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Posts from the ‘Research & Writing’ Category

Artemisinin and the Nobel prize: A tale of two medical systems

The Nobel Committee of Medicine and Physiology announced Youyou Tu as the Nobel Prize winner for her work in the development of artemisinin to treat malaria. Artemisinin is derived from the Chinese herb qinghao, also known as Sweet wormwood or Artemesia annua. The story of artemisinin’s discovery and development is a compelling one, revealing the political and cultural forces that shape bioprospecting and pharmacognosy. It’s also the story of the transformation of medicinal plants and compounds as they travel through diverse medical systems.

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On Diets and Black Swans

Figuring out what to eat is hard. And it’s getting harder. We have more chronic health conditions, more nutrition research, and more food options. The omnivore’s dilemma is real, and it lives in nearly everyone seeking to heal themselves through food.

A recent news story on NPR asserted that Paleolithic people were making flour as far back as 32000 years ago. This new fact disturbs our understanding of paleolithic diets. Reactions on social media include, “Wow! I can have oats on my paleo diet!,” “Yes! I can have flour again!!,” and similar expressions of relief. Read more

Building the Healing Hut: Advice for New Diagnoses and Related Plot Twists

When receiving a new diagnosis, we’re rarely prepared. It’s as if we’re woken up from our sleep and told that we have to leave for a trip overseas, right now, with 5 minutes to pack an overnight bag. You have to rapidly reorganized, rethink, replan. What does this mean for me? Can I heal? How will I?

The healing journey is one that everyone travels at some point, as we all hold passports to this night side of life. But it can be a difficult road. Along the way we confront fear, isolation, uncertainty, resource limitations, the mundane horrors of medical treatments and the metamorphosis of identity. There are many ways that we can gracefully support the road of healing. I call this Building the Healing Hut. It’s a metaphor for the container in which healing takes place. It’s a way to conceive of the preparations to encourage healing, expansion, peace, and grace throughout the journey.

This handout was inspired both by my process and experiences with clients, as well as my own personal experience with the healing process. Download the free PDF here, and feel free to share widely.

Reishi reduces obesity in mice and positively alters microbiome composition

Over the last few years we’ve been fed hints that nutraceutical mushrooms may play a role in the composition of the gut microbiome. First there was an in vitro study. Then, in August 2014, a clinical trial from Harvard Medical School found that Turkey Tail (biomass) polysaccharides acted as prebiotics in the digestive tract.

Now, a recent study in Nature Communications found that Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) reduced obesity in mice by affecting the composition of the gut microbiome. Now, I’m not one to jump at the sight of research ‘against obesity’ as if fat-shaming. But we already knew that Reishi impacts insulin sensitivity, but microbiome alteration is a new piece of data. Read more

Problems with Plant Immunostimulation Research

What’s a ‘good’ immune system? Presumably it’s one that can fight infections and inhibit tumor development without causing collateral damage. And conceivably, we can support our immune system by taking plants that fortify or strengthen it, hopefully by restoring the internal controls that keeps the immune system from destroying its own tissues. We call these agents ‘immunomodulations’. When you think about it, it’s a pretty esoteric concept.

As opposed to immune modulation, immunostimulation seems more straightforward and precise. Right? However, the concept of immune ‘stimulation’ is a new one, originating from conclusions of in vitro research. It doesn’t have a discernible historical or traditional basis. (But signs and correlates of inflammation like pain and fever were embraced and treated by a wide range of cultures.) So immune stimulation isn’t empirical in origin; it’s largely based on theoretical considerations from in vitro work. And there are some issues with this data. Read more

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

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

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