THE POWERS OF MISTLETOE


How did kissing beneath a sprig of parasitic poisonous plant to ward off evil spirits

and improve fertility come to be celebrated during modern holidays?

Through the ages, ancient Greeks and Celtic Druids bestowed magical powers on mistletoe. This attractive green leafy plant with white berries and strong roots grows through bark and sucks its nutrients from the mother-tree. Mistletoe can grow as a bush and it thrives in trees, but is rarely seen growing in oak trees. When found in an oak, Druid priests considered the parasitic plant a sex symbol and the soul of the tree.

Kissing under the mistletoe has so many powers; it is difficult to keep them all straight. In the Middle Ages, branches of mistletoe hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. Today, decorating homes with mistletoe at Christmastime survives from Druid and pre-Christian traditions. In European folklore, mistletoe was even considered an aphrodisiac that could bestow life and fertility on believers.

In Scandinavia, mistletoe was considered a peace-plant helping enemies solve differences and could help warring couples make up. If you attended a Christmastime Kissing Ball in 18th century England, you had to agree to be kissed under the mistletoe. The special kiss might bring romance, lasting friendship and goodwill but any un-kissed girl would certainly not marry in the coming year, so there was a scramble for that kiss.

Many mistletoe beliefs are a mesh of lore and modern-day fun. Kissing under the mistletoe has become a holiday tradition representing peace and love. Just remember, no matter how hungry you are—don’t eat the mistletoe!

Some mistletoe varieties are poisonous and must not be consumed in any fashion. Keep the plant away from children and pets. Plants that contain phoratoxin can cause a variety of symptoms from blurred vision to blood pressure changes and death. Call Poison Control and seek medical attention if any of the leaves or berries are eaten.

ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center hotline at (888) 426-4435

US POISON CONTROL CENTER 1-800-222-1222

Betty Kuffel, MD

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BRIGHTEN YOUR HOLIDAYS WITH A MEXICAN FIRE PLANT

The Christmas Flower

Each year, admirers purchase more than 75 million poinsettias during the six-week holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Years. After seeing these brilliant red, pink, white and dappled poinsettias everywhere, have you every wondered how many of the lush tropical “Mexican fire plants” survive the winter months? Not many – based on my experience. Poinsettias in my hands usually became dreadful-looking and leafless by February. But for some reason, a beautiful white poinsettia I received as gift in 2011 not only survived the year, it quadrupled in size and is developing blooms just in time for this holiday season!

Since I didn’t know what I did to make my poinsettia flourish, I decided to do a little research. I discovered more than 60 varieties exist and was shocked to learn poinsettias grow to ten feet in height in their natural tropical habitat in Mexico! Botanist Dr. Joel Poinsett, America’s first ambassador to Mexico in 1825, introduced this unusual plant to our market. National Geographic News says the poinsettia is now the top-selling potted flowering in the US.

Cultivated by Aztecs, the brilliant flower was a symbol of purity. In the 17th Century, a group of Franciscan priests near Taxco began using the blooms in a nativity celebration. But, it isn’t only during the holidays you can enjoy this perennial plant. With the right care they will thrive for years.

Details on poinsettia care below were compiled from many sources:

  • Poinsettias do best in natural light in 65 degree daytime temperatures away from drafts and cold windows. Depending on your residence, these plants do well outside if the proper location is chosen. In Montana, it is safer to maintain them as house plants.
  •  The second and very important care is watering—just enough, avoiding over-watering. It must be in a draining pot and watered when the soil is dry to the touch. Discard excess water.
  • Continue above care through March. In April, trim back the main stems to about 8 inches. When new growth appears along the stems, fertilize once a week. Water as directed. In mid-July, snip tops leaving at least 4 leaves on each stem to encourage it to branch and become bushy, creating lots of blooms.
  • In the fall, beginning October 1 and extending until Thanksgiving, the plant prefers 14 hours of complete darkness from 6 pm to 8 am. The darkness can be simply provided by covering the plant with a box or by placing it in a closet.
  • Once the dark treatment is complete, the color-changing leaves (bracts) begin to change to showy colors. Stop the fertilizing, but continue watering when needed. Place the plant in an area that receives natural light away from drafts.

My poinsettia survived through luck —and by careful watering, a little fertilizer and letting it live in the northeast corner of a sunny room. Instead of placing it in complete darkness, the natural shortening hours of daylight in the northern Montana winter has been adequate to trigger the bracts to change color. After this blooming period, I plan to snip off a few of the longer stems to encourage more leaf growth.

Best of luck in your efforts to care for your poinsettia and watch it re-bloom in 2013.

Betty Kuffel, MD

LIGHT UP YOUR LIFE

Do You Have Winter Blues?

If this time of year tends to dampen your spirits and your energy, it could be the result of shorter days and longer nights. A condition known medically at SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, also called the “Winter Blues” – is a documented mood disorder where people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year, become depressive in winter months.

Although experts were initially skeptical, this condition is now recognized as a common disorder, prevalent across the U.S.  SAD was formally described and named in 1984 by Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal, a researcher, professor, psychiatrist and author of the book “Winter Blues.”

The National Library of Medicine notes “some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and may also feel depressed. Though symptoms can be severe, they usually clear up.”

If you feel a dampened-down mood change coming on, considering adding more lights inside and outside your home. Energy efficient bulbs now offer instant-on bright white and daylight options while actually reducing your electricity bill if used to replace older filament bulbs.

Our small Minnesota town has a delightful tradition. On the Eve of “Black Friday” – a parade of lighted horses and over 20 floats make their way through main-street. Family and friends gather on the sidewalks wrapped in winter coats and warm blankets (if weather demands), to watch the parade and join in the sounds and songs of merriment that fill the air.

The last float, a shiny fire truck covered in twinkle lights, ushers in Santa. With a wave of his hand and his jolly “Ho-Ho-Ho” the truck siren is sounded and the entire downtown and waterfront area comes alive with sparkling lights.

It doesn’t have to end there. Stores are filled with packages of inexpensive lights designed to adorn your home and landscape. Lighting contests are held throughout our area bringing people of all ages out to tour the spectacular scenes.

Sparkling starlight elicits a feeling of joy whether it is in summer or winter. With longer, darker winter nights now with us, even a few sparkling lights within our homes can add a feeling of joy.

“Deck the Halls” both inside and outside to increase and spread your own holiday cheer throughout your home and neighborhood.

Wishing you a bright cheery Holiday Season.

Bev Erickson

WHY ARE YOU EATING GLUTEN-FREE?

                  Gluten Intolerance: What is it?

 Gluten is a protein found in grains that 99% of the population eat without health risks unless when eaten in excess causing weight gain. Many of the good foods we eat everyday and with every meal contain gluten. Bread, pasta, cereals and many processed foods, even cold-cuts and salad dressings contain the culprit. Some candies contain gluten, too. So, to follow a gluten-free diet is not easy. Most people would not want to follow this restrictive diet for life unless it had proven value.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance include bloating, upset stomach, abdominal pain, weight loss and diarrhea. True gluten intolerance is an autoimmune disease in which the body mounts an inappropriate immune response against its own cells. The disease runs in families. It is sometimes becomes active after surgery, pregnancy, infections or severe emotional stress.

Nutrients including protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals are absorbed into the body via tiny projections in the small intestine called villi. In people affected by gluten intolerance or celiac disease (also known as gluten sensitive enteropathy or sprue), inflammation and damage to the villi occurs when they eat foods containing wheat, rye and barley. The damaged villi cannot absorb nutrients so gluten intolerant people become malnourished and lose weight.

Affected people may also develop lactose intolerance, vitamin deficiency, neuropathy with loss of sensation in feet and hands, skin problems and oral ulcers. Many other symptoms are attributable to the malabsorption: iron deficiency anemia, osteoporosis, fatigue, depression, menstrual irregularity and infertility.

To make a definitive diagnosis, a very sensitive blood test to detect the autoantibodies reacting against the intestine can be done. The autoantibodies are known as: Anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTGA) or anti-endomysium antibodies (EMA). If you are not eating gluten when you are evaluated, the test will be negative even if the disease is present. In fact, the test must be done before you quit eating gluten because without the stimulus from the abnormal protein, antibodies decrease and return to normal within three-six months. People who have an accurate but negative test and still find they are symptomatic when they eat gluten are said to be gluten-sensitive.

Gluten intolerance can develop at any time. Right now it seems to be a fad to go “gluten-free.” A gluten-free diet is healthy, but there is no scientific evidence that a gluten-free diet is any healthier than a diet containing gluten grains, unless of course, you are gluten-intolerant or actually have the autoimmune disease. A gluten-free diet eliminates wheat, barley, rye and oats, while including corn, nuts, potatoes, rice, soy and wild rice.

Find more information from the Celiac Disease Foundation at: www.celiac.org

Betty Kuffel, MD