Einstein's Definition of Insanity
I am an ALLY
I just completed a training at NCNM and what I learned is that there ARE other people in the community who are impassioned about social justice. Sometimes, when I'm walking down the street, and the people around me are completely closed off from each other, I wonder. I feel good every time that I am the one to stop and ask if someone is OK, offer a hand with something, or otherwise step up to be part of the kinder gentler world that civilization is supposed to bring.
I feel our common humanity more deeply than I fear our external differences. I do not care what color you are, or what you think is sexy, or which religion you think is the right one. What I care about is joy.
So presume only that I will take you as another human, doing the best you can. I hope you will see that I am no different.
The irony is rich. The term "snake oil" has come to mean everything that is fraudulent. The reference is to the infamous "snake oil salesman" who pitched and sold his wares out of the back of a wagon to the unsuspecting villagers of the American west.
Snake oil has real medicinal value. It was used as medicine before the North American continent was on the map. Centuries ago the Chinese used an oil made from a cold water snake called Enhydris chinensis to treat joint pain and bursitis. It was introduced to the US by Chinese laborers who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad in the mid 1800's. There's evidence that the ancient Egyptians used it too. In the early 1700's the English had a patent medicine made from snake oil. Snake oil was sold here as a panacea in the early 1900's, but the products sold were probably more filler and adulterant than they were actual snake oil.
So what's in it that's good for you? Snake oil, depending on the snakes used to derive it, can be a rich source of an fatty acid known as EPA, eicosapentanoic acid. EPA is used by the body to synthesize series 3 prostaglandins, which are anti-inflammatory and pain relieving. You can know EPA is important because it's in human breast milk. EPA is effective for treating depression, improving cognitive function, autoimmune diseases including rheumatism, high cholesterol, hypertension, and more.
EPA can be derived in the body from other fatty acids, but it's much easier to eat in your food. The richest sources are fish: herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, pilchards, menhaden and sardines. Fish do not make their own EPA. They get it from eating algae like spirulina, which we also can eat. Plant foods don't contain any EPA at all.
Part of the reason it's easier to eat EPA than to make it in your body has to do with human genetics. Some people have the gene to make the enzyme which lets them convert ALA (alpha linolenic acid) into EPA. Other people have mutations in their genes that limit their ability to do the conversion. Diabetes and some allergies also limit a person's ability to convert ALA to EPA. ALA is an essential fatty acid, meaning that no humans can make it; we have to get it from the diet.
If we don't make it very well, and we don't eat much fish, we need to get our EPA some other way to keep our cell membranes happy. Many healthcare professionals recommend that we take fish oil. Fish oil contains 12-18% EPA. Salmon oil tops the list at ~18%. Chinese water snake oil contains ~ 20% EPA, whereas rattlesnake oil is said to contain 8.5%. Cod liver oil has more DHA than EPA and is best reserved for specific uses, like building baby brains or healing brain injuries.
The reason why some snakes have more EPA than others has to do with the temperatures that they live in. Snakes and fish are both cold blooded, so they have to function with their bodies at the same temperature as their environments. Omega 3 fats like EPA don't harden in cold temperatures like omega 6s do. They help keep cell membranes flexible. Flexible membranes don't get injured as easily, and are able to function better. Cold water fish, or cold water snakes, will have more EPA than those that live in warm sunshine, like rattlesnakes.
The next time someone tells you that a treatment is "snake oil", remember this. Public attitudes and language reflect our history, not our future. Science continues to give us reason to revise belief systems, erase myths, and sometimes to welcome old treatments back into the fold.
A Million Infections
We humans are part of the web of life in a way that is somewhat unpleasant to consider. We think of parasites as those things that grow on trees and use the tree's sap for fuel, like mistletoe. We know about the parasites that you can get in your gut from traveling. But we don't like to think about the millions of microbes that live in our guts, on our skin, in our noses, and unfortunately, inside every cell in our bodies. In fact, at least of quarter of us have Staphylococcus aureus living inside our noses. This is the microbe that is called MRSA when it has become resistant to the antibiotic methycillin.
Sometimes the things that live on and in us are actually useful. At that point it is no longer a parasitic relationship, it is more of a synbiosis or eubiosis. There are bugs (microbes) in our guts that help digest our food, and also that make vitamins that we need. Mitochondria are organelles inside our cells that were probably parasites at one time, but they were so useful that we came to depend on them. They make ATP, the cash of energy currency in the body. We know that mitochondria were most likely independent organisms because they have their own DNA.
Relatively recently in human history, a bold man drank a potion of Helicobacter pylori bacteria, and gave himself gastric ulcers. Before that we didn't know that particular bug had much to do with ulcer formation. But now we know. And most of us have at least a few of this bug in us. In fact, pretty much all of us have a few of lots of different kinds of bugs that could be dangerous if they overgrew.
We get some microbes from our parents, and gain new ones throughout life. Babies who are born the normal way, through their mother's vagina, get their mother's vaginal flora in their mouths and swallow it. That sets up the kind of biota that lives in their guts for life. Usually a child's gut biota is fairly stable by age 3. A lot of our gut biota depends on what we eat. A sugary diet sets up a whole different community than a vegetable and fiber-rich diet. You can guess at which one is better for you. A stable community in your gut is protective because it stops other kinds from getting established. People with very stable healthy populations of bugs in their guts can eat anything and never get sick from it.
Stomach acid is the other normal way that we prevent new or bad bugs from setting up house inside us. Infants don't have much acid, so they are especially susceptible to whatever they eat. Adults normally have such strong acid that not much survives the stomach and gets to the intestines. But if we block our stomach acid with anti-acids, we are at risk for getting the wrong kinds of bugs in our guts.
The fastest way to mess up your microbial communities is to take antibiotics. The more high powered the drugs, the more imbalanced your biota will be as a result. The more often you take antibiotics, the more the remaining community will be antibiotic resistant. The bug that really hits hard on people who've taken a lot of antibiotics is called Clostridium difficile. It is on the CDC's list of extremely dangerous antibiotic resistant bugs.
In naturopathic-speak we call your body the "terrain". It is the ground upon which things grow. The list of possible infections is endless, and the number of bugs on and in you this very moment is also endless. As long as we are strong and relaxed and young enough, we don't get sick. When we get run down and weak the microbes can get the better of us. Stress from life events raises our cortisol and decreases our immune response, and the microbial populations start booming. We feed them sugary junk, and don't exercise enough, and don't keep our bowel movements regular, and they start running the show. It is possible to end up sick from the same bugs that you've been carrying around for 40 years or more.
There's new research that shows that depression, anxiety, and obesity are linked to particular sets of gut bugs. Experiments in mice and humans have shown that taking the microbes from an anxious person's gut and putting them in a calm person will make change what we thought was their personality. And switching gut bugs in mice can make a fat mouse skinny and vice versa. The wrong gut bugs are linked to all kinds of diseases of the gut, from ulcerative colitis and crohn's disease to IBS. There's a lot more information coming down the pipe about this. Supplement companies are trying to figure out how to introduce the right microbes into people's guts to help them heal from various diseases and mental states.
There's not much you can do about the fact that you will be exposed to microbes. No amount of antibacterial soap will protect you. The thing that will is keeping yourself healthy and calm enough to mount a good immune response. That way you keep the populations down to reasonable levels, where they may even help you somehow. Oh, and garlic will help. Garlic turns out to be the very simplest way to keep your gut biota in line. If you can stand it, some raw garlic every day kills the baddies and keeps the goodies. If you can't stand it, you might need some more advanced help.
My patients often ask if I think medical marijuana might be helpful. We’ve had some widely ranging conversations about the risks and benefits of this drug. As a naturopathic physician I may not prescribe cannabis even though it is legal for medical use here in Oregon; it is not in the ND formulary. The fact that I cannot prescribe it does not prevent me from discussing it. The issue will not go away, regardless of the laws and the war on drugs. Cannabis is ubiquitous, even though it is federally illegal with varying levels of state permissiveness.
Just last month Colorado and Washington were the first states in America to approve the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Those who fear it as a gateway drug, and those who advocate its medical use or broader legalization, are all making noise about it. The politics often plays more loudly than the facts. Marijuana is the #1 drug brought our way by Mexican drug cartels, and Mexican weed is likely to contain pesticides and other toxins. Synthetic cannabinoids are being imported from Asia labelled as bath soaps and sold in convenience stores. The war on drugs highlights our incarceration problem and the ugly politics of race. Reasonable medical questions remain unanswered.
Our own government propagated a lot of disinformation back in the 1930’s when the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created and cannabis was classified as a narcotic (against the advice of the American Medical Association). The original Greek meaning of “narcotic” was any psychoactive substance that induces sleep, but in more recent times it has come to mean opiates and any drug derived from them. Opiates are addictive and are carefully regulated by the DEA. Cannabis is pharmacologically a world apart from opiates, and is no longer thought of as a narcotic, but it is still plagued by the negative reputation engendered by federal prohibition and propaganda, and the War on Drugs. Cannabis was federally prohibited in 1933, the same year that the prohibition on alcohol was rescinded.
In 2009 the AMA did a review of the scientific literature on cannabis and found a few legitimate clinical trials with a grand total of less than 300 study participants. The DEA has refused to grant permission to universities or pharmaceutical companies to research it. The drug is approved by 18 states for medical use, but we have very little scientific information on which to base clinical applications. Anecdotal information about the indications of various strains guide the choices of medical users. The federal ban is still in effect, and current federal enforcement efforts are focused on importers and distributors and not on small scale possession (like they were under Reagan). Employers are within their legal rights to require drug testing. Law enforcement budgets rely on asset forfeitures (police can seize any cash or items likely to be related to drug trade without proof of guilt) which is incentive for police forces to continue to pursue small scale dealers. Medical cannabis programs provide a front for a new domestic black market. That the issue is contentious is an understatement; it is explosive. And we still don’t know what it is good for.
A future email newsletter will focus on known and theoretical risks and benefits of cannabis use. Sign up for the monthly missive here.
This link goes to a Ted Talk by Jon Ronson, journalist from London, speaking about the research he did for a book on psychopathy. He pegs the relevant issue which is the fact that all of us display some characteristics of various mental disorders, including psychopathy. All of us, you say? Yes, all of us. Madness is inherent in the human condition. We have the capacity for rationality, but we also all have moments of unconsciousness. We have moments in which we are not as kind as we could be. We have moments of every description, but these moments do not condemn us. We can still be decent people.
In the Bible, Matthew 7:5 reminds us that we are not perfect. "You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Before we accuse anyone else of madness, it is in our best interests to recognize that we are human too, with requisite portions of inexplicable wildness.
Lyme Disease Month
May is the month designated by ILADS to increase awareness about Lyme Disease. Infections are on the rise, or at least, lots more people are being diagnosed now than ever before. More infected ticks are being found too.
I have studied under two doctors who specialize in Lyme (Dr's Newman and Ambrose, see bottom for links). I haven't been tested, but I would not be surprised to discover that I too carry the spirochete that causes it. The fact of the matter is that lots of people have this parasite, but most of us don't have symptoms until we get run down or toxic, or otherwise challenged healthwise. The unfortunate thing about having an assortment of parasites on board is that you feel fine until you don't, and then you go downhill quickly.
Lyme is caused by Borrelia burgdorferii, which is a very small bacterium in a spiral shape, ie. a spirochete. Spirochetes are sneaky. They don't get inside our cells like Chlamydia does, instead they have an assortment of defensive mechanisms that make it hard for our immune systems to detect and eradicate them. They make slime barriers around themselves. They shrink back into little hard cysts. Once established in our tissues they are just about impossible to get rid of completely, even with intensive treatment. A person who has this parasite needs to keep themselves healthy enough that the parasite doesn't cause them trouble. And this is where naturopathic medicine comes in.
In naturopathic medicine, we may attempt to eradicate a disease-causing agent, but we are also interested in increasing the host's health so that such bugs are kept in check by our own bodies. The disease-destroying treatments that are used for Lyme---either longterm antibiotics, or longterm antimicrobial herbs---are not enough. If you have lyme, or if you think you have lyme, the best thing in the world you can do is get ahold of your diet and lifestyle. It's easy to say, and oh so hard to do. Believe me, I know. But to start with, eliminate, or at least reduce, sugar and refined grains in your diet. Eat a wide range of fresh organic vegetables. Exercise daily. Manage or avoid stress. These basics, if actually employed and not just talked about, may have more effect than all the doxycycline and cat's claw in the world.
Still, if you are struggling with severe symptoms, don't waste time, get help NOW. And if you just got a tick bite, get help NOW, because at the beginning of an infection the spirochete CAN be eliminated. Last but not least, if you have a way to do so, avoid getting deer ticks on you. I don't mean that you should not go in the woods, but be aware about ticks, and avoid deer tick bites. Learn when tick season is in your area. Prevention is better than treatment 10 times out of ten.
Look it up:
International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society http://www.ilads.org/
Dr Satya Ambrose http://www.starfireclinic.com/#!about-us
Dr Daniel Newman http://www.rising-health.com/portland-or-holistic
Tis the turning of the seasons, for those of us up here in the northern hemisphere. Suddenly it is dark at 6:30pm. The train whistle blows eerily in the distance. The candle is lit in the pumpkin. I enjoy this time of the year. I love the crisp air and the bright rich colors of the maples. I love to nest, to make my homespace warm and lovely, to invite friends over to enjoy early evenings. I like to get extra sleep when the nights are long.
I have a theory about humans and winter. In our culture there is this diagnosis called Seasonal Affective Disorder. This disorder is said to affect people in the winter, when they get SAD because they aren't getting enough daylight. I think that a certain amount of hibernation is normal in humans. When the nights are long, our bodies know what we need. We want to eat more potatoes and less greens. We want to go to bed earlier, or lay cuddled on the couch with a blankie. I think that winter makes us SAD when we do not allow ourselves to retreat inward, to relish our warm homespace. I think that SAD occurs due to a modern idea that the show must go on, we still must go to work for the same number of hours, and do the same amount of extracurricular activities, even if we don't feel like it.
But what would happen if we let our bodies and our instincts guide us? What if instead of making ourselves go to another event that happens after sundown, we stayed home? Got comfy? Lit a candle? Spent a little extra time with a loved one? Would we still be so SAD if we just let it be winter? What if we let winter be a time to hibernate, a time to enjoy warm furs and firelight and quiet times with our closest intimates? I think we might find that the retreat into winter provides us with the restoration that we need to continue living life to its fullest, with great joy.
Author: Teresa Gryder
Integrative Physician and Student of Life, Medicine, and the River.