What effect do vaping and air pollution have on your heart, and how could a light-powered pacemaker improve cardiovascular health?
It seems that every day, scientists are learning more about the factors affecting cardiovascular health and are coming up with novel ways to keep our hearts ticking for longer. Here are three interesting recent developments.
One of the problems with existing pacemakers is that they are implanted into the heart with one or two points of connection (using screws or hooks). According to University of Arizona researchers, when these devices detect a dangerous irregularity they send an electrical shock through the whole heart to regulate its beat.
These researchers believe their battery-free, light-powered pacemaker could improve the quality of life of heart disease patients through the increased precision of their device.
The way existing pacemakers work can be quite painful for heart disease patients.
Their pacemaker comprises a petal-like structure made from a thin flexible film (that contains light sources) and a recording electrode. Like the petals of a flower closing up at night, this mesh pacemaker envelops the heart to provide many points of contact.
The device also uses optogenetics – a biological technique to control the activity of cells using light. The researchers say this helps to control the heart far more precisely and bypass pain receptors.
‘Right now, we have to shock the whole heart to do this, [but] these new devices can do much more precise targeting, making defibrillation both more effective and less painful,’ said Igor Efimov, professor of biomedical engineering and medicine at Northwestern University.
‘Current pacemakers record basically a simple threshold, and they will tell you,’ added Philipp Gutruf, lead researcher and biomedical engineering assistant professor. ‘This is going into arrhythmia, now shock, but this device has a computer on board where you can input different algorithms that allow you to pace in a more sophisticated way.’
Another potential benefit is that the light-powered device could negate the need for battery replacement, which is done every five to seven years. That use of light to affect the heart rather than electrical signals could also mean less interference with the device’s recording capabilities and a more complete picture of cardiac episodes.
The device uses light and a technique called optogenetics, which modifies cells that are sensitive to light, then uses light to affect the behavior of those cells. Image by Philipp Gutruff.
>> See how Bright SCIdea winner Cardiatec uses AI to improve heart disease treatment.
We don’t know a lot about the long-term effects of vaping because people simply haven’t been doing it long enough, but a recent study from the University of Wisconsin (UW) suggests that it could be bad for the heart.
Researchers selected a group of people who had used nicotine delivery devices for 4.1 years on average, those who smoked cigarettes for 23 years on average, and non-smokers and compared how their hearts behaved after smoking (the first two groups) and after exercise.
The researchers noticed differences minutes after the first two groups smoked or vaped. ‘Immediately after vaping or smoking, there were worrisome changes in blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability and blood vessel tone (constriction),’ said lead study author Matthew Tattersall, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
The lack of long-term data means we still don’t know the effect of vaping.
Those who vaped also performed worse on the four exercise parameters compared to those who hadn’t used nicotine. Perhaps the most startling finding was the post-exercise response of those who had vaped for just four years compared to those who had smoked tobacco for 23 years.
‘The exercise performance of those who vaped was not significantly different from people who used combustible cigarettes, even though they had vaped for fewer years than the people who smoked and were much younger,’ said Christina Hughey, fellow in cardiovascular medicine at UW Health, the integrated health systems of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
We know that smoking and passive-smoking are bad for our hearts, but some overlook the effect of other environmental toxins, especially those common to specific geographical regions.
A collaborative study including US and UK researchers has found a divergence in the types of environmental contaminants that contribute to cardiovascular ailments in both countries, aside from the prevalent smoking-related heart disease.
Hopefully, the growth in electric vehicle use will reduce air pollution
The study found that lead-related poisoning is more common in the US, whereas air pollution has a more damaging effect in the UK due mainly to increased population density. The researchers found that 6.5% of cardiovascular deaths were associated with exposure to particulate matter over the past 30 years compared to 5% in the US.
The one plus is that research has found that there has been a steady decline in cardiovascular deaths stemming from lead, smoking, secondhand smoke and air pollution over the past 30 years. Nevertheless, it will be of little comfort to those walking in the trail of exhaust fumes in cities.
‘More research on how environmental risk factors impact our daily lives is needed to help policymakers, public health experts, and communities see the big picture,’ said lead author Anoop Titus, a third-year internal medicine resident at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Those with the blood group O reportedly have the lowest likelihood of catching Covid-19, and the new top-up jab should provide relief against sub-variants of the disease.
By now, most of us have been stricken by Covid, but 15% of people in the UK have evaded the virus. According to a testing expert at the London Medical Laboratory, the great escape is down to three factors: blood group, vaccines, and lifestyle.
Having assessed the findings of recent Covid-19 blood type studies, Dr Quinton Fivelman PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at London Medical Laboratory (LML), believes that people with the blood group O are less likely to be infected than those with other blood groups, while those with blood type A are far more likely to contract the virus.
‘There have now been too many studies to ignore which reveal that people have a lower chance of catching the virus, or developing a severe illness, if they have blood group O,’ he said.
Indeed, research from the New England Journal of Medicine had previously found that those with blood type O were 35% less likely to be infected, whereas those with Type A were 45% more vulnerable. A further benefit of type O blood is the reduced risk of heart disease compared to those with type A or B blood.
Staged stock images are not thought to increase your chances of contracting Covid-19.
According to the NHS, almost half of the population (48%) has the O blood group; so, clearly, other factors come into play in terms of our susceptibility. Dr Fivelman said: ‘By far the most important factor is the number of antibodies you carry, from inoculations and previous infections, together with your level of overall health and fitness.’
So, those who are more careful about visiting crowded places, who eat well, and are fortunate enough not to have an underlying illness have better chances of avoiding Covid-19. According to LML, having been vaccinated also helps, though these benefits have slowly worn off. That is why the new top-up jab with the Omicron variant could provide some relief for those who take it.
‘The new Omicron jab has come none-too-soon, so many people are now suffering repeated Covid infections,’ he added. ‘That’s because the new Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants do not produce as high an immune response as the previous strains, so re-infection is more likely to occur.
‘Higher levels of antibodies are important to neutralise the virus, stopping infection and limiting people transmitting the virus to others.’
What is the best posture to adopt when taking a pill, and why does it help your body to absorb the medicine quicker?
Was Mary Poppins wrong? A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but does it do so in the most delightful way? Not according to Johns Hopkins University researchers in the US.
They say the body posture you adopt when taking a pill affects how quickly your body absorbs the medicine by up to an hour. It’s all down to the positioning of the stomach relative to where the pill enters it.
The team identified this after creating StomachSim – a model that simulates drug dissolution mechanics in the stomach. The model works by blending physics and biomechanics to mimic what’s going on when our stomachs digest medicine and food.
Looks like we’ve got a pro here.
Without further ado, here are the four contenders for taking the pill: standing up, lying down on your right side, lying down on your left side, and swallowing the pill on your back.
>> What’s next in wearables? We looked at a few Bright SCIdeas.
According to the researchers, if you take a pill while lying on your left side, it could take more than 100 minutes for the medicine to dissolve. Lying on your back is next in third, the narrowest of whiskers behind swallowing a pill standing up. This time-honoured method takes about 23 minutes to take effect.
However, by far the most effective method (and, therefore, the most delightful way) is lying on your right side, with dissolution taking a mere 10 minutes. The reason is that it sends pills into the deepest part of the stomach, making it 2.3 times faster to dissolve than the upright posture you’re probably taking to swallow your multi-vits.
Your posture is key in ensuring your body absorbs medicine quickly. Image: Khamar Hopkins/John Hopkins University.
‘We were very surprised that posture had such an immense effect on the dissolution rate of a pill,’ said senior author Rajat Mittal, a Johns Hopkins engineer. ‘I never thought about whether I was doing it right or wrong but now I’ll definitely think about it every time I take a pill.’
Next week, we will investigate more of the medical approaches espoused by much-loved fictional characters, starting with George’s Marvellous Medicine, before moving onto the witches in Macbeth. No one is safe.
In the meantime, you can read the researchers’ work in Physics of Fluids.
An Artificial Intelligence tool that could change the way we treat heart disease wowed the judges at this year’s Bright SCIdea competition. Now that the dust has settled, we asked Raphael Peralta, from the winning CardiaTec team, about winning the competition, the need for this technology, and tips for future participants. After winning this prestigious competition and coming away with the £5,000 first prize, the future is bright for co-founders Raphael Peralta, Thelma Zablocki and Namshik Han. So, how do they reflect on the story so far?
Team CardiaTec (UK)
Tell us about CardiaTec
Cardiovascular disease is the world’s leading cause of death, and affects countless lives. Despite this, investment and innovation within the space has been severely stagnated, especially in comparison to fields such as oncology. The current treatment landscape remains unchanged, and treatments are most often prescribed in a standardised, one-size-fits-all approach. However, people are fundamentally different, and as shown by the Covid-19 pandemic, similar groups of people can experience a disease in a significantly different manner, and as such it is very important to understand biological processes at a patient level to produce effective therapeutic outcomes.
CardiaTec is leveraging artificial intelligence to structure and analyze large scale biological data that spans the full multiomic domain. This allows for a comprehensive understanding of disease pathophysiology to better develop novel and effective therapeutics for cardiovascular disease.
Casting your mind back to the moment you were announced the winner of Bright SCIdea 2020, what were your initial thoughts?
We thought we had a good opportunity to win it, but obviously when it was announced, it was a great feeling. Winning this competition is a further validation that what we are generating has real world value.
It was a great judging panel, with a breadth of experience across drug discovery and the pharmaceutical industry. We were up against immense global competition and the fact that we won shows that there’s a need for novel innovation in the cardiovascular space to ultimately drive the development of new therapeutics that are going to help change people's lives.
How did you think of the idea? Was there a ‘eureka’ moment?
The way the initial idea came about was through the identification that the cardiovascular space had a massive unmet need compared to other spaces such as oncology. I had worked with a cardiovascular company doing some consulting work and this is where it came to light.
In combination, multiomic techniques are becoming increasingly accessible in line with technological developments, which have made processes of next generation sequencing and proteomic profiling increasingly cheaper. These processes generate large amounts of data, which then lend themselves to applications of machine learning to derive biologically meaningful insights. These process, although becoming increasingly familiar in areas such as oncology, are highly underrepresented in cardiovascular disease, and thus there spans opportunity to develop completely unique and novel insights.
How does the technology work?
Here, CardiaTec uses data across genomics, epigenomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics, to generate novel biological insights with the help of AI and machine learning applications. Taking these many ‘omics’ into consideration is what defines a ‘multiomic’ approach. Biology is complex, and trends require full multiomic assessment to truly understand where dysregulation of specific processes is occurring, to then inform the best means of intervention.
CardiaTec is developing a platform, which with time will grow to become one of the most comprehensive foundations of cardiovascular disease biology. Results and outcomes are iteratively incorporated into the model, and new hypotheses are tried and tested across a range of pre-clinical settings. Collectively, CardiaTec aims to generate novel drug targets that can be used to help reduce the burden of disease in current and future patient population.
In the process of getting to the final, there were several opportunities to engage with entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, and experts in intellectual property (IP). Can you share key takeaways from these sessions?
One of the most important things you can do is speak to people. Every business starts from an idea. As you start developing, you change and refine the business model. We take every chance to engage with people who have industry experience. It’s really important that we take the advice of these people on board; this is especially true in the field of biotechnology where you take risks across the technology side, the commercial side, and the biological side. It takes a lot of experience to mitigate those risks.
How difficult has it been taking that idea and turning it into a viable business proposition?
Thelma and I came out of the MPhil in Bioscience Enterprise at the University of Cambridge. It gave us this really strong foundation to start building. We also had the biological knowledge from our previous degrees. This framework, where we had key opinion leaders and great people in the field with whom we could bounce ideas off, was the first step. We saw that the idea was really positive and was received well by a lot of people. So, we thought: ‘we’re onto something’.
When building a biotech company, if you’re not passionate about it and don’t want to spend a lot of your time dedicated to the project, then it’s not going to take off. You need to be there to make changes, and really embrace and understand where you believe it’s going to go in line with the advice you've been given and the insights that you have generated.
We’re not only interested in understanding the intricate nature of biology. We’re also interested in how this has real life application in changing people’s lives. Every person we speak to has been affected in some way by cardiovascular disease.
I noticed that your presentation was really polished. Do you have any tips for people presenting in the final?
We’ve presented a lot of times so I think practice makes perfect. With a presentation, you need to be able to tell a story. It’s all about the storyline and building that image. You have to take care and be diligent in the process. Take time to make sure everything is structured correctly and that the story flows. Don’t be afraid to present to a lot of people who will give you advice. Take the time to make the amendments and run it through again and again, and see what the response is. So, take your time on the presentation to get your story across.
You were both very calm when the judges’ questions came. How did you prepare for these questions?
Out of this Cambridge network, the people we spoke to all asked the right questions. You see the pattern of these questions. They all want to know similar things. So, once we identified that pattern, we wrote down the questions that were important from our conversations and we practiced responses to these questions, which were by this point, fully embedded into the company’s business model; which then lends itself to an insightful, actionable response.
How are you going to use the £5,000 prize money and what’s next?
We’ll put the prize money towards refining of some of our technology. In terms of what’s next, Thelma (Zablocki), Namshik (Han), and I are dedicated to this company. We want to see it through and eventually make a drug that ends up reaching patients. This will take a long time.
To see that in the real world, where someone’s getting prescribed a drug that you discovered would be incredible.
>> For more on this year’s Bright SCIdea final, go to: https://www.soci.org/news/2022/3/bright-scidea-final-2022.
We caught a tantalising glimpse of the next generation wearable technology at this year’s Bright SCIdea challenge final.
When we look at our FitBits or Apple Watches, we wonder what they could possibly monitor next. We know the fluctuations of our heartbeat, how a few glasses of wine affect our quality of sleep, and the calories burnt during that run in the park. But what’s next?
If the amazing wearable devices pitched by just three of our Bright SCIdea finalists are anything to go by, then we can look forward to not just next generation health monitoring but possible in-situ treatment too.
In recent times, medics have learnt far more about stress and its effect on our health. Indeed, stress was the focus of Happy BioPatch (from Oxford University and Manchester University) technology. The second place team has incorporated an IP-protected enzyme within a patch that measures your stress levels (by detecting the levels of cortisol in your sweat) throughout the day.
This information migrates from body to phone and notifies you if your stress levels are too high. One of many exciting aspects of this technology is that it could be used by physicians to check if patients need treatment for depression and prevent the serious consequences of stress. As one of the judges said, ‘I like it because it’s preventative.’
From mental health to physical health, two of the other finalists use wearable devices to address maladies in in-situ. BioTech Inov, from the University of Coimbra in Portugal, has developed plans for a subcutaneous biomedical device that tracks the blood sugar levels in diabetes patients. This technology would enable the wearer to track their blood sugar levels and let them know if trouble is lurking.
The latest smart watches track your body temperature, sleep quality, and can even detect electrodermal activity on your skin to gauge stress levels. | Editorial image credit: Kanut Photo / Shutterstock
Another intriguing development was the in-device treatment developed by the Hatton Cross team (comprising students from the University of Warwick, Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London). The team is developing wearable technology that can detect wrist pain from sport, or the types of repetitive stress injuries arising from typing or writing too much.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the technology is the potential for in-device treatment. On the preventative side, the device could use vibration to alert users that their wrists are under strain. They also mentioned using heat from the device, or the release of a 0.05 Tesla magnetic field, to relax the muscles.
Another really insightful comment on the technology came from one of the judges. Dr Sarah Skerratt suggested that this type of technology - which is subtly attuned to the movements of the hand and wrist - could theoretically be used in the early diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. That is not to say there aren’t regulatory issues with developing wearable technologies for medical purposes, as the judges pointed out, but the potential of such devices is huge.
Wearable devices could be used to help diabetes sufferers, such as this Insulin Management System used by those with type 1 diabetes. | Editorial image credit: Maria Wan / Shutterstock
The staggering thing is that the technologies pitched by the Bright SCIdea finalists are just three of the myriad innovations being developed around the world at the moment.
Thirty years ago, few of us could have imagined that we would have a personal computer, music system, TV, watch, video, phone, camera, and games console all encapsulated within a single box that fits in our pockets. In 30 years’ time, we will scarcely be able to believe the health capabilities of the devices worn on our wrists and bodies.
Perhaps you will have heard of them first during the Bright SCIdea challenge?
How do flowers use fragrance to attract pollinators, and how do pollution and climate change hamper pollination? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.
‘Fragrance is the music of flowers’, said Eleanour Sophy Sinclair Rohde, an eminent mid 20th century horticulturist. But they are much more than that. Scents have fundamental biological purposes. Evolution has refined them as means for attracting pollinators and perpetuating the particular plant species emitting these scents.
There are complex biological networks connecting the scent producers and attracted pollinators within the prevailing environment. Plants flowering early in the year are generalist attractors. By late spring and early summer, scents attract more specialist pollinators as shown by studies of alpines growing in the USA Rocky Mountains. This is because there is a bigger diversity of pollinator activity as seasons advance. Scents are mixtures of volatile organic compounds with a prevalence of monoterpenes.
Environmental factors will affect scent emission. Natural drought, for example, changes flower development and reduces the volumes and intensity of scent production. The effectiveness of pollinating insects, such as bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies is reduced by aerial pollution.
Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus).
Studies showed there were 70% fewer pollinators in fields affected by diesel fumes, resulting in lower seed production. Pollinating insects do not find the flowers because nitrogenous oxides and ozone change the composition of scent molecules.
Extensive studies of changes in flowering dates show that climate change can severely damage scent–pollinator ecologies. Over the past 30 years, blooming of spring flowers has advanced by at least four weeks. Earlier flowering disrupts the evolved natural synchrony between scent emitters and insect activity and their breeding cycles. In turn that breaks the reproductive cycles of early flowering wild herbs, shrubs and trees, eventually leading to their extinction.
The lilac bush, known for its evocative scent.
Scents provide powerful mental and physical benefits for humankind. Pleasures are particularly valuable for those with disabilities especially those with impaired vision. Even modest gardens can provide scented pleasures.
Bulbs such as Pheasant’s eye daffodils (Narcissus recurvus) (illustration no 1), which flower in mid to late-spring, and lilacs (illustration no 2) are very rewarding scent sources.
Sweetly perfumed annuals such as mignonette, night-scented stocks, candytuft and sweet peas (illustration no 3) are easily grown from garden centre modules, providing pleasures until the first frosts.
Sweet peas are easily grown from garden centre modules.
Roses are, of course, the doyenne of garden scents. Currently, Harlow Carr’s scented garden, near Harrogate, highlights the cultivars Gertrude Jekyll, Lady Emma Hamilton and Saint Cecilia as particularly effective sources of perfume. For larger gardens, lime or linden trees (Tilia spp) form profuse greenish-white blossoms in mid-season, laden with scents that bees adore.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
The clichés we use become so downtrodden that we often say them without thinking. How many times, for example, have you said you went with your gut on a certain decision?
As with many of these aphorisms, there appears to be genuine wisdom behind it. Scientists are learning all the time about the links between our guts and our brains, and recent findings from a California Institute of Technology-led (Caltech) study have added to our understanding of what’s going on behind our belly buttons.
This research contends that a particular molecule, produced by our gut bacteria, has contributed to anxious behaviour in mice. The Caltech researchers say that a small-molecule metabolite that lives in the mouse’s gut can travel up to the brain and alter the function of its cells. This adds further grist to the belief that there is a link between our microbiome, brain function, and mood.
The researchers behind the Nature paper say previous studies found that people with certain neurological conditions have different gut bacteria communities. Furthermore, studies in mice revealed that manipulating these communities can alter neurological states.
Their study investigated the bacterial metabolite 4-ethylphenyl sulphate (4EPS) that is produced in the intestines of humans and mice and circulates throughout the body. In particular, they focused on the effect of 4EPS on mouse anxiety. For the sake of the study, mouse anxiety measured the creature’s behaviour in a new space - whether it hid in a new space as if from a predator or whether it was willing to sniff around and explore it.
The researchers compared two groups of lab mice: those colonised with pairs of bacteria that were genetically engineered to produce 4EPS, and a second group that was colonised with similar bacteria that couldn’t produce 4EPS. They then observed the rodents’ behaviour after being introduced to a new area.
Some mice become anxious when introduced to new spaces, and this is reflected both in the gut and the brain.
The results were very interesting indeed. The researchers observed that the group of mice with 4EPS spent far less time exploring this new place and more time hiding compared to the second group of non-4EPS mice. They also found that brain regions associated with fear and anxiety were more activated within this first group.
>> Interested in drug discovery? Why not attend our upcoming event at the Francis Crick Institute, London, UK.
When the mice were treated with a drug that could overpower the negative effects of 4EPS, their behaviour became less anxious. A similar study in Nature Medicine also found that mice were less anxious when treated with an oral drug that soaked up and removed 4EPS from their bodies.
The Caltech-led research could inform our understanding of anxiety and mood conditions.
‘It’s an exciting proof-of-concept finding that a specific microbial metabolite alters the activity of brain cells and complex behaviours in mice, but how this is happening remains unknown,’ says researcher Sarkis Mazmanian, in whose laboratory much of the research took place.
‘The basic framework for brain function includes integration of sensory and molecular cues from the periphery and even the environment. What we show here is similar in principle but with the discovery that the neuroactive molecule is of microbial origin. I believe this work has implications for human anxiety or other mood conditions.’
So, our predecessors were right: there’s a lot more to those gut feelings than you think.
>> Read the Nature paper on the Nature magazine website.
How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Professor Geoff Dixon explains all.
Cultivating soil is as old as horticulture itself. Basically, three processes have evolved over time. Primary cultivation involves inversion which buries weeds, adds organic matter and breaks up the soil profile, encouraging aeration and avoiding waterlogging.
Secondary cultivation prepares a fine tilth as a bed for sowing small seeded crops such as carrots or beetroot. In the growing season, tertiary cultivation maintains weed control, preventing competition for resources (illustration no. 1) such as light, nutrients and water while discouraging pest and disease damage.
Lettuce and seed competition
The onset of rapid climate change encouraged by industrialisation has focused attention on preventing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ploughing disturbs the soil profile and accelerates the loss of carbon dioxide from soil.
It is also an energy intensive process. Consequently, many broad acre agricultural crops such as cereals, oilseed rape and sugar beet are now drilled directly without previous primary cultivation. An added advantage is that stubble from previous crops remains in situ over winter, offering food sources for birds. The disadvantages of direct drilling are: increased likelihood of soil waterlogging and reduced opportunities for building organic fertility by adding farmyard manure or well-made composts.
Overall, primary and secondary cultivation benefit vegetable growing. The areas of land involved are far smaller and the crops are grown very intensively. Vegetables require high fertility, weed-free soil, good drainage and minimal accumulation of soil-borne pests and diseases.
Frost action breaking down soil clods
Digging increases each of these benefits and provides healthy physical exercise and mental stimulation. Frost action on well-dug soil breaks down the clods (illustration no. 2). Ultimately, fine seed beds are produced by secondary cultivation (illustration no. 3), which encourage rapid germination and even growth of root and salad crops.
Tertiary cultivation to prevent weed competition is also of paramount importance for vegetable crops. Competition in their early growth stages weakens the quality of root and leafy vegetables, destroying much of their dietary value. Regular hoeing and hand removal of weeds are necessities in the vegetable garden.
Raking down soil producing a fine tilth
Ornamental and fruit gardens similarly benefit from tertiary cultivation. Weeds not only provide competition but are also unsightly, destroying the visual image and psychological satisfaction of these areas.
Lightly forking over these areas in spring and autumn encourages water percolation and root aeration. Once established, ornamental herbaceous perennials and soft and top fruit areas benefit greatly from the addition of organic top dressings. Over several seasons these will augment fertility and nutrient availability.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
A sprig of thyme to fight that cold… Turmeric tea after exercising… An infusion of chamomile to ease the mind… As we move with fresh resolution through January, Dr Vivien Rolfe, of Pukka Herbs, explains how a few readily available herbs could boost your health and wellbeing.
The New Year is a time when many of us become more health conscious. Our bodies have been through so much over the last few years with Covid, and some of us may need help to combat the January blues. So, can herbs and spices give us added support and help us get the new year off to a flying start?
The oils in chamomile have nerve calming effects.
We may wish to ease ourselves into the year and look for herbs to help us relax. The flowers from these herbs contain aromatic essential oils such as linalool from lavender (Lavandula) and chamazulene from German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) that soothe us when we inhale them (López et al 2017). Chamomile also contains flavonoids that are helpful when ingested (McKay & Blumberg 2006).
If you have a spot to grow chamomile in your garden, you can collect and dry the flowers for winter use. Lavender is also a staple in every garden and the flowers can be dried and stored. Fresh or dry, these herbs can be steeped in hot water to make an infusion or tea and enjoyed. As López suggests, the oils exert nerve calming effects. Maybe combine a tea with some breathing exercises to relax yourselves before bed or during stressful moments in the day.
Thyme is a handy herbal remedy. Generally, the term herb refers to the stem, leaf and flower parts, and spice refers to roots and seeds.
>> The plant burgers are coming. Read here about the massive growth of meat alternatives.
Many people may experience seasonal colds throughout the winter months and there are different herbal approaches to fighting infection. Andrographis paniculata is used in Indian and traditional Chinese medicine and contains bitter-tasting andrographolides, and in a systematic review of products, the herb was shown to relieve cough and sore throats symptoms in upper respiratory tract infection (Hu et al 2017).
Gargling with herbal teas is another way to relieve a sore throat, and the benefits of green tea (Camellia sinensis) have been explored (Ide et al 2016). I’m an advocate of garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) which contains the essential oil thymol and is used traditionally to loosen mucus alongside its other cold-fighting properties.
You could experiment by combining thyme with honey to make a winter brew. I usually take a herbal preparation at the sign of the very first sneeze that hopefully then stops the infection progressing.
Shatavari (pictured) is said to improve strength, and ashwagandha can help recovery.
We may start the new year with more of a spring in our step and wishing to get a little fitter. As we get older, we may lose muscle tissue which weakens our bones and reduces our exercise capability. Human studies have found that daily supplementation with shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) can improve strength in older women, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) can enhance muscle strength and recovery in younger males (O’Leary et al 2021; Wankhede et al 2015).
These herbs are known as adaptogens and traditionally they are used in tonics or to support fertility. The research to fully understand their adaptogenic activity or effects on muscle function is at an early stage. Other herbs such as turmeric may help muscle recovery after exercise. I brew a turmeric tea and put it in my water bottle when I go to the gym.
>> How is climate change affecting your garden? Find out here.
Lemon balm is easy to grow but might want to take over your garden.
Depending on your resolutions, you could use herbs and spices to add lovely flavours to food to try and reduce your sugar and salt intake. Liquorice is a natural sweetener, and black pepper and other herbs and spices can replace salt.
You could also bring joy to January by growing herbs from seed on a windowsill or in a garden or community space. Mint, lemon balm, lavender, thyme, and sage are all easy to grow, although mint and balm may take over!
All make lovely teas or can be dried and stored for use, and research is also showing that connecting with nature – even plants in our homes – is good for us.
You can read more about medicinal and culinary properties of herbs at https://www.jekkas.com/.
If you wish to learn more about the practice of herbal medicine and the supporting science, go to https://www.herbalreality.com/.
>> Dr Viv Rolfe is head of herbal research at Pukka Herbs Ltd. You can find out more about Pukka’s research at https://www.pukkaherbs.com/us/en/wellbeing-articles/introducing-pukkas-herbal-research.html, and you can follow her and Pukka on Twitter @vivienrolfe, @PukkaHerbs.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can find more of his work here.
Gardens in December should, provided the weather allows, be hives of activity and interest. Many trees and shrubs, especially Roseaceous types, offer food supplies especially for migrating birds.
Cotoneaster (see image below) provides copious fruit for migrating redwings and waxwings as well as resident blackbirds. This is a widely spread genus, coming from Asia, Europe and northern Africa.
Cultivated as a hedge, it forms thick, dense, semi-evergreen growth that soaks up air pollution. In late spring, its white flowers are nectar plants for brimstone and red admiral butterflies and larval food for moths. Children and pets, however, should be guided away from the attractive red berries.
Cotonester franchetti | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Medlars (Mespilus germanica) offer the last fruit harvest of the season (see image below). These small trees produce hard, round, brownish fruit that require frosting to encourage softening (bletting).
Its soft fruit can be scooped out and eaten raw and the taste is not dissimilar to dates. Alternatively, medlar fruit can be baked or roasted and, when turned into jams and jellies, they are delicious, especially spread on warm scones.
Like most rosaceous fruit, medlars are nutritionally very rich in amino acids, tannins, carotene, vitamins C and B and several beneficial minerals. As rich sources of antioxidants medlars also help reduce the risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes.
Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica) can be turned into jams and jellies | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Garden work continues through December. It is a time for removing dead leaves and stems from herbaceous perennials, lightly forking through the top soil and adding granular fertilisers with high potassium and phosphate content.
Top fruit trees gain from winter pruning, which opens out their structure, allowing air circulation when fully laden with leaves, flowers and fruit. Fertiliser will feed and encourage fresh root formation as spring progresses.
The vegetable garden is best served by digging and incorporating farm yard manure or well-rotted compost, which adds fertility and encourages worm populations. The process of digging is also a highly beneficial exercise for the gardener (see illustration no 3).
Turning the soil isn’t only good for your garden - it boosts your wellbeing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Developing a rhythm with this task supports healthy blood circulation and, psychologically, provides huge mental satisfaction in seeing a weedy plot transformed into rows of well-turned bare earth.
When the weather turns wet, windy and wintery it provides opportunities for cleaning, oiling and sharpening tools, inspecting stored fruit and the roots of dahlias kept in frost-proof conditions.
Finally, there is always the very relaxing and pleasant task of reading through seed and plant catalogues and planning what may be grown in the coming seasons.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
How has climate change changed the way our gardens grow and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.
Climate has changed on Earth ever since it solidified and organic life first emerged. Indeed, the first photosynthesising microbes changed the atmosphere from carbon dioxide rich to oxygen rich over millions of years. What we now face is very rapid changes brought about by a single organism, mankind, through industrialisation.
The effects of change are very evident in gardens. Over a generation, leaf bud breaking and flowering by early spring bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees has advanced by at least four weeks (see main image of Cyclamen hederifolium).
Latter spring displays have advanced by at least two weeks. This is caused by milder, wetter winter weather, encouraging growth. The danger lies in the increasing frequency of short sharp spells of severe frost and snow. These kill off precocious flowers and leaves which trees especially cannot replace.
Desiccated, cracked soil.
Increasingly, the summer climate is becoming hotter and drier. Since the Millennium there has been a succession of hot droughts. These seriously limit scope for growing vegetables, fruit and ornamentals unless irrigation is regularly available. Drought also damages soil structure especially where there is a high clay content by causing cracking and the loss of plant cover (see image of desiccated, cracked soil above).
Cracking disrupts and destroys the root systems of trees and shrubs in particular. The effects of root damage may not become evident until these plants die in the following years.
Climate change is apparently advantageous for microbes. Detailed surveys show that fungal life cycles are speeding up, increasing the opportunities for diseases to cause damage. Even normally quite resilient crops such as quince are being invaded during milder, damper autumns (See image of brown rot on quince fruit below). Throughout gardens, the range and aggressiveness of pests and disease is increasing.
Brown rot (Monilia laxa) on quince fruit.
However, each individual garden or allotment, no matter its size, can contribute to reducing the rate of climate change. Simple actions include the removal of hard landscaping, and planting trees and shrubs reduces carbon emissions.
Using electric-powered tools and machinery in place of petrol or diesel has similar advantages. Tumbling down parts of a garden into native flora, and perhaps encouraging rarer plants such as wild orchids or fritillarias, mitigates climate change. Such areas may also form habitats for hedgehogs or slow worms, increase populations of bees, butterflies and moths and encourage bird life.
All images from Professor Geoff Dixon.
Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.
Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.
Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.
Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.
Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.
Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.
Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.
Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.
Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.
So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.
The iris family (Iridaceae) provides gardeners with a glorious array of colourful and frequently well scented flowers. Originating from both tropical and temperate regions, some such as freesias are best cultivated under protection. Others such as gladioli and crocus are reliable garden plants.
Iris, or fleur-de-lis, is one of the larger genera, offering colour and interest from the very earliest springtime through to May and June. The earliest and always most welcome is Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa). Flowers (see illustration 1) emerge in the darkest days of December, encouraged by the warming effects of climate change.
Illustration 1: Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa) / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Originating from North Africa, it thrives in south facing dry borders, preferably under a wall where winter sunshine encourages proliferous flowering. Every few years, lift and divide the clump of small rhizomes after flowering has finished. Remove older growth and replant younger roots with a modest handful of compost and water well. Established clumps can be cut back, removing dead leaves during late spring.
By contrast Iris pseudacorus, the water flag, thrives in wet, boggy places or even when immersed in water. Found across Europe, it is a British native plant producing vivid yellow flowers that are rich sources of nectar. In parts of Scotland it forms large expanses of natural growth that are favoured by nesting corncrakes. It can be cultivated as part of water purification programmes since nitrogen and phosphorus are extracted by the vigorous root systems.
Illustration 2: Iris germanica / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The prima donna is Iris germanica, the flag or bearded iris. These are stately plants, producing flower spikes up to one metre high and furnished with multicoloured flowers (illustration 2). Upright standard petals can contrast completely with the falls which bear a beard of yellow pollen bearing stamens. Fertiliser should be applied as the flower spikes appear. It should be applied again after flowering, stimulating root growth in anticipation of a colourful display in the next season.
Illustration 3: Rhizome ready for division / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The rhizome is a large swollen ground-creeping stem from which side shoots develop with a terminal area of older tissue (illustration 3). Every four or five years, the rhizomes should be lifted and divided by removing the terminal tissue and splitting off side shoots with a sharp knife. These and the main rhizome should be replanted carefully, ensuring that they rest on the soil surface with their fibrous roots buried beneath them. Multiplication eventually provides a border filled with very colourful displays that can persist for a month since flowers frequently emerge along most of the spike.
Watching plants grow in a hydroponic contraption is an education. The plants sit in foam under UV light while their roots feed on water fortified by plant feed. There is no soil. No thirst. No room for death by lazy gardener. The results, as any hydroponic enthusiast will tell you, are startling.
So, what if we were to adopt this targeted, optimised approach to our own nutrition? What would happen if he were to ditch that delicious Sunday roast in favour of a shake that contains all the vitamins and minerals your body needs? Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but people do something similar already. Many gym obsessives take protein shakes religiously to feed their bodies’ impressive musculature, while others skip meals entirely in favour of such drinks and supplements.
An organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm
A recent study conducted by the Cherab Foundation, which featured in the Alternative Therapies journal, concludes that nutritional supplements may also help boost our brain function. After giving 77 people a vitamin and meal replacement product called IQed Smart Nutrition, the researchers from the non-profit organisation found that the supplement boosted brain function in a range of areas and could help people with autism, apraxia, and ADHD.
Almost 84% of participants reported deficits in speech and communication prior to taking the nutritional supplements. After taking the product, more than 85% said their expressive speech had improved while 67% of respondents reported improvements in other areas including focus, language understanding, oral motor skills, and physical and behavioural health.
Overall, 64% of participants reported positive changes within two weeks. According to the Cherab Foundation, the research aims “to guide future research into the dietary interventions and potential management of neurological conditions using natural food products, vitamin and mineral supplements”.
So, what ingredients are in the supplement-infused chocolate shake that will replace the wood-fired pizza you’re due to have next Friday evening? According to IQed, its powdered chocolate offering contains everything from brown rice, apple fibres, turmeric, and green tea, to copper gluconate, amalaki, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds.
Turmeric, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds have hopped onto the superfood bandwagon in recent years.
Some will dismiss these supplements as hocus-pocus, but the potential benefits of optimised nutrition are exciting nonetheless. If some wince-inducing elixir makes us healthier, stronger and live longer, perhaps it’s worth investigating further?
The Cherub Foundation works to improve the communication skills, education, and advocacy of children on the neurological spectrum. To read more about its study, visit: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32088673/
Perennial bush soft fruits are among the crown jewels of gardening. Gooseberries, red currants and blackcurrants when well established will annually reward with crops of very tasty ripe fruit which provide exceptional health benefits. These bushes will mature into quite sizeable plants so only relatively few, maybe one to five of each will be sufficient for most home gardeners or allotment owners.
Header image: Gooseberries | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The art of successful establishment lies in initial care and planting. Buy good quality dormant plants from reputable nurseries or garden centres. Plunge the roots deeply in a bucket of water and plant as quickly as possible. These crops need rich fertile soil which is weed free and has recently been dug over with the incorporation of farmyard manure or well-rotted compost. Each bush requires ample growing space with at least a one metre distance within and between rows.
Take out a deep planting hole and soak with water. Place the new bush into the hole, spreading out the root system in all directions. Add mycorrhizal powder around and over the roots, which encourages growth promoting fungi. These colonise the roots, aiding nutrient uptake and protecting from soil borne pathogens. Carefully fold the soil back around the roots, shaking the plant. That settles soil in and around the roots and up to the collar which shows where the plant had grown in the nursery. Tread around the collar to firm the plant and add more water. Normally, planting is completed in late winter to early spring before growth commences.
Redcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
As buds open in spring, keep the plants well-watered. It is crucially important that the young bushes do not suffer drought stress, especially during the first summer. Supplement watering with occasional applications of liquid feed which contains large concentrations of potassium and phosphate plus micro nutrients. Remove all weeds and flowers in this first year. That concentrates all the products of photosynthesis into root, shoot and leaf formation for future seasons. Clean up around the plants in autumn, removing dead leaves that might harbour disease-causing pathogens.
These plants will flower and fruit from the first establishment year. Each bush will produce fruit which is a succulent and rewarding source of health-promoting vitamins and nutrients.
Blackcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Blackcurrants are a fine source of vitamin C and have twice the antioxidant content of blueberries. Redcurrants are sources of flavonoids and vitamin B, while gooseberries are rich in dietary fibre, copper, manganese potassium and vitamins C, B5 and B6.
Blackbirds also like these fruits so netting or cages are needed! Continuing careful husbandry will yield a succession of expanding and rewarding crops.
Variously known as zucchini, courgette, baby marrows and summer squash, this frost tender crop is a valuable addition for gardens and allotments. Originating in warm temperate America, the true zucchini was developed by Milanese gardeners in the 19th century and popularised in the UK by travellers in Italy. It quickly matures in 45 to 50 days from planting out in open ground by early May in the south and a couple of weeks later farther north.
Alternatively, use cloches as frost protection for early crops. Earliness is also achieved by sowing seed in pots of openly draining compost by mid-April in a greenhouse or cold frame. Courgettes have large, energy-filled seeds. Consequently, germination and subsequent growth are rapid.
Sow seed singly in 10cm diameter pots and plant out when the first 2-3 leaves are expanding (illustration number 1). Alternatively, garden centres supply transplants. These should be inspected carefully, avoiding those with yellowing leaves or wilting foliage. Each plant should have white healthy-looking roots without browning.
Illustration 1: Courgette seedlings germinated in a greenhouse.
Courgettes grow vigorously and each plant should be allocated at least 1 metre spacing within and between rows. They require copious watering and feeding with a balanced fertiliser containing equal quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Botanically, they are dioecious plants, having separate male and female flowers, (illustration number 2). They are beloved by bees, hence supporting biodiversity in the garden. Slugs are their main pest, causing browsing wounds on courgette fruits; mature late-season foliage is usually infected by powdery mildew fungi that cause little harm.
Illustration 2: Bee-friendly (and tasty) courgette flower.
Quick maturing succulent courgettes are hybrid cultivars, producing harvestable 15-25 cm long fruit (berries) before the seeds begin forming (illustration number 3). Harvest regularly at weekly intervals before the skins (epicarps) begin strengthening and toughening. Skin colour varies with different cultivars from deep green to golden yellow. The choice rests on gardeners’ preferences.
Courgettes are classed and cooked as vegetables and their dietary value is retained by steaming thinly sliced fruits. Courgettes are a low-energy food but contain useful amounts of folate, potassium and vitamin A (retinol). The latter boosts immune systems, helping defend against illness and infection and increasing respiratory efficiency. Eyesight is also protected by increasing vision in low light.
Illustration 3: Courgette fruit ready for the table.
Courgettes are, therefore, valuable dietary additions year-round. Courgette flowers are bonuses, used as garnishes or dipped in batter as fritters or tempura. Overall, the courgette is a most useful plant that provides successional cropping using ground vacated by over-wintered vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts or leeks.