JULY 2017 MEGA News Round-Up

This month: Let food be thy medicine | Hunter-Gatherer diets | Grow your own microbiome | Bitter foods for brain health | Long term weight loss | Sleep | Grass-fed meat and dairy | Fish on the menu | Ketogenic diet | Rewilding the lynx

It’s been a busy month for nutrition news and I found so much to write about I’ve actually hived off a chunk for a separate post later about the rise of veganism. In the meantime, lets start with the quote of the month…

It’s worrying just how little student doctors are taught about nutrition and health. My own experience has been that even gastroenterologists — specialists in intestinal disorders — have little or no interest in what their patients are eating.



‘Let food be thy medicine’

The quote above came from The Daily Mail (Jul 10th) in an article titled can food be better than drugs? which tells the stories of five people who beat their medical condition with diet (MS, IBS, raised cholesterol, epilepsy and diabetes). Continue reading

The three wise herbalists brought… Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh




Everybody knows the story of the three wise men bringing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the infant Jesus in the Christmas nativity. There is plenty of symbology around these iconic gifts allowing a host of interpretations. What I want to focus on here are some very real medical uses of the herbs Frankincense and Myrrh, and if you allow me a little bit of poetic licence, Saffron (as gold)…



Whilst the metallic element, gold, does have some medical uses, as a Medical Herbalist I do not use it, so I am going to talk about the golden herb saffron, which can literally be worth its weight in gold. [Daily Mail: How an ounce of saffron is more expensive than gold: Cultivation of exotic spice returns to Essex for the first time in 200 years]

Saffron is made from the stamen of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus). Each crocus produces just three of these delicate strands per year, and they must be laboriously picked by hand before drying, at the right temperature and duration.

When used in cooking – such as saffron loaf or saffron rice – it adds a strong golden colour and has a distinctive aroma and flavour. I always add half a dozen strands of Kashmiri saffron when making a small pot of special gunpowder green tea. When used medicinally it has serotonergic (mood enhancing) effects, is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulscent, has anti-timor effects, neuro-endocrine (hormone engaging) influence and has neuro-protective properties [ref].

Here is some evidence of medical efficacy:

  • Depression
    A 2014 review of the scientific literature [ref] identified six high quality studies that demonstrated  a positive effect, similar to that seen with anti-depressants drugs, and without the dependence or side effects.
  • Psychological and behavioural
    An excellent 2015 review paper from an American research team [ref] concluded: “Findings from initial clinical trials suggest that saffron may improve the symptoms and the effects of depression, premenstrual syndrome, sexual dysfunction and infertility, and excessive snacking behaviors.”
  • Cardiovascular
    It is reported that regions of the world that regularly consume saffron have lower levels of heart disease. The anti-atherosclerotic, antioxidant, anti-diabetes, hypotensive, anti-ischemic, anti-platelet aggregation effects of saffron suggest it is cardio protective and animal studies show this to be the case. [ref]
  • Diabetes
    Saffron has a hypoglycaemic effect and has been shown to raise insulin levels in diabetic rats with low insulin, whilst enhancing glucose uptake. Its antioxidant properties may reduce diabetic vascular complications too [ref].
  • Obesity & Weight Loss
    Saffron has been shown to reduce body weight in rats, whilst in humans it has been shown to reduce appetite and increase satiety [ref] “After 2 months, the subjects using the saffron extract reported a decrease in snacking and lost more weight than the control group”

Safety: The widespread use of saffron as a culinary spice suggests it is safe at those doses. This superb paper, published in 2012 by an Italian team of researchers reviews the known biological effects of this amazing herbal medicine [ref] and it concludes: “To date, very few adverse health effects of saffron have been demonstrated. At high doses (more than 5 g per day), it should be avoided in pregnancy owing to its uterine stimulation activity.” Well that’s fine, as it is therapeutic well below that dose. It is a significant antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and since these processes a known to be the drivers of most major diseases I think it worth revisiting the use of this herb more widely. The problem is just the cost!



As well as being burned for incense in religious ceremonies this gum distinctly medicinal. Chewing on bobbles of frankincense is good for mouth ulcers and gum disease, but tastes like soap or turpentine. Mostly it is therefore used either as an essential oil or powdered and encapsulated. One can also concentrate the 5-Loxin component to optimise the anti-inflammatory properties, as in one of the products I stock.

This traditional medicine of the Middle East has expectorant, antiseptic, and even anxiolytic (i.e. calming) and anti-neurotic effects as well as the well recognised anti-inflammatory ones. Indeed recent studies have shown it has analgesic, tranquilising, anti-bacterial and anti-tumour effects too, which gives it a role in the treatment of quite a range of common conditions. [ref]

The following medicinal effects come from a 2016 review:

  • Gastro-Intestinal
    Its anti-inflammatory effect gives it a place in inflammatory bowel disease (i.e. ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), irritable bowel syndrome, bronchitis and sinusitis. In human studies of colitis patients, the resin was far more effective than the standard drug: “Out of the patients treated with Boswellia gum resin, 70% went into remission while in the case of sulfasalazine [the standard drug it was compared to] the remission ratio was 40%”
  • Anti-fungal
    Frankincense is strongly anti-fungal towards candida species. As well as many other moulds including food borne moulds. (One wonders if it would be effective burned as incense to reduce mould spores in houses… )
  • Asthma
    Severity and risk of asthma attacks is reduced by consumption of Frankincense gum, or by inhalation of the smoke when burned.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis Multiple lines of evidence suggest that frankinscence could help via anti-oxidant and potent anti-inflammatory effects. One researcher noted that “at a dose of 200 mg/kg, B. serrata extracts shift the balance of cytokines towards a bone-protecting pattern”

Memory, Dementia, Alzheimer’s
There is considerable interest in the role of Frankincense gum in cognitive impairment as it has been shown to improve memory in animal models of Alzheimer’s [ref]. In fact recent studies have shown that it increases neurone formation in the hippocampus [ref], i.e. that part of the brain that is essential for new memory formation. A recent human study of cognitive impairment in multiple sclerosis found that it “showed significant improvement in visuospatial memory, but had no effect on verbal memory and information processing speed.” [ref]. I would not be using simply frankincense for dementia, as there are other very valuable measures that should be employed, but this resin, depending on the case, could play a significant role in a rounded treatment approach.

In my clinical practice I find Boswellia particularly useful in autoimmune disorders, and when inflammation suddenly occurs, such as polymyalgia rheumatica, for example, which can come on over night and cause severe joint pain, disability and exhaustion. The usual drugs used by doctors have real problems associated with them, as they are aimed at suppression of the immune system, which you cannot do without negative consequences, whereas taking a deeper look at what may have triggered the condition, and treating in a more thoughtful way with medicinal herbs, including frankincense, has been very successful to date with no long term adverse effects.



Another aromatic resinmyrrh, (Commiphora mol mol) also comes from the Middle East, in fact Yemen originally and it has been used in the Western Herbal Medicine tradition for hundreds of years. I prefer the alcoholic extract (tincture) to the resin itself for ease of use, and offer it as part of my Home Herbal set in a dropper bottle as shown above. It is part of the Home Herbal range of medicines that I encourage my patients to keep in their medicine cupboard at all times because it is so reliable, effective and practical to use.

Ten to twenty drops added to a glass of water makes an excellent gargle for sore throats, gingivitis (inflamed gums), receding gums, loose teeth, mouth ulcers, and as a general antiseptic mouth wash which can be swished between the teeth where toothbrush bristles may not reach. A few drops can be put onto the toothbrush along with toothpaste (or my favourite alternative – salt and sodium bicarbonate). Tincture of myrrh can be dabbed neat onto small cuts or bites as it is strongly antimicrobial, antiseptic and astringent, thus helping to defend against any nasty bugs that can get in when bitten by a mosquito or whenever the skin barrier is breached, and as an astringent it helps bring swelling down [ref]. It has been used successfully in the treatment of intestinal worms, as have certain other herbs, most of which, like myrrh, taste bad (to humans and to worms, clearly)!

Myrrh has many similar properties to Frankinscence, including analgesia (pain relief), anti-inflammatory and anti-obesity properties [ref]. I find it has a vital place in the treatment of most infections, including gastroenteritis, ‘flu, colds, sore throats, bronchitis, pneumonia etc, as well as ulcers in any tissue (incl legs, stomach and mouth) and in arthritis. As an anti-inflammatory it has a role in cancer [ref] along with other herbs and dietary measures.

Apart from the above uses, myrrh has also been used in leprosy and syphilis too, which, though it may sound far fetched is quite reasonable. It is a powerful antimicrobial herb, so any bacterial infections can sensibly be treated with this age old defender of health, including common candida albicans and staphylococcal infections. They didn’t give it to the Messiah for nothing! In fact midwives used to dab myrrh onto the cut umbilical cord of new born babes in the less hygienic environment of the past [ref].

  • Gastro-Intestinal
    The anti-spasmodic and anti-inflammatory effects of myrrh are of great value when treating inflamed gut disorders [ref]. As myrrh raises white blood cell numbers it assists in ulcer and wound healing too [ref]
  • Skin
    Myrrh has been shown to be effective at treating fungal infections of the skin [ref] including ringworm, and systemic fungal problems caused by candida albicans (once treated, maintenance through a low carbohydrate diet would be wise too).
  • Liver
    Myrrh has been shown to protect the liver from lipopolysaccharides (a major gut endotoxin) and “might be sufficient to combat cellular damage caused by various conditions that resemble fulminant hepatitis” according to researchers in Saudi Arabia [ref].
  • Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
    Myrrh “has the ability to improve insulin sensitivity and delay the development of insulin resistance… and may be used as an adjuvant therapy for patients with insulin resistance.” [ref]
  • Parasites
    Here is an in-depth paper: Myrrh: A Significant Development in the Treatment of Parasites (pdf) by a colleague of mine, the Medical Herbalist Kerry Bone. Two of the most studied areas are for the treatment of schistosomiasis (a flatworm) and fasciola (a liver fluke) – two common parasitic infections in the tropics and subtropics [ref].

So, in wishing all my readers and patients a very Merry Christmas, I also want to encourage you to use your gold, frankincense and myrrh as wisely as those three wise men. Or rather, if you have any sort of medical problem or niggle, book an appointment with me and we will see what how best to approach it using medicinal herbs and nourishing foods. Chances are you will find me to be a wise woman too.

May News Round-Up

In_the_News_MayA bumper crop this month including:
· Herbs for Sleep

· Vit-D deficiency in sunny countries
· Dark chocolate helps weight loss
· Butt er and eggs won’t kill you
· Exploring ancestral nutrition
· Salt does not raise BP (yet again)
· Inequality began with farming

Herbs for Sleep

Our upcoming post ‘herbs for sleep’ has received a celebrity endorsement in The Mail (how did they know? – did they get our press release?). The article is about passiflora (passion flower) by gardener Chris Beardshaw, who excitedly tells us that there is a “real and effective medicine chest in your garden”. Thanks Chris – Yes, I know. Herbal Medicine is real medicine. Tell me about it.

Lack of sun exposure and VItamin D deficiency – a worldwide iatrogenic illness?

The hypothesis that medical recommendations to avoid sunshine and use sun screens is causing widespread vitamin D deficiency gains further support from two studies this month.

Medscape Medical News reports on a study that found 70-90% of pregnant women in mediterranean countries are vitamin D deficient. The Authors note that “In Greece, physicians advise pregnant women to stay out of the sun for fear of skin cancer; they also use sunscreen, which blocks UVB, the primary source of vitamin-D production.”

Meanwhile the Times of India reports that 70-90% of the Indian population are now vitamin D deficient partly due to sun-phobic medical advice, but also because widespread vegetarian diets lack vitamin D containing foods.

Recent vit-D supplementation trials seem to point towards positive results primarily among deficient patients (<30ng/ml 25(OH)D or <75 nmol/l in UK units), one such reported on Web MD found supplementation among vitamin D deficient overweight Americans improved weight loss. At the other end of the spectrum Medpage Today nicely summarises recent findings that vitamin D ‘overdose’ is extremely rare.

Dark Chocolate and weight loss

Mother Nature Network reports on a study that compared normal diet v low-carb diet, and a low-carb that included 40g of dark chocolate per day. The group with the dark chocolate ended up losing more weight, and keeping it off, once the study period finished.

Saturated fat and cholesterol

Daily Mail, 25th May: Why butter and eggs won’t kill us after all: Flawed science triggers U-turn on cholesterol fears. Reports on changing attitudes at the American FDA towards dietary recommendations. (When will UK guidelines be adjusted?)

Ancestral nutrition

The Guardian ran a nice article about two friends exploring North American ancestral wisdom by living off the land: “My friend Jordan and I spent a week in the wilds of Oregon, reflecting on the way my ancestors lived.”… a recommended read.

The Inquisitr reports that a woman who suffered from Lyme disease found that the only food she could eat without allergic reactions was beef. Consequently, she and her family have eaten a zero carb all-beef diet for 17 years (?!)

This reminds me of the controversial study with Stephansson who was isolated for 12 months and ate only meat, yet didn’t get scurvy. But that was 100 years ago. Here is a link to a 1930 paper in JAMA on this remarkable experiment. It would be really interesting to know more about this family’s health, blood profiles, vitamin C status etc. BTW I’m not recommending this diet just yet, but wow!

Finally, Munchies report on a young paleo couple weaning their baby on liver. The comments from the nutritionist are interesting – especially the recognition of the importance of fat in babys diets and their need for iron. Weaning babies on meat can help this. Liver seems to fit the bill, although I would limit it to once per week.

Salt – not so bad after all?

As we explored in our post Salt of the Earth sodium is probably not the health devil it has been painted as. Further evidence has emerged that “Reducing Sodium Has Minimal Effect for Teen Girls” – and includes a good general discussion of the salt controversy.

How the adoption of farming lead to inequality

To round off this month’s bumper crop of news stories, The Guardian reports on a study that compared gender roles in hunter gatherer societies to those of early farming societies. Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

Calorie Counting vs Meal Timing


When people try to lose weight they are often convinced that counting calories will help. It makes such sense at one level: if I take in fewer calories than I use, then the rest will have to come from my fat stores – Bingo! – I lose weight. The trouble is that it isn’t that simple. There are other possibilities. To quote a wise man donkey:

“Think of all the possibilities, Piglet, before you settle down to enjoy yourselves.”

Firstly, one’s metabolism can respond to the arrival of fewer calories by ‘slowing down’, reducing the basal metabolic rate or reducing thermogenesis (heat production). These energy sparing processes are evolutionary survival mechanisms to cope with the vagaries of food supply, but it is also why reducing food intake often does not lead to the hoped for weight loss.

Secondly, the calorie values given on foods is often inaccurate. You may be surprised to learn that the values given on food packaging are rarely the result of measurement, but are usually based on experimental data carried out in the 19th century. So counting calories is rather an approximate affair.

A third factor is that the number of calories eaten is only part of the story. The important bit is the calories that are absorbed in the gut, and this is affected by many different factors. For example, raw food generally provides fewer calories than the same food when cooked (this is central to anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s thesis in his book ‘Catching Fire: How cooking made us Human’ – a recommended read). Also, the number of calories available depends on the state of the gut flora. The bacteria, yeasts and protozoa that live in the gut can make certain nutrients more or less available by the way they are broken down, but also by modulating how the gut wall absorbs these nutrients. On top of all that, different foods affect how quickly or slowly a meal passes through the digestive tract and consequentially how much time there is for absorption to take place.

It is no surprise then that the prestigious journal Scientific American devoted an editorial to this in their issue on food, entitled “Why Calories Counts Are Wrong”. If you click on the images below you can read the article (well, a preview at least) and watch a rather fun video summary (once you get past the advert).

Why_Counting_Calories_Are_Wrong_cover     Why_Counting_Calories_Are_Wrong_vid

A fourth factor is the effect of food on appetite. Appetite is the most powerful breaker of will as every calorie-counting-dieter will testify, having pitted their will power against hunger and even peckishness, only to fail more often than they succeed. Which brings us nicely to an interesting study…

Meal Timing: When we eat affects how easily we can lose weight

The old adage “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper” has been given some scientific backing lately, as scientists from Tel Aviv University found that obese women on a calorie controlled diet lost more weight if they ate larger breakfasts and smaller evening meals.

They split 93 obese women into two groups and put both on a 1400 calorie diet for 12 weeks (who did the calorie counting I want to know!) One group ate a 700 Cal breakfast, 500 Cal lunch and 200 Cal dinner, whilst the other group reversed this having 200 Cal breakfast, 500 Cal lunch and 700 Cal dinner.

The end results were quite extraordinary. The 700 Cal dinner group lost an average of only 7 lb and 1.4 inches from their waists, whereas the 700 Cal breakfast group lost 17 lb and 3 inches from their waists – that’s more than double the weight loss simply by varying meal timings! Wow!

Furthermore, the big breakfast group had much better glucose control, insulin levels and triglycerides. They also had reduced glucose spikes following meals. All important health markers and beneficial even if you don’t need to lose weight.

One of the most important findings for dieters was that the big breakfast markedly decreased levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, so were far less tempted to snack.

These data suggest that when we eat is as important as what we eat. Don’t skip breakfast and don’t snack late in the evening. The lead researcher points out that a breakfast should be high in protein (cheese, nuts, eggs, bacon) to produce the best effect, as previous studies have shown that it is the protein content of breakfasts that helps keep hunger at bay for longest. (Read more on this study on the Tel Aviv website)

I recommend that for optimum health my patients eat a good breakfast, preferably including eggs. I know from experience that an omelette in the morning will set me up for the day and I may not think about food again until mid afternoon or later even. One of the striking features of a low-carb diet is the way being hungry between meals just disappears. That makes the tricky activity of calorie counting unnecessary as one tends to eat less spontaneously, but that, as Pooh says, is another story…

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.”
―    A.A. Milne

Many of you will already know that I eat like an Empress, and it is pretty exciting.