Friday, 25 January 2019

Wild Blueberry for Memory

Wild Blueberry article by Ann Walker
I had not heard of the American Wild Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), until I read a report of a study from the University of Reading (PMID: 29882843). This is my Alma mater and the University where I taught nutrition to food science BSc and MSc students for 35 years, so naturally, it caught my attention. The study was of 122 older adults who were randomised to three groups to take daily for six months either placebo, wild blueberry as a dried powder or wild blueberry as an extract. At the end of the study, the extract, but not the whole herb powder, showed, compared with placebo, improved memory and lowered blood pressure. This better result for the extract is not surprising as herbal extracts are at least five times the strength of powdered herbs.

Initially I assumed that the wild blueberry was the ancestor of the commercial blueberry, but this is not the case – it is a separate species and both are closely related to the European bilberry. All three species are characterised by their dark red pigments known as anthocyanins, which have an array of physiological effects on the body as shown in many laboratory studies. However, of the three species, bilberry was the first to be subjected to clinical trials, inspired by reports of British Royal Air Force pilots in World War II. They described how a good dose of bilberry jam just prior to a mission improved their night vision. While the bilberry is a low-growing shrub with poor yield, the wild blueberry – a taller plant - produces a worthwhile harvest in Canada, where it is cultivated and collected on a commercial scale. Not surprising then, that research attention is now turning to the wild blueberry.

I tried to find a comparison of the anthocyanin content of blueberry, wild blueberry, and bilberry to report in this blog, but failed. The level of the pigments depends on the variety as well as the species – sometimes the pigment is held mainly in the skin (as in the familiar blueberry) and sometimes more in the flesh (as in the bilberry). I can only conclude that the fruits of all these species are beneficial to health. Anthocyanins resemble the tannin-like complexes in grape seed and pine bark, and as such, they have been recommended for similar uses involving ‘tissue strengthening’ as in easy bruising, varicose veins, minor injuries, and surgery support. Areas which have received research attention include blood sugar control in diabetes and more latterly, brain function as in this present study.

PMID = PubMed identifier

Ann Walker PhD, FCPP, MNIMH, RNutr
Course Director DHM
Herbal Practitioner

You can discover more about Wild Blueberries over on the blog run by the Wild Blueberry Association of North America.
Wild Blueberry photo by Johan1127

Friday, 18 January 2019

Aloe Vera and Underactive Thyroid

Aloe Vera Photo & Article by Ann Walker

Aloe vera leaves are the source of two medicines with diametrically opposite effects on the digestive system: the inner gel (or juice) taken in sufficient doses can be used as a remedy for diarrhoea (it helps to normalise a digestive microbiome in disarray) and the outer part of the leaf – thanks to a yellow exudate (turning to a black resin on drying, called bitter aloes) – is a strong laxative. The article I describe here (PMID: 29527506) concerns the juice. An Italian researcher, who had Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (an underactive thyroid caused by autoimmune inflammation) just happened to self-medicate with 50 ml of aloe vera juice per day to improve her digestive function. Three months later she was surprised to find that, despite taking no modern medication throughout this time, her raised blood thyroid antibodies and thyroid function test results were moving towards normal and this effect was even more marked after six months.

This chance finding inspired the research group she worked for to plan a clinical trial to investigate further. They recruited thirty women with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, who had not been treated with thyroxine medication, to take 50 ml aloe juice daily for nine months. At three months, evidence of normalisation of thyroid function was already evident and by nine months all subjects were within the normal range for all markers! By contrast, a control group (fifteen women, untreated and with the same condition) showed no significant changes in any of their raised markers. Although the mechanism of action is not yet understood, aloe vera juice does have a ‘dampening down’ effect on overactive immune systems. There is plenty of evidence from laboratory investigations on cultivated cells that aloe vera juice modulates immune function in several ways that would be beneficial in autoimmune inflammatory conditions.

Over the last 10 years, clinical trials reported on aloe vera on PubMed have been increasing to around ten a year. These have included investigations into the internal use of the juice for gastric reflux and its external use for burns, wound-healing after surgery and radiation damage following cancer treatment. This present study is the first indication that the internal use of aloe vera juice may be beneficial for normalising thyroid function disrupted by autoimmune disease - the most common cause of thyroid under-function.

PMID = PubMed identifier

Ann Walker PhD, FCPP, MNIMH, RNutr
Course Director DHM
Herbal Practitioner

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

5 Facts About: Chickweed

Chickweed article by Debs Cook
Spring is just around the corner, she says in the throws of Winter - if but a rather mild one thus far here in Derby - and round about this time of year wild edible green herbs are few and far between but we can take a leaf - pun intended! - out of our ancestors foraging books and go out and forage for wild Spring greens to add to our salads and smoothies even now! One such useful wild herb that can be found in winter is Chickweed (Stellaria media), unless there has been a good layer of snow recently, but that won't stop this rambunctious herb for long, as soon as the snow has melted, Chickweed bounces back!

raditionally used as a winter pot herb at this time of year due to its highly nutritious nature, although it grows all year round, it is one of the few herbs in the green in Winter and Spring. Like one of its other often foraged counterparts nettles, chickweed is a good source of chlorophyll, and contains vitamins and trace minerals. You can add the herb in small amounts to smoothies and green juices, it can also be dried and powdered and used to help thicken soups or stews, one of my favourite culinary ways of using Chickweed is turning it in to a yummy pesto ever since I discovered a recipe for it in Julie Bruton Seal's book 'Hedgerow Medicine' in 2008. Incidentally, did you know that Chickweed gets its name because it was used to feed chickens? It has also been used to feed caged birds such as budgies and canaries who are rather partial to its green goodness.

Chickweed has been a soothing remedy for skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis for centuries, it’s useful for calming itchy skin and for cooling hot inflammations, as such, it was a popular and much used old external remedy when added to a poultice for treating boils, abscesses, and ulcers of the skin. It was also used to ease mild cases of constipation, and its high vitamin C content made it perfect to use in cases of deficiency of this vital vitamin in sufferers of scurvy. Its anti-inflammatory properties have also been used to help relieve muscle and joint pains.

1) Chickweed has astringent, anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, anti-tussive, carminative, demulcent, depurative, emollient, expectorant, laxative, ophthalmic, refrigerant and vulnerary properties. The herb contains coumarins, flavonoids, mucilage, minerals, phytosterols, saponins, vitamins C, B6, B12, D and A. The saponins content of chickweed is believed to be how chickweed helps to soothe itchy skin.

2) 100g dry weight of chickweed herb contains 43 calories and 32g of dietary fibre, plus the following vitamins and minerals: -

• Calcium - 1,210g
• Iron - 25.3mg
• Magnesium - 529mg
• Niacin (B3) – 4.7mg
• Phosphorus – 448mg
• Potassium - 840mg
• Riboflavin (B2) - 0.13mg
• Selenium - 0.22mg
• Silicon – 0.57mg
• Thiamine (B1) - 0.21mg
• Vitamin A - 7,229 IU
• Vitamin C – 6.9mg
• Zinc - 0.52mg

3) Chickweed, as has been mentioned earlier, is a useful herb for skin health, it can be added to creams to soothe skin conditions such as eczema and a decoction can also be made and added to skin lotions and salves. Chickweed's emollient properties help to moisturise dry skin conditions. A poultice of chickweed when applied to a foreign body in the skin e.g. a splinter can help draw the splinter to the surface, it can also draw out impurities in skin infections such as boils. The astringent properties of chickweed make it useful when added to external preparations for soothing rashes, acne, eczema and psoriasis. Nicholas Culpeper in the 17th century recommended its use for treating skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema saying that chickweed ‘is effectual for all imposthumes and swellings whatsoever, for all redness in the face, wheals, scabs and the itch’.

4) Chickweed was one of the herbs used by Dioscorides in the 1st century A.D. to treat such conditions as eye inflammation and earache. In fact herbalists for centuries have used chickweed either in eye-baths or compresses to help clear eye infection's such as ‘pink eye’ more commonly known as conjunctivitis, due to the herbs ophthalmic properties. John Gerard in the later part of the 16th century and Nicholas Culpeper recommended the distilled water of chickweed ‘for all heat and redness in the eyes ... as also into the ears...’ mixed with eyebright it makes a brilliant lotion for clearing the eyes and helping with general eye health.

5) Chickweed has long been used as a spring tonic and blood cleanser, either as a pot herb or as a tea or infusion, and has also been used in some dieter’s regimes, in fact an infusion of the herb known as ‘Chickweed Water’ was an old wives' cure for obesity. To make a chickweed infusion add 1-2 teaspoons of dried chickweed to a teapot or jar and pour on approximately 250ml of boiling water, allow too steep for 15 minutes; strain the liquid from the herb and use. A chickweed infusion can be added to the bath to help ease itching associated with insect bites and dry skin. Whilst Chickweed can be very good for you, its not good to eat it in large quantities because it contains saponins which are toxic, small amounts say a handful every now and again should be fine.

Debs Cook is a Herbal Historian and our Webmistress, you can see more articles by Debs over on her blog Herbal Haven.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to source the most up to date and accurate information, we cannot guarantee that remedies in our articles are effective, when in doubt, consult your GP or a qualified Medicinal Herbalist. Remember also that herbal remedies can be dangerous under certain circumstances therefore you should always seek medical advice before self-treating with a homemade remedy, especially if you are pregnant, breast feeding or suffer from any known illness which could be adversely affected by self-treatment.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Ashwagandha, Stress and Food Cravings

Ashwagandha Photo & Article by Ann Walker

The root of Ashwagandha has been documented as being used for herbal medicine for over 6,000 years in India where it is one of the most highly valued and herbs in Ayurvedic medicine. In the last century it has come to be a staple also in the materia medica of western herbal practitioners - mainly for its unique vitality-raising properties in the face of fatigue. It is a plant with multiple talents - as indicated by its Latin name of Withania somnifera, which gives clues to another of its physiological actions: as a mild sedative to aid sleep and reduce anxiety.

Ashwagandha (or winter cherry) is a tough plant and can be cultivated in the UK, although it will not survive the winter out-of-doors. The picture shows the cherry of one which I have grown from seed – this plant is about 4 years old and I keep it in a cool greenhouse in winter. The plant’s natural habitat is vast, extending from the Mediterranean to most tropical and subtropical regions of the world, including the Indian subcontinent, parts of China and Africa.

Whilst modern herbalists classify ashwagandha as an adaptogen - a substance said to increase the body's ability to withstand stress of all types – there has not been much clinical evidence to support this until now. In a well-designed clinical study carried out in India (PMID: 27055824), 52 overweight and stressed subjects took 600 mg of ashwagandha extract daily for two months. This resulted in significant improvement in their stress scores and food cravings compared with placebo.

There was also greater weight loss, but this was set in the study design as a secondary outcome of the study, so not so much credence can be given to this. However. I find with patients that want to lose weight, giving them herbs that support glucose control, the stress response and increase vitality can make all the difference to patients to help with their motivation and discipline to lose weight. Ashwagandha addresses at least two of these three objectives.

PMID = PubMed Identifier

Ann Walker PhD, FCPP, MNIMH, RNutr
Course Director DHM
Herbal Practitioner