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I’ve wanted to write about flu vaccines for a while now, but never quite got around to it. Then, recently, my friend Steve Smith posted on Facebook a quote from the CDC website stating how effective the flu vaccine was. I was startled, because all my reading until that point indicated that the evidence for the flu vaccine being effective was minimal. Had I missed some important recent research?

It turns out I didn’t. Now, before I get into any of this, I need to start with the usual disclaimer that none of what I’m writing here (or anywhere else) should be considered medical advice, or to substitute for medical advice; it’s for educational or entertainment purposes only. I’m not advising you or anyone else to get, or not to get, the flu vaccine. I think it’s a good idea to research carefully before making any big decisions about your health, and always consult your appropriately licensed healthcare professional before making any changes to your health care. I also like to keep in mind that what might be right for me might not be right for somebody else.

The first thing that I want to note is that when most people think they have the flu, they are usually not infected by an influenza virus. Although they have symptoms that they associate with the flu, they probably have what’s called flu-like illness. Only a minority of those who have flu-like illness will actually have the flu, i.e., an infection by an influenza virus; this number is usually around 10 to 30% (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza-like_illness). The flu vaccine is designed to stop an influenza virus, so there’s little to no evidence to think the flu vaccine can prevent the majority of flu-like illness. The point is, even if you got the flu vaccine, and even if it worked with 100% effectiveness, it will not help you against the vast majority of pathogens — 70%-90% of them – that will make you feel like you have the flu.

Well, the argument goes, if you can stop 10 to 30% of the people who get flu-like illness from getting sick, why wouldn’t you? It can still prevent a lot of suffering, and perhaps save lives. Fair enough. But IMHO, it’s important to keep things in perspective, and understand exactly what you’re protecting yourself against and what you’re not.

The bigger issue is this: in general, when I consider whether to use some form of medical intervention, I want to know three things. First, what are the likely benefits? Second, what are the risks? Third, what are the risks and benefits of any alternatives, and how do they compare?

When I look at the first question, the suggestion from the CDC and pharmaceutical manufacturers is that the flu vaccine reliably prevents the flu, reduces days off work, and saves lives. However, when I look at the best available evidence, I don’t see how it supports that view. The best studies I’ve seen on the issue are certainly the Cochrane meta-analyses, which assess all studies on a subject that meet certain criteria; methodological quality and funding biases are some of the factors that are taken into account. These studies show little evidence of effectiveness for the flu vaccine. Some studies show a small effect, but overall the studies employ poor methodology and show evidence of bias. For example, this review found a small positive effect, http://www.cochrane.org/CD001269/ARI_vaccines-to-prevent-influenza-in-healthy-adults, but only 10% of the studies reviewed had good methodology, and many were industry-funded, which to my mind throws their conclusion into some doubt. This review showed no benefit: http://www.cochrane.org/CD005187/ARI_influenza-vaccination-healthcare-workers-who-care-people-aged-60-or-older-living-long-term-care. You can examine their entire list of meta-analyses on flu vaccination here.

This evidence for no or very modest effectiveness seems to be almost common knowledge among some physicians, and some have written strong opinions on the matter, for example https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/855937 and http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g6182.

The CDC did publish a recent study showing good results at preventing deaths in children from influenza (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p0403-flu-vaccine.html), but the methodology is questionable; also see the earlier meta-analysis on the subject here: http://www.cochrane.org/CD004879/ARI_vaccines-preventing-influenza-healthy-children. What I found especially interesting about the latter review is this statement: “This review includes trials funded by industry. An earlier systematic review of 274 influenza vaccine studies published up to 2007 found industry-funded studies were published in more prestigious journals and cited more than other studies independently from methodological quality and size. Studies funded from public sources were significantly less likely to report conclusions favourable to the vaccines. The review showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies. The content and conclusions of this review should be interpreted in the light of this finding.” As is all too often the case, the influence of big money can corrupt or distort evidence, partly through intentional or unintentional bias.

But, some may object, how can that apply to the CDC? That’s a government watchdog group, and is immune from such dangers, right? This was my question as well – and unfortunately, it was answered in the negative. It turns out the CDC does take industry money, and has been roundly criticized for it in prominent medical journals, for example here: http://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h2362.full .You can read more about it here http://www.thevaccinereaction.org/2015/06/cdc-foundation-ties-to-industry-raise-conflict-of-interest-concerns/ and here (a physicians’ site) https://circleofdocs.com/is-the-cdc-is-sleeping-with-drug-companies-you-decide/

Does that mean I’m going to reject everything the CDC says? No, but it does mean I’m going to take into account that their statements are not objective.

After all that, what do I think about the effectiveness of the flu shot? In my opinion, I think it has at best a small chance of preventing the flu.

OK, what about the risks of a flu vaccine? It is here where we head into a very muddy and controversial area. According to the CDC and pharmaceutical manufacturers, there is very little risk to the flu vaccine. You can examine a manufacturer’s data sheet here: https://www.fda.gov/downloads/biologicsbloodvaccines/vaccines/approvedproducts/ucm263239.pdf About 2% of children have an allergy to eggs, so should not have the vaccine to prevent risk of anaphylactic shock. There is also an increased risk of febrile seizures (https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1176205-overview) in children, which may increase the chance of epilepsy or other seizures later on. Historically, neurological damage in the form of Guillain-Barré syndrome (which causes progressive paralysis) is associated with flu vaccines (http://www.who.int/immunization/sage/Sejvar_GBS_influenza_2slides_page.pdf). Vaccine apologists note that actually getting the flu has an even greater association with GBS than the flu shot does (see https://www.health24.com/Medical/Flu/The-flu-virus/Does-the-flu-vaccine-cause-Guillain-Barre-syndrome-or-not-2015032), but that’s only a defense if the flu vaccine reliably prevents you from getting the flu, and the evidence doesn’t support that as we’ve seen above, at least in my opinion.

My question is, if the vaccine can cause something as bad as GBS, what about other neurological issues that may not be as obvious or easy to detect? Perhaps increased risk of seizures, cognitive deficits, or other autoimmune disorders might show up some weeks later – and the association with the vaccine might not be obvious, and thus not reported. Even serious cases are often not linked. A neighbor of mine experienced permanent nerve damage to his hands after a flu shot, and a patient experienced progressive demyelination of her peripheral nerves to the point she (previously a tall, robust woman) could only get around with a walker (fortunately, she eventually recovered). In the latter case, we didn’t think of the vaccine connection until a neurologist mentioned the possibility.

The VAERS system is what’s used to report and track adverse reactions to vaccines (see http://vaxtruth.org/2012/01/flu-vaccine-deaths-just-how-rare-are-they-learn-how-to-find-out-for-yourself/ for a guide on how to check it), but some criticize it for being likely to have a high incidence of false positives. But what about false negatives? Unless you’re very educated about the issue, you’re unlikely to associate an adverse event with a vaccine unless it occurs relatively soon after the injection. Experts suggest that adverse event underreporting is very high: http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/11/02/underreporting-vaccine-adverse-events

Some studies have shown that the flu vaccine increases your risk of getting other respiratory illnesses: https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/54/12/1778/455098, and maybe even of the flu itself: https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/51/9/1017/292207. The CDC itself found that a flu vaccine can increase the risk of a miscarriage (https://m.theepochtimes.com/cdc-study-shows-up-to-7-7-fold-greater-odds-of-miscarriage-after-influenza-vaccine_2345828.html). It may be that, in susceptible individuals, a flu shot can increase the chance of an autoimmune disease by this sort of mechanism: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0008382#s3; related is: http://het.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/09/12/0960327112455067

So what can we objectively say about the risks of a flu shot? The CDC and pharmaceutical companies say that the risks of a flu shot, although present, are considerably less than the risks of having the flu. I’m less sanguine on the subject, and although I cannot prove that the vaccine apologists are wrong, I’m concerned that the risk of serious complications from the vaccine (especially among susceptible individuals) may be underreported and higher than they purport it to be. What there’s no controversy about is that you do have a high risk of having the common, but less alarming, side effects of pain, body aches, fever, low energy, and nausea; depending on your profession and lifestyle, these may or may not be trivial, and should be taken into account.

OK, suppose we accept the vaccine manufacturers’ claims that the flu vaccine has some positive effect in preventing the flu, and that the risks are as low as they say. It still may not be a good idea for me to get the flu shot. Why? Because I want to know what the alternatives are, and how their risks and benefits compare. If there’s an alternative that decreases my chance of getting the flu just as much, or better, than the flu shot, while having even less risk, then of course I’d choose this alternative. Why take a low risk of something bad happening, if I can take an even lower risk by doing something else?

And indeed there are many ways to enhance your health and lessen your risk of getting sick from a respiratory illness, including from the flu. For example, by taking vitamin C and vitamin D (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3024156/), doing exercise and meditation (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3582749/), doing your Tai Chi (https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/In_Brief_Tai_chi_gives_immune_system_a_boost), and avoiding artificial sweeteners (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/24063614/), most of which are good things you ought to be doing anyway, and whose side effects are generally things like increased energy and an improved sense of well-being.

Other strategies include using Chinese herbs (http://www.cochrane.org/CD004559/ARI_chinese-medicinal-herbs-for-influenza), or herbs such as elderberry (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/15080016/related/), Sanicle (Sanicula europaea): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/8769089/?i=3&from=/7838873/related, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/10441789/?i=2&from=/8769089/related, and even lemon balm (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2222180816611155).

Mushrooms are so useful for so many things they deserve special mention. See http://mykosan.com/medicinal-mushrooms-viruses-research/, and http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0041399, as well as:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/21449077/?i=2&from=/22339706/related

https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/34058362/Antineuraminidase_paper.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAIWOWYYGZ2Y53UL3A&Expires=1516925705&Signature=r2j7dtpFxPE4IynFows3ftSjZJU%3D&response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3DIn_vitro_Inhibition_of_Neuraminidase_Act.pdf

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00253-010-3067-4

As you can see if you check the links, these alternatives show some very impressive results, with few if any dangers. So why are they not mentioned by the CDC or other medical authorities? Why all their focus on vaccines as the only way?

Well, I think the answer is at least twofold: first, there’s a kind of cultural bias among many scientific authorities, that what comes out of a lab through analytical methods and chemical manufacture is what’s real or potent, certainly more potent than a plant growing in your garden or a mushroom in the forest. Second, there’s the obvious point that there’s much less money to be made growing and selling, for example, a combination of melissa, elderberry, sanicle, and mushroom extracts than there is in selling a patented chemical pill. For many of us, this debate in the end comes down to how much you trust the medical and pharmaceutical institutions versus how much you trust the inherent strength of your body and the healing powers of nature.

I’m betting on nature myself.

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Acupuncturist Sarah George does a great job answering that question here: 

https://sarahjgeorge.wordpress.com/2015/11/20/acupuncture-does-have-a-place-in-evidence-based-medicine/
Worth checking out! 

Hi Folks, so because people are getting sick left and right these days I feel compelled to post this recipe. This is the latest, improved version of what I called Vulcan’s Hammer in my last newsletter (which is basically a kind of Fire Cider). As always, check the disclaimer at the top of this page: this is not intended as medical advice, and please check with your licensed health care professional before using this or any similar recipe, especially if you’re pregnant.

A lot of people are reporting getting tremendous benefits from this formula, including quick recovery from colds or flu. When I feel run down or notice the first signs a cold or flu is coming on, a teaspoon or two of this tincture boosts my energy and knocks the symptoms right out. I find that taking a teaspoon a day as a preventive, and another spoon or two before and after I work with patients who are already sick keeps me healthy.

My patients are mentioning similar results. I’ve heard from others who started taking it after they already got sick that a tablespoon every couple of hours helped them recover very quickly, like from a flu in just a day or so. In my humble opinion, this is quite simply one of the most powerful formulas I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – and it’s easy to make yourself and inexpensive to boot. I’m calling this version Manavastra, which roughly translates to “Manu’s Divine Weapon” 🙂

Here’s the recipe:

Manavastra

Ingredients

2 Tbsp. fresh crushed garlic

2 Tbsp. fresh chopped onion

2 Tbsp. fresh grated or chopped ginger root

2 Tbsp. fresh grated or chopped horseradish root

2 Tbsp. fresh chopped hot peppers, preferably cayenne

2 Tbsp. fresh chopped turmeric root

1 Tbsp. fresh chopped basil

1/2 Tbsp. fresh chopped oregano

1/2 Tbsp. fresh chopped mint leaves

1/4 tsp of black pepper

Zest of about 1/4 of an organic lemon

Unflitered organic Apple cider vinegar, such as Bragg’s.

Instructions

Simply put the solid ingredients into a one cup glass jar (8 fluid ounces in size), fill it completely with the apple cider vinegar, and cover tightly. If you have a different size glass container available, just scale the recipe appropriately – for example, if you’re going to use a quart sized jar, multiply all the quantities by 4.

Place the jar in a cupboard or other cool, dark place (no refrigeration needed) on top of a plate or in a bowl (it may ferment and overflow). Shake it well once a day for at least two weeks (but you can let it soak for two months or longer if you wish). Then strain out the herbs using a cheesecloth or other filter and squeeze tight to get all the liquid out of them that you can. Place the liquid tincture in an airtight jar, label it, and store in a cool dry place.

Option: once you strain it, add 2 Tbsp of local raw honey to the tincture and mix well. Taste and add more if you like. Caution: do not give raw honey to young children.

Edit: I forgot to mention the kind of emotional quality this formula seems to have; after I take it, I feel my upper body relax and experience a sensation of being open, expanded and joyful. I just can’t say enough good things about this formula!

Edit: some people have been asking for an “emergency” formula they can take when they don’t have a tincture already prepared. Here’s what I use: 1 tbsp fresh basil, 2 tsp fresh oregano, 2 tsp fresh mint, 2 cloves crushed garlic (note: it’s very important the cloves be crushed, not simply chopped), the juice of one lime or half a lemon, 2 tsp fresh ginger, one half cup water; I put in a blender and blend thoroughly.  I try to drink this whenever I start to feel an illness coming on, and every time I’ve tried it it’s stopped the bug in its tracks.   Although these are common kitchen herbs, if you research them you’ll see they all have powerful antibiotic and antiviral properties.

Edit: OK for those who wanted to know about the research available about the ingredients, here’s a few references (each ingredient shows evidence of multiple effects, so I’m concentrating mostly on respiratory conditions like colds or flu; this is just a sample of what’s out there and is by no means exhaustive):

Garlic

http://www.clinicalnutritionjournal.com/article/S0261-5614(11)00231-7/abstract#/article/S0261-5614(11)00231-7/abstract

http://alicin.rs/wp-content/uploads/CommonCold.pdf

Onion

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924224407002282 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691503003508 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030881461200653Xhttp://permaculturenews.org/2013/04/12/layers-of-healing-realizing-the-power-of-the-ordinary-onion/

Ginger

http://www.greenmedinfo.com/article/fresh-ginger-zingiber-officinale-has-anti-viral-activity-against-human http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/honey-and-ginger-beat-antibiotics-inhibiting-superbugs http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/garlic-and-ginger-inhibit-drug-resistant-bacteria

Horseradish

http://www.lef.org/magazine/2009/11/Horseradish-Protection-Against-Cancer-And-More/Page-01 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11237192 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4656704

Cayenne

http://www.vitasearch.com/get-clp-summary/22367 http://www.vitasearch.com/get-clp-summary/35751 http://sarahcannonresearch.com/your-health/index.dot?id=21645&lang=English&db=hlt&ebscoType=static&widgetTitle=Oncology

Turmeric

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20026048. http://academicjournals.org/ajmr/PDF/Pdf2009/May/Ehsanollah%20et%20al.pdf http://jmm.sgmjournals.org/content/59/4/429.long. http://web.nchu.edu.tw/pweb/users/taiwanfir/research/9906.pdf http://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2014/186864/

Basil

http://www.pubfacts.com/detail/16173941/Antiviral-activities-of-extracts-and-selected-pure-constituents-of-Ocimum-basilicum.

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf051922

Oregano

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf049859g http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23484421

Mint

http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/11549238

Edit: I played around a bit with different dosages of raw honey, and found that the best ratio I like is roughly one-fifth to one-quarter honey by volume, e.g., four tablespoons tincture, one tablespoon or a bit more honey.

Hi Folks! So holiday time is upon us, a time of merry-making, eating, and drinking – especially foods that are no good for us ☺ But I came across a few tips recently that can help us make our holidays a bit easier on our systems.

The main tip I’d like to share with you is that dates seem to be quite good for us, and surprisingly that’s true even for diabetics. How can that be so, you might wonder, considering how sweet they are and so loaded with carbs? Aren’t they like 80% sugar? I think this is a great example of how a simplistic anti-carb approach can lead us to radically false conclusions. Not all high-carb foods are the same, nor do they have identical effects on the body.

To see how healthy a real food from nature is for us, we actually need to check, not make assumptions. So let’s look at some of the studies on dates and how they affect blood sugar levels.

This study compared a healthy group to a group of diabetics, and found that eating dates did not significantly raise blood sugar in either group:

“Each subject was tested on eight separate days with 50 g of glucose… equivalent of available carbohydrates from the 5 varieties of date… Capillary glucose was measured in the healthy subjects at 0, 15, 30, 45, 60, 90 and 120 min and for the diabetics at 0, 30, 60, 90, 120, 150 and 180 min. The glycemic indices were determined… There were no statistically significant differences in the GIs between the control and the diabetic groups for the five types of dates…The results show low glycemic indices for the five types of dates included in the study and that their consumption by diabetic individuals does not result in significant postprandial glucose excursions. These findings point to the potential benefits of dates for diabetic subjects when used in a healthy balanced diet.”

This next study found similar results, and that eating dates in combination with other foods such as yogurt also reduced their glycemic index (note that table sugar’s GI is about 100):

“Results: Mean glycaemic indexes of the dates were 47.2, 45.3, 35.5, 37.3, 28.9 for rutab, traditionally stored, commercial, rutab/yoghurt and commercial tamer/yoghurt preparations, respectively… Conclusions: Khalas dates, when eaten alone or in mixed meals with plain yoghurt have low glycaemic indexes. The consumption of dates may be of benefit in glycaemic and lipid control of diabetic patients. The consumption of dates in mixed meals with yoghurt appears to have, at most, a minimal effect on the glycaemic index.”

But the good news about dates doesn’t stop there. It also turns out that dates lower levels of triglycerides in the blood – helping to decrease risk of heart attacks -and if that wasn’t enough, they appear to have significant antioxidant activity:

“Most important, fasting serum glucose and triacylglycerol levels were not increased after consumption of either date variety, and serum triacylglycerol levels even significantly (p < 0.05) decreased, by 8 or 15% after Medjool or Hallawi date consumption, respectively. Basal serum oxidative status was significantly (p < 0.01) decreased by 33%, as compared to the levels observed before consumption, after Hallawi (but not Medjool) date consumption…it is concluded that date consumption (and mainly the Hallawi variety) by healthy subjects, despite their high sugar content, demonstrates beneficial effects on serum triacylglycerol and oxidative stress and does not worsen serum glucose and lipid/lipoprotein patterns, and thus can be considered an antiatherogenic nutrient."

And one specific variety of date lowers levels of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), in addition to actually lowering blood sugar:

“The effect of dates on blood glucose showed that only the variety Tamesrit had a significative decrease on blood glucose (p <0.01). Concerning lipid profile, we noted that Ghars variety induced no significant variation of different lipid parameters while the variety Tamesrit reduced the LDLc level (bad cholesterol), thus improving the lipid profile."

And again, here’s more evidence that dates have a high concentration of antioxidants, which provide a wealth of health benefits: “These results suggest that all date varieties serve as a good source of natural antioxidants and could potentially be considered as a functional food…”

Here’s a video from Dr. Gregor on the subject, along with one comparing date sugar to other sweeteners.

As long as we’re on the subject of good news about sweeteners, let’s look at which artificial sweetener not only isn’t so bad for you, but appears to actually be helpful.

So using date sugar and erythritol may be a way to make this holiday season a bit sweeter for you and your family, especially for those with diabetes. See my recipe below for Faux Pecan Pie, a delicious way of using dates and coconut with no added sugar.

As always, see the disclaimer at the top of the page: please check with your appropriately licensed health care professional before making any changes to your diet.

Now what about when we do wind up eating some of the less healthy sweetened treats? Well it turns out that there’s some evidence that by having your treat with a couple of cups of green tea, you can blunt the blood sugar spike and subsequent drop:

“Mice fed an antioxidant found in green tea — epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG — and corn starch had a significant reduction in increase in their blood sugar… levels compared to mice that were not fed the compound…”The spike in blood glucose level is about 50 percent lower than the increase in the blood glucose level of mice that were not fed EGCG,”…The dose of EGCG fed to the mice was equivalent to about one and a half cups of green tea for a human… EGCG was most effective when the compound was fed to the mice simultaneously with corn starch. For humans, this may mean that green tea could help them control the typical blood sugar increases that are brought on when they eat starchy foods, like breads and bagels that are often a part of typical breakfasts.”

Of course, this study was conducted on rats, not humans, but it is suggestive.

Faux Pecan Pie

The original version of this recipe I found here, but I’ve replaced the nuts for those who are allergic.

Preparation: take two cups of dates and soak in two cups of water for 3 hours; save the soaking water. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Crust: use a prepared crust if you’re pressed for time, otherwise combine 1 cup shredded coconut with one cup of rolled oats in your blender and blend well. Dump out into a bowl. Then add 1 tablespoon coconut oil, 2 dates, and 1 teaspoon vanilla into the blender and mix until well combined. Add to the oat-coconut combination and mix until you have a moldable crust, and press into your pie pan.

Filling: put the dates and the soaking water into the blender with 1/2 cup coconut oil, 2 tablespoons vanilla, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Blend well and pour into pie crust.

Topping: combine 1 cup of rolled oats with enough melted coconut oil and erythritol and/or date sugar so that they’re coated, and sprinkle on top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes; if the topping isn’t sufficiently brown, broil it for a couple of minutes until it is (watch it so it doesn’t burn!).

Enjoy a delicious pie that has a multitude of health benefits and is gluten free, dairy free, etc.

I hope you and yours have a healthy and happy holiday season!

Questions, comments, or suggestions? I’d love to hear from you (especially if you try the pie) so don’t be shy!

Edit: I made this recipe over the holidays, and the oat topping really wasn’t tasty at all; a bit too many oats. I’d use something else, like shredded coconut, (or pecans or almonds if you can eat nuts).

Hi Folks, here’s some research news for you this week!

A comprehensive study commissioned by the Department of Veterans Affairs found strong evidence that acupuncture has a positive effect in the treatment of chronic pain, migraine and tension headache.
The same study found a potentially positive effect in dysmenorrhea, cancer pain, labor pain, insomnia, post-operative nausea and vomit, depression, and smoking cessation, although it suggests more research needs to be done.

Another meta-analysis found that acupuncture outperforms placebo in relieving the most common types of chronic pain: headache, low back, neck, shoulder and knee pain. The same analysis discovered that acupuncture significantly outperforms standard care in headache, low back, neck, and knee pain. In other words, this evidence suggests you’re likely to get a better result for these conditions by seeing your skilled acupuncturist than you are by seeing a typical MD. To me this isn’t surprising; an acupuncturist will usually be more hands-on and thus likely to get to the underlying cause of the problem faster than if someone simply takes drugs to mask the pain.

A network analysis showed that acupuncture is superior to most forms of physical therapy in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis.

In other positive news, I was pleased to see that the American College of Physicians and American Pain Society actually recommends acupuncture for chronic low back pain, although only as a second-line therapy.

The American College of Chest Physicians also recommends acupuncture for cancer patients when pain, nausea, vomiting, or other side effects of chemotherapy are poorly controlled.

There are some problems with most of these studies that IMO show a smaller effect than what clinicians actually experience in practice, but still I’m happy to see some of the medical authorities beginning to treat acupuncture seriously. I’m planning an entire page devoted to my “acupuncture research rant”, stay tuned for that 🙂 Many thanks to John Pirog for directing my attention to this research.

So this week I’m pleased to bring you some good news about natural treatments for pain and inflammation.

One of the most impressive herbs for this purpose is turmeric. In this video by Dr. Greger he presents the latest evidence that turmeric is useful for rheumatoid arthritis, an inflammatory illness, which even proved superior to a common drug in a clinical trial (a dosage of 500 mg curcumin was used in this study, which is the amount in 10 grams of turmeric, or about one and one half tablespoons). Furthermore, turmeric also proved effective in treating osteoarthritis, which is caused by chronic wear and tear on joints. In fact once again turmeric compared very favorably with pharmaceutical drugs in the treatment of osteoarthritis-induced knee pain (a dosage of 90 mg curcumin was used in this study, the amount in about 2/3 of a teaspoon of turmeric). Turmeric also reduces inflammation in general.

One of the compounds in turmeric responsible for much of these beneficial effects is called curcumin; it’s about 5% by weight of a given quantity of turmeric. One problem in using turmeric as a medicine is that the bioavailability – the amount of the substance that is actually usable by the body – of curcumin is relatively low. You can increase the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000% by adding some black pepper; even just 1/4 tsp of black pepper turns out to have this effect. Another strategy is to add oil; a healthy oil like coconut oil or avocado oil might be useful here. So to get the medicinal effects one strategy is to take the traditional route: have a curry made with turmeric and black pepper. A nouveau strategy might be to make a smoothie using coconut milk, a teaspoon or two of turmeric, 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper, a banana, and maybe a few dates for sweetness 🙂

Should everyone take turmeric? Dr. Greger cautions us that those who have gallstones, are prone to kidney stones, or are pregnant might want to avoid it or eat it only in moderation; it contains a fairly high concentration of oxalates (which are associated with kidney stone formation), can cause the gallbladder to contract, and in very high doses can cause DNA damage: http://nutritionfacts.org/video/who-shouldnt-consume-curcumin-or-turmeric/.

While we’re on the subject of osteoarthritis, there is also evidence that other natural approaches are effective in treating the pain it causes. Osteoarthritis (sometimes called progressive joint disease) is a disease caused by the gradual deterioration of the cartilage (connective tissue) of a joint, leading it to become stiff and painful. It turns out that ginger applied topically (daily for a week) appears to help. Unfortunately, that study didn’t include a control, but all the participants had previously had conventional medical treatment for their osteoarthritis and not been satisfied with the results. One of the effective methods of application used in the study is called a ginger compress. One simple method of applying a ginger compress that I like to use is this: I just take some very thin slices of fresh ginger, apply it to the painful area, place a thin towel over the ginger, and a hot water bottle or heating pad on top of the towel; I warm the area for about 15 minutes.

Tart cherries – in addition to the effects on blood pressure noted in my last post – also appear to help relieve osteoarthritis pain. Apparently, the effects can be achieved simply by drinking cherry juice. Note that this study is on tart cherries like the Montmorency, not sweet cherries like the Bing or Rainier varieties (although other studies show some benefits from those as well).

Eating sesame seeds, believe it or not, also help reduce osteoarthritis pain, and do so even better than Tylenol. The amount of sesame seeds used in the study to get this effect was 40 grams per day, which is less than two ounces; the seeds were powdered first (a coffee grinder can do this, or you can use a mortar and pestle). 5 tablespoons a day will get you 45 grams.

Finally on osteoarthritis, this study shows acupuncture beneficial for treating osteoarthritis of the knee: http://www.healthcmi.com/Acupuncture-Continuing-Education-News/1233-osteoarthritiskneeub23

On the subject of Chinese medicine and pain, I’m excited by the news that researchers have found additional evidence that the herb corydalis (corydalis yanhusuo) is helpful for pain, including inflammatory pain and neuropathic pain (pain caused by nervous system damage). Corydalis has enough analgesic properties to relieve the intensity of pain of a broken ankle, and furthermore does so in way that prevents the body from developing resistance to the herb. It is also non-addictive. These factors, the researchers suggest, may make the herb a suitable treatment for chronic pain.

Traditionally, 3-9 grams of corydalis is cooked in about 3 cups of water for 45 minutes to an hour, and drunk half a cup or so at a time as a tea. It may cause drowsiness, dizziness, and abdominal distention, especially when taken in doses of 10 grams or more; high doses of more than 15 grams can cause serious side effects. See Dan Bensky’s Materia Medica for more information on the traditional use.

And last but not least, Dr. Greger reminds us that the potassium in foods like leafy greens and bananas is a good way to reduce inflammation.

As always, use caution when interpreting this information and in choosing whether to apply it to yourself. In particular, note that herbs can sometimes interact with medications or supplements, so be sure to consult your MD if you’re on any medications. Please take a look at the disclaimer at the top of this page once again 🙂

Having said all that, if you’ve tried any of these strategies or had any experience with them, please feel free to let me know your results here. Anything else you’d like to find out about? I’d love to hear from you!

Keeping Your Heart Healthy

I’ve been a bit lax on writing my blog, but I’m happy to say I’ll be posting much more regularly from now on. This week’s topic turns out to be news on some foods that are especially beneficial for cardiovascular health.

I’m very happy to bring you this exciting news about pomegranate juice: It turns out that there’s good evidence that drinking as little as 50 ml (about one-fifth of a cup) of pomegranate juice daily can help to not only prevent the progression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) but can actually reverse heart disease, by as much as 30% in three years. See the following articles:

http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/how-clean-your-arteries-one-simple-fruit

http://www.greenmedinfo.com/article/pomegranate-reduces-intima-media-thickness-size-artery-while-also-reducing

http://www.greenmedinfo.com/article/pomegranate-juice-has-potent-antiatherogenic-effects-healthy-humans-and

Also on the subject of heart disease, it’s widely known that one of the most common class of drugs prescribed for this are statins, which are meant to reduce cholesterol. In fact, some doctors suggest that statins ought to be prescribed for children!. But are there any natural alternatives? This author argues that supplementation with niacin does as well or better than statins, with fewer side effects: http://orthomolecular.org/resources/omns/v01n10.shtml.

Actos is a drug commonly prescribed for lowering blood pressure; however an unfortunate side effect (one of several) is that it often raises the risk of stroke. It turns out that there’s evidence that simply eating cherries or drinking cherry juice does just as well or better than Actos, without the dangerous side effects. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130423102129.htm, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080407114647.htm. While these are studies on specially bred rats and not on humans, the results are encouraging.

And then we have hibiscus tea. I mentioned hibiscus in an earlier blog post, which referred to evidence that hibiscus is one of the most antioxidant-rich plants out there. It turns out that some studies show a positive connection between hibiscus tea consumption and successful management of metabolic syndrome (which includes diabetes), and that it also tends to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. See http://www.naturalnews.com/043393_hibiscus_herbal_tea_cardiovascular_health.html#ixzz2qL5KP8Pm. You can get hibiscus leaves in bulk from your local supermarket and make a tea by simply immersing a couple of tablespoons of it in a pitcher of water overnight (you can leave it in the fridge). With a squeeze of lemon and some mint it is really quite delicious, similar to fruit punch.

All this news about food and supplements is encouraging, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most important and powerful ways you can help keep your heart healthy: be part of an active social community! It turns out that social isolation increases your risk of death from heart disease by up to 250%: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21492978, http://www.pnas.org/content/110/15/5797.full, http://eurjhf.oxfordjournals.org/content/14/7/748.abstract, and also increases your risk of heart failure, stroke, and other illnesses http://wellness.unl.edu/wellness_documents/lack_of_social_support_and_effects_of_coronary_heart_disease.pdf. This is true even when correcting for factors like body weight and so on. The good news in this, of course, is that by not being socially isolated – by cultivating a social network of people you regularly meet physically (Facebook doesn’t count, we need physical contact!) – you become healthier. Real human contact is not yet something one can put in a pill!

OK, time for a roundup of some of the more noteworthy studies done on the effectiveness of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. 

Stronger evidence that acupuncture is effective for back pain is now available, as this http://www.naturalnews.com/040545_acupuncture_back_pain_research.html article shows.

Another robust study  http://www.healthcmi.com/acupuncturist-news-online/756-flyingacupuncture that compared acupuncture’s effectiveness for insomnia to a pharmaceutical found that acupuncture came out on top by a considerable margin.  “The researchers discovered that the drug was 59.7% effective while acupuncture was 84.1% effective. The control group only showed a 25% effective rate thereby ruling out the placebo effect triggered by sham acupuncture.”  One of the features of this study that I really applaud is that the researchers identified and isolated a specific acupuncture technique: “This modern research tested the efficacy of this acupuncture point prescription combined with a classic manual acupuncture technique, the flying technique… The acupuncture technique is named after the motion exerted on the release of the acupuncture needle. The handle of the acupuncture needle is held while the needle is rotated slightly and the hand then releases the handle like ‘the flying of a bird.’”  Too many other studies don’t do this, leaving us to wonder what techniques were used and whether similar results would have been obtained if different techniques had been performed.

That’s why I have to shake my head and wag my finger at the researchers involved in this http://ptjournal.apta.org/content/early/2013/05/29/ptj.20110138.abstract study to determine whether acupuncture is effective for treating strokes.  They used a specific protocol of scalp and body points which did not appear to work; reporting that would have been fine, and useful for practitioners to know.  The problem is that the authors went beyond saying that this protocol was ineffective to concluding that all acupuncture is ineffective for strokes.  This is obviously problematic; what techniques did they use, and what if another protocol would work better? 

Take electroacupuncture for example, which has been shown to be protective of the brain after stroke: http://www.healthcmi.com/acupuncturist-news-online/761-electronli11st36.  This is a good example of how much too often researchers over-generalize from a specific protocol to all of acupuncture; in my opinion, this is often due to an ignorance of the scope of techniques and approaches available.

Finally, our cute story of the day: some veterinary acupuncturists are treating sea turtles with acupuncture, to good effect! http://www.contracostatimes.com/environment/ci_23288102/slow-pokes-acupuncture-helps-hypothermic-turtles

Have you had the pleasure of seeing Paul Stamets talk?  In this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XI5frPV58tY, he talks about many beneficial uses of mushrooms, including how effective many are for various health conditions. The common Turkey Tail mushroom in particular seems to be good. This study shows that Turkey Tail mushrooms are helpful for those who have undergone breast cancer treatment: ‘The study titled “Phase I Clinical Trial of Trametes versicolor in Women with Breast Cancer,” recently published in the ISRN Oncology Journal, shows that turkey tail mushrooms can augment conventional therapies for treating breast cancer by increasing NK and CD8+T cell activity. This study suggests that turkey tail mushrooms are an effective adjunct to conventional chemotherapeutic medicines and radiation therapy.’

But mushrooms you can buy in the grocery store, like shiitake and maitake, are also known to be good for your health. Why not make them a regular part of your diet?

Flu Season

The country is currently being ravaged by some serious epidemics, including a nasty flu.  Recently the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) labeled the current flu season one of the worst in the last 10 years. Officials in Boston declared a health emergency this week due to the number of flu patients flooding emergency rooms.

There are at least three current flu or flu like epidemics at work: first, the annual flu season got off to an early start with an extraordinarily aggressive virus, secondly there’s a new type of norovirus causing gastrointestinal illness, and as if that weren’t enough we’ve also got a whooping cough outbreak to deal with, the worst in 60 years.

These extraordinary events are happening amid the normal winter cold and flu season.  The major flu strain going around is an H3N2 and is becoming known for causing substantially severe illness, especially in the elderly.  This is in addition to the stomach flu caused by the norovirus, which feels similar to a bad case of food poisoning (severe diarrhea and vomiting) *and* the outbreak of whooping cough (pertussis), which according to the CDC has so far seen 42,000 cases (the highest since 1955).

Now I cannot give medical advice, and nothing in this post is intended to cure, treat or prevent any disease; before making any changes to your health care regimen consult your licensed healthcare professional.  Having said that, here’s what I personally am doing to help protect myself from these illnesses:

(1) I take at least 2,000 IU of vitamin D with a meal containing a good amount of omega 3 oils.  The best available evidence shows that 2-5000 IU of vitamin D does as well or better at preventing flu (and not only the flu but other respiratory illnesses) than flu shots.  I also make sure I’m getting enough vitamin C.

(2) I use alcohol hand sanitizer everywhere I go, and use it before eating and after touching frequently used items like supermarket baskets or  carts.  In addition I add some essential oils, like the famous Thieves’ Oil combination, to the hand sanitizer.  I also wash my hands first thing when I get home.

(3) I have the Chinese herbal formulas Yin Chiao Chieh Tu Pien and Gan Mao Ling on hand and take a dose of each whenever I’ve been exposed to someone sick.  If I know I’m going to be exposed, I use an essential oil rub containing oils such as eucalyptus, basil, oregano, and cinnamon leaf (diluted at least 10:1 with a carrier oil like olive, rapeseed, etc. or mixed with alcohol in a spray bottle) and rub a little into my hands and under my nose.

(4) I take the Chinese herbal formula Jade Windscreen, or other tonic adaptogenic herbs such as Devil’s Club root, Eleuthero, or Reishi mushroom, to help keep my immune system strong.

(5) I add a variety of mushrooms, including shiitake mushrooms, to my diet.

(6) If I’m out of Yin Chiao or Gan Mao Ling, I make and drink what IMHO is a great combination of herbs, ingredients as follows: 1 tbsp fresh basil, 2 tsp fresh oregano, 2 cloves crushed garlic (note: it’s very important the cloves be crushed, not simply chopped), the juice of one lime or half a lemon, 2 tsp fresh ginger, one half cup water; I put in a blender and blend thoroughly.  I try to drink this whenever I start to feel an illness coming on, and every time I’ve tried it it’s stopped the bug in its tracks.   Although these are common kitchen herbs, if you research them you’ll see they all have powerful antibiotic and antiviral properties.  I actually think this mixture is more powerful than the herbal formulas I mentioned above, but it’s easier to take a few tablets than to have to make and drink this impressive-tasting formula 🙂

Best of luck to everyone in staying healthy this winter!

Do you have any special tips or tricks that help you stay healthy?  Please share, I’d love to hear from you!