Natural Healing: Tips to Improve Your Health

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The kitchen garden of Kansas City’s Bluebird Café was once a vacant lot.
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It’s important to stretch for at least five minutes before and after your workout.
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One of the ten organic gardens created by Carrie Little and other community members in Tacoma, Washington.
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What could butterfly wings, the shells of crustaceans, and the cell walls of mushrooms possibly have in common? The answer is that they all contain a natural fiber known as chitin.

The nutritional supplement chitosan, a derivative of chitin, comes from the tough, fibrous shells of shrimp and other shellfish. Touted as a fat blocker, chitosan allegedly traps fat and whisks it out of the body without the fat ever being absorbed. Chitosan contains positively charged amino acids that bind to negatively charged fat molecules, and because the shellfish fiber isn’t digestible, neither are the fats that it absorbs in the digestive system. Proponents of the “fat absorber” supplement claim that chitosan can also lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels due to its fat absorption properties. Manufacturers claim that 1 g of chitosan absorbs up to eight times its own weight.

However, while absorbing any bad fats in the body, such as those from French fries, chitosan also attracts good fats, as well as fat-soluble vitamins (such as A, E, and K) and some prescription drugs (such as birth control pills and cholesterol-lowering drugs).

Studies on chitosan’s ability to trap fat and lower cholesterol show varied results. In a 1999 Japanese study, mice fed a high-fat diet and chitosan showed an inhibition of intestinal absorption of dietary fat. A 1997 Japanese study of kidney failure patients found that four weeks of supplementation with chitosan reduced patients’ blood cholesterol levels. Yet a more recent British study found no change in weight loss among overweight patients taking chitosan (in a dose containing 2,000 mg of chitin daily) for four weeks.

Aaron Jack, natural foods manager for Clark’s Market in Aspen, Colorado, says the chitosan products are steady sellers; twice a month he reorders the two brands the market carries. Sales of the supplement are steady at Alfalfa’s Market in Denver, too.

“It sells like crazy because it works,” says Bonnie Dillender, general merchandise manager and natural living clerk for Alfalfa’s. Dillender says many repeat customers have lost weight while taking the supplement. But, she points out, it’s important to supplement the diet with the fat-soluble vitamins being depleted by the chitosan–vitamins that are essential for healthy eyesight and hair growth. “Chitosan should really be used under a doctor’s care, or for someone who is extremely obese,” she says. Women who are pregnant or nursing and people allergic to shellfish should not take the supplement.

A balanced diet of whole foods, such as high-nutrient and low-calorie vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fresh fruits, is the recommendation of Elson Haas, M.D., founder and director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California. Additionally, he suggests one hour of exercise daily, including stretching and strengthening exercises with thirty to forty-five minutes of aerobic activity at least four times a week.

Jack agrees that a nutritious diet is essential and that supplements alone can’t be relied upon for good health. “I show people where the healthy section of the store is,” he says. “And it’s over there where all of the fruits and vegetables are.”

Chitosan also shows promise as a delivery system for nasal vaccines for diseases that enter across mucous membranes, a March 2000 edition of Gene Therapy Weekly reports. Chitosan significantly enhanced the immune response obtained from the vaccine when administered through the nose.

Chitosan also extends the shelf life of meats and other foods by retarding rancidity, according to research being conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA researchers have patented a bioactive coating that contains chitosan to control fungi on fruits such as apples, pears, and oranges after harvest. The product has been licensed and will likely be on the market in two years.

“[Chitosan] forms a film that provides a desirable gas exchange,” says Charles Wilson, a research plant pathologist with the USDA. “It is a natural fungicide and thereby reduces decay.”

Chitosan also has been shown to be an effective burn treatment and dressing for wounds because of its antifungal and antibacterial properties.

Garlic may help reverse arteriosclerosis

In possibly the longest clinical trial ever conducted on garlic (Allium sativum), the herb was found to reduce the amount of arteriosclerotic plaque in the arteries of people with heart disease.

Although many studies have shown that garlic can help lower elevated cholesterol, this is the first to suggest that garlic may actually help reverse the effects of arteriosclerosis, a serious circulation problem that increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other heart conditions.

Arteriosclerotic plaques are fatty, calcified deposits that form on the inside walls of the blood vessels, causing them to become hard and narrow and making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood throughout the body.

According to the results of the four-year, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, participants taking garlic experienced a significant reduction in the amount of plaque buildup over the course of the study, while those taking placebo had an increase in plaque volume. Participants in the garlic group took a relatively high dose (900 mg) of standardized garlic powder daily. All 152 of the participants who completed the trial had advanced arteriosclerotic plaques at the start of the study and at least one other risk factor for heart disease (such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, or smoking). Changes in plaque deposits during the study were detected by ultrasound measurement of major arteries in the neck and thigh.

The investigators concluded that continuous treatment with high-dose garlic may reduce the increase in plaque volume by 6 to 18 percent or “even effect a regression within four years.” They also pointed out that garlic might be an especially appropriate treatment for cardiovascular disease, because unlike drugs that target only one specific aspect of a disease, garlic has a variety of different effects that work together simultaneously.

More than a thousand scientific studies, at least 200 involving human subjects, have investigated the health benefits of garlic, not only for maintaining heart health but also for preventing cancer, treating infection, and providing antioxidant protection. Earlier studies on garlic and heart health have shown that garlic can help lower total cholesterol, decrease mildly elevated blood pressure, inhibit platelet aggregation (abnormal blood clotting), and prevent age-related stiffening of the coronary arteries, among other beneficial effects. Garlic’s actions help prevent oxidation of blood fats, a major contributor to the development of arteriosclerotic plaques. All of the health benefits of garlic are associated with regular and long-term use.

Spas use herbs in new treatments

Just ten years ago, spas were an exotic destination of fantasy, exclusive to the ultra-wealthy. Facials and massage were rarely offered in salons, and “day spas” were sparsely scattered only in major metropolitan areas, primarily tapped by the “ladies who lunch” set. According to Larry Oskin of Marketing Solutions, a beauty consulting group in Fairfax, Virginia, spas are growing in number exponentially.

“Roughly 25 percent of salons will expand into the day spa venue this year alone, while an estimated 1,700 new spas will open their doors in the United States market,” says Oskin. With the economy exploding and baby boomers aging, the rush is on to relax.

Just what sorts of herbal pleasures await at the spa? At Miraval, near Tucson, Arizona, spa director Beth Kelley says aromatherapy massages and herbal body treatments are among the most popular services. “We have a detoxifying seaweed body wrap that includes herbs to cleanse the lymphatic system and eliminate toxins from the system. Our hydroquench body masquing is also popular, utilizing herbs that moisturize and nourish the skin,” says Kelley. In the next year or so, Kelley predicts that herbs will be used even more in Miraval’s hydrotherapy treatments.

At Cal-A-Vie, a spa in Ojai, California, general manager Debbie Zie says that one of the latest trends is thallasotherapy–a marine water treatment given in a specialized jetted tub.

“Our patrons enjoy a mask of seawater and sea botanicals including seaweeds and algae, along with arnica, ivy meadowsweet, and marigold,” says Zie. “The seaweed products and herbal blend speed up the body’s metabolism. The herbs aim directly at cleansing, slimming, and toning the client. Brewer’s yeast, a substance rich in nutrients, serves to purify the outermost layer of the skin.”

Zie is also a believer in herbal teas and makes tisanes for clients–a fifty-fifty concoction of fruit juice blended with herbal tea. Chamomile and other soothing blends are given in the evenings to help clients relax, refresh, and renew.

The Chopra Center For Well Being, a day spa founded by Deepak Chopra, M.D., in La Jolla, California, specializes in Ayurvedic wellness services. Kristin Fennema, therapist coordinator for the center says, “Our Pizichilli massage is a signature treatment that is truly relaxing and purifying. Two therapists perform a gentle massage on the client as herbalized oil is poured over the entire body.” Fennema says that many services at the Chopra Center offer warmed herbalized (herb-infused) oils that are dosha or “body type” specific–for example, heating oils for wind-type bodies and cooling oils for fire types.

Sylvia Rodriguez, assistant manager at Moreal European Day Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says that classics like aromatherapy massage are still a favorite among her clients. “Aromatherapy oils are used with steam and massage. Eucalyptus, lavender, citrus, and mandarin orange blends are among the favorites used with Swedish and deep tissue massage techniques,” says Rodriguez.

As the trend toward spas continues to heat up, clients are demanding more interesting and effective treatments. Herbs fit the bill as natural, effective, and versatile. Whether used in a body wrap, a water therapy bath, or in a facial, spas are decidedly going herbal.

Zinc helps cold symptoms

Zinc acetate lozenges improve many symptoms of the common cold, according to a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. In the study, fifty volunteers were selected within twenty-four hours of developing cold symptoms. The volunteers took one lozenge (containing 12.8 mg of zinc acetate) every two to three hours while awake for as long as they had symptoms. Compared to the placebo group, the zinc group experienced a much shorter overall duration of cold symptoms (4.5 days versus 8.1 days) and an especially significant reduction in cough symptoms (3.1 days versus 6.3 days).

Green tea for healthy skin

Score another point for green tea: Drinking four or more cups daily can help prevent skin cancer, according to research published in the Archives of Dermatology. Green tea contains antioxidants called polyphenols known to prevent skin cancer in mice, but the study’s author thinks the effects may well carry over to humans when the tea is taken in doses of four to five cups per day. Green tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, the same plant that produces black tea. But while black tea is fermented, green tea is dried after harvesting, which gives it larger amounts of polyphenols.

Fiber for blood sugar

A recent New England Journal of Medicine study reports that diabetics can better control their blood sugar when they follow a diet containing three times the fiber of an average U.S. diet. In the study, thirteen type-2 diabetics followed a high-fiber, American Diabetes Association-approved diet or a similar diet with twice the fiber (50 g per day). After six weeks on one diet, all of the diabetics switched to the other diet. At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that a high intake of dietary fiber improves glycemic control, lowers blood sugar, and lowers cholesterol.

Soy may lower cholesterol

If you’re looking to lower your cholesterol, give soy protein isolate a try. Soy protein isolate is rich in isoflavones, the potent antioxidants found in soy products. In an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, a group of thirteen healthy, premenopausal women ages eighteen to thirty-five with normal cholesterol levels took different amounts of soy protein isolate daily for three menstrual cycles. At the end of the study, the women had reductions of 7.6 to 10 percent in their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Also, the participants’ HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels improved by approximately 10 percent.

Coffee may cause incontinence

Women who drink more than four cups of coffee daily more than double their risk of urinary incontinence, according to a study published in a recent issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The study included 131 women with unstable bladders and 128 with stress incontinence. The researchers found that the women who consumed an average of three to four cups of coffee daily were 2.4 times more likely to have incontinence than those who drank only one to two cups daily. The researchers suggest that continent women limit their coffee intake to four cups or fewer daily; incontinent women should consume even less.

Antioxidants for mental health

The antioxidant vitamins C and E may help boost mental ability in old age and may protect against some forms of dementia, according to a study published in Neurology. The study participants were members of the Honolulu Heart Program, Japanese-American men ages seventy-one to ninety-three who have been studied since 1965. Researchers found that the participants who took vitamin C and E supplements regularly in 1988 were 88 percent less likely to have vascular dementia four years later and 69 percent less likely to have other forms of dementia after four years. Alzheimer’s-related dementia, however, was not reduced.

Practitioner Profile

Name: Brigitte Mars
Age: 47
Hometown: Boulder, Colorado

Occupation: Herbal and nutritional consultant; teacher of herbal studies at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies; private practitioner; formulator of UniTea herbs; author of Natural First Aid (Storey, 1999) and Dandelion Medicine (Storey, 1999).

How did you first become interested in herbs?

My French-Canadian grandmother practiced folk medicine and was really interested in remedies. My cousins would all wear medicine bags with garlic cloves around their necks. At a very young age, I was amazed with her wisdom. She could predict the weather and used herbs to treat her arthritis.

I attended an all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts, and I really didn’t fit in at all. Every time I had to write a paper, I would turn the topic into something about alternative medicine. For example, if we were assigned a paper on Native Americans, I would write about the plants used by Native Americans. I turned everything into a way I could study my passion.

I also treated my classmates. No one really liked the school nurse, so they would all come to me to treat their yeast infections and colds. I would try remedies out on my friends. My whole top drawer was filled with remedies.

My greatest learning experience came when I lived in a teepee in the Ozarks of Missouri. I spent two and a half years there and ate only wild plants. I harvested acorns and blackberries. I dried lamb’s quarters for the winter.

What would you say to someone considering using alternative therapies?

Try it. Take this opportunity to take better care of yourself. When we overuse medication, we might make the symptoms go away, but we don’t make the lifestyle changes to improve our health.

What is your daily routine of alternative therapies?

I start out every morning with a cup of hot water and lemon. It’s something I learned from my grandmother. It’s very good for the liver. I eat a little bit of wild food every day. I always make my salads with wild greens. I wouldn’t even think of using lettuce. Even in the winter, I can usually find violets. I do yoga. I don’t know how to drive, so I walk everywhere. It relaxes me, and it’s more fun than exercise videos. I pray everyday. I made a list of healthy things to do–take aromatherapy baths, eat seaweed, read something uplifting, take herbs and supplements. I try to do ten healthy things a day.

What do you see happening with the interaction between Western and alternative medicines?

I believe everything will amalgamate. The interest of helping everyone should be the concern of every health practitioner. Natural medicine will become more mainstream. It’ll happen when it’s supposed to.

What is your most memorable experience?

A life-changing event occurred for me when I was living in the Ozarks. We didn’t have electricity for two years. One day, my husband decided we should have electricity so that he could Shop-Vac the rugs in the teepee. One night I was closing the curtain of the teepee and was bitten by a copperhead snake. I started looking for books to research what sort of remedy I should use. My husband turned on that Shop-Vac and sucked the venom right out. I remembered hearing that the native people used echinacea for snakebites. We dug up some from just outside the teepee. I chewed on it and made a poultice. I knew I had to do something really quick. I learned that you can’t let all of the information remain in books. Sometimes you just don’t have time to do research.
–Kelli Rosen

Nails may point to health issues

The translucent nail plate that protects the fingers and toes can reveal a lot about the health of the body, reports a 1997 issue of the American Academy of Family Physicians’ newsletter. Simply put, fingernails and toenails can speak volumes about the state of your health before the rest of your body does. When inspecting your nails, a doctor–a dermatologist for fingernails and toenails or a podiatrist for toenails–can find important clues to many diseases.

Nails are vulnerable to a host of common minor problems such as hangnails, splitting, infections, discoloration, and ingrown conditions. More substantial clues are pitting (pin-sized depressions in the nail), unusually shaped nails, thickening, or red streaks, all of which call for further testing to detect a possible underlying disease. Every annual physical should include a close examination of your nails to determine if any unusual markings or conditions are an indication of something more serious or systemic.

Healthy nails are smooth and shiny. Composed of keratin, a hard protein formed in the matrix of the nail, the nail plate should be somewhat pink and should be strong enough to protect the underlying tissue (nail bed) and the cuticle around it. A healthy nail will grow about one-eighth inch a month; toenails grow at about half that rate. As one ages, this growth pattern slows and the nails become thinner, oftentimes developing vertical ridges.

Nail problems

Robert Schulte, D.P.M., of the Foot and Ankle Clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado, says the most common nail disorder is encurvated (also known as ingrown) toenails.

“This type of toenail problem can be hereditary or caused by physical trauma,” says Schulte. “Sometimes a physician will have to remove the side of the nail for temporary relief. Another option is a professional application of phenol to kill the root of the nail and halt its growth in the area experiencing the problem.”

Fungal nail problems rank second in nail-disorder frequency. “Fungal disorders are found primarily in older people, athletes, and those who wear toenail polish frequently,” says Schulte. “Older people may be suffering from a suppressed immune system, athletes have problems keeping their feet dry, and the toenail polish actually suffocates the nail and traps preliminary fungus and moisture.”

Schulte says that treatments for fungal abnormalities include prescription topical ointment and oral antifungal medication.

Urban gardens

Kathy Marchant’s decision to open a vegetarian restaurant in a deteriorating downtown Kansas City, Missouri, neighborhood in 1994 has done more than provide a place for the locals to eat. When the city required her to buy a nearby vacant lot to accommodate parking for the Bluebird Café, Marchant decided to turn half of it into a kitchen garden, which has taken on a life of its own.

Preparing a garden on land where a building had been razed just six years earlier proved to be no easy task. Marchant composted the restaurant’s scraps, hauled in truckloads of manure, and built the raised beds that now hold sorrel, saffron, dill, summer savory, French tarragon, and several varieties of thyme, sage, mint, and basil. Throughout the summer, the herbs are featured in daily specials such as beans sautéed in summer savory, sorrel and potato soup, and rose-petal pound cake. Biscuits served with mushroom-sage gravy are a breakfast staple.

“After I put in my garden, a few other people decided to build these little block gardens as well,” says Marchant, who has lived in the neighborhood for seventeen years. “It really visually changed some things, and I think for people who live in the neighborhood, it has created a sense of hope. It’s not a vacant lot filled with beer cans anymore. It’s brought other people into the neighborhood to watch the garden, and that gives our neighborhood a little positive recognition.”

The Bluebird Café is located at 1700 Summit St., Kansas City, MO 64108. For more information, call (816) 221-7559.

From vacant lot to flourishing plot

The Hilltop neighborhood in Tacoma, Washington, is more notorious for its drive-by shootings than its fertile soil. But eight years ago Carrie Little saw possibility in the many vacant lots that scarred the landscape and, with the help of local residents, began clearing away blackberry brambles, garbage, empty bottles, and used needles (they even discovered an abandoned station wagon that hadn’t been seen in years). Little and the community have since created ten organic gardens within the city of Tacoma that feed and provide employment for low-income and homeless residents.

“We grow only heirloom and open-pollinated varieties and use every trick in the book to discourage pests by utilizing flowers, herbs, and companion planting,” Little says. She and the residents cultivate many varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs, including ten basils, lemon catnip, thyme, epazote, dill, cilantro, angelica, lovage, anise hyssop, mint, astragalus, valerian, marjoram, fenugreek, caraway, and tarragon. “One of our ‘weeds’ is a perennial fennel that grows to fifteen feet and waves in the wind!” she adds.

The herbs and vegetables are given to homeless shelters, sold through farmers’ markets, and distributed through a Community Supported Agriculture program in which citizens buy shares of the harvest. “It is a wonderful way of growing community,” Little states. “Although we aren’t solving all problems, people do respond positively when they see gardens instead of eyesores. Neighbors feel more comfortable getting back out in the neighborhood again.”

Reprinted with permission from The Herb Companion (August / September 1999). To subscribe, call (800) 456-5835.

Getting started on an exercise program

Think you’re generally a healthy person? You watch what you eat, take your herbal supplements religiously, and see your health-care practitioner when you’re supposed to. But are you fit? Does being able to touch your toes mean you can call yourself fit? Maybe you can run a mile. Is that a truer measure of fitness? Perhaps you can do twenty push-ups. That must mean you’re fit . . .or does it?

Being fit requires all of these ingredients–flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular endurance. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines fitness as “the ability to perform moderate-to-vigorous levels of physical activity without undue fatigue and the capability of maintaining this capacity throughout life.” So if your goal is not only to be healthy but to be fit as well, your mission is to construct an exercise program that addresses all three elements.

ACSM guidelines recommend that healthy adults exercise three to five times per week, maintaining between 65 to 90 percent of their maximum heart rate for twenty to sixty minutes. (Maximum heart rate is roughly determined using the standard formula of 220 minus your age.) Either continuous or intermittent workouts consisting of at least ten-minute bouts throughout the day will get the job done. If you’re not training for a specific race or competition, exercising at a moderate intensity for a longer duration (closer to sixty minutes) is ideal for reaching preliminary fitness goals.

Before starting any new exercise program, it’s important to see your health-care professional for a complete physical evaluation. He or she can tell you what types of activities are safe and if any pre-existing medical conditions might be troublesome for you.

When you’re just getting started, resistance training (or weight training) should be incorporated into your program two to three times per week. ACSM guidelines suggest one set of eight to ten exercises to condition each major muscle group. In order to allow your muscles to recover, stagger your weight training so that you never work the same muscle group on consecutive days. If you’ve got some extra time, go ahead and perform multiple sets. Each set should consist of eight to twelve repetitions (reps). This also serves as your gauge for whether the weights you’re using are too heavy or too light. If pumping out twelve reps is a piece of cake, add some weight. If you can barely get to eight without veins bulging from your forehead, chances are you need to reduce the weight stack. Adults over fifty-five just starting to weight train should aim for ten to fifteen reps with a lighter weight.

Flexibility is just as important to overall fitness as cardiovascular and resistance exercises, but it’s usually the first thing to go when time is running short. It’s crucial to stretch all major muscle groups for at least five minutes before beginning anything strenuous to develop and maintain adequate range of motion. Stretching again during your cool-down will help avoid postworkout muscle soreness.
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Send your fitness questions to Kelli Rosen, 428 N. Cleveland Ave., Loveland, CO 80537; e-mail

Kelli Rosen, managing editor of The Herb Companion, is a former personal trainer and fitness instructor, and was the 1993 Pennsylvania bodybuilding champion.

Stick with it

Sticking with a fitness program is sometimes more difficult than the actual exercises themselves. Here are a few helpful hints to keep you motivated.

Hire a professional. Personal trainers aren’t just for movie stars and talk-show hosts. Purchase a few sessions in the beginning to get you started in the right direction. A trainer can help you build a suitable program and show you how to perform exercises correctly so you won’t suffer an injury. Check back with your trainer about once a month to monitor your progress, and be sure to ask for new routines to keep your workouts fresh.

Find a friend. Pair up with a workout buddy. You’re less likely to skip a session at the gym or track if you know someone is waiting for you to arrive.

Make it part of your routine. Schedule your workout at the same time each day. Mark it in your daybook. What happens when something else comes up? If you wouldn’t cancel a meeting with an important client for these new plans, then don’t cancel your workout either.

Don’t dwell on the scale. Create more significant goals for yourself. Instead of trying to lose five pounds, how about trying to run one mile in less than ten minutes? Or bench pressing a percentage of your body weight?

Be creative. If you can’t make it to the gym, find other ways to get in a workout. Keep a pair of running shoes in your desk drawer at the office or next to your front door so you can easily run outside, climb stairs, or go for a brisk walk in the park. You’ll get your heart rate up, and the change of scenery will inspire you.

Have fun! You’re not going to stick with something that’s boring or makes you feel miserable. So if you’re not crazy about the Stairmaster, don’t rely on it for your cardiovascular workout. Go for a bike ride instead. If you hate stretching by yourself in the corner of the gym, sign up for a yoga class. Figure out what you enjoy and go for it.

Koscielny, J., et al. “The antiatherosclerotic effect of Allium sativum.” Atherosclerosis 1999, 144:237-249.

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