The World Health Organization has determined the H1N1 outbreak is a pandemic. That in itself is not a measure of the severity of the so-called “swine flu” – just of its dispersion now into Australia, too. I asked Alexa Fleckenstein, M.D., to comment about ways to protect oneself. Here is her advice—which should, of course, never replace a consultation with your doctor or health care professional. Always check before taking any over-the-counter or herbal supplements to make sure they are right for you. In addition, there are several ways to use water, including saltwater rinses, to protect yourself from viruses, explained here.
So far, the swine flu has been mild – lethality does not even reach that of “normal” flu outbreaks which kill more than 30,000 people every year. The unfortunate people, who die, usually have underlying diseases which compromise their immune systems. The fear is that this flu might mutate like the 1918/19 flu did, and come down on us the second time around with a vengeance. Normally, mutations are such that the virus dies out–and it would be an extremely rare event that it would mutate into a much stronger strain. Nevertheless, that is the thinking behind taking the swine flu seriously now–mostly to observe it evolve (or perish).
Advice From Dr. Alexa (but always check with your doctor first)
Meanwhile, get enough sleep, take your herbs, eat plenty of vegetables, drink warm water and/or herbal teas. And it is never too late to start challenging your immune system with daily cold showers – unless you are already coming down with something.
Another anti-viral concoction I want to share with you is the Chinese Jian Qiao Jie Du Pian or Isatis 6, also called Honeysuckle-Forsythia Detoxifier. It might be a good idea to have some of those pills at hand when you get sick (get them from a reputable source). During the next H1N1 outbreak – or any seasonal viral disease that might come along.
There has been a great deal of interest on this blog lately about the foxglove plant, so I asked herbal expert and integrative physician Alexa Fleckenstein, M.D., to give us some background. Here is what she wrote:
Foxglove is a beautiful plant in the garden – it likes a moist soil. The pinkish bells on graceful spikes cheer me up. Moreover, it self-seeds when it likes its home – carefree summer joy. It seems.
Foxglove is also one of the deadliest plants when ingested. The powerful medication digitalis has been derived from the plant to help ailing hearts. The story goes that William Withering (1741-1799) became aware of people self-medicating the “dropsy” (body swelling from what we now call congestive heart failure) with this plant; he then searched for the “active” ingredient and found it in digitalis.
Digitalis is safer than the mother plant because in a plant it is difficult to gauge the poisonous quantity the patient is ingesting. Even with digitalis, we physicians rely on a blood test to tell us whether the patient is receiving a safe dose. We say the therapeutic margin is narrow – which means it is but a small step between digitalis helping the heart and digitalis killing the patient.
For these reasons, I would not recommend adding foxglove into your home herb chest. Better to rely on herbs that are safe. With my patients I rely on herbs that have a large therapeutic margin. It is close to impossible to kill yourself with peppermint, for instance (don’t try at home – because, as Paracelsus knew, every single agent in the world can become poisonous if we ingest a large enough dose of it; sugar is a prime example; even water!).
How do we know an herb is safe? Often, they have been tested through centuries or millenniums of use. One person who developed a list of about one hundred safe herbs was Sebastian Kneipp (1821-1897). Better known for his “cold water cure,” Kneipp had learned about plants from his mother, who was the herbalist of the little village in Bavaria where he grew up. He tried to get away from the cold water (a long story, which I will tell you another time!), and therefore systematically searched for herbs that people could use for themselves, experimenting on himself for safety. Nowadays, science has better tools to examine an herb. Of the about one hundred herbs Kneipp had deemed safe, only abut three were removed from the list by the famous Commission E (which studies herbs for safety and efficacy in Germany).
The “safe” herbs can – and should – be used for everybody. And they should be taken whole – in a reputable tincture or a tea – and not manufactured and put into a pill. Because the plants have evolved with us over millions of years; their biochemistry fits into our physiology like a key in its lock. The many different compounds of a plant work in “synergy” (all for the same purpose – or: The sum is more than its parts. If you are interested in herbal synergy, I have written about it in my book).
Beautiful as it is, foxglove is an example of an unsafe plant – it belongs only in the hands of an experienced herbalist or your doctor. So content yourself with admiring the lovely foxglove flowers, and make yourself a nice cup of soothing herbal tea. Try lemon balm!
More about “the power of the flower.”
The summer solstice is a wonderful time to harvest nourishment from your garden. I caught up with herbal expert Alexa Fleckentein, M.D., just coming in from her garden with an armful of grapevines (vitis vitifera), considered a bad weed here in the Northeast. “I used to swear and mutter when I pulled them out,” says Dr. Alexa. “Now I delight: A study has shown that grape leaves are even higher than red wine in resveratrol, a phytoalexin known to prolong life and prevent cancer.” The Greeks have been making little dolmades from grape leaves—stuffed with rice, herbs and pine nuts – for thousands of years. Dr. Alexa’s cooking method is simpler: She adds the grape leaves to her vegetable stir-fry (recipes in her book), and freezes them to use all winter long. “Simple, cheap, and healthy,” she says.
If you live in the South, advises Dr. Alexa, you might substitute kudzu (pueraria montana). “Kudzu has some marvelous properties too,” she says. “It is high in vitamins A and C, and also contains calcium. It comes in handy as an anti-inflammatory food (and is a much better source of calcium than inflammatory dairy products). Everybody in the South complains about this obnoxious weed. How about eating it as a revenge?”
And when you are done with your stir-fry, enjoy Dr. Alexa’s famous Garden Tea, described in her book and in this article. “I throw all the other edible weeds in my garden—as well as many plants and flowers—into my daily Garden Tea, which is filled with the healing properties of Nature’s pharmacy,” says Dr. Alexa. “Everything that’s not poisonous can go in there – from kitchen herbs to dandelions, from rose petals to pine needles. But REALLY: You have to know what you are doing and what to avoid. One hundred percent!!” Details are in her book, but she strongly advises taking an herb course to be sure you know what NOT to include!
The first time I made Garden Tea, for example, I proudly threw in a hydrangea flower—it was so pretty! Then I called Dr. Alexa while it was steeping to check on whether this was OK to include. “Throw the whole tea away!” she commanded at once. “Hydrangea leaves and flowers are poisonous.” I was sad to see it go, but I head learned my lesson: When in doubt, throw it out!