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Herb Nerd

14 Oct'18

If I’ve learned nothing else over the last decade, it's that that staying healthy is 100% dependent on what goes on as far downstream as you can get, specifically the body’s cellular level, and the all-important cellular mitochondria.

I’m sure every horse owner out there wants their horse to live as long a life as possible, and above all, comfortable with it, well into their senior years. So, to have affirmation that certain plant substances can profoundly affect mitochondrial health, especially in our health-wrecking polluted environment of today, is great news to hear.

Wouldn’t life be simple if we could simply chuck a spoonful of eternal life into the feedbowl? Something to not only protect our horses’ cellular matrix from life's pollutants but also create a state of healthy cellular regeneration to ensure a lovely long life for our best friend? Oh yes …

Well, there is. But first, you’ve got to indulge me because … it’s Science-Time!

Introducing a science-y word - Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, aka NAD+ (much easier to remember). NAD+ is a coenzyme found in all living cells, and it’s a really important coenzyme because … it’s nicknamed the ‘Molecule of Youth’. Here’s why. As a body ages, the cellular mitochondria become progressively more damaged through oxidative stresses, which naturally causes age-related decline of NAD+. Which is fair enough – the body’s aging, after all, and pretty much everything starts to decline.

Thing is, NAD+ is actually essential for fuelling two master regulators of aging – who knew there was something to regulate aging?! So now meet another science-y word for these regulators - ‘Sirtuins’, and specifically SIRT1 and SIRT3.

SIRT1 and SIRT3 are proteins that require NAD+ to function, and importantly, all three are needed to effectively trigger the formation, and optimal functioning, of new mitochondria.

So, back to that aging body where levels of NAD+ are dropping, so sirtuin activity is declining as well, so we’ve got less effective cellular signaling, which leads to mitochondrial dysfunction. With me so far?

Now to the research, and a recent study has shown that a plant substance called beta-lapachone powerfully increases NAD+. Handily, beta-lapachone just happens to be a major constituent in one of my favourite herbs which I already use extensively as an effective antibacterial, i.e. for horses afflicted with mudfever (our DermaClear), Uveitis (our ERUTonic) and Sarcoids (our BioCARE). Introducing one of the many wonderful Amazonian trees: Pau D’Arco, which just happens to be rather stunning to look at as well.

The scientists added beta-lapachone from Pau d’Arco bark into the diet of one group of mice, where it restored a high ratio of NAD+ to (another science word) NADH, a cofactor that plays a key role in the production of energy. High levels of NAD+ (relative to NAHD) are needed for DNA repair and the activation of SIRT1.

With no other changes in either activity level or food, the following effects were noted, compared to the non-Pau D’Arco fed group:

  • Higher number of intact mitochondria with normal structure, suggesting resistance to mitochondrial breakdown.
  • Increased ratio of NAD+ to NADH in the muscle.
  • Less damage to mitochondrial proteins that reduce the production of damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) inside the cell.
  • A decrease in body weight and body mass, compared to the level found in young adult mice.
  • Lower age-related markers in blood, such as increased leptin hormone.
  • Increased body temperature, suggesting a higher energy expenditure and body metabolism.
  • Higher capacity of associative memory.
  • Greater motor performance and muscular strength, as seen by up-regulated genes associated with muscle development.
  • The beta-lapachone provided extra protection to the mitochondrial structure.
  • The beta-lapachone group also lived significantly longer than the regular group.

As if this wasn’t good enough news, now let’s bring in White Willow (Salix alba), with another study showing its longevity effects on yeast, specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Saccharomyces cells are often used in longevity studies because they act much like mammalian cells, in that they age and die in a similar manner.

Cultivated in 2% glucose, the scientists isolated six new groups of molecules that slow down the chronological aging of yeast. The most effective was extract of white willow, which was shown to increase the average lifespan of the yeast by an astonishing 475%, as well as the maximum chronological lifespan by 369%; in other words, nearly a 5-fold extension in lifespan for this yeast, which apparently makes it the most potent longevity-extending intervention ever described in scientific literature.

So what is it about white willow bark that enables it to achieve such dramatic results, and more importantly, could willow boost mitochondrial numbers?

Here’s what happens when willow bark’s ingested. The liver metabolises its major constituent – salicin – into salicylic acid (the same substance created in the body from Aspirin). Science has learned that salicylic acid may promote the production of new mitochondria in the body’s cells by turning on SIRT1, the master regulator protein we talked about earlier.

A recent study with liver cells found that salicylic acid increased the total concentration of mitochondria by up to 2-3 times, which implies that the salicin in the willow bark has mitochondrial-stimulating effects once it’s converted to salicylic acid in the liver. Result.

Equally, another potential benefit of white willow bark, very relevant to the equine diet – salicin may help control iron levels in the body, although as yet I’ve not been able to get my hands on this study.

Of course we want our horses to live a full and comfortable life, and we know that to do so largely depends on healthy, functioning mitochondria in the body’s cells, especially in those high-energy demanding organs like the heart, brain, nervous system, kidneys, liver and muscles. This is why we now include Pau D’Arco and Willow in our DailyDetoxTonic, SeniorTonic and for its leptin-improvement benefits, our CushTonic and MetaTonic herbal blends.

Passionate about Passionflower


Anxiolytic – I love this glossary medica term; there's almost an Italian flourish to it. It means anxiety/panic reducing, and the very beautiful Passionflower (Passiflora) is well known for its soothing anxiolytic effects.

Noted herbalist David Winston wrote in his book Herbal Therapeutics: Specific Indications for Herbs and Herbal Formulas, that passion flower is “… useful for anxiety, insomnia, nervous or occipital headaches, neuralgia, teething children, muscle/nerve pain, facial tics, pelvic and spasmodic pain.” There are over 500 passiflora species, with studies today showing a promising level of astringent, antimicrobial, analgesic and anti-tumour activity, as well as a variety of fungal and bacterial conditions, and not to mention epilepsy, diarrhea and dysentery.

It’s also well known for managing menopausal symptoms, particularly hotflashes and anxiety; for heart disease it’s often paired with hawthorn. However, it’s probably best known for its nervine support, to calm anxiety and to help with insomnia.

You can imagine that as a result of its many therapeutic uses, it's been very well studied, with many of its chemical compounds of great interest to the biochemists. Specifically, its anxiolytic agents, harmoline, maltol, 2-phenylethanol, chrysin, vitexin, coumerin and umbelliferone, are just some of passionflower's key players.

Each of these compounds are thought to have a steadying effect on the nervous system, yet it’s the fact that they work so harmoniously together that puts passion flower’s effectiveness at the top of the list as an effective anxiety reducer.

What distinguishes passionflower from other nervine herbs?
Many nervine herbs relax the nervous system to the point of drowsiness, yet passionflower doesn’t suppress it at all. Rather than dulling the senses, passionflower relaxes the neurons (nerve cells) resulting in a calmed, quietened and more focused mind without drowsiness.

From an equine point of view, it can be very useful when encouraging positive desensitisation to help avoid the fight/flight response kicking in at recognised trigger points. For humans, it can help soothe jumbled, chattering, repeating thoughts, releasing the tension that keeps those thoughts swirling around, and all without inducing drowsiness.

So how does passionflower earn its title as an anxiolytic agent? First up, some science-y word explanations that all play a part here (Science Alert!):

  • Introducing GABA, an amino acid called gamma-aminobutyric acid; its principal role is to reduce neuronal excitability throughout the mammalian nervous system by inhibiting the transmission of nerve impulses.
  • Next, bioflavonoids, aka flavonoids – they’re a group of ‘polyphenolic’ plant-derived compounds, aka phytochemicals, meaning compounds found abundantly in natural plant food sources that have potent antioxidant properties; there are literally thousands of different varieties known.
  • Now ions, which are atoms/molecules, and they can be charged either positively or negatively.
  • Finally neurons, which are nerve cells, the basic units of the nervous system.

Here’s the physiology:

  • The nervous system has channels that open and close, to allow the passage of charged ions (atoms/molecules) – remember the ‘charged’ part – into the neurons (nerve cells).
  • An estimated 40% of these channels are GABA receptors. When these receptors bind to GABA, the receptor changes shape and opens up its channel which allows negatively charged chloride ions to pass through this portal. These negative ions counter the charged ions, and reduce agitation (anxiety) in the neuron. Clever eh?

So where does passionflower come in? It’s all to do with passionflower’s multi-collection of bioflavonoids, which rather cleverly bind specifically to the benzodiazepine receptors sites and triggers GABA activity, which reduces nervous system neuron exciteability. TaDah!

Another rather interesting study result currently commanding a lot of attention is on passionflower’s chrysin constituent. This bioflavonoid was originally being examined for possible neurotoxicity, yet was instead discovered to be neuroprotective, showing that chrysin reduces inflammation of the nerves, one of the primary ways to reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety disorders. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26386393)

It’s such a popular herb for western herbalists, and especially when used consistently for nerve-related issues. Although it’s an effective remedy on its own, it’s usually blended as part of a formula, and specifically effectively combined for equine support with valerian, hops, chamomile, lemon balm and crampbark, which is where we use it, specifically in our organic calming blends and MellowMare range.

For us humans to take as a herbal tea, infuse 33g chopped herb with 1-litre boiling water for 5-ish minutes – remember to always cover herbal tea infusions as we want the essential oils in the tea, not evaporating into the atmosphere. Strain, pour, drink :-)

Mint, pretty cool medicine


Mother Nature has a helpful herb to keep us cool, and that’s Mint. Mint is known as a cooling herb - most of us have encountered mint almost daily in toothpaste, mouthwash, chewing gum, polos - and there’s a really good reason for this; mint is a solid, predictable, gentle medicine that’s been cooling and stimulating us for centuries.

We all know mint’s main affinity is for the stomach, where it cools overheated conditions like indigestion, nausea, bloating or gas. And this is exactly how, energetically, mint works best – when something needs cooling. Science also tells us that mint is antibacterial and antimicrobial, so this makes it even more useful.

In western herbalism, mint is described as carminative (helps quell gas), mildly diuretic and mildly vasodilating, so apart from its digestive assistance, mint’s cooling properties also encourages circulation, as well as helping to cool and open the respiratory system, helping to release and drain the stuffiness from sinuses and open up the bronchial passages. This is why I use it in our respiratory blends.

Ayurvedic medicine also loves mint on a daily basis – it considers it a pungent herb with a cold temperature, and you just have to look at all the lassis and chutneys that have it in for its cooling properties. Ayurvedic medicine also uses it to balance circulation while cooling overheated conditions, as well as helping the digestive system release excessive energy without sedating the digestive process.

Traditional Chinese Medicine uses Field Mint or Bo He (Mentha haplocalyx brit. or Asian Field Mint) for similar properties. Like Bo He, mint’s ability to cool while gently draining connects it to the lung, liver, bladder, and heart meridians, so cooling overheated emotional states.

Mint is used in so many other ways - topically for fungal, parasitic, and bacterial conditions, and in aromatherapy - offer a bottle of peppermint essential oil below your horse's nostrils before a schooling workout, and it's said to focus the mind. It’s so versatile, and better still, our horses love it (apart from one 4-legged client of mine, so if your owner's reading this, don't worry, I'm sure she'll ignore the next bit).

So, here’s a top tip for our horses while we’re experiencing this extraordinary, and very unusual, hot weather – make them up a cooling mint tea, cooled down, and add it in their feed to help cool their bodies down.

Infuse 33g chopped mint herb with 1-litre boiling water to make a tea – remember to always cover herbal tea infusions as we want the essential oils in the tea, not evaporating into the atmosphere. Leave until cool, then slosh the lot, soaked herbs and all, into the feedbowl.

Stir and serve with a knowing smile ;-)

Hawthorn gets things moving


When I was studying herbal medicine, and specifically Materia Medica, an important part of the module was to taste each and every plant’s tincture – after all, we were learning to prescribe natural medicinals, so we needed to know how they presented on the tongue, i.e. drying/moist/warming/cold and so on.

It wasn't about the taste, but it just so happened that hawthorn was my favourite taste! I could happily drink it as a liquor shot each day (which is probably kind of the point anyway ;o)

Hawthorn is renowned in western herbal formulas for heart and circulatory conditions, to bring balance to the circulatory system, with the leaves/flowers generally thought of as a cardio tonic and the berries for the heart's emotions.

Hawthorn specifically helps the body adapt, strengthening the heart and circulatory system by regulating blood flow and helping reduce cholesterol. Hawthorn’s benefits are manyfold, but ultimately it’s all about motion.

Hawthorn gets things moving. For blood, there’s a test you can try - press the fleshy part of your palm and watch how long it takes for the blood to flow back. If it takes more than a few seconds, it’s considered a clear indication that hawthorn is needed. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) interprets this as stagnation in the blood.

TCM and Ayurvedic herbalists also use hawthorn for the digestive system. In TCM, heat or stagnation in the liver, spleen and stomach are all helped by hawthorn’s ability to get things moving, to clear food stagnation to move through the digestive system appropriately. Diarrhea and chronic gut bugs are helped with ripe haws as well as gas and abdominal bloating.

Ayurvedic herbalists use hawthorn for food stagnation and circulatory problems such as heart palpitations and heart problems related to aging or slow, sluggish digestion (Vata). It’s often paired with cinnamon or ginger as a heart and digestive tonic.

Science shows that hawthorn opens the blood vessels, clears LDL cholesterol, and strengthens the heart – my husband’s genetically disposed to high LDL cholesterol and he takes hawthorn tincture every day. Hawthorn also has a reputation of being adaptogenic because it normalises blood pressure, improves both sluggish and fast-moving digestion (diarrhea), and generally brings balance to the heart.

Which brings me nicely to hawthorn also being kind to the soul, as hawthorn berries help heal the heart’s emotions as well. My own personal experience with hawthorn was when I lost one of my best friends of 10-years. He’d been my constant loyal buddy, listening to my endless daily chatter and always there for a cuddle, giving me unconditional affection no matter what.

His name was Spinkly, and he was a stray black cat who came into my life as a tiny waif of a kitten when he scrambled through a hedge on our rented paddock, meowing his head off for food. He became our barn mouser that first year, until he followed us home in the depths of winter (we were only 5-minutes away) and discovered the woodburner.

He died on my birthday, 10-years later, on a glorious summer Sunday morning, 2014. He called me for his breakfast and I remember laughing to myself, thinking come up for a birthday cuddle first. He didn’t, so I assumed he’d gone back out. An hour later we heard the yowl. An hour later we found him, us calling him frantically, him calling us to where he was with his pelvis smashed from a point-blank impact. The vet said he wouldn’t survive the anaesthetic. Numb with grief, we made the call to let him go. He went to sleep in my arms, and husband and I sobbed all day.

Even broken romances hadn’t hurt as much as losing Spinks. The pain was extraordinary - losing him hurt physically, emotionally, psychologically. My heart was utterly broken.

I cried for several days before I turned to herbs. I was already on the Rescue Remedy but it wasn’t enough. I swatted and discovered that hawthorn berry tea might help, which I drank with a few added drops of the Rescue Remedy. By now Spinks was back home in his little wooden casket on the windowsill so I’d sip my tea next to him. Slowly, the pain began to subside.

Hawthorn helped care for my heart while I grieved, and oh boy did the healing take a long time. I will miss him forever, but I have a big collage of photos in a frame above my desk. My birthday has a different take these days – me and husband take a quiet moment and raise a glass to our little man, then lose ourselves laughing at the happy memories of his comic antics than the pain of losing him.

Every year the welcome show of the may flowers, followed by the shine of the berries in autumn, is a big deal for me. With a tincture permanently on our kitchen windowsill, hawthorn has a big place in our life - and our hearts.

Dandelion - nature's pharmacy


I’m right up there as the sunny dandelion’s No.1 Fan. This last week their radiant yellow flowers have burst forth on the somerset verges and fields. I just love a sunny spring day, and dandelions are a big part of the love

For the herbalist, there are few plants that fill the heart with such joy as apart from the flowers lifting the spirits, the humble dandelion is literally nature’s best farmacy in one. The stems’ white latex milk treats warts; the bitter leaves are a salad’s delight as well as a super-effective digestive stimulant and kidney tonic. And while the fleshy roots are the bain of most gardeners, the herbalist waits patiently for autumn to harvest second-year roots as a liver tonic.

They’re so nutrient-rich - all parts for the dandelion have a bitter taste, which comes from the flavonoids that give dandelion its well deserved blood purifying properties. The bitter taste is also really useful if your horse’s appetite is waning as it stimulates the stomach juices to expect food, so helps to increase hunger.

These bitter compounds also work in the digestive system to increase the flow of urine; unlike other diuretics, dandelion contains vast amounts of potassium that restore the mineral balance in the kidneys as toxins are flushed out. The high amount of vitamins, calcium, potassium and other trace minerals in dandelion’s root balance the diuretic effects, and the highly volatile and bitter constituents in the root isolate toxins in the body and flush them from the system. Here’s irony - the poisons gardeners use to eradicate dandelions are the same toxins the dandelion weeds out from the body.

Dandelion is in most liver tonics due to its oils, the bitter resins that stimulate the digestive system. The gluey fibre in the whole plant has an astonishing ability to absorb and transport toxins from the bowels out of the body, balance intestinal microbes and soothe the digestive tract in the process. And its essential oils have both bacteriostatic and fungistatic properties, which means they stop bacteriums/fungals from reproducing).

Recipe time ...
Dandelion adds pizazz to apple cider vinegar as it’s so high in vitamins and minerals, so here’s a must-do mineral-rich Spring Vinegar, using ACV, for both our horses and us.

The most effective way to extract minerals from spring herbs is to make an infused vinegar using ACV and the young leaves of cleavers, nettles and dandelion – pick from midday onwards once the dew has gone from them. Chop everything up to small pieces, then stuff a glass jar full to the brim and pour organic apple cider vinegar over them.

Stir with a chopstick to bring all the air bubbles to the top and then screw the lid on tightly. Place the vinegar jar in a sunny window or in a greenhouse where the sun can warm it over a period of time. Strain after 3-6 weeks or as long as you want, and slosh it into your horse’s feedbowl.

For humans, use in a little water first thing in the morning, as a salad vinegar, or add 2-tsp to 1-tsp of honey in a mug of boiling water for a soothing sore-throat drink.

The dandelion is simply too cool for school - it's always got a place in my field.