Tag Archives: Health

Foxglove: History and Medicinal Uses

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.”


Filed under Health, heart arrhythmia, Herbs, Sebastian Kneipp, Uncategorized, Water

Cold Water for Babies?

Rose asks an interesting question about whether to use cold water for babies. Here is an answer from Alexa Fleckenstein, M.D., my cold water expert and the author of Health 2 0:

Dear Rose,
Yes, you can apply cold water to babies. This is done in the tradition of European Natural Medicine to raise strong, robust children.
When my son was four months old, I started him. I filled his little pink tub with cold water, cradled the naked baby in my hands and very quickly dunked him in—but not his head. It took a second or so. For babies, the head always stays outside the water.
He took a deep gasp but never cried. He was so astonished about what had happened and so busy with thinking that he never had time to protest.
Can’t remember when I stopped it – but certainly I would not force a protesting toddler under cold water.
Now that our son is a young man, he follows the family tradition and ends each warm shower with a cold one, and he has become a healthy outdoorsman.

Tell us how your baby likes it!
Alexa Fleckenstein M.D.

You can see all comments on this post here:


Filed under children's health, cold shower health benefits, Healing, Health, Uncategorized, Water

To fight—or not to fight. Is that the question?

Senator Kennedy’s recent diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor has sparked an animated debate in the Boston Globe among health columnists and letter writers: Should patients diagnosed with a deadly cancer be encouraged to fight their disease, or should they focus more on quality of life and the journey towards spiritual—if not physical—healing? The “fight” proponents use the vocabulary of warfare: “vanquishing” the cancer “enemy” with every available “weapon” in the “arsenal.” One problem with this approach is that if you fight and lose, there may be guilt: Perhaps you didn’t fight “hard” enough.

The advocates of acceptance and healing say control what you can, choose your doctors and your treatments wisely, but also choose to spend time and energy on family, relationships, meaningful work, and finding joy in every moment. As one letter writer said, “Cancer is a disease, not an enemy. It also presents a deep opportunity to learn. My quest is to live each day as fully and richly as I can, to enjoy all that I have, and all the beauty and meaning of this world.”

A contrasting view came from an oncology nurse, who wrote that the notion of “fighting to win,” is too narrow: “Perhaps one’s fight could mean mustering resources against an enemy – cancer. Or it could mean winning against symptoms, or against the urge to stay at home during treatment and not work. Or beating the maze of our healthcare system, and getting the treatment you need when you need it!”

Perhaps “to fight or not to fight” is the wrong question, since there is no universal approach to illness that is right for every person. Several years ago, when I recovered from my own health challenge, and wrote my first book filled with the stories of people who fought and prevailed against cancer, paralysis, pain and deadly diseases, I thought that fighting was the only acceptable way to deal with illness.

Now, I am not so sure. Marshalling every available medical, alternative, emotional and lifestyle resource does give us more of a chance to overcome illness and injury, and perhaps to discover the latest “silver bullet” in the arsenal. But at what cost? There is also a value to the inward journey for peace, and nurturing loving connections with others. How best to combine these approaches given the limitations of energy and time?

Once, I interviewed a wise rabbi about the ways in which he helps people deal with suffering and illness. He described a state of holding two simultaneous beliefs: The desire to become well and “vanquish” the disease; while at the same time accepting the possibility of—and preparing yourself and your loved ones for—a different outcome. This is clearly very hard to do: One must gather the inner strength and energy—as well as the time—to pursue treatments, seek medical options, eat well, and think positively. All while somehow recognizing and accepting that you may not succeed. No easy answers. I’m still thinking.


Filed under Cancer, Healing, Health

Grand Rounds is up

Check out this week’s excellent Grand Rounds roundup of medical/health posts in the blogosphere, hosted by David Williams of the Health Business Blog. I’m happy that my post about “The Unhealthy Health Care System” was included. Topics of other posts include the complexity of doctor-patient relationships, patient tales, wellness, health technology and health policy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Doctors, Healing, Health

Yoga for PTSD in a Military Hospital

How progressive of the US military to use yoga as a treatment for soldiers returning from Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. As reported in the May 6 Washington Post, the Specialized Care Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center focuses on helping service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan cope with the flashbacks and nightmares typical of post-traumatic stress disorder, which affects 20 percent of the approximately 1.6 million U.S. military personnel who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to a Rand study released last month. The program uses a guided meditation technique called yoga nidra, which I know from personal experience to create a profound state of relaxation.


Filed under Healing, Health, mental health, Uncategorized, Yoga

Unhealthy Health Care

We can exercise, watch what we eat, take cold showers, practice yoga and Tai chi, meditate for peace of mind. But even if we are doing everything we can to “own our health,” we’re still going to need a doctor someday. Good luck finding one.

The Massachusetts Medical Society’s 2007 Physician Workforce Study found physician shortages in primary care (family practice and internal medicine), psychiatry, and vascular surgery for the second consecutive year. Anesthesiology, cardiology, gastroenterology, and neurosurgery remain in short supply, while urology appears on the list for the first time. In public opinion surveys conducted as part of the study, the Society also found that access to primary care physicians, as well as some specialists, remains strained, and waiting times for appointments are increasing.

The American College of Physicians recently warned that “primary care, the backbone of the nation’s health care system, is at grave risk of collapse.” Fewer internal medicine residency graduates are choosing to become primary care physicians (PCPs)—18 percent in 2006, down from 50 percent in 2000—and existing PCPs are unhappy in their jobs, with many choosing to leave the field.

What this means is that it is harder and harder to find a primary care physician, and, when you do find one, it is likely that he or she is overburdened with a large patient panel and hours of bureaucratic paperwork.

How then, to create the kind of meaningful healing partnership with a physician that we all need and want? These kinds of relationships take time, something that is in short supply in this era of the 15-minute medical visit. One doctor told me, “if we just saw patients in the office the way we used to, we’d go out of business. No one can break even practicing medicine alone, because the health care finance system pays you to do things to patients—colonoscopy, MRI, CT-scan, endoscopy—not merely talk to them.”

But “merely” talking is the only way to get to know us patients; the only way to understand and help us manage the stress in our lives that may be causing physical or mental illness; the only way to educate and encourage us to make healthy lifestyle choices, to take responsibility for our health. And “owning our health” may help to make those expensive tests unnecessary or avoid even more expensive hospitalization and surgery.


Filed under Doctors, Healing, Health

iParenting Media Award just in time for Mother’s Day!

iParenting Media has just announced that Your Developing Baby has won a 2008 “Excellent Product” award. This visual tour of pregnancy through the wonders of ultrasound uses both 2-D and 3-D images, along with explanatory diagrams drawn by Peter Doubilet, MD, PhD, one of the authors. It was a joy to explore “the world within” with Dr. Doubilet and Dr. Benson, and a privilege to help them share their knowledge with others.

Leave a comment

Filed under children's health, Health, Pregnancy, Ultrasound

Cold Showers: What’s the Evidence?

Some people have questioned the evidence behind hydrotherapy, especially the cold water treatments that are described in the book that Alexa Fleckenstein and I co-authored. German research supports the effects of cold water used on the skin as therapy. Unfortunately, the studies are in German, and they are small. (1) Because Pharma firms have no interest in inexpensive water cures, there probably won’t be big studies any time soon. Fact is, the German insurance system pays all or part of physician-prescribed treatments, including hydrotherapy and herbs. The importance and therapeutic potential of water, and especially cold water, are now simply taken for granted in Germany.(2) Here are some specific research studies supporting the health benefits of cold water treatments. Citations are listed at the end. (More cold water research details in Own Your Health (2003)

Boosting the immune system
A pilot study of immune effects from cold water therapy with a small number of breast cancer patients found significantly increased disease-fighting cell counts in every category examined, including neutrophils, lymphocytes, monocytes.(3)

Reducing the perception of pain
In a study in Japan, cooling by ice water was one of the “competitive stimuli” that reduced the perception of the pain of a laser beam on the skin. (4)

Improved circulation and function in the legs
A Swedish group administered three weeks of alternating cold and hot hydrotherapy to the legs of patients suffering from intermittent claudication (reduced blood flow) and found that improved systolic blood pressure in ankles and toes, reduced pain, and markedly better walking ability went beyond the results of standard treatment and persisted for at least a year after treatment.(5)

Swimming in the winter?
Ten healthy subjects who regularly swim during the winter were evaluated at Berlin’s Institute of Biochemistry at Humboldt University Medical School. Their blood and urine showed increased levels of anti-oxidants, which prevent cell damage, indicating their bodies’ increased tolerance to stress.(6)

(1)Summarized in Bühring, M., Naturheilkunde: Grundlagen, Anwendungen, Ziele (Natural Medicine: Basic Application and Goals), Munich, Verlag CH Beck, 1997.
(2)Haas, S.S., Hydrotherapy and more: Adapting Kneipp’s Natural Medicine to the U.S., Complementary Medicine for the Physician, 2000; 5(8):57,61-64.
(3)Kuehn, G., Sequential hydrotherapy improves the immune response of cancer patients. In: Mizrahi A, et al., (eds.) Potentiating Health and the Crisis of the Immune System: Integrative Approaches in the Prevention and Treatment of Modern Diseases. New York: Plenum, 1997.
(4)Kakigi R., et al. Pain relief by various kinds of interference stimulation applied to the peripheral skin in humans: pain-related brain potentials following CO2 laser stimulation. J peripher Nerv Syst 1996;1:189-198.
(5)Elmstahl, S. et al., Hydrotherapy of patients with intermittent cluadication: a novel approach to improve systolic ankle pressure and reduce symptoms. Int Angiol. 1995;14:389-394.
(6) Siems, W.G., et al., Uric acid and glutatione levels during short-term whole body cold exposure. Free Radic Biol Med. 1994;16:299-305.


Filed under Chronic Pain, cold shower health benefits, Healing, Health, Water

Extraordinary videos of babies in the womb

Two new videos have been added to the Your Developing Baby website showing two- and three-dimensional images of babies moving in the womb. Unless you’ve been spending time in an ultrasound room, you have never seen anything like this. (Just click on the “Video” button along the top bar.)


Filed under Health, Pregnancy, Ultrasound

Paying for alternative treatments

Research is increasingly demonstrating the effectiveness of certain complementary/alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage, tai chi, yoga, meditation and biofeedback for chronic pain, reduced mobility and other ailments. Why then are more insurance companies not paying for them? I think more of us need to “vote with our feet” by demanding coverage for proven alternative treatments and switching to insurance companies that pay for them. We and the health care system will all benefit. As one study found, support for lifestyle changes that prevent disease is far cheaper than hospitalization and expensive pills!


Filed under acupuncture, Chronic Pain, Health, Tai Chi