Archive for February, 2007

Respecting human ecology.

(This is the fourth post in a series on my herbal philosophy. The first three posts were The body is an ecosystem, The body is not a war zone and Escaping the body-as-battleground trap.)

I said I would write about why I’m not a big fan of the body-as-temple theory of health. This might have been a surprise to some people, because a lot of “natural health” advocates teach this theory. It goes something like this:

Your body is your temple. It should be kept pure and holy. Bad health is a result of the desecration of your pure and holy temple by impure and unholy things. Therefore you must constantly purify your body and rigidly avoid everything unholy.

Right. That kind of Puritanism is just as silly as the body-as-battleground business. Same trap, different language. Here are the problems:

False assumptions. Bodies can’t be separated from their environments any more than body systems can be separated from each other. The skin is a permeable membrane, not a brick wall. Human beings are part of larger living ecosystems, and any model of health that tries to separate us from our surroundings just won’t work.

Disrespect. Human beings are vital and resilient ecosystems, not piles of dirty laundry. Human ecosystems have finely adapted detoxification and repair systems that should be respected and supported rather than bypassed and abused by “colon cleanses,” “liver flushes” and other such nonsense.

Rigidity. Puritanism is just not helpful. Sure, sugar (for example) isn’t good for you. But feeling superior and repressed because you didn’t eat any birthday cake is likely worse. Emotions are a part of your ecosystem. Culture is a part of your ecosystem. Sometimes it’s okay to eat birthday cake, sometimes it isn’t. Pay attention and you’ll know the difference.

An herbal practice that respects human bodies doesn’t try to “purify” them or take them out of ecological context. A truly vitalist herbal practice pays close attention to each human ecosystem and works to support its innate intelligence and adaptive capacity. A truly vitalist herbal practice works with, rather than against, human ecology.

Next in this series: My herbal philosophy is very simple.

(And I swear that millet polenta post is on the way—it’s just that it’s evolved into a whole series of posts on grains.)

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Mushrooms for strength.

Shiitakes

I found these gorgeous fist-sized locally-grown shiitake mushrooms at Putney Coop.
Perfect for winter chicken soup or just sauteed with butter and garlic, shiitakes are tasty mushrooms.

Shiitakes are also a good example of how much you can learn by tasting. To me, shiitakes taste meaty and solid and strong, and that’s exactly how they work in the body: they’re nourishing and strengthening on a really basic level. Shiitakes give sturdy support to the immune system—they’re often used to help people recover from viruses and cancer. In Traditional Chinese Medicine they’re strengthening tonics for blood and qi (indications include tiredness and frequent colds).

This is my favorite way to eat shiitakes for winter strength:

Slice up shiitakes and saute them in butter until they’re golden brown. Add salt and freshly chopped garlic at the end of cooking. So good.

(The mushroom’s name is sometimes spelled “shitake”, but the “ii” is a better approximation of the original Japanese.)

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Escaping the body-as-battleground trap.

(This is the third post in a series on my herbal philosophy. The first two posts were The body is an ecosystem and The body is not a war zone.)

Conventional medicine tends to think of the body as a battleground rather than an ecosystem. It takes a divide-and-conquer approach, dissecting the body into little pieces and forgetting how to put them together again.

I have a feeling that a lot of doctors and researchers fall into this trap because they’re drowning in a sea of microbiological information—they aren’t given the time or space or training to think about “macrobiology” or body ecology. So we have a proliferation of gastroenterologists and neurologists and dermatologists and fewer and fewer general practitioners. There really is an immense amount to know about the details of the human body, and specialization makes sense as a way to process those details. But the thing is, health problems are not specialized.

Take Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)—a common diagnosis these days. It’s a condition that usually involves a person’s nutritional status, digestive system, nervous system, immune system and psyche. Say an IBS patient gets violent diarrhea when she eats foods that have wheat in them. Her doctor says “Your allergy tests came back negative. You’re not allergic to wheat.” And she leaves her doctor’s office with a prescription for a drug with serious side effects.

Luckily, there are still doctors out there with enough common sense to say “Okay, if wheat makes you feel bad, just don’t eat it,” regardless of test results. But it’s all too common for doctors to rush in with invasive battleground-style treatments where simple ecological changes—lifestyle, diet, stress reduction—would be enough.

And doctors don’t have a monopoly on the body-as-battleground theory of disease either. There are plenty of herbalists and herbal salespeople out there who use plants with the same mindset. (Don’t get me started on people who tout echinacea and goldenseal as “herbal antibiotics.”)

As an herbalist, I work on the assumption that the body is a vital, resilient ecosystem. Everything I suggest to people is intended to support and revitalize the ecology of their bodies. So the disclosure statement my clients sign that says I work with them to “support health” rather than “treat disease”? It’s not some legal word game to avoid practicing medicine without a license—it’s absolutely true.

I do not cure anything. Herbs as I use them do not cure anything.

Human ecosystems heal themselves.

Next in this series: Why I’m not a big fan of the body-as-temple theory of health.

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Heart shaped seeds and herbal birth control.

Silphion seed on a Cyrene coin

Valentine’s day quiz: What is the symbol on this ancient Cyrenian coin?

Answer: It’s the seed of the silphion plant—a classical birth control remedy.

Looks like a heart, you say? Well, I think so too. And some people think that this is where the heart shape came from.

(Silphion—silphium to the Romans—was probably a species of giant fennel (Ferula) native to the North African coast. Pliny declared it extinct from overharvesting, but not all the ancient writers agreed on that point. Some people think it may have been giant Tangier fennel (Ferula tingitana), which is not extinct.)

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The body is not a war zone.

(This is the second post in a series on herbal philosophy. The first post was The body is an ecosystem.)

In a comment to my post on flu care, Persephone asked me to explain what I meant when I said “I’m not a big fan of the body-as-battleground theory of disease.”

The body-as-battleground theory of disease goes something like this:

The forces of evil (disease) have invaded the body. The forces of good (medicine) shall enter the body and conquer the forces of evil.

This theory sees the body as passive: it’s a battleground in a cosmic war between good and evil—a piece of territory rather than a dynamic, living organism. This theory does not respect the body’s innate vitality and intelligence. This theory doesn’t know the body is an ecosystem. This theory is ridiculous.

The debate between body-as-ecosystem and body-as-battleground has been going on for a long time. In the 19th century, Antoine Béchamp and Louis Pasteur squared off over whether the primary cause of disease could be found in the ecology of the body itself or in microbial “invaders.” Pasteur’s microbes carried the day, and medicine is still feeling the effects.

Sure, microbes are interesting. They certainly play a role in the development of some diseases. But they are in no way the whole story. Exposed to the same microbes, some people get sick and some people don’t. Every ecosystem is different.

It’s a question of science getting ahead of itself: “Wow, look at these bad little critters that make people sick. If we just kill them all, everything will be better again.” Um, no. Wrong approach. Think antibiotic resistance. Think superbugs.

The story of humans and microbes is fascinatingly complex. It turns out we’re covered with them, inside and out. And it turns out we depend on them—to protect us from infection, to manufacture nutrients, to train our immune systems . . . sure sounds like an ecosystem to me.

Next in this series:
Pitfalls in modern medicine: the body-as-battleground theory in practice.

And coming soon:
Traditional foods: millet polenta.

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Winter skin care: green tea moisturizing cream.

Green Tea Moisturizing Cream

Since the temperature dropped a week or two ago, my skin has been painfully dry.

I don’t generally like to use store-bought lotions and creams because almost all of them (even “natural” brands) have weird ingredients in them: drying alcohols, toxic preservatives, etc. And the ones that have good ingredients tend to be way too expensive for me. So I make my own.

This week I made a thick cream based on coconut oil (Cocos nucifera), green tea (Camellia sinensis) and oats (Avena sativa). It’s a rich moisturizer—the oats and green tea are soothing and healing, and the coconut oil forms a barrier that protects skin from harsh weather.

This is how I made it.

1. Melt 3-4 tablespoons of grated beeswax with 1/2 cup of coconut oil and 1/2 cup of grapeseed or other skin-friendly liquid oil (more beeswax makes a thicker cream). When it’s thoroughly melted, pour the oil mixture into a blender and let it cool completely.

2. Make a strong infusion from 2 tablespoons green tea and 3/4 cup almost-boiling water (don’t use boiling water on green tea; it destroys some of the medicine). Let it steep for 5 minutes or so. Then pour it through cheesecloth or muslin and wring it out. You should have about 1/2 cup of strong tea.

3. Simmer a small handful of oats in 3/4 cup water for about 10 minutes. Let it sit for a while (at least 1/2 hour). Strain. You should have about 1/2 cup of oat water.

4. Mix the oat water and the green tea together. These are your “waters” (as opposed to oils).

5. When both the oils and the waters are completely cool (it’s easiest to just wait until the next morning), put the waters into a pitcher or another container that’s easy to pour. Then get the blender going on its highest speed and pour the waters in a slow, steady stream into the center of the blending oils. When you’ve almost finished adding the waters, pay close attention. When the cream is ready, the blender will start to sputter and choke a little bit. When this happens, turn the blender off. Your cream is done. You can stir it more by hand if you like, but if you beat it too much it might separate. (This is also a good time to add a few drops of essential oil if you want to scent your cream. I used 5 drops of grapefruit oil.)

6. Scoop the cream into jars, and store it someplace cool. (Since it doesn’t have any preservatives in it, it’s a bit perishable. If you won’t be using it for a long time, you can store it in the refrigerator.)

You can vary the recipe in all sorts of ways, but make sure you have 1 cup each of oils and waters, and that they are at room temperature when you blend them. (The basic proportions of this cream are based on the recipe for Rosemary Gladstar‘s “Perfect Cream,” which can be found on Recipenet or in her many books.)

Some notes:

Because this cream doesn’t have drying alcohols in it like most store-bought creams do, it takes a few minutes to soak in. Don’t worry, your skin will absorb it.

Since this cream feels oilier than store-bought creams, people sometimes worry that it might promote breakouts. I have never found that to be the case. In fact, I’ve used it to soothe acne-prone skin with good results. But everyone’s skin is different, so you’ll have to try it and see how it feels.

New note (11 Feb): If it’s on the cool side in your house (i.e., your room temperature is below 68 or so), you might want to use less coconut oil and more liquid oil so that the final oil mix is soft enough for the blender to work with at room temperature. (The day I made this cream the wood fire in our house was really roaring.)

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A chance to talk: the Herbwifery forum.

Herbwifery.org

“Herbwifery” is what I call grassroots community herbalism—herbalism that is simple, down-home, based on local plants, and accessible to all kinds of people.

I’ve set up a forum at herbwifery.org so that people who are interested in this type of herbal practice can talk about it.

Some of the topics so far: using invasive plants for medicine, regulation of herbs and herbalists, and cultural appropriation in herbalism.

I hope you can join the conversation!

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Oh my goodness.

This from Henriette this morning:

Rebecca Hartman’s blog posts are outright shining. If you wanted to know the difference between different kinds of insomnia, head right on over to her Herbwife’s Kitchen. . . . If I were to do a “best herbal blog for January”, Rebecca would take the prize.

Oh my goodness! (Blushing.) That’s a lot to live up to, especially considering Henriette’s blog was what inspired me to start the Herbwife’s Kitchen in the first place!

(Do check out her rundown of herbal blogs. There’s a lot of good reading out there.)

Thanks, Henriette. I’ll do my best!

Coming soon: Homemade herbal lotions for winter skin.

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The body is an ecosystem.

(This is the first post in a series on my philosophy of herbalism. The posts in the series will alternate over the next couple of weeks with posts on herbs and food.)

The body is an ecosystem, and the basic principles of ecology are useful to herbalists:

1. Relationship. All systems of the body relate to and rely on each other.

2. Pattern. The relationships within the body form recognizable patterns.

3. Networks. The patterns in relationships within the body form networks.

4. Self-organization. These networks give the body an innate intelligence.

5. Flexibility. The body’s intelligence gives it the capacity to adapt and evolve.

6. Relationship. The body is part of the ecosystems it moves in.

A thorough understanding of the body as an ecosystem is the foundation of a truly vitalist herbalism—an herbalism that can work with the body’s innate intelligence in support of vitality.

Next in this series: The body is not a war zone.

NB: These principles of ecology come from the essay “Ecology and Community” by Fritjof Capra, available from the Center for Ecoliteracy.

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