When less is more...science, alchemy and cabbages
Here is something not many people know about me…
In 2000 I completed my Master’s degree thesis on the homoeopathic treatment of sick cabbages. It was titled ‘The effect of homoeopathic potencies of a fungicide Acrobat™ (Dimenthomorph and Mancozeb), on Downy mildew (Peronospora parasitica) of cabbage seedlings (Brassica oleracea)’.
It wasn't groundbreaking research yet little did I know that the humble cabbage would play an important role in my future personal health story and for many of my patients.
Cabbage is a member of the cruciferous plant family along with broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, turnip, rutabaga, horseradish, radish, and white mustard etc. They are nutrient-dense and have medicinal properties when it comes to improving liver function, hormonal, immune systems and overall health... especially when eaten 'clean' as organic produce.
Fermenting cabbage is food alchemy
The humble cabbage makes a popular appearance in fermented foods as the main ingredient in German sauerkraut and Asian kimchi. Fermented foods are a staple food in these cultures and popular in health circles because they are an excellent source of probiotic organisms such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Lactobacillus acidophilus is one of the 'good guys' in our gut microbiome also known as a probiotic.
Admittedly as a student approaching the dawn of a new millennium, I was not thinking about my health or doing groundbreaking research. I chose to work with plants because I thought it would be easier than working with human subjects. I also wanted to complete my research as quickly as possible (cabbage seedlings grow fast!). I was in a long-distance relationship and was impatient to join my boyfriend and future husband. I was thinking with my young heart and not my head.
Looking back, I see that my intuition was also guiding me into plant research. Many homoeopathic remedies are derived from plants and I felt very comfortable in the realm of herbal medicine, nutrition and food. Now more than ever ‘food is medicine’ is my mantra and I have become an advocate for choosing organic produce and supporting the idea of regenerative agriculture.
As a homoeopathic student, I studied pharmacotoxicology, dose-related effects and the potential dangers of poisons and pharmaceutical drugs in humans. Herbicide, fungicide and pesticide usage in conventional farming are subject to the same natural laws and hormetic (explained later) effects as general toxicology. They can have far-reaching and dose-related effects on the ecosystem and its biodiversity that may only be obvious once enough time has lapsed and many species are already endangered or extinct.
Sixth mass extinction
Back then I was just waking up to environmental problems caused by conventional agricultural methods. Environmentalists now warn that humans may be causing a sixth mass extinction if we carry on going like this. And now with the threatened extinction of so many species including vital pollinators, it is much clearer to me that the world needs to curtail certain harmful practices and shift to regenerative agricultural methods.
Loss of biodiversity
From the macro to the micro and with 20 years of unconventional experience as a Homoeopath and Functional medicine practitioner under my belt (including many years as a health seeker) I know that problems relating to the loss of species biodiversity are not restricted to the external environment. It is also affecting our gut microbiome or inner microbial environment comprised of colonies of commensal organisms. The loss of 'good' bowel flora and overgrowth of harmful microbes can impact our overall health in many ways and has been linked to the rise of chronic inflammatory illnesses.
Agriculture and alchemy
While I was studying in the tropical paradise of Durban, the plant pathology department of the University of Natal, local farmers and nurseries there were facing a problem. It was fungicide resistance and how to safely and effectively treat the mildew in agricultural crops like cabbages. This problem opened up a gap for Master’s degree Homoeopathy students to do collaborative research, of which I was one.
I built on research from India using Homoeopathy to treat various plant pathologies and on the research of a few other local fellow graduates. Besides the already mentioned personal motivations, I wanted to investigate the effects of fungicide (homeopathic) dilutions on mildew growth. Using bigger doses of fungicide wasn't more effective and was having other destructive effects. I was hoping to find an effective dose using the alchemy of a naive and idealistic apprentice. Nevertheless I find myself reconsidering these same ideals and finding them relevant in a parallel way.
First, do no harm
The Latin phrase 'primum non nocere’ means ‘first, do no harm’. This is a maxim of non-maleficence which is taught to all students in healthcare. It reminds healthcare personnel of the importance of bioethics and to consider carefully a risk/benefit ratio and the possible harm that any intervention might cause. If farming and science were more aligned with this philosophical construct, our world would be quite a different place.
When can less be more?
Paracelsus (1493-1541) who is known as the father of Toxicology said “The right dose differentiates a poison and a remedy." Hahnemann (1755-1843) the founder of Homoeopathy also understood that all substances have this sliding scale. He observed that some exposures generally considered toxic can, in minute amounts (or homoeopathic preparations), paradoxically improve health.
This apparent paradox was introduced again as the Arndt-Schulz law in 1888. It is a lesser-known theory that has been used mostly in the study of toxicology and in support of the mechanisms behind how homoeopathic remedies (which are dilutions) work. It was supplanted by Southam and Erhlich in 1943 by the concept of Hormesis.
Hormesis explains via a two-phase inverted bell curve how chemicals can have stimulatory effects at low doses, toxic effects at high doses. The concept of hormesis has now been adopted beyond toxicology and by biology and medicine to portray an adaptive response by cells and organisms to moderate stressors for example exercise on bone strength and phytonutrients in food on health.
Another relatable example of hormesis in action could be vaccinations which can contain minute amounts of viral DNA that can stimulate our body’s defences to produce a noticeable and measurable immune reaction. Less is more...
Just because we can’t taste, smell or see the pesticide in our cabbage (or food), does not mean it could still be having a measurable and powerful effect on our physiology, the ecosystem and the environment in which we live?
Cabbages and their epigenetic influences
It was through a DNA Health epigenetic test panel that I did eight years ago that I discovered how challenged I was with regards to my body's ability to get rid of toxins. Many people have this epigenetic variation, a Glutathione S-transferase M1 (GSTM1) deletion.
These test results and their implications were a turning point in my health. I learned therefore of my hidden struggle with the toxic load from our environment, diet & lifestyle, medications and it also put my family history of cancer into perspective. But I am not alone in this health challenge, many men and women have this same genetic susceptibility, making 'us' much more suited to living in a pristinely clean environment and a whole lot more sensitive to develop illness when living in polluted environments and eating a diet of processed, pesticide-laden foods.
This is the reason I campaign for organic produce and sustainability and the many modalities including Homeopathy and Functional medicine, that uphold the maxim of 'first do no harm'.
Cruciferous vegetables including the humble cabbage, behave like detox helpers in the liver. Their active ingredients induce the expression and activity of Glutathione S-transferase (GSTs) enzymes which take over the job of any missing enzymes to remove carcinogens, foreign substances, and other harmful metabolites. Here's to a clean, organic and environmentally conscious production of crucifers, cabbages (and food in general). They may also be an important dietary addition for you and your chronic disease woes.
The canaries in a coal mine
As the toxic load increases over time and we are living longer in our modern world where chemicals are ubiquitous. This epigenetic challenge indicates to me that some of us were clearly designed for living in a pristine natural environment of preindustrial times when the air was clean and the food chain unadulterated by chemicals. We are the canaries in a modern coal mine. Our sensitivity and ill health give the early warning signal for everyone else's health and the condition of our planet. (I accept that some pesticides may be necessary but let's try at least to keep them out of our food!)
To some people, using less pesticide and treating crops with Homoeopathy may sound like a woo-woo combination of alchemy and pseudo-science. When I look at when I was doing my research 20 years ago, the environmental and health problems we were facing and the concerns raised then, are now more relevant than ever. I think we need new solutions woo-woo or not and to implement them globally and at speed. Agriculture needs pollinators like bees and we all need to eat to survive. Taking it one step further using a regenerative approach to produce 'clean' food sources would be a win for both the ecosystem and the human canaries (like me) who do better without additional harmful chemicals in large doses. Even if you aren't a canary you can benefit from a cleaner lifestyle. You aren't immune to illness, you are just a late responder to the increasing stress of toxic load.
How different this world would look if the majority of human inhabitants and those in power lived from the standpoint that we are intimately connected to and part of a bigger ecosystem. The same chemicals which are harmful to our environment and ecosystem over time build up and cause harm to us especially if you have an epigenetic detox challenge.
When it comes to herbicide, fungicide and pesticide usage, what if less was more?
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Nicole Dawson Cullinan
MHom AFMCP (IFM)
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