Saturday, 6 December 2014

Cellular Applause

Another post about herbalism, incredibly.

Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse Five', mentioned the other day, has a bit in it where the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is suffering from severe malnutrition and working in a factory which makes multivitamin syrup.  This being the Second World War, anyone in the factory who consumes the syrup will face the death penalty, so he restrains himself even though everyone else is doing it.  On the second day, he succumbs and, and I paraphrase, every cell in his body lets out a round of applause.

There are plenty of biological drives like this, such as the urge to breathe, quench your thirst and sate your hunger, and this last one is probably closest to the urge to take a herbal remedy for me.

This morning, I was dispensing some of this stuff:

This is 1:5 tincture of Vaccinium myrtillus, also known rather vaguely as bilberry or blueberry although it's only one of several related species of the fruit, native to the Old and New Worlds.

I'm currently holding it in my mouth.  It has a vague sweetness to it with a note of astringency, and it will shortly flow down my throat. There it goes.  It has a pleasant aftertaste and is in fact, to me right now, rather moreish (though not that moreish).

In normal circumstances, I don't crave bilberry (oh, by the way, here's a botanical illustration of the stuff:

), but this morning I found myself doing so.  This is doubtless because there is something in the plant I needed, which wouldn't be surprising as I haven't eaten much fruit other than cucumbers and tomatoes recently, so it'll be the flavonoids, vitamin C, anthocyanins or something.  I haven't had this with Vaccinium before though.

When this happens, the experience Kurt Vonnegut describes above follows shortly after.  It's hard to describe, but you know it when you feel it.  There's also a sense of it being like a jigsaw piece fitting into a puzzle, which in pharmacodynamic (what something does to you) terms is sort of what happens - the various bits of needed stuff slot into the gaps in your body which need them and then you end up being able to do what you need.

Something I've experienced this with more than any other herb is the bitter reaction (which I'm experiencing now as I type about it) from Erythraea centaurium.  The bitter reaction seems to be the release of the pancreatic hormone gastrin due to stimulation of the glossopharyngeal nerve by the bitter taste and the consequent stimulation of the vagus nerve (cranial nerves IX and X, which as the numbers suggest are neighbours).  Here's a photo of some Erythraea centaurium flowers:

"Centaurium erythraea 220603" by Picture taken by BerndH - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

This stuff was clearly something I needed.  It was of course a liver tonic, and I have had Gilbert's Syndrome, which is like IBS for jaundice instead of the bowels, so probably that was why.  However, with certain herbs you don't need to take the actual herbal remedy itself to get the action, and bitters are a particularly good example of this.  When I was thinking about this herb earlier, I had the taste in mind and I could feel it making my mouth water.  This is because simply thinking about the taste stimulates the release of gastrin in the same way as the actual taste does.

There are at least two other taste reflexes, I would say, and in fact I would say that probably every taste has its response.  One is the sour reflex stimulated by vinegar, which does things like cause coughing, and another is apparently the sweet reflex.  There's a strong tendency for sweet substances without useful calories to lower blood sugar, and this makes sense as the sweet taste is often associated with the consumption of sugar so it would seem to be a signal for the body to start storing glucose and getting it out of the bloodstream to make room for more and prevent, for instance, fluid loss by diuresis, which is what happens when substances rises above certain levels in the plasma.

Cravings, however, can also fool you as they can be addictions to harmful substances.  This happens all the time with carbohydrates for many people, although for me I am for some reason averse to sugar and sweet-tasting food, a phenomenon my brother refers to as "not liking nice stuff".

Of course I'm going to have to shoehorn this in.  The ultimate cellular applause moment I experience is when I consume a phytoestrogen, and of course this works whether or not I know I'm doing it.  That's just on another level entirely, and presumably the same happens when an F2M gets testosterone.

Leaving that aside though, because I must be boring you all senseless, one of the rather tricky tasks a herbalist has to do is to flip this round.  Just as sympathy symptoms are reflected in the practitioner's own body, and in my case I do mean reflected as they occur on the opposite side of my body than the patient's on most occasions, the cravings could be too, and if those cravings are therapeutic rather than addictions, you then have to try to get yourself mentally into a position where you crave what they crave, and then distinguish between the helpful and unhelpful cravings.

That's the peculiar job of the herbalist, or part of it.