Chaga and cancer

Medicinal mushrooms have a long history of use for modulating immunity, protecting against cancer, and just generally strengthening the system (see, for instance, Rebecca's post on shiitakes). I spend long hours all year round looking for polypores (shelf-mushrooms, generally) in the woods around here, and there is one that can be found and harvested any time of year: the Chaga mushroom, also known as the Clinker polypore, or Inonotus obliquus in the old tongue. Folk medicine, especially in Siberia where these birch-loving fungi grow in abundance, has long regarded the Chaga as a premiere anti-cancer remedy. I generally find it growing on members of the Betula genus (birches, most often golden birches), often ones that are a bit sick. The Chaga almost looks like a cancerous outgrowth from the bark of these trees - an interesting signature. Some have speculated that the fungus acts somewhat as a processing lab for the betulin in birches, a compound that has received much attention as an anti-cancer agent.
I have used Chaga extensively, along with other mushrooms, to support comprehensive protocols for cancer management. Recently, scientific evidence has been building on this particular fungus. Hopefully soon we will get some human data, but for now here's a brief roundup:

Anti-tumor activity of two isolates from Chaga (animal model...)
Antimitotic activity of aqueous extracts of Inonotus (in vitro)
Antioxidant effect of Inonotus (in vitro)
Melanin complex in Chaga (biochemical analysis)
(Melanin has received attention as a potent botanical immunomodulator, perhaps linked to some of Echinacea's immune-enhancing effects).

I use a custom-made double extract of Chaga in my practice. The mushrooms are harvested, stored for a few weeks (not really to dry them, just to get them a bit 'cured') and then divided into two equal portions. You will need a good, sharp saw to cut it in half, and then a heavy hammer / hatchet to chop them up into manageable chunks (about the size of an almond). I steep the first half in a menstruum (solvent) made of 70% alcohol, 20% water, and 10% vegetable glycerin (in a 1:5 ratio, weight of Chaga to volume of menstruum). This tincture favors the phenolic compounds listed in the first study above. After 4-6 weeks of steeping, I strain the tincture and set it aside.
The second half (saved now for many weeks) I place in a crockpot with twice the volume of water as the volume of the strained tincture, and set it to a slow cook for about 48 hours. The goal is to cook it down and strain it so the amount of water extract equals the amount of strained tincture (add water during the cooking process if necessary). Finally, let everything cool down to room temperature, and whisk the two extracts together. Final alcohol percentage is 35%. The color: mahogany brown, beautiful and rich. The flavor: bittersweet, deep and woody, with overtones of humus. Strong healing medicine!


Cultivation of Endangered Medicinal Herbs

The American Herbal Products Association just released its most recent tracking report on the use of threatened medicinal species, summarizing ongoing survey data on the use of wild vs. cultivated herbs from the late 1990s onward. While it is difficult to draw clear and definite conclusions from this report, there are indications that the trend in the herbal products industry is towards a greater use of cultivated botanicals.
One of the main confounding factors is the overall trend in the whole industry - that is, across-the-board demand for all herbs. There seems to have been a peak in the 2001-2003 years for overall medicinal herbal demand, with a quick taper and a small resurgence recently. Accounting for this trend across the board, you can begin to see that herbs such as Goldenseal and Echinacea are more and more available through cultivated sources (although overall cultivated tonnage is less than in 2003 for some plants).
We can only hope that this trend is for real, and that it will continue. Additionally, the report doesn't go into detail on whether the cultivation is organic or not (as we know, commercially grown medicinal herbs, with their pesticide, fungicide, and fertilizer residues probably do more harm than good). In the meantime, you can help by getting involved with United Plant Savers.


Chocolate does it again

I've written before about the benefits of cocoa for cardiovascular disease, specifically for managing cholesterol. Past research has identified other heart-related benefits from chocolate: reducing high blood pressure, relaxing arteries, decreasing vascular inflammation. The commonalities in all the research include a focus on flavonols (chemical constituents of a similar class to resveratrol of red wine fame) present in cocoa powder alone (no cocoa butter).
The conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science saw a special presentation on further study around cocoa's health benefits. Ian McDonald, of Nottingham, England, described how blood flow to the brain is improved for 2-3 hours after consumption of cocoa powder, as measured by activity on an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan of healthy volunteers performing complex tasks. Increased blood flow improves performace, and this new data generated some excitement around possible treatments for dementia and those with impaired blood flow to the brain.
Another interesting presentation, also published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences, provides a comparison between local populations in Panama that consume high amounts of cocoa and how this consumption seems to dramatically reduce risk of hypertension, diabetes, cancer and infectious disease. After leaving their traditional cultures, the Kuna began to display many of the imbalances listed above. Now, this may have a lot to do with other dietary alterations, living in a city, etc... Nevertheless, as the authors point out, their consumption of cocoa went from multiple cups daily to virtually none - suggesting that cocoa may have a serious protective effect.
These findings lend even more weight to using chocolate as a powerful and delicious herbal remedy. Again, I suggest Green and Black's organic cocoa powder, 2-3 TBS daily (or more) and brewed with hot water, a teaspoon of honey, and a pinch of cayenne. YUM!



Nasturtium officinale, a member of the Brassica family that also includes broccoli and cabbage, has just made news as a powerful preventer of DNA damage in vulnerable blood cells. This research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, gives further evidence that the plants of this family, rich in phytochemicals such as glucosinolates that are partially responsible for their flavor, have powerful anticancer and cell-protective activity when consumed at a daily dose of "about a cereal-bowl full".
Previous research had already underlined this point, but this most recent study is the first to show direct DNA and cell-protective effects. Some highlights:

· significant reduction in DNA damage to lymphocytes (white blood cells), by 22.9 per cent.

· reduction in DNA damage to lymphocytes (white blood cells) when a sample was challenged with the free radical generating chemical hydrogen peroxide, by 9.4%

· reduction in blood triglyceride levels, by an average of 10%

· significant increase in blood levels of lutein and beta-carotene, which have antioxidant activity, by 100% and 33% respectively(higher intakes of lutein have also been associated with a lower incidence of eye diseases such as cataract and age-related macular degeneration).

What is most interesting to me, from a relational point of view, is that members of the Brassicaceae produce many of these pungent compounds that are so protective to humans primarily to defend themselves against environmental stressors. This echoes the role of compounds such as resveratrol (red wine, japanese knotweed, of recent life-extension fame) in promoting an ecosystem inside human cells that favors DNA repair and protection, reduces apoptosis (in healthy cells), and increases the presence of antioxidant compounds.
The process whereby the human intracellular millieu is altered by ongoing ingestion of plants is known by the fancy term "xenohormesis". The implication: plants, like canaries in the coal mine, detect environmental changes very early: they are tightly integrated into soil, air, sun and water processes, and respond to changes in this living system with a high degree of sensitivity. These responses include alterations in the chemicals they produce, generally increasing the levels of substances like glucosinolates and sirtuin-activators like resveratrol during times of greater stress. When we consume these plants, we are then given higher doses of these compounds, which in turn protect us from the environmental changes that could potentially damage our cells and DNA.
Understanding this process of co-evolution is a long-term project for me, and this research on the humble watercress provides yet another piece of evidence in the puzzle.

One final note: please ensure that any watercress you consume is from organic sources, or at the very least grown with very pure spring water, as its ability to take up modern pollutants is very strong and would counteract any positive effect.


Hot peppers

Capsicum species, members of the Nightshade family and used throughout the world these days, are native to the Western hemisphere, and most probably originated from a common Mesoamerican ancestor.
An interesting bit of news: it seems that, over 6000 years ago, peoples living in what is now Ecuador made extensive use of these peppers in their cooking, mixing them with the staple maize. This 'paleobotanical' find was made by microscopically analyzing starch grains found at these ancient sites and discovering unique shapes characteristic to the Capsicum genus mixed in with the corn residues.
Given hot peppers' myriad uses for adjusting digestive function, reducing inflammation, impacting neurological symptoms, and more, it is not surprising that this medicine was domesticated so early. It has since spread across the globe. One of my favorite uses: externally, in a cream or salve, for reducing the pain and swelling associated with joint inflammation. This can be most easily made by steeping dried, chopped hot peppers in olive oil over a double boiler, for at least half an hour, straining, returning the infused oil to the double boiler and then thickening by adding beeswax (1oz beeswax by weight to 10oz of oil by volume). Wait until the beeswax melts completely, then pour the salve off into small jars for use. Be careful! Wash your hands with plenty of warm, soapy water after working with or using this salve, and don't forget to clean under your fingernails (alas, much personal experience has taught me this).


Pelargonium sidoides

This geranium native to southern Africa, and is often known as Umckaloabo. A common preparation is Umcka, which was first used and marketed in Europe and is now sold in the U.S. under the Nature's Way brand.
Its most common application is the treatment of upper respiratory infection, from the common cold to bronchitis and pneumonia. Because it is generally well-tolerated and has a good amount of specific research behind it, many often recommend it for children.
Phytomedicine has just released a supplement to its regular issues that reviews some of the most recent research on this remarkable plant. Here is a quick roundup:

EPs® 7630, an extract from Pelargonium sidoides roots inhibits adherence of Helicobacter pylori to gastric epithelial cells

Fascinating metabolic pools of Pelargonium sidoides and Pelargonium reniforme, traditional and phytomedicinal sources of the herbal medicine Umckaloabo®

In vitro evaluation of antibacterial and immunomodulatory activities of Pelargonium reniforme, Pelargonium sidoides and the related herbal drug preparation EPs® 7630

Inhibition of lipopolysaccharid-induced sickness behavior by a dry extract from the roots of Pelargonium sidoides (EPs® 7630) in mice

Mass spectroscopic characterisation of oligomeric proanthocyanidins derived from an extract of Pelargonium sidoides roots (EPs® 7630) and pharmacological screening in CNS models

Treatment of rats with the Pelargonium sidoides extract EPs® 7630 has no effect on blood coagulation parameters or on the pharmacokinetics of warfarin

Extract of Pelargonium sidoides (EPs® 7630) improves phagocytosis, oxidative burst, and intracellular killing of human peripheral blood phagocytes in vitro

Extract of Pelargonium sidoides (EPs® 7630) inhibits the interactions of group A-streptococci and host epithelia in vitro

Treatment effect and safety of EPs® 7630-solution in acute bronchitis in childhood: Report of a multicentre observational study

EPs® 7630-solution - an effective therapeutic option in acute and exacerbating bronchitis

Pelargonium sidoides preparation (EPs® 7630) in the treatment of acute bronchitis in adults and children

Liquid herbal drug preparation from the root of Pelargonium sidoides is effective against acute bronchitis: Results of a double-blind study with 124 patients

Some issues: the patented liquid preparation, for one. This is a "1X homeopathic dilution of an alcohol extract of Pelargonium". I tend to prefer whole-plant administrations that are traditionally prepared. Also, the large amount of in-vitro and animal studies. Nevertheless, there is some good data on this plant and more is becoming available. As modern medicine continues its shift away from the overuse of antibiotics in respiratory infection, this herb seems to be a helpful adjunct to the tried-and-true diaphoretics and immunomodulators herbalists have been using. I will try to grow it this summer, and see if I can overwinter it in my heated greenhouse...

Cannabis decreases neuropathy

Dr. Abrams (and others), who has a history of working on treatments to improve the quality of live for HIV patients, has co-authored a small but statistically significant trial on the effects of smoked cannabis on the neuropathy associated with HIV. The nerve pain in question is characterized by hypersensitivity to even the smallest stimuli, like the brushing of clothing on the skin, and has some similarities to the intense burning and pain associated with shingles, the herpes zoster infection.
Here is a quick summary of some of this placebo-controlled study's findings:
  • Over the course of the study, smoked cannabis reduced daily pain by 34%, versus 17% with placebo.
  • 52% of the cannabis group reported at least a 30% reduction in pain, compared with 24% in the placebo group.
  • The first cannabis cigarette reduced chronic pain by 72%.
  • No serious adverse events were reported.
And, bottom line: "Smoked cannabis was well tolerated and effectively relieved chronic neuropathic pain from HIV-associated sensory neuropathy. The findings are comparable to oral drugs used for chronic neuropathic pain". This is a significant result: not only is chronic neuropathy very difficult to deal with, both as a patient and as a clinician, but conventional drugs like neurontin (not to mention the narcotics) leave a lot to be desired.
This trial provides yet another safe and effective clinical use for this much-maligned botanical medicine.


Antibiotic resistance update

Some of the responses from medical doctors involved in a brand-new prospective study published in the Lancet today are downright alarming:

  • "...get on and do something about it before the antibiotic era finally grinds to its apocalyptic halt..."
  • "...antibiotic prescribing affects the patient, their environment, and all the people that come into contact with that patient or with their environment..."
  • "Physicians should take into account the striking ecological side-effects of antibiotics when prescribing such drugs to their patients..."
Two macrolide antibiotics, Zithromax and Biaxin, were administered to patients and the naturally-occurring strep bacteria in their throats were examined at the end of treatment. Within a week at most, the treatment group showed over 50% more resistant bacteria than did the placebo group. These effects, the study concludes, were evident for up to 180 days after the treatment (at which point the study stopped following the patients).
And as the comments above rightly point out, antibiotic resistance isn't limited to the patient receiving treatment - bacteria are experts at spreading their successful adaptations.
Herbalists have been pointing out the dangers of antibiotic overuse for years now, and the medical community has been coming around (note the recommendation against antibiotics in childhood ear infections, and against overprescription in bronchitis). Antibiotics are fantastic lifesavers when used in dire situations. But with the dangers of their indiscriminate use now clearly proven, what can we turn to?

Talk to your local herbalist.


Wormwood in Crohn's

Wormwood, that famous Artemisia known as a primary ingredient in absinthe, has long been used as a tonic for the digestive tract. New research points to its use in managing Crohn's disease, an inflammatory condition that generally manifests in the lower bowel. Steroids, which are sometimes used to treat this inflammation, can only be used for short periods of time (due to their myriad powerful side-effects), and patients usually suffer relapses after the steroids are tapered off. By adding wormwood to the treatment regimen:
"...there was a steady improvement in CD [Crohn's disease] symptoms in 18 patients (90%) who received wormwood in spite of tapering of steroids as shown by CDA-Index, IBDQ, HAMD, and VAS. After 8 weeks of treatment with wormwood there was almost complete remission of symptoms in 13 (65%) patients in this group as compared to none in the placebo group. This remission persisted till the end of the observation period that was week 20, and the addition of steroids was not necessary".

Wormwood is a powerful herb, and remarkably bitter. The dose is usually lower than average - about 30 drops of a 1:5 tincture, taken 2-3 times daily before food is what I usually recommend. If it were me, I would also combine it with a warming, carminative herb (like fennel seed) and a bit of a soothing demulcent/astringent (like meadowsweet, or even licorice) in a custom herbal formula.


Apigenin and breast cancer

The flavone apigenin, common in many members of the Umbelliferae (Apiaceae), has been shown in a recent study to have marked and positive impact on human breast cancer. These findings, coupled with previous research on apigenin's good oral bioavailability from crude plant preparations, builds on previous evidence for the beneficial role of such humble foods as common Parsley in supporting sometimes difficult conditions like cancer.
One note: the dose of Parsley should be relatively high - up to 2g of "blanched" Parsley per kg of body weight on a daily basis. This comes out to about 140g for an averabe 150lb human, which is quite a bit. But combined with soups, veggie stir-fries, and steamed greens, such a dose can be easily achieved. And it reduces the need for added salt, while providing lots of dietary potassium.