Goldie Oatstraw answers your herbal questions.
What happened to Eyebright?
Ginkgo Doesn’t Work?
Comfrey and Cancer
What Happened to Eyebright?
Excerpted from NEHA Journal, Winter 2004
QUESTION: For the past several months, I haven’t been able to find a source of eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis). It seems to have disappeared, and I’ve had to reformulate two of my products. Do you know where I can find some?
GOLDIE ANSWERS: Eyebright is a small annual plant native to Britain, the European continent, and subarctic regions of North America. Difficult or impossible to cultivate, eyebright grows well in the wild, especially in meadows and open fields. The problem, according to government officials, is that eyebright is hemiparasitic. Its roots have food nodules that attach to the roots of surrounding plants. Because of eyebright’s parasitic nature, its seeds are considered a threat to other plants, including grasses and citrus crops, and their importation has been banned. Trinity, Frontier, and other large distributors report that their recent shipments of eyebright are being “held at the dock” by the US Department of Agriculture. Shipments of powdered eyebright have not been delayed.
According to Steven Dentali, Vice President, Scientific and Technical Affairs at the American Herbal Products Association, www.ahpa.org, cut and sifted eyebright is allowed into the U.S. if it is accompanied by documentation stating that the herb was harvested while in flower or before seeds could set. “If it doesn’t contain seeds,” he explains, “it does not pose a threat.” Those needing more information should contact Michael McGuffin, Director of the AHPA, at 301-588-1171, extension 201.
Ginkgo Doesn’t Work?
Excerpted from NEHA Journal, Fall 2003
QUESTION: Is it my imagination, or is there a growing anti-herb bias in medical research? A physician friend told me that ginkgo does nothing to improve memory, and he says the proof is in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
GOLDIE ANSWERS: “Ginkgo for Memory Enhancement: A Randomized Controlled Trial” by Paul R. Solomon, PhD; Felicity Adams, BA; Amanda Silver, BA; Jill Zimmer, BA; and M. DeVeaux, PhD, appeared in the August 21, 2002, issue of JAMA. Its objective was to evaluate whether ginkgo preparations improved the memory of 230 participants (98 men and 132 women) between the ages of 60 and 82 over a 26-month period from July 1996 to September 1998 as measured by objective neurophychological tests and subjective ratings. At the end of the double-blind, placebo-controlled trial, the researchers concluded that ginkgo doesn’t perform any better than a placebo (sugar pill).
The study has been roundly criticized for its flawed design, and you’ll find representative responses on the Smart Publications website, http://hfn-usa.com/articles/0200912ginkgoresponse.htm. Smart Publications points out that the ginkgo tablets were not identical to the capsules used as placebos and that the researchers who distributed the pills and also counted them to measure compliance were the evaluators themselves. “A double-blind test means that neither the participants nor the examiners should be able to tell the active compound from the placebo,” the report notes.
The dose chosen for the experiment was 120 mg. of ginkgo (40 mg. three times per day), although numerous studies have already shown that ginkgo requires much higher doses to provide significant benefits and that a low dose like 120 mg per day requires more than six weeks to produce notice-able effects.
“The thing we wonder most about is why the researchers didn’t obtain their ginkgo directly from the manufacturer . . . Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals (the manufacturer) could have supplied them with real placebo tablets identical to the ginkgo. It seems that they didn’t ask and instead used capsules as a placebo in a study using tablets. Seems unbelievable.”
In their JAMA report, the researchers said, “The issue of quality control has been raised as a potential source of variance in studies using over-the-counter compounds. One limitation of the present study is that we did not analyze the content of the ginkgo used in this study. However, the manufacturer claims that ginkgo `is processed under strict guidelines ensured through extensive quality control.’”
Smart Publications replies, “This is the most unscientific part of the article. They should have named lot numbers of the product they used and independently confirmed the certificates of analysis they obtained from the manufacturer for active ingredients. Can you imagine going through all the trouble of designing, funding, and carrying out this study, all the time knowing of quality control problems in over-the-counter supplements, and then not assuring the quality of the product? Lastly, the product is a tablet. Maybe it was made wrong and has poor dissolution. A tablet that doesn’t dissolve quickly won’t be of any benefit, and research has already shown that many ginkgo products not only don’t contain the stated level of active ingredients, but they also don’t dissolve properly. Just this quality-control paragraph alone makes the study worthless. Did JAMA really print this?”
In their conclusion, the researchers wrote that there were no significant differences between the ginkgo and placebo groups for any outcome measure. “The results of this 6-week study indicate that ginkgo, marketed over-the-counter as a memory enhancer, did not enhance memory performance on standard neuropsychological tests of learning, memory, naming, naming, and verbal fluency, or attention and concentration. Moreover, there were no differences between ginkgo participants and placebo controls on subjective self-report of memory function or on global rating by spouses, friends, and relatives. These data suggest that when taken following the manufacturer’s instructions, this compound provides no meaningful benefit in cognitive function to elderly adults with intact cognitive function.”
Of course both of the groups improved, says the Smart Publications article. “These people took their tests only twice, at the beginning of the study and again at the end. Is there any drug or supplement that is a more powerful mental aid than experience? With so many problems inherent in the study’s design, one has to wonder why this particular study has received so much attention, both from JAMA and the media. Strangely absent in the study is any discussion of the newest research on ginkgo, which shows that ginkgo can up-regulate important genes associated with stress resistance and antioxidant protection in cells.
Although ginkgo is routinely touted as a memory supplement, its real benefits are much more far-reaching. Ginkgo has shown itself to be a true anti-aging strategy, having the ability to increase activity of important protective gene systems in cells, prevent mitochondrial degeneration, thought to be a major cause of aging, and extend lifespan in animals. To throw out decades of impressive research on Ginkgo biloba extract because of one poorly designed study would certainly not be smart. Ginkgo may not make you a genius in six weeks, but to say it is worthless is not only wrong, it is intellectually dishonest and contrary to the facts.”
You aren’t imagining an anti-herb bias in much of the media, and as herbs become increasingly popular, we can expect the trend to continue.
Excerpted from NEHA Journal, Winter, 2002 Issue
QUESTION: My mother recently became very ill, and the cause is liver failure. To the surprise of everyone in the family, she has been a closet drinker for decades. She has always been interested in natural remedies and would like to take something besides symptom-suppressing drugs. What herbs would be the most helpful for her?
GOLDIE ANSWERS: The late Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., Sc.D., a leading expert on the scientific validation of medicinal herbs, considered milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum) one of the most important and effective herbs for liver protection and repair. In the December 2001 issue of Prevention (www.prevention.com, phone 1-800-813-8070), he reviewed the research on milk thistle seed, which has been inconclusive regarding cirrhosis of the liver. “That said,” he wrote, “here’s what I believe: When it comes to alcohol-related liver damage, milk thistle improves patients’ survival time and general health. Once you’ve stopped drinking, the herb may help your liver recover from some of the effects of the abuse.”
Dr. Tyler was most impressed by the intravenous use of milk thistle seed infusions, a therapy used throughout Europe to reverse the often-fatal liver damage caused by eating Amanita mushrooms. This treatment saves lives every year, especially in Germany, where collecting wild mushrooms is a national pastime. “Administering the compound by injection may be critical,” he wrote, “because silimarin [the herb’s active ingredient] is not well absorbed from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. Perhaps the active compounds could be made more absorbable in some way, or perhaps the dose should be increased.”
In addition to milk thistle seed, he recommended artichoke (Cynara scolymus) for its ability to stimulate bile flow and possibly protect the liver; schisandra (Schisandra chinensis), a Chinese adaptogen that contains compounds that have been shown to protect liver cells from toxic agents; and turmeric (Cucuma domestica, C. longa), which stimulates bile flow.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is another liver-friendly herb. According to Michael Tierra in his Book of Herbs (New York: Pocket Books, 1983), dandelion clears obstructions and stimulates the liver to detoxify poisons. “Serious cases of hepatitis have been cured within a week or two when diet is controlled and limited to easily digested foods,” he wrote. A similar program may help your mother.
Comfrey and Cancer
Excerpted from the NEHA Journal, Winter 2001 edition
QUESTION: I use comfrey root and leaf (Symphytum officinale) in a salve for scrapes, burns, etc. I gave some to a friend whose daughter reported that “comfrey causes cancer,” according to her biology teacher. Can you refer me to some sources so I can provide this teacher with more information? Is there a “right” time to pick comfrey leaf? Is there evidence connecting the ingestion of comfrey root with liver disease?
GOLDIE ANSWERS: Comfrey has been removed from most health food store shelves and tea blends because it contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) that, when isolated and fed in large doses, can cause liver damage and cancer in laboratory rats. In centuries of use, with an annual consumption in Europe and North America of hundreds of tons of comfrey, no adverse side effects were ever documented. In 1984 a woman who had been taking comfrey-pepsin tablets developed liver disease and, since then, three additional cases of human liver disease have been reported in people who took the herb. No one knows whether comfrey caused these illnesses, for liver disease has many potential causes, but it might have, or it might have worsened a pre-existing condition. Citing comfrey’s long history of safe use, some herbalists continue to use it in the treatment of broken bones, respiratory problems, digestive disorders, and as a general tonic. Comfrey is said to be a significant source of protein, second only to the soy bean among plants. Other herbalists, alarmed by comfrey’s bad press, recommend that it be removed from all herbal preparations. PA-free comfrey tinctures are available for those who wish to take advantage of comfrey’s exceptional properties without the risks (if indeed there are any) posed by its pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Ed Smith, the founder of Herb Pharm, developed the first PA-free comfrey tincture using the same method that is used to make water-processed decaffeinated coffee. According to Smith, it is impossible to know without testing whether your comfrey contains high or low levels of PAs, as growing conditions make a difference. Harvesting methods do not change its PA content. Like most leafy herbs, comfrey should be harvested early in the day when dry. Its leaves contain large amounts of water, so let them wilt in the shade before infusing them in oil.
One holistic veterinarian reported raised blood-test liver counts and symptoms of liver disease in two dogs that took comfrey capsules. When the capsules were discontinued, the symptoms went away. It may be that the dogs were unusually sensitive to comfrey, that the comfrey was contaminated, that the comfrey contained unusually high PA levels, or that it was simply a coincidence. The Australian herbalist Robert McDowell, famous for treating bone cancer and other bone-related ailments with a tincture that contains equal parts comfrey, horsetail (Equisetum arvense), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and marine pine bark (Pinus maritima), reports that the tincture is well tolerated by pets and people even when taken for long periods. Many herbalists who use comfrey internally recommend that it be taken in combination with liver-supporting herbs like milk thistle seed and that it be taken in courses, such as five days on and two days off, for four weeks on and one week off. The only adverse side effect I’ve found regarding comfrey’s internal use is that the rapid regrowth of broken bones can interfere with surgical implants.
Regarding the external use of comfrey, I find no evidence of danger or potential danger except for its use in deep puncturewounds where it can trap a puncture wound’s infection. Comfrey applied externally speeds the healing of broken bones and could cause the same rejection of surgical pins, as described above. Otherwise, comfrey appears to be free of adverse side effects, safe, and effective for external use as a poultice, compress, fomentation, rinse, soak, spray, infused oil, or salve. Its external use has never been shown to cause cancer, liver disease, or any other illness. Some herbalists theorize that because comfrey’s PAs can enter the bloodstream if it’s applied to open wounds, treating open wounds with comfrey might be dangerous, but I can find no evidence to support this theory. On the contrary, comfrey heals open wounds so quickly that the treatment is far too brief to pose a hazard, if indeed one exists.
Comfrey’s ability to repair serious injuries and even regenerate bone and skin is well documented. When my husband was bit by a spider, his hand doubled in size, was hot to the touch and very painful, and a red line grew up the inside of his arm from wrist to elbow. I dug up part of a comfrey plant and put its roots and leaves through our wheat grass juicer, recombined the juice and pulp, and wrapped his hand in comfrey, plastic wrap, paper towels, and tape. The comfrey quickly pulled the infection out and by the next morning his hand was completely normal. A woman I know was dragged down a flight of concrete stairs by a dog, badly scraping her face. Seriously infected, swollen and pus-filled, she refused conventional treatment and applied fresh comfrey poultices. The comfrey immediately pulled infection from the injury, then healed her skin without a scar.
In 1993, Sam Biser published “Bone Regeneration,” a report on the healing power of comfrey. Carefully documented case studies, complete with photos, show how Dr. John Christopher’s comfrey teas (comfrey and lobelia, or Regeneration Tea made of comfrey and other herbs) stimulated dramatic healing. The tea caused a woman’s shattered kneecap (three-fourths of which had been surgically removed) to grow back; healed Christopher’s daughter’s broken back; regrew three fingertips after they were severed at the knuckle; and healed hip fractures, bone spurs, curved spines, crushed toes, third-degree burns, and dermatitis. Dr. Christopher reported one case in which a middle-aged woman was losing bone along her spinal cord. An x-ray of her spine showed that one vertebra was completely missing and another severely damaged. The woman used Regeneration Tea as a compress, and in less than a year of daily treatment, soft cartilage began to fill the empty spaces. Within another year, this soft cartilage turned into hard bone.
Regeneration Tea consists of 6 parts each comfrey root and oak bark (Quercus robur), 3 parts each gravel root
(Eupatorium purpureum), mullein (Verbascum thapsus, V. fillia), marshmallow root (Althea officinalis), and walnut bark (Juglans regia), 2 parts wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), and 1 part lobelia (Lobelia inflata). To brew, combine 1 gallon distilled or filtered water with 1 cup loose tea in a stainless steel pot. Let it stand overnight or for a few days in the refrigerator. Then heat the tea to just below the boiling point, but do not boil. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, strain the tea (do not use an aluminum strainer) and press as much tea as possible out of the herbs. Return the strained tea to the heating pot and simmer, uncovered, until the volume is reduced by half. Store the tea in a glass jar or bottle and refrigerate.
There is so much confusion about comfrey, even among practicing herbalists, that the comments of your friend’s daughter’s biology teacher aren’t surprising. To put this herb in perspective, it is helpful to imagine that comfrey is a prescription drug. Compared to the side effects listed by pharmaceutical companies in their products’ magazine ads, comfrey’s risks seem insignificant.