Expert answers to your health questions on smoking
Q: My husband wants to quit smoking. Do you have any input on what herbs we should look into?
- R.S., Chico, California
A: Stansbury responds: Hooray for quitting smoking! While no one can say herbs make it easy, some wonderful herbs can help the lungs recover. Consider teas of mullein (Verbascum spp.), oats (Avena sativa), calendula (Calendula officinalis), licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and elecampane (Inula helenium). Any favorite flavors can be added; try spearmint (Mentha spicata), chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa). I suggest teas because it will be helpful to have some sort of oral distraction other than cigarettes. Create a pleasant ritual of tea drinking — drink a delicious tea blend from a favorite cup, and light a candle instead of lighting up. Because it’s easier to adopt new habits than quit old ones, consider other new activities, in addition to the teas. Perhaps exercise or practice deep-breathing exercises instead of a cigarette break, or learn to play a musical instrument. Because many people gain weight after giving up tobacco, having tea and exercise practices will reduce the temptation to eat more and will support a healthy metabolism.
Some practitioners suggest taking the bronchodilating herb lobelia (Lobelia inflata) because it binds nicotinic receptors in the lungs in a manner similar to nicotine and is said to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Lobelia can be helpful, particularly when combined with the relaxing herbs mentioned below, but don’t expect it to make withdrawal simple. Also, too much lobelia is harsh on the stomach and can produce nausea.
Relaxing herbs (sometimes called nervines) are a useful complement to the lung herbs. Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) can help reduce the tension and anxiety some people experience as they reduce nicotine use.
Willard responds: To quit smoking, you’ll need to address both the emotional and physical addiction. The most important herb to use is lobelia. One of the major constituents of lobelia is lobeline, which binds up nicotinic receptor sites in the body. This reduces the craving for nicotine, as the physical desire for nicotine is blocked. By reducing the chemical craving you are halfway toward stopping smoking.
Lobelia is not addictive. You can use lobelia in tincture form (10 to 20 drops three times daily), but it tastes a bit like an ashtray might taste. Most of my patients prefer taking it in pill form. Some of the lobelia formulas combine other herbs like licorice to reduce the urge to smoke. I like to use several other supportive herbs: coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), mullein and ma huang (Ephedra sinica). I usually use a formula of these herbs to tone and cleanse the lungs. If this formula is in tincture form, the dose is 30 drops twice daily or, if pills are preferred, two capsules twice daily.
A person stopping smoking also needs vitamin support, especially vitamins B and C. I suggest a good B-complex, twice daily, and vitamin C can provide additional support to break the habit. Since at least 50 percent of smoking is habit, I suggest emptying out a cigarette package and filling it with chewable vitamin C. Keep the package in its normal place. Every time the ex-smoker unthinkingly reaches for a smoke, they open the package to find the vitamin C. They can satisfy some of the oral part of the addiction by sucking on the chewable C and also provide themselves with positive nutritional support. Many people find chewing on a licorice stick (the real root stick, not the candy) also gives their hands something to do.
For the emotional addiction, I make up a flower essence combination. Flower essences typically are very individual, but I most often use a blend of the following: nicotiana, sagebrush, self-heal, peppermint and sunflower. Take 5 drops whenever there is a craving.
In our clinic, we also employ both acupuncture (on the ears) and hypnotism with great success.
Q: Are there any herbs or supplements that can help with macular degeneration?
- J.T., Bozeman, Montana
A: Stansbury responds: The macula (a visible patch on the back of the inner eye’s retina) surrounds the fovea (the site where the greatest visual focus occurs). In this region, there are no rods (the specialized cells that enable us to see in dark settings) but a densely packed group of cones (the cells that enable us to see color and in bright light), each connecting to their own nerve fiber. In other areas of the retina, cones and rods are less tightly packed and send conjoint nerve fibers to the optic nerve. Macular degeneration is a more or less normal phenomenon of aging where a loss in the number of cones occurs and results in a loss of sharp focusing ability. When severe or premature, macular degeneration can seriously impair vision.
Macular degeneration is more easily prevented or slowed, rather than treated after the fact. A lifetime of oxidative damage to the millions of tiny blood vessels and light-sensitive cells in the eye can deteriorate the tissue, as it can virtually all tissues of the body over time. Therefore, circulatory herbs such as ginkgo and hawthorn berries, and antioxidants, particularly vitamin A, may be preventive.
There has been a good deal of research on the powerfully antioxidant blue- and purple-pigmented anthocyanidins (found in blueberries) and their ability to protect and even improve vision. Anthocyanidins, like beta- carotene or vitamin A, may absorb light rays themselves and act something like a sunscreen to the back of eye tissue, as well as prevent oxidative damage to the cones and rods themselves. Similarly, lutein, another naturally occurring antioxidant pigment, has been shown to protect the eye and vision. Eat blueberries, blackberries, purple grapes, carrots, green leafy vegetables and other rich sources of antioxidant carotenoids and anthocyanidins. Many products formulated specifically for the eyes are now on the market — from delicious jam-like preparations of blueberries and carrots to multivitamin-like pill formulas combining beta-carotene, lutein, bilberry extracts, ginkgo and other nutrients. Use all of these options regularly and long-term for best results.
Terry Willard is a clinical herbalist, president of the Canadian Association of Herbal Practitioners and founder of the Wild Rose College of Natural Healing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of eight books and a CD-ROM, Interactive Herbal.
Jill Stansbury has been a naturopathic physician for more than 12 years, with a private practice in Battleground, Washington. She is the chair of the Botanical Medicine Department at the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Oregon, and the author of many books including Herbs for Health and Healing (Publication International, 1997).
Willard responds: Macular degeneration is all too common these days. This is unfortunate because it’s quite preventable and often reversible. Macular degeneration is the most common cause of vision loss in North America in those 50 and older, and its prevalence increases with age. For this reason, it often is referred to as age-related macular degeneration. It is caused by hardening of the arteries that nourish the retina. This deprives the sensitive retinal tissue of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function and thrive. As a result, the central vision deteriorates. There are two basic types: wet (neovascular) or dry (non-neovascular).
About 90 percent of patients who suffer from macular degeneration have the dry type. The wet type occurs when new vessels form to improve the blood supply to oxygen-deprived retinal tissue. However, the new vessels are very delicate and break easily, causing bleeding, swelling and damage to surrounding tissue. The wet type can be treated with laser surgery, in some cases. There also has been some interesting research lately on Cytochalasin E (a natural product of a fungal species) for the wet type.
The breakdown of the macula part of the retina seems to be closely related to environmental and oxidant stresses. It has been shown that cigarette smoking, sun exposure, high blood pressure and high cholesterol increase the risk of macular degeneration. In contrast, antioxidant-containing foods have been shown to be beneficial for patients with macular degeneration. The most productive antioxidants for this condition are the carotenoids (the pigments which give fruits and vegetables their color). The two most important carotenoids for the macula are lutein and zeaxanthin. Foods high in these carotenoids are kale, collard greens, spinach, parsley, mustard greens, dill, celery, scallions, leeks, broccoli, leaf lettuce, squash, corn, green beans and green peppers. These carotenoids are also available in supplement form — take 8 to 25 mg of both twice daily.
Other vitamins and minerals that are important are vitamin C (1,000 mg twice daily), vitamin E (400 IU daily), beta-carotene (20,000 IU twice daily) and zinc (30 mg daily). In addition, herbs like bilberry and eyebright, along with plenty of essential fatty acids, such as black currant or borage oils (3,000 mg twice daily), will support good vision. In all cases, I suggest wearing sunglasses and eliminating risk factors such as smoking.
Please send your questions to Herbs for Health “Q & A,” 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; fax (785) 274-4305; or e-mail us at letters@herbs forhealth.com. Provide your name and full address for verification, although both will be kept confidential.
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