Monthly Archives: April 2013
Of the scores of anti-aging herbs available in the Materia Medica of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Astragalus membranaceous has recently fallen under the spotlight. Aside from the newest research that shows its ability to lengthen telomeres, there are multiple studies going back 15-20 years demonstrating its ability to reduce inflammation, enhance the immune system and improve fatigue. Much of this information can be found in this wonderful post discussing some of its benefits.
Although generally safe, there are some caveats to the use of astragalus and some potential side effects. These are described in the Traditional Chinese Medical literature. Having used astragalus on at least 1000 patients, I can say with certainty that these concerns are legitimate. There are two major contraindications in the Traditional Chinese Medical literature regarding the use of astragalus. One is in the case of acute infections, flus and colds. The other relates to a condition known as “dampness” that affects the digestive system, nervous system and lymphatic system.
One of the many benefits described in the traditional texts is that astragalus strengthens the “Wei Qi”. This translates as the protective energy or the immune system. For thousands of years, astragalus was touted as a way to prevent or “lock out invasion of wind-heat or wind-cold” aka infection by various viruses and bacteria. It is one of the most effective herbs on the planet for strengthening the immune system. However, they were very clear that it also had the ability to “lock in” these invaders, prolong acute febrile diseases and potentially drive them to deeper parts of the body. There are written observations that discuss post-viral fatigue type symptoms and prolonged illness caused by the inappropriate use of astragalus and other similar herbs. More research is needed for a full explanation. I suspect this has to do with some of the lectins present in the herb http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22172162. For a weakened or deranged immune system these can be of great benefit. However, in the presence of an active infection, astragalus likely acts like a cloaking device and allows some pathogens to proliferate more effectively while masking symptoms. As a general rule, astragalus should be avoided or discontinued during acute infections of the respiratory tract, digestive tract and urinary tract. It should also be avoided during yeast infections and acute prostatitis. There are circumstances where astragalus can be used as an adjunctive herb in these situations, especially in weak or elderly patients. However, it would always be combined with other herbs that deal directly with infection and inflammation. In the cases of chronic diseases, astragalus can work miracles when combined with other herbs that address the specific condition.
Currently, it is not possible to determine if the extract contained in TA-65 ™ or other related products have cause for any of these concerns. It contains very specific chemical compounds from astragalus, which may not be involved in this mechanism. Several of my patients are taking TA-65 ™ and they all report fewer colds. However, to be on the safe side, I recommend that they temporarily discontinue it if they feel any symptoms coming on.
The second potential contraindication with astragalus concerns a mysterious concept called “dampness”. This is very common in today’s society. When “dampness” is present, the interconnected mechanisms within the digestive, nervous and lymphatic systems become “clogged”. It leads to and arrays of symptoms including fatigue, mental fog, digestive disturbances and disruption of neurotransmitter balance. This complex subject illuminates entire aspects of disease, especially the beginnings of autoimmune conditions. Although parts of our scientific knowledge can fill in some of the pieces, it is not sufficiently advanced enough to effectively explain this very real condition. The concept of dampness repeatedly appears throughout the Traditional Chinese Medicine literature spanning hundreds of years. Ayurveda, an even older medicine, also recognized this disease pathology. It is considered one of the primary “seeds” of many chronic diseases. The appropriate use of astragalus with this condition will be discussed in a future post.
Did you know some plants like grape, rice and lotus, have more genes than humans? This is contrary to the fundamental thought that humans, being the “most” evolved, should be biologically more complex and therefore possess more genes. How can this be you ask? The current hypothesis is that we come equipped with a significant amount of genetic material from the organisms growing inside our gut. These various bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses provide signaling for the inner workings of our entire body. They support immune function, moderate inflammatory responses, generate vitamins that we are not capable of making, produce hormones from some of the foods we eat, help us to absorb minerals, and regulate the production of neurotransmitters. Most importantly, they allow our immune system to remain competitive with the rate of evolution of pathogens. Average bacteria have 500,000 generations for each human generation. Humans have only had 350-400,000 generations since the appearance of the earliest hominids in Africa. A team of researchers followed the changes of a genetically similar population of E. Coli for 50,000 generations. At 10,000 generations, a short time from an evolutionary perspective, “…the evolving genomes became increasingly different from their ancestors. Moreover, tremendous diversity accumulated within each population, such that almost every individual had a different genetic fingerprint” (Papadapoulus PNAS 1998)
Some surprises emerged at the 50,000-generation mark. One population had evolved to be able to utilize a completely different energy (food) source. Others changed in size, shape and antibiotic resistance. The successive generations were generally more resilient than the previous generations.
The human microbiome is passed on from generation to generation as an infant passes through the birth canal. The mixing of the mother’s secretions, including feces, provides the inoculation of these beneficial bacteria and fungi. The genetic material that we are carrying inside us today has evolved since the beginning of time and has been passed down through thousands of generations. Most animals on the planet, including many (and possibly all) born through eggs , receive this life-giving inoculation from their mother.
Over the past few years, we have observed a significant increase in autoimmune conditions, exaggerated immune responses, Celiac disease, allergy and asthma. Various factors have been attributed including lack of vitamin D, lack of sufficient parasites, an excessively sterile environment and deficiency of multiple bacteria, some of which are considered pathogenic. As I mention in my previous article, a lack of H. pylori, the bacteria that can cause stomach ulcers, can manifest as asthma. We are seeing startling changes to the human microbiome. Many individuals now require fecal transplants to replenish some of these missing organisms or face chronic illness. This is replacing what should have been passed down through the birth canal. Simply replacing these bacteria with fermented foods or probiotics is not always adequate. There are two reasons for this. First, like the soil, we have only been able to culture and identify only 1% of the organisms growing in the human digestive system. We don’t yet have enough information to re-create such a diverse system. Second, there is a hierarchy to the establishment of bacteria in the gut. E. coli, are like top soil on bedrock. They create a matrix for all the other single-celled creatures to grow and thrive. You can drink a gallon of yogurt daily but if E. Coli is not present, other beneficial species cannot establish themselves. So why not simply replace the E. Coli? Here’s the catch. Most E. Coli strains from other people and animal’s are rejected by our body’s immune system. This is likely why fecal transplants, which can work miracles, but must be obtained from the mother or siblings to avoid complications.
There are hundreds of studies linking cesarean sections (c-sections) and chronic antibiotic use with various autoimmune conditions and other health problems. Here are a few.
- A large study demonstrated a 52% increased risk of asthma in children delivered via cesarean section.
- Another study demonstrated a 2 fold increase in allergic reactions, asthma and sinus issues (J Allergy Clin Immunol 2008;122:274-9.)
- A meta-analysis (a study that looks at all studies on the same subject) revealed 19% increase in type 1 diabetes in children who were delivered via c-section.
- A study demonstrated significant reduction of TNF-alpha inflammatory response in piglets infected by Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae if they were inoculated with commensal bacteria. ***The fact that bacteria moderate inflammatory responses during infection could easily explain the increased incidence of severe allergic reactions.
- Another study demonstrated a significantly increased incidence of Celiac disease in children born via C-section
- Here is a wonderful article summarizing many of this information http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3110651/#R47
- Here is a book that goes into detail about some of these findings and their implications: An Epidemic of Absence – New Ways of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases by Moises Velasquez-Manoff
These facts have sparked interest in the scientific and medical communities regarding the practice of cesarean section and antibiotic use. Less well recognized is the detrimental influence of seemingly harmless chemicals upon the microbiomes of various species. In 1974 the miracle herbicide, glyphosate or Roundup ™ was introduced to different agricultural markets in Malaysia, the U.K. and the U.S. Back then, techniques for evaluating the safety of chemicals was primarily based on two aspects. First, was the chemical’s ability to create disease. Second, the dose of the chemical that caused death in 50% of the recipients. (the LD50). Until recently, all studies on glyphosate suggested that most animals could literally drink the stuff without ill effects. However, as our knowledge and research techniques have evolved, we are discovering that we may have made committed irrevocable and possibly unprecedented mistakes in introducing this chemical into our environment.
A study performed on the bacteria populations in the digestive systems of poultry demonstrated that glyphosate caused significant reductions in the populations of various species of beneficial bacteria including Enterococcus faecium, Bacillus badius, Bifidobacterium adolescentis and Lactobacillus spp. (As I referenced above, we now know that beneficial bacteria are passed from the mother hen to her offspring and are inside the developing embryo within the egg). The reduction of these beneficial bacteria allowed overgrowth of bacteria that cause disease in humans like typhoid and botulism along with various other strains of salmonella.
As these pathogens have become more and more prevalent, we have had to use more and more antibiotics to protect ourselves from foods that have been part of the human diet for generations. Of course, the increased antibiotic use has further reduced the populations of the bacteria that prevented the pathogens to begin with. As time passes the pathogens develop more and more resistance to the antibiotics. We’ve replaced a system that worked for thousands of years with a scenario where we must innovate or die. I predict that in five to ten years we will come full circle and use bacteria and fungi as a replacement for antibiotics and to replenish what has been lost.
All of the beneficial bacteria mentioned in the study above are the same ones that exist in the human digestive system. As I have discussed in previous articles, the bacteria residing in our digestive system are reflective of the bacteria growing in the soil. Similar species of Enterobacter, Pseudomonas, Bacillus and Enterococcus are found both in the soil and in the human GI tract.
The world’s grasslands contain within them the highest level of microbial biodiversity of any other soil or ecosystem on the planet. Over millions of years this biodiversity created the dark, deep rich soil that made the Midwest of the United States one of richest resources for food production on the planet. The introduction of glyphosate allowed humanity to produce more food than has ever been possible. However, it is possible that it has already altered our evolutionary path. Dr. Don Huber, Professor Emeritus of Plant Pathology, Purdue University has studied various aspects of soil microbiology and plant pathology for decades. Here is the perspective he offered regarding glyphosate in an interview a few years ago.
“All it does is make it possible for that plant to survive and to accumulate more glyphosate. We still change the soil ecology, microbial ecology, and… our intestinal microbiology.”
Daily discoveries demonstrate that human health is inextricably linked with the health of the tiniest aspects our environment. Through innovation we have overcome many of Nature’s obstacles to create abundance and, for now, have become one of the most successful species on the planet. Through our knowledge we are finding new crossroads where it is obvious our actions are interfering with our own ability to adapt and evolve. It is becoming imperative that we use this knowledge to restore balance to correct the mistakes we have made. Otherwise, we will back ourselves into a corner where innovation is no longer about advancement but obligatory for our own survival.