Monthly Archives: May 2014

Tropical Sprue: Far From Paradise

Tropical sprue is a mysterious condition endemic to the tropics. The disease causes symptoms that include a sore tongue, diarrhea, malabsorption, weight loss, and sometimes anemia. When one contracts tropical sprue, there is a characteristic flattening of the intestinal villi and inflammation of the lining of the small intestine, causing pain and discomfort for those afflicted. When the villi are flattened, there is less surface area to the intestinal wall, resulting in problems properly absorbing nutrients from food. Scientists speculate that the cause of tropical sprue could be viral, amoebal, bacterial, parasitic in nature. Another possible cause for the disease could be due to a deficiency of folic acid. Not to be confused with coeliac disease (an autoimmune disorder with similar symptoms), tropical sprue is limited to regions within 30 degrees north and south of the equator, affecting only people native to the area and those visiting. Tropical sprue can lay dormant in the body for years after a person has contracted the disease, but symptoms can develop much sooner for some.

Symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Steatorrhea
  • Malabsorption
  • Indigestion
  • Cramps
  • Severe weight loss
  • Fatigue

If a diagnosis of tropical sprue goes untreated, malabsorption can lead to vitamin deficiencies that can have very serious consequences. With treatment, the prognosis for tropical sprue is very good, with most making a full recovery. That being said, vitamin deficiencies can cause a whole range of additional symptoms. These include:

  • Hyperkeratosis (skin scales from a lack of vitamin A)
  • Folic acid deficiencies can cause anemia
  • Spasms, bone pain, tingling, and numbness can all stem from vitamin D and calcium deficiencies
  • Bruises can develop due to a vitamin K deficiency

Self Help

If one is traveling to a tropical region of the globe, there are steps that one can take to lower their risk of contracting this unique disease. The main plan of action that you should adopt when traveling to the tropics is to only use bottled water for tasks such as washing hands or face, brushing teeth, drinking, and washing food. Tap water should not be used for these purposes.

Western Treatments

Once identified, tropical sprue can be treated by a round of antibiotics for a duration lasting anywhere from three to six months. Often, vitamins B-12 and folic acid are incorporated into the treatment plan. With treatment, the prognosis for tropical sprue is very good. Once cured, there is an extremely low recurrence rate. This recurrence rate is even lower for those individuals who contracted the disease while traveling—those who hail from the tropics have a recurrence rate of around 20%.

Treatments Based in TCM Practices

There are a number of herbal mixtures that can help alleviate some of the symptoms and/or underlying causes of tropical sprue. To address the symptoms of diarrhea and weight loss, a mixture containing bovine colostrum complex can be taken. For gastric upset, a combination of poria sclerotium, coix seed, barley shen qu, magnolia bark, angelica root, pueraria root, red atractylodes rhizome, vladimiria souliei root, and pogostemon herb may help settle the stomach.

If the cause of the tropical sprue is thought to be due to parasitic infection, two herbal mixtures can be combined to help cleanse the body. The first mixture contains black walnut hulls, terminalia fruit, ginger rhizome, mume fruit, codonopsis root, poria sclerotium, white atractylodes rhizome, quisqualis, omphalia fruit, vladimiria souliei root, torreya seed, and pomegranate rind. The second mixture contains artemisia anua concentrate, dichroa root, brucea fruit, pulsatilla root, magnolia bark, pinellia rhizome, pogostemon herb, dolichos seed, and citrus peel.

Alternately, if the underlying cause of the tropic sprue is thought to be viral or bacterial, an herbal mixture containing isatis extract leaf & root, astragalus root, bupleurum root, laminaria leaf, codonopsis root, epimedium leaf, lycium fruit, and dioscorea root may help address infection and alleviate symptoms.

A Closer Look at Scleroderma

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disorder that affects the connective tissues of the body. This disease can affect multiple different parts of the body, resulting in different symptomology and, sometimes, different approaches to treatment. Scleroderma results from an overproduction and accumulation of collagen in the body’s tissues. This accumulation hardens and tightens the skin and connective tissues, oftentimes causing a loss of flexibility, joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Generally, scleroderma only affects the skin, but it can affect internal structures such as blood vessels, the digestive tract, and other internal organs. The damage caused by internal scleroderma is often has more serious complications than if the disease is concentrated to the external skin. Scleroderma typically affects women more often than men, and affects individuals of African American or Choctaw Native Americans more than Americans of European descent.

While the signs and symptoms of scleroderma vary depending on which parts of the body are impacted, there are a few areas that are more commonly affected than others.

  • External skin: Almost all cases of scleroderma involve the patient reporting a hardening and/or tightening of patches of skin. The severity of the condition will determine the quantity and appearance of affected areas. The tightening of the skin can cause the skin to appear shiny and irritated, while movement may be restricted.
  • Digestive system: Individuals with scleroderma that reaches their digestive system will report issues with acid reflux, indicating that the tissues of the esophagus nearest the stomach are being damaged. Additionally, problems with nutrient absorption (AKA malabsorption) can result from intestinal muscles that are impaired and unable to properly pass food through the digestive tract.
  • Fingers and toes: One early indicator of scleroderma is the intensified response to cold temperatures and/or emotional stress. The hands and feet will sometimes become numb, with a noticeable change to the coloration of affected areas. Occasionally, ulcers can develop on the hands and feet of individuals with scleroderma.
  • Lungs, heart, and kidneys: It’s rare when scleroderma affects the tissues and functions of the heart, lungs, or kidneys. However, if the disease does progress to these areas, the condition can become life threatening and immediate medical assistance may be necessary.

The overproduction of collagen seems to be associated with the body’s own immune system, but the exact cause of the condition is currently unknown. While there is no definite cure for scleroderma, there are various methods and treatments that can help individuals better cope with the symptoms that may arise. The symptoms of scleroderma can range from mild to severe, with the potential to affect the fingertips, lungs, kidneys, heart, teeth, digestive system, and reproductive system. Occasionally, the symptoms associated with scleroderma fade away on their own after two to five years. However, if an individual has the type of scleroderma that affects an internal organ system, symptoms typically worsen with time rather than fading away.

If you or someone you know notices that they are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, it may be necessary to acquire a referral to a rheumatologist. However, because of the versatile nature of scleroderma, more than one kind of treatment may be necessary to address all the symptoms and underlying causes.

Self Help

While one cannot control whether or not they have scleroderma, there are lifestyle choices and home remedies that can help alleviate or better manage symptoms.

  • Staying active: Keeping the body flexible and ensuring good circulation can relieve the stiffness and joint immobility that can come with scleroderma. Regular exercise can help one remain fit and, in some cases, more comfortable.
  • Treat your heartburn. Constant heartburn and acid reflux can cause serious damage to the lining of the esophagus. Avoid foods that aggravate symptoms of heartburn or indigestion. If the heartburn is especially severe, elevating the head of the bed while sleeping may keep stomach acid from making its way into your esophagus.
  • Protect yourself from the cold. Scleroderma often affects the fingers and toes, making them especially vulnerable to cold temperatures. Wear mittens to protect your hands from cold weather exposure. If the symptoms of scleroderma are especially acute, it may be advisable to wear protection on the hands when reaching into the freezer.
  • Quit smoking. The nicotine in cigarettes and other tobacco products causes the blood vessels to contract, making the damage done to the extremities more severe. Nicotine may also permanently contract the blood vessels. Quitting a nicotine habit can be the first proactive step one can take to help manage their symptoms.

Western Treatments

Currently, no single medication or treatment exists to treat the overproduction of collagen—the underlying cause of scleroderma. For this reason, it’s common for practitioners in the Western world to prescribe different medications to address the different symptoms that a patient may be experiencing. These medications can include drugs that dilate blood vessels, suppress the immune system, reduce stomach acid, prevent infection, and alleviate pain. While surgery is only needed in the most extreme cases, other types of Western therapies include occupational or physical approaches to help increase overall mobility and manage pain.

Treatments based in TCM Practices

A 39-year-old African American woman with a diagnosis of scleroderma and issues with her digestive system and colon, suspected of being Crohn’s disease, was looking for complimentary treatment options to address her more severe symptoms. She complained of arthritis in the knees, pain in her left abdomen, and the feeling of constantly having to use the restroom. Traditional Chinese diagnosis revealed that her pulse was fast and her tongue red. She was given two herbal mixtures—one including red peony root, tang kuei root, ligusticum root, cooked rehmannia root, persica kernel, white atractylodes rhizome, poria sclerotium, citrus peel, silver root, and vitex fruit. The other mixture contained isatis extract leaf & root, oldenlandia herb, lonicera flower, prunella herb, andrographis root, and laminaria leaf. When combined, these herbal mixtures helped clear toxins, tonify the kidney, and alleviate pain. After one week, the patient reported having more energy, less pain, and less urgency to go to the restroom.

The Facts About Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis can be defined as inflammation in the pancreas—the long, flat gland that is located behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. The function of the pancreas is to produce enzymes that assist digestion and create hormones that support glucose regulation. Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly and lasts for several days. Typically, acute pancreatitis will go away on its own and not cause permanent damage to the pancreas. Alternately, chronic pancreatitis describes symptoms that occur over several years, usually causing permanent damage. Cases that are classified as severe can cause life-threatening complications. Many cases require hospitalization.

Classic symptoms of acute pancreatitis include upper abdominal pain that radiates to your back, abdominal pain that feels worse after eating, nausea, vomiting, sweating, and tenderness when the abdomen is touch or massaged. Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are similar to those of acute pancreatitis, but these symptoms can last for years and cause weight loss and steatorrhea. If the abdominal pain caused by pancreatitis becomes so intense that you cannot find a position that is comfortable to rest in, hospitalization may be required.

Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes are activated while still inside the pancreas, causing damage to the organ. Typically, these enzymes are supposed to migrate to the small intestine before being activated to help aide digestion. When the enzymes become active in your pancreas, the cells of the organ become irritated and can eventually begin to scar over. If scar tissue begins to form, the pancreas will be unable to function properly, leading to serious problems with digestion. Pancreatitis can have many causes, whether acute or chronic. Some of the most common causes of pancreatitis include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Gallstones
  • Surgery and/or certain medications
  • Genetic factors
  • Pancreatic cancer

If the pain caused by pancreatitis becomes so severe that hospitalization is required, your physician may first seek to alleviate your immediate symptoms before identifying the underlying cause. Especially with cases that become chronic, identifying the underlying cause is extremely important.

Self Help

There are a handful of lifestyle changes that may help ease the recovery process, or even lower your risk of developing pancreatitis altogether.

  • Abstain from alcohol. Chronic alcohol abuse can cause the pancreatic enzymes to become prematurely activated, digesting the pancreas itself. Abstaining from alcohol allows the pancreas to heal, while the enzymes have a chance to recover their natural function.
  • Don’t smoke. The combination of smoking and alcohol can be extremely dangerous. Chronic smoking can aggravate the pancreas, affecting an individual’s overall health and ultimately making one more susceptible to developing pancreatitis.
  • Adopt a low-fat diet. The pancreas is responsible for proper digestion. When the organ is not functioning properly, the enzymes needed to break down food are not readily available, causing malabsorption. Fatty foods are harder to process, putting undue stress on the pancreas.

When it comes to pain management, meditation and yoga may help one cope with their symptoms.

Western Treatments

As mentioned earlier, a physician treating pancreatitis may seek to stabilize the patient and control the inflammation of the pancreas before addressing the underlying cause. Treatment for pancreatitis oftentimes requires hospitalization. The most effective way to control the inflammation in the pancreas is to have the patient fast for several days, or until symptoms cease. Once the inflammation goes down, solid foods are slowly reintroduced into the diet. During this fasting period, patients are given intravenous fluids to help replenish the body.

The pain caused by pancreatitis can become excruciating. For this reason, pain medications are often given to patients that are admitting into the hospital. For some, heavy duty pain medications can cause nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.

Once the immediate symptoms have been addressed, the underlying cause can be identified and treated. If the pancreatitis is caused by a narrowed or blocked bile duct, a procedure to open or widen the duct may be necessary. If gallstones caused the pancreatitis, surgery may be needed to extract the gallbladder (called a cholecystectomy). Fluids may need to be drained from the pancreas, and dead tissue may need to be removed. All of these procedures carry some risk, which patients should ask their doctors about.

Treatments based in TCM Practices

If the patient has a thick, greasy tongue coating, jaundice, and fever, a mixture including coptis rhizome, lophatherum herb, bupleurum root, rehmannia (raw) root, tang kuei root, white peony root, and akebia trifoliata may help symptoms of pancreatitis. For pain, the abovementioned mixture can be combined with a blend of curcuma tuber, corydalis rhizome, taraxacum herb, melia fruit, ji nei jin, and salvia root.

The blend of curcuma tuber, corydalis rhizome, taraxacum herb, melia fruit, ji nei jin, and salvia root can also be combined with a different mixture. This mixture includes corydalis extract rhizome, angelic root, white peony root, cinnamon twig, tang kuei root, and salvia root. This combination may address radiating pain, nausea, and vomiting that are unaccompanied by fever.

For fever without jaundice but with radiating pain, a combination of two mixtures can also be taken to potentially help alleviate symptoms. The first mixture includes isatis extract leaf and root, oldenlandia herb, lonicera flower, prunella herb, andrographis herb, and laminaria leaf. The second mixture includes isatis extract leaf and fruit, codonopsis root, oyster shell, bupleurum root, smilax rhizome, gardenia fruit, moutan root bark, and tang kuei root.

Viral and Bacterial Infections of the GI Tract

There are varying types of infections that can be caused by a virus or by bacteria. When it comes to viral or bacterial infections of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, common symptomology may present itself. Gastroenteritis is a medical term used to describe inflammation of the GI tract, involving both the small intestine and the stomach. The symptoms of gastroenteritis include cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. Left untreated, the symptoms of gastroenteritis can cause severe dehydration and, in some cases, death. According to the World Health Organization, complications from gastrointestinal infections kill approximately 2.2 million people each year worldwide, mostly young children in countries with poor or limited access to essential health and sanitation resources.

Below are some of the most common viral and bacterial infections of the GI tract:

  • Rotavirus: One of the most common viruses, especially in children under 2 years old. It is easily spread through direct contact, and it typically occurs most often during the winter. It has an incubation period of 1-3 days, and symptoms can range from diarrhea, vomiting, to low-grade fever.
  • Norovirus: Affecting both children and adults, it is perhaps the most common foodborne illness. This virus is especially likely to spread through direct contact, so individuals in confined spaces are extremely susceptible. While you can contract this illness through contaminated food or water, person-to-person contact is also possible.
  • Campylobacter: This infection affects mostly children and young adults during the summer and fall months. Milk and poultry are the most common contagions, as it is easy for the bacteria that cause the illness to grow in and/or on these foodstuffs. There is an incubation period of approximately 4-7 hours.
  • Salmonella: This may be the foodborne bacterium that is most widely known. It can be found in meats, poultry, eggs, egg products, non-pasteurized cheese, milk, and other foods. Salmonella typically appears in the meat of animals that have been treated with antibiotics for growth promotion. You can also contract this illness from fecal-oral contact (e.g., when you change a baby’s diaper and forget to wash your hands). This infection presents the greatest risk to infants and seniors.
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli.): This bacteria is normally found in the intestinal tract. The primary mode of contraction is spread through the fecal-oral route, prompting many Americans to question our food handling processes. This illness can cause cramping, diarrhea, and can even go on to infect the blood. If the infection spreads to the blood, the individual must seek immediate medical attention.

Self Help

When symptoms of a viral or bacterial infection of the GI tract become difficult to manage, many patients will seek out some form of relief. There are a multitude of self-care measures than an individual can take in order to alleviate some of the more acute manifestations of the illness.

  • Bed rest: If you are feeling weak or tired, retreating to bed may be the best way to avoid upsetting a sore stomach.
  • Hydrate: Viral and bacterial infections of the GI tract will cause a body to lose fluids at an alarming pace. Be sure to stay hydrated by continuously drinking small sips of water, or by sucking on ice chips.
  • Avoid medications: If you have to take pharmaceuticals or over the counter medicines to achieve quick relief, be sure to avoid any medications with ibuprofen, as it can make symptoms worse. Similarly, medicines with aspirin can sometimes cause liver toxicity, especially in children.
  • Avoid certain foods and drinks: Products like dairy, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and other substances high in grease or fat content should be avoided until symptoms begin to cease. These substances will most likely aggravate symptoms and cause undue harm.
  • Ease back into eating: If you’re experiencing difficulty keeping food in your system, perhaps the best action plan that you can take is to very gradually reintroduce foods into your diet. This way, you will be able to better identify those foods and drink that are more likely to intensify symptoms.
  • Avoid anti-diarrheal drugs: Drugs like these can sometimes be detrimental for individuals experiencing symptoms of a viral infection (especially children). Anti-diarrheal medications may interfere with elimination of the virus through the feces.

Western Treatments

While viral and bacterial infections of the GI tract are still relatively prevalent in the United States, there is no singular medical treatment that can be used to rid patients of their symptoms. While antibiotics are simply not effective against viruses, overuse or misuse of antibiotics can contribute to the development of highly evolved, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in some patients.

Most clinicians will simply recommend bed rest and proper self-care. Oftentimes, the body’s natural defenses will rid the virus or bacteria from the system. However, if the individual’s immune system is in any way compromised, infections of the GI tract can become much more serious, requiring hospitalization and reintroduction of fluids back into the body intravenously.

A Case Study in TCM Treatment

A man in his early 40’s was diagnosed with HIV. This HIV positive status weakened his immune system and caused him to have symptoms that included fatigue, abdominal cramping, retinitis, and severe diarrhea. At the time of treatment, his CD4 (or T-cell) count gravitated between 50 and 100. Although this patient was seeing multiple specialists and had been prescribed several pharmaceuticals to help alleviate his discomfort, he was still experiencing many of these painful symptoms on a regular basis. A Traditional Chinese Medical diagnosis found that his pulse was slightly rapid and sinking, and his tongue was thin and dry with a coating around the edge.

The patient was given six doses per day of a formula containing natural eggshell membrane in order to reduce the chronic diarrheal symptoms of his condition. In addition to this formula, the patient was also prescribed two doses per day of a mixture that included poria sclerotium, coix seed, barley shen qu, magnolia bark, angelica root, pueraria root, red atractylodes rhizome, vladimiria souliei root, amongst a handful of other choice ingredients. This last formula was used to address the abdominal cramping. After a couple weeks, the chronic bouts of diarrhea began to cease, allowing the patient to reduce the first formula. At this point, a third formula containing red ganoderma fruiting body, isatis extract leaf and root, spatholobus stem, astragalus root, tremella fruiting body, andrographis herb, and lonicera flower was administered. This mixture has been taken by other individuals with HIV, with largely positive results. After a couple months, the patient’s symptoms had been greatly reduced.

Treating Hepatitis

Very generally, hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver that is typically caused by a viral infection. Hepatitis is categorized into several different viral strains ranging from hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E (here we will be focusing primarily on hepatitis A, B, and C). Hepatitis may initially occur with few outward symptoms, but left untreated it will often manifest in painful physical symptoms and, in some cases, death. The symptoms of the virus can be worsened by risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse, or contact with other toxic agents.

While the mode of contraction for hepatitis differs from strain to strain, acute viral hepatitis of any kind is characterized by jaundice, fatigue, fever, nausea, vomiting, tenderness in the upper right abdomen, dark urine, and a loss of appetite. Some other forms of hepatitis can become chronic and need constant maintenance. Chronic hepatitis can lead to liver scarring and, in some cases, cirrhosis. Next we will review hepatitis types A, B, and C individually.

  • Hepatitis A: Caused by the hepatitis A virus, this form of the liver infection is highly contagious. The most common way to contract hepatitis A is from contaminated food or water, or from close contact with someone who already has the infection. This form of hepatitis is acute in nature and oftentimes the liver heals itself within weeks to months of contracting the virus with little or no permanent liver damage. While there is a vaccine for hepatitis A, there is no defined medical treatment that will cure it.
  • Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B is another acute form of liver infection, although for some people, the infection can become chronic.  Children are much more susceptible to developing a chronic form of hepatitis B, as it is common for mothers to pass on the infection to their children during delivery, combined with the fact that children generally have less resilient immune systems. The most common way to contract hepatitis B is through contact with infected bodily fluids. Many people don’t display their symptoms until after an incubation period of about 60-90 days. Depending on the severity of the infection, individuals with hepatitis B may not need a serious medical intervention in order to rid their bodies of the virus. If the infection becomes chronic, antiviral medications may be necessary.
  • Hepatitis C: While hepatitis C can be acute, many people who contract this strain of the virus develop a long term infection and, oftentimes, suffer permanent liver damage. Symptoms of hepatitis C typically take a long time to manifest (sometimes decades), allowing an extended window of time for the patient to suffer irreparable damage to the liver before being diagnosed and treated. The most common way to contract hepatitis C is through contact with infect bodily fluids—specifically blood. While some cases of hepatitis C can be left untreated, many cases must be treated with antiviral medication and, in the worst case scenario, a liver transplant. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Self Help

Perhaps the best prevention against hepatitis is through good hygiene, knowledgeable sterilization practices, and proper food preparation. However, there are several more things that you can do to help you alleviate your symptoms and/or decrease your risk of developing a more acute form of the virus.

  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B (currently there is no vaccine for hepatitis C)
  • Get plenty of Vitamin C
  • Take precautions when getting any tattoos, piercings, manicures, or pedicures—ask about sterilization
  • Do not use any razors, needles, or inhalant devices used by other people
  • Do not abuse drugs or alcohol
  • When traveling outside the United States, only drink boiled, bottled, or filtered water and peel all fruit
  • Request disposable acupuncture needles

Western Treatments

Most people who contract a chronic form of hepatitis will seek assistance from their local hospital or clinical physician. Antiviral medications are commonly prescribed by medical doctors to help combat the symptoms of hepatitis, while iron preparation is often recommended before treatment. That being said, some antiviral medications can have negative side effects such as depression and flu-like signs and symptoms while the iron preparation oftentimes causes painful constipation. Some individuals are impacted so negatively by these side effects that treatment must be delayed or stopped completely.

A recent medical development has been the creation of the hepatitis C drug, Sovaldi. The formulation of this drug has caused nationwide controversy, as a single pill comes with a price tag of $1,000, making it absolutely inaccessible for most people suffering with hepatitis C. When the paths to relief are littered with complications such as these, many people suffering with hepatitis opt for a more effective, natural form of treatment.

A Case Study in TCM Treatment

A 40-year-old female had been diagnosed with a chronic hepatitis C infection. All of the traditional Western medical interventions that she had attempted in the past had caused her side effects that were largely intolerable, leading her to seek out a more natural source of relief from her symptoms. Traditional Chinese diagnosis revealed that her tongue was reddish-purple with a textured coating, with a slightly wiry and weak pule in the kidney position. The patient was prescribed an herbal mixture including, among other ingredients, eclipta herb concentrate, milk thistle extract, curcuma tuber, salvia root, lyceum fruit, ligustrum fruit, and bupleurum root. This mixture was to be combined with a secondary mixture containing spatholobus stem, ho-shou-wu root, salvia root, codonopsis root, astragulus root, ligusticum root, rehmannia root, and lyceum fruit. The first mixture was administered to regenerate the liver and reduce enzymes, while the second mixture was recommended for replenishing the blood and Qi. The patient still remains on these herbal mixtures, but reported feeling more energetic during the day after approximately two months of treatment.