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Separating Sense from Nonsense
Updated: 4 hours 32 min ago

You Asked: Is there any benefit to drinking Yerba mate tea?

Mon, 2014-04-21 21:11

Yerba Mate, the ad says, has powerful rejuvenating effects. Well, who wouldn’t go for a little rejuvenation? So what is this wonder product? Yerba is a tea brewed from the dried leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant, a small shrub that grows in Paraguay, Brazil and other South American countries. The tea is also sometimes known as Paraguay tea. The Guarani Indians of Paraguay and Argentina have been brewing this beverage for centuries and claim it can do everything from boosting energy levels and intelligence to providing all the nutrients needed for life. In Europe mate is often used for weight loss, though there is no scientific evidence to show that the plant boosts metabolism or acts as an appetite suppressant. But what about the other claims?

An analysis of extracts taken from the mate plant reveals the presence of a couple of hundred compounds, as one would expect for any plant material. There are vitamins and minerals and the usual array of antioxidants but there are no magical ingredients. Any stimulation from the beverage can probably be ascribed to caffeine, although yerba contains less than coffee or other teas. Claims about yerba mate being “nature’s most perfect beverage” or “the beverage of the Gods” are just hot air. And speaking of hot, that’s how yerba mate is traditionally consumed. That can be a problem. Drinking mate tea has been linked to esophageal cancer in South America where the beverage is consumed at extremely high temperatures.

A rarely discussed problem with consuming plant extracts is misidentification, mislabeling or adulteration. Here’s an interesting, but hopefully rare, case in point. A family of four in New York City shared a pot of mate tea. An hour later the 10 year old son became restless and agitated and had to be taken to hospital. His pulse was rapid, his pupils dilated and nonreactive, his skin was flushed and his mucous membranes were dry. These are typical signs of anticholinergic poisoning, meaning that the activity of acetylcholine, an important chemical for conveying messages between nerve cells was being impaired. Doctors quickly injected him with physostigmine, a drug that boosts acetylcholine activity. Recovery was swift. But by then his eighteen year old brother reported feeling confused and loss of memory. Since there are no compounds in yerba mate tea that could explain these effects, adulteration of the beverage was suspected.

A chemical analysis revealed the presence of atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine. Tell-tale components of the belladonna plant, a classic anticholinergic poison! Nobody knows how belladonna leaves got into the tea but eventually seven other cases of poisoning turned up. Still these are isolated incidents, and the chance of anyone having a reaction to yerba mate is remote. But so is the chance of any rejuvenating effect. Incidentally, the Guarani Indians traditionally drink yerba mate out of a bull’s horn, which seems appropriate given some of the outlandish claims that are made on behalf of the beverage.

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Of all the nonsensical worries….

Thu, 2014-04-17 22:26

I thought this was a joke, but it turns out that it is very real. Officials in Portland, Oregon drained a reservoir, at considerable expense, because a teenager urinated into the water. This is pathogenophobia and chemophobia run amuck.

I would really like to hear the official explanation from the person who made this decision. All I've heard so far is that they couldn't take any chances with the health of the population. Really? And what chance would they be taking? Urine emerging from the bladder contains essentially no bacteria. It might pick some up as it exits through the urethra but this is irrelevant. Also irrelevant are the urea, nitrates and phosphates, the various minerals and numerous organic compounds found in trace amounts. Indeed urine is quite drinkable. Just ask the folks who practice "autourine therapy." They claim, without evidence, that drinking urine has all sorts of health benefits. It doesn't, but neither is it dangerous. There are very few diseases that can be transmitted through urine, thyphoid fever being one. Even if the urinator had typhoid, the dilution would take care of the problem.

Have these water treatment officials in Portland considered what happens in swimming pools? I suspect there is a fair amount of urine tainted water consumed there. If you want to worry about bodily excretions in water, focus on fecal matter. How about poop from birds flying over that reservoir? And I suspect there may be a variety of animals that relieve themselves in the water as well.

I just can't think of anything that could be present in the teenager's urine that could warrant emptying the reservoir. I think the citizens of Portland who will be paying for this nonsense through tax dollars have a right to be peeved. The culprit has been identified and he will have to be doing his peeing elsewhere; he has been banned for a month from the park where the reservoir is located. Citizens of Portland must be relieved.

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You Asked: Should we worry about plastic pollution?

Thu, 2014-04-17 09:54

Plastics are the fabric of modern life. They’re in our cars, our planes, our kitchens, our electronics, our furniture, our bottles, our packaging, our floors and our medical equipment. We are using more and more plastics and unfortunately also discarding more and more. And that’s a problem. Plastic debris is commonly sighted on the landscape and is accumulating in marine habitats. A recent study revealed that plastics make up 50-80% of shoreline debris and accumulate in certain areas of the oceans. There is already a huge plastic wastedump in the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Besides being an eyesore, plastic debris poses a danger for wildlife. Marine mammals can become entangled in plastic bags or six-pack holders, and even worse, ingestion can cause death by blocking the digestive tract or by causing the animal to starve due to false satiation. Then there is the problem of potentially toxic compounds such as phthalates or bisphenol A leaching out of plastics. Because some of these chemicals are fat-soluble, they accumulate in adipose tissue of fish. Since humans are at the top of the food chain, we may possibly be exposed to physiologically meaningful amounts, although so far there is no evidence of any harm to people.

Some people believe that switching to bioplastics may be the key to reducing plastic pollutants in the environment. The term ‘bioplastic’ refers to materials made from natural sources such as corn. The common assumption is that these are biodegradable, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It is true that under suitable conditions bioplastics can be degraded by microbes, but this doesn’t happen in landfills where many plastics end up, and even elsewhere the biodegradation is very slow. Then there is the issue of “microplastics,” tiny particles found in many consumer products. They are usually used as abrasives and exfoliants in facial scrubs, shampoos, toothpaste, eyeliner, lipgloss, deodorants and soaps. Due to their miniscule size, these particles typically escape removal at sewage treatment facilities after being washed down the drain and can end up being consumed by animals. As a result, companies are being pressured to end the use of microplastics and switch to other natural alternatives like apricot shells and cocoa beans. Plastics are an integral and irreplaceable part of our lives but we need to take better care with how they are used. One way is to place more emphasis on recycling. So, don’t neglect your blue box. Feed it regularly.

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When it comes to insomnia, there’s no shortage of advice

Sun, 2014-04-13 10:31

O sleep! O gentle sleep!

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,

That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

Henry IV is not one of the Bard’s most memorable plays. I think it once lulled me to sleep. But these lines speak of insomnia, a common problem that begs for a solution. There is no shortage of advice. Count sheep. Drink warm milk. Feast on turkey. Take melatonin pills. Take kava-kava. Try valerian root. Mix up a drink from a special powdered blend of pumpkin seeds and dextrose. Listen to recordings of chirping crickets. Settle down on a mat embedded with amethyst crystals. Relax on a “Polar Power Mega-Field Slumber Pad” designed by Dr. William Philpott whose last name rhymes with a term that can be used to describe his ideas about treating disease.

Virtually all diseases, Philpott maintained before he left us, could be managed or reversed with magnet therapy. Of course you had to have the right type of magnet. Only those that were capable of producing a “negative magnetic field” were therapeutic since “only these can promote an oxygen-alkaline rich environment within the body.”

That environment doesn’t come cheap. Philpott’s miraculous pads are still being sold for hundreds of dollars. But instead of focusing on the claptrap of negative magnetic fields, let’s look at something that may actually have a positive effect. Like that mixture of pumpkin seed powder and dextrose.

First, we need to do a little travelling back in time to the 1970s and the lab of MIT neuroscience professor Richard Wurtman. Unlike Philpott’s random ramblings, Wurtman’s research is backed by hundreds of peer-reviewed publications that have established him as one of the world’s leading authorities on chemical activity in the central nervous system.

It was Wurtman who demonstrated that levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain respond to dietary manipulation. This is of importance because higher serotonin levels have been linked with anti-anxiety effects, appetite suppression and sleep enhancement.

Serotonin is formed inside cells from the amino acid tryptophan, a component of most dietary proteins. When some questionable info emerged about turkey containing high doses of tryptophan, the lay press was ready to jump. Turkey became a remedy for insomnia and even made an appearance on a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry and George conspire to put Jerry’s current girlfriend to sleep by overdosing her on turkey so that they can play with her collection of antique toys.

Actually, turkey protein does not have more tryptophan than other meat proteins. In any case, as Wurtman demonstrated, tryptophan levels cannot be increased by eating more protein. That’s because amino acids are ferried across the blood-brain barrier by transporter molecules that have less of a preference for tryptophan than for the other amino acids that make up proteins.

However, should a tryptophan-containing food be coupled with a source of carbohydrates, levels of tryptophan in the brain, and consequently serotonin, will rise. This happens because carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which prompts the absorption of amino acids into muscles.

But here, too, tryptophan is absorbed less efficiently, meaning that with the competing amino acids being driven into muscles, more tryptophan is available for absorption into the brain. Eating a turkey sandwich, with the bread providing the required carbs, actually makes some sense.

While serotonin may have a calming effect, it doesn’t actually induce sleep. The hormone melatonin, however, does. And it is made in the brain’s pineal gland from serotonin. This reaction, however, is inefficient as long as the eyes are stimulated by light. But with darkness, conversion of serotonin to melatonin begins and drowsiness sets in. The formula for sleep would then appear to be coupling darkness with a source of tryptophan and a carbohydrate that stimulates quick insulin release.

Wurtman’s research prompted Canadian psychiatrist Craig Hudson to investigate the possibility of a commercial product designed to increase melatonin levels. He knew that melatonin supplements were available, but evidence indicated that when taken in a pill form, the hormone has a short half-life. Hudson’s idea was to try to induce a normal sleeping pattern with a more continuous release of melatonin.

First, he needed a good source of tryptophan and found it in the seeds of a specific variety of pumpkin. He then mixed the powdered seeds with glucose, the archetypical insulin releaser. A bit of natural lemon or chocolate flavour, and “Zenbev” sleep-enhancer was born. It hit the market after a double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial showed that subjects with sleep problems were able to reduce the time spent awake during the night. Admittedly, a single study is not very compelling, but there seems to be no risk giving Zenbev a shot.

Neither is there a risk, outside of a possible allergy, in eating two kiwifruits an hour before bedtime. That’s right, kiwis may help with sleep problems. In a study of 24 subjects, sleep onset, sleep duration and sleep quality were significantly increased with kiwi consumption.

But why study kiwis at all in this context? It turns out that the fruit is a source of serotonin. Although the authors declare no conflict of interest, they do acknowledge support from Zespri International Ltd. A quick Google search reveals that Zespri is a marketer of kiwifruit. That of course does not invalidate the study, but it would be comforting to see the trial duplicated by a totally objective research group. In the meantime, there’s no harm in giving the kiwi regimen a shot. Serotonin aside, kiwis are a great source of antioxidants and folate.

And if Zenbev or kiwis don’t lull you to sleep, you can indulge in a cup of decaffeinated Counting Sheep Coffee. It contains valerian root extract, which does have a history of use as a sedative. During the Second World War in England, it was even used to relieve the stress of air raids.

But as far as this coffee goes, we just have to take the marketer’s word for its sleep-inducing effect. That, though, coupled with an appearance on television’s Dragon’s Den, seems to have been enough to perk up sales.

And that should make the investors in Counting Sheep Coffee sleep better.

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Physician’s oath to humanity

Fri, 2014-04-11 08:33

Hippocrates is often regarded as the father of modern medicine in spite of his mistaken belief that illness and health were determined by the ups and downs of the four “humours,” namely black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. If the humours were in harmony, the individual would be healthy, if they were out of kilter, illness would ensue. In light of what we now know about the workings of the body, this theory makes no sense, but it was revolutionary in the sense that it related sickness to what we could loosely call problems with the body’s chemistry. Prior to Hippocrates the common belief was that illness was the result of retribution from deities for human misdeeds or that it was the work of mischievous spirits. But Hippocrates did more than just orient physicians away from mythology towards observation and documentation of symptoms. Back in the fifth century B.C. he gave us the Hippocratic Oath which many medical students still take. The essential features of the oath include a promise to give no drug nor perform an operation for criminal purpose even if solicited, to maintain patient confidentiality, to guard against corruption, and to practice the art of medicine in uprightness and honour. It is one thing to pay lip service to such an oath and another to abide by it.

During the Third Reich, Nazi doctors conducted unfathomable medical experiments on both Jews and non-Jews. But the Nazis were not the only ones. The Japanese were also notorious for medical experimentation on prisoners that resulted in disfigurement, disabilities, torture and death. American doctors took part in their share of unethical experiments as well. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment was an infamous clinical study by the U.S. Public Health Service beginning in 1932 designed to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African American men. The men were not told they had syphilis and were not treated for the disease even when penicillin became available and was shown to be effective. In 1948 the shock of such extreme human rights violations led to an attempt to update and expand the Hippocratic Oath in the form of the Declaration of Geneva. This underlined the importance of doctors extending their duties beyond administering to the sick to improving the general welfare of humanity. Most importantly, the Declaration asks doctors to swear that they will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, party politics or social standing to intervene in their practice. They also promise to give their teachers the respect and gratitude they are due. Most physicians today do abide by ethical standards, not because they have sworn an oath but because they have the right character. The selection process for medical school is very rigorous and is designed to filter out individuals with questionable ethics. The process works well, but is not foolproof. The same way that there are ethical plumbers and unethical ones, ethical electricians and unethical ones, ethical mechanics and unethical ones, there are ethical physicians and a few unethical ones. They sell worthless supplements to their patients, steer them away from effective therapies with promises of “natural” wonder drugs and promote ridiculous detox treatments. Hippocrates would not approve.

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You Asked: What is Gerson therapy?

Sun, 2014-04-06 22:19

What sort of treatment do you think cancer patients would receive at the Gerson Institute in San Diego? Actually, they would receive no treatment at all, because the “Gerson Therapy” is not sanctioned in the United States. But they would receive plenty of information about traveling to Gerson clinics in Mexico or Hungary, as well as about providing basic “Gerson care” for themselves at home. The Institute does not limit itself to providing information about cancer. It seems the Gerson therapy is effective against virtually every disease. How can this be? Because “it restores the body’s incredible ability to heal itself with no damaging effects, and rather than treating only the symptoms of a particular disease, it treats the underlying cause of the disease.” Right. And the tooth fairy leaves coins under the pillow.

Cancer is a terrible disease that often defies conventional treatment. But the failure of science-based medicine can mean success for the marketers of “alternative” therapies who are unencumbered by the need to furnish evidence. They just have to clamor about how conventional doctors slash (surgery), burn (radiation) and poison (chemotherapy) their patients, hastening their demise, while they offer kinder, gentler, life-saving “natural” treatments. Desperate patients, they well know, will do desperate things. At any cost.

The “Gerson Institute and Cancer Curing Society,” as it officially call itself, adorns its seductive brochure with the credo, “healing with nature.” Aside from the absurd, but appealing notion that “nature” is more adept at healing disease (which it incidentally causes with reckless abandon through natural bacteria, viruses, fungi and moulds) than research-based medicine, one has to question the “natural” aspect of the Gerson regimen.

Is the squirting of coffee up one’s rear end “natural?” What about gulping desiccated liver capsules? Or administering ozone rectally? All these have been part of the program. To say nothing of drinking several glasses of raw calf liver extract a day! That lunacy was given up after several patients’ deaths were linked to a bacterial infection associated with the extracts. The foul liver juice was replaced by a more taste-bud friendly green leaf-apple juice blend, a dozen glasses of which have to be downed to “flush the toxins” responsible for cancer out of the system. Just what these toxins are is never addressed. But to make sure they are eliminated, patients are also dosed with pancreatic enzymes, iodine, vitamin B12, niacin, thyroid hormone, potassium, coenzyme Q10 and organic flax seed oil. Of course all of these bizarre interventions would be acceptable if the treatment worked. Let’s face it, conventional chemotherapy is no picnic. But there is a difference. Chemotherapy at least, has a chance of working.

As the name suggests, there actually is a person behind the Gerson therapy. An established physician, Dr. Gerson fled his native Germany when the Nazis came to power and eventually settled in New York in 1936. As a young doctor he had been tormented by migraines and had sought relief by experimenting with different diets. He traded in his wursts, schnitzels and sauerbraten for a plant based diet that apparently resolved his migraines. Gerson theorized that contamination with artificial fertilizers and pesticides was responsible for his misery. He began to prescribe his “natural” plant-based diet to other migraine sufferers who soon claimed to experience all sorts of additional benefits, including resolution of tuberculosis. Needless to say, there was no objective evidence that any patients had actually been cured in this fashion. How could there be? TB, a bacterial infection, cannot be cured by diet.

And then Gerson had an epiphany. If TB responded to his regimen, why not cancer? By 1958 he had published his book, “A Cancer Therapy,” in which he described curing fifty patients of terminal cancer. That astounding claim prompted the U.S. National Cancer Institute to undertake a review of Gerson’s cases with the conclusion that the validity of the cancer diagnoses and the supposed cures could not be substantiated. Gerson retorted that the review had been unfairly influenced by the “cancer establishment,” for the simple reason that his natural cure was a threat to the grotesque profits realized by the pharmaceutical industry from its expensive but useless chemotherapeutic drugs. That tired old refrain has practically become the anthem of the “alternative” medicine community.

The problem with the Gerson therapy, as now promoted by his daughter Charlotte, and practiced in the Mexican and Hungarian clinics, is not that it is scientifically implausible, nor that it is tortuous to follow, nor that it is repugnantly expensive. The problem is that there is no evidence that it works! The Gerson clinics make all sorts of claims about euphoric patients returning home, cured of their disease. But no follow-up is ever carried out. And whenever independent researchers have tracked Gerson patients, they have found that most had succumbed to cancer within five years of having been “cured” of the disease.

Of course there is even less information available about the success or failure of the “home” version of the Gerson therapy. Administering coffee enemas at home may be a bit of a challenge, but the juicing can be done. Not with any old juicer, though! No siree. We are told that “Dr. Gerson’s research indicates that it is imperative for cancer patients to have a two-step juicer with a separate grinder and hydraulic press. One step juicers generally do not produce the same quality of enzyme, mineral or micronutrient content.” Really? I don’t seem to be able to find that bit of research in the peer-reviewed literature.

The Gerson website actually recommends a specific juicer that will run you in the neighbourhood of $2000. Surely, though, that’s a bargain if it will help you beat cancer. Don’t even think about buying a cheaper juicer, though, because as the Gerson Institute’s captivating brochure tells us, “in fact some patients have failed to experience results simply by using the wrong juicer.” Yup-that must be why they failed to cure their cancer. Wrong juicer! Those cutting-edge researchers at the Gerson Institute surely would not lie to us, would they?

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Music can charm beasts and plants into higher productivity

Sat, 2014-04-05 22:34

Heart transplants are sometimes performed on rodents, with the aim of testing anti-rejection drugs. But that’s not what researchers at Teikyo University in Japan had in mind when they performed the operation on a group of male mice. They were interested in studying how the animals responded to different types of music piped into their “recovery rooms.” This is not as outlandish as it might sound. Music has long been thought to have therapeutic properties.

The book of Samuel in the Bible tells us that “whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” The evil spirit was likely depression, and modern studies have corroborated the beneficial effect of music on levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Undoubtedly undergoing a heart transplant is a stressful situation. Indeed, studies have shown that human patients who listened to music during and after open heart surgery required shorter intubation times. Such studies raise the question of whether different types of music lead to different outcomes and that is precisely what the Teikyo researchers aimed to find out.

The study was carried out in a proper scientific fashion with mice exposed to Verdi’s La Traviata, a selection of Mozart sonatas, or songs by the Irish singer Enya being compared with a control group. I would have liked to see another set of mice forced to listen to some loud rock, like the eardrum-bursting sounds that are blasted at spectators at hockey games at the Bell Centre the instant there is a stop in play. But that would probably have been too cruel. In any case, the results of the experiment were interesting. Mice that listened to Verdi or Mozart lived an average of twenty days longer than the animals that suffered in silence or the ones exposed to a single frequency tone. For some reason, the immune system of these animals was much more likely to reject the foreign tissue. Enya’s songs were not much of an improvement over no music. It’s hard to know what to make of such a study, but the mice may find some frequencies irritating, some pleasing — much like people do.

Manufacturers of Crystal Singing Bowls claim that people, like mice, also respond to specific notes and that “healing frequencies” can be generated by circling the rim of the bowl with a suede-covered mallet to produce an enchanting sound that eliminates the “disharmonious conditions” that cause disease. I can’t get in tune with that. When it comes to health effects, I think people are far more likely to respond to music based on what they like rather than to specific frequencies. I know I would enjoy treatment with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Music of the Night (especially if performed by Michael Crawford) a lot more than being abused by the sounds of Limp Bizkit.

It seems that in my music preferences I may have something in common with egg-laying hens. British farmer Steve Ledsham was surprised when his chickens started laying eight eggs a week instead of the usual four. What was different, he wondered? The increased production seemed to coincide with the building of a new barn, suggesting it might have had to do with the music that was being played to entertain the workers. Ledsham now plays Webber’s music all the time, and as he says, his farm “is overrun with eggs.” Soothing music, he feels, relaxes the birds and the calming effect increases egg production.

It isn’t only chickens that perform better with music. It seems that cows produce more milk when they listen to calming music. And that isn’t just hearsay. Researchers at the University of Leicester in the U.K. exposed herds of Friesian cattle to different types of music for twelve hours a day over nine weeks. On days when slow music was played, milk production increased by about 3 per cent. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water were a big hit in the milking shed. On the other hand, the cows did not enjoy Size of a Cow by Wonderstuff. The music is pretty objectionable, and the cows probably did not think much of the lyrics, either: “Damn blast, look at my past, ripping up my feet over broken glass. Oh wow, look at me now, I’m building up my problems to the size of a cow.”

A Moo Down Milk Lane has no lyrics, but this original composition by Tzu-Deng Jerry D was judged to be the winning entry in a contest run by the British Columbia Dairy Association. The challenge was to come up with music that best increased milk yield, and apparently the cows really enjoyed Jerry D’s dulcet tones. I wonder how the food that the cows chomp on would respond to this little composition. Yes, believe it or not, plant growth may also be affected by music. In 1973, Dorothy Retallack published a book titled The Sound of Music and Plants, in which she described her experiments that involved exposing plants to different types of music. “Easy listening” sounds actually made the plants lean toward the speaker, as if hungering for more. Rock music, on the other hand frightened the plants, stunted their growth and caused them to seek refuge by leaning away from the speaker. The plants didn’t care for country music one way or another, but interestingly, they did have a preference, in terms of instruments. Strings, particularly the sitar, were favoured over percussion instruments.

How can such a response be explained? Consider that as far as we are concerned, sound is the brain’s interpretation of the vibration of our ear drums in response to variations in air pressure. It is not inconceivable that such changes in pressure can have an effect on the movement of plant cells, resulting in changes in growth. This is more theory than hard science, but some vintners are convinced enough to have placed speakers in their vineyards exposing the vines to the soothing sounds of Mozart and Vivaldi. I wonder what some of Justin Bieber’s warblings would do. Maybe keep birds and insects away. There’s an experiment waiting to be done.

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The mystique of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Fri, 2014-04-04 18:29

During the Middle Ages, the town of Scarborough in Yorkshire, England, featured an annual fair that attracted merchants from all over the country as well as the continent. An array of fabrics, dyes, skins, pots and foods vied for customers’ attention.

And then there were the herbs. There would have been a large assortment, but surely parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme would have been among them. After all, Simon and Garfunkel told us so, in the lyrics of Scarborough Fair, the memorable ballad featured on the soundtrack of the movie The Graduate: Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine.While Simon and Garfunkel catapulted the song to fame, various versions of the melody and lyrics can be traced to the 17th century.

Some historians claim that these specific herbs were mentioned both because of their medicinal properties and the mystical belief at the time that herbs had the ability to influence emotions. Parsley, for example, was thought to remove bitter feelings in the same way it eliminated bad odours. Chewing fresh parsley was a long-standing antidote to bad breath. The botanical name of sage, Salvia officinalis, derives from the Latin “salvere,” meaning “to be saved” and pays homage to the Roman belief that the herb was a key to longevity. In the Middle Ages, sage was one of the components of a concoction known as Four Thieves Vinegar, which claimed to offer protection against the plague. It didn’t.

Rosemary was also part of that potion, but historically the herb is better known for its supposed memory-enhancing effect. In ancient Greece, so the story goes, students would hang rosemary around their neck to improve memory and concentration. That might have worked, had they also prepared for their exams while sniffing rosemary. Modern studies have shown that recall is improved when subjects are exposed to the same smell during a test as during the learning process. The strong, lingering scent of rosemary may well have been responsible for its inclusion in medieval wedding bouquets as a symbol reminding lovers of their vows. Thyme also has a long-lasting and pleasing scent, which was thought to ward off melancholy. The ancient Greeks placed some in their baths.

There was also a more practical reason for sale of these herbs. Microbial contamination of food was a scourge at the time, and many herbs and spices are known to contain compounds with antimicrobial activity. Thyme oil, for example, is being explored today for its antibacterial effect, particularly against Listeria monocytogenes. On top of being effective against bacteria, thyme oil can be labelled as a “natural preservative,” a strong selling point. Thymol, the major active ingredient, also has potent antioxidant properties and can prevent fat from becoming rancid. Rosemary extract also contains the antioxidants carnosic acid and carnosol, and has been approved for use in meats, baked goods, oils and fish-oil supplements. Curry might well have developed as a popular flavouring because of the antibacterial effects of turmeric, coriander and nutmeg.

Vendors at Scarborough Fair would surely have been hawking more than just parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. There would have been mugwort to ease labour pains, burdock and savory to help pass flatulence, cottonweed for headaches — and in the words of Nicholas Culpeper, the prime authority on herbalism at the time, foxglove to “purge the body both upwards and downward of tough phlegm and clammy humours and to open obstructions of the liver and the spleen.” Culpeper was a botanist, herbalist physician and astrologer who forged a system of treatments that mixed reasonable use of herbs with nonsensical “medical astrology.”

There was also belief in the Doctrine of Signatures, which maintained that nature had provided humans with clues about the treatment of disease. Plants or herbs that resembled parts of the human body were to be used to treat ailments of that part of the body. Lungwort, for example, would help with disorders of the lung, bloodroot with diseases of the blood and beans with kidney problems. Indeed, the history of herbal medicine is characterized by a curious blend of science and nonsense — not so different from today. Just consider oil of oregano with its claims to treat sore throats, lice, colds, acne, infections, parasites, yeasts, diabetes, allergies or whatever else one fancies.

No less an authority than Dr. Oz devoted a segment of his show to explaining how carvacrol, the “super ingredient” in oil of oregano, destroys nasty bacteria and boosts the immune system. There was even a neat demo, in which a vile-looking model of a bacterium was encased in what looked like a glass bubble. Dr. Oz attacked the bubble, which played the role of the bacteria’s protective layer, with a kitchen knife. The attack wasn’t exactly a challenge to the famed Psycho scene and was not successful. Then Mrs. Oz stepped in with a kettle of hot water, which played the role carvacrol, and poured it over the bubble. It immediately cracked and her knife-wielding hubby now easily burst through and punctured the bacterium, deflating it like a balloon. A really neat demo. I think they must have cooled the glass first to make it crack so easily. They get points for that one. Of course, the point is way over-hyped. There is some cursory laboratory evidence of oil of oregano having an antibacterial effect. When bacteria are bathed in the oil, they perish. Mind you, they also perish if bathed in a salt solution, alcohol, lemon juice or a variety of soft drinks. It isn’t hard to kill bacteria in a petri dish. But the body is not a large petri dish.

There is no evidence that a dose of oil of oregano is absorbed into the bloodstream to an extent where it may have an antibacterial effect. What about its claimed “immune-boosting” property? Here the evidence comes from nursing pigs. If they are given oil of oregano, they produce somewhat more white blood cells in their milk. Hardly something to oink about. What we have here are a few studies that suggest an effect in the lab or in animals which is then over-interpreted by marketers. Perhaps just like the over-interpretation of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Maybe those particular words just had the right cadence and rhyme to fit the song.

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You Asked: Are chia seeds really that healthy or is it just nonsensical hype?

Wed, 2014-04-02 08:05

It isn’t nonsensical hype but neither are chia seeds some sort of wonder product. A plant growing from a seed is pretty amazing.  So is the hype that grows from a seed of truth in the area of nutritional supplements.  Salba is a case in point.  What is it?  A grain that originated in South America and is reputed to have been revered by the Aztecs because it served as a source of energy for their runners.  I don’t know that, but I do know that the seeds served as the source of the “hair” that sprouted from those little ceramic novelty animals known as “Chia Pets.”  Indeed, it was the speed with which those salba sprouts grew that intrigued University of Toronto researcher Vlad Vuksan.  Did these seeds have some special property, he wondered?  Chemical analysis showed that they were an excellent source of alpha linolenic acid, an omega three fat, as well as of fiber.  Vuksan, whose research focuses on the nutritional aspects of type 2 diabetes became interested because of accumulating evidence that whole grains can play a role in reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease.  And then the next thing we know is that Salba is being touted by a commercial enterprise as “Nature’s Most Powerful Whole Food,” and people are shelling out money for the seeds that according to the marketers “have been extensively researched at the University of Toronto.”  Now, Vuksan is a respected researcher, but the evidence in this case constitutes one published paper that describes a trial with just twenty subjects.  And the results are not what one would call dramatic.

The subjects were all type 2 diabetics, so the results cannot be automatically extended to the general public.  Everyday they consumed either an average of 37 grams of salba seeds or an equivalent amount of wheat bran.  That’s a lot of seed, about six tablespoons.  The hope was that salba would help with blood glucose control, but it did no better than the bran.  On the other hand it did reduce the systolic blood pressure by some 6 mm of Hg, which is significant.  Salba also reduced C-reactive protein which is a measure of inflammation and had a small effect on reducing the blood’s clotting ability.  These are welcome changes since diabetics are at increased risk for heart disease.  But they hardly justify the hype that has been created by advertisers on behalf of salba.  We hear comments that just 3.5 ounces of salba has as much omega-3 fats as 28 ounces of salmon and as much calcium as 3 cups of milk and as much iron as five cups of raw spinach.  Well, 3.5 ounces is 97 grams, almost three times as much as was used in the study, which already was a large amount.  People who take the “recommended” dose on the package would take 12 grams a day, which yields a trivial amount of calcium and iron.  Furthermore, the type of omega-3 in salba is not the type we find in fish.  And if it comes to that, flax is a much cheaper source of vegetable based omega-3 fats.  Yes, eating whole grains is a good idea, but before we attribute any magical properties to salba we need more than one small study on diabetics that shows a modest decline in some cardiovascular risk factors but shows nothing about disease outcome.  For now, I’m not slaughtering and eating my Chia pet.

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