Apple a Day

MaxLavendarLike all parents, I think almost constantly about nutrition.  Gone are the days of my single youth when I just “grabbed something to eat” without much thought, other than its financial cost.  Instead, you’ll find me reading labels on groceries, seeking out food marketing terms like “organic,” “dye and perfume-free,” “whole grain,” and more.  I’m also a high school science teacher, so while I embed little nutrition, sleep, and exercise messages into my lessons, I also do my part to urge my own kids to prioritize these things. 

I have always been fascinated by natural offerings and what they can replace for us, in lieu of less healthy options.  I was terrified of drugs as a teenager, thanks to the Reagan Administration’s onslaught of advertising and education inclusive demonistic representations of addicts.  I avoided caffeine and even aspirin.  Instead of referring to pills or syrups when I was ill, I turned to herbal tea, relaxation techniques, massage, exercise, or sleep.  I used to drink a lot of licorice tea, which was a lovely sweet drink (even iced) without any calories.  I thought I was really on to something, as non-calorie sweeteners took a foothold on the children of the 70s, with a lot of question as to their health risks (aspartame, saccharin, and others still receive piles of criticism, justified or not).  I’d add peppermint, lavender, or basil leaves to boiling water, then hold my tented head above it, to clear head colds and open pores.  With plants all around, and a family that likes to “do it ourselves,” it seemed perfectly natural to forgo something pre-packaged at the store, for our own household remedies.

Jessica Kazmucha contacted me over a month ago about offering a free class for adults on natural remedies.  I was immediately excited.  She’s been working in this field for a couple of years, and it’s always exciting to discuss how someone handles nutrition and other health issues, in a natural way.  I can share my few tricks, but what I think works is often simply anecdotal – I can only hypothesize about what mechanism is behind it and finding research to substantiate my hunches is difficult.  I know other parents actively seek answers, and on the Internet, solutions seem to abound, but so do hoaxes.   I observed a mom at our Tae Kwon Do class voraciously taking notes on what she could find on her smart phone, the other day, writing down chemical names and volumes, along with layman’s descriptions of what they would treat.  I would have offered to explain some of them to her, but my shyness took over, as her family’s health issues are really none of my business.

In my classroom, I teach about the metabolic pathways that make a lot of living things successful at regenerating lost tissue or healing wounds, as well as preventing infection or fending off predators/herbivores, in my Advanced Placement Biology Class.  My students ingest stuff every day, and are acutely aware of their metabolism and some outcomes of it – acne, weight loss or gain, mood changes, and secondary sexual characteristics – all uncannily intertwined in their crazy teen existences with looming social and academic pressures.  We spend about three weeks in the spring, trying to discover and define with biochemical detail, some metabolites from plants that are bioactive – able to kill bacteria or yeast.  It is by far one of the most interesting and engaging activities of our school year.  My students are thrilled to examine their own “wives’ tales” heard across generations in their families – “honey and lemon cures a sore throat,” “garlic, cayenne, and peppermint cure colds,” “tea tree oil helps heal cuts.”  We create fresh extracts from live plant tissue, see how well they inhibit microbe reproduction, then approximate the diversity and polarity of bioactive compounds in their extracts.  Last year, some were gushing at the end of the activity, excited to return home and share with their families that the wives’ tales had some data to back them up.  It’s also confirming to me, as I know some of my hunches about helpful plants are not simply anecdotal.

I’ve met researchers locally who do exactly what my students do, in the hopes of finding a more sustainable, healthy, inexpensive treatment in lieu of pills, dye-laden medicines, and expensive medical visits.  About five years ago, I met a professor at Stanford who was exploring how bacteria communicate, and how mechanisms in plants can disrupt that communication, as a means of impeding microbial growth.  Ling Zhan at UCSF made headlines last year for pursuing that old adage “an apple a day, keeps the doctor away.”  It appears that apples and other fruit tissue may have compounds that prevent microbial growth, and chomping on that fresh apple may be helpful for killing mouth bacteria that might cause cavities.  Since there is a correlation between the amount and type of mouth bacteria and more serious medical issues like cardiovascular disease, even aiming at something as minor as preventing cavities, could have some very positive impacts.  Add to this, that eating fresh fruits and vegetables helps people maintain healthy digestive tracts and blood, by removing free radicals and increasing fiber, and it seems you could not go wrong to eat a fresh apple, in lieu of your pasteurized bottle of apple juice or packet of apple sauce (the high heat and pressure of pasteurization can modify compounds in fresh food, modifying how they work, including making them no longer effective).

We hope you can join us for a lively class at Whole Foods in Cupertino on September 19th at 7:30 pm, to explore plant extracts and the role they can play in family health.  Since we are restricting the class to 20, please RSVP to Debbie at to let us know if you are coming.  You can see our calendar of events for more details (  Jessica will bring in some samples, and describe what has worked for her, and will ask for questions about what help you are looking for.  Maybe instead of hesitantly reaching for the pink syrup with the child-proof top, you can try a natural treatment with some research behind it, derived from a plant like those you can grow in your yard.  Maybe you can confidently revise your “medicine cabinet” to include some natural treatments that are easier to swallow, from a health, economic, and sustainable perspective.

-Debbie (President and Founder), Max (7), Holly (3), and Andrew

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