Opinion » Antidote

Future Hype Guaranteed

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Why do you have to put down every natural remedy? Aren't you aware that lots of people stay healthy using natural products instead of drugs? I never get sick anymore thanks to the changes I've made. You always say nothing works, yet a lot of people have gotten better from these products. You sound like a medical doctor every time you dismiss the natural cures that I know help. You probably don't think anything natural works.

--Mrs. JWB

That's not true; I think natural selection works pretty well, with the obvious exception of the homo-obsessed Kansas preacher Fred Phelps. Seriously, countless natural products are safe and effective, it's just that so many make such easy targets due to the promotional hype that accompanies them. And keep in mind that just because something is all-natural doesn't mean it's necessarily good for you. For example, sweepings from an elephant cage are entirely natural and completely organic, but I wouldn't pour them over pasta.

Second to weight loss claims, immune boosting puffery is probably the most commonly used sales tactic for worthless natural products. In the spirit of your challenge, I did find a promising natural immune stimulant, and it turned out to be a fairly easy task: Astragalus (a-STRAG-a-lus). This squatty little perennial plant is native to Northern China and Mongolia and its yellow root has a long and useful history in local traditional medicine. In our country, a different species of the same plant growing wild in the Western states is known as locoweed and is toxic to cattle and horses. As a separate observation, I'm guessing excessive use of locoweed might explain why the ancient Rev. Phelps insists on attending every funeral but his own.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), astragalus is known as Huang qi (the yellow emperor) and is a staple remedy for weakness, colds and digestive problems. Most often the root is made into a tea, but simmering pieces with chicken stock concocts Jewish penicillin strong enough to make my own grandmother a little meshugina ("What's next, soy sauce? Feh!"). TCM practitioners in modern times combine the plant elixir with other herbs as an adjunct to chemotherapy and radiation treatments--even AIDS. Research findings on these uses are sketchy, since most of the studies have been undertaken in China, where trial results may be inaccurately reported and explorations are often poorly designed.

Investigations performed in the West have not demonstrated irrefutable proof that astragalus is a true immune stimulant, but most of the in-vitro (laboratory, not human) studies point in that direction. Some animal studies show the root of the herb can have an anti-viral effect, but reliable human studies haven't been completed. TCM's application of astragalus as a diuretic (water-pill) now looks more convincing as a number of case reports have been published showing cardiac function improvement following carefully monitored use. As yet hype-free, astragalus may turn out to be the rare natural product that stands up to scientific scrutiny. It's only a matter of time, then, before we see the first infomercial.

As far as the herb's reputation as an immune booster goes, one explanation of the effect has been proposed. Chains of simple sugars called polysaccharides in the root apparently stimulate the production of certain immune cells called B-cells--the white blood cells responsible for creating antibodies--and T-cells, which either directly or indirectly destroy virus-infected, tumor or foreign cells. Astragalus may also increase production of interferon, a substance the body creates to ramp up immune function.

Another reason why I can give it a nod is that astragalus is exceedingly safe, unless you accidentally end up with locoweed (quite unlikely). Though there are numerous species of the plant, the one with medicinal qualities is named Astragalus membranaceus. You can find it bottled in capsules, tinctures and powders, as well as in dried little slices at some Chinese food stores. The only caution is for people with autoimmune diseases or taking immune suppressant drugs (to prevent organ rejection, autoimmunity treatment, etc). To be safe, they should avoid taking this herb.

So, please don't think I'm against all natural products. It's only the blatant distortions made in sales and promotions that gets me so worked up. But, Mrs. JWB may also have a point. Perhaps I have become too rash in some of my opinions; I'll have to check my Martha Stewart cookbook to be sure. Martha might actually have a tasty dinner party recipe for that elephant poop pasta. And I know just the clergyman I'm going to invite.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send elephant gnocchi and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).