Archive for Body systems

Lymph love: skin brushing.

With all the cold-weather bugs flying around the northern hemisphere these days, it’s nice to take care of our overworked lymphatic systems.

Since the circulating lymph doesn’t have its own pump like the blood does, we need to help it along by moving around and stretching our muscles (walking and dancing are great lymph-movers).

You can also help stagnant lymphatic fluid get moving by vigorously brushing your skin. Now, you may find all kinds of complicated instructions for skin brushing around the interwebs, but it’s really not that hard. Just take something rough but not too irritating — like a dry loofah, a natural-bristle brush, or a coarse washcloth — and rub your skin vigorously, in little circles, from the ends of your body toward your heart.

It only takes a couple of minutes, and it feels really great. (For me, it can make a huge difference in my energy level, especially on cold, sluggish mornings.)

One thing: do it before you shower or bathe, not after. (Skin is usually a little too sensitive for vigorous rubbing after contact with hot water.)

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We’re more sensitive to gluten than we used to be.

The New York Times’ Well Blog makes note of an interesting study today.

The study found that undiagnosed gluten sensitivity (celiac disease), as measured by a blood test, is four times more common than it was fifty years ago.

Fascinating.

The blog’s author (Tara Parker-Pope) speculates that the change “may be due to changes in the way wheat is grown and processed, or the ubiquity of gluten in medications and processed foods.”

I would add that our human ecosystems have seen some pretty serious changes as our food, medicine, and environment have changed. The relationship between gluten sensitivity and intestinal ecology isn’t understood, but I’d be willing to bet it’s significant.

I want to see the results of the Human Microbiome Project!

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Mexico, flu, antibiotics, and death.

Everyone seems to wonder why people are dying from the “swine flu” in Mexico, but not in other countries where the virus has been confirmed. (The one US death was a little boy visiting from Mexico with unidentified “underlying health issues.”)

I have a theory. Or an idea. Or a question.

It is common practice in Mexico to self-medicate with antibiotics at the first sign of illness. (Antibiotics are widely available there without a prescription.)

Antibiotics kill bacteria, including commensal bacteria. 

Commensal bacteria are an important component of the human immune system.

So, are people who self-prescribe antibiotics for a viral illness compromising their immune reponse to that illness?

Hm?

 

(If you’re interested in coverage of swine flu, especially as it relates to factory farming, check out The Ethicurean‘s Aporkalypse Now series.)

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Baby boom: pregnancy tips.

Perhaps it really is “Change you can conceive in,” as Newsweek put it.

In any case babies are popping up everywhere these days, and people have been asking me about herbs and healthy pregnancy.

This is what I tell them.

1. The “duh” list: Get enough rest, eat enough (good) food, and stay away from toxic stuff.

Rest: Your body will tell you how much you need. It’s best to listen.

Don’t freak out if you have trouble sleeping — drink a cup of chamomile tea, put a drop of peach leaf tincture on your wrist, or smell your hop pillow. And like I said, don’t freak out. (Remember, Barbara Kingsolver wrote her first novel when she had insomnia during her first pregnancy.)

Food: Don’t eat bad food. Do your best to avoid sketchy food. Do eat plenty of good-quality protein (including fish), all kinds of good fats, and lots of in-season vegetables. (Confused about fish? Check this out. And this.) Oh, and if you know you’re allergic or sensitive to something, just don’t eat it.

Toxic stuff: This is a hard one. There’s toxic stuff everywhere, and once you’ve determined how much you can practically avoid, it’s best not to freak out about it too much. (Sense a theme?) Stress isn’t good for babies. That said, here are some common sources of toxic stuff: cosmetics; cleaning products; plastic food and drink containers; paint and other new building materials; dust in old houses; dirt around old buildings. (The last two are due to lead contamination. And this is something to worry about. Read up on it.)

2. Pay close attention to your blood sugar.

Low blood sugar can cause morning sickness (or anytime sickness). High blood sugar can make your baby grow too big, or give it blood sugar problems later in life. (And you don’t even want to think about gestational diabetes.)

Avoid low blood sugar: Eat protein. Avoid refined carbohydrates (i.e., white flour, white sugar, white rice). Eat protein. Don’t eat carbohydrates by themselves (butter your bread; put cheese on your crackers). Eat protein. And eat fat, lots of good fat.

Avoid high blood sugar: See “avoid low blood sugar.”

3. Take care of your kidneys.

Your kidneys do a lot of extra work when you’re pregnant (they have to filter 50% more blood than usual). Be nice to them. Drink plenty of water. Use a good high-mineral salt in cooking (avoid cheap refined salt). And remember that nettles are your friends. Nettle tea is rich in minerals and also a lovely kidney restorative. Nettle seeds are a good choice too. (If your kidneys are unhappy, you’ll end up with puffy ankles and feet. You don’t want this.)

4. Take care of your nerves.

There’s a lot going on. Give yourself a break. Breathe a lot and stretch a lot and take time to be quiet. Also milky oats. And peach leaf if you’re highly sensitive and irritable. Mint tea is lovely for tired nerves, and so is bee balm tea, especially if those nerves are feeling frayed. Holy basil tea if you’re tense and worried. Rose if you’re sad and scared.

5. Take care of your veins.

Remember all that extra blood? It can be a lot for your veins to deal with, too. Eat lots of purple foods — blueberries, blackberries, beets. If you know you might be prone to varicose veins (did your mother get them? ask her!), you might take hawthorne berries or oak bark (small doses of oak) preemptively.

6. Take care of your belly.

To prevent nausea (especially in the morning), make sure you eat enough protein (especially at supper). Peach leaf and ginger are both great for nausea, but in opposite situations: peach is good for “hot” constitutions, and ginger for “cold” ones. If you don’t know, experiment. Take a little taste and see how you feel. Catnip and mint are also good if you’re feeling gassy and burpish.

As your baby grows, your guts might get a bit sluggish. Make sure you eat enough bulky and mucilaginous food to keep things in order. Flaxseed is great for this, and so are apples.

7. And of course, take care of your uterus.

Remember, the uterus is a muscle. For generations, midwives have reminded us that raspberry leaf tea makes it strong. This is a good thing. A cup of raspberry leaf tea everyday is pleasant, too.

(You’re right, I didn’t mention supplements. I’m not a big supplements person, and I don’t know a lot about them. But if you take a prenatal vitamin, make sure it’s good quality. And if you don’t eat fish, you might consider fish oil or cod liver oil.)

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We aren’t immune. And we shouldn’t be.

Glory, Hallelujah, I am in possession of a functional computer!

As soon as I finish transferring my data from the old hard drive, I’ll be posting all my pretty pictures from the last few weeks of One Local Summer.

In the meantime, remember my posts on the human ecosystem, way back when? I was going on about how the human body is not an isolated organism, but a complex ecosystem (think gut bacteria) as well as an element in larger ecosystems (think kaleidoscope).

Well, lately I’ve been thinking about the absurdity of the term “immune system.” Immune to what? There’s so much baggage tied up in that name. It assumes human bodies are at war with their surroundings, that a healthy human interface with the world is based on staying pure, “immune” to the non-human. Ridiculous.

We really have only the fuzziest idea how the human ecosystem works. And the more scientists investigate, the less it looks like humans are at war with the non-human. Scientists used to think that “germs” were universally dangerous. A lot of people still think this way. Hence (dangerous) antibacterial soaps. Thing is, your skin is covered with helpful bacteria — they’re calling them “commensals” now — and if you kill them, you throw the whole ecosystem out of balance.

We really have no idea what the consequences are when we alter these complicated systems. I bet it never occurred to you that your gut bacteria might make you less likely to get kidney stones.

And what about worms? They’ve been in the news lately as a potential treatment for “autoimmune diseases” of all sorts.

We evolved as groups of critters, not as separate entities.

So. Any suggestions for a new name for the system that governs human ecological balance? “Interaction system?” “Interface system?” I can’t think of anything that sounds right.

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Drink your lawn: blender juice.

blenderjuice.JPGThere was a nasty, hot, lung-drying bug going around these parts this spring. Turns out the perfect thing for it is one of your lawn’s best-kept secrets: blender juice.

Specifically, blender juice made of cooling, soothing, mucilaginous plants. Plantains (Plantago spp.), chickweed (Stellaria media), violets (Viola spp.), and mallows (Malva spp.) are especially nice.

(This combination is also wonderful for hot, irritated digestive systems — think ulcers, “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” / IBS, and other inflammatory conditions.)

Making blender juice is a great way to get the fresh, green, cooling properties from just about any plant.

Here’s how to do it:

Pick your plants.

Rinse them off if you need to.

Toss them in the blender with a bit of water.

Blend.

I like to let them sit for a while to infuse, then blend a little more and strain. But you can just go ahead and strain after the first blending if you need to.

Drink.

(Hot tip: mallow/plantain/chickweed/violet blender juice is wonderful sponged on a sunburn.)

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Shampoo-free in the New York Times.

I am so fashionable.

This in the Fashion & Style section of the Times today: Of Course I Washed My Hair Last Year (I’m Almost Certain). It’s an odd little piece, mixing reporting on trendy beauty-parlor washing in New York with bits on the “shampoo free” movement in Australia. And the author is more than a little skeptical.

But it’s proof that questioning detergent-on-your-head has gone mainstream.

The article quoted an Australian radio host who hasn’t shampooed in a decade or so:

Mr. Glover had another reason why some Australians just say no: “We’re tired of feeling like cogs in the machinery of consumption. There’s this feeling of liberation to be able to say no to an entire aisle of the supermarket.”

Certainly a pleasant side effect of a healthy scalp!

(If you’re interested in how to stop using shampoo, check out this post from the other week: Shampoo? What shampoo? Simple herbal hair care.)

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Shampoo? What shampoo? Simple herbal hair care.

I’ve been getting hair care questions in the comments to my facial scrub post, so I thought I would write a bit about how I take care of my own (long, unruly) hair.

Careful brushing. Brushing gets a bad rap because it can cause breakage. But if you have a little patience, you can get all the benefits of brushing without the damage. First, detangle. Brush the ends, then a little higher, then a little higher, until you reach the roots. Then brush firmly from the roots to the ends. Remember what grandma said? 100 strokes? Right. That. You want to spread your hair’s natural oils from the roots to the ends and get the blood flowing to your scalp. (I’ve found that a wood-bristle brush works best for this, but your hair might need something different.)

Herbal rinses. Rosemary and sage are my favorites, but chamomile is traditional for blondes, and rose for redheads. Strong herbal tea with a dash of vinegar reinvigorates your scalp and helps the hair cuticle stay smooth, preventing breakage and split ends.

Good food. You won’t grow good hair if you don’t eat good food. Protein. Minerals. Vitamins. All that. Bone broth is the best food I know of for healthy hair — your grandmother didn’t tell you that gelatin is “hair food” for nothing!

That’s it. That’s all I do.

I hear you, I hear you: “You didn’t mention shampoo! What about washing? If I don’t wash my hair, it’ll get all greasy and icky!”

Well, I don’t use shampoo. And no, my hair is not greasy and icky.

If you want to stop using shampoo but you don’t want to end up with icky hair, here’s what to do: Every day, use a little less shampoo. After a while, switch to a soap-based (rather than detergent-based) shampoo. Then use less and less of that soap-based shampoo. Try washing every other day, then every third day. Now switch from your soap-based shampoo to baking soda water (1/2 tsp in a pint of water) and a vinegar rinse (1 tablespoon in a pint of water). If you brush thoroughly, you can probably stop using the baking soda eventually.

The whole process needs to be done carefully, paying attention to how your scalp is adjusting. I’d say it should take 3-6 months for most people. If you go cold turkey on hardcore industrial detergent-based shampoo, well, don’t blame me if your hair gets greasy and icky!

How to make an herbal rinse:

Pick an herb. Any herb. (OK, rosemary and sage are traditional, like I said. Or chamomile. Or rose. Lemon verbena is lovely, and yarrow is nice and stimulating for the scalp. Mint is pleasant. So is thyme. Bee balm is absolutely wonderful. Play with it! Use what you like!)

Pour about a pint of boiling water over a good size handful of your herb. Close it tightly and let it steep until it’s cool.

Strain your tea and add about a tablespoon of vinegar.

Pour it over your head in the bath. Let it stay on your hair and scalp for a couple of minutes if you can.

Your hair will be ridiculously soft.

If you find your hair’s too fluffy, try some flaxseed gel (which doubles as leave-in conditioner).

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Kitchen spices: cinnamon.

This month’s herbal blog party theme is “Kitchen Spices.” Our host is Dancing in a Field of Tansy.

These days, cinnamon is my favorite kitchen spice medicine.

Here are a few cinnamons from my spice shelf:

cinnamon

On the left, cassia or Chinese cinnamon. This is the most common cinnamon in the US—the one you can find in the grocery store, .

On the right, the “true” or Ceylon cinnamon, . It has a more subtle aroma than cassia, and it’s not so sharp.

The powder is Vietnamese / Saigon cinnamon, . It’s intensely sweet, very spicy, and much redder than the other two.

(Confused about the botanical names? Been reading old-time herbals? Here’s a clue: C. cassia = C. aromaticum; C. zeylanicum = C. verum.)

All the cinnamons have a lovely balance of warming and stimulating and soothing qualities — they’re wonderful for people with cold constitutions. The classic indication for cinnamon is a tendency to cold hands and feet, a reminder of cinnamon’s powerful stimulating effect on blood circulation.

Cinnamon strengthens the circulatory system and gets blood moving out to the surface of the body. (David Winston uses cinnamon for Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition in which circulation is severely restricted in the hands.) But cinnamon’s more than a circulatory stimulant. Remember this: cinnamon brings energy where energy has been drained. So while it’s classic for weak circulation with cold hands and feet, it’s also one of the most valuable old-time remedies for passive hemorrhage, including hemorrhage after childbirth.* Juliette de Bairacli Levy recommends a cinnamon-spiced wine to give strength to women in labor. Cinnamon strengthens basic vitality.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the indication for cinnamon is “deficient kidney yang.” Some symptoms: fatigue, aversion to cold, low back pain, cold hands and feet, abdominal pain, diarrhea /constipation, pale urine, white-coated tongue. Guess what? Most of these are indications of “cold” in European and American style herbalism. (I’ve also found that this list can be a pretty clear picture of some people diagnosed with “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” (IBS). And indeed, cinnamon is a classic remedy for digestive upset.)

Cinnamon is revitalizing for people who are cold and tired, drained of energy (think chronic fatigue). Now, don’t get any funny ideas: cinnamon is no substitute for rest. It is a supreme aid to convalescence, though: it’s capable of energizing tissue and getting tired or weak organs moving again. It’s also perfect for people who tend to “catch” every bug that comes along: increased vitality means increased immunity.

Cinnamon’s revitalizing power comes in handy these days, with so many people run down and drained by modern industrial “food.” Cinnamon helps the body use energy: it’s a specific for insulin resistance / metabolic syndrome. Consistent long-term use of cinnamon brings down blood sugar and triglycerides, those danger-signs of impending diabetes and heart disease.**

So, in case you didn’t get it yet, cinnamon revitalizes what is drained. It brings life to the pale, cold and weak. Not bad for your average kitchen spice, is it?

My favorite cinnamon tea (this week, anyway):

3 parts Cinnamon sticks

1 part Orange peel

1 part valerian, blackhaw or crampbark

1/2 part flaxseeds

Simmer as for flaxseed tea.

This tea is wonderful for increasing circulation, for “irritable bowel” and for menstrual cramps in people who tend to cold. (You can increase the valerian / blackhaw / crampbark for a stronger relaxing effect, but it won’t taste quite as good.)

An herbalist’s cheat-sheet for cinnamon:

Parts used: dried bark or twigs.

Actions: stimulant, carminative, diaphoretic, hemostatic, antiseptic.

Affinities: circulation, digestion, metabolism, uterus.

Taste: sweet, spicy, aromatic.

Vitalist energetics: warming, slightly mucilaginous but also slightly drying. Hildegard said it best in 1150: “Cinnamon is very hot and its power is great. It holds a bit of moisture, but its heat is so strong that it suppresses that dampness” (trans. Throop 1998).

Michael Moore energetics: skin, CNS, upper GI, renal, reproductive stimulant; lower GI, mucosa sedative.

Tongue indications: pale, coated.

Specific indications: insulin resistance, bleeding ulcers (Michael Moore), passive uterine hemorrhage, menstrual cramps associated with heavy flow and a feeling of cold.

Homeopathic mental indications: “Sleepy. No desire for anything” (Boericke).

*King: “For post-partum and other uterine hemorrhages, it is one of the most prompt and efficient remedies in the Materia Medica.” Ellingwood: “Cinnamon . . . is a hemostatic of much power and is positively reliable in all passive hemorrhages.”

**In one study, researchers gave people with type II diabetes 1, 3, or 6 grams of cinnamon per day. “After 40 days, all three levels of cinnamon reduced the mean fasting serum glucose (18–29%), triglyceride (23–30%), LDL cholesterol (7–27%), and total cholesterol (12–26%) levels; no significant changes were noted in the placebo groups. Changes in HDL cholesterol were not significant” (Diabetes Care 2003). And here’s a study for the extra-geeky.

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