Anyone who's seen former Vice President Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth knows that the environment is in big trouble. According to Gore, humans have played an extensive role in the global-warming trend by radically increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil.
But the environment is not the only victim of pollution. Fossil fuels, along with other environmental contaminants—detergents, preservatives, cigarette smoke, plasticizers, heavy metals and other chemicals—are causing health problems in people as well. Consider the following facts:
- According to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, "Smoggy air costs Californians more than $521 million a year—a price paid in hundreds of trips to the emergency room, thousands of hospital admissions and millions of missed school days. Smog is also responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Californians of all ages each year and other permanent impacts to children's health."
- The most prevalent environmental contaminants, which include lead, trihalomethanes (found in drinking water), ionizing radiation from indoor radon gas, and tobacco smoke, can cause acute harm to health, according to a December 2005 study published in Public Library of Science Medicine.
- According to a report released jointly by the Breast Cancer Fund, a nonprofit environmental health organization, and Breast Cancer Action, a nonprofit national education and advocacy organization, "Studies of women's chemical body burden show that all of us carry pollutants in our bodies. Some of these pollutants, commonly used as fuels, solvents and other industrial applications, have been linked to mammary tumors in animals."
Now for the good news: Despite the havoc we've wreaked on her, Mother Nature is still on our side, providing protection from environmental toxins in the form of a category of herbs called adaptogens. "An adaptogen is a substance or plant that has the ability to support balance in the body by adjusting to biochemical changes that occur as a result of stress. Stress can create imbalance by causing changes in the nervous, immune and endocrine (adrenals, pancreas, thyroid and reproduction) systems," says Bev Maya, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based medical herbalist, founder of Maya Natural Health and consultant with Flora Inc.
While adaptogens are most commonly known for their physical and psychological stress-relieving power, some of these herbs are also helpful when it comes to battling stress caused by pollutants in the environment. "Adaptogens are effective in fighting environmental stress because they have an overall toning effect on organisms—they greatly enhance metabolic function, which allows for an increase in efficiency of the detoxification processes that are innate in the body. Some are more effective at this than others," says Roy Upton, R.H., general manager of Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Planetary Formulas and executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia.
For instance, schisandra is an adaptogenic herb that, besides being used to increase recovery in athletes, has been shown to protect liver cells against chemical and viral damage. According to an October 1999 monograph of schisandra published in American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, research shows that at least 13 of the lignans from its seed oil have been reported to be beneficial in the treatment of viral and chemical-induced hepatitis and liver cancer.
Many other adaptogens can also aid in warding off stress caused by environmental contaminants. "Some important adaptogenic herbs include Siberian ginseng, panax ginseng, borage, gotu kola, rhodiola, wild indigo, pau d' Arco, sarsaparilla, ashwaganda and shiitake mushrooms. Adaptogenic herbs combine nicely with cleansing and supportive herbs such as dandelion root and leaf, which work on both the kidneys and liver to improve toxin elimination, and artichoke leaf, which cleanses and protects the liver, improves bowel function and lowers cholesterol," Maya says.
Scott Bias, president of Fountain Valley, Calif.-based Paradise Herbs, has developed a branded-supplement line called Imperial Adaptogen, which employs this technique of combining adaptogens with other harmonizing herbs to create a stress-fighting formula. "Environmental toxins will mainly attack two organs in your body—the liver and the lungs," Bias says. "Our formula uses the best herbs for lung and liver health, including schisandra, reishi mushrooms, astragalus, eluthero root, rhodiola, cordyceps and gynostemma. Besides the adaptogens, we include things like licorice and ginger, which in the Chinese medicine tradition, help balance and synchronize herbal formulas to make them more effective."
Turmeric, which some hesitate to classify as a true adaptogen, has been proven to reduce the harmful effects of smoke on the body. In a study published in the March 1992 issue of Mutagenesis, turmeric was found to decrease the amount of harmful smoke molecules in cigarette smokers' urine. "Curcumin, the active principle of turmeric, is known to act as an antioxidant, anti-mutagen and anti-carcinogen in experimental animals. In the present study, anti-mutagenic effects of turmeric were assessed in 16 chronic smokers. It was observed that turmeric, given in doses of 1.5 grams per day for 30 days, significantly reduced the urinary excretion of mutagens in smokers," according to the study.
Tom Newmark, president of Brattleboro, Vt.-based New Chapter, believes firmly in the power of turmeric to heal the effects of smoke, and not just cigarette smoke. "Smoke pollution is everywhere. It comes from burning fossil fuels, wood, from barbecuing meat. In fact, one well-done steak cooked over charcoal contains 600 times more of the cancer-causing molecules found in smoke than one cigarette does," he says. New Chapter has funded extensive research on the benefits of turmeric, which is the main ingredient in its product, Supercritical Antioxidants, known as Smoke Shield internationally. One study, published in the June 2003 issue of the Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, states, "Results indicate that Smoke Shield has potent antioxidant activity, could inhibit phase I enzymes and increase detoxifying enzymes, which makes it an effective chemoprotective herbal formulation."
While Newmark believes that turmeric is "absolutely the most important herb to support detoxification under conditions of stress," he's not the only one who feels that way. According to SPINS, a San Francisco-based market research firm for the natural products industry, New Chapter's turmeric formula, called Turmericforce, was the No. 1 selling product in the "herbal singles" category for the 12-week period ending in June 2006. Sales for Turmericforce have increased 140.9 percent from the previous year.
Natural products consumers are hyper-aware of the effect their actions have on both their own health and that of the environment; buying natural and organic products promotes a healthier planet and a healthier body. But until the rest of society changes its mentality about pollution, your consumers are going to seek protection and prevention in the form of adaptogenic herbs. "Adaptogenic herbs are necessary in this day and age. They're like super foods—they're super herbs, the one thing you should be sure to take besides a multivitamin. They help our bodies function at a superior level, a level that would be unattainable without them, considering the toxins that bombard us every day," Bias says.
Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 10/p. 100, 102