Dallas Clouatre, PhD
Culinary herbs seldom began their human histories as mere flavorings. Indeed, the kitchen herb and spice rack could reasonably be dubbed the kitchen medicine chest and several useful books have done just that. Oregano is a good example of a culinary herb that leads a double life. In much of the world, this plant continues to be used not just to flavor and preserve food, but also to disinfect surfaces and wounds, to calm the stomach, and much more. For some of these purposes, oregano extracts may still be as good or better than many of the modern alternatives. In other words, the health benefits of oregano are not only "traditional" or "folk remedies."
Milk thistle, as is true of similarly classic liver tonics from the Chinese tradition, such as bupleurum, has occupied a central spot in herbalism for good reasons, many of which remain true today.
This herbal tonic generally ranks high in recognition and sales with the American public in comparison with other botanical products. Nevertheless, its sales here are small on a per capita basis compared with, say, Germany, perhaps as little as 25 percent of what might be expected. Both old research and new suggest that milk thistle deserves even wider appreciation.
The role of probiotics in maintaining health no longer is quite as obscure to Americans as it once was. Yogurt is touted in TV and print advertisements; sometimes, an actor on a show even will play up his or her fondness for yogurt to make a fictional character more human and personable. Similarly, probiotics no longer are found only in health food stores—most drugstores sell at least two or three brands. This situation certainly is an improvement in providing sources of support for digestive health. However, it also may be a bit misleading.
Stress, anxiety and depression are major factors in the lives of many of us. An estimated 9.1 percent of the population of the U.S. suffers from depression every year, which translates to approximately 28 million Americans suffering from depression for at least two weeks with significant symptoms each year. This figure does not include greater or lesser degrees of apathy. Major depression claims 4.1 percent of the population, which is to say, from 12 to 13 million sufferers.1
Even those who are not depressed according to the textbook definition often are not home free. All too often individuals find themselves on a “seesaw” in which they swing from frenetic activity to lethargy and back. Living habits, choices of foods and beverages, the lack of physical exercise and other everyday factors can play a big role in mood swings, but it can be hard to get back into balance once equilibrium is lost. Fortunately, the proper use of nutrients and herbs can go a long way towards helping us to “beat the blues” naturally without resorting to Prozac and other drugs, most of which have numerous and unpleasant side effects.
Toxins come in a variety of forms. Our environment is full of them, and not all of these are man-made. Many toxins are found in everyday foods. Worse yet, some of the most dangerous toxins—toxins linked to breast and prostate cancers, for instance—are made in our own bodies. Of course, we are not without inborn defenses against toxic assaults. Indeed, the liver, in particular, is an organ, which is equipped to deactivate and remove poisons from our systems.
The stakes are high in the fight against toxins. Cancers and cardiovascular disease are two common results of toxic assaults upon the cells. The best known of the toxic compounds are free radicals, molecules generally produced by the action of oxygen and which can attack cell membranes and cellular DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the “blue print” for cell functions and cell division). Antioxidants and free radical scavengers, such as the vitamins C and E, and plant compounds such the anthocyanidins and ellagic acid found in fruits and vegetables, prevent free radicals from causing damage to the tissues.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately six percent of Americans suffer from asthma. This is a surprisingly high figure and it is on the rise. It is surprisingly high in part because asthma is one of a number of health conditions that can be present, yet unrecognized, in both children and adults. Yet being out of sight is not the same as being benign. Nearly 500,000 Americans are hospitalized each year for asthma and more than 5,000 die from it.
In this age of marketing of new fruits of every stripe—“super,” “exotic,” “rainforest,” etc. — it is easy to overlook the fact the best of the fruits for many purposes may be those long known. Bilberry is a good example. Black currant is another. Also called the cassis berry (Ribes nigrum), black currant offers many benefits similar to those found with bilberry and blueberry. Indeed, the list of benefits is quite impressive and includes brain, digestive and eye health along with positive influences in the areas of asthma and overall lung function, colds and flu, and women’s health.
No one doubts that obesity is a problem in the United States. According to figures released by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in January 2010 analyzing the period 2007–2008, the prevalence of obesity was 32.2 percent among adult men and 35.5 percent among adult women. The age-adjusted prevalence of overweight and obesity combined was 68.0 percent overall; 72.3 percent among men, and 64.1 percent among women. That’s right: in 2008 an estimated 68 percent of Americans were overweight or obese! To put this in perspective, from 1960–2 to 2005–6, the prevalence of obesity increased from 13.4 to 35.1 percent in U.S. adults 20 to 74.7 years of age. Statistics for those overweight were in the same range. Within living memory, the proportion of Americans who are overweight and obese has more than doubled. Quite obviously, there has been no massive shift in genetics in the U.S. in the last 50 years, so what has caused such weight gain?
Bone health is one of the most widely written about topics in the United States and most of us, no doubt, feel we have a grasp of how to protect ourselves. Sadly, most of us would be wrong in judging our own risk of suffering from osteoporosis or related conditions and most of us would be wrong in evaluating which nutrients are most important for protecting bone health.
In mid-2012, Nestlé Health Science acquired a stake in Accera®, the U.S. maker of Axona®, a medical food targeted at people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. Aside from the fact that the purchase shows that Nestlé is placing a strategic bet on the future direction of medical food demand, this acquisition also is interesting for its potential validation of a tropical oil that alternately has been damned and praised for its role in health: coconut oil.
Recently, this magazine ran a series of articles on vitamin and mineral supplements addressing the seemingly simple question, “Who needs them?” This seemed like a good jumping off point. Whenever you look at a supplement, you ask yourself what benefits its various ingredients will deliver. One formula promises to provide insurance against a multitude of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, another to supply protection against stress, and a third claims to protect against, say, bone loss. Athletes, in particular, constantly push their bodies “to the edge,” and they rightly expect ergogenic aids to be just that—substances that improve the body’s capacity to engage in physical activities. Moreover, serious athletes and body builders often cross the line between training and over-training. Dietary supplements are expected to a variety of needs, both minor and major. However, is choosing a supplement merely a matter of finding one with ingredients that match perceived needs?
Back in the news is MSM (short for methylsulfonyl-methane, also known as dimethyl sulfone). MSM has generated broad anecdotal support for its benefits in cases of allergies, arthritis and joint pain. However, the list of conditions that are said to respond to MSM is much longer. Broadly speaking, MSM has been tested with clinical results in inflammation, joint and tissue pain, muscle spasms, hair and nail growth, even snoring! So just what is this compound and how does it work? Is it really a panacea?
Nature’s Sulfur Cycle
MSM’s initial popularity was due, in part, to the success of the booklet, “The MSM Miracle: Enhance Your Health with Organic Sulfur,” by Earl L. Mindell, R.PH., Ph.D. which was followed in 1999 by the definitive The Miracle of MSM (by Jacob, Lawrence and Zucker). However, the story of MSM dates back at least to the early 1960s. Unfortunately, these first suggestions of the nutritional and therapeutic potential of MSM were not immediately followed up. Yet another decade lapsed before real clinical studies began. The catalyst for renewed interest was a report presented at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in the early 1980s. Since that time, thousands of patients have been given MSM under medical supervision to determine its benefits and side effects when given either by mouth or intravenously, with much of that work performed at the Oregon Health Sciences University. Hundreds of thousands more individuals have purchased MSM from health food store shelves.
Can stress cause weight gain? The short answer is "yes." This is one of the many topics covered in the User's Guide to Weight-Loss Supplements (Basic Health Publications User's Guide paperback) and the discussion there explores one of the reasons that weight loss programs often fail. In a 1986 Dutch study, men who experienced many life events in a short period of time — one definition of stress — gained weight. This study also showed the importance of identifying and treating the problem (stress) rather than the symptom (weight gain). In these men the excessive weight had disappeared in almost all subgroups a year later. The exception was the subgroup that had tried to lose weight by dieting. The men who had dieted had gained yet more weight.
Most of us, when we think about the signs of aging, think about wrinkles, sagging skin, sun damage, aches and pains, perhaps weight gain. Biochemists and medical researchers see those same signs, but to these scientists the important changes are structural. To their eyes the significant changes are those that alter the nature of cell membranes, change DNA expression, oxidize fats and make proteins less usable. These changes alter the body's repair mechanisms.
Stevia, sold as a “dietary supplement,” is no stranger to the health food world and under this heading one finds extracts of quite varying composition and purity. More narrowly, stevia also is used to indicate an extract consisting only of stevioside. The leaves of stevia rebaudiana Bertoni are the primary source, but related species are native from Mexico to throughout South America and known by names such as sweetleaf, sweet leaf and sugarleaf, as well as stevia. The leaves of the plant are 30–45 times as sweet as table sugar and stevioside is 200–300 times as sweet as sucrose. In Paraguay the plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb and as a sweetener for mate and other beverages. Stevia extracts of varying composition have been used widely as sweeteners in Japan since 1971 without restriction or reported health hazards. Indeed, there are both animal and human data that suggest that stevia extracts may increase insulin sensitivity and improve blood glucose control without side effects. Most health food shoppers no doubt assume that stevia is officially accepted as a natural, calorie free herbal extract that can be used as a sugar substitute or as an alternative to artificial sweeteners. After all, stevia in all of its forms can be purchased freely as a dietary supplement.
With the current constant push to reduce the intake of fats in the diet, it is easy to forget certain fats are essential for health. Likewise, as pointed out in a previous [April 2012 Food: Combining and Timing For Health] article on food combining, fats often are blamed for what are, in fact, the consequences of the consumption of sugars, especially fructose, and refined carbohydrates. A number of cultures around the world defy the American paradigm that eating fat makes one fat.
For instance, the French in general show the diseases of excess and of age both less and at a later point of their lives than do their American counterparts; they are healthier and they live longer despite smoking far more. Why?
Brain function plays a major role in how much energy we have , how we handle stress, whether our immune system is up to par, and, in general, how much zest we have for life. Concentration, memory and mood — whether we are fifteen and struggling with math or sixty-five and looking forward to an active retirement, these matter. Nutrients which support brain health should be a part of any supplementation program.
It has long been known that an infant’s diet is important for mental development. Increasingly research is showing that the diet and everyday environmental factors during the first three to five years of life can have important consequences in the areas of mental health and the ability to interact socially as well as determining whether the child will grow up obese, develop diabetes or suffer from heart disease in later life. Moreover, it seems that the mother’s eating habits and overall health during her pregnancy may contribute greatly to her child’s health and even determine her child’s risks for major diseases in adulthood. To an amazing degree, starting your child off properly with regard to nutrition begins during pregnancy and requires special attention during the first half decade of life.
It is easy to overlook the health benefits of common foods, especially if, as is true of the orange and other citrus fruits, we typically consume only the juice. Yet components found in the pulp and peel of citrus fruits long have been known to offer a variety of health benefits. More interesting still is the fact that one or more compounds found in citrus rinds can be turned into even more potent health protectors with a little help from science. Diosmin is a good example of a health protective substance already found in nature that today is produced by taking the common citrus flavonoid hesperidin and converting it to an even more potent compound. As a result, diosmin is available as a supplement to provide benefits against a variety of ailments. Common to most of these complaints is the fact they involve poor circulation and the veins.
Is a Calorie a Calorie? This question was posed not long ago in a column in the New York Times and it is well worth asking. The answer from the nutrition establishment, with some notable exceptions, long has been to paraphrase the Second Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy) and then, with great gravitas, explain that calories are calories and that reducing their intake while increasing their expenditure leads to weight loss. It is as simple as that.