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General - Herbalism and clinical nutrition

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 07-31-97 9(2): 4-5

This quarter’s editorial will seek to solve three enigmatic riddles of the history of medicine in the U.S. in the twentieth century.

Why were heart attacks rare n the U.S. in 1900, and the leading cause of death by the late 1940s?

Why was the flu pandemic of 1916-1918 more deadly to the younger population than it was to the elderly, reversing the general pattern of mortality in influenza?

Why did the Eclectic and homeopathic medical professions die out after the first decades of this century while the naturopathic medical profession has survived?

These seemingly unrelated phenomena may be linked by a common factor: the dietary changes in the U.S. after the turn of the century.

A heart attack was so rare in 1900 that most physicians never saw one in their practice. For the last fifty years, heart attacks have been the leading cause of death in the U.S. The cause of the heart attack has been a moving target ever since it began to appear, and has not yet been conclusively identified. Despite the publicity given to links between a high fat diet, high blood cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, and hypertension, these are only statistical risk factors, and not even strong ones at that. Fully half of individuals suffering heart attacks have none of these risk factors. Another possible explanation is the industrialization of the food supply at the turn of the century. Three kinds of food were made universally available that had formerly been only occasional treats, if available at all: sugar, processed white flour, and refined vegetable oils and margarine. All of these have been linked with heart attacks.

Sugar consumption is actually a stronger risk factor than any of the more famous ones listed above. A 1977 U.S. Senate Health Committee report cited the connection between sugar and heart disease, and called for a 40% reduction in sugar consumption in the U.S.(McGovern et al, 1977) The report, which died a quiet death and is now out of print, was the last nutrition report ever issued by the Senate. A 1986 FDA report also cites the connection between typical per capita sugar consumption in the U.S. and heart disease (Glinsmann et al, 1986). Research from the 1960s in Great Britain shows that individuals who consume more than four ounces of sugar a day have five times the risk of a heart attack as those who consume less than two ounces a day (Yudkin, 1964). The national per capita sugar consumption in the U.S. is somewhat more than six ounces. Other sources have also connected sugar consumption with other risk factors for heart disease (Cleave 1960; Reiser 1985; Pamplona et al 1990; Yudkin 1987) The processing of wheat flour causes a profound loss of B vitamins. After an epidemic of B-vitamin deficiency diseases early in the century, the food industry began to fortify flours with some B-vitamins. Two that are not fortified are vitamin B-6 and folic acid. As it now turns out, these two vitamins are involved with one of the only heart attack risk factors that may actually cause heart attacks and not just be casually associated with them. Blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine are closely related with both heart attack risk and risk of mortality from heart attacks. Researchers now suspect that this amino acid may in some way injure vessel walls in such a way as to initiate atherosclerosis. The reason for elevated homocysteine? Deficiencies of Vitamin B-6 and folic acid. Supplementation with these can lower the homocysteine levels and reduce heart attacks. A large body of scientific literature has also associated the trans-fatty acids in margarines with heart disease. Although some studies are contradictory and the correlation is not iron-clad, perhaps due to confounding factors in test populations, the growing scientific opinion is that margarine is associated with heart attacks, perhaps through disruption of normal prostaglandin synthesis.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    8


    Medical Herbalism: Clinical Articles and Case Studies    

The flu pandemic of the second decade of this century hit in the first decade after the introduction of mass marketing of sugar and white flour. It is possible that this flu was so deadly not because it was some kind of “superbug” but because the host resistance of the population was depleted by the new foods being consumed. Sugar itself immunosuppressive. Phagocytosis of invaders is reduced by about 40% after the consumption of two ounces of sugar (the amount in the typical soft drink). The average American now consumes more than three times this amount per day, or about the average American’s body weight (150 lbs) per year. Sugar also strips minerals and B-vitamins from the tissues as its “empty” calories are digested, assimilated, and metabolized, further depleting the immune reserve. Likewise a dietary shift to processed white flour can wreak havoc in the body due to nutrient losses of minerals and vitamins. The flu epidemic hit long before the initiation of the practice of vitamin fortification of flours, and white flour, like white sugar, provides empty calories that effectively strip the body of mineral and vitamin nutrients as they are metabolized. Researchers recently recovered the deadly 1918 flu virus from the preserved lung tissue of a young soldier who had died of it. It was a garden-variety swine flu, such as has been around humanity ever since people have been hanging out with pigs. It is possible that it was the dietary changes especially among the young people that set the population up for such a killing epidemic. Studies of primitive peoples show that the first introduction of refined foods is especially devastating, while second and third generations tolerate them more. Americans in 1900 were effectively a “primitive” people, as far as modern diet is concerned, and the younger generation, the first raised entirely on the new depleted foods, was devastated by this flu, while their elders were less affected. Normally elders die of flu at much higher rates than younger people.

The Eclectic and homeopathic professions declined for a number of reasons, most notable among them political and legal repression. The Flexner Report of 1906, biased toward the allopathic model of medical education, gave the Eclectic and homeopathic medical schools poor marks, eventually spelling their doom. Without schools turning out physicans trained in these disciplines, the professions died. It is an oversimplification to say that this is the only cause of that demise, however. The naturopathic profession faced the same pressures. And although the profession faced near-extinction in the 1950s, it did endure and is thriving today. Ironically, the naturopathic medical schools in the North America today are the only medical schools in the country teaching homeopathy and Eclectic herbalism. One very important difference between the naturopaths and these other professions was that the naturopaths considered clinical nutrition the foundation of their healing approach, and right from the year of their founding in the U.S. in 1898 were telling their patients not to eat the new refined foods. The Eclectics and homeopaths, on the other hand, generally ignored clinical nutrition. I hypothesize that this ignorance of the importance of clinical nutrition contributed to their demise because homeopathy and vitalist herbalism simply don’t work in a body that is starved for vitamins and minerals.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    9


    Medical Herbalism: Clinical Articles and Case Studies

This isn’t just a pie-in-the-sky intellectual argument, honey-sweetened with a whole wheat crust. The diet of Americans has not improved since the demise of the Eclectics, but instead has gotten worse. It is even more important now that restoration of healthy nutritional status be a vital part of clinical herbal practice. In the clinic at the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies in Boulder, Colorado, we find that about 70% of what we do in the clinic is nutrition instead of herbalism, and we’ve recently doubled our classroom hours for clinical nutrition. It is my opinion that in the contemporary population, herbalism without clinical nutrition and diet changes will fail as a healing modality.


Cleave, T., and Campbell, G. Diabetes, Coronary Thrombosis and the Saccharine Disease, Bristol, England: John Wright and Sons, 1960

Glinsmann, W.H.,Irausquin, H., and Youngmee, K.P. Report from FDA’s Sugar Task Force, 1986: Evaluation of Health Aspects of Sugars Contained in Carbohydrate Sweeteners. Washington D.C. Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 1986

McGovern, G, Kennedy, E.M., et al. Dietary Goals for the United States, Washington D.C.: U.S.G.P.O., 1977

Pamplona, R, et. al. Mechanisms of glycation in atherogenesis. Medical Hypothesis 1990;40:174-181

Reiser, S. Effects of dietary sugars on metabolic risk factors associated with heart disease. Nutritional Health 1985;3:-203-216

Yudkin, J. Dietary fat and dietary sugar. Lancet, August 29, 1964, 478-479

Yudkin, J. Metabolic changes induced by sugar in relation to coronary heart disease and diabetes. Nutrition and Health 1987;5(12):5-8
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