Make your own herbal medicines

I was given a great book for Christmas: ‘Grow Your Own Drugs: A Year With James Wong’, the companion to the BBC TV show that has also aired here in Australia.  James Wong is an ethnobotanist interested in medicinal plants and home grown remedies (and quite easy on the eye).

James Wong - Grow Your Own Drugs

I haven’t seen the show but the book is fantastic and filled with great ideas for turning fresh and dried herbs, essential oils and other simple ingredients into homemade herbal medicines.  Some of the herbs in his recipes are not readily available in Australia, at least to my knowledge, but I found plenty that are and so I had a go..


The first thing that caught my eye was his “Peppermint Tummy Soother for Indigestion”, a peppermint and chamomile syrup to take as needed for stomach cramps and nervous indigestion.  Most people have herbal tea bags in the cupboard so this is super easy.  I used dried peppermint leaves, 4 chamomile tea bags and some beautiful fresh chamomile flowers from J’s sister.


I basically made a really strong tea, simmering the herbs in water for 20 mins, then leaving to cool and straining through a sieve and muslin.  He recommends pushing on the herby bits with a spoon (I used my fingers) to squeeze out all the therapeutic juices.  This is what I ended up with:


I returned this to the clean pot and simmered for ages to reduce to 200ml volume.  James Wong suggested to simmer gently and I possibly took this slightly too far as it took about 40 mins to reduce!  Anyway, I was able to put a lot of love into my liquid herbs by spending so much time with them.  When the volume was right I added a cup and a bit of honey (from my cousins’ bees!) and 75ml of good cloudy apple cider vinegar.  This stuff is a great digestive tonic, alkaliser and all around friend to your body.

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Reduce your need for NSAIDs this party season

It is that time of the year where there seems to be a Christmas party or end of year event every other night and of course, the big one, New Years Eve!   Where we would normally have some alcohol-free nights in the week, suddenly there is no end to the wine, beer, cocktails and champagne which go hand in hand with the silly season.  This leads to what some rightly call an ‘accumulated hangover’, the feeling of being hit harder than usual by the after effects of alcohol, due in part to the overload on your liver.  This is the time that many people reach for the panadol, naprogesic, nurofen, ponstan or any other pain-relieving drug.

NSAIDs for pain relief

These drugs are classed as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and work by inhibiting the production of certain chemicals in our body which contribute to pain and inflammation.  These chemicals do not work in isolation, but  are part of a larger system which governs many physiological processes in the body.  Thus when we take NSAIDs we are not only affecting the inflammatory process, but also our kidney function, blood vessel constriction, immune function and many other house-keeping and maintenance processes.

It is important to be aware of the risks associated with NSAID use, especially when your use is long term and frequent.  One of the most significant risks stems from unwanted effects on the gastrointestinal system, such as gastritis (inflammation of the stomach) due to the reduction of the  protective role usually played by the chemical inhibited by NSAIDs.  Gastritis can develop into ulceration and cause bleeding which is serious and potentially life threatening.  Another downside to NSAID use is an increased risk of stroke. This is dependent on many factors, including age, duration and frequency of use, concurrent use of other medications, and is the subject of further research.  If you have concerns around your NSAID use, speak to your Doctor, Naturopath or health professional before you stop taking any medications.

5 ways to help reduce your post-party hangover without using NSAIDs

1. Drink water - This is obvious but this is why it is number one:  if you drink water whilst you drink alcohol you will be less dehydrated and this has a huge impact on how you feel the next day.  Keep drinking water throughout your hangover to aid your liver in the elimination of toxins.

2. Eat food – Food in your stomach slows the absorption of alcohol and while some might prefer the cheap drunk route it is bound to lead to excess consumption and a big hangover.  Include vegetables to boost your vitamin and mineral status and support your detox processes.  Bitter greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, garlic, parsley, citrus fruits, rosemary and sage are all liver helpers.

3. Check the Omega 3 fatty acid sources in your diet - It is essential to get good amounts of these fatty acids either in your diet or from supplements as they help to reduce your overall tendency to inflammation.  Omega 3 fatty acids reduce the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals without inhibiting the other processes that these chemicals are involved in (see above).

4. Make sure you are getting plenty of Magnesium, Zinc and B Vitamins, either from your diet or supplements, as these help your body detoxify alcohol.

5. Support your liver -  it is doing a hard slog to support you.  Herbal medicine is a great way to support liver function.  Talk to your Naturopath or Herbalist about which liver herbs are best for you.

Love your liver

Your liver works hard not just dealing with the alcohol we consume, but detoxifying all the chemicals our bodies are exposed to from food, pollution, drugs, beauty products and many other sources.  One of the best things you can do for your liver is to give it regular breaks, such as alcohol-free days, to improve recovery and help prepare you for the next night out.

Have a happy and healthy new year!

No Meat November

In early November my partner had an interesting idea:  why don’t we have a meat-free month in preparation for Christmas?  This was his version of a spring detox and a great idea as reducing animal proteins and tending your diet more towards plant proteins, fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to improve digestion, reduce inflammation and boost protective antioxidants (and maybe even lose weight!)

I was thrilled at the suggestion, thinking to myself that this would be a great break for him and not really that hard for me.  I had it in mind that I only eat meat a few times a week anyway.  So we set some rules: fish and seafood were allowed but all other meats excluded with the exception of one meat meal per week (a safety measure that I find handy in any restrictive diet to avoid binges that result in throwing the whole idea out).

Broad Bean, Leek & Rocket Pizza

Broad Bean, Leek & Rocket Pizza

No Meat November was a great opportunity to explore delicious vegetarian meals like this green pizza.

We got through it, or I should say, he got through it.  I faltered at the last weekend, spent with family in country Queensland, where meat was very much on the menu.  To be honest though, by that point I had realised that I do eat meat more than once or twice a week, and I like having that option.  This is not a comment on the ethics of vegetarianism, I have huge respect for those who make the effort required to follow their own nutritional path, ensuring they still gain the nutrients usually provided by the foods they avoid.  During my (largely) pescetarian month I felt real opposition to my diet plan from a variety of sources and was reminded how little choice there is on the average menu for those that choose not to eat meat.

What we both gained from this month was awareness.  Eating can often be quite unconscious: I thought it would be a breeze to cut out meat to once a week but was surprised at the number of opportunities that arose throughout the weeks where I would have normally chosen meat.  We tell ourselves certain things about the way we eat, but sometimes it can take a process that encourages greater awareness, like keeping a diet diary or reducing sugar, to bring the reality of our food choices into focus.

My goal is conscious eating, enjoying the choices I make and being aware of the impact of what I eat on my health and wellbeing.  This requires self-awareness, honesty and a bit of education to make sure you are well equipped to give your body what it needs every day.  In the lead up to Christmas, I will ask myself: have I eaten any vegetables today?

Ghosts in the literature

I am all for an evidence-based approach to assessing the risks and benefits of a health-related intervention, but it seems vitally important that we remain realistic about the possibility that the evidence may not always be as clear as it seems.

A colleague alerted me to a case in the US which has highlighted the practice of publication planning, where pharmaceutical companies may employ the services of a medical education and communication company (MECC) to create and distribute the marketing message around a drug.

Documents revealed through a litigation case against pharmaceutical company Wyeth revealed that this practice extends to the ghostwriting of articles, reviews and commentaries which are placed into medical journals.  Academics are invited to put their name to these pre-written articles and can make changes as long as they do not deviate from the marketing message.

In this specific case more than 14,000 plaintiffs brought claims against Wyeth around the link between the use of menopausal hormone therapy, Prempro, and the development of breast cancer.

The documents that were revealed to be part of the marketing campaign executed by DesignWrite, an MECC, were intended to promote unproven benefits and downplay potential side effects of the drug.  As they were published in respected medical literature they would have played a role in building physician confidence in the drug.

I’m not sure how widespread this practice is, it seems bizarre that it would even be legal.   The point here is that there should be much more transparency about the true authors of any document that gains publication in a medical journal, and with this I wholly agree.

For a much more detailed account of this case please see the article on PLoS Medicine, we have them to thank for bringing this practice to light.

Take your immune system to lunch

Last week I succumbed to the spring cold that has been going around so I decided to raid the fridge for an immune boosting lunch.

The basic elements I was looking for were:

  • Protein: to give my body the building blocks it needs to fight viruses and make antibodies.  This could be a small amount of lean meat, fish, soy or egg, or a combination of plant proteins such as grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
  • Vegetables: filled with vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals that boost our immune function and help cleanse our bodies of waste.  The more variety and colour, the better.
  • Spices: the edible medical cabinet, all culinary herbs and spices have medicinal properties and are used in cultures around the world for their health enhancing effects.
  • Grains: carbohydrates are our primary energy source and a small amount of a whole grain like brown rice or quinoa with veges and protein makes a well rounded meal.

Any combination of ingredients will do, as long as you try to include the elements above.  Here is what I made:


Tofu & green vegetable stir fry with garlic, tumeric and quinoa

It only took about half an hour and left me feeling well nourished!

The protein:  Tofu and tempeh, both great vegetarian protein sources, cubed and stir fried in chilli oil.  Set aside to wait.

The vegetables: Greens!! Brocolli, zucchini, green beans and shallots, sliced and slowly stir fried with peanut oil, a little sesame oil and sliced garlic.  Garlic is one of the best immune boosting ingredients we have, acting like a natural antibiotic.

The spices: fennel and cumin seeds are great digestion boosters; I added the whole seeds with the oil and veges.  Tumeric is an amazing root with anti-inflammatory and immune building properties; I added the powder with a little water when the veges were almost done.  Also sea salt, black pepper and a little bit of spicy seasoning (Trocomare).

The grains:  Left over cooked rice and red quinoa (from the fridge or cooked in the rice cooker as required), added at the end after the spices, stir fried to warm through and take on the flavours.  Quinoa is a high protein grain that contains good levels of the amino acid lysine which helps your body fight viral infections.

The best part was the delicious and health promoting leftovers that I found in the fridge the next time I went searching for an immune boosting meal.

Does sugar make us fat?

I have just finished reading a very interesting book.  Sweet Poison: Why sugar makes us fat, by Australian David Gillespie, explores the possibility that the obesity epidemic may rest on our sugar consumption.  This challenges the long held perspective that it is fat in our diet that is primarily to blame for making us fat.

Gillespie was clinically obese and trying diet after diet with few long term results, until he cut foods and drink containing fructose out of his daily meals.  Fructose is a simple sugar that is half of the sucrose molecule and occurs naturally in many foods including fruit, honey and fruit juice and is also added to most processed foods, especially soft drinks, flavoured water and flavoured milk.  Basically any food or drink with added sugar contains fructose.  Gillespie noticed changes to his weight almost immediately and over a healthy two year period lost 40kg.

Gillespie is not a scientist but a consumer who embarked on his own research.  He has put together an easy to read but still very informative book that looks at the history of sugar consumption and the biochemical fate of excess sugar in our diet.  Fructose is unique as it seems to bypasses our inbuilt appetite control mechanisms and encourages the production of fatty acids by the liver, and thus leads directly to weight gain when eaten in excess.  The fructose in a piece of fruit is usually balanced out by the fibre in fruit which fills you up and prevents you from eating too much.  Fruit juice on the other hand has no fibre and thus you can consume much more before you feel full, leading to the consumption of a lot more fructose.  Fruit is a great source of vitamins, fibre and antioxidants, but still needs to be consumed in moderation: 1-2 pieces of fruit a day is ideal.

The overall message from this book is to trust your taste buds – if it tastes sweet then it will lead to greater energy production in your body and if this energy is not used by physical activity then you will gain weight.

I’m sure Gillespie will have been very pleased to see the study published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association.  The study by Welsh et al (2010) explored the association between the consumption of dietary added sugars and blood lipid levels in US adults.  They found that increased dietary sugars are associated with  a variety of cardiovascular disease risk factors: low HDL cholesterol (the good type that helps clear gunk out of your arteries, high triglycerides (free fats that float around in your blood) and a high ratio of triglycerides to HDL-C.

The tides might be starting to turn in favour of the sugar makes us fat argument.

- Welsh, JA  et al. 2010 Caloric Sweetener Consumption and Dyslipidemia Among US Adults;JAMA;303(15):1490-1497

The cycles of our immune system

A few weeks ago the Science Show on ABC Radio National spoke to Brendon Coventry, associate professor surgical oncologist from the University of Adelaide, about his thoughts and research into the potential biorhythms of the immune system.  The thought is that the immune system might have a weekly cycle with times of increased immune activity and times of decreased activity.  This could mean that there are certain times in the cycle when treatments like chemotherapy might be more effective and even require a lower dose and the potential for less side effects.

This type of awareness about the patterns of our body could be the next paradigm shift that will help us develop more specific and effective treatments.  Coventry makes the point that efficacy of treatment can have a big impact on the financial cost of healthcare, and I would add, also the cost to the wellbeing of the patient undergoing this treatment.

I highly recommend having a listen to the segment: