Archive for Immune system

We’re more sensitive to gluten than we used to be.

The New York Times’ Well Blog makes note of an interesting study today.

The study found that undiagnosed gluten sensitivity (celiac disease), as measured by a blood test, is four times more common than it was fifty years ago.

Fascinating.

The blog’s author (Tara Parker-Pope) speculates that the change “may be due to changes in the way wheat is grown and processed, or the ubiquity of gluten in medications and processed foods.”

I would add that our human ecosystems have seen some pretty serious changes as our food, medicine, and environment have changed. The relationship between gluten sensitivity and intestinal ecology isn’t understood, but I’d be willing to bet it’s significant.

I want to see the results of the Human Microbiome Project!

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Mexico, flu, antibiotics, and death.

Everyone seems to wonder why people are dying from the “swine flu” in Mexico, but not in other countries where the virus has been confirmed. (The one US death was a little boy visiting from Mexico with unidentified “underlying health issues.”)

I have a theory. Or an idea. Or a question.

It is common practice in Mexico to self-medicate with antibiotics at the first sign of illness. (Antibiotics are widely available there without a prescription.)

Antibiotics kill bacteria, including commensal bacteria. 

Commensal bacteria are an important component of the human immune system.

So, are people who self-prescribe antibiotics for a viral illness compromising their immune reponse to that illness?

Hm?

 

(If you’re interested in coverage of swine flu, especially as it relates to factory farming, check out The Ethicurean‘s Aporkalypse Now series.)

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We aren’t immune. And we shouldn’t be.

Glory, Hallelujah, I am in possession of a functional computer!

As soon as I finish transferring my data from the old hard drive, I’ll be posting all my pretty pictures from the last few weeks of One Local Summer.

In the meantime, remember my posts on the human ecosystem, way back when? I was going on about how the human body is not an isolated organism, but a complex ecosystem (think gut bacteria) as well as an element in larger ecosystems (think kaleidoscope).

Well, lately I’ve been thinking about the absurdity of the term “immune system.” Immune to what? There’s so much baggage tied up in that name. It assumes human bodies are at war with their surroundings, that a healthy human interface with the world is based on staying pure, “immune” to the non-human. Ridiculous.

We really have only the fuzziest idea how the human ecosystem works. And the more scientists investigate, the less it looks like humans are at war with the non-human. Scientists used to think that “germs” were universally dangerous. A lot of people still think this way. Hence (dangerous) antibacterial soaps. Thing is, your skin is covered with helpful bacteria — they’re calling them “commensals” now — and if you kill them, you throw the whole ecosystem out of balance.

We really have no idea what the consequences are when we alter these complicated systems. I bet it never occurred to you that your gut bacteria might make you less likely to get kidney stones.

And what about worms? They’ve been in the news lately as a potential treatment for “autoimmune diseases” of all sorts.

We evolved as groups of critters, not as separate entities.

So. Any suggestions for a new name for the system that governs human ecological balance? “Interaction system?” “Interface system?” I can’t think of anything that sounds right.

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Pokeweed: an herb for all things pokey.

poke1.JPG
Now that I’m living on my home ground again, I’ve been feeling like writing about some real traditional Appalachian herbs. So for July’s berry-themed blog party, I chose a classic of Appalachian herbalism: pokeberry (Phytolacca americana).

A while back on the Herbwifery Forum, a few of us were reminiscing about growing up in West Virginia and North Carolina. From our informal survey, it seems like covering oneself in pokeberry juice and running around like a little demon is an essential part of an Appalachian childhood. And it’s no wonder. Pokeweed is everywhere in Southern Appalachia, and the ripe berries hang in shiny, inky purple-black clusters. Squish them in your hands, and they turn bright pink. What could be more fun?

Of course, we all knew that pokeberries were “poison,” so we didn’t eat them. (Unless someone said “I dare you,” that is. And even then we’d spit them right out again. I never knew anyone to get sick on them.)

The truth is, poke is strong stuff. It can be toxic even in moderate doses. Some herbalists stick to diluted homeopathic preparations of the plant, just to be on the safe side. But I prefer the old-fashioned way: drops of the tincture, spoonfuls of the decoction, sips of the wine, or a berry at a time. (Fresh plant only. Poke doesn’t take well to drying.)

So you might be asking, like my ten-year-old niece always does, “What’s it for?” Well, poke is for all things, um, pokey. Poke gets things moving in the body, especially the lymphatic system, the joints, and the metabolism. In other words, it’s an “alterative.” Used externally, it kills things (scabies, ringworm, etc.).

The most common indications for pokeberries in old-time Appalachian herbalism were “rheumatism” and “bad blood.” These days I’d call those “chronic joint pain” and “lymphatic sluggishness.” The usual prescription was to eat one berry a day for a week (without chewing the seeds), stop for a week, and repeat. Three berries, three times a week was another classic dose.

This tradition of on-and-off dosing is interesting. Perhaps poke inspires a reaction in the body—maybe in the immune system—that is triggered only by withdrawal of the dosage? Poke is often called an “immune stimulant,” but I imagine it’s more complicated than that. I often wonder about poke’s effects on autoimmune conditions, since many of the conditions associated with the symptoms of “rheumatism” turn out to have links to autoimmunity.

Modern herbalists sometimes use pokeberries to help stimulate an underactive thyroid, and old texts often mention goiter and obesity as important indications for the plant. It’s possible that poke acts directly on the thyroid, or indirectly on the metabolism through its general stimulation of “movement” in the body.

Poke’s movement-stimulating properties, combined with its affinities for the lymphatic system and “glands,” have led to its traditional use for many conditions involving hard, swollen masses in the body, including simple swollen lymph nodes, mumps, tonsillitis, adenitis, orchitis, mastitis, goiter, and cancer.

In my experience, poke root is one of the best things out there for inflammations of the breast, including mastitis. Fresh root poultices are traditional (though they can cause skin irritation), but tincture of the fresh root or a plaster of fresh berries will work, too, along with drop doses of the tincture internally. (Poke is contraindicated during pregnancy, but okay for nursing moms—in small doses, of course.)

One of poke’s many folk names is “cancer root,” and (like many other lymphatic herbs) it has a reputation as an old-time cancer remedy—especially for breast and skin cancers. It’s interesting that the old authors are split on its effectiveness. I’ve noticed that those who recommend poke for cancer support tend to emphasize using the fresh plant, rather than dried. This fits with what I’ve been taught. Always use fresh poke.

Whiskey tincture of the fresh root and fresh berry wine are the traditional Appalachian ways to preserve the plant for internal use. Traditional preparations of poke for external use often involved extraction in kerosene. This is one tradition I don’t follow. Poke-infused olive oil works just fine, thanks.

My favorite saying about poke comes from Tommie Bass. Talking about the old-time use of poke whiskey as a tonic, he said “It just straightened you out.”

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for poke:

Parts used: fresh root, fresh berries (young shoots and leaves are also a “spring tonic” food, boiled in two changes of water).

Actions: alterative, lymphatic, antifungal, possible thyroid stimulant.

Affinities: lymph, breasts, testes, skin, joints.

Taste: acrid, slightly sweet, root slightly bitter.

Vitalist energetics: root slightly cooling and drying; berries slightly warming.

Michael Moore energetics (highlights): lymphatic, immune, skin/mucosa, hepatic, parasympathetic stimulant; cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, CNS sedative; berries for thyroid depression, root for adrenalin stress.

Tongue indications: swollen, with a white coating; sometimes foamy saliva (Michael Moore).

Specific indications: Hard, swollen lymph nodes. “Hurts to stick out tongue” (Matthew Wood).

Homeopathic mental indications: “Loss of personal delicacy, disregard of surrounding objects. Indifferent to life” (Boericke).

Have fun “poking” around!

PS: I’m going to post this month’s blog party on August 2nd—mainly because that’s the day we get real internet access at our new house, but also because it gives busy-in-the-summer folks an extra day to make a blog party post!

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Mushrooms for strength.

Shiitakes

I found these gorgeous fist-sized locally-grown shiitake mushrooms at Putney Coop.
Perfect for winter chicken soup or just sauteed with butter and garlic, shiitakes are tasty mushrooms.

Shiitakes are also a good example of how much you can learn by tasting. To me, shiitakes taste meaty and solid and strong, and that’s exactly how they work in the body: they’re nourishing and strengthening on a really basic level. Shiitakes give sturdy support to the immune system—they’re often used to help people recover from viruses and cancer. In Traditional Chinese Medicine they’re strengthening tonics for blood and qi (indications include tiredness and frequent colds).

This is my favorite way to eat shiitakes for winter strength:

Slice up shiitakes and saute them in butter until they’re golden brown. Add salt and freshly chopped garlic at the end of cooking. So good.

(The mushroom’s name is sometimes spelled “shitake”, but the “ii” is a better approximation of the original Japanese.)

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We’re all sensitive.

More notes on allergies and sensitivities:

1. We’re all sensitive to the barrage of toxic crap we breathe, eat and drink.

2. Dealing with the barrage of toxic crap increases our sensitivity to potential allergens and irritants.

3. Allergy and sensitivity are directly related to overall health and stress levels.

Some people seem to think that immune reactions are as fundamental and unchanging as eye or skin color. Not so. Our bodies are much more interesting than that. Our immune reactions are often mediated by stress—psychological or physical.

It’s possible to be allergic to something only when you’re stressed out. I see this often in people who have been diagnosed with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
They can eat a trigger food with no problem most of the time, but if they’re tired or stressed out, the food triggers an IBS attack. So the real trigger is the interaction between the food and the stress. Knowing this, people can learn their triggers and take care of their health much more easily. They can say “I’ve had a long day, and wheat is a stress-related trigger for me, so let’s have rice for dinner instead of pasta.”

It makes sense to me that our nervous systems and our immune systems are so closely connected. If we’re feeling threatened in one sphere, why shouldn’t all our systems be up in arms?

Here’s a funny, geeky bit about stress and immune reactions:

“Psychological stress may be conceptualized as a social pollutant that, when ‘breathed’ into the body, may disrupt biological systems related to inflammation through mechanisms potentially overlapping with those altered by physical pollutants and toxicants.” From The impact of stress on the development and expression of atopy. Current Opinion in Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 5(1):23-29, February 2005. Wright, Rosalind J a; Cohen, Robyn T b; Cohen, Sheldon c

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