Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Milk Myth

When I was growing up, milk and other dairy products were considered to be among the healthiest of foods. Kids, in particular, were encouraged to drink milk liberally. It was even considered to be healthier for babies than their mother's milk and breastfeeding was generally discouraged. This was largely in response to the propaganda machine of the dairy industry which targeted parents, doctors, and heavily lobbied governments to make sure that milk was on the top of the list of healthy food choices in their various official food guides. Our society was a lot more patriarchal in those days and almost no one would ever question someone in authority like a doctor. So, if your doctor told you not to nurse your baby and put her/him on a dairy-based infant formula instead, and all through their childhood and adolescence to make sure they drank lots of the white stuff, that was what you did. It didn't matter that doctors received extremely little, if any, schooling in nutrition (not that it would have mattered much as there was very little good science behind nutrition until the last 10-20 years). They were the experts!

When it comes down to it, most doctors, even if they are among the few who are more open-minded and less stuck in a narrow reductionistic paradigm, really don't have a lot of time to keep on top of the latest research. As a result, they get most of their info from product literature provided by pharmaceutical companies and other commercial interests. Of course they have the Canadian and American Food Guides to fall back on when it comes to nutrition. But these are hugely influenced by lobbying efforts on behalf of major commercial sectors such as the dairy and meat industries.

Now, to be fair, the natural health product industry plays the same game, although they don't have the size, money and influence to do it as well as the larger, better established industries. If you go looking for information from people who work in health food stores or from many natural health practitioners (especially if they sell products), no matter how good their intentions you'll find that they are getting most of their information from biased product literature provided by the natural health product industry.

Anyway, getting back to milk, until recently most of the research out there was largely funded by the dairy industry. However, more recently there have been some decent independent studies that have been coming to very different conclusions than what the dairy industry would like us to believe. As a result, some pretty high profile researchers have begun to poke holes into some of the milk myths. For instance, see:

Some of the myths that are questioned here are: skim milk is healthier than whole milk; milk is the best source of calcium; most of the supposed health benefits of milk are unproven. They also point out that milk consumption is associated with a number of potential negative health consequences and recommend that whole milk be consumed rather than skim milk and it should be considered an optional part of our diet (no minimum daily requirement as the various official food guides recommend) and consumed in small quantities, if at all.

I would add to that to only consume certified organic dairy products. It's interesting that many people are more inclined to purchase organic fruits and veggies but aren't as concerned about dairy and meat products. The rationale is that chemicals are sprayed directly on to plants, but this is not the case with animals. I'm sure cost is one of the factors behind these attitudes. Dairy and meat tend to be among the more costly food products and when you add the organic premium they can get pretty expensive. My answer to that is to buy organic but eat less. Most North Americans eat far too much meat and dairy anyway. Aside from the fact that commercially raised animals are unhealthy from being stressed out, fed diets that are unnatural for their species, being raised in inhumane conditions, and pumped full of drugs and hormones, toxins such as agricultural chemicals become more concentrated as you move up the food chain. Although it varies depending on the chemical and the animal, on average it is about ten times at each level. That means that, since commercially raised livestock are fed commercially grown feed, the levels of agricultural chemicals in the tissues of these animals is approximately ten times the level of the plants that they are fed. Also, many animals (even herbivores) are given feed that contains animal products which will raise the levels of these chemicals in their tissues to even more than ten times. As a result, animal products are the most important foods to eat certified organic!

Dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) are an excellent source of calcium,
magnesium, potassium, iron and other important trace minerals.

Getting back to milk, the dairy is the best source of calcium myth is being questioned as well. For instance, apparently bone fractures are more common in countries that have the highest dairy consumption! The authors point out that significant levels of calcium can also be obtained from leafy greens, nuts and seeds. Many herbs are a good source of calcium as well as other minerals that are necessary for the proper assimilation and utilization of calcium. These include the leaves of dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), chicory (Cichorium intybus) and nettle (Urtica dioica). Although I usually prefer to use herbs in the form of fresh plant tinctures for medicinal purposes, when they are being used for their nutritive properties it is best to take them as a tea because the amount of actual herb per unit dose is much higher to make a cup of tea than what is necessary for a dose of tincture. Most nutrients need to be consumed in much larger quantities than other more pharmacological constituents of herbs. Of course, you'll get even more minerals and other nutrients if you eat them! Many green leafy herbs are both edible and very nutritious.

Although calcium is a very important nutrient, the whole issue of how much we need is now being questioned as well. Some recent research has demonstrated that too much calcium is associated with negative health consequences, especially cardiovascular disease. For instance, check these out:

I included both of them because although one of the studies only found this association in men, but not women, the other one focused exclusively on women. It is interesting to note that there seems to be a stronger correlation when people take calcium supplements. It would have been interesting to see what they would have found had they taken into account the different forms of calcium that were supplemented.

Our obsession with calcium is one of the factors behind the recommendation to consume more dairy products. However, we seem to be getting carried away with this. Calcium supplements are one of the most common supplements recommended by doctors.

When I see new clients, I am often shocked at how much calcium they have been told to supplement by doctors and even other natural health practitioners. I often see people taking 50-100% the recommended daily amount. This is absurd! It is true that our body does not absorb 100% of the calcium we consume, however, the efficiency of calcium absorption increases the more we need it. It is also true that calcium levels are only high in a small percentage of foods, nevertheless there is calcium in everything that we eat (except in some heavily processed junk foods and beverages). In addition, doctors in particular often recommend the worst calcium supplements. Firstly, they recommend forms that are poorly absorbed such as calcium carbonate, which is the most common form found in pharmaceutical brands. Secondly, they often recommend supplements that only contain calcium and possibly some vitamin D. The latter is necessary for proper calcium absorption. Most calcium supplements contain 200-400 IU of vitamin D. Recent research has demonstrated that many people are deficient in vitamin D, so these amounts are not enough for most people. In addition, our body has to maintain a very delicate balance between many minerals. If some minerals are taken in excess it disturbs this balance, both by the increased availability of the supplemented minerals, and because excessive intake of some minerals will actually deplete our body of others. As a result, calcium should not be taken on its own. Ideally, at the very least it should be taken with vitamin D, magnesium, zinc and copper, but preferably with manganese, silicon and possibly a few other trace minerals as well. Usually the best way to take calcium is as part of a good multi mineral complex.

Here I am hugging a dolomite (dolostone) boulder. Dolomite is one of the sources of calcium carbonate.
I don't know about you, but I don't absorb rocks very well. However, I do enjoy hanging out with them!

In my practice, I rarely recommend calcium. If someone is a bit low in this mineral, it can usually be addressed through diet - even without dairy products. In some situations and for therapeutic purposes I may recommend it, but rarely more than 200-300 mg per day, always in a well absorbed form such as calcium citrate or ascorbate, and always in combination with a decent amount of vitamin D (at least 1,000 IU) and other minerals to balance things out.

So, lets get back to milk and other dairy products. Dairy is one of the most common food allergies or sensitivities in our society. This is related to a lot of factors that are common in our society: poor diet and lifestyle practices; lack of exercise; general toxicity; stress and other emotional and psychological factors. All of these predispose us to many chronic health conditions including allergies and food sensitivities. Add to this that most of the dairy products we consume come from sick animals; are laced with drugs, hormones, agricultural chemicals and other toxins; and that milk by nature contains proteins that are irritating to our digestive tract and, in general, is over-consumed (we are more likely to develop sensitivities to foods that we consume in excess), and it's not surprising that so many people don't tolerate it well or at all. In my practice I often find dairy allergies or sensitivities associated with obesity, diabetes, and chronic inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract, skin and respiratory system. As a result, I usually have people with these kinds of conditions reduce or even eliminate dairy from their diet, depending on the individual case.

One interesting side note, in ayurvedic and siddha medicine, two ancient healing traditions from India, they extol the benefits of milk, considering it to be one of the most perfect foods. They sometimes even recommend that herbs be boiled in milk! I once had a conversation with an ayurvedic practitioner about this. I explained that I so often see milk consumption associated with chronic health conditions. It was his belief that this is because the milk we consume in the West is from sick animals, full of chemicals, pasteurized and refrigerated. He believed that the processes of pasteurization and refrigeration denature (alter the structure of) the proteins in milk making it more harmful than beneficial. I don't know if this is true, but it's something worth considering. In India, until recently, very few people had refrigeration. They usually obtained their milk fresh each day from free ranging cattle, boiled it and either used it right away or cultured it to make curd. When I was in India in the early 80's, I still had a very severe allergy to dairy products (which I eventually overcame). Although I could not tolerate dairy products in any quantity when I was at home in Canada, I could tolerate them in small amounts over there. Apparently, there is (or was) something very different about their dairy products.

Many people in India obtain their milk from Brahma cattle (Bos indicus).
Of course, you won't get much milk from this one!

The bottom line here is that milk and other dairy products are not as beneficial as they are promoted to be; are particularly problematic for a growing segment of our population who have various kinds of sensitivities to them; and can have some serious negative health consequences when over-consumed. For those who can tolerate them, it is best to consume only certified organic dairy products, and only in moderation.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Harvesting Ground Ivy

On June 12th I went to one of the areas where I wild-harvest herbs and harvested ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), better know as creeping Charlie in some areas. This Eurasian species has naturalize throughout much of North America. Some people consider it invasive, especially in shady areas, but it really isn't. It can sometimes be prolific, but it doesn't crowd out other species. It often grows on shadier parts of lawns. If you notice a somewhat minty smell when you are mowing the lawn, you've probable mowed some ground ivy!

This is an herb that I use in moderate quantities in my practice - typically about 4-5 litres per year. It is a very versatile herb and I would probably use even more of it if it wasn't for the fact that it is a difficult herb to harvest in quantity due to its small size. As I still had 2 litres of ground ivy macerating and a bit more already pressed, this year I harvested 5 litres. With herbs that I use in small to moderate quantities I usually harvest a two year supply so that I only have to harvest about half of them each year, but because of difficulty harvesting large quantities of this herb it is necessary for me to harvest it annually.

Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) in the early spring before it starts to produce flowering stalks.
The larger, older looking leaves are the ones that have over-wintered.

Ground ivy is fairly sensitive to variations in weather conditions from year to year. In the region where I live it can go into flower any time from mid April to early May. It has a relatively long flowering period, typically flowering until late June or early July.

Although we tend to harvest the aerial parts of most herbs very soon after they go into flower, with ground ivy it is preferable to wait until a bit after the middle of its flowering period. This is because the flowering stalks that we harvest are relatively small and don't weigh very much. It is best to wait until they are almost at their maximum height. I usually harvest it from early to mid June, depending on the weather conditions in any given year.

The young stalks of ground ivy just before it begins to flower.

Fortunately ground ivy has a fairly long period when it can be harvested - typically about two weeks - because, with the unusually cool, wet weather we have been having, there haven't been very many days when the conditions are ideal for harvesting herbs. As a result, I didn't get a few of the herbs that I intended to harvest; but I had to get ground ivy because I use a fair amount of it.

This is what ground ivy looks like when it first goes into flower.

Last year the conditions were the opposite of this year. They were unusually hot and dry. As a result, I harvested ground ivy earlier; on June 5th. It was actually about a week later in its life cycle when I harvested it last year. Had I harvested it at a similar stage to when I harvested it this year it probably would have been about a week earlier, more like the end of May.

Here is ground ivy a few weeks later.

This year on June 12th I headed out to a wilderness area about 15 minutes from where I live to harvest ground ivy. As always, I began by offering tobacco to the spirits of the land and the medicine and asking permission to harvest the medicine that day. After I received permission I headed to an area where the spirit of ground ivy is very strong and there is a large healthy population.

A closer look at our friend. Notice that it has square stalks and opposite leaves, typical of the Mint family.

Although for the most part our spring was cool and wet, we did have a few short periods when it was sunny, hot and humid. The day I harvested ground ivy was during one of those periods. It was very hot that day and I had to be careful not to drip sweat onto the herbs as I harvested them. It was also the first day when the mosquito people were quite present. I rarely use mosquito repellent and only use a natural formulation that I make when I do. However, I never use repellent when I am harvesting herbs. Partly it is to ensure that the essential oils in the repellent I use don't contaminate the herb(s) that I am harvesting. But it is also another way that I give back to the land where I am harvesting. I never intentionally kill biting insects and when I am harvesting I just let them bite me. Eventually my blood will work its way up the food chain, into the soil, and even the plants that live there. The the sacrifice of the plant people when they offer the gift of their medicines is far greater than the little bit of blood that the mosquitoes take from me. In fact, I have a good relationship with the mosquito people and they bite me a lot less than they bite other people. When I'm with other people they hardly bite me at all, unfortunately for the others! When I used to have a more antagonistic attitude towards them they used to bite me as much as anyone else.

The flowering stalks of ground ivy can grow up to 50-60 cm (20-24 inches) tall, but it is best to harvest them when they are about 30-40 cm (12-16 inches) tall. We harvest about the terminal 50% of the stalk. In order to ensure that I do not have too much of an impact on the local population of this herb, I only harvest about from about a third of the stalks in any given area.

The harvested portion of two different size flowering stalks. The top one is 20 cm (8 inches) long,
the bottom one is 15 cm (6 inches).

In preparing herbs to make a tincture there are two stages that can be relatively time consuming. The first is the actual harvesting. Plants for which the harvested portion is small or whose population tends to be more spread out take a lot more time. Of course, we have to include the time it takes to travel to and from the area where we are harvesting as well.

The other stage that can be time consuming is the processing that we need to do with the harvested portion before it can be chopped up to prepare a maceration. There are some herbs from which we use the entire harvested portion. However, these are the minority. With the aerial parts of most herbs, much of the stalk is a fair bit less potent than the leaves and flowers. As a result, we usually have to remove a portion of the stalk. The difference in potency between the stalk and the leaves and flowers varies from herb to herb. The greater the difference, the greater the proportion of stalk that has to be removed and the longer the amount of time it takes to process the harvested portion. The more an herb branches, the more time this takes as well. Ground ivy is about medium in this regard. We do need to remove a fair bit of the stalk, but the stalks do not branch. With this herb it is best to remove the leaves and flowers from about the lower 2/3 of the the stalk. That portion of the stalk is removed and not used. I don't waste anything. The discarded stalks end up in my composter. If I didn't have a composter I would return them to the Earth somewhere at my next opportunity.

The same two harvested portions showing the amount of stalk that was removed.

Once the stalk that we aren't using is removed, the herb is weighed to determine the appropriate amount we need to use taking into account the potency we wish to prepare and the size of the jar that we will be macerating it in.

This is the amount of processed herb required to make 1 litre of tincture at a 1:5 potency.

Then we have to chop the herb up relatively fine before it can be macerated. With the right tools, that doesn't take very long. For more information on the specifics of making a tincture, see the Making Medicine series of posts.

Here it is again, chopped up and ready to macerate.

Ground ivy is a moderately aromatic herb. Its relatively mild flavour is somewhat minty and musky with just a touch of bitterness. If I have any left over I will dry it and use it to make a tea. I like the taste of ground ivy but some people find it a bit unpleasant. However, it is not overpowering and blends well with many other aromatic herbs.

There is not very much information on ground ivy out there. It is primarily recommended for respiratory conditions and inflammation and ulcers of the digestive tract. In my experience, I have found it to be a much more versatile herb than what you might suspect based on the information in the literature. However, this is typical. When I use an herb and really get to know it, I always find that it has many more properties and uses than what is indicated in the literature.

Rather than turn this into a super long post by getting into the uses of ground ivy, in the Herbal Resources section of my website I have provided a pdf document on ground ivy that you can download that is based on my research and experience with this herb.

Link to PDF file.

So, that wraps up my discussion of my experience harvesting my friend and colleague ground ivy. Except for the difference of habitat, the process is very similar to harvesting blue vervain (Verbena hastata), which I described in the Making Medicine series. In future posts I will discuss the harvesting and processing some different medicines that have a range of different requirements.