Paleo proponents list ‘saponins’ in legumes as one of the reasons why we shouldn’t eat them. Wow! As a herbalist, saponins are one of my favourite herbal constituents. You can’t select one single action a plant-chemical possesses and then conclude that this one action sums up the entire purpose and existence of this plant chemical as a whole. Crazy stuff!

Saponins are part of many plant’s immune systems, protecting them from insects, predictors and fungal infections. I love the fact that the presence of saponins can often be identified without any lab equipment, simply by adding water and agitating: if soapy bubbles appear, you have saponins! We used to have a wattle tree outside containing saponins and in the wet season our pavers would get a fantastic wash-down from the combination of rain with fallen saponin-containing leaves. Continue reading

Casomorphins: Opiates in breast milk

Opiates are present in the breastmilk of all mammals. These opiates calm the baby who quickly learns that Mum is the source of an addictive, soothing, pain-releiving form of nourishment. This strengthens the mother-child bond and encourages continued feeding, which ensures the baby gets all the nutrients they need to survive and grow.

A protein in milk called casein breaks apart during digestion to release a swag of opiates called casomorphins, one of which has about 1/10th the pain-killing potency of morphine. The casein in cow’s breast milk is much more concentrated than the casein in human breast milk, and cheese is a highly concentrated source. Casein fragments that pass into the human bloodstream from dairy products reach their pain-releiving, drug-like peak about 40 minutes after being consumed.  Cheese also contains an amphetamine-like chemical called PEA (phenylethylamine).

The mother’s milk of all mammals is species specific: designed specifically for the baby of that species (rather than some other species). When a human breastfeeding mother drinks cow’s breast milk, some of the cow mother’s caseins pass through the human mother’s digestive system into her bloodstream and then into her own breast milk, in amounts large enough to irritate the baby’s stomach, causing colic.

Like heroin or codeine, casomorphins have an antidiarrheal effect because they slow bowel movements, which might be why cheese is constipating for so many people. With lactose (the sugar in milk) being difficult to digest and often resulting in diarrhoea, you would hope the two might cancel each other out, but the effect can be more erratic, unfortunately! A little irritable-bowelish: runny one minute, blocked up the next, with all sorts of bloating and smelly wind to cap it all off.

Reference: “Breaking the Food Seducation: The hidden reasons behind food cravings- and 7 steps to end them naturally” by Neal Bernard MD

Agar Agar

IMG_0468Agar Agar (also known as agar, or kanten) is the mucilage content drawn from several seaweeds. As a herbalist, I’ve always been fascinated with mucilaginous herbs and foods. The action associated with mucilage content in an ingested herb or food is referred to as ‘demulcent’. If used topically on the skin, the action of mucilaginous herbs is referred to as ’emollient’. Emollients and demulcents are soothing, cooling, moistening and calming for body tissues they come in contact with.

This is a mechanical more so than a chemical action; mucilages are sticky, gooey, and almost mucous-like… hence the name! This consistency is what provides soothing to irritated tissues. The bit that always intrigued me during my naturopathic training was the idea that these mucilage-soothed tissues could send a kind of ‘calm and happy’ message to other mucous membranes in the body. Realistically, ingested demulcent herbs only come into contact with the digestive lining, and yet, their soothing effect can be felt in the lungs and the urinary system. No one knows for sure exactly how or why this is so, but it is possible that calmed nerve endings in in the gut-lining send a nerve-reflex ‘message’ to mucous membranes elsewhere. Continue reading

Biocomplexity, Apples and Vitamin C

Last year, exasperated by the strange obsession I was hearing from the world around me about the ‘correct’ fat, carbohydrate and protein ratios, I posted the following on my Facebook page:

“APPLES have fat in them- quite a high amount actually, for a fruit. They also have a little protein, not much- but it is there, and nutrition isn’t all about quantity, it’s about diversity and quality and the way plant chemicals combine together. Do you want to hear which proteins (amino acids) are in apples?

Asparagine, Tryptophan, Threonine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lycine, Methionine, Cysteine, Phenylalanine, Proline, Serine, Glutamic acid, Glycine, Tyrosine, Valine, Argenine, Histidine, Alanine, Aspartic Acid.

There are many, many other nutrients in Apples, like Vitamin A, B1, B2, and B6, Niacin, Pantothenic acid, Folic acid, Vitamin C and Vitamin E, Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Pottassium, Selenium, Sodium, and Zinc.

Then there are some other ones you might not have heard about, like Alpha-Linolenic-Acid, D-Categin, Isoqurctrin, Hyperoside, Ferulic-Acid, Farnesene, Neoxathin, Phosphatidyl-Choline, Reynoutrin, Sinapic-Acid, Caffeic-Acid, Chlorogenic-Acid, P-Hydroxy-Benzoic-Acid, P-Coumaric-Acid, Avicularin, Lutein, Quercitin, Rutin, Ursolic-Acid, Protocatechuic-Acid, and Silver.

Then there are the ones that we haven’t discovered yet….
Diet is about more than just segregating foods into broad food groups, like carbs, fat and protein.” Continue reading

Natural in-context pesticides

Some of the natural chemicals/compounds in plants were developed to deter predators and attract helpers. It’s so, so cool, how some of the deterrent chemicals that are present in plants in very small quantities (because they are more concerned with scaring off bugs), become magically therapeutic for us.

Imagine a plant responding to a plague of insect predators during a period of time. It would increase it’s ‘pesticides’. It would be equally cool if there were a symbiotic relationship between human and plant unfolding at the same point in time.

The plant can protect itself from extinction by making itself useful to us as a food crop, or by associating in some way with humans… by encouraging us to keep coming back. Plants want seeds spread after all…. and they will lure foragers to support them. Foragers are different from predators; they don’t wipe out entire crops and they tend to give something back, staying more in balance with the ecosystem as a whole. Continue reading

That Bitter Taste!

Why do herbalists love bitter herbs and foods?

Because they do incredible things in the body. What has always amazed me is that the tongue responds to a bitter taste by sending a message via nerve receptors in the tongue all the way down into the gut wall, stimulating the release of digestive juices and a hormone called gastrin. The value of bitters is completely dependant on you actually being able to taste the bitterness.

Many of us don’t give much thought to the range of tastes we have in our diet, and we tend to fixate solely on sweet, fat and salty. This causes imbalances in the body! Sweet food in particular can put the digestive and immune systems to sleep if they are over-used…or if you have a yeast sensitivity, sweet foods can wreak havoc, resulting in allergies and auto-immune disorders.

Bitters are also cooling, being perfect for ‘hot’ constitutions.


*stimulate appetite

*increase flow of digestive juices / absorption of nutrients

*reduce the risk of gut infections

*reduce food allergies

*improve bowel flora

*increase bile flow and dilution

*reduce gallbladder and liver disease

*balance pancreatic endocrine function (i.e. useful for blood sugar issues)

*repair the gut wall lining

I particularly want to point out the role bitters play in improving bowel flora and the health of the gut lining. I am so happy that the world around me is discovering fermented foods, but I hope they also realise that a diversity of plant foods and tastes can accomplish the same job. Meat, on the other hand, putrefies in the gut, feeding bad bacteria, but not good.

Bitters also have a balancing effect on other parts the endocrine system (not just the pancreas). I can’t remember how this works right at this very moment, but I suspect it is via the beneficial effect on the gut and liver. A healthy liver can somehow monitor what we need chemically and if there is a hormonal excess, it clears out old used up versions of these hormones and sends them to the gut, which, if it is working properly, can flush them out. If, on the other hand we need more of that particular hormone, the liver can do a very fine job of giving tattered hormones a makeover and getting in back into blood circulation. In other words, it sorts, recycles and cleanses. Isn’t the body simply amazing?


Prediction: Dieticians in the future will be more like the modern day herbalists are now/ When you only look at vitamins, minerals, EFA’s, sugars, calories and proteins, you are missing out on a much more holistic awareness of plant food and it’s dynamism. But there is so much more to the biochemistry of a plant than these very basic building blocks and even these aren’y very well understood because we so often insist on studying their effects in isolation from other nutrients and plant chemicals.

Plant chemicals are generally only discussed by herbalists, or scientists keen to come up with the next useful drug or chemical. You don’t hear much about the application of these biochemicals in healthy nutrition beyond the rather over-used word ‘antioxidants’. Yes, plant chemical protect us from ageing and cancer, but science is only just beginning to scratch the surface.

We have so much to learn, not just about the role of plant biochemistry in healthy nutrition, but about the importance of studying the effects of food on the body and mind, and doing it in a holistic manner. A plant can contain a chemical that causes diarrhoea if that chemical is isolated and concentrated (i.e. turned into a drug/supplement), but while it’s inside the plant alongside a broad range of other plant chemicals, it doesn’t have this action at all.

It’s a bit like someone asking me what colour their aura is, as though an aura is only one colour. We, like plants, are a bit more sophisticated than that. There is no one ingredient or colour that sums up the totality of a person or a plant food.

A plant food is like community. Every plant chemical is a member of that community and the community as a whole is shaped by all of it’s parts, not one person (nutrient) in isolation.

But you wouldn’t know it- you could be forgiven for thinking the sum total of an apple was the fact that it’s a carbohydrate, never knowing that it contains an extremely long list of proteins, fat, and fibres, not to mention a vast array of biochemicals. Last time I checked there were over 50 named chemicals in apples, and they are just the ones we are identified so far and consider ‘bio-active’.

Worshiping a single nutrient in isolation from a whole food is like finding something out about your new friend and thinking that one fact or aspect of their identity sums them up completely as a person. And researching an isolated, concentrated nutrient (e.g. iron) out of context from the whole food is has come from, is like trying to understand a person by separating them from their relationships and environment and putting them in a cage so you can study them properly.