Kim Ridley

The Best Home Remedies May Be Sitting in Your Spice Cabinet

By the middle of the afternoon, Ellen Ryan was out of steam. A community organizer in central Maine, Ryan says her energy crashed every afternoon. To get through the rest of the day, she'd grab a chocolate bar or a handful of candy kisses. "But I'm 52," Ryan says, "and those explosions of calories are becoming harder to work off."

When a friend said cinnamon helped alleviate another health problem, Ryan decided to give it a try by taking two 500-milligram capsules in the morning. "I immediately noticed a difference," Ryan says. "My chocolate cravings went away and I no longer have that crashing feeling in the afternoon. I haven't talked to a doctor; all I know is that cinnamon is inexpensive, easy to take and it stops the crash."

Clinical studies support Ryan's experience. Just half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day lowered blood sugar levels in adults with type 2 diabetes, according to a study of 60 subjects carried out at NWFP Agricultural University in Peshawar, Pakistan, and published in Diabetes Care in 2003. The same study found that cinnamon also lowered cholesterol.

People around the world have been using spice cures for centuries, but now scientists are finding that spices can ease inflammation, activate the immune system, kill bacteria and viruses and even cause cancer cells to self-destruct. Although most studies are preliminary, some research suggests that compounds in spices might help fight everything from Alzheimer's disease and cancer to depression and diabetes. Here's an overview of the potential medicines lurking in your spice rack.

Turmeric: Asia's aspirin

This bright yellow-orange powder, common in Indian curries, may pack more healing power than any other spice. Turmeric is the aspirin of Asia, where it has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to heal wounds and treat inflammatory illnesses like arthritis as well as at least a dozen other health problems. Made from the powdered root of a tropical plant closely related to ginger, turmeric contains curcumin, a compound that is both a powerful anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant. It's also non-toxic.

Today, scientists are finding tantalizing clues that suggest curcumin might help prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease and cancer. Investigators at the University of California at Los Angeles, studying a mouse model of Alzheimer's, reported that the brains of animals fed curcumin had up to 80 percent fewer of the protein plaques associated with the disease than those of mice given a normal diet. The abnormal clumping of proteins in the plaques is thought to cause Alzheimer's. Teams at UCLA, Harvard and in Japan subsequently discovered that curcumin might fight Alzheimer's in several ways. First, curcumin forms a powerful bond with the amyloid beta protein associated with Alzheimer's that prevents the protein from clumping into plaques in the brain. Second, this bonding capacity enables curcumin to dissolve these plaques. Third, curcumin reduces oxidative damage and brain inflammation that contribute to the disease process.

It's still too soon to know whether curcumin can prevent or treat Alzheimer's in humans, says Sally Frautschy of UCLA's Alzheimer's Research Lab, where many of the studies are being carried out. "The animal models are not precise models of Alzheimer's, so these studies need to be replicated in humans," she says. Frautschy adds that a UCLA team led by John Ringman and Jeffrey Cummings has just completed a pilot clinical trial and researchers are now analyzing results.

Another challenge is finding a form of curcumin that's absorbed by the body, because it doesn't readily dissolve in water. Still, people in India have been getting their curcumin for centuries by cooking turmeric in ghee (clarified butter), which, like any fat, enables this compound to be absorbed. Indians also have some of the lowest rates of Alzheimer's disease ever reported, according to a 2001 study led by Vijay Chandra of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Could India's low Alzheimer's rate simply be a matter of genetics? Genes may well play a role, but research by Tze-Pin Ng and colleagues at the National University of Singapore also points to a diet rich in turmeric. A study of 1,010 people over age 60 who had no dementia found that those who ate curry "occasionally" and "often or very often" scored higher on mental performance tests than those who rarely or never consumed it. Ng, whose study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 2006, also notes that the most typical curry in Singapore is the turmeric-laden yellow curry.

Evidence is mounting that curcumin may help fight many cancers, says Bharat Aggarwal, a professor of cancer medicine at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. In addition to reporting that curcumin blocks most of the mechanisms by which prostate cancer cells survive and grow, he and his colleagues have listed nearly 40 animal studies that suggest curcumin may have a strong protective effect against common cancers, including those of the breast, colon, lung, prostate and skin.

"The potential is unlimited," says Aggarwal, who notes that small clinical studies are underway to investigate curcumin in treating colorectal cancer and multiple myeloma. "Curcumin suppresses most of the biochemical pathways that lead to inflammation -- and up to 98 percent of all illnesses are due to the dysregulation of inflammation." Research has shown that curcumin is likely to block a molecular "master switch" responsible for inflammation and many other processes, including the growth of tumor cells. Small clinical trials are also underway to give us a clearer picture of curcumin's potential in fighting Alzheimer's, cancer and other illnesses.

While we're waiting, should we start sprinkling turmeric into the pan every time we sauté onions and garlic? And, if so, how much?

The mice in Frautschy's study were fed the daily human equivalent of a gram, or about a quarter-teaspoon of turmeric. Aggarwal notes that clinical studies have found that a daily dose of up to 12 grams (about a tablespoon) a day for three months is safe. The basic rule of thumb? According to Aggarwal: "Eating turmeric is okay for every day."

Saffron: The priciest spice

This yellow spice comes from the dried and powdered stigmas of Crocus sativus, a fall-blooming purple flower native to southwestern Asia and cultivated in countries including India, Spain, Greece and Iran. The world's most expensive spice, saffron has been used for millennia as everything from an aphrodisiac to a remedy for colds and stomach problems.

It was also used in traditional Persian medicine to treat depression, a fact that inspired Shahin Akhondzadeh and colleagues at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences and the Institute of Medicinal Plants in Iran to test it in a modern clinical trial of 40 subjects. The researchers reported in Phytotherapy Research in 2005 that mildly and moderately depressed adults who received a daily 30-milligram capsule of saffron for six weeks experienced a significant improvement over those who were given a placebo.

Further research suggests that the ancients, who used saffron to treat about 90 illnesses, may have been onto something big. A series of recent studies in animals have found that saffron extracts blocked or slowed the development of colon, skin and soft-tissue tumors.

Chili Peppers: Kicks from capsaicin

All hot peppers, from cayenne to habaneros to the new, ultra-fiery Bhut Jolokia or "ghost chili," get their kick from capsaicin, a compound that triggers the body to produce more heat, and hence, burn more energy.

Teams at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and Laval University in Quebec, Canada, reported in Physiology & Behavior in 2006 that capsaicin and other compounds that trigger this reaction may help fight obesity. But don't cancel your gym membership just yet. Eating even the spiciest salsa will never beat exercise for burning calories.

You might still, however, want to add more spicy food to your diet. Scientists think capsaicin may cause cancer cells to self-destruct while leaving normal cells unharmed.

Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles reported in Cancer Research in 2006 that feeding mice doses of capsaicin equal to a human eating 10 habanero peppers three times a week dramatically inhibited the growth of prostate cancer cells. Another research group at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute investigated capsaicin in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer. In mice fed the equivalent of one spicy Indian meal a day, tumors shrank by nearly half after only three to five days.

Ginger: Not just for gingerbread anymore

This aromatic root has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Tibb-Unani (traditional Islamic) medicine to treat health problems including digestive ailments, arthritis, infectious diseases, fever, high blood pressure, pain and muscle aches. Today, researchers are zeroing in on the biochemical effects of ginger in the body, which may not only help explain its benefits but also begin to lay the groundwork for new and less toxic treatments for a host of illnesses.

Two key compounds in the spice are gingerols, which gives fresh ginger its pungency, and shogaols, which gives dried ginger its zip. Some of the most convincing findings on ginger's health benefits in humans come from studies of morning sickness. A study of 70 women in the first trimester of pregnancy led by Teraporn Vutyavanich of Chiang Mai University in Thailand reported that women who received one gram of ginger per day had significantly less nausea and vomiting from morning sickness than a control group given a placebo.

Ali Badreldin of the College of Medicine and Health Sciences at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, along with colleagues in the UK and the United Arab Emirates, recently examined 91 studies on ginger conducted around the world over the last decade. In a 2008 review article in Food and Chemical Toxicology, the researchers highlight animal and test-tube studies that have found ginger can lower both blood sugar and cholesterol, contains pain-killing compounds that mimic nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) with fewer side effects, eases inflammation from arthritis and protects against ulcers.

Badreldin and his colleagues also note the results of studies in rodents that found that ginger has powerful antioxidant properties that protect against the toxic effects of radiation treatment and skin diseases caused by ultraviolet B radiation.

These studies lay the groundwork for possible ginger-based treatments for diabetes, arthritis and other inflammatory illnesses, protection against radiation sickness from cancer treatment and even cancer itself.

Even if ginger proves effective, these treatments are likely years away. What is known is that ginger has been used medicinally for centuries, underscoring its safety. "Ginger is considered to be a safe herbal medicine with only few and insignificant adverse side effects," Badreldin notes. But he and his colleagues are also quick to say that large, rigorous clinical studies are needed to pinpoint ginger's efficacy in various illnesses and uncover any side effects from long-term use.

If you want to try ginger, how much should you take? The American Academy of Family Physicians notes that no specific studies of doses have been conducted, but clinical studies on nausea generally use between 250 milligrams and 1 gram of powdered ginger root in a capsule, taken one to four times a day.

Is it possible to overdose on spices? Like anything else, spices should be taken with a healthy dose of common sense. Pregnant women should avoid saffron, because in large doses it may induce abortion, and they should consult with their doctors when taking any herbal products. (That's a good rule of thumb for everyone). Ginger can cause stomach upsets. Some studies have found that too much capsaicin from hot peppers can cause stomach problems.

It will take further clinical studies to establish whether and how spices might prevent or even cure disease. Based on recent research, though, turmeric remains one of the most promising and safest condiments in treating a host of illnesses. So don't forget to add it to your next soup or main dish. If it really does help prevent Alzheimer's, it may well help you remember a lot of other stuff too.

How Hospitals Systematically Harm People

The minute you're admitted into the hospital, you confront a disturbing paradox: Most hospitals aren't particularly healthy places. As a patient, you're likely to encounter toxic chemicals, eat lousy food, breathe unhealthy air and suffer stress triggered by an often-dismal and alienating environment. Even worse, you may find yourself at the mercy of drug-resistant "super bugs" or overworked staff members who make mistakes -- all in a place that's supposed to help you heal. It's enough to make you sick. And sometimes it does.

In the U.S. alone, an estimated 2 million people a year contract infections in hospitals, and nearly 100,000 are expected to die from them this year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although such statistics are deeply troubling, hospitals around the world also contribute to a subtler but equally insidious threat: They expose patients and staff to a host of substances and practises that can harm their health.

For example, hospitals use cleaners and disinfectants containing chemicals that can trigger asthma and other problems. A major study by Spanish researchers published in The Lancet last July hints at the extent of the problem. The study found nurses twice as likely as workers in other fields to develop asthma on the job, due to chemical exposure.

Needless to say, patients breathe the same air as the nurses. Fumes from disinfectants and other cleaners as well as pesticides contribute to indoor air pollution, a particular threat to patients with weakened immune and respiratory systems. These chemicals can also irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and trigger symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea to loss of coordination.

Another problem, perhaps the most obvious, is hospital food. Not only unappetizing, it was probably produced with pesticides, artificial preservatives, hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. To make matters worse, the usual alternative to a bland hospital meal comes from the fast-food joints encouraged to operate in many hospital lobbies. These sorts of things send people like Gary Cohen through the roof.

"About 30 hospitals have McDonald's restaurants in their lobbies," says Cohen, co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, an international organization that pushes hospitals to make changes that support the health of their patients, workers and communities. "Here we are with 60 million Americans who are obese and 120 million who are overweight and we're feeding people in hospitals food that contributes to obesity. Stuff like that just amazes me."

Many hospitals fail to recognize how their everyday choices, involving everything from food to chemicals to their physical and emotional environments, affect the health of their patients. Until recently, that is. Change is afoot in some of the most unlikely places.

Little more than a decade ago, most hospital administrators thought burning medical waste was the safest way to protect patients and communities from infectious disease. In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a wake-up call: Medical waste incineration had been found to be a leading source of dioxins, arguably the deadliest carcinogen.

"It was incredible that the very institutions devoted to healing people were actually poisoning them," says Gary Cohen. In the years since the report was published, more than 5,000 medical-waste incinerators have been closed in the U.S., as have scores more in Europe and elsewhere. Although the problem hasn't gone away (dioxins are found in everyone, including newborns), closing medical-waste incinerators was the first step for many hospitals toward beginning to examine healthier ways of caring for their patients and communities.

When Kathy Gerwig, vice-president for workplace safety at the Kaiser Permanente health-care network in the U.S., learned that burning the vast amounts of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used in hospitals produces dioxins, she and her colleagues promptly started looking for alternatives. They first reduced hospital waste and switched from vinyl to nitrile exam gloves. "That was a success because we learned something very important," Gerwig says. "Changes we initiated for environmental reasons often had other advantages."

It turns out that PVC intravenous bags and tubing also contain the phthalate DEHP, which can leach out of the devices and directly into the bodies of patients receiving medications and blood transfusions. Animal studies have linked this industrial chemical to birth defects, cancer and reproductive disorders, and the European Union has banned it from children's toys, cosmetics and personal-care products.

"We've known for more than 30 years that DEHP leaks out of the PVC devices in hospitals," says Gavin ten Tusscher, consulting pediatrician at the Westfriesgasthuis in the Netherlands and a researcher who has done groundbreaking work on dioxins in children. "We know that DEHP goes directly into newborn babies who have IV lines and receive blood transfusions -- and we can also measure exposure."

Until a few years ago, no alternatives existed, but that's no longer the case. Several manufacturers including Baxter and Hospira make PVC-free intravenous supplies, which are becoming more available.

The Westfriesgasthuis and Kaiser Permanente -- the largest non-profit health-maintenance organization (HMO) in the U.S. -- are among scores of hospitals that are replacing supplies made with PVC with safer alternatives.

"There is a steady stream of safer products becoming available for almost everything in the hospital setting," says Ten Tusscher. "Now, it's a matter of mindset. It's up to hospitals to make the choices."

So why don't they? Besides the oft-cited element of cost, hospitals frequently lack current information or the facts may simply not be available.

"One of the most difficult tasks is to identify toxic components of products and materials," says Kathy Gerwig of Kaiser Permanente. "Without labelling or complete disclosure about product content, it's hard to determine the potential for exposure."

In April 2007, the European Parliament approved new regulations that require manufacturers to label medical devices containing phthalates and other materials suspected of being carcinogenic, mutagenic or harmful to reproduction. No restrictions like this exist in the U.S.

The lack of effective laws, education and awareness may help explain why many hospitals still use a troubling number of toxic chemicals even though alternatives are widely available. In a national survey of 22 U.S. hospitals published in 2003, Health Care Without Harm found that every hospital used chemical pesticides and 36 percent used products no longer registered for use by the EPA. Pesticides can worsen allergies, chemical sensitivities and asthma, affect the nervous, reproductive and immune systems and cause cancer. In hospitals, a majority of the patient population is at particular risk from the possible health effects of pesticides: the elderly, chronically ill and chemically sensitive, along with children and pregnant women.

Perhaps the most outrageous missed opportunity for healing in the typical hospital turns up on patients' food trays. It has long been known that good nutrition speeds healing, yet many hospitals serve industrially grown processed foods -- typically lower in nutrients and higher in chemicals than sustainably produced meats, fruits and vegetables.

Numerous studies suggest industrial agriculture's reliance on artificial fertilizer is dramatically depleting soil minerals, and the results are showing up in our produce. Researchers have found, for example, that since 1985, mineral and vitamin levels in potatoes have plummeted 70 percent, beans 60 percent and apples 80 percent, according to studies cited in the UK newsletter What Doctors Don't Tell You.

How hospital food is handled can further reduce its nutritional value. According to a study published in the Journal of Food Service in October 2006, the common practise of overheating hospital food served to patients can reduce levels of Vitamin C, an important marker of nutritional content, by up to 86 percent.

So what does a healing hospital look and feel like? Hospitals in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere are pursuing answers, sometimes from the ground up. Among them is Clinique Champeau, a 116-bed private hospital in Béziers, France. One of the first things Director Olivier Toma noticed when he joined the hospital after a career as an hotelier was the condition of his employees' hands. "I was scandalized to see the hands of some of the nurses and people who clean in such a pitiful state," Toma says.

Toma replaced toxic cleaners with safer alternatives, a move that also reduced patients' exposure to chemicals. That was an easy step: Options are plentiful, such as the less-toxic cleaning products listed in the EU eco-label catalog or certified by the non-profit Green Seal program in the U.S.

But he didn't stop there. Toma has gone on to create an internationally recognized hospital that uses natural non-toxic materials. The paint on the walls is free of harmful volatile organic compounds. Thanks to a pioneering purchasing policy, everything the staff buys is screened for toxins.

Besides that, the hospital serves patients meals mostly prepared from scratch, while generous windows let in abundant daylight, which has been shown to help reduce patients' use of painkillers and shorten the time some people spend in the hospital.

On a larger scale, Kaiser Permanente is wielding its $6 billion annual purchasing budget to push for safer products and materials for patients at its 32 medical centres in the U.S. -- and to make these products more affordable and available for smaller health-care facilities. The HMO has also developed a new policy that calls for avoiding carcinogens, mutagens and reproductive toxins as well as persistent chemicals that accumulate in our bodies in everything it purchases, from cleaning supplies to medical devices.

"We're targeting riskier products and doing everything we can to encourage suppliers to switch to environmentally preferable products," says Dean Edwards, vice-president and chief procurement officer.

The inroads being made at Clinique Champeau, Kaiser Permanente and other hospitals suggest administrators can no longer avoid making changes to clean up environmental problems. Signs indicating how this can be done are everywhere.

Looking back on the last decade, Gary Cohen of Health Care Without Harm says elimination of mercury is a prime example. Thousands of hospitals around the world have replaced mercury thermometers with safer alternatives and are working to eradicate mercury from health-care settings.

"We've shown that you can phase out toxic materials on a global scale," Cohen says. "If we can do that with mercury, we can do it with a whole set of chemicals and technologies that are destroying our planet and weakening our health."

Scores of hospital managers around the world have recently signed resolutions committing to implementing healthy changes on many fronts, from serving safe and sustainably raised food to reducing waste and ditching PVC. Still, signing a resolution or passing a law is one thing, and implementing it consistently is another.

And that, says Dutch pediatrician Gavin ten Tusscher, is where everyone comes in. "Consumers need to know that they're the ones who have the power," he says. "They're the ones who can influence change in their choices in health care. They can say, 'I don't want my child to receive an intravenous line with PVC,' and demand other healthy changes. The more people who do, the more governments and hospitals will listen."

The Worst Health Money Can Buy

One of the biggest myths about health care is that more is always better. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, which offers a cautionary tale for other countries seeking health care reform -- including those in Europe looking across the Atlantic for inspiration. The American people spent nearly $2.1 trillion on health care in 2006 -- more than was spent on food -- yet Americans aren't exceptionally healthy or long-lived as a result. They have shorter life expectancies than people in Western Europe, Canada and Japan and are no less hindered by disease than their counterparts in other developed countries.

In spite of all this spending, nearly 47 million Americans have no health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And here's another irony: Although insured people often feel they receive too little medical attention, many are actually getting too much in the form of unneeded tests and treatments. This "overtreatment" is at the root of America's health care woes, according to medical journalist Shannon Brownlee, author of the upcoming book Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer. Brownlee contends that up to a third of health care dollars in the U.S are wasted on unnecessary care that doesn't improve people's health -- and may even endanger it.

A study of nearly a million Medicare patients (older Americans who receive government-funded health insurance) provides a compelling example of how too much care can cause harm. Medicare patients treated at hospitals that did the most tests and treatment and spent the most money were up to 6 percent more likely to die than patients at hospitals spending the least. In short, more spending, more hospitalization, more technology and more drugs do not necessarily equal better health care.

Why do doctors and hospitals provide too much care in the first place? They are stuck in a dysfunctional system driven by money. Doctors get paid for how much care they deliver -- not how well they take care of their patients. Meanwhile, hospitals are pressured to recoup the expensive investments they've made in pricey technologies and specialists. This means the more care doctors and hospitals provide, the more money they make.

Much of what doctors do is prescribe medications, some of which help save lives, like insulin for diabetics and cyclosporine for organ-transplant patients. But when it comes to medications, doctors are increasingly under the sway of drug companies. Brownlee observes that the pharmaceutical industry now foots the bill for at least 80 percent of clinical research (formerly funded by the federal government) and underwrites 90 percent of continuing medical education, wielding unprecedented influence over the content of medical journals and what doctors do and don't know about drugs.

When money drives every aspect of health care, from doctors to hospitals to the pushing of dangerous -- and often inadequately tested -- drugs, what can be done? Brownlee finds inspiration and solutions in one of the most unlikely places: the Veteran's Health Administration (VHA). A horrific shambles in the mid-1990s, the VHA has been transformed over the past decade into a model of effective, affordable and humane care. Today the agency, which cares for military veterans -- including many of America's oldest, poorest and sickest patients -- outperforms most other U.S. health-care institutions at a little more than half the cost per person. The VHA's prescription-accuracy rate is 99.9 percent and it has a lower rate of hospital-acquired infections than most other health-care institutions in the U.S.

In 1994, Kenneth W. Kizer took over the VHA as undersecretary for health. He introduced new information technology that helped lower rates of drug error and infections, while reducing unnecessary care. VHA doctors are encouraged to choose drugs carefully, based on scientific evidence rather than slick marketing, a step that has reduced costs and unneeded prescriptions. And patients report a high rate of satisfaction.

The perfect system may not exist, but the VHA story suggests that effective, affordable and compassionate health care -- publicly funded, no less -- isn't a pipe dream, but an achievable reality. Patients, policymakers and anyone concerned about the future of health care around the world would do well to read Brownlee's book.

Shannon Brownlee's book, Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer (Bloomsbury), will be out in September.

Taking the Bite Out of the Flu

Homeopathy may be more effective than flu shots. In the deadly flu outbreak of 1918, patients treated with homeopathy had much higher survival rates.

Not only is the avian flu front-page news, but clinics and doctors are warning us about the dangers of the common flu. Posters and leaflets, ads and articles urge us to get our shots, the pressure greater than usual with the ominous bird flu looming.

In Great Britain, a National Health Service leaflet says, "If you knew about the flu, you'd get the jab." But the British environmental magazine The Ecologist (October 2005) can't help wondering if that's really the case: "If people truly knew about flu, and the lack of effectiveness of the vaccine being offered as protection, would they really be so obedient about getting the jab?"

Last September, a report in the American Medical Association journal Archives of Internal Medicine dropped a bombshell: Although immunization rates in those over 65 have increased 50 percent in the past 20 years, there has been no decline in flu-related deaths. One reason is that hundreds of flu viruses can be circulating at any time.

Nevertheless, every February, scientists at the World Health Organization meet to define the three that are likely to cause the most misery the following winter. The viruses they choose are included in that year's vaccine. But in the months between formulating the vaccine and administering it, the viruses -- which constantly evolve and mutate -- may have changed, or new ones may emerge.

Flu experts often get it wrong. In 1994, for example, they predicted that Texas, Shangdong and Panama viruses would be prevalent, so millions of people were vaccinated against those strains. However, when winter arrived, entirely different strains were circulating through schools, offices and households worldwide.

Even if the vaccine contains the right strains, not everyone responds by producing the antibodies that fend off the flu. As many as 40 percent of people over age 65, for example, do not respond to vaccination. Last year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control funded research on health-care workers in Colorado. Results showed virtually the same percentage of people suffered from influenza-like illnesses whether they were vaccinated or not, leaving researchers to conclude that the vaccine "was not effective or had very low effectiveness."

Ineffectiveness is not the only thing to worry about when getting a flu shot. Alternative Medicine (October 2005) lists the typical ingredients in a vaccine: Aluminum hydroxide (associated with Alzheimer's and seizures), thimerosal (a mercury-based neurotoxin linked to ADHD and autism) and phenol (a human carcinogen) are among the substances added. This has caused some people to ask whether vaccines might do more harm than good.

Do we have alternatives? During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed up to 50 million people worldwide, homeopathic physicians in the United States reported very low mortality rates among their patients, while flu patients treated by conventional physicians faced mortality rates of around 30 percent. Dr. W.A. Dewey gathered data from homeopathic physicians treating flu patients around the country in 1918 and published his findings in the Journal of the American Institute of Homeopathy in 1920. Homeopathic physicians in Philadelphia, for example, reported a mortality rate of just over 1 percent for the more than 26,000 flu patients they treated during the pandemic.

Today, a number of homeopathic remedies for the flu are available, including oscillo, or oscillococcinum, which has been shown to shorten the duration of symptoms when taken within 48 hours of onset. Homeopaths have been given this remedy since 1925. Interestingly, it's made from the heart and liver of ducks, which carry flu viruses in their digestive tracts.

"Based on clinical studies, homeopathy produces some of the fastest results in relieving flu symptoms," says Dana Ullman, MPH, the author of nine books on homeopathic medicine. In addition to trying oscillo, Ullman suggests considering influenzinum 9C, a homeopathic preparation of the three newest flu viruses obtained from the Pasteur Institute in France. Although not definitively shown to prevent the flu, it is a popular protocol in Europe. Finally, Ullman advises visiting a homeopath for a specific constitutional remedy in preparation for flu season. Other homeopathic flu remedies, depending upon one's symptoms, include gelsemium, bryonia, aconitum, monkshood, nux vomica, eupatorium perfoliatum, rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy) and arsenicum album.

While there's no evidence yet that homeopathic remedies can prevent the flu, they seem to be very useful in treating the flu. And they're less aggressive that the usual injections. The people now targeted for shots -- the elderly, young and immune compromised -- are those least able to withstand a systemic chemical assault.

Research also consistently shows that people of lower socioeconomic status are at higher risk for a wide range of infectious diseases. The Ecologist wonders whether "vaccines are endorsed as a remedy for so many things that are too complicated (like better hygiene) or too expensive (like winter-proof housing) for the government to fix."

So, now that the flu season is here, what should you do? Homeopathic remedies might help. But Alternative Medicine offers the most startling solution of all: Get sick. "From a naturopathic point of view, getting the actual flu may not be such a bad thing -- that is, if you are relatively healthy -- because it will make you more resistant to the flu later in life. Also, getting the flu is an opportunity for the body to detoxify."

For those who are less healthy -- with conditions like diabetes, asthma, pulmonary disease, emphysema, frequent pneumonia or impaired immunity -- less invasive, more natural ways to "fight" the flu might be prescribed. Sometimes the simplest preventive actions yield the most immediate results: Wash your hands, get enough sleep, eat your fruits and vegetables, exercise and avoid stress.

In Kids We Trust

While his peers at other schools were memorizing their multiplication tables, Ken Pruitt was lying on his back watching clouds, building tree forts with friends, or poking around in the woods. Pruitt was no juvenile delinquent. He was a student at the Sudbury Valley School near Boston, where children get to decide for themselves how they want to spend each day.

Come again? What does cloud watching or fort building have to do with learning? Everything, according to Sudbury Valley's founders. "Children don't know what they want to learn, they know what they want to do," says Mimsy Sadofsky, one of several original founders who still work at the school. What children typically want to do is play -- which cognitive scientists say is one of the main ways human beings learn.

 "Learning teaches us what is known, play makes it possible for new things to be learned," says David Elkind, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University, and most recently author of The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and Miseducation. "There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play."

Pruitt, who attended Sudbury Valley from ages six to seventeen, enjoyed a "Huck Finn childhood". "I spent hours by myself climbing trees, walking on the trails, sitting and observing," he says. He especially liked to perch on a tree leaning low over a swamp and peer into the tea-colored water, watching fish and insects, frogs and turtles go about their daily lives.

He recalls sitting perfectly still on a stone wall in the woods to watch for wildlife. A deer came so close he could almost touch it, and then a raccoon. Something stirred in him that never would have happened had he been sitting behind a desk. "Human beings, especially children before they're programmed by society, are open to seeing other living things in the world as equals instead of having the sense that we're their masters. That's what set me on the course to want to preserve wild nature. By the time I was fifteen, it was clear to me that I'd follow a career in wilderness protection." Today, at age thirty-five, Pruitt is Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions. In a state that loses forty acres a day to sprawl, his organization helps people in more than three hundred communities protect the kinds of wetlands he loved as a child.

A new survey of alumni from the Sudbury Valley School shows that such idyllic school experiences has not harmed or hampered them as adults. Eighty-two percent of graduates interviewed pursued further study such as college or trade school after Sudbury Valley. The others said they were ready to enter the fields they planned to pursue as adults. Alumni have become ballet dancers and farmers, physicians and circus performers, carpenters, teachers, lawyers, farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, clerks, you name it.

But the most important measures of success seldom have much to do with college admissions or job titles. And that's where Sudbury Valley graduates like Pruitt tend to excel. Eighty-six percent of those surveyed said their lives reflect their values. That's what the founders had in mind when they started the school in 1968. Sadofsky and another founder, Daniel Greenberg, along with Jason Lempka, have just published a new book, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni. Of the past thirty-seven years they write, "We believe that the school provides an environment that trains each individual to think for themself, and to lead an examined life that is fulfilling, meaningful, and fun."

Sudbury Valley is the oldest existing democratic school in the U.S. and the most widely imitated. It has no tests or grades and is run by a "school meeting" patterned after New England town meetings in which all participants have an equal vote on important matters. At a time when debates rage about education standards and testing, these schools offer an intriguing and controversial alternative: putting children in charge of their own education.

Although each of the more than 160 democratic schools around the world evolved independently, they generally share the practices of allowing students to choose how to spend their days, vote on important school matters, and participate in a community of equals, regardless of age. These practices raise many eyebrows in education circles, but advocates say democratic schools can teach more traditional schools a thing or two about helping children grow into happy adults, learn to navigate a complex world -- and participate in a free society.

In mid-December, the Victorian mansion that houses the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, bustles with activity. Some students rehearse music and dance performances for an upcoming show at the school. Others make gingerbread houses, play video games, read, argue, sew, study, or just hang out. There's nothing here that even remotely resembles a classroom. Just lots of rooms filled with comfy chairs and books, plus music studios, an art room, a woodshop, performance space, a darkroom, and kitchen.

Learning flows from the daily life of the school, which includes 160 or so students and 10 staff members. Students know each staff person's areas of expertise, and ask for help when they need it. "Although kids may never be in a formal class," says Sadofsky, "the adults here are models for them."         

Classes are occasionally offered -- but only when students initiate them or ask for them. And older students often "teach" the younger ones. During his teenage years, Pruitt took a few optional classes given by staff. "The classes didn't feel like classes, they felt like entertainment, " says Pruitt, who especially enjoyed Daniel Greenberg's European history class. Instead of droning on with boring facts, Greenberg sometimes dramatized his lessons.

One strength of Sudbury Valley's approach is in some of the things these schools don't do says Alfie Kohn, one of America's leading authorities on alternative education. "The excessive control of children, the use of grades and tests and textbooks, and a factory-like curriculum are all wonderfully absent," says Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated. Kohn adds that learning at these schools "often takes place outside of what most adults think of as a structured classroom environment."

Indeed. Just ask Dayna Kimball, who was on the verge of quitting school a few years ago. "I was bored," Kimball says of her junior year at a public high school in suburban Denver, Colorado. "I didn't like the time constraints, and the assignments seemed tedious and redundant."

Luckily, her mother, Jane, discovered Alpine Valley School (AVS) in nearby Wheat Ridge. Modeled after Sudbury Valley, the Colorado school offered Dayna Kimball the freedom she craved -- no tests, grades, or constraints. So what did she do when she got there? "I went to school every day and slept on the couch," she says.

No one bothered her. No one told her to wake up or asked what she thought she was doing. "They accepted every minute of it," Kimball says. "The slang there for it is 'deschooling.'"

After about a year, though, Kimball got really bored -- and that's when she began to wake up. She started learning a little Japanese, a bit of history, and dabbled in metalsmithing. As part of her studies, she decided to try out a few jobs in the "real world," including a stint at a toy store and another as a bank teller.

Meanwhile, subtle changes were unfolding in the time Kimball spent at Alpine Valley. Her fellow students, especially the younger ones, touched something in her. "I was standoffish at first, but they opened me up because they wanted to get to know who I was," Kimball says. As she continued exploring at Alpine Valley, she tried out another job as a para-educator in a public school. And that's when Dayna Kimball discovered her passion: working with autistic children. She says she wouldn't have found it without the freedom and flexibility of Alpine Valley. "Without AVS, I would have dropped out of school," she says.

Today, Kimball works as an intervention support staff person with autistic children at Creative Perspectives, a therapeutic center outside Denver. She also is earning her bachelor's degree in speech and language pathology. "AVS has a philosophy of people first, not grades or accomplishments," says Kimball, who's now twenty-three. "I now look at my kids that way -- kids first. It's not about their disability or their ability to accomplish anything. It's about who they are."

While Sudbury Valley gives children plenty of freedom to play and develop as individuals, it also requires them to participate in the community through school meetings, in which everyone votes on all decisions made at the school. The weekly meeting, says graduate Anna Rossetti, shows that, "democracy can be painful. You've got to listen to a lot of different crap before you get to a consensus." Students and staff sometimes spend hours hashing out every single issue.

Yet Rossetti acknowledges that the experience has often come in handy. "Participating in democracy at Sudbury Valley instills in you an incredible sense of empowerment," says Rossetti, who now works at a Whole Foods Market in San Diego, California, while finishing her bachelor's degree in social sciences. "That's something I take with me all the time."

And perhaps that's one of the most important lessons from democratic schools like Sudbury Valley. "I think it's hard to learn democracy when we make children prisoners until they're nineteen years old," says Sadofsky.  

Freedom is all well and good, but even progressive educators say kids need more pushing and guidance than they typically get at schools like Sudbury Valley. These educators say children also need structure and sometimes more, rather than less, adult involvement.

"I applaud Sudbury Valley's focus on freedom, but not what I take to be an inattention to community," says Alfie Kohn. "Sudbury has a libertarian bent, and the worldview seems to see all adult involvement as an authoritarian restriction of personal autonomy. Total autonomy is not developmentally appropriate. Kids need guidance and many of them need structure at the same time that they need the opportunity to learn how to make good decisions."

One opportunity for decision-making comes in the school's judicial committee, in which all students participate on a rotating basis, along with staff. This committee makes and enforces school rules. All grievances are settled here, with students meting out the sentences. And that process can go awry, says Kohn, in an environment that practices what he calls "an extremely individualistic sensibility." Kohn says kids can misuse the well-intentioned judicial committee by threatening to "bring up" other kids who are annoying them. "It's striking, and frankly a little refreshing, that kids sit on this committee and have the power to make decisions," Kohn says. "What is equally striking to me is this ... there isn't a sense of a community solving problems together, rather there's punishment for aberrant individuals."

Academically, Kohn says progressive education should emphasize not only following children's interests, but also challenging them to consider topics and problems that may not have occurred to them.

"Leaving kids on their own tends to flatten the slope of their improvement," concurs schools reformer Ted Sizer, whose latest book, The Red Pencil, offers a powerful critique of American education. Sizer, former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education says educators need to "shove great questions in front of kids" that challenge them to learn.

On the far end of the educational spectrum from Sudbury Valley, there are growing legions of people, including the Bush Administration, who firmly argue that schools need standards -- and standardized testing -- to make sure all students learn at least the basics like reading and math. In the U.S., each state sets these standards based on recommendations from educators and lawmakers, along with public input. Advocates say standards are essential to allocating money to public schools and the students who need the most help. According to this argument, education standards enable equity.

Ross Wiener, Policy Director of The Education Trust in Washington D.C. sees a general public consensus around certain core skills children need to know in order to become successful adults and find secure jobs that pay a living wage. But he adds that setting standards to ensure that kids learn the basics is about more than just getting a job. "To participate in a democracy, you certainly need advanced reading skills, critical thinking, logic, and reason."

But Sudbury Valley graduates like Christian Cederlund would argue that these are the kinds of skills he acquired, plus many more -- without suffering through rigid standards, testing, or cookie-cutter curricula. Cederlund says one of the most important lessons from his years at Sudbury Valley was not covered in any textbook: adapting to change.

An athletic kid interested in science, Cederlund started Sudbury Valley in 1969 when he was six years old and graduated when he was seventeen. When he was a teenager, a staff person showed him pictures of Mikhail Baryshnikov and encouraged him to try ballet.

Cederlund went on to dance professionally with the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. But eventually his knees started giving out and he found himself a college freshman at age twenty-seven. He completed a degree, and went on to teach dance and neuroanatomy at the University of Washington. When he burned out on teaching, Cederlund took time off to play golf and discovered his next career -- running a golf touring business in Seattle.

At forty-one, Cederlund now has a family to support, which is prompting another career change. He hopes to blend his love of helping people and his fascination with anatomy and science into creating a new job, perhaps selling medical equipment or becoming an MRI technician. He credits his creative ability to shift from one career to another as a continuation of the life-long learning adventure he started at Sudbury Valley. "I still feel like I'm playing in my life," he says.   

Over the past few decades, Sudbury Valley has directly inspired the creation of thirty-nine similar but independent schools in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Israel, and Australia. Students come from many backgrounds -- rich, poor, liberal, conservative, black, white, you name it. Each school offers students an alternative that can help them discover paths they might not have otherwise found.

Among those students are Adu and Ben Sheppard, whose father, Derek, co-founded the Booroobin Sudbury Democratic Centre for Learning in the Australian state of Queensland in 1996. Both brothers say traditional schools didn't serve their learning or interests -- which have turned out to be quite divergent. But at Booroobin, located in the lush, rolling hills north of Brisbane, both brothers found freedom to discover and pursue their passions. While Ben set about rebuilding Land Rovers, raising chickens, and growing organic vegetables and flowers in the rich, volcanic soils surrounding the school, Adu spent much of his time indoors, happily playing computer games and learning simple computer graphics programs.

Since then, Ben has rebuilt two Land Rovers "from scratch," and he's starting on a third (a 1951 model). At age 18, he is also cultivating a reputation as an outstanding gardener. Adu taught himself computer animation and graphics programs and won a government scholarship to attend a games development course to study animation and graphics.

Today, Adu, who's 20, designs web site templates and computer animation graphics for businesses. He's also working on an independent computer game that he and his collaborators hope to publish worldwide. "My aim is to never end up in a repetitious, boring, and mindless day job, and I seem to be doing pretty well so far," he says. "Booroobin taught me that individuality and free-thinking aren't impediments. I've stuck to who I am and what I want to be in life, and I'm loving it!" One wonders, is there any better measure of a good education?

The Queensland government apparently thinks so. In 2003, the Queensland Minister for Education revoked Booroobin's accreditation because it did not meet state requirements. But Booroobin, which now calls itself a centre for learning, is still accepting students, and Derek Sheppard and others are determined to see it through, in spite of the challenges.

How can parents determine whether or not their children will thrive at schools like Sudbury Valley? "What makes a child a good fit is a desire to be in control of his or her time, and parents who can trust their child to behave with intelligence," Sadofsky says. "What makes some children a poor fit is an unwillingness, or inability, to control their behavior."

These schools don't work for children who need a lot of structure, or lack parental support. Beyond these basic issues, sometimes the school simply isn't a fit for a particular child. Both Rossetti and Cederlund have siblings who started at Sudbury Valley and later left.

Paying more than $5,000 a year to send a child to school to climb trees, nap, or wander in the woods demands a big leap of faith from parents. They can feel isolated, even ostracized. Ken Pruitt recalls family friends worrying that his parents were committing child abuse by sending him to a school with such an unstructured environment.

Mimsy Sadofsky acknowledges the challenges faced by Sudbury parents. "People are very worried that there will be some big gaps in their children's lives, which is the opposite of what happens here," she says. "It's a really hard thing when everybody in society is telling you that you have to measure your children all the time to say, 'I don't want to do that. I just want my kids to be free and have fun and grow up in their own way to be responsible.'"

Dayna Kimball's mother, Jane, is glad she took the chance. "Dayna had struggled for several years. I knew that she was wanting freedom more than anything and that she would resist anything less," Jane says. "I sensed that I had to let life be her teacher. Paying tuition for a place that required her to show up was much better than having her drop out of school. I am extremely grateful to AVS for Dayna's successes. I believe that the philosophy of these schools is in alignment with the way nature operates."   Even with their problems, Sudbury and schools like it are slowly catching on, and every year staff and students gather at the International Democratic Education Conference, which was held in India last December. Jerry Mintz, Director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization, says each democratic school offers something valuable. He explains, "There is a spectrum of approaches within the idea of non-compulsory classes: some schools set a timetable, such as Summerhill School in England." Some, he notes offer classes every day, others only when students ask for them, as is the case at Sudbury Valley. "The bottom line is that these schools respect students' rights and the right to take control of their own education."

Ken Pruitt is now a father himself. He wants his two young children to have the same freedom he enjoyed as a boy. His daughter, Emma, starts school next year. The Pruitts would love to send her to Sudbury Valley, but it's a long drive. At a minimum, he says, the couple will keep a careful eye their children's education -- but not in the traditional sense "If we have them go through a traditional school system," Pruitt says, " we will observe whether or not their natural spark, curiosity, and desire to learn are being driven out of them. If that did start to happen, we'd take drastic measures and get them out.."

Human beings are born to learn. Democratic schools, which like every school have their flaws, raise provocative questions about the best way to allow our children to find their authentic paths, a sense of personal responsibility, and contribute to a free and thriving world.

The solutions might be simpler than we think: long afternoons of cloud watching. Days upon days to play with friends, dance or nap, read a book or muck around in a swamp. In a world where many kids' lives are overscheduled, micro-managed, and endlessly tested, perhaps more freedom is exactly what they need.  

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