Exciting New Kava Study on Lung Cancer Prevention

By Steven Foster

Kava, Piper methysticum
Kava, Piper methysticum

According to an 8 January 2014 member advisory  release by the American Botanical Council (ABC), in Austin, Texas, researchers from the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and Masonic Cancer Center reported findings of a study published in the journal Cancer Prevention Research yesterday which found daily consumption of a kava-derived dietary supplement prevented the formation of 99 percent of tumors in a mouse lung tumor model used to predict lung cancer  in humans. Positive animal studies usually suggest further research leads, but this study shows such a significant benefit that further development will be accelerated. The levels of success is reported with a patent-pending extract of Kava components, not currently available off-the-shelf Kava dietary supplement products.

A traditional ceremonial beverage of South Pacific societies, Kava (Piper methysticum) is widely consumed in Vanuata, Fiji and Western Somoa, whose populations have lung cancer rates just 5-10 percent of U.S. lung cancer rates despite similar levels of tobacco consumption. Here are links to our photo galleries of the Kava plant, the root of Kava, and a Kava ceremony.

According to Stefan Gafner, Chief Science Officer of ABC, “The fact that the researchers were able to find evidence of the ability of a kava fraction to prevent the formation of tumors in mice, in support of epidemiological data showing a lower incidence of lung cancer in people living on the South Pacific Islands where kava is traditionally used, makes this study very compelling. If confirmed in human clinical studies, the results could have a big impact on human health and may lead to a greater emphasis on prevention rather than cure.”

Traditional kava ceremony, Kava, kava-kava, Piper methysticumIn the January 8th member advisory  release, the Austin, Texas-based American Botanical Council, quotes Prof. Bill Gurley PhD, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the College of Pharmacy of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock and a leading expert on herb toxicology. Prof Gurley reviewed the study and commented to ABC, “…the findings are both compelling and certainly merit further research in order to translate them into the clinic. The findings are a breath of fresh air for kava, in particular, and botanical supplements, in general. Recently supplements have suffered quite a bit of negative publicity — some of it deserved, some not — but the kava study from the University of Minnesota emphasizes what good science coupled with quality botanicals can produce.”

“This is highly interesting research and suggests a potential new use for certain preparations made from kava root and rhizome,” said Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council (ABC).

Rick Kingston, PharmD, a clinical professor of pharmacy at the University of Kava root, kava-kava root, Piper methysticum rootMinnesota and president of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at SafetyCall International in Minneapolis, commented “This research is truly unprecedented in its potential impact. A 99% cancer prevention efficacy is unheard of with this very sensitive research model and paves the way for future clinical trials to assess human applications. Another fascinating aspect relates to identifying kava components likely responsible for rare cases of liver toxicity associated with kava dietary supplements. Fortunately, the risk of kava liver complications is low, but this will allow development of supplement preparations devoid of [compounds that may cause] adverse liver effects that can be used for both anti-anxiety and wellness applications in the supplement arena.”

Traditional kava ceremony, Kava, kava-kava, Piper methysticumScientists collaborating in this research include lead authors Pablo Leitzman and Sreekanth Narayanapillai in the U of M College of Pharmacy (Chengguo Xing Group), and their peers in the U of M Masonic Cancer Center (Stephen Hecht Group), U of M College of Veterinary Medicine (M. Gerry O’Sullivan) and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (Junxuan Lu). Funding for this research was provided by National Institutes of Health grant no. R01 CA142649.

Those interested in keeping up-to-date on timely,  important developments in herbal medicine research, authoritative information on herbs, and who wish to  receive the award-winning, graphically-compelling journal, HerbalGram, are encouraged to join the American Botanical Council.

Heavenly Bamboo — Nandina domestica

 By Steven Foster

Heavenly Bamboo - Nandina domestica
Heavenly Bamboo – Nandina domestica

Whether you follow ancient pagan traditions, the Roman Saturnalia, or just good old Christian Christmas, it is the time of the winter festival marked by the concurrent astronomical shift of the Winter solstice. In 274 C.E., the Roman Emperor Aurelian is christened the 25th of December the day of the solstice on the Julian calendar—natalis solis inviciti—“birth of the invincible sun.” Just two years earlier, the 57th Emperor of the Roman Empire was born, Constantine I, who was to usher in a new epoch as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. The December 25th celebration of the “birth of the invincible sun” was easily transformed into the Christian celebration of the “birth of the invincible Son.”  Remnants of ancient traditions Winter Solstice celebration, crept into Christmas traditions, many revived during the Victorian era when the printed word, advertising and the emergence of consumerism allowed for expansion of celebration in a wider cultural convergence. Hence the Yule log, the symbolic mistletoe, the evergreen leaves and red berries of hollies, implanted themselves into new traditions marking this celebratory time of year.  Green and red became the primary colors of the celebration, dating back to at least the 14th century, when evergreen trees, with red apple affixed to the branches represented green as eternal life and red as the blood of Christ.

With its evergreen leaves and red berries, why not adopt our garden plant heavenly bamboo or Nandina domestica as a new seasonal symbol? Introduced into European horticulture in 1804, it is native to China and Japan. In China it is symbolic of the Chinese New Year. Writing in 1848, Robert Fortune, observed, “Large quantities of its branches are brought at this time from the country and hawked about the streets. Each of these branches is crowned with a large bunch of red berries, not very unlike those of the common holly, and, contrasted with the dark, shining leaves, are singularly ornamental.  It is used chiefly in the decoration of altars, not only in temples, but also in private dwellings and in boats—for here every house and boat has its altar.”

In ancient China the woody stem was carved into a gourd-shaped charm and hung around the necks of children to ward-off whooping cough. It was planted in gardens around homes to prevent the spread of fire. In Japanese gardens it was planted next to outdoor wash basins to protect against evil influences. The woody stems have also been used in China to make chopsticks. In north China, it is commonly grown as a houseplant.

Names of plant parts in Traditional Chinese Medicine include: Nan-tian-zhu-zi (fruits); Tian-zhu-zi (fruits); Nan-tian-zhu (plant); Nan-tian-zhu-ye (leaves); Nan-tian-zhu-gen (root). The leaves, stems and fruit all serve as minor folk medicines in Chinese tradition, usually prescribed only by an experienced practitioner because of potential toxicity of alkaloids in the fruits. The fruits are first mentioned in Kai Bao Ben Cao  (Materia Medica of the Kai Bao Era), attributed to Ma Zhi, and published during the Song dynasty in 973 A.D.  The use of the leaves is first noted in Ben Cao Gang Mu Shi Yi (Omissions from the Grand Materia Medica), authored by Zhao Xue-min, published in 1765 during the Qing dynasty. Traditionally, a gourd-shaped charm of the wood was made and hung around the neck of a child to ward-off whooping cough.  Ancient ben-cao mention the planting of heavenly bamboo in gardens to prevent fire.  Historically, it has also been planted next to wash-basins in Japanese gardens to protect against evil. The fruit is used for chronic cough, asthma, whooping cough, malaria, and ulcer of penis. They are also said to be useful in restoring the nervous system, quieting drunkards, and have been used as an antidote toHerbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West fish poisoning.  Folk tradition holds that the seeds increase virility. Leaves: used for the common cold, whooping cough, red eye, swelling with pain, scrofula, bloody urine, and infantile malnutrition. Root: used for headache due to wind and heat, cough due to lung heat, jaundice, with wetness and heat, rheumatism with pain, red eyes, carbuncle and furuncles, and scrofula. Root and stem: used for fevers, the common cold,  conjunctivitis, cough due to lung heat, jaundice with wetness heat, acute gastroenteritis, infection of the urinary tract, and traumatic injuries. For more information on this fascinating plant see my book: Herbal Emissaries: Bringing Chinese Herbs to the West (with Yue Chongxi, Healing Arts Press, Rochester Vermont, 1992).

As we enjoy the visual beauty of these red clusters of fruits through the winter months, let us remember its origins. No matter the tradition, time of year or culture  remember the past and celebrate new beginnings.

Ginkgo Leaves Falling

By Steven Foster.

The brilliant golden yellow leaves of the Ginkgo trees flanking the back entrance of our local post office, once they are ready to fall, will  drop in a few hours time, raining from the thick branches like small fans twirling from the sky. After our first hard killing freeze last night, the Ginkgo leaves fell today.

Ginkgo tree with golden leaves on 11 November 2013
Ginkgo tree with golden leaves on 11 November 2013
The same Ginkgo tree on 13 November 2013, minus its leaves.
The same Ginkgo tree on 13 November 2013, minus its leaves.

The shriveling fruits, which look like half-sized wild persimmons, may persist for a few days after the leaves, then fall to the ground. Fruits are always a tempting curiosity. In fact, you can buy Ginkgo seeds as a food item in Chinese markets, but these have been prepared and processed to render them safe to eat. You should not be tempted to pick-up the freshly fallen fruits, which will cause contact dermatitis similar to the rash produced by poison ivy. The fruits have a fragrance that has been described as a blend between baby vomit and what a dog might leave on a sidewalk. That should be enough to entice you to leave them be.

I suspect that these trees were planted about the time the Eureka Springs Post Office building was completed in 1918, rather than in 1973 when the building was expanded and the service parking lot in the back was developed. The trees are of a fairly good size, plus for many decades most ginkgo trees available from nurseries in the United States have represented male branches grafted on to rootstocks. Within forty years after Ginkgos were widely planted as a street tree by the mid 1800s, female trees like those at Eureka Spring’s Post Office began to leave their bad smelling fruits on sidewalks. Female Ginkgos are simply not a neat and tidy street tree. Notwithstanding the beauty of the fall foliage, the fact that these two trees are females makes them a unique and interesting part of Eureka  Springs’ heritage.

Beneath the Ginkgo tree, 13 November 2013
Beneath the Ginkgo tree, 13 November 2013

Ginkgo was common 175 to 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  This primitive tree is considered the oldest living tree species on earth.  Ginkgo is monotypic. That is, in the ginkgo family there is only one species in one genus — the only surviving member of the ancient and primitive ginkgo family—Ginkgoaceae. Ginkgo has been cultivated in East Asia for hundreds of years. Numerous reports mention the existence of large specimens, some more than a thousand years old, at ancient temples in Japan and China. The tree was first introduced to North America in 1784 in the garden of William Hamilton at Woodlands near Philadelphia.  Mature ginkgos are said to reach over 100 feet in height.  Its longevity as individual trees and a species in general can in part be attributed to its exceptional resistance to pests and resiliency to destruction by fire. It is also extremely tolerant of air pollution thriving in the harshest urban environments.

Ginkgo leaf extracts are highly complex, highly concentrated preparations with an average  ratio of 50 parts ginkgo leaf to one part of the finished extract by weight. Numerous chemical constituents are found in the extract. Normally ginkgo leaf extracts are calibrated to contain 24 percent flavone glycosides (but may range from 22 to 25 percent) which are a relatively ubiquitous group of compounds found in numerous plant species.  Another important compound group in ginkgo leaf extracts are mostly unique to ginkgo — the ginkgolides — including ginkgolides A, B, and C (around 3 percent) and bilobalide (also about 3 percent). As the oldest living tree species on earth, it is no surprise that it would harbor chemical components rare in nature. Perhaps these extremely complex, large molecules have helped it survive for eons. In addition, during the manufacturing process another group of compounds, ginkgolic acids, which are perceived as potentially toxic, are reduced to below 5 parts per million. Given the specific chemical make-up of ginkgo leaf extracts, it  becomes clear why you can’t apply the results of studies with Ginkgo leaf extracts to a simple tea made from ginkgo leaves. Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo leaf, Golden autumn Ginkgo leavesNumerous pharmacological and clinical studies on Ginkgo leaf extracts have demonstrated a positive effect in increasing vasodilation and peripheral blood flow rate in capillary vessels and end-arteries in various circulatory disorders, varicose conditions, post-thrombotic syndrome, chronic cerebral vascular insufficiency, short-term memory improvement, cognitive disorders secondary to depression, dementia, tinnitus, vertigo, antioxidant activity, among other effects.

Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo leaf, Golden autumn Ginkgo leaves