Monday, November 17, 2014

My complete letter to the weekend Argus regarding the Banting diet (Tim Noakes)

Prof Tim Noakes was thinking in a unidirectional way when he wrote his book. Unfortunately the body has more than one system and to only look at the endocrine system is in my view, a mistake. Diabetes is on the increase throughout the Western world because of the shocking western diet - high in processed foods, salt, sugar and fat, and low in fibre, fruits and vegetables. Prof Noakes claims it is genetic. 

In South Africa we have many people blindly and slavishly following the Banting diet without any knowledge of their own physiology. I have patients whose cholesterol levels have soared on the diet, with an increase in LDL and a lowering of HDL, including raised triglycerides. Not a good scenario, any cardiologist would agree. 

Many people on the Banting diet will love the permission to eat more meat (usually from feedlot farms) and fat and not worry too much about vegetables. By doing so they will increase the amounts of veterinary drug residues, like deworming drugs, antibiotics, hormones etc and  other toxins that are stored in animal fat, Omega 6 which occurs in feedlot raised animals and causes increased inflammation, and nitrates from processed meat which predispose one to cancer. At the same time there is a reduction in valuable fibre from grains and root vegetables, a consequent reduction in short chain fatty acids made by gut flora(which act as anti-inflammatories);  a change in gut flora to bacteroides which can predispose one to colon cancer. High fat diets leading to increased amounts of bile acid predispose one to colon cancer, atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel disease to mention a few problems. Healthy gut flora play an important role in protecting us against disease; a diet high in fat and low in fibre could do the opposite. 

The Banting diet actually recommends that people cut out refined carbohydrates. This is a good idea. Whole grains and fibrous vegetables like beetroot (which Prof Noakes doesn’t allow) are important dietary elements.  We need plenty of fibre and the micronutrients and phytochemicals from a vast array of colourful (preferably organically grown) grains, fruits and vegetables to have a healthy microbiome which will keep us healthy.





Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Birds and Bees

It's been a busy time in the garden. Birds flit about non stop building nests and feeding their young with never a quiet moment as they sing their individual songs. We can learn from them - to be joyful every day no matter the weather or hardships. So often when they have gone to all the trouble of rearing a chick or two, the chick is killed by another bird or animal, and they just carry on with life.
A pied barbet hammering away at the fig tree.

Where I live we are very blessed with an abundant bird life. If there are aphids on a plant, you can bet a white eye or two will be busy having a feast. The thrushes poke about in dead leaves looking for grubs and worms, and are as effective as chickens in getting rid of unwanted creepies. A weaver bird has made hundreds of nests in a wild peach that overhangs my garden wall, and each one has been rejected. I love the sound the weavers make. I have been on holiday to some places in the UK where there is not a single bird call and where I am struck by the dead silence in the early mornings. It's a sad fact that millions of birds have died as a result of insecticide use.

Birds bring joy to the garden and are important to keep the balance of nature. If birds die out insects will take over. Some evenings I can hear owls hooting. Because of people using rat poison, owls are often poisoned. We need owls too!

From birds to bees. It's been quite an adventure! I now have a second hive and was given a swarm to put in, and the bees are very happy. They settled in immediately and I can't wait to have a peep to see how they are progressing with their comb making. I have been harvesting honey from hive no 1 and I got severely stung when the bees crawled up under my bee suit, without me realising it. However with the use of herbs, it was soon quite bearable and I healed very quickly. Lessons are to be learned every day!
It is amazing how serene one feels when just watching the bees go about their daily work. On the whole they don't bother one at all, they just go about their daily business with dedication. On occasion they might be a bit defensive but one learns not to aggravate them by digging too close to them, or cutting grass too near them. These are danger signals for bees and they can get irritated. Usually one or two will dart about threatening to sting. People are very scared of swarms, but when bees are swarming, they are not dangerous at all. They are too busy protecting the queen and looking for a new home.

If a swarm is disturbed in an aggressive way in the hive or nesting spot, that is a different story. Then they will be an aggressive swarm and can kill a dog or a person. This happens rarely, but always makes the headlines!! Recently a dog disturbed a swarm that was nesting in someone's compost heap and they attacked and killed him. This is nobody's fault, as the swarm wasn't in a hive.
I have three dogs and they very rarely get stung. They understand not to go sniffing around the hive, and even know they shouldn't go into the bee garden. It's all a matter of respect.

A frame of capped honey


Nature deserves our respect because nature is perfect. We are the ones to mess up the balance of nature. Let's give it some thought and take the time to enjoy the parks and gardens with respect!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tips to enrich your garden's biodiversity

Biodiversity is a term to describe variety of living things within a system or environment.  As I am concentrating on gardens, it is practical to see your garden as a micro-environment, in relation to the size of our country. If all the gardens in SA had only lawn with one or two shrubs and a tree, that would severely limit the biodiversity of the environment under our control.  It would also be detrimental to the health of the country in terms of its biodiversity.

Conversely if everyone in SA who has a garden, focussed on creating ecosystems that favoured biodiversity, imagine what a positive effect that would have in general!

When I look out of my window on a summer day, the air is filled with insects hovering or flying about. I feel like I’m in an aquarium, with all those creatures flitting past me. I like to think that I’ve created a good environment for a rich biodiversity in my garden. I am lucky because I think quite a few of my neighbours have also taken this approach.

So what are we looking for when we think of having biodiversity in our gardens? We are aiming for a rich bacterial and fungal life in the soil, earthworms, a balance of insect life, some snakes, frogs, chameleons and varied bird life.  In order for all these different entities to thrive we need to have some rules:

  • Don’t use poisons in your garden. A fly that has just been sprayed with poison, could be eaten by a chameleon immediately afterwards. Snail bait is dangerous for the endangered leopard toad and your pets. Bee numbers are declining worldwide due to the use of insecticide poisons. Poisons also leach into the soil killing valuable earthworms. Poisoned rats can kill owls.
  • Reduce the amount of lawn in your garden. It is a dead space for chameleons, lizards, frogs as it provides no shelter from predators and no food. It also does not provide habitat for insects.
  • Provide plenty of ground cover in the form of low growing plants like Plectranthus species.
  • Don’t be too tidy in your garden. Logs, pieces of wood, stones and mulch – all provide shelter for small creatures and breeding spots for various insects. Mulch also keeps the ground moist for earthworms.
  • Allow a corner of your garden to be “wild” with weeds and grasses that you allow to self seed. Seeds attract birds and the wild grasses and weeds are a good habitat for breeding insects, and provide food for pollinators. Prince Charles is famous for his wild garden and meadows at Highgrove
  • Plant indigenous plants  to provide foods for local species of pollinators like the carpenter bee and African hummingbird moth. Hypoestes aristata which blooms in autumn is a good choice. Aloes provide good food for bees in autumn and winter.
  • Provide plenty of water in bird baths and low containers, for birds and insects as well as frogs. Your children will delight in watching tadpoles and dragonflies.
  • The small brown slug eater snake likes to hide under planks of wood. Provide a spot for some of these. They are not dangerous.
  • Put an owl box in a tree and a bat box on your wall high up under the eaves. Bats get rid of millions of insects for us, and owls take care of rats and mice.
  • Plant herbs to attract bees and butterflies. I once had a rosemary hedge that chameleons loved. Basil, lavender, yarrow, lemon balm, sage species and nasturtiums are some of the herbs that pollinators love.
  • Allow as many annuals as you can to go to seed. Self seeding encourages a lush environment and birds eat many of the seeds.

Your garden can be a paradise of biodiversity, with interesting creatures and beautiful plants. I’m always amazed how much noise there is in my garden, especially bird song, but also the sound of frogs in autumn and the very loud hum of bees in some of my trees. It is such a privilege to have a garden and a patch of soil to be the guardian of. Let’s unite to create swathes of biodiverse areas where nature is in harmony.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hawthorn for the heart and for the bees.

                                          Hawthorn berries

Is it a coincidence that hawthorn is harvested in Autumn? I don’t think so. Just as citrus fruits are winter fruits, full of vitamin C to help with colds and flu, hawthorn is there to help keep us warm and prevent chilblains.

Hawthorn is native to Europe but grows well here. It can be a shrub or a small tree, depending on how you prune it. It has very long, sharp thorns. It is deciduous and the leaves turn a beautiful translucent red and yellow in autumn. Even the carpet of leaves at its base is very pretty. In spring the blossoms attract bees, and to hear the loud hum of thousands of busy bees in the stillness of the morning is truly awesome.
Hawthorn is one of the oldest known medicinal plants used in European medicine - its beneficial actions on the heart were first reported by first century Greek herbalist Dioscorides and later by Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) (Weihmayr and Ernst, 1996).

Hawthorn is the ultimate nurturing herb for the heart. The flowers, berries and leaves are used each with its own particular nourishing or medicinal effect.
Hawthorn is widely regarded in Europe as a safe and effective treatment for the early stages of heart disease and is endorsed by Commission E- the branch of the German government that studies and approves herbal treatments. It is used to promote the health of the circulatory system and has been found useful in treating angina, high blood pressure, early congestive heart failure and cardiac arrhythmia. It has been found to strengthen the heart and stabilise it against arrhythmias. It also strengthens the entire cardiovascular system, improving blood flow to all our organs thus improving our general health. It is my own opinion that using hawthorn can delay visual and hearing problems due to old age, as blood supply to these organs is well maintained.
Hawthorne should be used under the care of a phytotherapist for circulatory or heart problems.

I have just harvested a few kilograms of hawthorn from my garden, and am inspired to use it for myself. Apparently one can make a jelly from the berries to eat with cheese. There are quite a few recipes on the internet for this. What a wonderful herb!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The soil of life

The secret is in the soil.

Soil health – comparing the soil of our planet with the “soil” in our body.

When I was lecturing at the University of Western Cape, I used the analogy of soil to show the importance of prebiotics and probiotics.  In the human body, we know how important bacteria are in keeping us healthy. (Actually our bacteria consist of many different types of micro-organism, collectively known as microbiota, not just bacteria.) What many of us don’t know is that bacteria in the soil are just as important, and this article is about your health as well as the health of the soil in your garden or on your farm.

Your digestive tract.

We are accustomed to being given probiotics every time the doctor prescribes an antibiotic. Antibiotics wipe out our bacteria, and the probiotics help replenish the good bacteria. They say that we have more bacteria in our bodies than there are stars in the universe or cells in our body. We need the balance of our bacteria to be a healthy, thriving colony of “good” bacteria keeping the “bad” bacteria in check. Probiotics are naturally available in some types of yoghurt, certain cheeses, sauerkraut, and other fermented  products like miso, tempeh, kim chi and kefir.

What we eat, feeds the bacteria. This is where prebiotics come into the picture. Prebiotics are insoluble fibre from certain foods like Jerusalem artichokes,garlic, onions, leeks, bananas etc. that feed the probiotics. The typical western diet is notoriously low in prebiotics. In my practice I see many people who never eat vegetables and fruit, so their diets will be deficient in prebiotics. If we treat our body like a dustbin, eating loads of “junk food”, we can expect malodorous (bad smelling) wind and stools. This is not a good sign, and I always tell my patients that our stool is a good barometer of our health. Healthy bacteria = healthy person.

This however, is not the whole story. One of the most important prerequisites of a healthy bacterial colony is the “soil” of the digestive tract. The trillions of gut bacteria have to have something to cling to. A natural diet of lots of vegetables and fruits, whole grains and legumes provides the fibre which bacteria cling to. This is what I refer to as the “soil” of our digestive tract.

In certain diseases where there is a lot of gut inflammation, gut flora have a hard time establishing a healthy colony on the weeping, raw surfaces. Where there is chronic constipation caused by a diet of refined food, gut flora have a hard time as the “soil” is dry, compacted and stagnant. (Fibre holds moisture and helps prevent constipation.) “Bad” bacteria can contribute to constipation, causing a vicious circle.

Fibre therefore, from a variety of sources (not just bran) is very important for gut health, and contributes towards a healthy inner ecosystem that has a profound effect on our overall health.

 Tips for a healthy digestive ecosystem:

  1. Eat plenty of vegetable especially onions, garlic, leeks, and asparagus.
  2. Some companies manufacture prebiotics and claim that it is difficult to get enough in your diet. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes will have enough prebiotics.
  3. Make sure your gut bacteria are balanced by not mixing foods in weird combinations (steak with a sugary drink and ice cream) or having too much sugar which feeds “bad” bacteria.
  4. Have some plain yoghurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut from time to time.
  5. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics (viral infections) and other medication which can upset the bacteria.

Prebiotics and probiotics for the soil.

When we look at the earth, the amount of arable soil is extremely small. So small in fact, that it is endangered .  Farming practices such as overgrazing, excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, ploughing  and natural events such as flooding, wind and drought make for an alarming reduction in arable soil. The soil of this planet is an ecosystem in itself, and needs to be nurtured as such. Bacteria form a vital part of this ecosystem, and influence the plants’ ability to absorb nutrients, just like our gut bacteria help us absorb vitamins.

Just like in our gut, soil bacteria come as “good” and “bad” bacteria. Healthy soil has mostly “good” bacteria, which suppress the “bad” bacteria, help detoxify the soil and provide a medium that is a good home for earthworms, insects and fungi – life forms essential to soil health. Healthy soil also facilitates the absorption of nutrients by the plants. One sign of healthy and balanced soil is the number of earthworms that can be seen when you dig, because healthy soil tends to hold moisture better, allowing them to move closer to the surface. They say you should see about 30 per spade of soil. I’m sure for most of us that is not the case, which shows how much work there is to do!

Each one of us can make an effort to improve the soil that we are guardians of, if we are fortunate enough to have a garden. One thing that farmers and gardeners can do to help the soil stay healthy is to use manure (probiotic) and humus (rotted vegetable matter) to provide fibre for soil bacteria to cling to. Healthy soil is a living substance, teaming with bacteria, just like our digestive tract. Fibre is the key element to ensure that bacteria can cling effectively. Sand and dense clay are not good growing mediums unless they have humus and compost added.

Make your own compost and mix in some manure to add to your soil. It’s more effort than buying fertilizer, but will keep the soil alive and help it to thrive. Every patch of healthy soil on this earth makes a difference. Soil which is alive with bacteria and earthworms is earth which will nourish plants and ultimately nourish us. Soil which is dead from the over use of chemicals and poisons is dirt and only serves to anchor plants.

Tips for a healthy soil ecosystem: 

  1. Avoid using artificial fertilizers and poisonous pesticides, as these adversely affect the bacterial and insect/earthworm content of the soil.
  2. Keep a layer of mulch on the soil to maintain some moisture and allow a natural rotting process. (Many gardeners think it looks untidy and remove all leaves etc. But it’s much better to leave them.)Humus is the prebiotic of the soil.
  3. Apply some manure, well rotted compost, and chicken pellets to the surface of the soil from time to time. Don’t dig it in, but allow the earthworms to do the work. Manure is the probiotic of the soil.
  4. Plant legumes such as lupins and dig them in when they are young and green. This is known as “green manure” and nourishes the soil.
  5. You can buy bacteria for your soil and for use in compost making.

There is a lot more that can be said about soil health, but that can wait for another time. It is very sad that conventional farming and even gardening practices, do a great deal of harm to the soil. Similarly modern medicine incorrectly prescribed and abused is harmful to human gut bacteria.


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Purslane - free food from your garden

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
This hardy, drought resistant plant grows in summer. It has fleshy leaves, red/brown stems and yellow flowers.
Purslane is an annual plant that self seeds prolifically. It tolerates really dry conditions, so is really sustainable and should be encouraged.
It has medicinal benefits, is highly nutritious and can be used as a food in several ways.
 Purslane is rich in omega 3 fatty acid and as such is beneficial as an anti-inflammatory, helps to balance cholesterol ratios, helps improve bone density, helps prevent macular degeneration of the eye, helps prevent depression and may help with insulin resistance. Cod liver oil will do the same if taken regularly.
Purslane is a vegetarian option to fish oil, and is free. However it would have to be included in the diet regularly and preferably raw or stir fried. In order for you to have an all year round supply, harvest it in summer and freeze as much as you can.
Another significant benefit from purslane is in it's anti-oxidant and free radical scavenging activity. The flowering plant contains betalain alkaloids which help protect against cancer and other serious inflammatory diseases.
Finally purslane, due to it's slightly mucilaginous quality, is a good prebiotic.
The best way to get the health benefits from purslane is as a food.


Purslane linguini
Purslane is not overpoweringly tasty, but has a fairly neutral flavour. It can be likened to waterblommetjie in that regard. As such it blends in with any dish and any flavour. It can be used in stew, stir fry, salad and soup. It can also be served as a vegetable on its own. Combine it with your favourite vegetables and be inventive. To get maximum medicinal as well as nutritional value, use it generously in salads. Wash it well and cut the thickest stalks off. Use the flowering plant whenever possible. It also makes a delicious pickle. (I always use apple cider vinegar for my pickling.)
You can even add it to your dog's food for extra nutrition.
Purslane contains high levels of vitamin C and B as well as potassium, magnesium and nitrate.
So when you are feeling the pinch and need food that is free and highly nutritious, look no further than your back yard or your pavement.