulant (it is one of the bitterest herbs, taken in tincture form). Traditionally of course, it has been used for centuries by native South Africans to stimulate digestion in addition to controlling pain and fever.

Dietary supplements for joint care
  • vitamin D
  • calcium
  • glucosamine
  • chondroitin
  • MSM
  • essential fatty acids (AFAs)
The Importance of Essential Fatty Acids
 
There has been a lot of media coverage on the subject of the essential fatty acids and how good they are for you. We are apparently not getting enough of these nutrients from our diet due to the appalling standards of the ‘western diet’ having too much of the unhealthy saturated fats, hydrogenated fats and refined sugars. To understand the true importance of essential fatty acids, it is perhaps best to start at a description and their function in the body.

The essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a vital part of our diet because they cannot be made by the body, so they need to be obtained from the diet. In this sense, they are therefore referred to as ‘essential’. They are a group of fats (lipids) and make up some of the most important parts of our body especially the brain, hence the term ‘brain food’. There are 2 types of essential fatty acids that are important – omega 3 and omega 6. There is also omega 9 but this is not technically essential as the body is capable of making it provided there are enough of the other EFAs in the first place. The EFAs are needed by the body in certain proportions; more is needed of the omega 3 than the 6. Omega 3 is found in flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest omega 3 content of any food), flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocados, some dark leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, collards, etc.), canola oil (cold-pressed and unrefined), soybean oil, wheat germ oil, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, and others.
 
Omega 6 is also found in flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil and hempseeds. Other sources include grapeseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds (raw), olive oil, olives, borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, chestnut oil, chicken, amongst many others. It is important to avoid refined and hydrogenated versions of these foods. Other sources must be checked for quality as they may be nutrient-deficient as sold in stores. These include corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils which are also sources of omega 6, but are refined and may be nutrient-deficient.
 
Omega 9 is found in olive oil (extra virgin or virgin), olives, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc. One to two tablespoons of extra virgin or virgin olive oil per day should provide sufficient omega 9 for adults. However, the "time-released" effects of obtaining these nutrients from nuts and other whole foods is thought to be more beneficial than consuming the entire daily amount via a single oil dose.
 
For a clear mind, a healthy body and efficient use of energy, the essential fatty acids are a vital part of the diet. They also have other health benefits such as maintaining the suppleness of the joints, offering some protection against heart disease and general all round health. They also ensure a healthy circulation and immune system amongst other important functions that are too many to mention here. There is conflicting information however, as to their usefulness in pregnancy. Concern is really over the mercury levels in fatty fish, which is a good dietary source of omega 3 fatty acid. However, given that EFAs are vital to the growing baby (brain & spinal cord development) so it should not be avoided. If concerned, an alternative choice could be to try vegetarian sources (such as flaxseed or hemp seed oil) or take supplements made from algae sources as these pose no dangers for pregnant women. Taking these supplements in moderation is always the sensible approach and if in doubt, it is best to seek advice from a herbalist or a nutritionist.
 
Other measures for boosting energy include lymphatic drainage (a type of massage that encourages the free flow of lymph fluid through the lymphatic system enabling the efficient removal of toxins and debris from the system). It is a form of enhanced ‘detox’ so that toxins do not build up in the cells, tissues or surrounding fluids. Diet is also important in general detox as is eating the right kinds of foods for improved nutritional status, boosting circulation (eg. via exercise) and enabling the body to make better use of energy within cells. This requires de-cluttering the system, eliminating toxins, improving current sluggishness of the liver, improving circulation to the cells so oxygen actually reaches the cells for energy production.
 
Health as you get older
The health of the elderly warrants a special mention as there are many things that can be done to enhance and prolong health and well-being, well into old age. Many of the problems that are symptomatic of age and decline can be avoided through a healthy diet, a healthy lifestyle and through supplementation. Many physiological functions start to deteriorate and some of the things taken for granted in youth (like having energy for instance) is simply not there anymore. A pragmatic approach to life and accepting one’s physical limitations is a good starting point and this will avoid disappointment and a certain frustration that accompanies a state of mind that tries to do more than the body will permit.
Keeping the mind active, keeping physically active (within one’s own limitations) and cultivating different skills, hobbies and pastimes will all help in improving the quality of life as we get older. Western societies place an unnatural and unhealthy emphasis of youth and does not value age and experience. As a consequence, many people worry about old age and start to feel devalued and useless. This is not only unnecessary but also a cruel injustice to a group in our society who have so much to offer by way of wisdom, skills, knowledge and the all important life experience.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

The Lowdown on Low-Acid

Over the past few months, I have received nothing but information overload on low-acid diets and how they protect against and even treat disease states. Whilst I fully understand the reasoning behind the theory (ie. that reducing the levels of acididty in the body can be enormously beneficial to health and well-being, not to mention alleviating the disease state), it is virtually impossible to find any proper scientific study to support this theory. In short, what this regime proposes is that certain foods lowers the pH of the body making it acidic (in effect the blood and quite possibly the cells) and that switching to a diet that does not promote this will be significantly beneficial not only in healthy individuals but particularly in those who have an illness. To define this more clearly, one needs to address the term 'healthy'. It is fair to say that most individuals operate in a state of 'ill-health' as opposed to being at optimum level. In so-called healthy individuals, the body has a number of mechanisms and somewhat elaborate strategies to combat the fluctuations of blood pH with a sophisticated and effective buffering system that maintains blood at a steady and tightly controlled pH of around 7.35-7.45. So in its normal state, this is slightly alkaline and even my most weakest student of physiology will be able to give chapter and verse about the acid-base balance that exists in healthy individuals. However, it is not to say that low acid diets do not have merit. This is especially true of those who have a serious illness and a profound disease state such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and many others.

The body exists in a perpetual state of flux, that is to say that our daily interactions with the environment (including our diet and lifestyle) means that the body cannot remain static and cellular changes occur every second of the day (and even in sleep, there is activity). These activities are carried out by a number of mechanisms (too many to mention here) that keeps our internal environment at its optimal state (including pH - a measure of acidity or alkalinity based on the extent of hydrogen ions that are present in tissues and the blood). However, modern lifestyles have presented unique challenges to human physiology far removed from its original design and purpose.It has to process foods that it does not recognise, it has to detoxify medicinal drugs and other compounds from our lifestyle choices such as nicotine, tobacco and alcohol, it has to maintain hormone levels and gut flora at optimal levels despite triggers that stimulate huge variances and being eroded (respectively) through unnatural levels of stress, often prolonged bouts of stress, in fact, everything about our modern lifestyles encourages an acidic state.... I could go on. Accummulation of acidity over the years could, in part account for the denegerative state later on in life but again, there is very little scientific evidence to substantiate this. What is clear however, is that it is not surprising that the human body is put through its paces on a daily basis and illness is as a consequence of this pressure. Restoring balance is nothing new to medicine or treatment strategy. The reason the body fails is due very much to the loss of balance or equilibrium. In disease states, normal function (physiology) is lost therefore restoring this balance is paramount for the recovery process. This is certainly not a surprise nor indeed a new concept in the treatment and management of disease. However, one needs to examine the details and I for one am not going to dismiss the potential benefits that certain diets can offer especially if conventional approaches have reached their limit.

Low acid diets are a particular favourite of those who advocate natural approaches to cancer. Why cancer? Well cancer thrives in high acidity and low oxygen environments, not to mention the fact it is one of the biggest killers of the 21st century with little prospect of a cure on the horizon. Moreover, acidic conditions also impact detrimentally on immune function leading to all sorts of susceptibilities, complications and manifestations leading to illness and disease. So what are the strategies to combatting the acidic conditions in the body and to ensure a pathway to recovery and well-being?
 
Acid-Alkaline Food Chart
In addition to the usual suspects (ie. lifestyle, diet, stress-management), the following foods are examples of what should be eaten. It is important to say that no food in its natural state is 'bad' unless it is unrecognisable as food, loaded with toxins or simply dangerously unsafe for human consumption. Equally, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that low acid foods will combat cancer. However, the only piece of evidence to date has been  a study conducted in 2009 showing that oral consumption of bicarbonate (an alkaline substance that will reduce acidity) inhibits the spread of breast cancer tumours in mice. Encouragingly however, another study conducted in 2011 showed that a low acid diet may be useful in treating laryngopharangeal reflux but more research is needed to firmly establish the role that acid plays in the disease state. A more detailed list of suggested foods is also shown here.

List of alkaline-producing and acid-producing foods.
Remember, before embarking on any kind of strict diet especially the above, it is best to seek the advice of a specialist as many of these so-called 'acid-promoting foods are incredibly nutritious and vital for health and well-being. For more information about the benefits of low acid diets, the physiological mechanisms of acid-base balance go to: www.drmanik.com

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Truth about GMO

 
GM Maize that contains genes thought
to confer resistance to herbicides,
pesticides, droughts and disease
At long last, the cracks in the cover-up about the risks of GMO are beginning to show and about time too. A recent study (September 2012) conducted by a French research team published last month in the American Journal: Food and Chemical Toxicology highlighted the very thing most of us are worried about regarding the safety of GM foods. However, the publication of this paper has triggered an astonishing level of attack on the research group especially the lead author and scientist by pro-GM groups and organisations with a vested interest in GMO which has now become downright personal and insulting (and who says that the scientific community lacks its fair share of entertainment?!). Interestingly, it was only in June of this year that scientists themselves, from King's College London who specialise in GMO research and safety published a highly critical report (GMO Myths & Truths) that discredited the claims made by proponents of GMO and called into question the safety, viability and sustainability of using GMO technology on any short-term and importantly, long-term basis. Their verdict was a damning one which was based on sound evidence and one that's hard to refute. At last, all the things many of us suspected about the global GM trade and inclusion of GM technology into almost every facet of the food industry, not to mention the risks to health appear to be gaining strong support that is backed up by scientific evidence.
Genetic modification and GM technology has been around for some time now and it is firmly embedded in the system, be it food chains or indeed in research and development. Of great concern to most people (and probably one that is likely to affect us more immediately) is GM technology in food production, crop production and its uses in the food industry. About the time that GM technology became big (about 15-20 years ago, possibly earlier) was around the time when we were sold the premise that there was a food shortage crisis and this new revolutionary technology was going to save the day, prevent starving millions and address the needs of feeding the world for future generations. Other claims made by GM manufacturers and supporters included the following:
  • GM are an extension of natural breeding and do not pose different risks from naturally bred crops
  • GM foods are safe to eat and can be more nutritious than naturally bred crops
  • GM foods are strictly regulated for safety
  • GM increase crop yields
  • GM reduce pesticide use
  • GM benefit farmers and make their lives easier
  • GM bring economic benefits
  • GM benefit the environment
  • GM can help solve problems caused by climate change
  • GM reduce energy use
  • GM help feed the world
Many of these claims are now being disputed (fundamentally because there is a growing body of scientific evidence that says that they are simply not true). Worryingly, the evidence suggests the contrary, indicating that GM crops:
  • are laboratory-made, using technology that is totally different from natural breeding methods, and pose different risks from non-GM crops
  • can be toxic, can cause allergies and can be less nutritious than their natural counterparts
  • are not adequately regulated to ensure safety
  • do not increase yield potential
  • do not reduce pesticide use but increases its use
  • create serious problems for farmers, including herbicide-tolerant 'superweeds', compromise soil quality and increase disease susceptibility in crops
  • have mixed economic effects
  • harm soil quality, disrupt ecosystems and reduce biodiversity
  • do not offer effective solutions to climate change
  • are energy-hungry as any other chemically-farmed crops
  • cannot solve the problem of world hunger but distract from its real causes (poverty, corrupt political power and greedy governments causing food wastage (western world) and lack of access to food (developing world) and increasingly (which is very depressing), lack of access to land to grow crops)
What is galling of course is that there really needs to be no need to take risks with GM crops when effective, readily available and sustainable solutions to the problems already exist. Traditional plant bleeding (which has been the mainstay of farming methods for thousands of years to select crops that have desirable traits), in some cases assisted by safe technologies by gene mapping and marker-assisted selection (ie. techniques that map and identify the very genes within a complex genome responsible for such desirable traits) continues to outperform GM in producing high-yield, drought-resistant, pest-resistant and disease-resistant crops that can meet the present and future food requirements for the world.

Although no GM crops can be grown in the UK, GM commodities especially soya can be imported and used for animal feed, and to a lesser extent, in some food products. Many campaigners have fought and continue to campaign for better labelling of foods that contain GM products but this is patchy and nowhere near what they want it to be. We may never know which of our foods contain GM ingredients and this is particualrly the case with prepacked and processed foods where the sources of ingredients comes from many different places and it is nigh on impossible to trace the origins of all the ingredients.This is the very thing that campaigners want to see an improvement in but the ideal scenario appears to be a long way off.

There is no further comfort in that 2 types of GM crop are currently authorised for cultivation in the EU: an insect-resistant maize and a potato with modified starch content for industrial use. Neither of these is relevant or suitable for production in the UK. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) plays a central role in assessing applications for the cultivation, production and marketing of GM products which is also scrutinised by independent scientists. This also relates to other GMO such as vaccines in a clinical trial. The GMO approvals process can be divided into international and national depending on the purposes of the GMO being proposed. For instance, products for consumption have to be considered and meet the requirements at an international level whereas GMO intended for research and development are considered at a national level. The US however follow a different guideline and a set of requirements where GM crops can be grown and there are currently no labelling obligations by food manufacturers to state whether ingredients are GM. Indeed, the American Medical Association stated in June of this year that they saw no health purpose for labelling genetically modified foods."There is no scientific justification for special labelling of bioengineered foods, as a class, and that voluntary labelling is without value unless it is accompanied by focused consumer education". Undoubtedly, the campaign for labelling is as strong as ever in light of recent findings and especially the most recent French study paper. Interestingly, the EFSA have dismissed this latest study which I believe is short-sighted at best and disturbing at worst. So what did the French study reveal......

Rats developed huge cancers
after feeding on GM maize and
herbicides commonly used in crop
production throughout the world
In summary, it showed that rats that were fed on a diet of Monsanto's GM maize that were tolerant to the world’s best-selling weedkiller (Monsanto's Roundup), as well as a diet of just the herbicide alone, developed tumours, multiple organ damage and died prematurely. In the first ever study to examine the long-term effects of Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller, or the NK603 Roundup-resistant GM maize, scientists found that rats exposed to even the smallest amounts, developed mammary tumours and severe liver and kidney damage as early as four months in males, and seven months for females, compared with 23 and 14 months respectively for a control group. An extraordinary number of tumours developed earlier and more aggressively - particularly in female animals. The lead scientist suggested that the results could be explained by the endocrine(hormone)-disrupting effects of Roundup and overexpression of the transgene in the GMO. This was the first study that tested the effects of such maize (with these specific genes) on rats over 2 years (nearly the rats' full life span), as opposed to the 90 days that is demanded by regulators. Around a dozen long-term studies have failed to demonstrate this before so this new finding is unsurprisingly causing a bit of a stir! Worryingly, the study also demonstrated the toxicity of the herbicide itself when the rats were fed this directly and in the emerging furore, the voice of a few scientists who pointed this out seems to have have got lost in the noise and mayhem.

Sadly, there have been many critics of this study accusing the French research team of a biased, poorly performed, inadequate, and sloppy study (amongst other accusations). To his credit the lead scientist Gilles-Eric S√©ralini (Professor of Molecular Biology at the Caen University in France) has responded to all of the criticisms with credible data and sound explanations. Many forget that this is a peer-reviewed paper but whilst science has its own parameters for testing the safety of GM, there is an enormous amount we just don't know at this stage. In fact, I don't think even the specialists themselves know the scale or boundaries of the long-term health issues regarding GM. There is a sinister and coercive political agenda not to mention the corporate interests of GM manufacturers such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical amongst others. Thus far, there has been precious little informed debate within the corporate-controlled mainstream western media (which mainly comprises scientifically-illiterate journalists) about the potentially deleterious effects of introducing little-understood GMO on a large/corporate scale into nature which has the potential to cause irreversible damage to the soil and our food supply. It is abundantly clear that more peer-reviewed, long-term studies like this are urgently warranted before our political governments start adopting GM as a 'safe' replacement to naturally-derived food sources.

It's a worrying sign when scientists in the field of GM are raising concerns and little is being offered by way of explanation or indeed  steps to address the issues that has the potential to cause harm to so many, not least of which human health, wildlife, biodiversity, soil quality and ultimately sustainability. I do hope we can see a change in fortunes of these corrosive GM corporations that have far too much political power and very little by way of substance to allay the fears of so many who are justifiably concerned about GMO.

Details of the French study: Séralini G, Clair E, Mesnage R et al. Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. Published online September 19 2012

For more information about the report GMO Myths & Truths go to Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) website: http://www.anh-europe.org/news/genetic-engineers-publish-damning-evidence-based-report-about-gmo-food

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Natural Approach to Osteoporosis

Comparison between normal, healthy bone with
osteoporotic bone. Note the characteristic spongy appearance
which gives rise to an increases risk of fractures and breakages.
There has been a lot of discussion around osteoporosis lately, probably due to the lastest figures showing that the incidence in the UK is rising and better education of the condition is needed as it is a preventatble disease but only if adequate measures are taken early on in life. Statistics for the UK show that there are about 3 million people in the UK with this condition and about 10 million diagnosed with it in the US. So what is osteoporosis and how can it be prevented?
Osteoporosis has been labelled 'brittle bone disease' because it causes the bone (tissue that is normally rigid and dense with calcium deposits) to become thin, fragile and porous. Moreover, the tissue integrity in osteoporosis is such that loss of calcium results in its characteristic spongy appearance that can only be detected in bone density scans (DEXA scans) without any observable symptoms.  Innovative new techniques in medical diagnostics may mean that it will be possible to detect osteoporosis much earlier on (bone loss at its earliest stages) with a simple urine test. The reasons that the current incidence of osteoporosis is a worry is that fragile bones are likely to fracture or break and what's worse is that there is no knowing if you have this condition as it is typically asymtomatic until a minor accident, fall or injury. In the UK, it is estimated that around 250,000 fractures/year are as a result of osteoporosis. There is an increased risk of fractures or breakages usually in the spine, hips, arms and/or wrists which may lead to complications later on especially in older sufferers whose ability to repair and regenerate healthy tissue is significantly diminished.
Osteoporosis takes many years to develop and healthy bones that are a feature of youth and robustness start to change in the pattern in which calcium is deposited. It has been argued that if you don't get the right nutrients and calcium (and also vitamin D) intake by a crucial life stage (usually by mid-late 20s), the bones will never be fully functional. From about the age of 35, bone density starts to decline ostensibly due to the manner in which calcium is deposited with what's termed 'bone turnover'. The rate of bone turnover is synonymous with calcium demineralisation.

High risk groups are:
  • post-menopausal women with a decline in oestrogen (oestrogen influences bone density)
  • endocrine disorders eg. hyperthyroidism (excess thyroxine hormone), pituitary gland diseases
  • long-term oral corticosteroid medication eg. prednisolone given for arthritis affects bone strength
  • malabsorption disorders eg. Crohn's disease, coeliac disease (leaky gut syndrome)
  • heavy drinking and smoking (depletes vital nutrients needed for bone mineralisation)
  • men with low testosterone levels (eg. hypogonadism) - testosterone is also needed for bone health
  • family history of osteoporosis
  • long-term inactivity (self-imposed or due to disability)
  • overactivity of the parathyroid gland (this gland produces parathyroid hormone which regulates the amount of calcium in bones
Osteoporosis can be prevented, contrary to popular understanding with regular exercise, healthy eating, getting sufficient exposure to natural sunlight and lifestyle changes eg. giving up smoking and heavy drinking.

Treatments
Once diagnosis has been confirmed and depending on the level of bone loss/density according to bone density scans, the treatment can fall into 2 groups: conventional drugs and natural approaches.
Conventional drugs are sometimes necessary in cases where calcium needs to be replaced fairly quickly indicating the severity of the bone loss. These drug treatments include the following which are commonly prescribed:
  • bisphosphonates - reduce the risk of bone breakages especially in the spine eg. alendronic acid (Fosamax), clyclical etidronate (Didronel PMO), ibandronate (Bonviva), risedronate(Actonel) and zoledronic acid (Aclasta)
  • selective oestrogen receptor modulator (SERM) - mimics the action of oestrogen only in order to promote the protective effects that this hormone has in osteoporosis but does not influence other organs which are usually influenced by oestrogen such as the breast tissue and uterus eg. raloxifene (Evista)
  • strontium ranelate (Protelos) - influences bone turnover rate by acting on the bone cells themselves (osteoclasts and osteoblasts)
  • parathyroid hormone (PTH) treatment - builds new bone and only available from specialists eg. Preotact, Forsteo)
  • monoclonal (human) antibodies - antibodies specifically designed to attack the rank ligand; a substance of bone metabolism that stimulates the cells that break down bone (osteoclasts) eg. Denosumab
  • calcium and vitamin D therapy - absorption of calcium requires a healthy intake of vitamin D. These can be given as supplements either as treatment (in severe cases of depletion) or as a preventative measure
Other, less commonly used treatments
  • calcitonin (Miacalcic) - for bone protection and for relieveing acute bone pain (fractures)
  • calcitriol (Rocaltrol) - reduce fractures in women and prevent broken bones in men
  • HRT (hormone replacement therapy) - replaces oestrogen (and sometimes progesterone) in women and testosterone in men (for hypogonadism). HRT is no longer the 1st line treatment in the menopause due to concerns over its risks and long-term use. However, there is some benefit for some regarding bone protection with HRT
Natural and Alternative Approaches to Treatment
By far the biggest benefit is nutrition and herbal medicine - so many people aren't getting the right balance of nutrients nor indeed the right quantities of them when they do get them from food. Osteoporosis is just one of the numerous health problems resulting from a poor diet, as well as lifetyle such as smoking and heavy drinking.

Nutritional Therapy
To know if you are at risk, is to have knowledge of whether you are getting sufficient quantities of calcium, vitamin D and some of the other, equally important nutrients. Studies suggest that diets rich in the following foods and nutrients may help prevent bone loss in both men and women:
  • calcium - low fat milk & other daily products, cheese, brocolli. some foods are fortified (added) with calcium
  • magnesium - avocado, banana, lima beans, low fat milk, potato, spinach, halibut fish
  • potassium - whole grains, nuts, spinach, oatmeal, potato, peanut butter
  • vitamin D - the body makes vitamin D from exposure to sunlight but precursors (raw materials and an inactive form of the vitamin) are needed. It is found in in fatty fish, fortified cereals and milk
  • omega 3 essential fatty acids (see my earlier posts on EFAs - July 2012) - can maintain and possibly help increase bone mass
  • vitamin K - dark green, leafy vegetables, cauliflower
  • strontium
  • fruits
  • vegetables
If supplements are cruicial (for whatever reason) and especially if the nutritional deficiency is severe, then it's essential you buy calcium citrate as this is the form in which calcium can be most easily absorbed. However, supplements of these will cost more. Other forms that are absorbed are calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate. Best to check with a nutritionist to determine the recommended daily intake for each ndividual case.

Herbal Medicine
 Many people are worried about taking strong conventional drugs over a long period of time preferring a more natural approach to any health condition. In this regard, herbal medicines are a popular choice. Herbs that are commonly indicated for osteoporosis include those that contain notable quantities of isoflavones (phyto-oestrogens) which are plant chemicals that exert the same effects as endogenous oestrogens. These herbs are also popular choices for treating menopausal symptoms as they mimic the actions of naturally-occuring oestrogen which is lacking in sufficient quantities in the menopause resulting in typical symptoms seen such as hot flushes. Herbs that are high in phyto-oestrogens include black cohosh, red clover, wild yam and alfalfa. The best sources via the diet is from soy isoflavones (soy, tofu, soybeans, tempeh, tamari, miso). Traditional fermented soya is the only recommended type of soya since unfermented soya contains phytic acid which blocks the absorption of calcium and other nutrients (see my earlier post on soya - December 2010). Other herbs include:
  • horsetail (Equisetum arvense) - contains silicon, believed to strengthen bone
  • kelp (Fucus versiculosus) - rich in minerals so may enhance bone health along with other treatments
  • oats straw (Avena sativa) - boosts hormone levels that support bone health and stimulates cell growth
  • false unicorn root (Chamaelirium luteum) - contains steroidal saponins that act as mild oestrogens and so promote bone health
Natural Progesterone
There has been much debate and discussion over natural progesterone which comes essentially from extracts from wild yam which is combined with other ingredients to produce a cream that is applied topically for absorption through the skin. Claims of its benefits include an alleviation of menopausal symptoms, prevention of osteoporosis and stengthening of bones. Medical research showed that the risks associated with oestrogen-only HRT (uterine cancer) were reduced when given in combination with a synthetic form of progesterone known as progestogen. However, many were still unhappy with HRT and in the belief that it was the natural progesterone that was responsible for mitigating menopausal symptoms and preventing osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. Natural progesterone cream is often marketed as a natural alternative to HRT and, therefore, appeals to women seeking an alternative option to drug treatments for osteoporosis. Unfortunatiely, natural progesterone still remains unlicenced with official data on side-effects, adverse events and other problems not being recorded or publicly available. Strong scientifica data to support its benefits in osteoporosis is also lacking making natural progesterone cream an unlicenced product and taken at the user's risk.

Proper advice and or a consultation with a medical herbalist is highly recommended prior to any self-medication with OTC herbs.

For more information or advice on osteoporosis as well as help in nutrition or herbal remedies, please visit:
The National Osteoporosis Society (UK) www.nos.org.uk/
The British Association of Nutritional Therapists www.bant.org.uk/
The College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy www.phytotherapists.org/
The National Institute of Medical Herbalists www.nimh.org.uk/

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The Fats of Life

There has been much adverse publicity on fats but they are vital to health and well-being. The confusion has arisen due to the type of fats that are consumed and the imbalance in what we eat far too much of. Modern diets contain a disproportionate amount of saturated fats, trans fatty acids (or trans fats for short) and hydrogenated fats. The body requires a certain amount of saturated fats although we are currently eating too much of these. Saturated fats in their natural form are found mainly in animal fat although fried foods also contain a high quantity of these depending on how they are prepared. Trans fatty acids and hydrogenated fats are not found naturally and the body is not designed to process these. As a consequence, they accumulate in the body and can cause ill health through toxic build up. These unhealthy fats are found in most processed foods (eg. biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolates etc..) and fast foods (eg. take away foods).
In addition to saturated fats (in moderation), other healthy fats are the essential fatty acids (omega 3, 6, and 9) are found in fatty fish and some vegetarian sources such as flaxseeds. So let’s look at these in more detail…
Fatty acids intake:

There has been a lot of media coverage on the subject of the essential fatty acids and how good they are for you. We are apparently not getting enough of these nutrients from our diet due to the appalling standards of the ‘western diet’ having too much of the unhealthy saturated fats, hydrogenated fats and refined sugars. To understand the true importance of essential fatty acids, it is perhaps best to start at a description and their function in the body.

The essential fatty acids (EFAs) are a vital part of our diet because they cannot be made by the body, so they need to be obtained from the diet. In this sense, they are referred to as ‘essential’. They are a group of fats (lipids) and make up some of the most important parts of our body especially the brain, hence the term ‘brain food’. There are 2 types of essential fatty acids that are important – omega 3 and omega 6. There is also omega 9 but this is not technically essential as the body is capable of making it provided there are enough of the other EFAs in the first place. The EFAs are needed by the body in certain proportions; more is needed of the omega 3 than the 6. Omega 3 is found in flaxseed oil (flaxseed oil has the highest omega 3 content of any food), flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil, hempseeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, avocados, some dark leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, purslane, mustard greens, collards, etc.), canola oil (cold-pressed and unrefined), soybean oil, wheat germ oil, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, albacore tuna, and others.

Omega 6 is also found in flaxseed oil, flaxseeds, flaxseed meal, hempseed oil and hempseeds. Other sources include grapeseed oil, pumpkin seeds, pine nuts, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds (raw), olive oil, olives, borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, chestnut oil, chicken, amongst many others. It is important to avoid refined and hydrogenated versions of these foods. Other sources must be checked for quality as they may be nutrient-deficient as sold in stores. These include corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, and cottonseed oils which are also sources of omega 6, but are refined and may be nutrient-deficient..

Omega 9 is found in olive oil (extra virgin or virgin), olives, avocados, almonds, peanuts, sesame oil, pecans, pistachio nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, etc. One to two tablespoons of extra virgin or virgin olive oil per day should provide sufficient omega 9 for adults. However, the "time-released" effects of obtaining these nutrients from nuts and other whole foods is thought to be more beneficial than consuming the entire daily amount via a single oil dose. I have discussed at length the benefits of argan oil in a previous post (Dec 2011); I is a natural oil from Morocco that is gaining in popularity in the West – please remember to only purchase products that are ethically sourced.

For a clear mind, a healthy body and efficient use of energy, the essential fatty acids are a vital part of the diet. They also have other health benefits such as maintaining the suppleness of the joints, offering some protection against heart disease and general all round health. They also ensure a healthy circulation and immune system amongst other important functions that are too many to mention here. There is conflicting information however, as to their usefulness in pregnancy. Concern is really over the mercury levels in fatty fish, which is a good dietary source of omega 3 fatty acid. However, given that EFAs are vital to the growing baby (brain & spinal cord development) it should not be avoided. If concerned, an alternative choice could be to try vegetarian sources (such as flaxseed or hemp seed oil) or take supplements made from algae sources as these pose no dangers for pregnant women. Taking these supplements in moderation is always the sensible approach and if in doubt, it is best to seek advice from a herbalist or a nutritionist.

Given that in the West, over 40% of our calories come from processed and hard fats, it is worth taking a closer look at our diets and answering some important questions:

Q. Are all natural fats good?
 
A. In a nutshell, yes! Natural food sources are always good for humans – the problem has always been one of excess. Our bodies haven’t changed much over the evolutionary period but our diets have and the manner in which we process food for human consumption has made foods almost unrecognisable from its original form. Fats (even saturated fats) are essential for human health. They are important in a diverse range of bodily functions such as nerve conduction, brain development (especially in growing children), important for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, as a storage facility (eg. oestrogen is stored in our fat reserves), for insulation and for protection. Not to mention the fact that fats provide important building blocks for other structural, nutritional and functional components of the body.

Q. How are natural fats made unhealthy?

A. Natural fats in foods are made unhealthy by processing. Simply put, with the exception of butter and lard which are from animal sources, all natural fats from plants are liquid at room temperature and have a limited shelf life before they goes rancid. Therefore, to increase the shelf-life of such oils and to make them solid which are convenient, food manufacturers alter their chemical configuration in a process known as hydrogenation. The fats are then referred to as hydrogenated fats (look out for them on any food label and it’s surprising how many processed foods contain them). Whilst this process extends the shelf-life of our foods, unfortunately, it also alters the EFAs in any natural fats by converting them to trans-fatty acids (trans fats).
This is disastrous for the body in that it cannot process these fats and therefore they linger in the body leading to increased risk of all sorts of diseases such as cardiovascular disease. Look out for hydrogenated fats in margarine, breads, cakes, biscuits, instant soups, chocolate bars, deserts, crisps, convenience foods and peanut butter.
Another way of making natural fats unhealthy is by frying. EFAs are heat-sensitive and therefore frying will destroy the most susceptible components of them. Frying converts healthy, natural oils into unhealthy, toxic ones, increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer. If foods need to be fried, always supplement the diet with additional sources of EFAs in their natural form. Equally, food manufacturers also refine many of the natural oils and remove their distinctive odours which are characteristic of pure, natural oils. They also remove their colours. The extent of this refining renders all natural oils devoid of any nutritional benefit. Go for cold-pressed, extra virgin oils which may be more expensive but it is infinitely healthier than the cheaper, refined alternative.

Q. How do you tell if there are ‘hidden fats’ in foods?

A. All processed foods are a minefield of ingredients. We are utterly reliant on legislation (not all of which is adhered to) and the integrity of food manufactures to provide adequate and honest food labelling. They should by law list all ingredients so fats should be easily spotted. It’s amazing how fats somehow find their way into the least expected food items (where one wouldn’t think to find it). Hidden fats are so-called because they don’t appear to be fried or dripping in fat. But many foods contain them eg. chocolate, cakes, crisps, pastries and all processed foods. The only certain way to limit or avoid unnatural fat intake is to source your food carefully (this may require some research into which outlets and some homework into foods) and to cook your own food from natural ingredients.
 
Q. Is it healthier to buy low-fat foods instead?
 
A. Not necessarily as many of the so-called low calories foods are loaded with sugar (simply because removing fat from food can make it rather unpalatable and tasteless therefore manufacturers compensate by adding extra sugar, often refined). Excess sugar presents all sorts of other problems because it is changed into harmful forms of fat. It also limits absorption of EFAs, inhibits Vitamin C uptake, disrupts insulin function making regulation of blood sugar erratic and unstable, it increases the risk of blood clots (which has potential consequences such as raising cardiovascular risk, cancer risk and diabetes). Moreover, immunity is compromised with disruptions to mineral absorption and excess adrenaline secretion – this can have devastating metabolic consequences. Watch out also for extra salt in low-fat foods, again by a means of adding taste to compensate for the lack of it when fat is removed.
If you want to cut down on fat, simply eliminate all processed foods and reduce portion size as well as animal fat intake such as butter, lard and suet. Ensure that daily quotas of EFAs are met from vegetable/plant and fish sources. Always cook from fresh ingredients then you know for sure exactly what is in your foods.

Conclusion
 
Remember, natural, unrefined oils also contain a host of other nutrients such as phytosterols, antioxidants, lecithin and many other useful ingredients. In addition to a myriad of nutritional benefits, these minor ingredients also contribute to the flavour, smell, colour, consistency and character of the oil. Always store oils such as flaxseed, argan and hemp seed oil in the fridge as sunlight and exposure to air once opened will oxidise the EFAs in them making them go rancid and devoid of nutrients. They will also need to be consumed fairly quickly so make sure they don’t sit around in the fridge for months on end!

For specific medical conditions or for general advice on EFA intake, seek advice from a medical herbalist or a nutritionist: the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy  http://www.phytotherapists.org/ or the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) http://www.nimh.org.uk/

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Natural & Herbal Approaches to Eczema

I have had numerous requests for information on natural approaches to eczema. This stems mainly from the fact that conventional approaches require often harsh treatments and drugs that are steroid based (such as hydrocortisone cream) and if it is particularly bad especially in children, many parents worry about-the long-term use of steroid based drugs over the years. Although topical (applied externally), these drugs are absorbed into the body and often makes the skin thinner over time and may lead to systemic problems later on. Many people also don't realise that eczema requires a holistic approach to treatment and management that involves nutrition, herbal treatments (both internal and topical) as well as stress-management, digestive and immune health.

Eczema is a dry skin condition characterised by patches of inflamed, red, itchy skin. There are small fluid-filled blisters which develop and subsequently burst giving the characteristic ‘weepy’ skin appearance. The patches then crust over. Recurrent attacks lead to scarring and thickening of the skin which changes the colour and appearance of the skin, affecting its integrity and purpose. Severe eczema is very distressing particularly if the face, neck and hands are affected. Many children outgrow this condition and in some it is also accompanied by hay fever and/or asthma as all 3 conditions fall in the band of allergic conditions called atopic allergy.

The herbal approach is to use a range of anti-inflammatories, demulcents and skin restoratives. In this respect, herbs such as calendula cream, chamomile cream or licorice cream are excellent. Skin restoratives such as centella fixed oil or comfrey cream are great choices. Anti-pruritic creams such as chickweed will prevent the intense itching and will also soothe the skin. Long-term use of topical creams combined in a mixture that includes all these actions will restore skin integrity so that it begins to resemble healthy skin again. Internal mixtures (either tinctures and/teas) that include chamomile, centella, licorice can also be considered. A good combination for most dry skin conditions is a mixture of sarsaparilla and mahonia. As eczema is an immune condition, a herb such as echinacea is invariably added in order to modify immune responses so that inflammation is kept to a minimum in predisposed individuals.

Owing to the general dryness in the system and the lack of moisture, supplementation of hemp seed oil is highly recommended. This nutrient replenishes the fats that are essential to diet and general nutritional status. Most dry conditions occur in systems that are deficient in these essential fatty acids (notably the omega fatty acids). They are also found naturally occurring in fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, trout & sardines) as well as some nuts (eg. walnuts) and seeds (linseeds, hemp seed and others). It is vital for the skin to have these fats for its healthy state and function. It can be added to smoothies but choose those that are not yoghurt-based as dairy aggravates the condition and be careful about the sugar content in these drinks.

Other supplements such as vitamin C (for wound healing and for general health and vitality of the skin), as well as zinc are also highly recommended. The mineral zinc is an essential part of our immune system and is required to modulate the immune responses in the body. Inflammatory conditions can often result from a deficiency of zinc in the diet and studies have shown it to have a beneficial effect in eczema.

General dietary & lifestyle recommendations in eczema:
  • Increase fatty fish intake (good examples are listed above)
  • Increase flaxseeds/linseeds. These can be bought from most supermarkets and can be easily sprinkled on top of cereals for a crunchy texture. This is high in the omega fatty acids so it is a good nutrient. Another suitable choice is hemp seed oil (as above)
  • Limit all dairy intake especially cheese, milk, eggs, yoghurt etc…
  • Try goat’s cheese as an alternative to dairy cheese
  • Limit or avoid altogether all junk food – far too many additives and chemicals that could trigger an inflammatory response in sensitive systems
  • Reduce red meat where possible and eat more fatty fish & chicken instead
  • Increase intake of fresh fruit and vegetables. Go organic & non-GMO whenever possible and go for variety. This will ensure you cover all bases where nutrition is concerned
  • Try gluten-free foods – there could be a possible wheat sensitivity
  • Plan the weekly food shopping by making a list and spend time thinking about meals way ahead so you have some control over diet and culprit foods
  • Limit eating out where possible but once in a while is OK or choose foods that are ‘safe’  (non-culprits foods) on the menu
  • Avoid wool and nylon materials in clothing
  • Avoid coconut oil, lanolin and coal tar products in all toiletries
  • Try almond or olive oil with a few drops of chamomile essential oil (EO) or lemon balm EO as an alternative moisturiser to the skin
  • Vitamin E cream or oil is also a good moisturiser for the skin
  • Sea salt baths once a week. Or add oatmeal to baths – great for nourishing the skin and an excellent moisturiser for eczema.
  • Take regular exercise to boost circulation and the healing process. Exercise will also boost immunity and general health & vitality.
  • Consider stress-reduction measures and relaxation techniques. Stress contributes significantly to the condition and can make an existing episode much worse.
For further information, contact the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy(http://www.phytotherapists.org/) or the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (http://www.nimh.org.uk/).