Monday, 14 February 2011

Diet & Digestion

We followed our stomachs today through their 27 foot long x 4 football pitches wide route to digestion.  As ever, it’s never that simple and the movement through the body (Pharmacokenetics) of the chemical constituents of food, herbs and drugs and the way they work on the body (Pharmacodynamics) has several stages.

David Pirie, had returned to coalface of the classroom to teach us the fundamentals of Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism and Elimination. Each of these processes from the actions of the GIT through to the life-giving and drug distributing channels of the bloodstream and lymph system was under scrutiny.

We always digress at every opportune moment, and so immediately we were arguing the case of man as a natural vegetarian v. omnivore. As humans have a long digestive tract akin to most vegetarians (dogs and tigers have very short ones) the assumption is that we should be vegetarians. Certainly autopsies on the guts of mainline meat-eaters (lots of coagulated blood, if you need to know) show that their systems fail to absorb the full benefits from elements passing through. Same is true of alcoholics, caffeine freaks, laxative addicts and probably most Scots. But natural selection would argue that it was only when Man stated to eat increased levels of proteins, including fish and brains (high in EFAs) that he started to evolve the mental abilities so remarkable in humans today….......hhhhmmm.

However you look at it, the state of your digestive tract  is fundamental to maintaining optimum health. What we can learn is how each individual’s GIT will also affect their ability to benefit from diet and herbal remedies. The action of eating carbohydrates releases alkalines in your mouth that start the digestive process,  If you eat these on their own (according to the Hay diet) then you will reap their full reward. Proteins likewise should be eaten separately as they require acids to break them down.  It is when you combine the two that the stomach must choose and proteins (being God-like to the GIT) will win and the poor carbs will be left to fester in your tummy.... burp, belch. 
The process of absorption from the secretion of digestive enzymes and the action of microflorii in your stomach is what in turn becomes the distribution process of carrying the essential nutrients to their goal. At this point, it is the blood that is the main protagonist moving the chemical constituents across the capillary walls to deliver their effect to the cells. Interestingly, the only thing the chemical does is to give the receptor cell a nano-second handshake telling it what to do – in other words - cell, heal thyself.  The ‘drug’ then returns to the circulatory system, gets passed to the liver, broken down and made water-soluble to be eliminated through the GIT, skin, lungs, menstrual cycle or tears.
What’s extraordinary is that the immune system is watching every step.  In fact, it has receptor cells of its own on virtually every cell in your body – from those in your brain, to your internal organs, to your armpits. Using the lymph system as its ally and fighting arm, it determines whether it likes the proteins entering the body or not (such as wheat or lactose), and takes action accordingly. Lymph will send out white blood cells to destroy infections and just as readily assault those allergens it wants rid of.  Much to the distress of so many people in modern society with allergies….

Fortunately the body is a clothes horse that regenerates itself completely (well about 98%) every year.  The liver regenerates every 3 months so there is always a chance to recover. But as with all of us, aging DNA gets frayed around the edges and so the regeneration process is not quite as good as first time round. The liver will regenerate, but takes on the same history of its previous life, which sadly might be a pattern of disease or destruction.  

Ethereal thinkers (and in this I include Shamans and Faith Healers) however believe that it is possible to re-programme the body to rebuild organs in their original form … perhaps via  immune cells receptors? A fine chance for young Psycho-Neuro-Endo Immunologists to prove that scientifically.

Saturday, 12 February 2011


Last week was actually a two-part bonanza lesson. Fresh from our dabbling in seasonal remedies we went straight into the sharp end of the stick in botanical illustration.

Jacqui Pestell, Botanist, illustrator-extraordinaire and RBGE lecturer arrived from the Diploma class laden with reams of paper, pencils, rulers, rubbers and, yes, sticks. Placing giant pelargonium leaves in watery jars along the table in front of us, she then took us through a succinct lesson in elementary drawing techniques for botanists.

The tricks are quite simple:

·         Position plant to see front, back, stem, and joins so as to tell the most information.

·         Tell a story showing different aspects of the plant’s life cycle.

·         Prepare specimen without altering natural structure of the plant

·         Draw flower, side and full view, a section, a cut-through and seeds.

·         Use a sharp HB pencil. Keep an emery board to the side.

·         Sit straight and anchor your elbow to release the wrist.

·         Applying pressure on the pencil gives tonal gradation

·         Look at the main characteristics of the plant

·         Use a ruler to measure specimen to determine how many cms long the main stem is, where it bends and where the big leaves are.

·         Use angles of pencil and ruler to inform line

·         Look at overall shape and inner detail

Now botanical illustrations adorn most bedrooms, loos and the halls of Kew, they sometimes make it to a coffee table book and copious jars of old fashioned cold creams sport their images. By definition, botanical illustration is part of scientific inquiry, so cannot find favour in the category of ‘true’ art (let’s leave Tracy Emin out of this line of thought for the moment). We can therefore deduce that this art form must easy and so accessible to all – even a team of blossoming Herbologists…..

But from the moment Jacqui stopped demonstrating and we lifted pencils to make simple outline drawing of the pelargoniums, the class fell to pieces.  It took some of us 10 mins to draw one line, others (no names here) used more rubber than lead in their compositions. Some masterpieces covered 4 square inches and others moved to the recycling bin with alacrity.

In good old classroom style, the minute Jacqui left the room to attend to her real illustrators, the suppressed moans and sighs of frustration formed words and turned the air nearly blue, only some serious pencil sharpening, tea and positive therapy in the form of semi-hysterical laughter kept us to our task.

The results?  Remarkable for their verisimilitude, don’t you think?

Friday, 11 February 2011

Chasing the Winter Blues

Last week we went back to our roots (literally) to learn about winter herbal remedies. The western pharmacopeia is full of ancient and new herbs that help us to overcome wintertime afflictions, coughs, colds and flus.  A battalion of remedies exists to ward them off (or at least keep them at bay) including syrups, lozenges, balms, teas and tinctures.

We started with the Holistic Evergreens: Holly, Yew, Ivy, Mistletoe and Pine (all very Christmassy!)

Holly (Ilex) – The berries (favourites of those gluttonous wood pigeons) are somewhat toxic, but not deadly and if dried, ground and powdered create an effective antiseptic dusting powder used in winter to help dry sticky or seeping wounds.

Yew – (Taxus baccata) the oldest growing plant in Europe (Fortingall Yew?) is one of the classic herbs that has been in use since ancient times (first noted in Avicenna’s work of 1021 AD) and commonly found in cemeteries in Europe). The leaves and berries can be toxic, but both the bark and a fungus producing Taxol growing within the inner bark have proved extremely efficacious in treating cervical cancer.

Ivy (Hedera helix) – is very high in saponins and is used as an expectorant in bronchial treatments as it will stimulate a cough. It is also used topically as a vulnerary and studies show that Falacarinol, a plyyne produced from the leaves, can help to prevent breast cancer.

Misteltoe (Viscum album) is actually a semi-parasitic plant that grows in a wide variety of trees. It is classified as a Schedule 3 plant as it is so potentsive having a strong effect on the circulatory and respiratory functions.  However, combined with garlic and hawthorn in herbal preparations it can be used lower blood pressure.  Research has also indicated it as a recuperative supplement for post-cancer operation patients.

Scots Pines (Pinus sylvestris) – Pine needle tea is packed with tannin rich antioxidants and full of oligomeric procyanidins which are fantastically good for you (and also found in Sea Buckthorn and Grape seed extract oils).  These are also now used as a supplement for those recovering from cancer as the help to kick start the immune system and remove those ever-roaming free radicals…

EARLY BLOOMERS are those lovely plants that spring forth with new life far faster than the sun rises in northern climes.  They bloom like mad when no others will dare and gain the affection of starving bees and insects in reward.  Like the evergreens above, they provide a seasonal cabinet of good cures:

Magnolia – is an ancient genus, evolved before bees were around so its the beetles that benefit from this show of flowers. The bark is used as a tonic in traditional Chinese medicine, great for times of ‘over-indulgence’.

Fragrant Winter Hazel barks such as from Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)  have a high tannin content which is astringent and used in familiar over-the-counter lotions for treating insect bites, acne and aftershave. Winter Hazel bark (Corylopsis glaucescens) is antiseptic and a vulnerary too.

Wintersweet (Chimonanthus) is one of the few where the flowers and leaves are used rather than bark. The flowers encourage salivation and a slake a great thirst, but are also used to help with colds and treat depression. Traditionally leaves and roots are poulticed and used to treat rheumatism, aches and agues.

Winter Bush Honeysuckle (Jasminim mediflorium) produces flowers that are good to use on dreamy people. They can also be made into an infusion to treat coughs.

Winter Flowering Jasmine (Jasminim multiflorium) flowers are a diaphoretic which can be used to reduce a fever. They actually do this by raising the body temperature causing vasodilatation which brings blood to the surface and helps to detoxify the system.

Winter Flowering Viburnum (Viburnum farreri opulus) – was often called Cramp Bark as it was used as an antispasmodic.  Its fruits are used in Chinese medicine and there is some reference to it being used to treat asthma. Funnily enough, Viburnum was the wood  Otzi the Iceman’s used for his arrows too.

White Flowering Quince (Chaenomeles) bears fruit that is highly astringent but also contains great dose of that essential winter wonder, Vitamin C. They are often made into jellies and liqueurs (after they are bletted). Both fruit and seeds are mucilaginous and can be used as a demulcent.

Winter Cherry (Prunus serotina) bark is used as a traditional western cough medicine. The leaves however contain cyanogenic gylcocides which is poisonous to animals (and humans, we assume).

Seasonal Remedy Herbs 
Along with our lovely garden harbingers of spring, are a number of other herbs that can be used alone or in combination to combat coughs, colds, warm the body and boost the immune system. They are:

Balm of Gilead (Populus gileadensis)
Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)
Elecampane (Imula helenium)
White Horehound (Marrubium vulgare)
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Iceland Moss (Centaria islandica)
Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza  glabra)
Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)
Marshmallow (Althea officinalis)
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)
Pleurisy root (Asclepias tuberosa)

If you don’t have time to concoct any of these, try going to a Chinese market and buying a bottle of King-To Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa – a fantastic herbal remedy known to sooth coughs, sore throats and even help with asthma -  highly recommended by Catherine too!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Our journey this week took us beyond the classroom again, this time into the gardens and glasshouses of the RBGE’s amazing living collections. 

We started with an introduction to the ecology of woodlands; native ones in particular, to gain an understanding of the alliance of minerals, soil and light in creating habitats for native, introduced, alien and endemic species.  Our native plants and their habitats form a relatively young ecosystem, born out of the devastation wrecked by the Ice Age 12,000 years ago.  The plants that have re-established a presence in Britain have done so through a variety of methods from slow and steady inch-by-inch expansion to re-possession by stealth (via birds and humans). In fact up until 1500 AD we had only 1200 species in Britain – now we have 6,000-10,000 - thanks to human introduction.

A terrain, whether acid or alkaline, creates a microcosm of interdependency and community among its residents. The peat bogs exist in tandem with the Scots pine forests – each as acidic as the other – and nurture a plethora of like-minded plants, and we assume animals. Sunlight lingering on the tree tops, delivers bright lightwaves of read and blue, absorbed transformed into photosynthesis, whilst at the bottom of the forest floor, subterfuge is used to grab the remaining green light, as plants twist and twine a channel to the top or cling to another's height to gain light and life.

We finished our morning with a stroll through the gardens, to explore micro-environments of Scottish natives and to revel in the outburst of colour and scent released by the nearby Witch hazels (Hamamelis virginia). Sneakily taking a few small flowers we returned to our lab to create our first spirit specimens.
Our afternoon took us deep in the glass palaces that house the flora of continents, islands and kings. The fight for light continues with palms racing for the heights and creeping tendrils weaving up pillars and posts. Pink begonias blaze with colour in the January gloom, bewildered because surely it is summer in South Africa… and North American immigrants, the clever cactii maintain their spiky defenses to ward off invasive insects, heat and Rosewell aliens.
In the great forests of the largest glasshouse are the equatorial bananas and gingers conducting a simpler wars of brilliant colour, purple fruits and enormous leaves. Gentle breezes they find no more, but the misting wands of the nations gardeners keep them happy through the winter days.