Join the club?

“Devil’s club” sounds like it should be the title of the latest teen thriller. In reality it is an herb native to BC that has a long list of health credentials.

Devil’s club can be identified by its large maple-like leaves and thick spiny stems, which grow from 4 to 10 feet long. Long, yellowish spines bristle from the stems, and thin thorns (say that five times fast!) project from the underside. Clusters of white flowers appear in June, making way for pyramids of bright red berries in August. It grows on Vancouver Island and through the coastal forests of BC, stretching down into Oregon. The herb earns its “devilish” name from its growth patterns, which tend to trip unwary hikers so that the upright portions of the plant lacerate the skin. The thorns are toxic, so scratches soon become swollen and very painful. You can see why the names “angelic plant” or “innocent bystander bush” were rejected.

The tender green shoots that appear in the spring can actually be eaten. These are alright to consume raw or can be added into soups and casseroles. Once the spines stiffen though, eating them is not recommended, for pretty obvious reasons.

This plant has a medicinal history among some First Nations groups that is truly extensive. According to the American Botanical Council, “In a 1982 review, (Nancy) Turner reported more than 30 categories of medicinal, spiritual, and technological uses by peoples of over 25 different indigenous linguistic groups of western North America.”

Some of the main uses include asthma, eczema, pain relief and heart health, though there are many more spiritual uses mentioned as well. According to one source; the best way to use this herb is to purge with an enema and fruit fast, then start with ½ cup per day, and increase gradually to 4 or 5 cups.

Today it is mostly available in diabetes formulas for its ability to balance glycemic levels, no enemas or fasting required! It reduces sugar cravings for people who are not diabetic too. In traditional medicine this herb would be chewed when someone was on a fast to inhibit appetite and assist with opening the eyes in a more mystical way.

An ointment can be made, using the inner root bark, to help with arthritis, inflammation, pain and swelling. Skin conditions can be helped by making a poultice with the herb. Indications include eczema, bites, stings and wounds, including the nasty scratches that you get from the plant itself.

Devil’s club is related to the ginseng family and is sometimes marketed as “Alaskan ginseng” or “Pacific ginseng” by those trying to capitalize on the popularity of ginseng North America. While the plants do share some of the same characteristics, they do not have the same biochemical constituents. Translation: they may both be good for pain, but not for the same reasons.

Devil’s club is sensitive to overharvesting and it is important to remember that, for many people, this is a sacred plant. It is there for us to use, but the privilege should not be taken advantage of. We probably don’t have to worry about a sudden shortage though. Many companies are now cultivating their own crop for use in herbal formulas. As for the plant itself, as we all know, it has a few ways of defending itself.

A shy vitamin

Some vitamins are definitely more popular then others.  You would be hard pressed to find someone in your acquaintance that doesn’t have at least a general idea of what vitamin C is.  Part of the reason for this is that vitamin C is marketable: it can be added to cough drops and made to taste like oranges.  What about a vitamin that isn’t marketable, but just as important to your health?

Vitamin K is almost unheard of by the general public, yet much of the research into osteoporosis says it is absolutely crucial to bone health.  Vitamin K has three different forms.  K1 is found in chlorophyll, meaning that we ingest it when we eat green veggies – the darker in colour the better.  If your body has proper amounts of good “friendly” bacteria in the intestines, then it can turn K1 into a more biologically active form (something the cells can use easily) called K2.  K3 is a synthetic form.

Vitamin K helps the body make and activate two proteins that are critical for bone health.  These are called osteocalcin and matrix G1a.  These proteins guide calcium and other minerals into the osteoblast (bone-building) cells, making strong, well formed bones.

The flip side of this is that vitamin K also keeps calcium from building up where it shouldn’t.  It prevents calcification of soft tissues such as the heart and arteries. Several studies have shown that the higher the levels of vitamin K in the body, the lower the risk of heart disease (Geleijnse JM, Vermeer C, Grobbee DE, et al. Dietary intake of menaquinone is associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease: the Rotterdam Study. J Nutr. Nov 2004).

Vitamin K is needed for proper blood clotting and people who are deficient in this vitamin often bruise easily.  It is this natural function as a blood clotter however that keeps vitamin K off the market in supplement form.  In a society where many people already have clogged arteries it can be dangerous to take in a substance that thickens the blood.  Especially as almost everyone over the age of fifty seems to be on blood thinners.

As you can see though, by preventing calcification of arteries, vitamin K can actually reduce the need for blood thinners by improving vascular health.  The solution is to get this vitamin from food sources.  Eating lots of dark green leafy vegetables is perfect, especially things like spinach, broccoli, green beans, bok choy and kale.  The more active form of K2 is available through a few foods such as egg yolks, butter and fermented soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh and miso.  Keeping the colon clean and supplementing with probiotics will help the body make the best use of the vitamin K acquired through vegetables.

So many people are looking for the magic pill that is going to make everything better.  What is interesting about vitamin K is that it is very hard to find in supplement form.  In order to get the benefits, you actually have to (gasp) eat vegetables, or at the very least, a good green drink.  For those who are always looking for a better way to deal with heart disease and osteoporosis, it’s just one more reason to eat salad.

The sunshine vitamin

For one blessed moment as I was on my way to work today, the sun broke through the clouds.  This brightened up my mood considerably (all puns intended) and got me thinking about garden planting, and playing with the kids outside and also about vitamin D.

Vitamin D is often referred to as the Sunshine Vitamin, because our skin can make it when exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun.  Back when people used to spend time outside without full sun block coverage, deficiencies were fairly uncommon.  But in recent generations, that has changed.

The health field used to think of vitamin D as kind of a little helper for calcium, and manufacturers would add a couple hundred units into their Cal/Mag tablets to aid absorption.  The dairy industry began fortifying milk with D.  Tropicana adds it to their orange juice.  Even my rice milk claims to contain 45% of your recommended daily amount in a half cup serving.  With all of these “functional foods” out there, you would think that we would all be getting enough, right?

The current RDI for vitamin D lies somewhere between 200 and 600IU (international units), dependant on age group. This is enough that calcium is absorbed.  New studies have come to light over the past few years however that suggest that these amounts are nowhere near enough for good health.

Research has linked vitamin D deficiency with certain forms of cancer, fatigue, autoimmune disorders and inflammatory bowel conditions.  According to one scientific journal, researchers are questioning the need to bump up the recommended amounts to 1000IU daily for adults, and move the “safe high limit” to 2000IU.  Lactating mothers meanwhile, need about 6000IU daily if they are going to pass on enough of the vitamin to the nursing infant.

There are some groups of people that will never get this amount of vitamin D from the sun.  People with darker skin tones have a harder time converting sunlight to this vitamin, since the pigment in their skin naturally screens out much of the ultraviolet rays.  This is good news when you are reading the statistics on melanoma, but bad news when reading about vitamins.  I guess it’s a trade off.  Obesity is also a factor, though none of the studies I have read seem to be able to explain why.  All we know at this time is that the higher the BMI, the lower the vitamin D absorption.

Supplements are available on the market, usually in doses of 400 or 1000IU.  Personally however, I prefer to get mine the old fashioned way – by actually going out in the sun.  It’s a radical idea, but more fun then taking extra pills.  When you go outside, avoid hats and dark glasses as these cut down on the amount of sunlight that the body can use.  I know, I know, this goes against everything you’ve ever read about skin cancer.  If you are going to be spending long periods of time outside, then please do cover up.  Short periods of time will be perfectly safe.

I wish that I had space here to detail all of the new studies that are being done on this vitamin.  Taking a few minutes to do some research is defiantly worth the effort.  Find a chair in a window while you read, and let your skin go to work creating better health.