Echinacea effective (we knew that)

A meta-analysis of multiple trials covering over 1,500 people and published in the Lancet not only revealed that Echinacea helps avert and shorten colds and flus, but also got substantial press coverage in the mainstream media. Nothing new for herbalists - merely a vindication of what we have known for a while: when taken at adequate doses in the real world, Echinacea species really are effective. Beyond colds and flus, I often use this plant for topical bacterial (e.g. Staph) infections, to excellent effect -- and considering drug-resistant staph may be much more widespread than we thought, Echinacea will become much more important than it already is.
As far as the new meta-analysis goes, HerbalGram wrote a review, and USA Today gave mass media's take.


New FDA rules for herbal preparations, practitioners

The final rule on good manufacturing practices for herbal / nutritional supplements just got handed down this weekend. While it leaves some leeway for self-regulation, it does mandate some very difficult requirements, especially for practitioners who are essentially "manufacturing" a product each time they blend a tincture. These rules have been a long time coming, and will be phased in for small companies by 2011...
We need to dissect the full document and consider it with the advancing Traditional Medicines Congress (and its opposition) in an attempt to understand the very real changes herbalism will face in the coming years. Let's stay informed and keep our voices heard.

High-dose Ginkgo extract helps control anxiety

The standardized extract of Ginkgo biloba, used for managing cardiovascular disease, improving blood oxygenation, reducing inflammation in colitis, and slowing the decline of brain function as we get older, seems now to reduce anxiety in people of all ages.
A new study (107 subjects) showed very significant improvement in the symptoms associated with "generalized anxiety disorder". The product used was EGb 761, the usual extract standardized to 24% ginkgo-flavone glycosides and 6% terpenoids. The dose was higher than what I often suggest, and the authors noticed a dose-dependent reduction in symptoms (they were giving 480mg and 240mg of extract daily).

Perhaps a bad idea?

Trying to stimulate the immune system into producing antibodies to the active form of angiotensin, an enzyme involved in the complex balance of chemicals that regulate blood pressure, might not be the safest point of intervention for this disease. Considering the prevalence of autoimmune conditions, I would be concerned about the possibility of long-term effects. Nevertheless, according to the New Scientist, Cytos Biotechnology in Zurich seems to be trying out such a "vaccine".

Perhaps we should start training the immune system to attack a variety of other targets as well! Neurotransmitters for "mood disorders"? Hormones? I'm sure the resulting inflammation would be negligible.


Soy isoflavone helps bone density

Research from the University of Messina in Italy points to genistein, and isoflavone from soy (Glycine max), as a possible treatment for poor bone density and osteopenia in post-menopausal women. While the scientists didn't track fractures or other negative outcomes of poor bone density, they did document an increase in BMD in the treatment arm of the study (the whole study included 389 women). The general conclusions indicate that soy contains phytoestrogenic isoflavones that reverse the trend of bone loss that occurs in post-menopausal women.
The researchers caution that, genistein being a phytoestrogen, the use of soy is dangerous for those with a history of endometrial or breast cancer (considered to often be estrogen-dependent). In response, I offer two considerations: first, no research has even indicated conclusively that phytoestrogens stimulate cancer in vivo, and additional research points to the possible cancer-preventive role of these chemicals. Second, ethnic and geographic groups that traditionally use an abundance of soy in their diet generally show lower rates of breast cancer.
As with many plant chemicals taken in their unadulterated states (and especially as crude, whole preparations), I suspect soy isoflavones play an amphoteric role in the human physiology, increasing what is deficient and reducing the effects of that which is excessive -- in this case, helping to modulate the effects of estradiol.


Plants recognize their siblings

We already know that the rhizosphere, the zone of soil around the roots of plants, is teeming with chemical signals from the plants themselves as well as from symbiotic bacteria, fungi, and other life. This chemical crosstalk is akin to the air-based communication accomplished through pheromones (in humans, other mammals, insects, etc...), and undoubtedly provides a rich, stimulating and ongoing dialogue for the plants.
In many cases, chemicals secreted from plant roots contribute to survival: witness allelopathy, the ability of some plants such as wormwood, goldenrod, or many cover crops to inhibit the growth of other species in their rhizospheres. It has always fascinated me that the plants can recognize members of their own species and selectively inhibit the growth of everything else -- but after all, they are different species, and a genetic resistance to a poison is not difficult to imagine.
Now, in a beautiful study published in Biology Letters, we learn that members of the same species alter their competitive behavior based on whether or not they are growing next to their siblings (plants grown from seed that came from a single parent). Seedlings of Cakile edentula, a variety of wild mustard, grow much more dense and aggressive root structures when next to members of their own species that come from different parents. This is a remarkable level of sensitivity to a very slight variation in genetic structure -- but should come as no surprise to herbalists who are quite familiar with plants' ability to sense, perceive, process, and alter their behavior in concert with their environments.


Trouble for antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance has been all over the news lately, with the media spotlight focused on the case of a man with extensively-drug-resistant tuberculosis who somehow eluded border checkpoints across Europe, Canada and the U.S.
We thought we had TB "licked", right? But the pesky little bug has somehow adapted to changing environmental conditions, and now modern medicine is left in a global panic when faced with the possible spread of a TB strain resistant to most available dugs. Treatment is expensive, long, and not always effective - and the specter of an even more powerful "superbug" looms large.

Hospitals, with their ubiquitous use of antibiotics, have long been havens for some ultra-potent, resistant strains of common bacteria like staph (Staphylococcus aureus). This bug can cause skin infections and systemic sepsis in the worst cases, but our immune systems usually take care of it pretty well (especially with a little Echinacea, an excellent remedy for this pathogen). In hospitals, a strain called MRSA (methycillin-resistant-staph-aureus) has been giving doctors headaches for a good while, ever since methycillin was extensively prescribed to kill bacteria that had become immune to penicillin. Now, they use vancomycin (ultra-strong antibiotic) to treat MRSA, but VRSA has already evolved and modern science has NO treatment available for this new bug. Things don't look too hopeful for the wonderdrugs that, in the 1950s, were heralded as the "end of infectious disease".

If this weren't enough, it turns out that MRSA has been spreading outside hospitals as well. A recent study showed a seven-fold increase in these cases over the period from 2000 to 2005, and this is just in the Chicago area. This is a concern because not only are these bacteria resistant to antibiotics, but they are generally more aggressive in the physiology as well, and can become lethal more quickly and easily than their original counterparts. Nevertheless, they still respond well to herbal treatment, especially if detected early.

In the wake of these types of reports (which have been ongoing), along with analyses that show how widely overused antibiotics are, modern medicine has been urging a less liberal prescription strategy so we can have these powerful drugs available when we really need them (i.e., not for your common cold)! And here's another reason: last month a broad analysis of over 13,000 children in Manitoba, Canada showed that antibiotic use in the first year of life substantially increases asthma later on, presumably by confusing and weakening the kids' immunity. The more frequent and more powerful the antibiotics, the greater the risk for asthma.

So, in the end, antibiotics seem to be less effective as time goes on, and actually quite harmful in some cases. More and more, it will be up to herbalists to pick up the pieces of our short and misguided love affair with these drugs. If you want to learn more, here's a good place to start.


Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism

We've started a new non-profit venture in Montpelier, focused on providing free herbal services (including access to a well-stocked apothecary) and a comprehensive herbalist training program. I've been personally involved in this work for over 7 years, and the momentum my friends and I have generated seems to be coalescing this Summer into what I hope will be a useful and powerful new resource for the Central Vermont community.
Read more from the Times Argus; or visit the website of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. And, if you're in Montpelier, Vermont this Friday evening, you can come visit at our benefit dinner and silent auction.


Cannabinoids and skin allergies

Fresh research published in Science seems to hint at a topical anti-allergic effect for cannabinoids. The trial was done in mice using an artificial allergen, and the research proceeded in two steps: first, the scientists found that mice genetically engineered to lack cannabinoid receptors were much more sensitive to environmental allergens like nickel. I suspect the mice were modified as part of Dr. Karsak's ongoing obsession with understanding the role that mammalian cannabinoids (which occur naturally in our bodies, as well as in mice -- one example is anandamide) play in a variety of processes, from atherosclerosis, to generalized inflammation, to mood.
Anyway, Karsak and the rest of the research team decided to take things a step further, and see if cannabinoids from Cannabis itself could reduce skin sensitivity in normal mice. So they cooked up some kind of marijuana salve and applied it to mice that had been exposed to a synthetic allergen (2,4-dinitrofluorobenzene). The results: a 50% reduction in inflammation and swelling. While the mechanism of action is still unclear, preliminary evidence seems to point to cannabinoids' role in modulating the expression of genes that code for pro-inflammatory compounds like histamine. I'd be curious to hear more about this: it could help explain how effective marijuana has been in curbing GI and upper respiratory inflammation (colitis, asthma, e.g.) in previous studies, some of which were in humans.
One final note of wisdom from Roman Rukwied, a pain and inflammation researcher: "We are far before the day when we could say 'oh, I have a nickel allergy. I will smoke marijuana and I won't have it anymore'," he says. "That is definitely not the case." Fair enough.


American Ginseng helps cancer-related fatigue

Panax quinquefolium, the gentler ginseng native to the Northeastern U.S., received an endorsement at this year's annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Debra Barton, of the Mayo Clinic, described how patients with fatigue and short (6 month) life expectancies were given P. quinquefolium for 8 weeks, at varying doses. The results seem to point to a marked improvement in vitality and a reduction of fatigue-like symptoms.

282 patients were given placebo, 750mg, 1000mg, or 2000mg of ginseng. The product was Wisconsin-grown American ginseng root, dried and encapsulated. All the patients in the active treatment groups reported improvement greater than placebo, with the higher doses showing greater positive response. Toxicity was absent in all treatment groups. The authors of the study seemed generally pleased with ginseng's effects and recommend additional research.

In my opinion, the doses used were still a little low. Traditionally, 3-4 grams a day are given, especially in conditions where the life force is severely challenged (as in this study's treatment group). Quality of life could be improved further not only by increasing the dose of ginseng, but also by selecting additional adaptogens and other herbs suited to the individualized constitutions of the people involved. Nevertheless, even in this one-size-fits-all approach, the life-enhancing power of this woodland plant still comes through. I am reminded of stories that talk about court physicians in China giving massive doses of prized ginseng roots to the Emperor during the last months/weeks of his life, to keep him active and alert in extremis so that the final affairs of the State could be settled.
One final note: beware, generally, of Wisconsin ginseng. It is often grown in massive industrial lots, covered with shade cloth, fed chemical fertilizers and liberally doused with fungicides. Insist on organically grown, preferably woods-grown organic, roots.