Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine ● Longevity Nutrition

Herbal Medicine

Inflammation is not the underlying root of any disease. It is a side effect of a deeper cause. Tinkering with inflammation is tinkering with the immune system. Buzzwords like “anti-cancer”, “anti-viral”, “anti-inflammation” and “immune-boosting” are misleading and offer no information about how various herbs, supplements and pharmaceuticals actually work. Desperate for relief, ill consumers are constantly duped by the supplement industry as they seek easy answers for complex diseases. When the mechanism of a supplement doesn’t match the underlying cause of the immune imbalance, short-term side effects commonly occur. An understanding the mechanisms of aging offers us a glimpse of the potential short-term and long-term side effects that can result from tinkering with the immune system.

When I began studying functional medicine 18 years ago, I was awakened to the then controversial hypothesis that inflammation was the primary driver of many of the diseases of aging. There were hundreds of studies demonstrating the correlation between inflammation and conditions like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, cancer and even aging. As I developed my practice, it was like having magical powers believing that the cause of heart disease was not cholesterol but, in fact, inflammation. Armed with supplements like fish oil, curcumin and boswellia, I felt like Wonder Woman, striking down interleukin 6, NF-kappa B, TNFα and other inflammatory signals that could lead to disease. It wasn’t until I began treating autoimmune and skin disorders that I came to realize that inflammation is not the underlying root of any of these diseases. It’s a side effect of a deeper cause. In fact, suppressing inflammation without understanding its cause is as insane as turning off the fire alarm and going back to bed while the house fills with smoke.

There are four core mechanisms that drive inflammation.  This article will explore the most common; when the immune system recognizes something as an invader and launches an attack using inflammatory chemicals as weapons. In science we call this immune system activation by antigen recognition.

The other three (listed below) will be discussed in future posts.

  • Over activation of NFKappaB through dietary signaling. Activity of NFKappa B is highly influenced by the presence or absence of insulin[1]. In general, diet doesn’t cause inflammation; it simply acts like a volume control.  It isn’t until grossly pathological changes develop through excessive insulin signaling and ROS production that we begin to see the out-of-control inflammation associated with diseases like obesity and diabetes.
  • Deranged methylation and acetylation of DNA[2],[3]. Basically methyl groups (from SAMe) and acetyl groups are stuck to DNA to turn it on and off.
  • The healing response – the redness, pain and swelling that results from an injury is ultimately an immune response that drives healing. However, repeated injuries, like when high blood pressure repeatedly damages the arteries, will lead to thickening and scarring.

Much of inflammation is nothing more than a side effect of immune activity. A fundamental flaw in our current medical approach to inflammation is the false belief that the immune system is creating inflammation for no reason.   As a result, we have an entire industry of herbs, supplements and pharmaceuticals built upon the idea that suppressing inflammation is somehow healing the body. All this despite several large studies demonstrating that conditions associated with inflammation like heart disease[4], diabetes[5] and cancer[6] are mostly driven by external factors. To be clear, unless a true[7] autoimmune condition has developed, the immune system will not act unless there is something triggering it to act. Sometimes we don’t like the results. However, this ancient system that protects us from cancer and invaders is highly intelligent and tightly regulated. The immune system will launch an attack against any critters or substance that it identifies as an invader. These include bacteria, viruses, air pollutants, some metals, environmental contaminants and oxidized LDL cholesterol[8]. It will also attack undigested food proteins like gluten from wheat and lectins from beans. Food sensitivity tests like the ALCAT and Mediator Release Test (MRT) regularly reveal that the immune system will attack virtually any intact food protein or microbe that escapes past the protective gut mucosa (gut lining).

As one example in an ocean of inflammatory immune signals, look at what happens if we tinker with TNFα.

T= “tumor” like cancer

N=“necrosis” like death

Fα=“factor alpha” as a signal category

TNFα is an inflammation weapon produced by certain immune cells to protect us from viruses and cancer. It helps transmit signals from outside a cell to inside a cell’s nucleus where more signals tell the cell to kill itself. In science we call this apoptosis. It is helpful for ensuring that cells that have become cancerous do not survive to divide and grow into a tumor. TNFα also “serve[s] as a first-line defense against influenza virus[9]” and has “strong antiviral activity against many viruses including avian flu and swine flu2”. Upon first glance, it sounds like anything that will increase activity of TNFα can keep you from getting cancer and viruses. Woohoo! In fact, several medicinal mushrooms are promoted as having these anti-cancer and anti-viral properties. Cordyceps[10],[11], Maitake[12], Coriolus[13] and Ganoderma[14], all contain chemicals that increase activity of TNFα*. While this approach can be transformative for someone with a weak immune response, what effects does artificially increasing TNFα have in a healthy person?   We know that in high amounts, TNFα causes considerable collateral damage to tissues. It is one of the main participants in diseases like psoriasis[15], ulcerative colitis[16] and rheumatoid arthritis[17]. Moderately high levels are associated with Alzheimer’s disease[18] and even cancer10.

*I suspect that these mushrooms cause an increase in TNFα, not because they have magical properties, but because the immune system sees them as invaders and launches an attack.

Over the long term, does artificially raising TNFα activity accelerate the same degenerative problems that we see with any chronic inflammation? Wouldn’t mildly elevated levels still increase cell turnover, damage tissues, accelerate shortening of telomeres, speed aging and ultimately lead to early senescence*?

(*Senescence is a term used in aging research to describe the end stage of the aging process of a cell, tissue or system. When a cell reaches senescence it can no longer function properly or divide to form new cells. As more cells reach senescence in a given tissue, the more that tissue shrinks and becomes dysfunctional.)

Unless there is a specific reason to artificially stimulate TNF-alpha, it is important to weigh the potential effects of taking any herbs or mushrooms that raise it. Other herbs that stimulate inflammation by raising TNFα include Cistanches, Dipsacus, Echinacea and Psoralea. I have personally seen several patients whose autoimmune conditions were severely exacerbated from taking medicinal mushrooms. They were duped by claims and promises that somehow their condition was a result of a “weak” immune system and that these mushrooms were their salvation. On the other hand, with proper diagnosis, these types of mushrooms can be used as an effective tool when the immune response is too weak. Poor wound healing and recurrent viral infections (like shingles and Epstein Barr) are often caused by a weak immune response. Another scenario where these mushrooms may have benefit is with cancer. I have worked with scores of patients who were doing well months after their doctor prescribed Maitake-D as part of a larger protocol to help the immune system kill cancer cells. (Notice I said “part of a protocol”).

In the ocean of herbs and supplements that are supposed to help us live longer and healthier, how do we know which ones are actually helping? With illness, when the mechanism of a supplement doesn’t match the underlying cause of an immune imbalance short-term side effects commonly occur. What are the less detectable the long-term consequences? Is it possible to accelerate the aging process by inappropriately stimulating the immune system?

 

[1] Kurtak, K. Dietary and Nutritional Manipulation of the Nuclear Transcription Factors, PPAR’s and SREBP’s,as a Tool for Reversing the Primary Diseases of Premature Death and Aging. Rejuvenation Research 17-2. April 2014. P 140-44.

[2] D. Bayarsaihan Epigenetic Mechanisms in Inflammation J Dent Res. 2011 Jan; 90(1): 9–17. doi:  10.1177/0022034510378683 PMCID: PMC3144097

[3] Stephen B Baylin DNA methylation and gene silencing in cancer. Nature Clinical Practice Oncology (2005) 2, S4-S11 doi:10.1038/ncponc0354. Received 16 August 2005 | Accepted 30 August 2005

[4] Prof Salim Yusuf DPhil,Steven Hawken MSc,Stephanie Ôunpuu PhD,Tony Dans MD,Alvaro Avezum MD,Fernando Lanas MD,Matthew McQueen FRCP,Andrzej Budaj MD,Prem Pais MD,John Varigos BSc,Liu Lisheng MD,on behalf of the INTERHEART Study Investigators Effect of potentially modifiable risk factors associated with myocardial infarction in 52 countries (the INTERHEART study): case-control study

The Lancet – 11 September 2004 ( Vol. 364, Issue 9438, Pages 937-952 )

DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(04)17018-9

[5] Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH; Aruna Kamineni, MPH; Mercedes Carnethon, PhD; Luc Djoussé, MD, ScD; Kenneth J. Mukamal, MD; David Siscovick, MD, MPH. Lifestyle Risk Factors and new Onset Diabetes Mellitus in Older Adults. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(8):798-807. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2009.21.

[6] Song Wu, Scott Powers, Wei Zhu & Yusuf A. Hannun. Substantial contribution of extrinsic risk factors to cancer development. Nature (2015) doi:10.1038/nature16166

Received 15 April 2015 Accepted 23 October 2015 Published online 16 December 2015

[7] From experience I have no doubt that many conditions that are diagnosed as “autoimmune” are nothing more than an appropriate immune reaction to an unidentified trigger that has grown out of control.   This is commonly seen with leaky gut syndrome, SIBO and dental infections.

[8] Although there are hundreds of studies showing that oxidized LDL elicits inflammation from macrophages, it has never been shown whether this is an immune reaction or a healing response.

[9] Seo SH, Webster RG. Tumor necrosis factor alpha exerts powerful anti-influenza virus effects in lung epithelial cells. J Virol. 2002 Feb;76(3):1071-6.

[10] Test on mononuclear cells Lymphoproliferative, inhibited NK cell activity, phytohemagglutinin response raises IL2, raises TNF-alpha, IL-2   Kuo YC1, Tsai WJ, Shiao MS, Chen CF, Lin CY. Cordyceps sinensis as an immunomodulatory agent. Am J Chin Med. 1996;24(2):111-25.

[11] Jong Seok Lee, Eock Kee Hong. Immunostimulating Activity of the Polysaccharides Isonated from Cordyceps militaris. International Immunopharmacology. Vol 11, Isue 9, September 2011 Pp 1226-1233 doi:10.1016/j.intimp.2011.04.001

[12] Matsui K1, Kodama N, Nanba H. Effects of maitake (Grifola frondosa) D-Fraction on the carcinoma angiogenesis. Cancer Lett. 2001 Oct 30;172(2):193-8.

[13] Cheuk-Lun Lee, Xiaotong Yang, Jennifer Man-Fan Wan. The culture duration affects the immunomodulatory and anticancer effect of polysaccharopeptide derived from Coriolus versicolor. Enzyme and Microbial Technology. Volume 38, Issues 1–2, 3 January 2006, Pages 14–21

[14] Hung-Sen Chena, Yow-Fu Tsaia, Steven Lina, Chia-Ching Lina, Kay-Hooi Khoo, Chun-Hung Lin , , Chi-Huey Won. “Studies on the immuno-modulating and anti-tumor activities of Ganoderma lucidum (Reishi) polysaccharides”. Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Volume 12, Issue 21, 1 November 2004, Pages 5595–5601

[15] Victor FC, Gottlieb AB (2002). “TNF-alpha and apoptosis: implications for the pathogenesis and treatment of psoriasis”. J Drugs Dermatol 1 (3): 264–75. PMID 12851985.

[16] Sands BE1, Kaplan GG The role of in ulcerative colitis.. J Clin Pharmacol. 2007 Aug;47(8):930-41. Epub 2007 Jun 13.

[17] VASANTHI, P., NALINI, G. and RAJASEKHAR, G. (2007), Role of tumor necrosis factor-alpha in rheumatoid arthritis: a review. APLAR Journal of Rheumatology, 10: 270–274. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8077.2007.00305.x

[18] Swardfager W, Lanctôt K, Rothenburg L, Wong A, Cappell J, Herrmann N (2010). “A meta-analysis of cytokines in Alzheimer’s disease”. Biol Psychiatry 68 (10): 930–941. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.06.012. PMID 20692646.

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This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any diseases.

Due diligence is a necessary part of the healing process.  If you believe you are worth the effort, then seek the knowledge you need to reveal the truth.

 

IMG_1919In the world of functional medicine and nutrition we use a large array of herbs, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other biological substances to restore function and support healing. Most of the supplements we use are fairly safe. Even when the diagnosis is incorrect or if a side effect occurs, most reactions will resolve quickly with no permanent harm.  However, there is a handful of supplements that can cause, at best, a setback and, on occasion, significant side effects. Betaine hydrochloride (HCl) is one of them. When used appropriately and under the correct diagnosis, Betaine HCl can have seemingly magical effects on conditions like acne, eczema, asthma, idiopathic malnutrition, GERD and other digestive issues. However, a visit to most mainstream medical websites will advise you, “Do not take Betaine HCL”. This is with good reason. Betaine HCL can exacerbate several underlying health conditions and, in rare instances, can cause life-threatening health issues.

Betaine HCL is used to treat a condition called hypochlorhydria (insufficiently strong stomach acid).  Although it hasn’t been subject to rigorous clinical trials, here is the simplified hypothesis; when acid is the stomach is not strong enough (pH between 1.5 and 3.5) animal protein cannot be effectively digested into amino acids and smaller protein fragments. As a result, the stomach somehow detects this problem and continues to produce weak acid. The weak acid fills up past the stomach and into the esophagus. Unlike the iron-clad lining of the stomach, the esophagus is easily damaged by acid. The thinking is that Betaine HCl works by restoring the correct pH (increasing the acidity) of stomach acid. When the correct dosage achieved, the excess production of weak acid stops and normal digestion of protein and minerals resumes. If the correct dose is not achieved, supplementing with Betaine HCl has little value. Practitioners, here is a link to a method that was originally presented by Jonathan Wright M.D. on how to figure out the correct dose of Betaine HCl. As the author describes, most cases require no more than 2500mg for reestablishing adequate acid levels. I have seen a few cases where the replacement dose was over 6000mg per meal.

 

Accurate Diagnosis is Crucial

There are many downstream health issues that can arise from inadequate digestion of protein. These include IBS, excessive flatulence, leaky gut syndrome, asthma, acne, allergies, eczema, acid reflux, idiopathic malnutrition, premature osteoporosis etc. There are scientifically sound explanations for each of these that we will discuss another time. However, any of these conditions can be caused by other factors and, none of them is a defining symptom of low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria).

Most importantly, acid reflux, often diagnosed as GERD, is NOT a pathognomonic symptom of hypochlorhydria. The exact same symptoms can be caused by overgrowth of bacteria and in small intestine, excess production of acid, stagnation of the motor migrating complex and, more commonly, by excess histamine. This is why decades of research produced two classes of drugs to treat GERD. These are the proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) and H2 blockers (Histamine receptor blockers). It can be implied that the effectiveness of these two categories of drugs in treating symptoms can shed some clarity on the root of the problem. In more complex cases, hypochlorhydria and excess histamine will occur simultaneously.

The Big Cautions With Betaine HCl

Esophageal Damage and Strictures

Pills of Betaine HCl can get lodged in areas where the esophagus has narrowed from scar tissue or has shrunk from old age. This usually causes a strong, sharp pain. If the pill remains for more than a couple of minutes, it can literally burn the area. If this happens, the irritation can last several days and it is best to discontinue the course of Betaine HCl therapy until it is completely healed. To prevent damage to the esophagus in cases like these, it is crucial to flush the area until the pill is small enough to move on. This can be done by sipping a weak solution of baking soda in warm water (1/4 tsp per 12 oz of water) OR by diluting a full dose of a liquid antacid in warm water. DO NOT use baking soda if the patient has high blood pressure. This scenario is more common in elderly patients and it is better to break up the Betaine HCl capsules before swallowing them. As a general rule, if this happens, don’t hesitate to seek medical attention.

 

Exacerbation of Gastritis

Gastritis is inflammation of the stomach lining. It has many causes but ultimately occurs because the cells lining the stomach cannot replace themselves quickly enough to maintain the integrity of the tissue. When this happens, any small amount of acid can quickly damage the lining. This is a potentially dangerous situation as ulcers can form. Possible causes include excessive alcohol consumption, use of corticosteroids and NSAIDS, stress, excess acid production, nutritional deficiencies, excess levels of histamine and infection.

Combine a stomach that is severely irritated by excess histamine and add Betaine HCl and you have yourself a new condition that can take several weeks to fully heal.

Symptoms of gastritis can easily go unnoticed. This is especially true for people who are busy, overwhelmed and/or highly driven. I meet people all the time in my practice who have had low to mid-grade symptoms of gastritis for years without giving it a single consideration that something could be wrong. This can also happen because some people have an altered perception of pain in their digestive tract. Nerve blocks and cauterizations as well as medications, like antidepressants, narcotics and opioids, can reduce pain sensations. Practitioners! Confirm your diagnosis before prescribing Betaine HCl and proceed cautiously with the dose. DO NOT assume that patients will notice side effects immediately.

 

A True Story of a Gastritis Nightmare

More than a decade ago, I had a nutrition consultation with a gentleman who had clear signs of gastritis. Although he didn’t think so, his lifestyle was extremely stressful. He was founder and CEO of a very successful chain of stores. He worked long hours and traveled frequently. Drinking too much alcohol was one way he compensated for the stress. His symptoms manifested as a dull ache (fairly mild) above his naval that was worse on an empty stomach, with water, with spicy food and about 20 minutes after eating (food usually absorbs acid for a few minutes before the stomach makes more). He denied any sign of dark, tarry pieces in his stool (a sign of bleeding in the digestive system). At the time of our meeting, he was preparing to leave for a big game hunting trip in east Africa. I insisted that he consult a physician before departing. His first week in the African bush he developed anemia as a result of a bleeding ulcer. It took several days for him to reach a facility with adequate medical care. He ended up having to have surgery and, more unfortunately, a blood transfusion that left him with a lifelong disease.

 

 

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A significant percentage of women find that hormone therapy using birth control pills or natural progesterone supplementation is extremely effective for reducing acne blemishes and improving the overall health of the skin. It also helps to lighten periods, reduce cramping and contributes to an overall sense of well being. However, a certain subset of women experience a worsening of symptoms, increased blood pressure or feel just plain “crazy” soon after starting this type of hormone therapy.  Fret not dear souls!  This scenario has a simple explanation, is seemingly easy to fix and points to a situation that could build into more significant health problems later in life   Progesterone, the natural form of the synthetic hormones used in birth control pills, is part of large family of hormones collectively called steroids.  Most of us have heard of the more common steroid hormones like estrogen and testosterone.  Others include the stress hormone cortisol and the blood pressure hormone aldosterone.  When the body has an increased need for a particular hormone (for example cortisol) it can convert other hormones, like progesterone, into whatever hormone it thinks it needs.  It does this with the help of enzymes.  If you look at the diagram below, each arrow along the pathway is labeled with the name of the enzyme that drives the reaction.  (Thanks to Walter F. Boron and Emile L. Boulpaep for their contribution of this beautiful diagram to Wikipedia. )

676px-Steroidogenesis.svgNotice progesterone, in the yellow, can convert easily to cortisol and aldosterone through the enzymes 21-hydroxylase and 11-betahydroxylase.  The levels of these enzymes ultimately control how much progesterone is converted into cortisol and/or aldosterone.  Sometimes there is an authentic need for more of a certain hormone.  For example, higher amounts of cortisol are used by the body to moderate inflammation during an immune response or during times of increased stress.  Sometimes, our genetic programming simply tells our body to make too many of these enzymes regardless of whether there is a need or not.  Regardless of the cause, I am absolutely convinced that rooibos tea is an easy way to begin to slow down the conversion and depletion of progesterone.  I got this idea after reading this study[i] demonstrating that rooibos tea had the ability to slow the activity of some of these enzymes and had a normalizing effect on cortisol and aldosterone precursors.

I suggested this to a few of my patients who I suspected were suffering from this specific scenario.  At first, I was unsure if a simple cup of rooibos tea would be strong enough to have any significant impact.  I was pleasantly surprised to find all them had noticeable results within a month.  Every single one of them reported feeling calmer.  Several of them reported an improvement in their sex drive.  One of them had her high blood pressure return to normal within three weeks.  All of them had significantly easier periods with fewer cramps and clots.  One of them had a normal period for the first time in years.  Previously, her periods were coming every three weeks and were accompanied by heavy bleeding.  She was chronically anemic and alway felt worse with progesterone. This same lady ended up needing to reduce her dose of thyroid medication, which had been the same for years.  I’m guessing this is partly because of the effects of cortisol on the thyroid through the adrenal-thyroid axis and maybe partly because progesterone boosts thyroid function.  My acne patients who had symptoms of this scenario all improved by at least 20% and two ladies improved by about 70% after one month.  Acne is multifaceted so it would be unlikely that rooibos tea would act as a magic pill but it definitely seems to help.   I was REALLY encouraged by these results.  The lady who had the high blood pressure had a relapse about two months after.  At first we couldn’t figure out why but then realized that she had bought some rooibos tea that contained licorice, which is known to elevate blood pressure.  When she stopped this her blood pressure returned back to normal within a week.  There are a couple unknowns here.  To reduce overall inflammation, I have all of my patients stop drinking coffee and alcohol and reduce their sugar intake to less than 7 grams per meal.  If someone is still consuming these, I’m not sure if some of these substances might override the beneficial effects of the rooibos and continue to drive the pathway in the wrong direction.  I would LOVE to hear your feedback.

Constructive comments that contribute,  whether positive or negative, are welcomed. All others will be ignored or referred to trolls who are smarter than you and have nothing better to do.



[i] Schloms L, Storbeck KH, Swart P, Gelderblom WC, Swart AC  The influence of Aspalathus linearis (Rooibos) and dihydrochalcones on adrenal steroidogenesis: quantification of steroid intermediates and end products in H295R cells.  The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology [2012, 128(3-5):128-138]

 

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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.

 

 

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The emergence of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s Five Element Theory in 476 BCE “…marked the beginning of what one might call “scientific” medicine…”  Healers began to depart from Shamanism and looking for supernatural causes of disease.   “Instead they began to observe Nature and, with a combination of inductive and deductive method, they set out to find patterns within it and, by extension, apply these in the interpretation of disease.” (G. Macciocia)

Despite modern misunderstanding, they didn’t believe that everything was “made” of the Five Elements, fire, Earth, metal, water, and wood.  They assigned each element to “symbolize five different inherent qualities and states of natural phenomena” including five movements and five phases in the cycle of the seasons.

One of the more interesting concepts to emerge from Five Element Theory is called “The Doctrine of Signatures”.  Its premise is, if something contains a certain quality of one of the elements, it can be used to restore balance to something that is lacking or has lost that quality.  The following are some examples of uncanny medicinal coincidences that have emerged from The Doctrine of Signatures.

Walnuts – If it looks like a brain, it must be good for the brain.  Walnuts are one of the few nuts that are a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids.  It’s become common knowledge in conventional medicine that omega-3 fatty acids  play a crucial role in brain development, growth and function.

Ophiopogen – this herb is in the asparagus family and maintains lushness in dry climates.  Because of this quality it was assumed that its roots would be especially effective for cooling and moistening. It’s traditionally used for conditions where inflammation has parched various tissues which often leads to consumptive disorders like COPD.  It turns out ophiopogen contain nuatigenin-type steroids which ongoing research is revealing to suppress proinflammatory cytokines in conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and COPD.

Earthworms were traditionally used to treat conditions where something was severely blocked such as paralysis from stroke or congestion from asthma.  Applying the doctrine, earthworms can burrow and penetrate.  Modern research has revealed the presence of an enzyme called lumbrokinase that is extremely effective in hydrolyzing fibrin, a clotting factor that can cause strokes.  Lumbrokinase is widely available in supplement form and is used by naturopaths and some progressive physicians for the treatment and prevention of stroke.

*Being “modern” medicine there are efforts to genetically modify goats so that they can produce lumbrokinase  in their milk.  Perhaps the presence of health-giving chemicals is not a sign that we should isolate, concentrate or produce these molecules in a way that is inconsistent with Nature. Perhaps it’s more of an indication of how our diets evolved and what we should still be eating. By the way, earthworms would serve as a great protein source that is really low on the food chain. For expansion on the subject of insects as an evolutionary protein source see “Protein, Human Bodies and Missing Links in the Ecological Model”

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As an herbalist, I have strong concerns about the growing popularity and widespread use of the ancient herb, Mucuna pruriens, as an herbal and dietary supplement.  Mucuna pruriens has an almost magical ability to improve motivation, well being, energy and sex drive along with decreasing the tendency to overeat.  These properties are a result of its contents of natural L-dopa, a direct precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine.  Dopamine is always present in the nervous system.  Ultra-low levels (or dysfunction of dopamine receptors) lead to conditions like Parkinson’s.  Normal levels maintain proper function of the nervous system, promote normal motivation and sex drive and help to regulate the appetite.  We experience a stronger sense of well-being when dopamine is released in response to activities such as engaging in something novel or seeing a beautiful sunset.  We release even more if we accomplish a long-term goal or have a profound experience.  Dopamine is artificially elevated in response chemicals contained in alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine, crystal meth and heroin as well as from overeating.  Excessive exposure to dopamine results in dopamine receptors not working properly.  As the nervous system needs higher and higher levels of dopamine to produce the same response, an individual seeks out more and more of the stimulating substance or activity.  This is the heart of addiction.

With its naturally-occurring L-dopa, Mucuna can be carefully used as a natural remedy to treat conditions such as addiction, obesity, dopamine-related depression or Parkinson’s.  However this MUST be done in conjunction with rehabilitation of the dopamine receptors.  Otherwise, it actually exacerbates the problem and causes further damage.  If given to people who suffer with depression from low serotonin, Mucuna can actually make the depression more severe by further lowering serotonin levels.  (Dopamine tends to suppress seretonin)

The addition of Mucuna to general dietary supplements and even to some multivitamins is completely irresponsible.  It has great capacity for misuse and in the long term could have health consequences.  Because of the seemingly magical effects of L-dopa, almost all people notice they feel better on these supplements and notice they feel worse when they stop them.  This is no different than creating another addiction.

Because of its effectiveness, I also have concerns about other herbalists and health care practitioners carelessly prescribing it without fully understanding its mechanism of action.  I am pro-education and anti-regulation.  I think Mucuna pruriens is a natural substance that practitioners need to actively educate themselves and the general public about.

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