Friday, 1 September 2017

Natural & Herbal Approaches to Menopausal Symptoms

Many women experience the discomfort of the menopause in the Western world. Typical symptoms include depression, hot flushes (also called hot flashes), weight gain, mood changes, anxiety, loss of libido, vaginal dryness (predisposing to cystitis) and insomnia to name a few. In theory, the menopause should be a relatively uneventful phase in a woman’s reproductive life because the adrenal glands (which lie just above the kidneys) are the back-up glands for producing the all-important oestrogen when the ovaries start to slow down production of this hormone. Unfortunately, the stressful life that many women lead in the Western world leaves their adrenal glands in a depleted and exhausted state so much so that their back-up system fails and their bodies suffer the inevitable consequences of oestrogen decline and hormonal imbalance. Conventional treatments can range from drug therapy (eg. HRT) to radical surgery (total or partial hysterectomy). For some women, this appears to be acceptable and can alleviate much of their discomfort. However, many are uncomfortable with drug treatment or surgery and recent concerns over the safety of HRT have forced many to consider natural alternatives and less invasive methods of controlling their symptoms.

If 50 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 20, then Peri-menopause seems to be the new PMS. It’s very common and effects women between the ages of 35 to 50 generally and we are seeing it starting to happen on a more frequent basis and in younger women.
During the years before menopause levels of progesterone typically decline, while oestrogen levels remain stable or even increase. This creates a situation commonly referred to as oestrogen dominance as the ratio of progesterone to oestrogen changes and triggers the following symptoms. Some of the symptoms that women suffer when progesterone declines include:

  • Weight gain
  • Increased PMS
  • Breast swelling and tenderness
  • Mood swings
  • Poor memory
  • Irritability
  • Poor sleep
  • Water retention
  • Aches and pains
  • Heavy periods
  • Fibroid growth

Another hormone which is influenced is Testosterone. Testosterone levels may start to decline during this phase and can be quite difficult to observe. These symptoms can be:
  • Reduced Sex Drive
  • Reduced response to sex
  • General sense of well-being, energy, and ambition
  • Depression
  • Reduction in muscle mass

If 50 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 20, then the peri-menopause seems to be the new PMS.

The final piece to the puzzle is the reduction in oestrogen levels leading into menopause. The ovaries reduce production of oestrogen which triggers the elevation of Follicle stimulating hormones and luteinising hormone (LH) which triggers the characteristic symptoms of menopause. The ovaries continue to produce some oestrogen along with the adrenal glands however if the drop is dramatic and the adrenals cannot cope then symptoms can be dramatic until the body balances itself.

  • Hot flushes
  • Reduced energy
  • Night sweats
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Memory Loss
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Arthritic aches and pains

So it is critically important that from the age of 35 to 50, women are aware of the changes starting to occur and support the endocrine control centres during this phase to avoid these symptoms and ensure a healthy menopause. If these symptoms are suppressed with hormonal treatments, or ignored then the underlying attempt of the body to try and manage this transition naturally is sabotaged it leads to a range of other issues such as:

  • Weight gain
  • Thyroid reduction
  • Skin breakouts
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Premature ageing
  • Premature menopause

The herbal approach is to consider a range of herbs that tackle the problems on a more symptomatic level as well as a combination of practical suggestions or possibly even some of the talking therapies, particularly if the menopause occurs at an early age. Herbs that will control the hot flushes include sage and black cohosh. Herbs that control mood include:

  1. St. John’s Wort and other nervines such as skullcap, wood betony and damiana. 
  2. Herbs for anxiety and insomnia include Indian ginseng, passion flower, lime flowers and Jamaica dogwood. 
  3. Herbs that balance the reproductive hormones include false unicorn root, licorice, red clover or wild yam. 

A herbalist would prescribe the most suitable combination of herbs for each case so a consultation is strongly recommended (see for how to locate your nearest herbalist).

Diet is absolutely crucial so ensuring a well-balanced diet is critical to health at this stage. Getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals is important as well as slow-release energy-rich complex carbohydrates. 

Much has been debated about soya and some of this information is confusing simply because some of it is contradictory and poorly referenced from non-reputable sources. Soya is one of the products that come under the general category of plant nutrients called phyto-oestrogens because when consumed, they exert an effect similar to the hormone oestrogen, although its action is weak. The table below gives further examples of other sources of plant oestrogens. In short, it is the fermented soya that is beneficial to health (whatever age but more so during the menopause). Fermented soya and their products such as miso, tempeh, tamari and shoyu are good examples. These reflect what is traditionally consumed in the Far East where menopause is a rare occurrence. Products such as soya milk, tofu (bean curd) and soya protein isolates are a Western invention and many argue that some of the health problems are attributed to the consumption of these products rather than the original soya preparation which are fermented. A consultation with either a clinical nutritionist or a medical herbalist is strongly recommended for comprehensive advice and guidance on this. Nutritional and lifestyle recommendation post-menopause is also advised such as preventing heart disease and osteoporosis.

Over the last few years, there has been great interest in the role of naturally-occurring plant constituents that have a weak hormonal action in the body. These are collectively referred to as phyto-oestrogens (PO) of which there are 6 main types consumed by humans. POs occur widely throughout the plant world and can have a profound influence on human health particularly in oestrogen-deficient states such as the menopause. All types are naturally-occurring compounds and can be found in grains, seeds, legumes and medicinal plants in addition to other vegetable sources.

Classification of phyto-oestrogens; edible plants with recognised oestrogenically-active compounds:



·         main ones = genistein & daidzein
·         glycitein in smaller quantities
·         alfalfa
·         licorice*
·         mung beans
·         whole grains
·         red clover
·         soya*
·         linseed (flax)*
·         rye
·         legumes
·         beans
·         wholegrains
Saponins (similar structure to steroidal hormone oestrogen, progesterone & androgens. Some pharmaceutical companies use saponin-containing plants to manufacture steroid hormones)
·         many medicinal herbs in this category
·         pharmacological mechanisms may involve interaction with hypothalamus-pituitary hormones rather than interaction with oestrogen receptors
·         black cohosh – Cimicifuga racemosa
·         licorice* - Glycyrrhiza glabra
·         Korean ginseng – Panax ginseng
·         wild yam – Dioscorea villosa
·         fenugreek – Trigonella foenum-graecum
·         root vegetables
·         grains
·         alfalfa
·         soya sprouts*
·         green beans
·         kidney beans
Resorcylic Acid Lactones
·         oats
·         barley
·         rye
·         fennel – Foeniculum vulgare
·         cabbage family
·         sage – Salvia officinalis
·         garlic – Allium sativum
*Contains high levels of phyto-oestrogens

On a more holistic level, there are 3 simple steps to treating Perimenopause naturally:

Diet and lifestyle.
Eating a low processed, alkaline and high antioxidant diet is important to allow the bodies detox and elimination systems to work efficiently. One of the reasons why oestrogen increases is because the body lacks the ability to metabolise oestrogen in particular. So it requires optimal liver and digestive function. If liver function is sluggish then many of these symptoms develop so we suggest taking an additional liver support supplement containing natural amino acids and herbal medicines. For digestion it is important to take fermented drinks and vegetables to build up the GUTs natural balance and defences. These bacteria assist in the breakdown of hormones excreted by the liver. Our 8 week program has recipes for these drinks.

Manage stress levels
Stress is a common issue with women at this stage of life with busy lives, running households and careers to manage. Often women take care of themselves last and stress impacts on the endocrine balance. The adrenals become exhausted and cannot take up the additional production of oestrogen leading into menopause and the result is the dramatic symptoms of menopause. So managing stress is critical. Ensuring adequate sleep, regular exercise, yoga and meditation are all really important to ensure stress levels are kept to a manageable level.

Balance the hormone control centre
We know hormones are starting to shift at this time of life towards menopause. It largely depends on how well your body copes with this process. Your hormonal control centre, the pituitary and hypothalamus axis is the centre which regulates your hormones. What we find is often diet and lifestyle sometimes are just not enough to correct the underlying imbalance. This is where some key herbal medicines come into play. Sage, vitex (agnus castus) and black cohosh when combined together have a unique synergistic effect that nothing else can achieve. A combination of these herbs will works directly on this control centre to allow the body to balance its own hormone levels naturally. And lets not forget this is a natural process. You should not have any symptoms. Women living traditional lifestyle and eating traditional foods such as those in Japan don’t experience menopausal or peri-menopausal symptoms. So it’s very much a western condition and we need to rely on natural medicines to allow the body to control its own hormone levels.

The current approach to treating perimenopause is to replace any deficient hormones, namely progesterone, testosterone or DHEA – another hormone which is reduced. You can read my specific post on DHEA here:

Although there may be initial relief, the problem with this approach is three-fold.

First is when you provide the body with an external hormone, it immediately reduces its own natural production. So when menopause rolls around, the situation is only compounded.

Second is the oestrogen levels stay elevated. This does not treat the issues of oestrogen dominance and the prolonged elevation of oestrogen is not good for the body on many levels relating to cancers.

And lastly,the supplementation of hormones confuses the endocrine system leading to the body lacking the ability to control hormone levels resulting in further hormonal imbalance. It’s a slippery slope once you get onto it. However there are effective natural options that can help you to regain your health and restore a natural sense of calm and balance.

Extracts from Modern Living, Holistic Health & Herbal Medicine (2011) by Yaso Shan. Published by Booklocker Inc USA.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Is your tea 100% biodegradable?

What is not to like about enjoying a nice, tasty, refreshing cup of tea but a cup of tea is more than a soothing beverage. It is a legitimate reason to take a break from work. It is a life essential. It is emblematic of all that is grand good about the Great British mind-set. There is never a bad time to have a cuppa. Making sure your cuppa tea is 100% biodegradable is more of a challenge than one might think. Here's why......

Image result for tea bagsYour beloved cup of tea is probably hiding a dark secret and much like the animal fat in £5 notes scandal, there is a bad side to your benign cup of tea, and that is plastic. Not just the plastic wrapper on the box, or the plastic pouch some teas come in, but plastic actually in the teabag itself. Let that sink in a moment – there is plastic in the teabag!

You might be wondering why there is a need for plastic to be found in teabags? Well, plastic (polypropylene to be exact) is apparently added to the paper teabag to help heat seal them during manufacture so they don’t come open in the box, or in your cup. It also means though that these tea bags aren't 100% biodegradable, which is a bit of problem.

As a lot of the information stems from a 2010 article published in the Guardian national newspaper which stated that the vast majority are only 70-80% biodegradable:

Image result for tea bagsTeapigs advise that all of their teabags are made from a by-product of corn starch known as Soilon. The box that they are sold in does appear to contain some plastic though, so if that is an issue then this may not be your solution.

Taylors of Harrogate (who make Yorkshire Tea )advise that they are working with their supplier of teabag paper to develop a paper that is 100% plant-based, but right now our tea bags do contain polypropylene as part of the fibres.

Twinings have several different types of teabags available on the market. They advise that their standard teabags, used for Earl Grey and English Breakfast, to name a couple, and many of our infusions and Green teas are produced from a natural plant based cellulose material and contain no plastic in the fibres. However, these teabags are “heat sealed” tea bags, and so the paper also has a very thin film of polypropylene, a plastic, which enables the two layers of the tea bags to be sealed together.

Related imageMeanwhile their ‘string and tag with sachet’ tea bags, also contain a thin layer of plastic polyethylene to help seal up the sachets. The only Twinings product that does not contain any plastic is their pyramid teabag range – whereby the material is derived from maize starch and is fully biodegradable and compostable. Rather annoyingly though, many of their pyramid tea bags seem to come in plastic bags rather than boxes.

Pukka Tea advise that their teabags do not contain polypropylene or any other plastic – their teabag is sewn shut by machine with cotton thread. They further mention that their teabag paper is made of a blend of natural abaca (a type of banana) and plant cellulose fibres, and their supply of tea bag paper is also totally chlorine free and unbleached. They are staple-free and 100% biodegradable and/or recyclable. The tea bag strings are made from 100% organic, non-GMO, un-bleached cotton. Each teabag is individually packaged though (possibly in plastic), so the one downside is that there is a bit of waste from one box of tea .

PG Tips say their “teabags are made with 80% paper fibre which is fully compostable along with the tea leaves contained in the bag. The remaining packaging includes a small amount of plastic which is not fully biodegradable: this is needed to create a seal to keep the tea leaves inside the bag“. However, they didn't have the information to state whether or not this was polypropylene.

Tetley also say their round and square teabags are made with 80% paper fibre, and 20% thermoplastic. Their string & tag teabags are plastic-free but are used mostly in their catering range for individually wrapped tea bags. They advise that Tata Global Beverages has ongoing continuous improvement and environmental awareness and are working towards more sustainable and biodegradable solutions for all their products. They also advised that ripping ripping the bag and dispersing the contents should help the composting process.

Typhoo, and Clipper declined to comment. 

Related image
So whilst Teapigs, Pukka Tea, Twinings Pyramid tea bags and Tetley’s catering range are plastic free, in pretty much all cases the packaging is not. The teas are also on the more expensive side, perhaps best as a infrequent treat but may be a little pricey to enjoy as your everyday cup of tea. Especially if you have a  chronic tea habit.

If you are keen to enjoy your tea without the added plastic the other option is to switch to loose leaf tea. I’ve been hunting down some handy accessories that might come in handy if you choose to do so:

Plastic-Free Tea Alternatives

    Image result for loose leaf tea and teapot
  • Reusable Tea Bags (£7.98 for 5) (or make your own)
  • Tea Ball Infuser (£3.25)
  • A pretty fairtrade mug (£9.95)
  • A cheery teapot (£24.95) with infuser basket so no need for additional tools or tea leaves floating in your tea.


  2. Most UK teabags not fully biodegradeable, research reveals (Guardian article 2010)

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The dark side of melatonin

Image result for melatonin pillsTwenty-one years ago, MIT neuroscientist Dr. Richard Wurtman introduced melatonin as a new solution to sleep problems. His lab patented supplements in hopes of curing insomnia in the older population, whose melatonin receptors calcify with age.

“Researchers say pills of the natural hormone...will bring on slumber quickly without the addictive effects of drugs,” the New York Times reported at the time. In the same article, Judith Vaitukaitis, then director of the National Center for Research Resource, said the hormone “offered hope for a natural, non-addictive agent that could improve sleep for millions of Americans.”

Wurtman himself wasn’t quite so cavalier. In that same article, he warned, “People should not self-medicate with melatonin.”

Nonetheless, melatonin was a hit. In the last two decades, the all-natural sleep aid has earned a spot in medicine cabinets across the country. Inexpensive, easily accessible, naturally occurring and considered safe, melatonin appeals to the those who’d rather avoid prescribed pills. Naturopaths, chronic insomniacs, shift-workers and frequent fliers pop milligrams of melatonin without thinking twice.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, nearly 1.3 million American adults reported taking melatonin in February, 2015. Parents are even handing it out to their kids — 419,000 as of February — believing melatonin to be a harmless, naturally produced hormone.

Image result for melatonin pills
Melatonin is indeed naturally produced, but the hormone is one of the murkiest supplements on the market, unsubstantiated by incomplete and developing research. Only in the U.S. is melatonin available over-the-counter as a dietary supplement, and long-term usage can alter natural hormone levels and even sabotage sleep. Given to children, its potential side effects are even more concerning.

The Real Sandman
Melatonin, secreted by the pineal gland, is the messenger that announces bedtime to our brains. Darkness stimulates its release into the bloodstream; light inhibits it. Once released, it binds to hormonal receptors located in the brain’s suprachiasmatic nuclei — a cluster of nerves that regulates the body’s internal clock and circadian rhythms — and travels into cerebrospinal fluid and the bloodstream.

Our bodies naturally produce “endogenous” melatonin (or, “growing or originating from within an organism”). What ends up on pharmacy shelves in synthesized “exogenous” melatonin — growing or originating from outside an organism. Its most common application is that of sleep aid; users are told to take their dose directly before bedtime, when endogenous levels are already on the rise. Frequent fliers swear by its effectiveness in recovering from jet lag recovery, saying the hormone helps reset their biological clock in a new time zone.

Studies also suggest melatonin can help prevent sleep disorders in children suffering from ADHD and autism (though its use in kids remains controversial).

Image result for melatonin pills
The FDA classifies melatonin as a dietary supplement. Dr. Wurtman sees this as a marketing ploy to circumvent the bureaucratic web of research and patents that typically burden the process of bringing drugs and hormones to market.

And that’s where the problems arise.

A Dosing Problem
Given the lack of apparent side effects, it may seem harmless to label melatonin as a dietary supplement. But the classification matters for consumers, because the FDA doesn’t require supplements to include warnings of overdose risks on their labels, as is mandatory for drugs and hormones.

Perhaps even riskier, the classification allows companies to sell melatonin in varying dosages.

In 2001, researchers at MIT concluded that the correct dosage for melatonin falls between .3 and 1 mg. Yet, walk down the pharmacy aisle and you’ll see stacks of sleep aids packing as 10 times that amount.

It’s easy to take too much, and most of melatonin’s side effects are the result of just that. While there’s no evidence that too much melatonin could be fatal, or even remotely life-threatening, exceeding the proper dosage can upset the body’s natural processes and rhythms.

“With some hormones, if you take too much you can really put your body in danger,” says Dr. Wurtman. “With melatonin, you’re not in danger, but you’re also not very comfortable. It won’t kill you, but it’ll make your life pretty miserable.”

And, despite common perception, melatonin can cause next-day drowsiness, according to Michael Grandner, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

More importantly, melatonin is a hormone. With children, according to Grander, it can affect puberty, disrupt menstrual cycles and impede normal hormonal development.  

Excess melatonin can also induce hypothermia, as body temperatures reduce during melatonin release, and stimulate overproduction of the hormone prolactin, which can cause hormonal problems and even kidney and liver issues in men.

The Insomnia Clause
When used occasionally and at the correct time, melatonin is a fine means of encouraging sleep. But, ironically, with prolonged use, it can actually amplify insomnia. Having too much melatonin in the system, the theory goes, overwhelms the receptors, changing how a patient reacts to the hormone — whether it’s endogenous or exogenous.

According to Dr. Wurtman, melatonin supplements may work at first, but soon “you’ll stop responding because you desensitize the brain. And as a consequence, not only won’t you respond to the stuff you take…you won’t respond to the stuff you make, so it can actually promote insomnia after a period of time.”

Mauricio Farez, an Argentinian sleep researcher, has similar reservations. “I have some issues, in terms of the pharmacology, and…it’s really hard to have stable levels of the drug in our blood.”

Grandner agrees. “Taking melatonin for an extended period of time your body may acclimate and re-adjust and produce less over time which will work against you.”

When it comes down to it, taking melatonin to fall asleep sooner doesn’t even work. “When it’s nighttime and melatonin levels are high,” says Dr. Wurtman “taking melatonin supplements is like putting a drop of water into an empty bucket; when it’s daytime, it’s like putting a drop of water into a full bucket.”

This doesn’t mean melatonin is without potential benefits. Farez wants to see more research on its immunologic potential, as his most recent study suggests melatonin could play a role in managing multiple sclerosis. It’s also widely used to fight certain types of cancer, as it combats tumour cells.

Both Farez and Wurtman believe melatonin’s potential benefits outweigh the drawbacks. But that’s largely in a clinical, controlled environment under professional supervision. Allowing melatonin to sit on our shelves, unregulated and sold as freely as aspirin, is a problem waiting to happen.

How safe is melatonin to take regularly for sleep problems? Are there more risks for children versus adults?

There’s a dearth of safety data for melatonin, but there are a number of potential concerns, especially for children.

“I think we just don’t know what the potential long-term effects are, particularly when you’re talking about young children,” said Dr. Judith Owens, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Parents really need to understand that there are potential risks.”

The pineal gland in the brain ramps up production of the hormone melatonin in the evening, as light fades, to encourage sleep, and it turns down production in the early morning hours. Synthetic forms of the hormone are also sold as a dietary supplement; because melatonin is found in some foods, like barley, olives and walnuts, it is regulated as a nutritional supplement rather than a drug, as most other hormones are.

In adults, studies have found melatonin to be effective for jet lag and some sleep disorders. It is also hugely popular as a sleep aid for children and can be useful for sleep disorders among those with attention-deficit disorders or autism, Dr. Owens said. “I rarely see a family come in with a child with insomnia who hasn’t tried melatonin,” she said. “I would say at least 75 percent of the time when they come in to see us” at the sleep clinic, “they’re either on melatonin or they’ve tried it in the past.”

While short-term use of the hormone is generally considered safe, it can have side effects, including headaches, dizziness and daytime grogginess, which could pose a risk for drivers. Melatonin can also interfere with blood pressure, diabetes and blood thinning medications.

Less is known about this potent hormone’s effects in children. Some research suggests it could, at least in theory, have effects on developing reproductive, cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems.

Related imageIf you do turn to melatonin, Dr. Owens says, do so under the guidance of a health care professional and buy melatonin from a reputable source. “Pharmaceutical grade” melatonin, she said, may have more precise dosing levels than off-the-shelf brands. A study published in November in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that 71% of melatonin samples were more than 10% off the stated dose, with some lots containing nearly five times the listed dose.

There are of course, number of more natural, herbal and holistic approaches to sleep problems. read my previous post if you want more information about natural alternatives if you want to avoid exogenous melatonin altogether:



Saturday, 3 June 2017

Examining the Madasgar periwinkle

The Scientific World Journal recently published a review article addressing the two ‘faces’ of the Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus or Vinca rosea): lovely garden ornamental and important medicinal plant.

One of the major medical breakthroughs of the last century utilises compounds derived from a popular ornamental plant found in gardens and homes across the world, the Madagascar periwinkle. This tender, perennial plant grows as a herb or a subshrub, sprawling along the ground or standing erect up to a metre in height. The attractive white or pink flowers comprise five petals spreading from a long, tubular throat, while the leathery, dark green leaves are arranged in opposite pairs. Each fruit is formed of two narrow, cylindrical follicles which house.

With a long history of both ornamental use in gardens and medicinal use in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, the periwinkle exemplifies the advantages of exploring herbal traditions for important modern health benefits.  The plant now is considered endangered in some areas, and has also been controversial due to the facts that there have been patents on chemotheraphy drugs derived from C. roseus.

In particular, the plant is known for vinblastine and vincristine, which are TIAs or terpenoid indole alkaloids. Both vinblastine and vincristine are on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines as important anti-cancer medications used in treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemias. As well, over 100 other indole alkaloids have been isolated from the plant, although at present only five are being marketed. The isolation of these medications from the plant is time-consuming and costly; they are now generally synthesized in the laboratory.

The authors comment that “previously published reviews on MP [Madagascar periwinkle] mostly concentrate on the pharmaceutical and chemical compounds of the herb”.  Thus, the presentation of other aspects of the plant are useful. C. roseus is drought and heat tolerant, and can thrive in both shade  and/or sun, in various habitats, and is generally hardy.

Africa’s gift to the world
Scientists looking for potential new drugs in plants can take various routes along the path to drug discovery. All the plants in a specified region can be collected and their extracts tested – or screened – against various whole organisms, cells or purified proteins in the hope of finding new biologically active compounds, which might one day lead to new drugs. An alternative approach called ethnobotany, selects plants for screening based on their folkloric use in one or more traditional societies. Plants within the same species often contain similar compounds, and therefore another more targeted approach is to probe plants related to those already known to contain bioactive chemicals.

Regardless of how it is done, searching for new drugs in plants is tedious, time consuming and expensive. In a complete turnaround from 20 years ago, only a small number of pharmaceutical companies now continue with active research programmes in medicinal plant chemistry. But no matter which route in drug discovery is taken, serendipitous discoveries often play a part along the way.

A beautiful pink flower from the island of Madagascar off the coast of east Africa called the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), also known as the rosy periwinkle, has long been used by traditional medicinal healers for treating diabetes. In the 1950s, this attracted the attention of western natural product chemists searching or biologically active compounds in plants and consequently the periwinkle’s anti-cancer properties were discovered. Further research led to isolation of two biologically active chemical substances produced naturally in the plant – vincristine and vinblastine – and to their identification as anti-cancer agents. These compounds have both been used as chemotherapy drugs since the early 1960s.

Today, both are included in the World Health Organization’s list of minimum medicine needs for a basic healthcare system for both adults and children. Vincristine is used against various blood and solid cancers including acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and Hodgkin lymphoma. Vinblastine is most often used in bladder cancer treatment but is also effective against other blood and solid cancers including Hodgkin lymphoma. Both are frequently used in combination with other chemotherapy drugs.

The route to discovery
The Madagascar periwinkle is a tropical perennial often grown as an annual in temperate climates. It is a member of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae). The Madagascar periwinkle was first named Vinca rosea by the great Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in the 1750s, but was reclassified and placed in the genus Catharanthus in 1834.

It took many more years before the full benefits of this plant were realised. The first chemistry and drug trials were not conducted until the 1950s. During this period, the large US pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly was testing hundreds of plant extracts a year for biological activity in the hope of finding a lead to the development of a new drug. Gordon Svoboda (1922–1994) added the Madagascar periwinkle to the list of the company’s research subjects based on his recollection of reports of the use of periwinkle products for the treatment of diabetes in the Philippines during the second world war. In December 1957, an extract of the plant was submitted for biological testing. Gordon learned in January 1958 that the extract exhibited very high potency in anti-cancer tests.

At the same time and independently of work at Eli Lilly, two research scientists, Robert Noble (1910–1990) and Charles Beer (1915–2010) at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, discovered that extracts of the Madagascar periwinkle destroyed white blood cells. Results of their research on the discovery of novel anti-cancer activity were presented in March 1958 at a research symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences. The research paper had been submitted to the conference at the last minute by invitation of the conference organiser, who recognised the importance of their findings and found a slot for them to present. However, the symposium ran late and the Canadians presented their findings at midnight. The audience had dwindled to just a few listeners – most of whom were researchers from Eli Lilly.

At the time the Canadians’ paper was presented in the spring of 1958, neither research group knew of each other’s work on the same plant. While the two groups were looking for anti-diabetic effects both had observed that their respective plant extracts lowered white blood cell counts in laboratory animals. Both teams deduced that since leukaemia involves a proliferation of white blood cells, an agent that reduced the number of white blood cells might have potential value in leukaemia therapy.

At the meeting Charles reported he had isolated the first active compound, which he named vinblastine, from an extract of the plant. Needless to say, the Eli Lilly research team was extremely interested in Charles’ work and a formal collaboration between the Eli Lilly and the Canadian researchers was soon established. This collaboration led to the rapid identification, development and advancement of two closely related drugs from the periwinkle’s extract: vincristine and vinblastine.

One of the challenges that had to be overcome during the race to market was to secure sufficient quantities of compounds. The extraction of just one gram of vinblastine requires 900 kg of dried leaves. Eli Lilly was forced to move away from dependence on erratic supplies of widely scattered plants in the wild to large scale farm cultivation.

In 1961, vincristine was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a chemotherapeutic agent for the treatment of Hodgkin lymphoma. Vinblastine gained acceptance from the FDA two years later in 1963. Approval of both drugs followed quickly thereafter in the UK and other countries worldwide.

Vincristine and vinblastine are both alkaloids, a group of naturally-occurring chemical compounds found commonly in plants that almost always contain at least one basic nitrogen atom in a cyclic ring of carbon and hydrogen atoms. Extracts of the Madagascar periwinkle have been found to contain up to 70 different alkaloids. Many alkaloids have been found to have pharmacological effects in humans, and as a consequence are widely used for medication or as recreational drugs. Examples include the local anaesthetic and stimulant, cocaine; the stimulants, caffeine and nicotine; the analgesic, morphine; and the anti-malarial drug, quinine.


Due to the presence of a basic nitrogen atom, alkaloids can be purified from crude plant extract samples by a combination of acid-base extraction and liquid-liquid partitioning between an aqueous solvent (in this case dilute acid) and an immiscible organic solvent (such as dichloromethane). Once this periwinkle was selected, research was undertaken to find organic solvents that could first dissolve the alkaloids in order to separate them from the plant material. Subsequent isolation and the use of refined chromatographic techniques led to the separation of pure samples of vincristine and vinblastine.

Vincristine and vinblastine contain many functional groups familiar to the student of organic chemistry: carbonyl groups, hydroxyl groups, carboxylic groups, aromatic rings and an indole ring. When finally all the pieces are fitted together, structurally and chemically, both molecules are complex.

Vincristine and vinblastine have similar biological and chemical properties as their chemical structures are very closely aligned. In fact, vincristine and vinblastine are so similar they differ by only one carbonyl group, present in the form of an aldehyde functional group in the former, compared with a methyl group in the same location in the latter.

Tens of thousands of cancer patients, especially those suffering from leukaemia and lymphomas, have benefited from the drugs derived from a remarkable medicinal plant, the Madagascar periwinkle – known to many in tropical climates as a weed and to western gardeners as an easy-to-grow ornamental. Serendipity led to an educated guess and the hunch turned out to be correct. This tiny plant from Madagascar became one of Africa’s great gifts to humanity.

Further reading

  1. R Cooper and J J Deakin, Botanical miracles: chemistry of plants that changed the world. CRC Press, 2016
  2. J Duffin, Pharm. Hist., 2002, 44, 64; J Duffin, Pharm. Hist., 2002, 44, 105
  3. Naghmeh Nejat, Alireza Valdiani, David Cahill, Yee-How Tan, Mahmood Maziah, Rambod Abiri. Ornamental Exterior versus Therapeutic Interior of Madagascar Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus): The Two Faces of a Versatile Herb. ScientificWorldJournal. 2015; 2015: 982412. Published online 2015 Jan 15. doi:  10.1155/2015/982412 PMCID: PMC4312627
  4. Baskaran, K. K., Kulkarni, R. N., Kumar, S. S. and Sreevalli, Y. Y. 2001. The mechanism and inheritance of intraflower self-pollination in self-pollinating variant strains of periwinkle. Plant Breeding. 120: 247-250.
  5. Foster, S. 2010. From Herbs to Medicines: The Madagascar Periwinkle's Impact on Childhood Leukemia: A Serendipitous Discovery for Treatment. 347-350 in Simon, J., Cooper, R., and Hughes, K., editors. Alternative & complementary therapies; a new bimonthly publication for health care practitioners.
  6. International Wildlife. 2000. . Accessed 7 Mar 2011.
  7. National Tropical Botanical Garden. 2011. . Accessed Mar 29 2011.
  8. Pennisi, E. 1992. Bacteria turns roots into chemical factories. Science News. 197:366-368
  9. PLANT OF THE WEEK. . Accessed 10 April 2011.
  10. Swerdlow, J. L. 2000. Nature's Rx. National Geographic. 197:98.
  11. USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Services, Plants Database, 2011. .  Accessed 21 Mar 2011.   

Sunday, 14 May 2017

The perils of Roundup's Glysophate

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, is the most used agricultural chemical in history. It’s used in a number of different herbicides (700 in all), but Roundup is by far the most widely used.

Roundup’s Toxic Chemical Glyphosate, Found in 100% of California Wines Tested

Since glyphosate was introduced in 1974, 1.8 million tons have been applied to U.S. fields, and two-thirds of that volume has been sprayed in the last 10 years.

A recent analysis showed that farmers sprayed enough glyphosate in 2014 to apply 0.8 pounds of the chemical to every acre of cultivated cropland in the U.S., and nearly 0.5 a pound of glyphosate to all cropland worldwide.

If you purchase organic foods or beverages, you should theoretically be safe from glyphosate exposure, as this chemical is not allowed in organic farming. But a new analysis revealed glyphosate has now infiltrated not only wine but also organic wine.

10/10 Wines Tested Contained Glyphosate

An anonymous supporter of advocacy group Moms Across America sent 10 wine samples to be tested for glyphosate. All of the samples tested positive for glyphosate — even organic wines, although their levels were significantly lower.

The highest level detected was 18.74 parts per billion (ppb), which was found in a 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from a conventional vineyard. This was more than 28 times higher than the other samples tested.

The lowest level, 0.659 ppb, was found in a 2013 Syrah, which was produced by a biodynamic and organic vineyard. An organic wine made from 2012 mixed red wine grapes also tested positive for glyphosate at a level of 0.913 ppb.

How Does Glyphosate End up in Wine?

Image result for roundupWhile glyphosate isn’t sprayed directly onto grapes in vineyards (it would kill the vines), it’s often used to spray the ground on either side of the grape vines. This results in a 2-to 4- foot strip of Roundup sprayed soil with grapevines in the middle. The vine stems are inevitably sprayed in this process and the Roundup is likely absorbed through the roots and bark of the vines from where it is translocated into the leaves and grapes.

As for how the organic wines became contaminated, it’s likely that the glyphosate drifted over onto the organic and biodynamic vineyards from conventional vineyards nearby. It’s also possible that the contamination is the result of glyphosate that’s left in the soil after a conventional farm converted to organic; the chemical may remain in the soil for more than 20 years.

Glyphosate Detected in 14 German Beers

A study of glyphosate residues by the Munich Environmental Institute also found glyphosate in 14 best-selling German beers. All of the beers tested had glyphosate levels above the 0.1 microgram limit allowed in drinking water.

Levels ranged from a high of 29.74 micrograms per litre found in a beer called Hasseroeder to a low of 0.46 micrograms per litre, which was found in the beer Augustiner. Although no tests have yet been conducted on American beer, it’s likely to be contaminated with glyphosate as well.

Indeed, laboratory testing commissioned by an advocacy group revealed that glyphosate is now showing up virtually everywhere, including in blood and urine samples, breast milk, drinking water and more.

The beer finding could be a blow to the German beer industry in particular. The country is the biggest beer producer in Europe and has long prided itself on brewing only the purest beer.

Das Reinheitsgebot is Germany’s food purity law. It’s one of the world’s oldest food safety laws and limited the ingredients in beer to only water, barley and hops (yeast was later approved as well).

Now Monsanto’s chemicals are threatening this German tradition and their reputation for producing the purest beer. In contrast to their counterparts abroad, German brewers don’t use artificial flavours, enzymes or preservatives; the 'keep-it-simple' brews indeed suit a trend toward organic and wholesome food. In times of healthy nutrition, demand for beer which is brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot seems to be on the rise too.

Glyphosate May Cause Cancer and Other Health Concerns

Many are unaware of the fact that glyphosate is patented as an antibiotic. It’s designed to kill bacteria, which is one of the primary ways it harms both soils and human health. Recent research has even concluded that Roundup (and other pesticides) promotes antibiotic resistance.

Glyphosate is a biocide and an antibiotic. A study in poultry found the chemical destroys beneficial gut bacteria and promotes the spread of pathogenic bacteria. It was also reported that chronic low-dose oral exposure to glyphosate is a disruption of the balance among gut microbes, leading to an over-representation of pathogens, a chronic inflammatory state in the gut and an impaired gut barrier. The research also revealed that Monsanto knew in 1981 that glyphosate caused adenomas and carcinomas rats. I have previously written about my personal views and concerns over GMO. You can read it here........

Monsanto’s own research supports the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determination that glyphosate is a Class 2A “probable human carcinogen” — a determination Monsanto is now trying to get retracted. Other research has shown glyphosate may:

  • Stimulate the growth of human breast cancer cells
  • Have endocrine-disrupting effects and affect human reproduction and fetal development
  • Induce oxidative damage and neurotoxicity in the brain
  • Modify the balance of sex hormones
  • Cause birth defects

Glyphosate May Be Even More Toxic Due to Surfactants

Image result for skull and crossbones logo toxicMost studies looking into glyphosate toxicity have only studied the “active” ingredient (glyphosate) and its breakdown product, aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA). But the presence of so-called inactive compounds in the herbicide may be amplifying glyphosate’s toxic effects.

A 2012 study revealed that inert ingredients such as solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other added substances are anything but “inactive.” They can, and oftentimes do, contribute to a product’s toxicity in a synergistic manner — even if they’re non-toxic in isolation.

Certain adjuvants in glyphosate-based herbicides were also found to be “active principles of human cell toxicity,” adding to the hazards inherent with glyphosate.

It’s well worth noting that, according to the researchers, this cell damage and/or cell death can occur at the residual levels found on Roundup-treated crops, as well as lawns and gardens where Roundup is applied for weed control. 

Pesticide formulations contain declared active ingredients and co-formulants presented as inert and confidential compounds. We tested the endocrine disruption of co-formulants in six glyphosate-based herbicides (GBH) … All co-formulants and formulations were comparably cytotoxic [toxic to living cells] well below the agricultural dilution of 1 percent (18 to 2000 times for co-formulants, 8 to 141 times for formulations).(International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2016)

… It was demonstrated for the first time that endocrine disruption by GBH could not only be due to the declared active ingredient but also to co-formulants.

These results could explain numerous in vivo results with GBHs not seen with G [glyphosate] alone; moreover, they challenge the relevance of the acceptable daily intake (ADI) value for GBHs exposures, currently calculated from toxicity tests of the declared active ingredient alone.

How to Avoid Glyphosate in Your Food

Your best bet for minimising health risks from herbicide and pesticide exposure is to avoid them in the first place by eating organic as much as possible and investing in a good water filtration system for your home or apartment. If you know you have been exposed to herbicides and pesticides, the lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation of kimchi may help your body break them down.

So including fermented foods like kimchi in your diet may also be a wise strategy to help detox the pesticides that do enter your body. One of the benefits of eating organic is that the foods will be free of genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, and this is key to avoiding exposure to toxic glyphosate. Following are some great resources to obtain wholesome organic food.

Eating locally produced organic food will not only support your family’s health, it will also protect the environment from harmful chemical pollutants and the inadvertent spread of genetically engineered seeds and chemical-resistant weeds and pests.

  1. Environmental Sciences Europe February 2, 2016
  2. Moms Across America March 24, 2016
  3. Bloomberg March 10, 2016
  4. Reuters February 25, 2016
  5. The Detox Project
  6. The Local January 21, 2016
  7. Curr Microbiol. 2013 Apr;66(4):350-8.
  8. Food and Chemical Toxicology September 2013, Volume 59, Pages 129-136
  9. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 2007 Jul;53(1):126-33.
  10. Toxicology. 2014 Jun 5;320:34-45.
  11. Environmental Sciences Europe June 24, 2014
  12. J Environ Anal Toxicol 4:230.
  13. Toxicology 2012 Sep 21 [Epub ahead of print]
  14. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2016, 13(3), 264

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Going Gluten-Free

Thinking about giving up gluten? Gluten-free eating: a passing fad or the best thing since sliced bread?
Image result for gluten free
Gluten-free food has become very popular in the last few years " so much so, in fact, that it's now a commonly held view that removing gluten from the diet will eliminate numerous digestive issues and lead to much greater health. As a result, an array of gluten-free products including breads, pastas and cereals are now widely available even in mainstream supermarkets and restaurants.

But is it possible to boost your body through the removal of gluten alone? The truth of the matter is that while some people may experience vast improvements to their digestive health, many others experience little, i f no difference at all. Therefore, it's important to understand that while removing gluten from the diet may be a step in the right direction, there are also potential pitfalls with this dietary approach.

The lowdown on gluten
Recent research has revealed that an ever increasing percentage of the population is gluten sensitive. This is because modem day wheat is very different to what our ancestors ate - it contains significantly increased gluten due to hybridisation. Gluten is found not only in wheat, but also in rye and barley and is a composite of the proteins gliadin and glutenin. When consumed, it causes the delicate villi of the small intestine (which are tiny like finger-shaped tissues) to flatten out, greatly decreasing the area that can absorb nutrients. Moreover, it causes the gut cells to release zonulin - a protein which leads to inflammation and intestinal permeability, otherwise known as 'leaky gut' syndrome.

Image result for gluten free When your gut is leaky, myriad toxins, undigested food particles, microbes and more can exit from your intestines and travels around your body and the blood stream. These 'foreign invaders' are registered as pathogens by your immune system and can create a range of health symptoms such as allergies, hormone imbalances, low energy and food intolerances. Autoimmune conditions, including coeliac disease and psoriasis, are also directly related to high inflammation and leaky gut. It's worth noting that while gluten is the main culprit when it comes to leaky gut syndrome, other inflammatory foods, bad gut bacteria and chronic stress can also cause problems.

Interestingly, ancient natural healthcare systems have long acknowledged the problems with gluten consumption. For example, according to traditional Chinese medicine, wheat is attributed to allergies, along with damp, or excessive mucous, conditions in the body.

What about gluten-free grains and alternatives?
In most cases, substituting gluten with other foods is simply not enough to repair the GI tract, improve nutrient absorption and lower inflammation. There are many types of foods that can prevent healing and even though gluten-free alternatives may be less challenging they often lead to a degree of inflammation. This is because most contain a toxic protein called prolamines. These are proteins that are very difficult to breakdown and cause irritation to the gut lining. For example, oats contain the prolamine adeline, while corn contains zein. Additionally, there are lectins (more undigestible proteins found primarily in grains, legumes and nuts linked to leaky gut) and phytates (associated with reduced mineral absorption) to be aware of In order to achieve better digestive function and overall health it's important to identify and initially remove all problematic foods, rather than merely assuming that gluten-free alternatives arc a healthy option.

Points to consider
Firstly, avoiding whole food groups without wisely replacing them according to your individual needs might lead to nutritional deficiencies (such as hair loss, cramping and fatigue). For this reason, understanding which food groups are required for health is paramount in order to avoid any health issues that might otherwise arise.

Another point worth mentioning is that many gluten-free alternatives often contain a medium to high glycaemic load. This means they cause blood sugar levels to rise very quickly and insulin levels to soar. A diet which is gluten-free and often low in carbs tends to have higher fat. Sadly, this fat often comes from poor sources which contains more calories and leads to bad circulation, low oxygen levels in the blood, increased lymphatic debris and weight gain - an important point to consider. However, top sports athletes swear that eliminating gluten boosted their performance. 
Related image So, the bottom line is removing glutenous grains from the diet can certainly be of benefit but - and here's the crucial part - only if you replace them with the right foods.

Inflammation Overload
Embarking on a digestive health journey takes goal setting and discipline in order to turn the boat around. Since inflammation causes leaky gut, and leaky gut causes inflammation, a multi-pronged approach is needed to break the cycle. The first port of call is the removal of all inflammatory foods and drinks. Next comes the elimination of the bad bacteria, followed by the appropriate supportive supplements to heal and repair the digestive lining. Lifestyle adjustments (yoga, meditation, adequate sleep and so on) may also be required to ensure stress levels are kept in check.

Tips for digestive repair:

  1. Eliminate all trigger foods for at least 12 weeks.
  2. Consider taking a natural anti-fungal and antibacterial such as olive leaf extract to flush out any nasties from the GI tract.
  3. Add probiotic fermented foods to the diet. Think raw sauerkraut, miso and coconut kefir. Additionally, take full spectrum probiotics to re-establish a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut.
  4. There arc key supplements lor healing leaky gut. Theseinclude L-glutamine, digestive enzymes, omega 3 essential fattyacids (krill or algae oil form), vitamin D and turmeric.
  5. After leaky gut is eliminated, ferment, sprout or soak all grains (preferably the non-glutenous ones), legumes and their alternatives. This will reduce phytates and lectins.

As you can see, there are many reasons why removing gluten from the diet is a good idea ~ especially when done alongside a digestive reset programme. The good news is that once any symptoms have been removed a whole new lease of life may be yours. It's certainly worth it so why not give it a try?


  • sugar (especially white sugar and high fructose corn syrup)
  • soy products (fermented soy may be ok for some)
  • dairy products (including whey protein
  • trans-fats & industrialised seed oils (rapeseed, sunflower, safflower etc)
  • most grain alternatives (especially corn and buckwheat)
  • peanuts
  • chocolate
  • nightshade vegetables
  • coffee
  • alcohol

If you've experienced daily abdominal discomfort (cramping, bloating, nausea) and lethargy after meals - particularly after those heavy pastas - there's a good chance, like me, you may have sensitivity to gluten.

Gluten lurks in everything from sauces and sweets to lager. It helps dough rise, provides that sought-after chewy texture, and makes our breads bouncy and cakes springy. Unfortunately, i t can also have the same effect on o u r guts. At the extreme end o f the scale, gluten can trigger coeliac disease - a serious autoimmune intolerance, which causes inflammation, diarrhoea, nausea, anaemia and sometimes even internal bleeding - while at the other end (though not scientifically proven) it's t h o u g h t to exacerbate the symptoms o f conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and endometriosis. Gluten can also be to blame for chronic spikes in blood sugar, frail bones, mood swings, poor concentration and even baldness.

It's easier to go gluten-free these days. Not only is there a broader range o f products available at the supermarket (free-from but thankfully not taste-free), recent legislation also means restaurants and takeaways are required by law to tell customers i f any of the top 14 allergens are present, making it easier to eat out.

And, while there's been a lot o f press coverage recently, criticising people who go gluten-free to lose weight rather than for medical reasons (which is particularly annoying when restaurateurs, who can't tell the difference between a fad dieter and someone w i t h a serious condition, tar everyone with the same 'nuisance' rush).

A move away from our western reliance on wheat, barley a n d rye can only be a good thing. As l o n g as you eat sensibly - avoiding processed gluten-free food that's h i g h i n fat and sugar (just as you would on a normal, healthy diet) and keep an eye on fibre, vitamin B and iron levels - it can be very healthy.  Anyone can have a diet packed with wholegrain rice, oats, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits. 

Verveck, R. "Gluten-free eating is not a fad" WDDTY magazine March 2007 page 25