In addition to being an herbalist and health counselor, I’m an acupuncturist. Many important acupuncture points are around the ankles and between the toes, so I see a lot of naked feet. And among all these toes and soles, I see more signs of fungal infections than you might expect.
A few weeks ago I was working with Mike, a carpenter, who had an on-the-job knee injury. I took one look at his feet and wondered whether he was aware that a fungus was literally devouring them. He had the telltale peeling and scaling of skin in large patches on his soles, redness and cracking between several of his toes, and yellowing and thickening on his big toenails.
“The itching is driving me nuts,” Mike said as he sat up from the treatment table and began scratching his feet. A look of devilish pleasure came over his face, which soon turned to agony as the itching became even more intense and insistent. Powerful itching rashes are like that—alternating agony with ecstasy.
I asked him to stop scratching and lie back, and I applied some St.-John’s-wort oil liberally to the affected areas; the oil, although not a cure for athlete’s foot, temporarily stopped the itching and gave him peace of mind.
As Mike began to relax, I told him that it’s important to treat any signs of athlete’s foot between the toes or on the soles immediately. When left untreated, the athlete’s foot fungus, Tinea pedis, can spread to the nails, where the infection becomes entrenched and difficult to treat. I have seen nail infections that continue to develop for years until the nail is eventually destroyed. In such cases, a doctor will sometimes remove the nail and prescribe a potent antifungal cream that can be quite toxic to the liver and kidneys. For resistant cases, a stronger oral drug called Griseofulvin is widely prescribed, with side effects ranging from headaches to lowered immunity.
Fungal infections of the feet are often considered surface infections with no connection to the internal world of the organs and tissues. Nothing could be further from the truth. Anything that occurs on the outside of the body, including rashes and eruptions, often has a corresponding internal condition contributing to the problem.
In Mike’s case, I offered a Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis of dampness and heat accumulating in the lower intestines—a common digestive condition often brought on by stress and consumption of stimulants such as coffee, refined sugars, and starches. Mike’s tongue had a telltale thick yellow coat toward the back, clearly showing the dampness and heat.
Mike also wore heavy work boots with poor air circulation and worked hard physically all day with sweaty feet, which made matters worse. Mike had created an internal and external environment where the fungus could flourish—and it certainly was wasting no time doing its job.
The first herbal remedy I gave Mike was an herbal foot powder made from dried and powdered garden sage leaves and clove buds. The powder can be easily made at home from dried sage leaves and cloves (recipe below). Sprinkle the powder between the toes or into your socks before you pull them on. The powder absorbs sweat, and the sage and cloves retard fungal growth because of their potent antifungal essential oils.
I had my herbal pharmacy dispense two other useful preparations for Mike: a potent, fast-acting anti-fungal lotion and an internal formula to help clear the dampness and heat in Mike’s intestines. The formula consisted of the cooling and drying herbs Oregon graperoot (a specific herb for skin conditions), burdock seed, and the Chinese herb called gardenia fruit or shan zhi zi (recipes below).
Diet alone can help the body eliminate and prevent fungal infections. Make sure to eat enough protein (45 to 60 g a day) from nuts, seeds, legumes, fish, turkey, and chicken. Avoid refined sugar because it stimulates growth of the fungus and suppresses immune function. The most important nutrients for immune function include zinc, selenium, vitamin C, and beta-carotene.
When I saw Mike again two weeks later, all signs of infection were gone from between his toes and on his soles. He told me his toenails looked better than usual as well. I asked him to keep up with the foot powder and to apply the lotion directly on his nails, using an eyedropper to place a tiny amount under the affected nails.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board member and licensed acupuncturist. He is the author of St. John’s Wort: The Mood Enhancing Herb, (Botanica, 1997), Stress and Natural Healing, (Botanica, 1997), and many other books.
“Case studies from an herbalist’s notebook” are not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider.
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