Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Vaccination Controversy, Part 2 of 3

I have finally manage to find some time to nurture this neglected series. I've received many inquiries about when I am going to finish them since I posted Part 1 (three years ago!). I am sorry that it has taken so long. I wrote Part 1 after researching some of the more recent literature on vaccinations and reading a few books that were recommended to me. At the time—while it was all fresh in my mind—I had a clear picture of what I was going to say in all three posts. Then life took me in other directions. I attempted to pick it up a few times but by then had completely forgotten much of what I had intended to include in Part 2.

I don't have time at the moment to do another extensive literature review or reread those books. Nevertheless, I am feeling the need to complete on this. There are many people who have been patiently waiting. I have decided to carry on by doing a shorter (but not short!) version of Part 2 than I had originally intended. I hope to be able to get to Part 3 in the coming weeks.

 As I mentioned in Part 1, determining the real pros and cons of vaccinations at this stage when almost the entire population has been vaccinated for generations is extremely difficult, probably impossible. There is also not a lot of motivation from researchers to investigate this issue. Pretty much the entire medical profession has been fully indoctrinated into the pro-vaccination dogma. From their point of view there is nothing to research. In addition, with the corporatization of the global political landscape, universities and governments have a lot less money to invest in research and rely heavily on industry to do the research for them or to fund it. The pharmaceutical industry certainly doesn't want to do any research that might cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccinations. They've already done such an effective job—using fear, money and political influence—convincing politicians and bureaucrats of the necessity of vaccinations that those that govern us don't see a lot of point investing public funds to explore this issue. As a result, publicly funded vaccination programs are basically a blank cheque to the pharmaceutical industry. What other drug is recommended for everyone? ...and governments and publicly funded institutions pay for the advertising and distribution as well! Is it any wonder that the pharmaceutical industry is attempting to develop a vaccination for just about everything?

I'm probably starting to sound like one of the anti-government/anti-industry conspiracy theorists. I wish this was just another conspiracy theory, but unfortunately it is not. It is a very realistic assessment of the current environment in which we are trying to make an educated decision about the potential benefits and risks of vaccinations. The point I am trying to make is that from every angle the cards are stacked against us. Even if, in the end, it turns out that the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the risks and concerns, in the current medical and sociopolitical environment it is probably impossible to determine if this actually the case.

So...let's begin with the potential benefits of vaccinations. Basically, there are two: they may prevent someone from developing an illness upon exposure to a pathogen for which they have been vaccinated; they may reduce the incidence of or even eliminate a disease. As I mentioned in Part 1, there are many complex factors that have contributed to the reduction of infectious illnesses and it is impossible to accurately determine the degree to which each factor has contributed. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that vaccination programs have made a major contribution to the reduction of many of these illnesses.

Vaccinations against influenza viruses are not very effective and, when they do work,
only provide temporary immunity because flu viruses mutate very rapidly. 

That being said, it is also clear that many of them are not as effective as medical professionals would have us believe. Consider this: there is a huge push at the moment to see to it that every child is vaccinated. In spite of that, these efforts have not been completely successful because there are some parents who for various reasons have chosen not to have their children vaccinated. Having been unsuccessful at convincing these parents, medical and public health health representatives have attempted to put additional pressure on them by promoting fear in the parents who have chosen to vaccinate their children; fear that the non-vaccinated children are putting the vaccinated kids at risk. If these vaccinations are as effective as is being claimed, then the parents of the vaccinated children would not need to be concerned. If one of the illnesses for which their children had been vaccinated were to move through their community, only the non-vaccinated children would be at risk. That turns out not to be the case.

I have a personal experience that illustrates this. When my oldest son was three years old we lived in a small town that had an alternative school. The families whose children went to the school tended to not be your typical mainstream families. One of the consequences of this is that only about half of the children in the school were vaccinated. My son was not old enough to go to the school yet, but several days per week he attended a preschool that was connected to the alternative school. All of the other children in the preschool had older siblings who attended the school.

At that time measles moved through the community. All of the non-vaccinated children ended up getting sick except my son, although he was exposed through the other children in the preschool. It is probable that the reason he didn't develop the illness was because as soon as I heard that there was a measles outbreak I implemented herbal and other protocols to boost his immune system and continued them until the outbreak was over. My being an herbalist gave my son an advantage because we can not expect the other parents to have the same level of depth of knowledge and experience about how to prevent their children from contracting the illness. However, had they known some very simple protocols—which I will be covering in Part 3—the outcome would have probably been very different.

The families whose children attended the school tended to live relatively healthy lifestyles and eat well, at least, more so than "typical" North American families. Not surprisingly, the measles moved fairly quickly through the non-vaccinated children and they all had relatively mild cases—similar to the way it occurred when I was a child before there was a vaccine for measles.

The families that did choose to vaccinate their children tended to have similar diets and lifestyles. About 30-40% of these children still got the measles in spite of being vaccinated, and the symptoms among the vaccinated children tended to be more severe. There were three cases of children who developed pneumonia on top of the measles. All of these were among the vaccinated children. In one of these cases it was the third time the child had been infected since being vaccinated, and the second time that he developed pneumonia as well.

There are several important factors that are important in this example that I will elaborate upon later. Firstly, the vaccine was not 100% effective in preventing the development of symptoms. In this case it was more like 60-70% effective. Secondly, the non-vaccinated children were from middle class families who lived a relatively healthy lifestyle and their symptoms were mild to moderate. Thirdly, the vaccinated children were from families living a similar lifestyle. The only major difference was that their children were vaccinated, and yet if these children developed symptoms they were more likely to be moderate to severe. This would seem to indicate that for those children for whom the vaccination did not produce immunity their immune systems were weaker and less able to respond to the infection, or their immune systems were so weak that even with immunity they weren't able to respond efficiently to the infection—more on this later.

The second potential benefit of vaccinations—whether or not they can potentially completely eliminate an illness—is even more difficult to assess. This is partly contingent on the effectiveness of the vaccine, as this varies. It also depends on the capacity of the virus to mutate. Any organism that is capable of mutating can potentially change into a new form for which any immunity resulting from the vaccine becomes useless. Also, for those illnesses that potentially can be eliminated, it seems that this is only possible if pretty much everyone is vaccinated.

All things considered, the larger question here is: do the potential benefits of vaccinations outweigh the potential risks?

Before looking at what we can determine about the potential risks of vaccinations I would like to begin with a very brief overview of what normal exposure to a pathogenic organism looks like.

We are exposed to millions of viruses and other pathogens every day. In spite of that, most of the time we do not develop any symptoms. This is because very few of them penetrate far enough and are able to reproduce to a degree necessary to produce an obvious infection. Many of them are controlled, weakened or killed by friendly microorganisms that are normal inhabitants of our body microbiome. Others are trapped in mucus, destroyed by stomach acid, or weakened or killed by antimicrobial substances in our body secretions. Some are killed by immune cells that wander around our mucus membranes. If they manage to penetrate the outer layers of our body membranes they may also be eliminated by immune cells wandering through our body fluids or embedded in our connective tissues. As you can see, there are many defenses that a pathogen must penetrate in order to make it through to our general circulation. Fortunately, very few make it that far, which is why we aren't sick all the time. If an organism is able to persist and reproduce, initially our various non-specific defences will engage with it and then within 4-7 days immune responses that specifically attack that pathogen—such as the production of antibodies—will be created. These significantly ramp up the response to the organism. The exception here is when a pathogen is transmitted directly into our blood, such as through wounds, insect bites and unclean hypodermic needles. These kinds of infections bypass many of our peripheral defenses, but they are engaged with by immune cells found throughout our blood and lymphatic fluids and in very high concentrations in our liver, spleen and lymph nodes.

Injection by mosquito! This is one way that an infectious organism can naturally make it directly into our general circulation.
It is still less of an onslaught on our immune system than vaccinations because a mosquito bite contains
a lot less antigen and doesn't come with all the chemicals—but they are injecting live parasites!

Once we are exposed to a pathogen through natural means we should acquire an immunity to it. This means that the specific immune responses remain dormant and can be activated much more quickly than upon first exposure. As a result, with subsequent exposure the immune response is much more rapid and vigorous. For many pathogens naturally acquired immunity lasts a lifetime—unless the organism has the capacity to mutate. Examples of the latter include cold and flu viruses.

Immunity can be acquired even if a person is not aware of any symptoms of an illness. In these situations the general defenses will have brought the pathogen under control before it is able to reproduce to a level requiring a vigorous enough response to produce symptoms. Nevertheless, our immune system will still develop specific immunity in response to exposure to the pathogen even though it may already be under control or eliminated. If we are present with our body—instead of constantly distracted by our thoughts and smartphones—there are usually signs when our immune system is activated in this way. These often take the form of sluggishness and possibly some mild stiffness or achiness, or a very low fever that we barely notice. If our immune system is strong and the pathogen not particularly aggressive, we might feel this way for a few hours or days and then it resolves without the development and any significant symptoms. However, when we feel this it is very important to take note. We don't know if it will resolve or if it is a precursor to something more intense. This is the most important time to intervene with herbal and other protocols to support our body defenses. If we respond right away we may be able to avoid what would otherwise develop into more significant symptoms, or if they do develop, the intensity and duration will likely be reduced. This is something that I will discuss more in Part 3.

Getting back to the original discussion, as you can see in most cases only a very small percentage of pathogens ever make it into our general circulation and have the potential to result in the development of what we would consider an illness. Prior to this they are subjected to various defenses that help control or eliminate them and initiate processes that naturally ramp up our response.

Exposure to pathogens through vaccinations is a very unnatural process. Instead of passing through a series of defenses and activating a natural sequence of responses, a large quantity of antigen—dead or alive—is injected directly into our blood along with a bunch of toxic chemicals. In addition, under normal circumstances we will almost always be dealing with a single pathogen that we have been exposed to in a natural way, whereas with many vaccinations these days we are being injected with antigens from multiple pathogens at the same time. Even if this does result in immunity, the scale of this unnatural assault on our immune system has the potential to negatively affect immune function in the long-term. All of this is an important backdrop to understanding the potential negative health consequences of vaccinations.

Before going any further I need to mention oral vaccines. This type of vaccine is not available for most of the illnesses for which vaccination programs exist. The major disadvantage of oral vaccines is that they usually require the use of live pathogens—although they may be weakened. As a result, the potential of the recipient to develop the illness after being vaccinated is significantly higher. This is even more of an issue for vaccination programs in poorer countries where much of the population may be immune compromised due to inadequate diet, lack of clean water and less hygienic conditions. This has the potential to increase the number of people who contract the illness from the oral vaccine.

Nevertheless, oral vaccines are a much more natural means of administration. Overall, they are likely to have less long-term negative health consequences and are more likely to produce immunity. Many of the risks that I am about to discuss are only applicable to injected vaccines. However, this is how that vast majority of vaccines are administered.

Let's begin the discussion of risks by looking at the potential risks to the individual. The first type of risk is contracting the illness from the vaccine. This is relatively rare and I believe it is not a risk for all vaccines. It is more likely to occur with vaccines produced from live organisms.

The second type of risk is an immediate acute response. These kinds of symptoms are often mild, such as swelling and/or pain around the injection site, low energy, mild fever, etc. They occur fairly soon after the vaccination and are the result of the immediate immune response to the substances that have been injected. However, they can sometimes be severe. Of particular concern are high fevers and meningitis that may result in seizures which can sometimes lead to long-term health consequences and even be fatal.

Another type of immediate immune reactions that can occur are allergic reactions to ingredients that are either added to the vaccine or are residues from the medium in which the organism is grown. An example of the latter is egg protein. Allergic reactions can also be mild to extreme.

Vaccines can contain toxic substances such as mercury. It is unlikely that these substances are in sufficient quantity to  produce an acute toxic reaction. I am not aware of any such cases. However, these substances do have the potential to result in long-term health consequences. This is even more likely if the person being vaccinated has high tissue concentrations of the substance from other sources. In the case of mercury, that can be from mercury amalgam fillings or from dietary sources such as fish. These substances also add to the stress on the immune system along with the antigens being injected. As a result, it is possible that these other ingredients may contribute to some of the other side-effects of the vaccines.

Thimerosal is a mercury containing substance that is used as a preservative in some vaccines.
It has been reduced or eliminated in many of them.

The third type of risks are delayed reactions. These tend to be more systemic than local, and generally look very similar to some of the immediate reactions. Once more they can include low energy and fever, which can sometimes be severe enough to produce seizures. What differentiates these reactions is that they can occur days or even weeks after the vaccinations. With the exception of immediate localized responses, it is quite possible that these delayed reactions are more common than immediate reactions. This is very significant as these kinds of reactions were not reported in the past because the accepted belief by medical professionals was that reactions that occurred more than 24 hours after a vaccination were not due to the vaccine. As an herbalist I never accepted this belief and I witnessed delayed reactions where the relationship between the reactions and vaccinations was unquestionable but denied by medical doctors. More recently the belief that reactions to vaccinations can't occur beyond 24 hours has been demonstrated to be false. Nevertheless, the attitude is still prevalent among most medical professionals and they are not likely to report a reaction if it occurs more than a few days after the vaccination. Unfortunately, even though the mainstream medical profession claims to be science-based, it often takes decades before the latest science percolates down to the front line practitioners. Even if they do understand that these reactions can take weeks to occur, the longer the delay before the onset of symptoms the more challenging it is to know for sure to what degree the vaccinations were implicated.

One of the most important consequences of all of this is that the available statistics on adverse reactions to vaccinations are not accurate. Due to a lack or under-reporting of delayed reactions it is likely that the risks are at least double if not many more times greater than what they are believed to be.

Up to this point I have been discussing risks that result from the initial immune response to vaccinations. It does often take some time for any obvious symptoms to manifest, but these are still initial reactions. I am now going to address potential long-term risks.

Long-term reactions fall into two general categories. The first are long-term health consequences that result from extreme short-term reactions. As I mentioned, the most common extreme initial reactions, whether they are immediate or delayed, are allergic reactions, high fevers and seizures. Aside from being potentially life-threatening, these kinds of reactions can result in damage to tissues and organs such as neural tissue in the brain. The results can be subtle or extreme and it can be challenging to clearly associate them with vaccinations. Over the years controversies have arisen regarding the possibility of a relationship between vaccinations and a number of conditions, such as Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (SUID) and autism. Upon analysis of the data medical scientists have concluded that there is no relationship. At the other end of the extreme there are people claiming that there is a conspiracy to cover up the relationship. As far as I can tell the data is inconclusive, but there could be a relationship that is difficult to demonstrate. For instance, a recent study indicates that SUID is on the rise. Researchers have no idea why. It is possible that this could be due to some kind of immune reaction and the recent trend towards giving vaccinations to very young infants may be a factor. Either way, extreme acute reactions can be very serious and for those children who survive them the possibility of long-term consequences is very real. Unfortunately, these kinds of relationships are very difficult to assess and there isn't a lot of will on the part of medical scientists to delve too deeply into them compared to other kinds of research. That being said, to claim outright that there is no research being done or there is a cover-up is also an exaggeration. There have been cases where recently developed vaccines have been pulled from use due to adverse reactions. This recently occurred with the dengue vaccine. Nevertheless, it is often the case that the seriousness of the risks aren't recognized or acted upon until many people have already received it—as was also the case with the dengue vaccine. For this reason, whatever choices you make regarding whether or not to vaccinate your children (or yourself) I strongly recommend that you consider avoiding any recently developed vaccines until they have been in use for some time (at least five years).

I agree that, all things considered, the number of people who experience significant negative health consequences of the kinds that I have discussed so far is fairly low, although probably several times larger than what is currently accepted. However, even if we had very good statistics on all of these negative reactions to vaccinations and they turned out to be 3, 4 or even 10 times what is currently believed, medical health professionals would still argue that the benefits far outweigh the negatives; that the number of children that are negatively affected is very small compared to the number who are benefited, and the overall benefits to society. This is small consolation if it is your child who is harmed by vaccinations, but the same is true if it is your child who is harmed or dies from an illness that could have been prevented by a vaccine. The issue is not black and white—and people are not statistics!

I am now going to delve into an area that is much more insidious. It relates to some of the issues that I have already discussed. Based on my experience and observations, it is my belief that the ingredients, number, and the way vaccines are administered has a significant negative impact on the functioning of our immune system. The end result is that, although they may provide some protection from developing the illness for which we are vaccinated (the degree to which depending on the person, the illness and the vaccine), they increase our susceptibility to other infections for which we have not been vaccinated and are also one of the major factors contributing to the increasing incidence of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

As difficult is this is to prove in scientific studies in a world where almost everyone has been vaccinated for generations, there is some evidence for this in the scientific literature. Sometimes unusual patterns emerge when new vaccines are introduced, as happened when a particular swine flu vaccine was used in 2009 [see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=narcolepsy-confirmed-as-a-autoimmune-disease]. This was an unusual situation where the connection was more clear. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that a vaccine can result in an increased incidence of a particular autoimmune condition and therefore it is very likely that this is more than just an isolated situation. It could be very common even if it is difficult to demonstrate. If you are feeling like reading something very dense, there were a couple of analyses done that look at other possible correlations [see: http://www.discoverymedicine.com/Hedi-Orbach/2010/02/04/vaccines-and-autoimmune-diseases-of-the-adult/; and https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a69b/f88358f2fc057b1597cf8e5a868ed38c4e47.pdf]. These correlations are sometimes inconclusive, but the fact that they are observable at all and in some cases indisputable suggests that this is much more common than we think.

Before going any further, once more I need to provide some background. In my over three decades of practice there is one pattern that I have consistently observed: the number of people suffering from chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions is increasing and the age at which they are developing is getting younger. This is not just something I've observed. It is well documented in the medical literature. The question is: why? Almost everyone who has contemplated this has their pet hypothesis: it's vaccinations; it's parasites; it's eating grains! Some of these hypotheses are complete nonsense. Other proposed factors are correlated, but they are actually results of something deeper rather than causes. Still others are directly related but not the whole problem.

In our modern society we tend to look on the world through an artificial linear lens. We look for nice neat solutions: black and white. In reality, the world is a big, complex, mysterious place where everything is interconnected. Not surprisingly, the causes of these unfortunate health trends are also very complex.

I could go into the deeper social, ecological, philosophical and spiritual roots of this—which I have done to some degree in other posts—but I am going to try to be as succinct as possible. Basically, the human world on many levels is very unhealthy and out of balance. If we want to sum up some of the major the causes of the rising—if not accelerating—incidence of immune weakness and dysfunction, and chronic inflammatory diseases they are: toxins in our air, water and food; poor diet; lack of exercise; not enough sleep; too much stress; disconnection from Nature. For each one of us there is a complex interaction of expressions of all of these factors that negatively affects our health. Their affects accumulate throughout our life, and via epigenetic and other mechanisms they accumulate from generation to generation. As a result, each generation is becoming weaker than the previous one and they are being born into a world where many of these factors are getting worse. Each generation therefore has more to deal with and less resources with which to do so. That being said, I am making sweeping generalizations here. These are trends. For each of us how they play out in our life depends on how we live.

This is the broader context in which we must examine the vaccination issue. If we all lived in a relatively stress-free and pollution-free world, ate a great diet, got lots of exercise, and had a harmonious relationship with our fellow human beings and Nature, this would be a very different discussion. But we do not! I've already explained earlier in this post why vaccinations are unnatural and put an intense stress load on our immune system. It is my belief that, in combination with all of these other factors that are out of balance, vaccinations add to the overall stress load on our immune system resulting in a population that is suffering from a greater incidence of chronic inflammatory and autoimmune diseases—and other serious chronic illnesses such as various cancers— and becoming less capable of responding to new infectious illnesses that are likely to develop.

All of that may sound pretty scary, but the last paragraph also includes the potential solutions. Many of the factors that I mentioned that are contributing to this are factors that we can change. That will be the subject of Part 3, including how to protect our kids if they are not vaccinate, or how to reduce the negative affects of vaccinations if we do choose to have them vaccinated.

Up to this point I have focused on the potential negative health consequences of vaccinations in the individual. There are a couple more layers to this discussion. Firstly, we have known for a long time that the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has led to the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. What is not common knowledge is that there is some evidence suggesting that in the process of developing antibiotic resistance bacteria can also become more aggressive [see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/super-superbugs-antibiotic-resistant-bacteria-may-be-deadlier/]. This is not surprising. Micro-organisms are very versatile and have an incredible capacity to adapt and mutate. It is to be expected that an aggressive attack by something like an antibiotic will not only stimulate them to adapt, but that they will develop adaptions that increase their capacity to survive in other ways as well, making them more difficult for our immune system to keep in check.

Most vaccines have been developed for viral infections but they are developing vaccines for bacterial infections as well. We have to wonder, will vaccinations that increase the percentage of the population that has immunity to a particular strain of bacteria stimulate the bacteria to adapt and mutate in ways that make them better able to overcome our body defenses? ...and might this occur with viruses as well? Recent evidence is beginning to demonstrate that this is a real possibility. For instance, the global effort to eradicate polio has led to the development of a mutation of the virus for which the polio vaccine does not provide immunity [see: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141104111408.htm]. What's more, this strain is more aggressive and has a much higher mortality rate. The development of other more aggressive strains of viruses in response to vaccinations has been demonstrated as well [see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150727143139.htm]. The bottom line here is that there is a potential that vaccinations could lead to the development of more serious outbreaks of some illnesses by either stimulating a virus to mutate in order to survive the increase of immunity in it's host population (us!), or reducing the proportion of the population of a virus for which the vaccine does provide immunity in favour of an already existing strain of the virus for which the vaccine doesn't work.

The last point I would like to make has to do with the desire to completely eradicate an illness. The evidence demonstrates that this is possible with some illnesses. It has already been accomplished with smallpox. I suspect that this is not possible with every illness for which a vaccination can be created, but that the pharmaceutical industry will exaggerate this potential. This means that we need to develop clear, unbiased criteria to determine which illnesses can be eradicated through aggressive vaccination programs and which ones can not. However, once we have determined this we need to also ask ourselves whether or not eliminating the illness is even desirable?

The devastation caused by smallpox is legendary. There are likely few people who would not agree that we are better off without it. But what about measles? Chicken pox? Mumps? When I was a child these conditions circulated through different communities in cycles. Everyone was exposed multiple times. Some people got sick and others didn't, but pretty much everyone ended up with a life-long immunity. Serious complications were very rare and were primarily related to high fevers. Keep in mind I'm talking about North America. Illnesses like these can be much more serious when they occur among a stressed out or immune compromised population, like in a poor, war-torn country.

Smallpox is an example of an illness that has been completely eradicated 
largely as a result of an aggressive vaccination program.

The point I am making here is that some of these illnesses may actually be good for us! I suspect that exposure to regular cyclic childhood illnesses such as colds and influenza—and even measles, chicken pox and mumps—are important for the normal development of our immune system. In order to survive and thrive, everything needs stress. Without it we weaken and wither away, just like our muscles if we don't get enough exercise. Too little stress leads to weakness; too much stress is overwhelming; but moderate stress is good.

In our society we set ourselves apart from the world. We live in the illusion that we are separate and can keep the world at bay and control it according to our desires. We do so at our peril and we are surrounded by the consequences of our belief in this fallacy. Everything is interconnected! In the case of our body, it is more like an ecosystem than a distinct entity: a microcosm within the macrocosm. Instead of acting as if we are separate and everything is trying to kill us, we need to learn—as individuals and as a society—how to live in good relationship.

There are some researchers who have begun to think outside the box of us vs. them. In relation to our health, what they are finding is that our obsession with cleanliness and sterility is hurting us. A growing body of evidence is accumulating that infants and young children need to have a certain amount of exposure to micro-organisms in order for their immune system to develop properly. If they don't get this they will be more prone to chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions as they get older. Sound familiar! This is what has become known as the "hygiene hypothesis". I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on this here, but it is an important understanding if we want our children to have the capacity to deal with common infectious illnesses and reduce their likelihood of developing chronic illnesses as they grow up. For a more detailed discussion of of the hygiene hypothesis I recommend that you read my post How Clean is Too Clean?. Although the hygiene hypothesis focuses primarily on bacteria, it is my belief that it applies to viruses as well; that some of the milder childhood viral illnesses are good stress for the development of our kid's immune systems whereas too many and inappropriately administered vaccines are bad stress.

This brings me to the end of this part of the discussion. In the context of these posts it is only possible for me to delve into these complex issues in a very broad-strokes way. The potential benefits and risks are different for different vaccines. Some vaccines that have been developed have already been pulled because they were clearly not very effective and/or associated with more obvious risks. Others have been modified to reduce their risks (such as reducing or eliminating toxic ingredients like mercury). As a supplement, I strongly recommend that you learn more about the specifics of individual vaccines. There are a couple of books that I recommend that can provide more details. Most of the literature is extremely biased. To date I have only come across two books that are balanced enough to be worth reading. Unfortunately, I read these books just before I posted Part 1 of this series and do not have time to reread them at the moment. As a result, I am left with my general impressions of the books and can't offer much more than that. They are also a bit out of date. Many new vaccines have been developed since these books were published. It is also possible that other books have been published since I wrote Part 1 that are as good and more up-to-date, although this is not very likely given the extremely polarized nature of the debate.

The first book that I recommend is Vaccinations: A Thoughtful Parent's Guide. The author, Aviva Romm, is an herbalist and midwife who also became a medical doctor. She has the unique perspective of being able to approach this issue from both a more natural and a medical perspective. Of the two books I would say that this one is the most balanced. She presents both sides of the issue and leaves it up to the reader to make their own decision. Although Aviva does her best to be as unbiased as possible, reading between the lines it seems to me that she is slightly more in favour of reducing or not vaccinating, but she doesn't push her personal view on the reader. The book also provides a lot of excellent general information about how to support immune function and overall health so as to give children a greater capacity to deal with infectious diseases. Her approach to herbalism is different than mine—I would say more medical model—and I don't always fully agree with her herbal recommendations, nevertheless it is an excellent book overall.

The second book that I recommend is The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child by Robert Sears. He is a medical doctor and definitely more in favour of vaccinating, however, he also does a great job presenting the issues in a fairly balanced way and is supportive of alternative or reduced vaccination regimens. This book also provides a lot more information on individual vaccines including their ingredients.

In order to be in the best position to navigate this issue I recommend that you read both of these books.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US has up-to-date information on the potential risks of specific vaccines on their website [see: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/side-effects.htm]. In light of what I've already stated, I believe that these risks are a lot greater than they know or admit, but for the most part still relatively small. Of course, the potential contribution of vaccinations to chronic immune weakness and dysfunction—which I feel is a much more serious concern—is not addressed or acknowledged. Nevertheless, these "small" risks, whether it is from getting vaccinated or not getting vaccinated, are very real. Statistics mean nothing on a case-by-case basis. No parent knows if their child is going to be the 1 in 100,000.

In Part 3 I will be providing information about how you can nurture the development of your children's immune system through diet, lifestyle and herbs. As I indicated, I can not give you a clear answer about whether or not you should vaccinate your children. This is a personal choice. However, the information that I will provide will help reduce the risks associated with childhood illnesses should you decide not to vaccinate your children, and also help increase the effectiveness and reduce the potential side-effects of vaccinations should you decide to make that choice. I'll also offer some recommendations for how to modify the vaccination protocols to reduce the risks.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

What happened to winter?

Weather changes are often a topic of conversation these days. No matter where we live, anyone who has had the privilege of having been around for a few decades or more can't help but notice that weather patterns are changing — seemingly at an accelerating rate. We don't need the warnings of meteorologists and scientists to verify that. However, their observations and statistics create an awareness that this is a global phenomenon.

Here in southern Ontario this winter has been punctuated by extremes and record-breaking warm temperatures. A lot of our weather has been coming from the southwest instead of the usual west and northwest. What was unusual about December was that it was more like a December from my childhood in the 60's. The temperature was a bit cooler than it has been in recent years and the most surprising thing was that we received a fair bit of snow. But then came January when our weather was more typical of March. During one extended warm period late in the month after all of the snow had melted, I saw a confused little sprout of Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum) growing on the forest floor. This is definitely one of the earlier plants to emerge in the forests around our home, but typically it sprouts in the second week of April. The earliest I've ever seen it was at the end of the even warmer winter that we had in 20011/12 when it started sprouting on March 20th (yes, I keep track of these things!).

Near the end of January and over the first week of February winter briefly returned — as did the snow. That was great because Monika and I were on a 10 day holiday up on the Zaagiing (Bruce) Peninsula and were able to go snowshoeing every day except one when we had to abort our walk prematurely because of freezing rain.

Since our return the weather has been mostly more like what we would expect in April, with some record-breaking days where it hit the mid to high teens (high 50's to mid 60's in °F). Needless to say, the snow that we got at the beginning of the month quickly melted. The red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) — always the first birds to return to this region from their winter migration — arrived on February 20th. Typically they arrive with a thaw in mid March. The earliest I've ever recorded their arrival was March 5th after the very warm winter of 2012. Overall, the winter of 2011/12 was warmer than this one with temperatures staying fairly consistently above freezing, even at night. There was also virtually no precipitation that winter and, with the significantly higher than normal temperatures and no snow to melt, we were in drought conditions by the end of April. However, that winter we didn't get the more extreme high temperatures that we have had this year.

This kind of weather can have significant negative consequences for the local ecosystem. For instance, a rapid thaw or rain while the ground is still frozen prevents the moisture from being able to soak into the earth where it is needed and instead it runs off into creeks and rivers, sometimes causing flooding and significant erosion. On the flip side, if the temperature suddenly drops and there is no snow cover to insulate the ground the frost can harm plant roots, seeds and hibernating animals.

The sprouting and leafing out of plants is regulated by temperature and/or length of daylight, depending on the species. Those plants that respond primarily to temperature can be fooled into sprouting or leafing out prematurely. During the late winter of 2012 the trembling aspens (Populus tremuloides) — the first trees to flower and leaf out in our region — started flowering on March 11th and then a brief cold snap a week or so later wiped out their flowers. Typically they flower late March to mid April. This year the buds started opening on February 27th! It usually takes a week or two for the catkins to fully emerge and start flowering, depending on the temperature. As of today they were already about half open. The temperature is expected to drop significantly for a few days. That means that there will be few if any trembling aspen flowers this year.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) prematurely sprouting in the forest today.

We've always had at least one pair of eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) nesting around our home. They are a constant presence on the landscape during the warmer months and I love their soft gentle calls. They are also one of our earliest arrivals. Typically, they show up somewhere between the very end of March and the end of the first week of April. Last year we had a couple of unusual warm periods at the beginning and middle of March. The red-wings arrived a bit earlier than usual and the phoebes arrived shortly after them in mid March. Phoebes feed almost exclusively on flying insects and I was a bit concerned about this. Sure enough, we had another cold snap that lasted more than a week. It killed off all of the early flying insects. The phoebes tried to survive by eating insects off the ground, but the the ground quickly froze. Sadly, our pair of phoebes died as a result. The constant presence of their calls was really missed last year. I hope a new pair moves in this year.

Today, when I was out on my daily walk through the fields and woodlands around our home it was about 13°C (55°F) and there was a gentle warm moist south wind. In the woods to the south of us there is a spot where water bubbles up through the soil from deep in the earth. There's an orange-red slime that forms there because of the high iron content of the ground water in this area. What characterizes this spot is that it is warmer than the surrounding soil because the water deep down is warmer than the surface during the colder months. Consequently, this spot is often thawed when the surrounding area is frozen and it is also the first spot where some of forest plants that like a lot of moisture sprout in the spring. Today the marsh marigolds started sprouting there. Typically, they start sprouting around the same time that the trembling aspens go into flower (late March to mid April), but in this spot they tend to sprout a week to ten days earlier — mid to late March.

As I was returning home this afternoon the wind started to shift from the south to the southwest and cool down a bit. It is expected to shift to the northwest later this evening and drop to around -7°C (19°F) — quite a drop! That is unfortunate for the trembling aspens and marsh marigolds.

What can we learn from this? These are warning signs that we ignore at our peril! Weather changes are a more obvious manifestation of what is happening all around us. The weather is very present and volatile, and speaks loudly. We all notice it, but it is so easy to return to status quo when things go back to what looks like "normal." What we have forgotten is what indigenous people have always known — life is about the quality of our relationships.

Healing is also about the quality of our relationships — with our self, our family, our community, our society, the plants and animals that we share this world with, the Earth, and Nature as a whole. The Anishinaabe word for medicine is mashkiki, which I have read literally means "strength of the earth." How appropriate! Everything is interconnected. The path of our personal healing necessitates that we work to bring back into balance all of our various layers of relationship. This requires humility, love, compassion, empathy, forgiveness and gratitude. With that comes wisdom. Blame, anger, confrontation and hopelessness are not the answer. They perpetuate the disharmony in the world and distract us from our real work — which is on ourselves.

We all have our personal story which has led us to this moment, but in our hearts we all have the same needs. Most of the land owners, corporate heads, politicians and other people who are "leaders" in our society have bought into a story that isn't real. What they need most is our prayers of love and healing, and positive example. As each of us does our best to live our life in a good way we create ripples through society and the world. We can change the world — by changing ourselves and moving in the world in balance and harmony — one step at a time!

Our many "elders" among the plant and animal people can help us to learn how to live in a good way
— if we listen!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Good Relationship and the Unfolding of Spring

I love every part of every season but I have to admit that for me at this time of year it reaches a whole other level as most of the living world reawakens from winter slumber. It begins very slowly at first, gradually accelerating into a symphony of living splendor!

One of the tragedies of our modern world is how cut off most us are from all of this. We are Nature and Nature is us. Connection to the world that we are part of is an essential human need that is not nurtured in modern society. This disconnect is the major reason why modern humanity is so out of balance in body, heart, mind and spirit. It is also why we hang on the edge of a global ecological catastrophe.

One of the fundamental characteristics of indigenous cultures is their connection to the Land where they live. They recognized that as human beings we are one strand of a web of connection and interdependence that includes the rocks, plants, animals, humans, landscape, weather and other beings that inhabit the Land where we live. This rootedness in the Land where we live is essential to who we are.

We can not erase our history. No matter who we are we all have indigenous roots. However, in the modern world very few of us live in the Land where our indigenous ancestors lived. Those who still do have often suffered the weakening or loss of their traditions under the onslaught of imperialist and modern cultures. Nevertheless, we all live somewhere. If we nourish our relationship with the Land where we live the Land and it's inhabitants will speak back to us. This is something that anyone who wishes to live a healthy, harmonious life must realize. Health is not about taking drugs or supplements or herbs. Nor is it about eating the right foods. Health is a state of being in right relationship with the World.

One of the things that traditional peoples know is that everything is interconnected. Whenever one person – human or other-than-human – or aspect of the World is out of balance it is all out of balance. Healing isn't just a personal journey.

We now live in a global society. This necessitates a global vision. It doesn't mean that we should stress out about all of the local and global challenges that we face as human beings. As individuals we can not save the world. What we can do is do our best to be in good relationship; listen to our heart; connect with our purpose; and play our part to the best of our ability. This process begins right here and now where we stand on our Earth Mother.

The Land in late winter.

One of the most important ways that we can bring our life back into balance and connect with the necessary strength and vision to play our part is by connecting with the Land where we live. Since most of us now live in urban and suburban areas this can be challenging – but it is not impossible! No matter where we live the Land is beneath our feet and the Sky above. No matter how much asphalt and concrete we lay on the Earth life comes bursting through. This journey can begin in our backyard, a local park or ravine, and whenever possible a larger park or conservation area in the surrounding rural landscape.

I live in an island of wilderness surrounded by the suburban sprawl of the Greater Toronto Area. It consists of 40 acres: 20 acres of woodland; 10 acres of open field; 10 acres of mixed transition areas. This island is surrounded by farm fields interlaced with hedgerows and here and there dotted with small woodlots. The surrounding area is itself an island that is rapidly being encroached by suburban sprawl.

I have lived here for 18+ years.  It takes many years to develop a relationship with the Land. Many years of watching, listening and being on the Land: day after day; season after season; year after year. It takes patience and diligence, but over time the Land gradually reveals more of herself. In the process my life is enriched and expanded and I come to know myself better and my place in the World.

Sasha on the Land.

Working together with the coyotes and deer we have made trails through this Land. Every day that I am not travelling I walk the Land. Some time in the mid to late afternoon when it's time to take a break from my work Sasha and I go for a 60-90 minute walk. While she roams around exploring the latest smells of the landscape I walk, look, listen, smell, feel, sit, contemplate, and make offerings of prayer and tobacco. To simply take from the Land is to be in imbalance. I must always give something back, whether it's prayers and tobacco or picking up a some garbage dragged into the woods by a raccoon that raided someone's garbage on the main road or blown in by the wind. I also sing songs and perform ceremonies to honour the Land and her cycles.

At this time of year, beginning around the time the coltsfoot (Tussilago fargara) goes into flower and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) arrives, there is so much happening on the Land that I also take a walk in the early morning ­­– without Sasha so she doesn't scare off the birds and other animals. Initially it might only be for 30 minutes, but as spring goes into full swing it increases to 1-2 hours until late May when all of the birds have arrived, the leaf canopy has fully opened and the rate of change on the landscape starts to slow down. I do this to increase the likelihood that I'll see the various bird species when they arrive. I walk slowly a few steps at a time, stop, and scan the landscape for the movement of birds and animals in my peripheral vision. I always have a good pair of binoculars!

I also have my desk in a bay window that looks out over our yard so that I can regularly give my eyes a break from looking at a computer screen and gaze out to see what's going on. Many of my bird sightings occur from my desk. Of course, I always have my trusty binoculars close at hand!

Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) overwinter on the Land – unfortunately for the other birds that they eat!
This photo was taken from my desk through my front window.

Nurturing and deepening my relationship with the Land is essential for my health and well-being, and for my work as an herbalist and healer. As relaxing and healing as it is this is not leisure time. It is my life and my work. It took decades for me to create a life that supports who I am and what I do. It requires living simply: no chasing after material wealth; no smartphone; no social media. Anyone can do this. It requires commitment and clear priorities: nurturing what is really important in life rather than chasing after the innumerable distractions of our consumer society. This is where healing begins.

Developing a relationship with the Land where we live requires that we create space for it in our life. By listening to our heart we will find appropriate places on the landscape to walk and relate and be. Having a place to roam is important, but having a place to sit is even more important – even if it's just sitting under that old grandmother maple tree in our backyard. This is what, to anyone who is familiar with the teachings of Jon Young, Tom Brown and other teachers of Nature awareness, we call a sit spot. It is a safe place on the landscape where we feel called to be with the Land; where we can observe the unfolding of life through the seasons. I have many sit spots on the Land where I live and throughout the region in places that I regularly visit to be with the Land and to harvest medicines. However, although it's great to have a special place or places out in the country that we can visit once in awhile, it is most important to have a sit spot very close to where we live so that we can visit it often – at least a few times per week whenever possible. Here we can begin to sink our roots deep into the loving skin of our Earth Mother. Here we can begin to get to know the plants and animals that inhabit the Land that we live in: who is present through the seasons and how their lives unfold and intertwine.

Although any time will do, early spring is the one of the best times to begin this process of connecting. There's a lot of change happening, but it begins slowly, allowing us time to become acquainted with the landscape and it's inhabitants. Also, things are much easier to observe before the leaf canopy opens.

One of the useful methods that I have learned to help facilitate connecting with the Land where I live is to record everything. This is something that I had already been doing for years with the plants that I harvest for medicines. I needed to know this information so that I could anticipate when they would be ready to harvest from year to year. However, the community that I live in includes more than just the species I use as medicines.

During the first few years that I lived here I was constantly making a mental note of what was going on. I remembered a lot of it because I observed it every day. Then in 2005 I started recording the key changes that I observed: what birds stay or migrate here in the winter; when the species that fly south leave and return; which species nest here and which just pass through; when the various species of amphibians, reptiles and mammals that hibernate became active; which of the herbaceous plant species overwinter as a rosette; when the remaining species first sprout from the ground; when the woody species begin to leaf out; when each plant species goes into flower. This is a pretty left-brain activity but it force me to be more aware and hone my powers of observation. It also forced me to continually identify new species and learn more about them. Through this process and the other ways that I engage with the Land I can say that after 18 years I am finally beginning to know the Land – at least a little bit!

This year we had two uncharacteristically warm weeks at the beginning of March followed by a roller coaster of weather changes ranging from normal to 5-10 °C (9-18 °F) above normal. Consequently, the arrival of the various bird species started earlier than usual but is a bit more spaced out. Some plants are also ahead but they are coming out in short spurts with dormant breaks in between.

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) overwintering rosette.

As a result of the (for the most part) unusually warm weather the snow disappeared early and the plants that overwinter beneath the snow as a rosette were revealed earlier this year. These include many members of the Rose family such as our three species of avens (Geum spp.), our two species of wild strawberry (Fragaria spp.) and sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta); a few members of the Mustard family such as shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) and dame's rocket (Hesperis matronalis);  a few members of the Mint family such as motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) and heal-all (Prunella vulgaris); a few species of aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) and other members of the Aster family such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), rough-leaved goldenrod (Solidago patula), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale); and a variety of others such as herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta), shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica), common speedwell (Veronica officinalis), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), red clover (Trifolium pratense), common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), sweet violet (Viola odorata) and large flower hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum).

Everything else has been revealing itself in it's own time. Here's an example of the kind of information I have been collecting as spring has unfolded on the Land this year:

February 15: The overwintering American goldfinches (Carduelis tristis) began singing.

March 3: We had a winter storm on March 2nd. The first lone 'scouts' of the redwing blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) arrived today while it was still cold.

March 4: The temperature began rising rapidly. The first major flocks of redwings began arriving. The overwintering robins (Turdus migratorius) and northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) started singing.

March 6: The eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) began venturing out of their winter dens.

March 8: The honeybees (Apis mellifera) from a wild hive in a crack in an old grandmother white pine (Pinus strobus) started exploring the world. They have been flying about every day that it has been 12°C (54°F) or higher since then. I sure hope they have a lot of honey in that hive because it's going to be awhile before there is any nectar available for them to collect!


Common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) often hang out in flocks with redwing blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) at this time of year.

March 9: The first common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) began arriving with the later flocks of redwings. The first turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) also arrived. They will sometimes overwinter during very mild winters.

March 11: The catkin buds of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) started to open.

March 14: The silver maples (Acer saccharinum) started flowering.

March 15: The overwintering song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) began singing.

March 16: Cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) started sprouting.

March 17: Wild leek (Allium tricoccum) and the trout lily (Erythronium americanum) infertile leaves started sprouting.

March 19-20: The spring equinox occurred at 12:31 am EDT on March 20th. In the late evening of March 19th into the early part of the 20th we had a ceremony to honour the equinox; give thanks for the blessings of winter; and welcome spring.

March 26: The overwintering northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) started thumping. Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), common comfrey (Symphytum officinale), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), cowslip (Primula veris), valerian (Valeriana officinalis) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioca ssp. gracilis) started sprouting. The latter species actually overwinters as a tiny embryonic plant. Today they started popping out of the soil.

March 27: Purple angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the common horsetail (Equisetum arvense) fertile stalks started sprouting. Coltsfoot began flowering.

Purple angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) sprouting.

March 28: The common horsetail vegetative stalks started sprouting.

March 29: The first eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) and golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) arrived. The latter overwinter in this region but we don't see them on this Land until the ones who migrated further south start returning. The first mourning cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) also awoke and mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) started sprouting.

March 30 (today): The first American tree sparrows (Spizella arborea) arrived. Like the golden-crowned kinglets this species also overwinters in the region but we don't see them until more of them start moving north in the spring. Trembling aspen and American elm (Ulmus americana) began flowering.

On March 28th I had the opportunity to welcome a great wind! Fortunately the local trees lost very few branches. While I was walking the Land the following day I found many branch tips from eastern cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides) heavily laden with swelling buds on the ground beneath the trees. A couple of years ago I felt called to begin working with the medicine of eastern cottonwood. At that time I made a small amount of tincture of the leaves to experiment with which I finally tried a couple of months ago. The buds of poplar trees are often used and I was wondering about the buds of eastern cottonwood. Unlike it's cousin the balsam poplar (P. balsamifera) which is a more shrubby species, the buds of eastern cottonwood are high up and out of reach. Anyone who is familiar with poplar species knows that they have a strong connection to the wind. What a blessing it was to receive this gift of both the cottonwoods and the wind! I made a couple of litres of tincture to start working with in the near future.

As you can see, there is so much to observe and experience all around us! I strongly encourage everyone to open up the space in their lives to deepen their relationship with it. It is one of the most important things that we can do on our healing journey. This summer I will be offering two different Spirit of Herbs workshops. These are my favourite workshops to teach because they are all about connecting to the plants and Nature. It is a great joy to be able to share this with those who are called to participate and even more so to be present as they are awakened to this awesome world that we live in! I used to offer these workshops in alternate years but in the last few years there have been more people yearning for this experience. I know that there are other teachers out there who are offering related teachings and similarly noticing the growing number of people who are yearning for deeper meaning and connection in their lives. Taking workshops is great and I highly recommend it, but beginning to nurture these relationships right here where we stand on the Earth is far more important – and spring is the best time to start!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Closing the Harvesting Season

I've been getting a lot of people asking me when I'm finally going to finish the three part blog series on The Vaccination Controversy. After several years of repeating the same pattern, I finally have to admit to myself that from the middle of April until the end of November my intense travelling schedule and harvesting herbs take up so much time that it doesn't leave me a lot of opportunity for writing. I'm not complaining. I'm following my heart and my path and love my work and still able to spend a lot of time just being with the plants and Nature. It requires prioritizing and setting boundaries. Following our heart, allowing time to just be and the quality of our relationships with people (human and non-human) and the world we live in is how we cultivate quality of life and allow space for healing. If I don't allow that in my life, how can I possibly help other people to do it? So, some things (like writing!) rarely get done during the busier months.

It's been a great spring, summer and fall! Lots of experiencing, learning, harvesting medicines and doing what a herbalist does. My travelling schedule for the year ends early to mid November and now I'm spending a lot of time harvesting the last of the root herbs that I need before the ground freezes for the winter. Judging by the way things are flowing, that will probably be in a week or two in this area.

Harvesting valerian root (Valeriana officinalis).

Today I harvested valerian root (Valeriana officinalis), marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) and dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale). Tomorrow I'm going to harvest wild sarsaparilla rhizome (Aralia nudicaulis), wild ginger rhizome (Asarum canadense) and a bit more valerian root.

My friend Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) has offered me the opportunity to work with a different expression of his medicine.
I am going to harvest some of the rhizomes and roots of goldenrod this year so that I can deepen my relationship with this amazing herb.

The last couple of years I've been feeling called to start working with the rhizomes and roots of Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Up to this point I've only used the aerial parts of this herb. I'm also going to harvest a bit of Solidago so that I can begin to learn this new medicine. After that I'll be done harvesting for this year – and just in time!

Washing marshmallow root (Althaea officinalis) in our laundry tub.

Since I make my tinctures from fresh herbs I need to harvest enough of each of these roots or rhizomes to get through at least 15 months: 12 months until I'm able to harvest them again next year and 3 additional months until next years tinctures will be ready because I allow them to macerate for at least 3 months before I press them [see: Making Medicine, Part 3 of 5]. Therefore I need to know how many bottles of each of these tinctures I still have on hand and how much I typically use in a year in order to determine the quantity that I need to harvest. I'll usually add an extra litre (or half litre for herbs I don't use as much) to be safe. For herbs that I used 3 litres or less per year I will sometimes harvest enough for 2 years so that I don't have to harvest every herb every year.

Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale) washed and ready to chop. Note that dandelion maintains a rosette of smaller leaves through the winter.
I keep some of the younger leaves that are in good shape and include them in my dandelion root tincture.

Although the travelling that I do is related to my work and involves hanging out with great people in great places doing great things, I am happy to be at home for the next 5+ months. I'll be able to work on some of the other things that I can't seem to manage the rest of the year like doing a few blog posts (including hopefully being able to finishing the series on vaccinations!) and continuing the process of converting some of our classroom courses to an online format. The latter tends to take up most of my time through the winter months.

Stay tuned! More to come...


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Homeopathy Under Attack

In the last few years there has been a growing trend to discredit natural healing traditions. Always looking for a controversial subject to cash in on, the media has jumped in on this one with both feet. The primary target that has been in the crosshairs of all of this vitriol is homeopathy. Because the principles of homeopathy can not be explained by modern scientific theory it is an easy target. Although most of the skeptics will be satisfied if homeopathy is thoroughly discredited, the more extreme of the lot are hoping that they will be so successful making homeopathy look incredibly far fetched and ridiculous that it will be easy to extrapolate that sentiment to other systems of healing. In writing this post, I have no interest in debating with the skeptics because it is pointless. I'm putting this out there for those of you who are confused by all of the misinformation that has been propagated in the media. Hopefully it will help you to have a better understanding of the issues.

For my next post I was planning to write the second installment of my series on vaccinations, itself a very controversial subject these days. As we shall see, it is closely related to the homeopathy debate (or lack of it!). I had originally intended to steer clear of homeopathy because I have a limited amount of time for writing and there are other things I want to write about. I was hoping that with time people would just get bored of it and move on to something else. However, instead of fading away this issue has been building momentum and a couple of recent attacks that are relatively close to home grabbed my attention. Firstly, a group of scientists have attacked University of Toronto for proposing some good research on homeopathy. The chief researcher of the study, which is intended to examine homeopathy as a treatment for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is Heather Boon of the Department of Pharmacy. In proposing this study her credibility has also come under attack. I met Heather a few times quite awhile ago. I don't know her very well, but I am familiar with some of her work. She is someone who seems to me to be very committed to doing quality research on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). The essence of the attack on Heather and U of T is that, although the proposed study is well-designed, since we already know that homeopathy doesn't work conducting this study is a waste of time and money.

That happened a few weeks ago. More recently the government of Ontario has come under attack for regulating homeopaths in this province. This has been in process since 2007 when the Homeopathy Act was tabled and finally came to completion a couple of weeks ago when the Act was passed. The provincial government is being condemned for legitimizing homeopathy.

Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy.

This story begins at the end of the 18th century when purging, bleeding, high doses of mercury and poor hygiene were typical of the practices of mainstream medicine. At that time there was already a growing divide between the practices of orthodox medicine and more natural healing traditions, although there was a lot of grey in between. Enter Samuel Hahnemann. He was a medical doctor that wasn't happy with the practices of his time. He saw them as counter to the traditional healing principles that date back to Hippocrates and beyond. I'm not going to get into a detailed discussion of the principles of homeopathy because that would require a book, but what's important is that by the end of the 19th century the homeopaths were better organized and had better standards and hospitals throughout Europe and North America than their mainstream counterparts. As a result, they were perceived as a major threat by allopathic medical practitioners who used financial and political influence to gradually discredit or absorb most of the homeopaths. This was easier to do by the early 20th century because mainstream medical science was starting to mature and the public no longer perceived going to a doctor as such a scary prospect.

The influence of homeopathy may have been reduced but it never went away. In some parts of the world, such as India, it continued to flourish. Fast forward to the 1960s and we have the beginning of a renaissance of natural healing traditions that continues to this day. During this time homeopathy has prospered along with herbalism and many other natural healing modalities, and natural health products have become big business.

The growing popularity of natural healing has not been universally appreciated, as is always the case when money, influence and a clash of paradigms occurs. The four major antagonistic sectors are the pharmaceutical industry, medical doctors, pharmacists, medical researchers, and the associations that represent them. Although the growth of the natural health product industry has to some extent been at the expense of the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, the latter has chosen to adapt by diversifying. That primarily translates into buying up successful natural health products manufacturers.

Of course, not everyone who is a member of one of these groups is antagonistic to CAM. But many of them are. In spite of this, medical doctors and pharmacists are mostly too busy to care and pharmacists are happy to reap the profits of natural health product sales whether or not they believe in them. There are, however, a minority of extremists among the doctors and pharmacists who are very antagonistic to CAM.

The recent wave of attacks has to a significant extent been championed by medical researchers, supported by the professional skeptics who are always out their proselytizing. Although there is a definite clash of paradigms at the root of this, a big part of it is about money. In response to its growing popularity, many governments and universities have chosen to devote a small proportion of their research dollars to investigating CAM. For the most part this is a good thing because CAM research in the West is lagging way behind the research that is being done in Eastern countries such as China and India where traditional healing systems have continued to be appreciated.

The result of these changes is that it is now slightly more difficult for researchers who are doing mainstream medical research, many of whom are antagonistic to CAM, to get funding. As they see it, all of the research money rightfully belongs to them and it is being wasted funding research on what they see as pseudoscientific or completely unscientific healing modalities.

In laying out this background, what is not apparent is why the skeptics are particularly focusing on homeopathy. Basically it is this: in accordance with the principles of homeopathy, homeopathic remedies are subjected to a "potentization" process that involves diluting them in fixed ratios and shaking each dilution vigorously before diluting them again. Remedies are used at a variety of different dilutions, but they can potentially be diluted to the point where few, if any, of the molecules of the substance from which the remedy is derived are present. According to homeopathic theory and practice, the more times a remedy is subjected to this potentization process the more potent it becomes, even if on a chemical level it is becoming more dilute.

No one knows with absolute certainty how homeopathic remedies work.

From the perspective of the modern reductionistic, materialistic paradigm, this is absolute nonsense! How can something that has no molecular basis be more potent or have any therapeutic value at all? According to Hahnemann, the potentization process separates and intensifies the "vital force" or life force of the substance and it is this vital force that is primarily responsible for the therapeutic action of the remedy. More recently homeopaths, in an attempt to explain the actions of these remedies in more modern terms, have postulated mechanisms such as the transfer of this life force energy into the water in a way that alters the bonding angle or the electromagnetic field of water molecules, or possibly that they act within the realm of quantum mechanics. These are just hypotheses. The bottom line is that if homeopathic remedies work they operate in a way that can not currently be explained by the known laws of chemistry or physics. This is the crux of the matter.

The attack on homeopathy is fear-based. One of the unfortunate characteristics of human nature, at least how it is expressed in the modern world, is that when people invest a lot of energy into a belief system they (consciously or unconsciously) are afraid of alternative beliefs. Some people can just agree to disagree, but others are more zealous. Human history is full of examples of groups of people acting with violence against other groups of people who held different religious, political or other beliefs. Although scientists like to believe that they are beyond this and act on the basis of reason, the history of science says otherwise. The majority of scientists are dogmatists to varying degrees who do not question the reigning scientific paradigm of their era.

As anyone who has read a few of my posts knows, I'm actually a fan of science! However, for any field of inquiry to be useful we must recognize its limitations. Science, when practiced appropriately, is a very useful way to explore the world that we live in. However, it is only one of a number of different ways to explore the world. Each is legitimate within its field of reference and each has its strengths and limitations. Each also affects how we perceive the world. If we approach the world in a rationalistic, reductionistic, materialistic way, the world will appear to us as a rationalistic, reductionistic, materialistic place. This is one of the major mistakes that most scientists make. Objectivity is an illusion. The world will tend to appear in ways that conform to how we look at it. Even when it doesn't, we tend ignore, misinterpret or deny experiences that don't conform to our world view.

When science is done properly it is a beautiful thing. We approach the world as the big, beautiful, mysterious place that it is. We are humbled by it, knowing that it is infinitely bigger and more complex than we can every hope to comprehend with our rational mind. As soon as we fall into the trap that we have things figured out we are no longer doing science because our beliefs affect the kinds of questions that we ask and how we perceive and interpret the results. Our beliefs can even cause us to see things in the results that aren't there or to manipulate the results so that they conform to our expectations.

The mystery of Nature: the source of all healing!

Getting back to homeopathy, if we want to truly investigate it in a scientific way the first thing we need to do is separate the effect from the explanation of the effect. The most important thing to investigate is whether or not homeopathic remedies work. If we focus on the explanation, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater because if the explanation turns out to be false there is a tendency to assume that the effect is also false. As a healer, I subscribe to a particular paradigm because it is what best conforms to my experience and produces the best results. However, my goal is to heal. Healing is a beautiful and mysterious thing. It doesn't matter to me if my understanding of why what I do works is accurate. What matters most is that it helps people. Similarly, demonstrating whether or not homeopathic remedies work is the most important thing. If it turns out that they do, the appropriate response is not to reject the results because they don't conform to our theories, it is to re-examine our theories because clearly they are inadequate to explain our observations.

One of the major arguments against homeopathy is that it is not supported by research. In fact, one of the reasons that the attack on homeopathy has recently ramped up so intensely is because the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recently conducted a "review" of the available research on homeopathy and concluded that the research overwhelmingly demonstrates that homeopathic remedies do not work any better than a placebo. Although it is true that there aren't many good studies on homeopathy, this conclusion is not accurate for a number of reasons. Firstly, good quality human clinical studies are very expensive to conduct and, in general, it's difficult to get funding for studies on homeopathy. Consequently, there aren't very many studies out there on homeopathy and most of them aren't very good. Another issue is that homeopaths are not part of the mainstream research community. If they attempt to do studies, it is difficult for them to get sufficient funding and they, as a rule, don't have a lot of experience doing research. Conversely, most experienced researchers aren't interested in doing research on homeopathy, and even if they are, they don't understand homeopathy. This means that their research is likely to be conducted from a modern medical paradigm and is not accurately testing homeopathy the way it is actually practiced. Finally, many of the people who have done studies on homeopathy are really trying to disprove it. Thus their studies are significantly biased. The Australian NHMRC itself was also trying to disprove homeopathy, so their analysis is extremely suspect.

Personally, I can not speak to the quality of the studies on homeopathy out there because most of the people who are writing about them are biased one way or the other and I simply don't have time to review the actual studies myself. However, I am familiar with one study which illustrates my point. In the late 80s a French researcher, Jacques Benveniste, did a study which seemed to demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy. He submitted a paper to Nature magazine. Not surprisingly, they were skeptical of his findings. They told him that in order to publish it he would have to incorporate some additional controls in the study and also have it replicated at other labs. He made the suggested changes and his study was replicated by researchers at University of Toronto, University of Milano and Hebrew University. When he resubmitted the paper, Nature begrudgingly published it because they said that they would, but in an uncharacteristic move they also published an editorial attacking the study. They then sent a team of "experts" to examine Benveniste's methodology. This is completely unprecedented! They would never do this with researchers whose research conforms with the mainstream medical paradigm, even if the research was of a much poorer quality. In addition, none of the "experts" were actual researchers and only one of them was a scientist, but from a completely different field of study. Their sole intent was to discredit Benveniste. They had him repeatedly redo his experiment under more extreme controls even though the results remained consistent, until finally they got the results that they wanted and this is what was reported. From their perspective, that of Nature, and most of the scientific skeptics in the world, Benveniste's results were disproved and the positive results that he did get were due to some flaw in the design of the study that they were not able to determine. Benveniste later conducted even better designed studies and got consistent results but Nature refused to publish them. Shortly after, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research cut his funding after a routine evaluation of his lab. Although they acknowledged that his lab exceeded their standards, they cut his funding because he refused to stop doing research on microdoses.

Needless to say, the whole Benveniste affair has very little to do with real science and all of the characteristics of a witch hunt. Even some scientists who are skeptical of homeopathy have criticized the way it all went down.

When evaluating healing systems that are outside of the mainstream, "not supported by scientific evidence" is one of the common criticisms. What is interesting to me is how skeptics like to apply strict criteria to the evaluation of things that they don't believe in, but are willing to accept far lower standards for things that they support. For instance, many of the practices of modern medicine have little to no research backing them up and medical practitioners often continue to practice them even when the research clearly demonstrates that they are ineffective [see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/demand-better-health-care-book/ and http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/the-ideology-of-health-care/?_r=0]. It is also quite common that things that initially seem to be backed up by research turn out to be false [see: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alison-rose-levy/what-statins-transfats-and-gmos-tell-us-about-scientific-controversies_b_4385741.html and http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/13/the-truth-wears-off]. To a large extent this is because of the biases of researchers, whether ideological or because the people conducting and funding the research have a vested interested in the results of the study [see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trial-sans-error-how-pharma-funded-research-cherry-picks-positive-results/ and http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150403073439.htm and http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141021141746.htm and http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124].

Although there are many medical practitioners that genuinely want to find ways to help people who are sick or suffering, sadly, even those who are coming from a good place are largely barking up the wrong tree. Although mainstream medicine has made great progress when it comes to emergency interventions, it is largely unsuccessful when it comes to the treatment of chronic health conditions. In fact, it has actually contributed to the growing epidemic of chronic degenerative diseases, both as a result of its toxicity and side-effects [see my previous post The Vaccination Controversy, Part 1] and by promising magical cures that don't really work. This is because modern medicine is not really about healing. It is about palliative care - suppressing or neutralizing symptoms rather than understanding and addressing the underlying condition. A good example is the so-called "war on cancer". In spite of the billions of dollars that have been spent funding the cancer industry, with the exception of childhood leukemia a person's prognosis if they are diagnosed with some form of cancer is no better today than it was 60 years ago [see: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2014/05/21/sorry-but-so-far-war-on-cancer-has-been-a-bust/]! Lots of new drugs have been developed and profits made, but the actual results speak for themselves.

Another comment that is interesting to me is that homeopathic remedies are "just placebos". They speak about placebos as if they are something to be written off, but the placebo effect is one of the most interesting things ever demonstrated by medical science. It is a demonstration of the healing power of the human mind! If anything, we should be doing a lot more research on the placebo effect. For one thing, so called "placebo controlled" studies aren't even properly designed to determine the magnitude of the placebo effect [see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150413140906.htm]. Secondly, the placebo effect is a very powerful and important part of the healing process. It should be cultivated, not written off, because the beneficial affects of ALL treatments, conventional and natural, are partly due to the placebo effect [see: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2013/03/12/psychiatrists-instead-of-being-embarrassed-by-placebo-effect-should-embrace-it-author-says/]. This is why it is a very dangerous thing to attempt to convince someone with a serious illness that they shouldn't follow a treatment that they really believe in. What this does is instill doubt and fear in people and it can significantly hinder the outcome of their treatment. Similarly, there is also a negative placebo effect. Just as a person's belief in the benefits of a treatment can significantly improve the effectiveness of the treatment, their disbelief in the benefits of a treatment can significantly hinder the effectiveness of the treatment. This is one of the reasons why there is usually no point attempting to convince someone to undergo a treatment that they don't believe in (the other reason is that they are less likely to properly follow instructions or continue the treatment long enough for it to be effective). As a practitioner, the best thing we can do is attempt to educate a person in as unbiased a way possible about the potential benefits and limitations of their treatment options and allow them to choose what they feel is best for them.

St. Johnswort (Hypericum perforatum) is an amazing herb for the treatment of nerve trauma and inflammation. For this purpose it works
both in crude form and in homeopathic potencies, but it works best when both are used concurrently.

Getting back to homeopathy, regardless of how difficult it is to understand from a scientific perspective, it is completely unrealistic to assume that the tens of thousands of practitioners that have prescribed homeopathic remedies and the millions of people who have used them over the last couple of centuries are completely deluded. I have used homeopathy for myself, my family and pets. Although it is not my primary modality, I sometimes recommend homeopathic remedies to my clients as well. I can say with absolute certainty that they work. Interestingly, they work even better for animals than humans because animals don't have any negative beliefs about them. Because of their lack of beliefs, when animals demonstrate positive results from homeopathic remedies it can not be attributed to the placebo effect.

It certainly wouldn't hurt to fund some good quality, unbiased human clinical studies that investigate homeopathy in the context of how it is actually used to put this issue to rest once and for all. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to convince most of the skeptics. They are too attached to their theories. How the world really works is secondary. If such studies were to be done, I have confidence that the results will be positive. Once it is clear that homeopathy does work, then we can attempt to figure out why. It may be that we do not have the right technology to figure that out at the moment, or that we will never be able to with absolute certainty. As far as I am concerned, that doesn't matter. What matters is that homeopathic remedies when used correctly have a tremendous potential to help people. Positive healing outcomes are the most important thing. Good theories and explanations are useful, but not necessary.

For those who have been patiently waiting, I will continue my series on vaccinations in my next post.