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Thursday, April 26, 2012

May is Lupus Awareness Month

The month of May is Lupus Awareness month, awareness about a chronic disease that affects at least 1.5 million Americans alone, 5 million worldwide, yet the majority of people know little to nothing about it. As a means to get the word out, below are a few options:
the usual textbook explanation, links to wonderful books, the link to purchase a touching movie, and a video to view on YouTube.
Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs inside the body). Chronic means that the signs and symptoms tend to last longer than six weeks and often for many years. In lupus, something goes wrong with your immune system, which is the part of the body that fights off viruses, bacteria, and germs ("foreign invaders," like the flu). Normally our immune system produces proteins called antibodies that protect the body from these invaders. Autoimmune means your immune system cannot tell the difference between these foreign invaders and your body’s healthy tissues ("auto" means "self") and creates autoantibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue. These autoantibodies cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.
  • Lupus is also a disease of flares (the symptoms worsen and you feel ill) and remissions (the symptoms improve and you feel better). Lupus can range from mild to life-threatening and should always be treated by a doctor. With good medical care, most people with lupus can lead a full life.
  • Lupus is not contagious, not even through sexual contact. You cannot "catch" lupus from someone or "give" lupus to someone.
  • Lupus is not like or related to cancer. Cancer is a condition of malignant, abnormal tissues that grow rapidly and spread into surrounding tissues. Lupus is an autoimmune disease, as described above.
  • Lupus is not like or related to HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). In HIV or AIDS the immune system is underactive; in lupus, the immune system is overactive.
  • Lupus strikes mostly women of childbearing age (15-44). However, men, children, and teenagers develop lupus, too.
 Here are links to three very informative books:
Positive Options for Living with Lupus
Lupus Alternative Therapies That Work
The Sun is my Enemy

Writer/director Mark von Sternberg and producer John Casey wrote their movie, Love Simple, as a means of bringing attention to a disease that is anything but simple. Set in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mark chose to have his female lead portray a young woman in love, a young woman who also happens to have lupus. A serious autoimmune disease, lupus is so complicated that the FDA has only approved one drug to treat the disease in the last 50 years. The film takes the viewer into the lives of people struggling to seek out a future while having to deal with this haunting presence constantly interfering with their plans for a normal life.

Mark received his introduction to lupus when he was working in the nursing office in a Brooklyn, NY hospital. While there in 2003, he learned about a young patient with lupus. To his horror, she died. Fresh out of school, he wondered how he could not have heard of such a serious illness that could take the life of someone so young. He began to research lupus, discovering a mysterious disease that causes the immune system to turn from protector to betrayer. He also learned lupus causes a multitude of problems that vary from patient to patient, including some that can be managed and some that are life threatening.

Click here for a personal perspective on how this condition affects one's present life and outlook for the future for herself and her family. Very touching piece of work.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

COPD as the New Normal, a Caregiver's Plea

The next time your loved one annoys you with the nagging about your smoking, take a moment to fast forward in time before you impatiently snap and tell that person to mind their own business.

Take a moment to consider who you will rely upon to help with the simplest of everyday tasks. Who will you call in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning when your shortness of breath causes anxiety ridden panic?  To whom will you vent when your doctor sends you home with an arsonal of inhalers, supplemental oxygen, anti-anxiety medication, and a pat on the shoulder? Who will you cry with when it fully sinks in that you will be tethered to an oxygen tank and there is no magic pill to fix it? Where will you go when you fear being left alone, can no longer drive and totally lose your independence? Which of your children will be the one with the brunt of the responsibility, who loves you dearly yet silently simmers with guilt ridden anger over this unwelcome disruption in their own busy lives? How will your loved ones handle the additional burden on their own busy schedules while maintaining their health and marital relationships?

COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is the fourth major cause of death in the USA.
The early symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be confused with asthma or acute bronchitis. They have common symptoms that many people may have felt at one time or another.
But, while the symptoms of a cold or acute bronchitis usually go away in a few days or weeks, COPD symptoms last a long time. They can make you feel as though there was a heavy weight on your chest that just won't let up.
People with COPD may experience:
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath, especially during activity
  • Persistent cough
  • Excessive mucus (phlegm)
  • Wheezing, whistling, or squeaking when you breathe
  • Trouble keeping up with your normal activities
  • Lung infections more than once a year
 When you have COPD associated with chronic bronchitis, your airways are both inflamed and constricted. The inflammation produces extra-thick mucus and narrows your airways, making it difficult to breathe. Most of the time, this is the result of a long history of smoking or breathing in other irritants such as pollutants, dust, or chemicals.

 To understand COPD it is necessary to know how the lungs work. When you breathe in, the air goes down your windpipe into tubes in your lungs - these tubes are called bronchial tubes or airways. The airways look like upside down trees or broccoli, with several branches. At the end of the branches are tiny air sacs called alveoli.

The airways and alveoli are flexible (elastic). When you breathe in they fill up with air like a balloon, when you breath out they deflate. Over time irreversible damage is done to the lungs and it becomes harder to get air into and out of the lungs.
Free radicals are produced through normal metabolism in the body, but with exposure  to the toxic chemicals in cigarettes free radicals steal healthy electrons from the lining of the lungs, thereby oxidizing lung tissue. When lung tissue is oxidized, cells break down and die.

  • The airways and alveoli become less elastic
  • The walls between many of the alveoli are destroyed
  • The walls of the airways swell up (they become inflamed)
  • The airways become clogged up with excess mucus
  • The walls between many alveoli are damaged when a patient has emphysema. This causes them to lose their shape and become floppy. As the walls become totally destroyed, the patient ends up with a few large alveoli instead of many small ones
  • In chronic obstructive bronchitis, the patient's airway lining is permanently irritated and inflamed. The lining consequently thickens. Thick mucus builds up in the airways, making it harder for the patient to breathe.
  • The majority of COPD patients suffer from both chronic obstructive bronchitis and emphysema. In such cases the term COPD is more accurate.
 If you're 40 or older with a history of smoking and have any of these symptoms for more than a few weeks, it's time to talk to your doctor about taking a breathing test for COPD. It's called spirometry and it measures the breathing capacity of the lungs.

There is no cure for COPD, but there are methods to deal with an irreversible condition that will become a person's "new normal". A progressive disease, treatment begins with various inhalers to use when needed. Eventually, it may be necessary to have home oxygen in order to keep the blood oxygen at an acceptable level. During COPD flares, steroids such as prednisone may be prescribed in an attempt to alleviate the inflammation. Continuous use of steroids carry their own risks but eventually a person has to choose between the plus side of one drug with the down side of another. We do have to breathe, which puts the focus on the now rather than worry about the long haul.
 As with many medical issues, people often don't change their lifestyles until faced with their own mortality by losing their health. So what is in tobacco anyway? Tobacco plants evolved the ability to make a nerve gas against insects. That ability is called nicotine, an alkaloid pesticide that plants evolved to defend themselves against insect pests.

Cigarettes are the source of many irritants and poisons such as: reactive metal fragments, ammonia fumes, the paint stripper chemical acetone, hydrogen sulfide, methane, hydrogen cyanide, nitric oxide and formaldehyde. That certainly is not an inclusive list. According to David Bodanis in his book, "The Secret House", the reason cigarettes are the source of all these is because once lit the cigarette makes them itself.  During inhalation the glowing tip of the cigarette can reach 1,700 degrees F. That heat rips the tobacco and paper compounds into their constituent parts and from those basic parts, builds them up again into the poisonous, complex chemicals we started with. This is possible because under the intense heat hydrogen and oxygen come together to form water, which then superheats into steam and condenses as it cools. The chemicals have time to form in between the puffs on the cigarette which starts that process again and again. All that is going on just inside the cigarette, the dim glow behind the red hot tip.

Now imagine what is really in that smoke stream anyone around you has no choice but to breathe. The newly created chemicals of poison clot together in extremely small balls. By the time the cigarette is burned half-way down those little hydrogen cyanide balls are falling, ready to stick to whatever or whomever they land. In addition to that, the exhalation from the smoker is spewing out ammonia, cyanide, formaldehyde and mucus constituents from the nasal lining.

According to Dr. Mehmet Oz, "Nicotine is one of the most toxic addictions-especially because of its physiological effect on the rest of the body. But the addiction itself is manifested in not only an emotional need for the drug but also a physical need; your brain tells your body it needs nicotine to prevent the symptoms of withdrawal. One reason that nicotine is addictive is that it creates pleasure in the brain, causing a feeling of relaxation. Over time, nicotine keeps your brain from supplying these chemicals that create these good feelings, and you end up craving more nicotine and the feeling it produces."

Dr. Rachel Norwood of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, states that depression is more prevalent in people with COPD than in those with other chronic conditions. 
Aside from the understandable anxiety, and hopelessness felt in dealing with the daily fear of not being able to breath, it has been found that there is a connection between depression and smoking. That component is the nicotine. It is called the "double-barreled situation". Depressed and anxious people tend to smoke to better handle whatever is going on in their lives, smoking can cause COPD,  the damage and impairment from the disease makes a person even more depressed, which can lead to more smoking. The body craves the nicotine and a person seeking relief from the "blues" feels relief by smoking. Yet smoking only aggravates the COPD and the vicious cycle goes round and round. Once diagnosed with COPD, those people who do manage to give up the smoking habit, not only suffer from the depressing reality of their future, but also suffer from the symptoms of withdrawal.

Controlling one's anxiety is the key to dealing with life with COPD. The fear of suffocating is very real and it is so easy to go into a panic when short of breath. Patients are instructed on Pursed Lip Breathing which is to breathe through the nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips to fully empty the lungs and avoid the tendency to hyperventilate. But even so, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications are very often part of the treatment program. These medications have their own side effects and strain on already overburdened bodily systems, but in many situations, they are necessary just to cope.

Everyone is told not to smoke. So why do people continue with such a harmful habit?  In his book, "The Secret Family", David Bodanis claims that nicotine works on the limbic system cells in the brain. By giving a boost in self-confidence many people crave, they soon think they need the stress relief cigarettes appear to offer.  Another reason that people, especially girls, enjoy their smokes is because the nicotine slows the stomach's usual movements which diminishes an appetite. Supposedly ideal for anyone trying to stay slim or lose weight. Women don't seem to realize that their idealistic body image could become an oxygen starved, wrinkled figure with thinning bones prone to fracture. Little is more harmful for maintaining a youthful facial complexion than the damage from free radicals caused by cigarettes.

The tobacco industry understands human nature. Young people vulnerable to peer pressure and normal insecurities are at a higher risk for poor decision making. Once the addictive properties of nicotine take hold, often people smoke for years until they can finally break the habit. Truth be told, many smokers claim to actually enjoy their cigarettes. Reaching for a cigarette while under emotional stress can be like having a good friend. Only true friends don't haunt you down the road.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Healthy Vinegars from your Plant Allies

Next time you reach for the oil and vinegar as dressing for your salad, think about a wonderful way to increase the nutritional value of that dressing. A good quality extra-virgin olive oil is the oil of choice but did you know you can turn an ordinary vinegar into an extraordinary source of minerals?

In the Wise Woman tradition ("Healing Wise" by Susan Weed), it is claimed that we can improve our health by allying ourselves with common, abundant wild plants, the weeds. Called the green allies because they can become our closest friends in terms of supplying our bodies with what we need for good metabolism, strong bones and vitality. They grow naturally, are not an agricultural crop, therefore their genetic forms have not been altered and our bodies easily recognize their chemical makeup.

One of the most amazing attributes of the plant kingdom is it's ability to extract metallic compounds (minerals) from simple dirt and rocks and, with the help of the sun, rain, and soil bacteria, transform those metallic minerals into crystalline, water-soluble forms of the same pure minerals, and in doing so, make them usable to the animal life on the planet, including humans!  The minerals in plants are water soluble therefore in a form easily absorbed by our bodies.

Herbal vinegars are a wonderful way to put up herbs for later use.  Natural vinegars, preferably raw with the mother (Bragg's vinegar is a good one), are especially effective for extracting the mineral richness of plants.  Be sure pesticide or herbicide hadn't been used on the area you choose to gather your plants. Wait until late morning after the sun has dried the night dampness and using a kitchen shears snip the leaves leaving behind the plant to regrow (if desired). You don't want to pull the whole plant out of the ground and have the mess of dirt clinging to the leaves.

When you have enough plant material to fill a mason jar spread it out on a baking sheet for an hour or so to not only dry a bit more but to give any bugs a chance to exit. Using the kitchen shears cut the leaves, stems and flowers into smaller pieces to expose more surface area to the vinegar.  Pour the vinegar over the plant material to fill the jar and cover the plant material. Using a chopstick or wooden spoon (vinegar reacts with metal so don't use a metal spoon), push down the herbs to fully mix and release air bubbles. Then top off with more vinegar. Cap tightly with a plastic lid (don't use a metal lid) and let sit  for about six weeks. The location for the jar should be somewhere you won't forget about it since the jar should be shaken daily, but in a cool spot away from exposure to direct sunlight.

By six weeks the plant material will be pretty much used up and it is ready to strain. The easiest way to strain is to put a funnel into the opening of another jar or bottle and lay cheesecloth or a metal strainer over the funnel. Then pour the vinegar through and discard the plant material. You will be left with an ideal salad dressing loaded with goodness from the plants themselves. Herbal vinegars don't have to be refrigerated but it is best to use up within a year for the greatest potency from the herbs. Besides, you will probably want to make a fresh batch every spring anyway.
Spring is an ideal time to gather your greens since the plants are young and tender and not yet bitter.  
When gathering wild plants be sure you are able to properly identify them. A good source you could use is "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and not so wild) Places.  Written by Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean.  Below are a few of the common plants you can find in the typical yard or garden landscape. Again don't pick unless you know the area hadn't been treated with herbicides or pesticides.



Dandelion leaves

Dandelion flower
Lamb's Quarters

Violet flowers and leaves


Red Clover