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Medicinal Mushrooms in the Human Mycobiome

Big discoveries in little things. That seems to characterize our learnings about the importance of the human microbiome. Our developing understanding of microbes and their role in health and disease has led to a nation-wide wake up call for more responsible use of antibiotics in livestock farming and medical practice. We’re beginning to understand the role of bacteria in systemic immunity, digestion, nutrient absorption, inflammation, autoimmunity, hormone metabolism, and neurotransmitters. We’re expanding our awareness by examining the human virome and the role of beneficial viruses.

And now, researchers are now beginning to look at the human mycobiome. The relationship between humans and their resident fungal species has been a neglected field of study. We’re familiar with genuses like Candida, Cryptococcus, and Aspergillus. But there are many, many species of fungi living in our lungs, digestive tracts, oral cavities, and skin that are just starting to be characterized. These likely play a big role in health and disease and highly influenced by our own immune responses. I suggest this is another pathway by which medicinal mushrooms work in the body. Read more

The AncientBiotics Project – testing medieval remedies to treat contemporary pathogens

Researchers at the University of Nottingham in the UK investigated a formulation was a 10th century remedy for eye infections from Bald’s Leechbook to treat MRSA. The main ingredients include garlic, alliums, wine, and oxgall (cow bile), steeped for 9 days.

So far, the research seems promising. The data is not yet available, but the investigators claim that Bald’s eyesalve-

  • eradicated of 90% of MRSA cells in vivo (murine wound infection model),
  • penetrated biofilms,

Furthermore, a dilution did not eradicate but inhibited quorum sensing and the ingredients tested as sole agents did not demonstrate the same antimicrobial effects. 

Now, this is preclinical in vitro and in vivo research–the clinical significance is not clear. The mechanisms of action have not been elucidated by the team, but they suspect the complex array of antimicrobial compounds target bacterial reproduction and biofilm formation in several ways. And from our knowledge of phytochemical complexity and systems biology, this would seem to make sense. The findings were presented the findings at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology on 3/30/15.

Not only do I find this type of research collaboration (medieval studies and microbiology) fascinating, but I think the applications to antibiotic resistant bacteria are very relevant and important. I think future treatments for antibiotic resistant bacteria will be complex and target multiple aspects of the infection cascade. This is a great partnership and promising field–and I look forward to more developments.

UK Dept of Health report on herbal medicine regulations

The UK Department of Health just released a report entitled Advice on regulating herbal medicines and practitioners for the purpose of advising the government on the regulation of herbal practice. The Herbal Medicines Working Group, the responsible party, seems to not have included all stakeholders (with the exception of a few Ayurvedic practitioners). None of the NIMH herbalists are listed as having any participation in the discussions.

One of the conclusions of this report: there is insufficient evidence to allow herbalists to self-regulate. Ergo they must be regulated. The situation in the UK is complex, and I leave my seasoned English colleagues to offer more insightful commentary. But this is clearly one more step among many that is stilfing and suffocating herbal practice. Read more

The Sustainable Herbs Project

As an herbalist who helps formulate and develop herbal supplements, sourcing, supply chain and quality control are paramount. I want to help educate others on what constitutes good quality products and maintain quality standards in the industry.

Anthropologist Ann Armbrecht (who brought us the Numen film) is creating a new documentary called the Sustainable Herbs Project, which explores these facets of herbal trade and product development. They want to make it available for free. To do so, they’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project. Please consider making a pledge (I did!) to make this documentary a reality and raise awareness about what goes into herbal supplements.

A Double-take on Herbal Adulteration

As an herbalist who works in the herbal product industry, I care about quality and adulteration in herbal trade. But what happened earlier this week just bugs me. Issues of herbal adulteration are good reasons to use local herbs and develop relationships with suppliers. My problem with this is that adulteration is not even confirmed in this case–it’s findings from only one lab, using methods that aren’t even considered acceptable for validation of herbal extracts.

James Schulte was commissioned to perform DNA barcoding on supplements from 4 retailers across NY state. The samples were sent to one lab and many failed DNA testing, leading to conclusions of herbal adulteration. The New York Attorney General subsequently issued cease and desist letters to Walmart, Target, GNC, and Walgreens to remove herbal products from their shelves that failed DNA authentication. Read more

Whole Artemisia plant overcomes Artemisin-resistant malaria in mice: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Whole plant medicine is the territory of herbalists. Based in the wisdom of our ancestors, many herbalists utilize whole-plant synergy in the form of powdered herbs, tinctures, and teas. This contrasts the practice of isolation and purification of plant compounds. Isolated compounds are have stronger monotherapeutic action, and are more conducive to current clinical research models. How do they stack up to whole herbs? The research is shedding more light on this.

Artemisinin is isolated from Artemisia annua, and has some unique chemical features not commonly seen in other natural compounds. Since its discovery in the 1970’s it has shown promising activity against Plasmodium falciparum malaria (and, increasingly, other parasitic infections) after chloroquine drug exhausted its utility as the drug of choice. As with many single compounds, Artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria have begun to emerge. Read more

Reishi-Green Tea Chai

I’m cutting back on caffeine and stimulants this Winter to really rest and restore. Caffeine and specifically coffee has numerous health benefits. But when consumed in excess (points finger to self), it can promote sympathetic dominance and affect cortisol and other adrenal hormones. Like all substances that affect our physiology, it’s best to keep our habits in check and cut back every now and then.

So I’ve ditched coffee for now and rekindling my love for tea recipes. My favorite is chais. If you’ve only had store bought or prepared chais, this recipe will change your mind about chai teas. When brewed for a long period of time, these warming spices infuse beautifully and give you a natural energy boost. And Reishi is a medicinal mushroom that supports systemic immunity, as well as adrenal function and cortisol regulation.

Green tea has potent antioxidant fractions due to its polyphenol content (EGCG) and supports Th2-mediated immunity. Reishi supports the Th1 arm, so the two together are a terrific match for supporting deep immune function.

Reishi-Green Tea Chai

  • 1 quart water
  • 2-3 Reishi mushroom slices (harvest your own or get through an organic source like Moutain Rose Herbs)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • sliver of nutmeg
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 star anise
  • 3-4 peppercorns (red, white or black)
  • 3-4 cardamom pods
  • 1T organic Green tea (added at the last 5 minutes)

Decoct the Reishi along with the spices for 30 minutes. The longer it decocts, the stronger it will get. Turn off the heat and add the Green tea. (You can also substitute black tea, puerh, lapsang souchong, white tea, or yerba maté.) Let it steep for 5 minutes, then strain. Add sweetener or milk/milk substitute to taste. This will make 2-3 cups. If you have some leftover, I suggest straining it and storing in the refrigerator–the tea will become very bitter if left to steep.

If you want to increase your intake of healthy fats, you can include a little coconut oil, ghee, or grass fed butter.

You can also add your favorite herbs to this base recipe. Ashwaganda or Eleuthro root made wonderful additions, as does Astragalus, Hawthorn berries, Burdock, or Marshmallow root. Good mushroom substitutes include Turkey Tails, Chaga, and Maitake. Be creative!

Research Methods in Biomedicine and Applications to Botanicals

In my last post, I gave an overview on the basics of botanical research. To compile meaningful information you frame your question, structure your inquiry, search the appropriate databases, store and organize your information for easy access, and understand that you have to interpret the information. This last step is the hardest part.

After you’ve completed your literature search, you’ll want to look at the quality and nature of the information in front of you. The best way to assess the strength of the evidence is to know the research methods that were used–and their limitations.

In vitro studies

In vitro means ‘in glass’, and describes laboratory research conducted on cells or molecules outside of their biological environment. It is the least expensive and easiest type of research to conduct in comparison to other methods. It’s therefore used in bioprospecting and pharmaceutical screenings. Often, a group of researchers hear of a traditional use of a particular plant and that’s their clue to investigate its biological activity starting in vitro or in animals. These are also known as mechanism of action studies, as studying those cells up close can shed light on how particular herbs or compound are affecting certain cells.

In vitro studies usually test isolates or purified extracts. Sometimes, as in the case of oncology bioprospecting at the National Cancer Institute, important compounds like tannins are removed (Mills & Bone 2013). Tannins bind nonspecifically to many proteins and enzymes, and the removal of them drastically changes their biological activity. These purified extracts or compounds are added to a culture medium and incubated with cells, and changes are noted and documented. This brings us to a serious drawback of in vitro data: the difficulty of extrapolation.

For example, a 1999 in vitro study tested the effects of several botanical extracts (Echinacea, Ginkgo biloba, Saw palmetto, and St. John’s wort) on fertility. To do this, they cultured hamster oocytes (eggs) with pretty high concentrations of these extracts (upwards of 0.6mg/mL) and then tested sperm penetration (Ondrizek et al 1999). When you’re reading a study or abstract, try to envision what’s actually going on. Is it relevant? For reference, concentrations above 0.1mg/mL are unlikely to be achieved in people taking herbs orally.

Furthermore, and more troubling, is that you can’t get product preparation or extraction details from an abstract or even a full text sometimes. I’m consistently surprised to see how often authors neglect to describe the extract type (aqueous or ethanolic? Crude herb?). This is especially prolific in the mushroom literature, where extraction methods are crucial yet strangely absent from the abstracts.

In vitro data should be carefully examined before conclusions are made. Again, this is usually Step 1 in the process of seeing if a particular herb merits further study. Read more