Monthly Archives: February 2010

Don’t Run, Walk,

and take a couple of research laps around the block before running into the health food store to purchase the latest-and-greatest “natural” product for this or that. This post is going to be a vent of a frustration that’s been building up in me for quite some time.

I have been studying herbs – both formally and informally – for well over 20 years. I’ve watched herbal medicine once again come to the forefront as people try to live “natural” lives without synthetic drugs. The problem is, so many people believe all the advertisements they see on television and run to the store to buy the “new” product without doing any further research. They decide modern medicine is “bad” and don’t want to take any “drugs”.

First and foremost, herbs are drugs. The definition of a drug is “a substance used as a medication or in the preparation of a medication”.  That cup of chamomile tea you drink to calm you down in the evening is a drug. I don’t mind people self-medicating if it is as simple as a calming cup of tea in the evenings; or trying diet & lifestyle modifications plus an herb or two to lower cholesterol levels (after discussion with a doctor), but this pervasive idea that herbs will solve everything and are completely safe is getting on my nerves.

One problem with not doing your homework is interactions. Herbs can interact with each other and with synthetic drugs – sometimes unfavorably. Awhile back, a friend of mine saw an ad on television for a Ginkgo biloba product and thought he’d try it to “strengthen his ageing memory”. When we saw each other he mentioned he was going to pick some up the next time he was at the store. My immediate reaction was “whoa, there pardner!” I happen to know he’s on an anticoagulant for another issue. Ginkgo can increase the action of anticoagulants. (It has a whole list of potential interactions.) I told him perhaps he ought to check with his doctor before starting any Ginkgo. He did and his doctor gave him the go-ahead but they are carefully monitoring him.

Another example: my mother started taking a rather expensive product for her cholesterol based on an advertisement she’d seen on television. The product has some good chemical compounds which aren’t harmful and may actually be helpful to many people but the “scientific research” touted by its manufacturer is one tiny study (120 participants) done back in the mid-1990’s. Not quite as comforting as the hundreds of studies on the effects of garlic. Problem is, this particular product contains a compound that isn’t good for her. She self-medicated without doing any further research.

As a medical herbalist and someone that sells bulk herbs, I’m always being accosted by people telling me, “I have X problem. What herb should I take?” My first question back is, “what did your doctor say?” This seems to upset a lot of people. They get even further upset when I tell them that I don’t know what herb (or combination thereof) they should take right off the top of my head because I don’t know them, don’t know their medical history, what other substances they may be taking and a few other things. I spend a lot of time dispelling the notion that all herbs are safe all the time.

I know many herbal products do carry some warnings on the bottle or box but many don’t. I also know a lot of people who either don’t read the warnings or discount them. Sigh. They’re there for a reason. Scientific research is also finding out something new about herbs every day so the information on the bottle or box may be outdated until they can print new labels. Do your research.

While synthetic drugs wouldn’t be my first choice for a problem, they do have their place. Herbal therapy hasn’t cured cancer or AIDS, for example. Medical advancements (both synthetic drugs and other treatments) and a better understanding of what causes illness have greatly increased our lifestyle expectancy – from 38 in 1850 to 76 in 2000.  Not bad – doubling life expectancy in only 150 years. 38 was considered “old” for probably a millenium or more, when herbs were the only drugs doctors had in their arsenal.

All doctors will be happy if you make some diet and lifestyle modifications. Most (not all) medical doctors will grudgingly allow you to first try an herb for a problem. Discuss it with him/her and come armed with research. But for goodness’ sake, if all that doesn’t work, take the prescription as advised. I don’t know about you but I like living well past 38!

The Crooked Path

Many of my witchy friends refer to their Craft as “The Crooked Path”. For many of us it truly is. While we all have our own ways of practicing the Craft (some handed down through the generations, some not), one little interesting tidbit overheard in a conversation or read somewhere will have us taking a fork in the road to investigate what that road holds. We might backtrack to the old road or continue on the new one. But investigate we will.

However, hasn’t anyone figured out that life itself is a crooked path? I don’t know anyone who is exactly where they thought they’d be. As a child I wanted to be a prima ballerina. When I was a teen, I thought I’d be an interpreter at the United Nations; or living and working overseas where I would be able to use the different languages I know (or knew) on a regular basis. When that idea got shot down I turned my skill with numbers into a job and then a business. Thirty-plus years later, I took another fork in the road and studied herbalism – both medicinal and magical. That led to yet another fork and I’m now continuing my herbal research and writing. My teenage (or even thirty-something) persona would never have envisioned this sort of life.

I have had a quote on the bulletin board above my desk for so many years the paper is yellowed: “Do not fall into the error of the artisan who boasts of twenty years’ experience in his craft while in fact he has had only one year of experience – twenty times.” It’s all these experiences that not only teach us and keep us growing, but are the forks in our road … making our path indeed a crooked one.

I, for one, am interested to see where the next fork takes me.

Bathrobes & Frankincense

Looking at all the news stories of the snow on the eastern seaboard this last week reminds me how fortunate I am:  I have a fifteen-second commute to work four days a week.  I simply get up off the couch and march upstairs to the office in the loft.  Of course, I can turn it the other way around, too.  I don’t get any snow days!

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t work in my bathrobe. I do need the routine of “getting ready for work” to wake my brain up and start the heavy thinking of the day. However, tomorrow, February 12th, is National Bathrobe Day and I might just celebrate it by staying in my jammies and robe all day long.  There’s something decadent about not getting “up and dressed”, even if one doesn’t simply lounge around but gets some work done, too.

I do get things done in the mornings while still in my robe. The plants get watered, the birds get their feeders refilled, I neaten the house, start a load of laundry … things like that.  I also grab the laptop and catch up on the fora I belong to, Facebook, Twitter and all the blogs I follow.  This eliminates some of the itch to spend all my time on the Internet instead of working when I get to the office computer. (Notice I said some, not all!)

One of my Facebook friends posted an interesting link this morning (thanks, Judika!).  It’s a BBC article about Frankincense possibly being a cure for cancer. Once again, science is learning about herbs, which I think is great. The only problem I have is that the scientist who is conducting the studies is isolating all the chemical compounds in Frankincense essential oil and trying them one-by-one to see which is “the cure”. It may not have occurred to him that it’s the unique combination of all the compounds that is what is effective.

I mean, think about it. Using humans as an example, we’re all made up of the same stuff … not just the physical appearance of skin, muscle & bones but our DNA, too. The unique combination of all the components of a human being makes us individuals, not clones. Plants are the same. As stated in the article, boswellic acid is also found in sandalwood but that herb hasn’t been found to “hit the reset button” on cancer cell growth.

There are times (not many, I assure you) that I wish I was a scientist with loads of research funding behind me. Perhaps I could confound the scientific community by proving it’s not an individual chemical compound that is the healing property of a particular herb but the plant’s individuality that does the trick.

Or maybe I should just go put my bathrobe back on and quit thinking so much?

Cats …

What fascinating critters.  Unlike dogs who seem to love unconditionally, cats are extremely independent and you must earn their love and trust. You know the old saying, “a dog comes when you call, a cat takes a message and gets back to you”.  Or, a plaque a friend gave us that reads, “The cat and his housekeeping staff live here”.  It’s true, it’s their house and we’re privileged to make the mortgage payment.

I’ve had feline housemates for over thirty years and have had many interesting experiences with them.  The most recent came just this past Sunday. I was taking my usual Sunday afternoon nap on the couch with ESPN’s coverage of the Winter X Games in the background on the television. After only a short while, I woke up to what I thought was a “beep” from the timer on the stove. Because I had nothing cooking, I dismissed it as an imagined thing or something from a dream.  I started to go back to sleep only to have Nick, our 29-pounder, jump up and lay on me. As you might imagine, it’s rather difficult to sleep with that kind of weight across you. While I was laying there listening to his freight-train motor and considering moving him off, I heard from the television “our next competitor is Eric Willett”. That made me sit up immediately.  You see, Eric is the eldest son of a lifelong friend. I knew he had joined the professional snowboard circuit after he graduated high school but had no idea he had qualified for the Winter X Games. 

I was so glad Nick (and something/one else?) had woken me up. I was able to watch his performance and as a rookie to the X Games, win a silver medal in one of the competitions.

This morning’s news had an interview with a geriatric doctor regarding a book he’s written about their nursing home’s cat. Oscar first made the news almost three years ago because he seems to be a prognosticator of the death of a patient. Although he’s usually an independent, curmudgeon-y sort, shortly before the patient passes, Oscar will go into that room and curl up on the bed next to the person. As of July 2007, he had accurately predicted the passing of 25 patients. I understand he’s up to over 50 now.

The doctor, a scientist by nature, is unsure how Oscar knows. He thinks it’s pheromones or some other scent that alerts the cat. Maybe so. Or perhaps he feels the spirit trying to leave.  Nick, the above-mentioned lard-butt, is always nearby when I’m doing a spell.  My personal opinion is that they feel the energies stirring.  I know that our cats are extremely sensitive to moods and when I’m feeling sad or ill, one or more will immediately be at my side.  Oscar is lending his comfort and perhaps help when a spirit wants to pass over.

Cats … what fascinating critters.