Saturday, December 28, 2013

Happy Solstice ... And Other Stories!

Last Saturday was the winter solstice. Once more we acknowledged this sacred time in ceremony. For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, it is not only the shortest day of the year, the end of fall and the beginning of winter, it is also the end of the natural year and the beginning of the new. It is such an incredible privilege to have been able to live in this awesome, mysterious world through another fall and another year, and to be able to greet the arrival of winter and the new year.

Normally I would post this on the day of the solstice, but this year the wisdom and mystery of this time brought a different teaching in the region where I live and I wasn't able to get online until yesterday. During the last few minutes of our ceremony it started to rain ... and it didn't stop until early Monday morning. Aside from the fact that rain is somewhat unusual in these parts at this time of year (although the winters have been getting warmer and rain more common in the last couple of decades), what was also different was that the temperature stayed steady around the freezing point. For two days the ice accumulated. Starting on Saturday evening, whenever I went outside I would hear a sharp crack and a huge branch would come crashing down about every 30-60 seconds . Every 5-10 minutes a tree would come down as well. I have never seen anything like it. By the end of it even tiny little blades of grass had 2-3 cm (about an inch) of ice on them!

The view from our front door Friday afternoon.

Although they are calling it an "ice storm", it wasn't very stormy. Just very calm with a gentle, steady rain. But by the end of it the devastation was incredible. It is with great sadness that I witness the harm that has come to the tree people where I live and in the surrounding region. The repercussions for our society in the area affected have also been profound. Hundreds of thousands of people were without power and, as I write this a week later, tens of thousands still are - including us!

The area a bit to the left of the previous photo.

I live in a rural area. Our driveway winds 300 metres through woods before you get to our house. Our power went out Saturday night when one of the falling trees snapped the power line. The power went out on the street where I live a short time later. The power on our street wasn't restored until Friday afternoon, but we won't get ours until at least the end of next week because that is how long it is going to take to get crews in here to trim the trees and fix the power lines. We had no electricity, heat or water (as we have a well) initially, but luckily my son Sean, who is an electrician apprentice, was able to find us a generator online (they are completely sold out or rented out within a couple of hours drive of the areas affected). The generator that we were able to get isn't a very powerful one. All we have hooked up is the furnace and the lights and plugs in two rooms. Just in time too! By the time he got it hooked up on Wednesday morning it was a couple of degrees above freezing in our house. The whole situation was exacerbated by the fact that on Tuesday we went into a deep freeze while about half of the people affected still didn't have their electricity restored.

The view behind our home. As a reference point, the large white pines in the background are about 20-25 metres tall.

In spite of the destruction, when we walked through the fields after the storm everything looked so magical coated in thick ice and glistening in the sunshine. I couldn't take any photos at that time because the batteries were dead in both of my cameras. I wasn't able to charge them until Thursday. The photos I have provided were taken Friday afternoon. By that time some of the ice had melted and everything was covered by a fresh blanket of snow that fell on Thursday.

As devastating as these natural disasters are, they are part of the natural cycle of things. They provide a means of transformation and renewal. Traditional peoples understood this. However, in our modern society we are over-populated and we attempt to build permanent homes and infrastructure. We have created a situation where we are usually at odds with natural rhythms and cycles in order to maintain our lifestyle. We also tend to think too short-term and don't have very much resilience or adaptability built into how we do things. We tend to put most of our eggs in one basket (like petroleum).

A Canada goldenrod stalk (Solidago canadensis) reinforcing a significantly larger column of ice.

Living through this has provided me with some very powerful teachings. We currently live in a home that I rent in a rural area just north of Toronto. It's a moderate size home by today's standards (probably about 3,000 square feet). My kids each have a bedroom plus I run classes and clinics out of our home. One room is a designated classroom and I also have a consultation room and my working office. Nevertheless, I feel the weight of having to have so much space and stuff. A short distance south of me there are endless new subdivisions where even the townhouses are 1,500-2,000 square feet. Semis are 2,000-2,500 and detached homes can be anywhere from 3-6,000 square feet. Then there are the luxury "communities" which are completely over the top. There is even one subdivision a short distance west of me where the "homes" are 8-15,000 square feet. Personally I think that this is insane! I grew up in an older suburb of Toronto where most families did just fine in 1,000-1,500 square feet bungalows which only took up a small portion of their lots. There was lots of green space, kids played outside most of the time, and everyone knew their neighbors. This storm was rough for me, but I can't imagine what it would be like in one of those monster homes without electricity. I hope that they learned something from this too!

I look forward to a time in the next year or two when I will move further out into the country to a smaller place that is more manageable along with some close friends. We are part of an intentional community that has been developing over the last few years. We still haven't found the right land, but hope to soon. Although I'm going to be roughing it for a bit longer, I'm extremely grateful for the lessons that I've learned from my current circumstances about important ways to build more flexibility and resilience into my home, and for the importance of community. I would not have been able to manage without the help of family and friends.

As always, as I walk the land I am always observing what's going on. I'm paying careful attention to how the land responds to these conditions. I've learned a lot about the ability of the many species of trees that live on the land where I live to be able to withstand an ice storm. Some species were only affected in a minor way. Others were devastated. Since we are expected to experience more of these kinds of weather events in the coming years, this is important information in terms of what trees we decide to plant in the future. I haven't had the opportunity to explore every corner of the land due to falling branches and ice, but this is what I've found so far starting with the species that are the most resilient and working down to those that were the most damaged: Norway spruce (Picea abies) > white spruce (Picea glauca) > eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) > balsam fir (Abies balsamea) > tamarack (Larix laricina) > red pine (Pinus resinosa) > white pine (Pinus strobus) > black walnut (Juglans nigra) > sugar maple (Acer saccharum) > rock elm (Ulmus thomasii) > white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) > ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) > pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) > chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) > high-bush cranberry (Viburnum opulus) > common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) > red oak (Quercus rubra) > white ash (Fraxinus americana) > red maple (Acer rubrum) > hawthorn (Crataegus spp.) > American beech (Fagus grandifolia) > American elm (Ulmus americana) > Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) > silver maple (Acer saccharinum) > white willow (Salix alba) > paper birch (Betula papyrifera) > trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) > blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana) > yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) > American basswood (Tilia americana) > black cherry (Prunus serotina) > peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides) > Manitoba maple (Acer negundo) > Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila). Of course, this is only the result from one storm with no wind, and many of the trees around me are relatively young to medium age. Other storms might produce slightly different results, but this is still very useful information.

Here we have motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) similarly encased in ice.

There is also the much bigger picture. Due to global warming, the area where I live is expected to get more ice storms, more violent thunder storms, more tornadoes, and more extremes of weather in other ways such as years of drought and years of excessive rain (last year Toronto experienced its heaviest rainfall and worst flooding on record). This is going to be the new norm, not just here, but pretty much everywhere. As much as we may empathize with other people when we hear about various natural disasters in the news, it's not the same as when it happens in our own backyard. By now most of us have experienced natural disasters first hand, or at least have family or friends that have. It is my hope that this and other similar occurrences will help us all to wake up and realize that the way we are living is unsustainable. If we don't act on a major scale very soon, the world that our children and grandchildren inherit is going to be a very different and challenging place.

Getting back to the solstice, I would like to send out prayers of healing at this sacred time to all of the people of the world. I hope that this will be a year of greater healing and wisdom; that we will begin to open our hearts more fully and tread the long and difficult path necessary to help create a more balanced, harmonious and sustainable future.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

How Clean Is Too Clean?

There is no doubt that good hygiene is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Improvements in hygiene, access to clean drinking water and regular access to a variety of foods were the most important elements that improved our health and longevity in the last 100+ years. Although these were not always concerns in the past, they became issues as a growing proportion of the human population began to live in an urban environment. These factors did more to improve our health than all of the "advances" of modern medicine combined. The only medical advancement that comes even close is the development of antibiotics. Although antibiotics continue to be mostly over-used and misused, their contribution to reducing the number of people who die from acute infections can not be denied.

Today it's hard to believe that until fairly recently doctors who advocated good hygienic practices were once ridiculed and marginalized by the mainstream of their profession. Times have certainly changed, but consistent with human nature we have now swung too far to the other end of the spectrum. In recent decades we have developed a neurotic obsession with cleanliness and fear of microbes that is detrimental to our health and the environment upon which depend. These days it is very common for people to poison their bodies, homes and workplace with toxic cleaning products, antibacterial personal hygiene products, and others. I am even finding it increasingly difficult to buy clothing that isn't "antibacterial" or "antiodour". These products are coated with antimicrobial substances such as triclosan , or silver or copper nanoparticles. These substances are absorbed through our skin and wash out into the environment. In both cases they are associated with some pretty detrimental effects (for example, see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-chemical-marketplace-triclosan).

Nanoparticles are the rage these days. They are showing up in many products that we use and consume. They are virtually unregulated and we know almost nothing about what they do in our bodies and the environment. Among the few things we do know is that they can be absorbed through our skin, they accumulate up the food chain, and we are beginning to see deleterious effects of these substances on living organisms (for example: see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=nanotechnology-silver-nanoparticles-fish-malformation).

Nanotechnologies are just one of the latest in a long history of our failures to adhere to the precautionary principle. Industry is creating new technologies faster than we can keep up with and there is insufficient regulation to manage their risks. In the corporate run consumer society that we have created, these things will be released into our environment in millions of ways long before we have even a fraction of understanding about what they do to living organisms in the short-term, never mind the next seven generations. As is typical, some people are making a lot of money while in the long run society and the biosphere pay the price!

Elecampane root (Inula helenium) primarily helps our immune system to respond to pathogens rather than directly attacking them.
It also contains prebiotic constituents that promote the growth of friendly bacteria in our respiratory and digestive tracts.

One of the problems with the mainstream medical reductionistic interpretation of the discovery of disease causing microorganisms was that microbes became the bad guys. In reality, infectious microorganisms are just the tip of the iceberg and focusing medical interventions at that level is a completely superficial approach. Life is much more complex than that. From an holistic perspective we need to get to the root of why someone is getting sick in the first place. This has more to do with what we eat, and how and where we live than what pathogens we are exposed to. On a daily basis we are exposed to millions of potentially pathogenic microorganisms without necessarily getting sick. In addition, there are trillions of microbes that live on our skin and the surfaces of the mucus membranes that form the lining of our internal organs. The number of microbes that live on and in us actually outnumbers our body cells by an approximate ration of 10:1! This is possible because these organisms are much smaller than our body cells. In many ways our body is more like an ecosystem than a distinct entity. Recently microbiologists have begun to refer to the organisms that live within and on us as the human microbiome. It is an ecological niche that is part of us and we are part of it. These populations of microorganisms that live with us form an interface between our bodies and the rest of the world. They work together with our immune system and the epithelial cells of our skin and mucus membranes to help create an environment that is mutually beneficial for both us and them (for example see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130328125228.htm and http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130826180513.htm).

In this world everything is interconnected and has its place in the larger whole. By using microbes as a scapegoat and going at them with guns blazing we have been able to conveniently avoid the real issues which are what we eat and how we live, and our antimicrobial obsession is actually contributing to the underlying problem. Not only are we poisoning ourselves and the environment with all of our antimicrobial products, but these products indiscriminately kill other microorganisms as well. Most of the microbes that we come in contact with on a daily basis are either benign or beneficial in most circumstances. However, the antimicrobial products that we use don't discriminate between beneficial microbes and those that are potentially harmful. When we kill off a lot of the symbiotic microorganisms that live on and in us with things like antibiotics and hand sanitizers we alter the human microbiome in ways that creates an environment less able to support friendly microorganisms and the health of the cells of our body surfaces. The friendly microbes actually help to keep the potentially pathogenic microbes in check, both directly by competing with them, and indirectly by creating an environment that is less conducive to their growth and cooperating with our immune system to aid its functioning as well. When we disturb the balance of the microbiome, we inadvertently create an environment that is more supportive to the proliferation of the unfriendly microorganisms and less supportive of the health of the friendly microbes and our body tissues.

In the last couple of decades scientists have finally begun to study the human microbiome and a growing body of very interesting research is accumulating. What they are finding is that there is a strong relationship between the population of microbes that live on and inside us and our general health. They are also finding that, just as our muscles need a certain amount of stress (exercise) in order to improve their strength and endurance, so does our immune system. Like all organs in our body, our immune system needs a healthy amount of stress in order to develop and function properly. To much stress will overwhelm it, but too little stress will also weaken it or lead to other kinds of dysfunction. When we look at life, the ecosystem and our body from an holistic perspective, this makes perfect sense and it's been a fundamental principle of the natural healing paradigm for millennia. But when scientists approach the world from a linear reductionistic perspective it is difficult to see the multifaceted connections between things. These can only be seen if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Immune tonics such as the fruiting body of hemlock varnish shelf (Ganoderma tsugae) help to normalize our immune function
and reduce excessive inflammatory responses such as those associated with autoimmune conditions.

More recently, some medical researchers are finally coming around and realizing that it's time to try and figure out what most of the microbes out there (other than the ones that are causing diseases) are doing. Not surprisingly, they are finding that a healthy microbiome is essential to our health in many ways. This is extremely important if we are looking at health from an holistic perspective. I have discussed this from a number of angles in previous posts and no doubt will again in the future. However, another important trend that is emerging has to do with our relationship to pathogenic organisms. There is a growing body of research that indicates that by reducing our normal exposure to pathogenic microorganisms as a result of increased levels of sanitation, it is basically screwing up our immune system and contributing to the development of many chronic inflammatory illnesses such as allergies, asthma and other autoimmune conditions. What this research indicates is that the greater the level of sanitation in a country, the higher the incidence of these kinds of conditions. This has led to the development of the "hygiene hypothesis", which basically states that exposure to a broad range of pathogens is necessary for the normal development of our immune system. Without this exposure our immune system develops with less of an emphasis on responses that are intended to fight infection and a greater tendency towards immune responses that promote inflammation (for a detailed explanation of the hygiene hypothesis see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=can-it-be-bad-to-be-too-clean-the-h-11-04-06). One unfortunate consequence of this is that it seems to be one of the factors that have resulted in women more commonly suffering from autoimmune conditions than men. Some researchers believe that this is because in our society we encourage young girls to be cleaner than young boys (see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110126144528.htm).

Although there is still some resistance among many medical researchers to accept these findings, a relationship between hygiene, sanitation and chronic inflammatory conditions is being demonstrated for a growing number of conditions. Some of the more recent associations include type 1 diabetes (see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130318203334.htm) and Alzheimer's disease (see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130904105347.htm).

The moral of this story is that, although good hygiene is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, too much emphasis on hygiene can be just as detrimental as not enough. To address hygiene in the context of a healthy lifestyle there are a number of principles that need to be kept in mind:

It is best to avoid the use of toxic cleaning products, cosmetics
and other personal hygiene products.

It is best to only use natural household cleaning and laundry products, cosmetics, soaps, etc., and avoid the use of chlorine based products and synthetic disinfectants. Many of these products are easily absorbed through our skin and some are even toxic if inhaled. It is also best to avoid chlorinated or brominated water: we don't want to drink it, swim in it, or bathe in it. This means that if our household water source is chemically treated municipal water, we should invest in a decent water filter for drinking and a shower filter for showering and bathing. All of these products are toxic to the environment, our body, and they disturb the balance of microorganisms that live in and on us.


Garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) essential oil is an excellent antimicrobial that is a common ingredient in
natural hand sanitizers. It can be added to home made natural cleaning products as a disinfectant.

"Antimicrobial" and "low odour" clothing and personal hygiene products
are best avoided even if they are "natural".

"Antimicrobial" or "low odour" clothing are best avoided for reasons that I stated above. Hand sanitizers are unnecessary and often contain toxic ingredients such as triclosan. Even natural hand sanitizers such as those with antimicrobial essential oils are not recommended. Research has indicated that these products are usually no more effective than plain soap and water, but they are potentially a source of toxicity and both synthetic and natural hand sanitizers disturb the balance of bacteria on our skin. That being said, periodic use of natural hand sanitizers in circumstances where soap and water are not immediately accessible is OK. We also need to be a bit more cautious when we are travelling in distant countries because the strains of microbes will be different there, especially in warmer climates where there tends to be a broader range of parasites. Once more, soap and water are still the best option, but it doesn't hurt to bring a natural hand sanitizer for situations where it isn't possible to wash our hands.

It is best if we practice moderation with regard to personal hygiene.

A good natural soap and water is the best way to clean our skin. Antibacterial soaps are not recommended. Soap is itself naturally antibacterial. However, too much soap and water is also not good because it will also disturb the natural balance of our skin microbiome and it strips the natural oils from our skin making it drier and more prone to injury and infection. The truth is, most parts of our body do not require soap unless they come in contact with something that is oily or associated with a high risk of infection (like dead animal tissue). Over most of our body surface the primary thing we need to remove is sweat. Most of our sweat is water-soluble, so rinsing with water is sufficient and soap unnecessary. Although water alone will not remove excess sebum (the oily secretion that lubricates our skin), if some parts of our skin tend to be on the oily side, toweling dry is sufficient to remove the excess oil. Using soap in these areas will temporarily remove too much sebum and in the long run stimulate our sebaceous glands to secrete more sebum thereby making our skin even more oily.

There are a few exceptions. Water alone is insufficient to wash our hair. It is best to use a gentle, natural shampoo, but don't use so much that your hair is "squeaky clean". It is best to leave some of the natural oils in our hair. It is also preferable for most people not to shampoo their hair more than every other day. In the long run, the more we wash it, the oilier it gets.

Another exception is our armpits which contain lots of apocrine glands that secrete a different kind of sweat that includes fatty components. It is the metabolism of these substances by bacteria that produce odour as our sweat is pretty much scentless. Because of the fat content of these secretions, water alone is insufficient to clean these areas.

Our anal region is another area that requires washing with soap due to the presence of fecal matter. However, our genital region is very sensitive and it is best not to use soap in this region. This tends to be an area where people are more obsessive and tend to overdo it. The disturbances of the skin microbiome in this area of our body that result from using soap and water and other personal hygiene products (when used) is one of the contributing factors to the development of fungal or bacterial infections of the vagina. Rinsing with water and toweling dry is good enough in this region of our body.

Our hands and feet are the last two areas that require soap and water. This means that when we shower, aside from shampooing our hair, the only areas of our body that require soap are our armpits, anal region, hands and feet. Rinsing with water and toweling dry are good enough and preferable for the rest of our body. It is also important that we make sure that the skin in areas of our body with folds and creases is properly rinsed and toweled dry because these areas tend to be moist and can be breeding areas for unfriendly microorganisms if sweat, sebum and dead cells are allowed to build up.

Good clean water is the best thing for washing most of our body most of the time.

The last thing that needs to be said here is that showering or bathing in chlorinated water is bad news. Not only does it disturb the balance of our skin microbiome, we can absorb chlorine into our body through our skin and by inhaling it. Once it is in our body it reacts with organic substances forming organochlorides which are very toxic. This means that it is best to only shower or fill our bathtub through a good shower filter that removes chlorine. Also, bathing in general isn't recommended even if we eliminate the chlorine from the water. It just isn't a good idea to sit and soak in dirty, soapy water, even if we shower afterwards to rinse off. Bathing is particularly problematic for women because the chlorine and soap in bath water will enter their vagina and disturb the balance of vaginal microbes making them more susceptible to vaginal yeast or bacterial infections. That being said, relaxing in a warm bathtub with some essential oils is a great way to reduce stress as long as there is no chlorine or soap in the water.

Be clear and calm, not paranoid.

A friend of mine once told me that she was becoming so concerned about pathogens in our environment that she was afraid to touch door handles and shopping carts. I told her that next time she felt that way she should lick the door handle and feel good about it and she'd probably be less likely to get sick! Although I was being somewhat facetious, I was also partly serious. I walk into a local supermarket these days and there is a hand sanitizer station at the entrance so that people can disinfect the handle of their shopping cart. Then there's bottles of hand sanitizer at the checkout so that people can disinfect their hands after handling money. I see the same kind of thing in a lot of public places. Of course, we are now expected to goop on the hand sanitizer before entering a hospital as well. The irony is that the microbes that we are bringing into the hospital are usually a lot less of a concern than the ones that are already there. Hospitals are breeding grounds for super microbes that are resistant to most of what we can throw at them. This is mostly because of the over use and misuse of antibiotics and chemical disinfectants. Hand sanitizers are one of the things that are contributing to the development of these organisms.

A few years ago I heard an interesting radio interview with a respected microbiologist. He was discussing the issue of how our society has gone overboard in our war on microbes and mentioned hand sanitizers as an example. He said that people would be better off washing their hands with yogurt than hand sanitizers because the bacterial culture in yogurt will compete with any potentially pathogenic organisms on our skin and help to maintain a healthy microbiome instead of disturb it with toxic antiseptics. He was making a point, of course. He wasn't advocating that we wash our hands with yogurt.

The bottom line is that exposure to microbes is a normal part of life. Most of them are benign, many of them are beneficial, and some of them are pathogenic. Under most circumstances our microbial community and our immune system will keep them in check. Even if we do get sick occasionally, periodic infections, as long as they are not really serious ones, are good stress for our immune system just like regular exercise is good stress for our muscles, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. The best thing we can do is be healthy in body, mind and spirit. Eating well, regular exercise, a moderate level of hygiene, reducing stress and exposure to toxicity, and a good attitude in life are our best protection. It will help to ensure that our immune system and our body as a whole are strong and healthy. If we aren't healthy, no amount of sanitation, hygiene or toxic products are going to keep us from getting sick.

Valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) is a great friend when fear and anxiety get the better of us!

Unfortunately, it's easy to succumb to fear. On one side we have reductionistic medical practitioners stuck in their narrow linear world view. On the other side we have more fear being propagated by various industries trying to sell us a multitude of antimicrobial products. And then we have the media sensationalizing everything in order to get our attention. To a large extent they are more of the problem than the microbes that they want us to fear by distracting us from the real causes of illness (what we eat and how we live), encouraging us to poison ourselves and our environment with all kinds of toxic products, and by promoting fear, for fear has one of the most powerful negative affects on our health and well-being, and more specifically our immune function.

In my life I eat pretty well most of the time, exercise fairly regularly, avoid toxic products as much as possible, don't let stress get the upper hand most of the time, and follow my heart and live my life to the fullest. I follow the guidelines that I outlined above when it comes to hygiene. I also don't worry about microbes. I take necessary precautions when it is required, but when I consider it to be required is far less often than most other people. For instance, I have no problem hugging or kissing people who are sick. I don't freak out if someone coughs or sneezes near me. I'm also not the least bit concerned about touching money or surfaces in public places unless there could be some kind of chemical contamination (even here I don't get stressed about it, I just avoid it as best I can). I wash my hands with soap if I'm digging in the soil, after I have a bowel movement (soap isn't necessary when we urinate because urine is water soluble), after I pet one of my dogs (for an interesting related article on dogs see: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131216155042.htm) or any other animal if they are stinky (but not if they're relatively clean), if I possibly come in contact with animal feces or rotting animal tissue (which can happen when one of my dogs rolls on something nasty), if I touch raw meat, or if I get something oily on my hands. I rarely wash my hands before I eat because mostly I'm just touching things in my local environment where all of the microbes are already a part of me. However, I'm a bit more cautious when I'm travelling and potentially coming in contact with strains of microbes that I'm not used to.

Although some people might be shocked at my relaxed attitude to pathogens, I am strong and healthy and almost never get sick. That being said, I am not advocating that everyone do what I do. I know what my body can handle and what my limitations are. This is not something new for me. I have lived this way for 35 years. Each of us has to make our choices in accordance with our current level of health and circumstances. We can wash our hands as much as we want (with natural soap and water) and don't have to kiss people with the flu. What we do need to do is stop poisoning ourselves, live well and do our best to not live a life governed by fear.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

More on Chaga!

There's been a lot of interest in the post I did in September on Chaga and the Wild Harvesting Dilemma. As a supplement to that, I've just put up a video on YouTube taken from an Herbal Field Studies field workshop last August in which I discussed chaga.  Enjoy!

That being said, in the couple of months since I wrote that post I have seen a disturbing acceleration in the number of products containing chaga on the market. It's being added to vitamin supplements and various kinds of powdered supplements, and most disconcerting of all in food products as well! Sadly, this is the result of a lot of companies trying to cash in on the chaga craze at the expense of chaga, the environment and the people who really need it. It's also just a marketing gimmick! In most cases these products don't contain enough of the fungus to have any health benefits. However, they may have enough in them so that if these products are consumed on a regular basis for a long time our body could get used to the chaga and it won't work as well if some day we really need to use it. This is why I never recommend the use of vitamins, powders or food products that contain medicinal herbs! This is not an appropriate use of these medicines. They are not meant to be consumed in minute quantities over very long periods of time.

Aside from the fact that minute amounts of chaga (or any herb for that matter) in a multivitamin or chocolate bar are not going to do much for anyone, the bigger issue here is that chaga is difficult to cultivate and the cultivated fungus is significantly inferior to the wild harvested source. As a result, it's wild harvested chaga that these companies are using. For reasons that I explained in my previous post on this topic, wild harvesting chaga on a commercial scale simply is not sustainable. Even if the level of consumption stays at the current rate (and it is actually increasing rapidly), within a few years this fungus is going to be severely depleted in the wild like other herbs that have been over-harvested such as ginseng (Panax spp.) and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is now rare, endangered or extinct in most of its former range due to over-harvesting.

Even if it was useful to consume chaga in this way, it should not be used on a commercial scale until good quality cultivated sources are readily available. That also goes for other wild harvested herbs and foods unless they are species that are very aggressive or "invasive" by nature and the scale of harvesting isn't too large.

I strongly encourage anyone who uses herbal products to only use those that are manufactured from certified organically grown sources. In the case of chaga, if you love and respect herbs and Nature, you might even want to consider complaining to stores or companies that sell or manufacture these products. If we can raise the level of awareness of these issues maybe things will change before chaga goes the way of other herbs that have been over-harvested.

So, you might ask why I'm putting out information on the medicinal uses of chaga at all? Firstly, although the current popularity of this fungus is not a good thing, I'm hoping that some good can come of it by using it as a vehicle to help raise awareness of these issues. Secondly, I feel that it is a very important part of our healing process that we engage with Nature as much as possible and learning about herbs and making our own medicines is a great way to do that for those who are so inclined, as long as it is done in a respectful manner. Teaching people how to do this is one of the ways that I can help people to connect with Nature and the medicines that they use, as well as how to do it in a way that honours our relationship with the world we live in. Finally, chaga is an awesome medicine (when used correctly)! Nevertheless, due to the significant reduction in wild populations, I have significantly reduced my use of it to those conditions where it really excels, which are conditions of the bone marrow and autoimmune conditions that don't respond as well as I would like to some of the other herbs that I typically use for these types of conditions. I also only use it at a proportion of no more than 20% of a formula. For all of its other uses chaga works no better than many of the other herbs that I use. I also encourage everyone else to use it similarly to reduce our impact on wild populations.

Unfortunately, chaga is primarily being promoted for use as a general tonic, which leads to the greatest amount of consumption. Although it can be very effective as a tonic when used correctly, it should not be used indiscriminately. However, under the current circumstances I no longer recommend its use in this way. There are many medicinal mushrooms and other herbal immune tonics and adaptogens that are available commercially from organically grown sources that work just as well. There's no need for chaga to be used as a general tonic.

Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is an excellent tonic mushroom that is readily available from organically grown sources.

If you do wish to harvest some chaga for personal use, it should only be harvested in areas where there is no evidence that anyone else has been harvesting it. There should also be a fair bit of it around so that you only have to harvest from a small percentage of the fungi. Chaga often grows high up where we can't reach it, so look up. If you only find one that is growing at a level that you can reach but there are at least a few in the area growing up high, it's fine to harvest it. Look for fungi that grow out past the surface of the tree and only harvest up to 50% of any given fungus. Make sure that you leave some of the outer black crusty portion and don't cut it deeper than the surface of the tree.

Although chaga is traditionally used as a tea, it is best to make a tincture of it. The amount of fungus required per unit dose is much smaller for tinctures because they extract the chemical constituents and are assimilated more efficiently. There are some people who claim that medicinal mushrooms can not be extracted as tinctures. This isn't true! Most of the people who make these claims are affiliated with companies that use expensive high-tech extraction methods that you can't use at home. Some have been propagating this misinformation to encourage people to use their products. The key to making a tincture is that the fungus must be chopped very fine, basically to the level of a very course coffee grind. It is best to use a menstruum (extraction medium) that is 60% water, 30% alcohol and 10% glycerin. This menstruum will efficiently extract polysaccharides and other constituents that don't like alcohol, but still extract those that like alcohol efficiently as well. Finally, the herbs should be macerated (soaked in the menstruum) at least three months before you press and filter it to make your tincture.

It wasn't my intention to keep harping on this topic. There was a lot of action on my previous post on chaga, so I decided that it would be nice to put up a video on it. The video was recorded about a month before I did that post. It was coming across that butchered chaga during that field workshop that inspired me to finally write that post, although I had been thinking about it for some time. After seeing a growing number of ridiculous products containing chaga appear on the market over the last couple of months and then watching that video a few times while editing it, I felt like there was a bit more I needed to say about it. So there it is! The next post will be about something else...


Friday, October 11, 2013

Hormone Disruptors: Zombie Molecules?

As an herbalist and teacher concerned with health and healing I spend a lot of time talking about and addressing issues of toxicity, both within our bodies and within the environment that we are part of and on which we depend for our existence. Although the causes of chronic illness are very complex, toxicity is a major causal factor in the development of most if not all chronic conditions.

Toxins can affect our health in many ways. They can promote oxidation of important metabolic and structural molecules in our body. They can also react with these substances in other ways that alter their chemical properties. In addition, many toxins have the ability to bind to chemical receptors in our body, such as neurotransmitter and hormone receptors, and alter our body metabolism in undesirable ways. This latter group, those that can interact with hormone receptor sites, are often referred to as "hormone disruptors" and they are a particularly important and common group of environmental toxins that have been getting a lot of attention recently. They include numerous petrochemical products, components of plastics, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and many other chemicals that are used in industry, agriculture and medicine.

How is our Earth Mother supposed to support and heal us if we keep poisoning her?

Hormone disruptors are known to negatively affect the health of endocrine and other organs, and many of them are carcinogenic. They also have some other properties that are of particular concern. For instance, there is some recent research that indicates that at least some of them may have stronger actions in extremely dilute doses that are well below the accepted "safety limits" than in larger concentrations (see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=low-doses-hormone-like-chemicals-may-have-big-effects).

Hormone disrupting chemicals are also known to produce epigenetic effects. This means that they can affect gene expression, turning on or off the action of genes in ways that alter the way they are supposed to be behaving. Animal research has demonstrated epigenetic effects from as little as a single exposure to a chemical and that the results can be passed on through multiple generations (see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-chemical-exposure-that-keeps-go). If they can have such a profound effect after a single exposure, imagine what they might do when they are floating around in our body tissues and fluids for most of our life - not just one but hundreds or possibly thousands of them!

As if these insidious microscopic nasties weren't bad enough, some new research indicates that they have yet another property that takes their nastiness to a whole new (and scarier) level: they can rise from the dead! Apparently it's true (hopefully this won't spawn a whole new genre of nano-zombie movies!). Of course, the zombie analogy is a stretch. What's really going on is that in the environment a certain percentage of these molecules are broken down when exposed to light during the day. However, after the sun goes down some of them have the ability to regenerate themselves (see: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=hormone-disruptors-rise-from-the-dead-like-zombies). This has profound implications concerning the persistence of these chemicals in the environment and also our ability to accurately assess their levels, since researchers tend to take samples to test for chemical pollutants during the day when their concentrations will tend to be lower.


This is me doing my zombie hormone disruptor imitation!

Lucky for us both the human body and the environment are extremely resilient. That isn't to say that they can take abuse indefinitely, but when I look at the level of abuse that we have inflicted on the Earth and that some people inflict on their bodies I am in awe of how much abuse living things, whether they are organisms or ecosystems, can take. It speaks to the incredible capacity of life to heal and regenerate!

So what can we do about it? Basically, do our best to minimize the amount of toxic crap that we put in and on our bodies and into our environment - and do it with a smile! There's no point getting stressed out about it (more toxic crap!). We can only do the best we can and try to keep a positive attitude. Gratefulness is a good place to start. We are less likely to pollute what we feel grateful for. Of course, it is best if we eat and drink certified organic food as much as possible; minimize consumption of canned foods; avoid food and drink that is packaged in plastics #3, #6 and #7; use only natural cosmetic products; and minimize contact with thermal papers like those used in cash register receipts and cheaper fax machines. In addition, a bit of detoxing periodically is always a good idea. There are many herb friends that would be happy to help us along with that!


This burdock (Arctium nothum) is the hybrid between common burdock (A. minus) and great burdock (A. lappa).
The roots of all three are excellent for helping to eliminate hormone disruptors and other toxins from our body.

One day I hope to do a post on herbal detoxification. In the mean time you can find more information in my previous posts More Bad News Concerning PhthalatesMore Bad News About BPA (and Friends!), and More Bad News About BPA, Postscript. One of them has a link to an article on detoxing that I wrote a number of years ago.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chaga and the Wild Harvesting Dilemma

There are many wild spaces where I love to walk and, when necessary, harvest herbs. Whenever I explore a new area or trail, I keep a record of what species grow there. For those herbs that I use in my practice, I will also estimate the approximate amount (in litres of tincture) that can be sustainably harvested from the area of any species that are growing in sufficient quantity. Since plant populations change, I update these records every time I visit an area. As someone who wild harvests almost all of the medicines that I use, this information is very important to me. I maintain a data base in which I keep track of it.

Every year I try to visit a few new areas. This is partly because I want to deepen my relationship with the region where I live and one of the ways I do that is to get to know its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. However, in exploring new areas I am also keeping track of the medicines that grow there. I like to have as many locations as possible to harvest each of the medicines that I use so that I don't have to harvest them in any particular region more than once every few years. I am extremely anal about respecting the medicines and making sure that they are harvested in a sustainable manner. I have written about this in more detail in my post Wild Harvesting Herbs.

In my practice I use several medicinal fungi. One of the fungi that I harvest is clinker polypore (Inonotus obliquus), better known these days as chaga. The name chaga is an anglicized version of the Russian version of the name of the fungus in the language of the Komi people of central Russia. Since this fungus has been popularized as chaga, very few people know its English name.

Clinker polypore (Inonotus obliquus), better known as chaga.

Chaga is a fungus that grows primarily on birch trees (Betula spp.) in the region where I live. It has been used for various purposes by many traditional peoples throughout the temperate and subarctic regions of the northern hemisphere where it grows. Until the last decade or so, most people in our society had never heard of it. However, it has become popularized in recent years, which is not a good thing! This fungus grows very slowly and is difficult to cultivate. In addition, so far the medicinal properties of the cultivated fungus are significantly inferior to the wild harvested fungus. Another concern is that this is not your typical wood rotting fungus. Most of the conks or bracket fungi that grow on living and dead trees are actually the reproductive organs or fruiting bodies of organisms that grow as a network of filamentous mycelia beneath the bark or through the wood. When we harvest the fruiting body of a fungus, we are not harvesting the main part of the organism. However, chaga doesn't grow this way. The part that appears growing out of the side of birch trees is not the fruit. It is the actual fungus. Chaga rarely fruits and usually only after the tree dies. So, when we harvest chaga, we are harvesting the main body of the organism.

When walking through areas with a lot of birch trees, I used to see a fair amount of chaga. However, in the last couple of years what I am mostly seeing is a lot of trees from which the chaga has been removed and very little chaga itself. This is not simply a matter of a few people harvesting some for personal use. With the popularization of this fungus it seems that there are some people who think of it as a free resource that they can harvest at will in order to make some money. What I'm finding is that most of the people out there harvesting chaga are doing their best to gouge every last bit of it out of the tree. Remember, in this case they aren't just harvesting the fruit and leaving the organism intact. They are harvesting the whole fungus! In addition, they are doing a lot of damage to the trees that it grows on, leaving gaping wounds through which the trees can easily be affected by insects or disease.

When I harvest chaga, I only harvest it in areas where it is plentiful; I only harvest from a small percentage of the fungi growing in the area; and I only harvest part of any given conk and leave 50% or more of it intact. What I'm seeing out there is the result of people harvesting every fungus they can find and doing their best to completely extract it from the tree it is growing on. Needless to say, given that chaga rarely fruits and grows very slowly, this fungus is rapidly becoming scarce in the more accessible areas where it was once relatively common.

Chaga harvested correctly: not cutting too deep and leaving more than half of the fungus intact.

It is ironic that the demand for chaga is due to a growing interest in "natural healing". However, this is the antithesis of what natural healing is really about! Natural healing is about cultivating more balanced and harmonious relationships with ourselves and the world we live in. There is nothing balanced or harmonious about the consumerism driven and disrespectful way that chaga is being torn from the landscape. This is something that many people still don't get. Our lack of health in body, heart, mind and spirit is largely due to how we interact with the world. We live in a society that is way out of balance and as long as we continue to perpetuate the unsustainable paradigm that underlies the status quo we will never really be healthy!

One of the many fallacies of the current Western world view is that we are individuals. It's all about me! It's OK to rape the ecosystem to provide me with what I want. In truth, there are no individuals. Our life depends on the life of our Earth Mother and all of the beings that we share this life with. Everything we do affects everything else and will inevitably come back to bite us if it isn't done with respect and wisdom.

If we are trying to live "green" or "natural" we have a responsibility to investigate the reality behind the latest "green" or "natural" products. We can't necessarily trust the word of anyone who is trying to sell us something. That doesn't mean that they are always manipulative or deceptive - but they often are. Even people who mean well are less likely to dig too deeply into something if their livelihood depends on it. Inevitably, we need to do some research for ourselves. For example: electric cars aren't green or sustainable if they use electricity that is produced by coal plants; solar panels are not green or sustainable if it takes more energy to make them than they will produce in their lifetime, or manufacturing them requires the use of rare and/or toxic elements; shipping exotic "superfoods" half way around the world when there are foods of similar or better nutrient density growing in the area where we live is not green or sustainable - and who knows what environmental transgressions may have been committed where they were grown or harvested? Farming and harvesting practices are not something we can easily verify for plants that come from distant regions. Similarly, wild harvesting foods or medicines on a commercial scale is almost always unsustainable.

Getting back to chaga, the use of this fungus has been popularized in several books and articles, and by the people selling it. As a result, it has become one of the latest and most popular fad herbs. Proponents of its use are recommending it be consumed as a tea and that it be drunk liberally. Some people recommend drinking the tea several times per day for many months or even indefinitely. Looking at the bigger picture, there are several concerns with this scenario. Firstly, chaga is the strongest medicinal fungus that I have used. It is not appropriate for liberal use on an ongoing basis. Like all medicines, it needs to be used with respect. Secondly, using it as a tea requires that it be used in much larger quantities compared to using it as a tincture because the amount of herb required per unit dose is much larger for teas. With the amount of chaga that will keep someone in tea for a few weeks, I can make enough tincture to supply my entire herbal practice for several months! I realize that it was traditionally used as a tea, however, I have found the tincture to be as or more effective at least when prepared by the method that I use (for more information see my previous post Making Medicine, Part 3). Finally, because of the way it grows, chaga simply can not be sustainably harvested on any kind of scale. If we want to harvest a fungus on a very limited commercial scale, it should be one that is very common and produces abundant annual fruitings that can be harvested while leaving the fungus undisturbed. An example of a fungus that might possibly fit into this category is birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus), which has some similar properties and constituents as chaga, although they do have there differences. However, even "limited" commercial harvesting is not really sustainable because who is going to control how many people are doing it and how much they are harvesting? We're not talking about a village healer harvesting it to supply the needs of a small village in a remote area. If there is a demand for it and money to be made, it won't be long before the amount being harvested reaches detrimental levels. Harvesting the fruiting body might not kill or harm the fungus, but it will reduce its rate of reproduction. In reality, the only fungi that should be sold commercially for medicines and especially for foods (since they are consumed in much larger quantities) are those that have been grown commercially - certified organic of course!

A fruiting of birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) growing out of a fallen paper birch (Betula papyrifera) log.

Saying that wild harvesting medicines is unsustainable might sound like a contradiction coming from an herbalist who uses almost exclusively wild harvested medicines! However, what I am saying is that there are very few herbs that can handle being wild harvested on a commercial scale. A few herbalists wild harvesting herbs for their healing practice and a few more herb enthusiasts harvesting some herbs for personal use is sustainable if they are harvesting the herbs in an ethical manner. In fact, these days most herbalists don't wild harvest very many or any of their medicines. There are many reasons for this. One of the main reasons is that it is extremely time consuming. At the most, if I harvest the medicines in a respectful way I can only harvest enough to make a sufficient amount of tincture to practice two full days per week (6-8 clients per day)! Personally, I only practice one day per week. The rest of the time I am teaching and doing other work. Even practicing one day per week a significant proportion of my time is devoted to wild harvesting from April to November. During the peak harvesting periods (May to July and November) it takes up the largest proportion of my time.

There are still a few herbs that I either can't harvest in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of my practice, or for which I haven't found a suitable substitute that grows in the region where I live. I need to purchase these herbs, fresh whenever possible, to make a few of the tinctures that I need. I always purchase these herbs certified organically grown. If I can't wild harvest an herb myself or get it from a certified organically grown source, I don't use it. I never purchase commercially wild harvested herbs.

That being said, due to the increasing popularity of herbs and herbalism coupled with our unsustainable population growth, there may come a time when it is no longer possible for me to continue wild harvesting the herbs that I use. The wild populations of herbs simply won't be able to handle it. At that point I will grow as many as I can and purchase the rest. But I'll still go out there and continue to deepen my relationship with the wild herbs and the lands where they live.

There is no doubt that there are a few wild herbs that can handle some level of commercial wild harvesting at this point. However, there aren't many and a lot of them are not well known or commonly used. The criteria that would need to be met for an herb to fall into this category are: it must be very plentiful and adaptable, more or less invasive by nature; it must prefer to live in the kinds of habitats that humans create when we change the landscape; it must be able to be harvested without negatively impacting the ecosystem where it lives. In North America, most of the herbs that fall into this category are Eurasian plants that have naturalized here, such as common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), burdock (Arctium spp.) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). In my region, the only native species that I would include are a few species of asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) and goldenrods (Solidago spp.). Obviously, it will be different in different regions. Another possibility is using the parts of some commercially harvested tree species that are discarded during the harvesting process, such as the leaves and young twigs of conifers like white pine (Pinus strobus).

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) is one of the few native Ontario herbs
that could be wild harvested commercially to some degree.

One of the reasons that people like wild harvested herbs is because there is a belief that their medicinal properties are superior to those of cultivated herbs, even if they are organically cultivated. For the most part this is true, but it doesn't have to be! Wild harvested herbs have a lot more strength and vitality than cultivated herbs even though cultivated herbs may sometimes look better. This is partly because cultivated herbs are often grown in conditions (soil type, moisture, amount of direct sunlight, monoculture, etc.) that are not typical of their natural habitat. However, the main reason is because cultivated plants are pampered. We all need a certain amount of stress to maintain a decent level of health and vitality. Plants are no exception. Too much stress can weaken them, but so can too little stress. For instance, a certain amount of drought stress is good for most plants. How much depends on the species. Watering them every time the soil gets a bit dry usually isn't a good idea. However, letting them dry out completely isn't either. Also, every organism needs some competition. This can be accomplished by careful companion planting. It is also a good idea to allow some "weeds" to grow, as long as they aren't allowed to get the upper hand by crowding out the herbs we are growing, above the ground or below it. Most "weeds" are useful anyway, either as medicines or foods.

So that is my rant about chaga and the ethics of wild harvesting. Once more, for more information I recommend reading my earlier post Wild Harvesting Herbs. In the mean time, the chaga is rapidly disappearing from the more accessible areas of southern and central Ontario. Although chaga is a great medicine when used correctly and with respect, I strongly recommend considering other medicinal fungi that are available from organically grown sources such as lacquered polypore or reishi (Ganoderma lucidum), hen-of-the-woods or maitake (Grifola frondosa), or oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus).

You might also be interested in my follow-up post More On Chaga and the YouTube video Michael Vertolli On Chaga.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Thank You Summer, Welcome Fall!

Yesterday was like a typical summer day. It was warm and humid and the sky was full of thin misty clouds. Although there are many signs of late summer/early fall, it felt like July. The clouds thickened through the day and into the evening, and then around 10:45 pm it arrived: the last rain of summer!

Thank you summer!

As always, I greeted the weather beings and gave thanks for their sacred rains; these rains that moisten the soil and fill the aquifers, wetlands, rivers and lakes. These rains, without which life as we know it would not exist. I sat outside under the overhang on my front porch, as I often do, and watched, listened, smelled and felt; in awe of the beauty of this world!

At the same time, their power was palpable. Under different circumstances they could unleash severe wind, lightning or flooding; or by their lack of presence ... drought! These have always been a part of our reality. They are a necessary quality of a world that is constantly changing and reshaping itself. But in recent times the mood of the weather beings has changed. They aren't happy with the way we are in relationship with them, or our Earth Mother and all of the other beings we share this life with. We continue to live as if we are separate from the world. We live this way at our peril. We are part of the world and it is part of us. The quality of our life is based on the quality of our relationships, not the amount of stuff that we "own".

Tomorrow, at 4:45 pm EDT, is the fall equinox. Although it is the spring equinox in the southern hemisphere, I will speak of it from where I stand, for our relationships are always rooted in the place where we live. Either way it is an important time of transition in the cycle of the seasons. It is a time when for a brief moment the day and night are in balance. On Monday, the night will be longer than the day. Fall will have arrived!

Welcome fall!

The equinoxes and solstices are important times when we can acknowledge our relationship to the world, reflect on the cycles and changes in our lives, and the quality of our relationships. Tomorrow I will give thanks for the blessings of summer: the experiences that I have had; the medicines and foods harvested; the time spent with loved ones; the time spent walking on this sacred Earth. The greatest blessing of all is to have had the opportunity to live through this season once more. I will also welcome the fall and look forward to its teachings. It's great to be alive and have the honor of experiencing this sacred time once more!

Have a great fall!


Monday, August 5, 2013

Harvesting Artist's Conk (Ganoderma)

Although I primarily use plant species in my practice, I also use several medicinal fungi. The first group of medicinal fungi that I started using about 15 years ago were several of the Ganoderma species. These are bracket fungi or conks that grow on wood. Of the various members of this genus, by far the most popular is lacquered polypore (G. lucidum), better known by its Japanese name reishi. This species grows on a number of different hardwood trees. Although it is circumboreal, growing throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, it is rare in the region where I live. As a result, I primarily use artist's conk (G. applanatum) and hemlock varnish shelf (G. tsugae), which are quite common in this area. All three species have similar properties.

I came across this lacquered polypore (Ganoderma lucidum) in mid June this year growing from the base of a
beech tree (Fagus grandifolia). It is one of the few times I have seen it growing in the region where I live.

I have used all three of these Ganoderma species. Lacquered polypore is not common where I live, however, one year I purchased a log that was inoculated with the spores of this species and grew it so that could make a tincture of the fresh fruiting body and compare the properties of all three species. Although it is not as well know as reishi, I actually have a slight preference for artist's conk. However, in my practice I usually use a 50/50 mixture of the tinctures of the fresh fruiting body of artist's conk and hemlock varnish shelf. I sometimes mix closely related species that have similar constituents and properties to increase the diversity of chemical constituents in the medicines that I use. I find that closely related species are often mutually synergistic and the properties of these combinations are sometimes more consistent and versatile than using the individual species.

Hemlock varnish shelf (Ganoderma tsugae) often looks very similar to lacquered polypore, but it grows almost
exclusively on hemlock (Tsuga spp.). The margin is whiter compared to the photo of
lacquered polypore (see above) because this one is still growing.

Artist's conk is one of the most adaptive fungi in terms of the variety of tree species that it can grow on. It primarily grows on hardwoods, but on rare occasions I have seen it growing on conifers as well. That being said, in the region where I live it most commonly grows on sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia).

Unlike its relatives, the fruiting body of artist's conk is perennial. If the conditions are right it can grow for many years. It is brownish with a woody appearance on top, but the underside is white and somewhat rubbery. If we draw on the underside with some kind of stylus, it leaves distinctive lines that will be preserved if the fungus is dried. This is how it got its common name. I have seen some pretty amazing pictures that were drawn on artist's conk!

Artist's conk used to be one of the most common fungi in southern Ontario. However, in the last few years it has become less common. As a result, I have found it a little more difficult to find good harvestable specimens. I suspect it has something to do with the average age of the forests in our region. From 1980 to 2005 there were a lot of very old beech and maple trees that gradually died off. There aren't that many of the oldest ones left in a lot of the forests that I frequent. This is just my hypothesis. There are probably other reasons as well.

The fruiting body of artist's conk (Ganoderma applanatum) is perennial and can grow for many years.

I use a moderate amount of Ganoderma tincture in my practice. Typically about 4-6 litres per year. Since I mix artist's conk and hemlock varnish shelf, that means I need about 2-3 litres of each species per year. The fruiting bodies of these species are pretty heavy. If I can find a decent supply I will usually harvest enough for two years so that I don't have to harvest it every year. However, this year I couldn't find much good quality artist's conk. I had one litre of the Ganoderma mixture pressed and another litre of this species on hand macerating. I was able to find just enough to make another two litres. Fortunately, I only needed to find one good sized conk to make this amount.

The fruiting of many fungi species is variable. It is particularly influenced by the amount of available moisture. In some years certain fungi may not fruit at all if there isn't enough rain. For instance, a couple of years ago it was very dry in Southern Ontario and the artist's conk, hemlock varnish shelf and birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) in the woods around my home didn't fruit at all. But the birch polypore, which typically fruits in August or September, finally did fruit during a thaw in mid January!

A new fruiting of artist's conk (with a friend hiding beneath!).

The new growth along the margin of a fruiting body looks white and rubbery, similar to the appearance of the underside. As it reaches the limits of its new growth it transforms into its typical woody appearance as the white band along the edge gets increasingly narrower until it finally disappears. The spores are released from pores in the underside, which is why it is called a polypore. Apparently the top and underside of the fruiting body have an opposite electrical charge. As a result, some of the spores when they are released are attracted to the top of the fungus. During the peak of its fertile period there is often a deposit of the brownish dusty spores on top of artist's conk.

Another friend: This wood frog (Rana sylvatica) was nearby watching the strange dude photographing fungi!

There is a brief overlap between the period of active growth and the fertile period when spores are produced. This is when I prefer to harvest it. At that point there will still be a very narrow white growth band along the rim, but there will already be a light dusting of spores on top unless it has been fairly breezy. Since the growth of this species is so variable, the point where it is at this stage can be anywhere from mid June to early August in southern and central Ontario. This year I harvested artist's conk on July 12th. It was a bit more mature than when I usually harvest it. The first week of July would have been ideal.

I have found that it is best to only harvest the part of the conk that grew during the current year and the previous year or two. The portion that grew each year can be easily determined by the distinctive growth bands on the upper surface. When it is harvested this way it will continue to grow in the following years.

Sometimes artist's conk grows more vertically and the growth bands are layered on top of each other.
On this one the dusting of spores is visible on the upper surface.

The harvested portion of artist's conk. The yellow stain on the cutting board was from processing
fresh organic turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa) a few weeks previously.

The underside of the same piece. The discoloration on the lower part is bruising caused
by my fingers when I was holding it while cutting it with my knife.

When we harvest the previous three years of growth, there will often be a portion of the upper surface from two years prior to the year it is harvested that is old and dying. This oldest layer is removed. This is best done with a good heavy-bladed knife like a cleaver or sometimes a serrated knife will work well.

You can see the distinctive growth bands layered vertically in this cross-section.
The upper layer that has lots of white in it is too old and must be removed.

Here's the same piece from above after the older tissue was removed.

Once the older tissue is removed, there are two stages in processing artist's conk to prepare it for making a maceration. It is not possible to immediately start chopping it with a mezzaluna  because the fruiting body has a dense but somewhat rubbery quality. It gives too much to be cut in this way. It is necessary to slice it up into smaller pieces first. The same kind of knife we used to remove the older tissue will work well for this.

Artist's conk after the initial cutting.

Once the pieces are small enough, they can be chopped finer with the mezzaluna. This is much quicker than doing it with the cleaver.

Here it is again after the final chopping.

Some fungi absorb a lot of water. This needs to be considered in terms of how we prepare a tincture because the water content will dilute the constituents in the tincture. Because of this I will step up the potency of these fungi one level. Whereas I primarily recommend preparing a 1:5 maceration (1 part herb to 5 parts menstruum) for fresh herbs, for really wet fungi I will prepare a 1:4 maceration. However, this will further increase the amount of water in the tincture. In order to compensate for this I need to adjust the menstruum as well. For dried herbs I usually use a menstruum consisting of 60% water, 30% alcohol and 10% glycerin. For fresh herbs I increase the concentration of the alcohol and glycerin slightly to compensate for their water content. The ratio I use is 56% water, 33% alcohol and 11% glycerin. Since I primarily use fresh herbs, it is the latter mentruum that I use most of the time. However, with really moist fungi I adjust it further to 52% water, 36% alcohol and 12% glycerin. Hemlock varnish shelf and birch polypore fall into this category, but there are other fungi, such as clinker polypore (Inonotus obliquus), better know as chaga, that are no more moist than the average herb. In the latter case no adjustment of the potency or menstruum is necessary. Artist's conk tends to fall into the middle. If there has been a lot of rain it can be fairly moist, however, sometimes it isn't. Each time I make it I have to decide whether or not it is necessary to compensate for the moisture level.

I have covered the specifics of making a maceration of a fungus like artist's conk. For other more general details on the process of making a tincture, see the Making Medicine series of posts.

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

Many medicinal fungi are moderately to significantly adaptogenic. Although every adaptogenic herb has some specific areas of use, adaptogens also work as general tonics and tend to have benefits for our whole body. However, I have found that for people suffering from chronic health conditions, in order to get the most out of using adaptogens it is best if they are used in the final stages of treatment where they have both specific and generalized actions and help to coordinate the functioning of the different systems of our body. They can also be used as general tonics by people who are relatively healthy.

I have found that the adaptogenic fungi are a little bit different than some of the more purely adaptogenic herbs like American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). Whereas ginseng works best in a purely adaptogenic formulation, fungi such as artist's conk are excellent transitionary herbs. I use them in formulations at the stage when I am transitioning a person from some other kind of formulation into the final adaptogenic stage of treatment, as well as in more purely adaptogenic formulations.

That's all I'm going to say about the properties of artist's conk. In the Herbal Resources section of my website I have provided a pdf document that you can download that is based on my research and experience with this herb.

Link to PDF file.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Milk Myth

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

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

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


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

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/talking-back/2013/07/03/got-milk-maybe-a-recipe-for-obesity-and-cancer/

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130212192030.htm

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130204184306.htm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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