Human beings constantly strive to be more than what we think we are. We look outside of ourselves for the next thing to make us smarter or younger, stronger or live longer. This yearning has given birth to the multi-billion dollar industry of nutritional supplements. We are subject to a continuous stream of advertising and information on the next great discovery. If you drink this berry juice from the Amazon you will live longer! Take this new antioxidant discovered in these roots from some exotic part of China!
What are we really discovering? That the fruits and roots and herbs and leaves that come from our Earth are good for us? These are not new discoveries. The discovery is that these foods are what we should be eating! From red wine to tobacco, amazing health-giving qualities can be found in any real food that we consume. The ancient civilizations like China and India have known this for hundreds if not thousands of years. Their diets have evolved to the point that their day to day meals are their medicine.
Let’s take the seemingly miniscule example of folic acid. Its name is derived from its source, foliage. One study after another has shown the incredible health-giving benefits of folic acid. To name a few: reducing the incidence of birth defects, reducing the incidence of lung cancer in smokers and several other types of cancer, reducing the risk of Parkinson’s disease, and increasing fertility in both men and women. I can’t tell you how many women I have seen for infertility who became pregnant within a month of two of taking large doses of folic acid along with B6 and B12. Folic acid has perhaps a couple hundred biochemical functions in the body. One of the more interesting is its ability to turn genes off by giving up (donating) part of its chemical makeup known as a methyl group. (many other vitamins and substances do this as well).
In the emerging field of epigenetics one of the most mind-blowing experiments done to date was with Agouti mice. Scientists use a genetic strain of mice known as “Yellow Mice” which have a high risk of cancer, diabetes, obesity and reduced lifespan to study these very diseases. They discovered that when they fed pregnant “Yellow Mice” folic acid, not only did the offspring look completely different (leaner, brown-gray fur, etc) but even feeding the offspring the same disease-inducing diet as the “Yellow mice”, the offspring had lower incidences of cancer, obesity, diabetes and lived longer! This “new” strain of mouse was called the Agouti mouse even though it was genetically identical to its predecessor. Discoveries like these in epigenetics are forcing scientists to reconsider major theories like “nature vs. nurture” and certain mechanisms in the theory of Evolution.
On the flip side a few studies have come out recently showing that folic acid supplementation increases the incidence of some types of cancers especially in the prostate. We have to consider that everything in nature functions as part of the whole. When we eat green, leafy vegetables we receive not only folic acid but also an array of B vitamins and trace minerals which so often function with folic acid in the body. We also receive hundreds of plant chemicals that alter how our genes control our immune systems, detoxification pathways, etc. This is what we evolved with. The more we delve into the awesome intricacies of Mother Nature, we reach two realizations. (1)How little we know. (2) We already know everything because we evolved with it and are a part of it.
So what it the conclusion I am asking you to come to today? Is it that you should take more folic acid? Perhaps it’s not that taking large doses of folic acid is good for us. It’s that NOT consuming it in the amounts and forms that we evolved with is making robbing us and our progeny of our health and vitality. Imagine living before farming. What do you think you would eat in the springtime? Look around at what is emerging from Earth. What are you made of?by
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.by