Most herbalists know of the nutritive value of nettles (Urtica species). We harvest them in spring and early summer, cook them in soup, or dry them to make dark, rich overnight infusions that replenish and revitalize. I was first introduced to nettles when I was young, at my grandmother’s house where they grew wild. Since then I’ve found them growing almost everywhere: on the rocky slopesides of Vermont’s Smuggler’s Notch, in the lowlands by the lakeside, all across Europe and North America. But nowhere have I seen nettles like Urtica massaica, the species that grows near water in the highlands of Tanzania
We are working at a local hospital, on the edge of the Serengeti just west of the Rift Valley. This is the land of the Maasai, who herd cattle all day, generally eat meat and some grains (no vegetables), and live in far-flung bomas far from modern healthcare. This is generally fine – but in some cases, such as after protracted childbirth or long-standing illness, members of the community arrive at the hospital with profound anemia. We have routinely seen hemoglobin levels of 4, 5, and 6 – normal being 12 or 13 – and while some are lucky enough to receive blood transfusions, this is the exception, rather than the rule. Their tongues are quite pale but we also see characteristic dark purple splotching in the more severe cases – often along the edges. In these situations, we really see that stinging nettles aren’t just a nutritive tonic: they deserve to be considered alongside all the “superfoods” […]
Founder Jovial King in her garden (photo from DIY Bitters)
We have all heard that our moods (and even our thoughts) don’t live in our heads. For example, we’ve known for a while that serotonin, an important neurotransmitter that regulates mood, is found in abundance in the GI tract. Its role there includes managing mucus production and acid production, as well as – possibly – helping to regulate mood. Serotonin-producing cells in the GI tract, furthermore, seem to need the right signals from our gut flora (the beneficial bacteria that live in our intestines) to function properly, which lends additional credence to the notion that our moods are intimately connected to our internal ecologies.
But what of our external ecologies? Is there any evidence that being outside might positively impact our moods? We are, in fact, exploring this connection more and more: from “forest-bathing”, which consistently seems to reduce stress and anxiety, to Dr. Andrea Taylor’s work on relieving symptoms of attention deficit by walking in nature
Malaria is a deadly disease. Because of its reliance on tropical mosquitos for transmission, it disproportionately affects people living in the developing world: of the more than 600,000 deaths from malaria every year, over 90% occur in sub-Saharan Africa where resources are few and transportation to care facilities is difficult. What’s more, over the last fifty years the malaria parasite has evolved considerable resistance to tried-and-true treatments (such as chloroquine, quinine and its derivatives, along with other drugs such as sulfadoxine) in most areas where the disease is widespread. That’s why most physicians in the developing world are now using a class of drugs derived from a molecule called artemisinin. This compound is very effective against the malaria parasite, and is derived from Artemisia annua (Sweet Annie, or quing hao as it is known in the Chinese materia medica). It forms the cornerstone of current antimalarial therapy in the developing world. Unfortunately, isolating artemisinin from the whole plant has led to the development of drug resistance – still localized mostly to Southeast Asia, and not very widespread. Nevertheless, as combination artemisinin therapies […]
Whole Plants Versus Pills: The Cases of Curcumin and Quercetin
Herbalists, though we’ve been known to use isolated constituents from plants, often prefer traditional, whole-plant preparations like teas, tinctures, or powders. These “crude” extracts, we often claim, may appear to be less concentrated but are actually more effective than isolated molecules when given by mouth to a living, breathing human being. But is there any evidence to support this claim? If a certain constituent has therapeutic activity, it seems counterintuitive that refining and concentrating it might somehow make it less effective.
The issue, in the end, is one of bioavailability: the ability of medicinal chemicals to reach the target areas in the human body where they can exert their effects. It does us little good to take high doses of molecules that never reach tissue at appreciable concentrations. This, of course, is one of the problems with petri dish research: a given chemical may have an effect on neurons in a lab, but that’s far from a guarantee that it will enter our bloodstream, leave the liver unchanged, cross our blood-brain-barrier, and have the same effects on neurons in our central nervous system.
One of the most famous, and researched, examples comes to us from the traditional Indian spice turmeric (ground rhizome of Curcuma longa). Curcumin and its molecular relatives the curcuminoids are polyphenolic pungent chemicals found in turmeric. They have attracted substantial attention, especially over the last decade, as potential medicinal compounds. But as a recent review article discovered, this rarely translates […]