Follow Your Heart

The ancients have taught us a lot about the heart, and yet despite the vast volumes of human lore that exist on the subject, the human heart remains an enigma to most of us. The Egyptians, the ancient Chinese, Hindu traditions and many other cultures believed (and still do) that the heart is the seat of consciousness. Upon first glance it seems like they are talking about the heart organ, just as some modern people see the brain as being where “the person” lives. In Egypt, the Goddess of justice Ma’at weighed the heart of the deceased against the feather of truth and justice to see if the person lived a virtuous life. These allegories tell us a lot about the true nature of the heart.  

What the ancients were referring to is a field of consciousness that flows through the entire body and beyond. Its access points are in the chest and around the spine, close to the heart organ, where Hindu traditions say the Anahata (heart chakra) resides. In Hindu texts, an open heart chakra looks like a flower with petals facing outward; but when the higher heart is accessed, the petals point upwards towards the sky. There are acupuncture points around the heart too, which are used to access the physical or esoteric heart. Over the millennia there have been different models created and intuited to explain heart consciousness. You could study them all and maybe get a decent understanding, but really they are all trying to convey an experience that we are all capable of having.

There are many aspects of consciousness in Classical Chinese Medicine, but in this post we’ll focus on the Shen, or the Spirit. The Shen is intimately connected to the energy of the heart. The Spirit includes our day to day mind, but it also includes our Original Shen. It is the piece of our consciousness that comes from a universal and perhaps higher Divine source. It contains the blueprint of why we incarnated and what we’re here to learn and accomplish. It contains our innate gifts and inclinations. These are not the inclinations developed on the personality level, which can be learned or unlearned by outside influences or personal efforts; these gifts and understandings are an innate knowing. In Daoism this is referred to as one’s True Virtue. It’s something that you have that you never had to try to have. It has always just been present.

The heart of the child is the promise of
the world in Alex Grey’s “Family”

The Original Shen appears a lot more strongly in children, behaviorally, because they have not yet experienced as much outside influence. As a child I loved nature, making little herb collections, and trying to help people get healthy. I didn’t yet have an understanding of the means, but the heart-driven intention was already happening. When I was less than five years old, I heard that my grandmother in Newfoundland stubbed her toe. I put a bandage in a little box and asked my mother to mail it to her right away! This is the Original Shen in action, in my case wanting to be some kind of healer. All children are born with these innate inclinations. Unfortunately the modern education systems in place are mostly focused on single learning patterns, and so children tend to forget who they are as they enter adolescence. Extraneous layers of programming and behavioral conformity are added. This forgetting can be temporary, if we teach children and young adults to really return to their own source. The remembering is always available at any time, for anyone. Nothing so great is ever truly lost.

Jesus Christ, heart open with upwardflame
indicating higher heart consciousness

When your heart is truly open and you’re tapped into your own Shen, you experience instant knowing. This is not the same as emotional intuition. It’s a knowing that does not originate in the mental realm. In Buddhism it is referred to as the “one hand clapping” because the field of the heart produces answers without logical origins. It’s non-linear and beyond time and space. It produces information without the need to categorically analyze before arriving at conclusions. It is unbridled truth that is instantly integrated upon awareness. In a modern world that places so much emphasis on the rational mind, this kind of knowing has become undervalued and teachings about it are hard to come by in the mainstream, but it is a knowing that most people have already experienced from time to time. All the old adages about being in your heart are true for this reason. All knowledge already exists, the only difference between knowing and not knowing is whether or not the gateway is open. When the gate is closed we tend to rely more on the rational, linear mind. When it is open, knowing is more effortless.

Love and fear are the two primary human emotions, and all other emotions are cords from these. Fear draws a person into denser realities, into survival and material concerns. It makes energy in the body sink downward and contract. It’s an uncomfortable sort of motivation. Fear is useful because it can keep you alive and have focused tunnel vision when the going gets tough. Humanity would not have survived this long without it. Fear as a temporary experience is a normal part of human reality. It’s when fear becomes a long-term holding pattern that we no longer resonate with our inner truth. We go into auto-pilot mode rather than be guided by our other faculties. Fear requires a lot more energy to function because it resonates at a denser vibration.

The physical heart has its own grey matter
just like the brain does, and therefore esoterically
it has its own field of awareness

The energy of love in the heart has a fiery, uplifting and enlivening effect. Beyond the mere emotion which comes and goes, the love from the higher heart is a field of consciousness. It is light and therefore not only requires less energy to move, its very presence gives energy. People who live on the heart level require less food, less effort to live, and they are generally healthier. In Chinese Medicine, the heart organizes and governs the activities of all the other organs. A well attuned heart means the whole body benefits.

 So what can we take from all this? In a nutshell: listen to your heart. I know, I know, people say that all the time, but what do they really mean? The deeper, esoteric and ancient meaning is: there is a seed of light within you that nobody can take or give to you, it is always there. It has been there since the day you were born and has remain unchanged your entire life. Your personality may undergo changes, you may experience fortune or misfortune, but that light is omnipresent. You don’t have to do intense work or have some special qualifications to experience it. All it is, is a matter of remembering.

The shiny quality of the eyes indicates
the presence of Spirit and its level of
connectivity in the body

Remember who you are. The real, true you. You’ll know you’re there because your body will open and all of the contractions you had before will begin to expand. You will be able to know the right course of action without worrying about it too much. There will be grand truths that will appear in your inner dialogues with yourself, new ways of thinking that seemingly come out of nowhere that are easy to trust. You will remember all the things that really matter to you, all of the important things. You won’t need outside confirmation because it will already feel true and right. Whatever is not relevant to your path will seem unimportant. And maybe, just maybe, over time, that love will begin to heal and integrate those shadowy parts of yourself that never quite felt right. You’ll understand why you did things the way you did and you will begin to forgive with compassion.

The heart is the key. It is the gateway to your truest most inner self. It radiates all your answers without needing to ask the questions. It is the field that unifies. And because every human has this, we are all connected through experiencing it. Every person who opens loving consciousness affects everyone and everything around them.

 

Part 2: A World of Choices

You just got back from the doctor and they delivered some shocking news, along with an urgent treatment plan. You decided to wait, go home and collect yourself. You’ve also decided that part of this waiting is going to involve looking up some alternatives. You consult the internet… there are over 1 million search engine results for your condition. Talk about overwhelming! What do you do? Who do you trust?

Throughout life, most people have a default source of trusted information. Some people trust the experience of their friends and family, some go right to academic and research papers, and some won’t bother doing anything unless their doctor says it’s safe and effective. For most people, the order of health discovery is: health practitioner, friends/family, broader community (like the internet), academic research – in that order. Go with what you trust first and branch out from there. Let intuition and results guide you!

When you come across a treatment, remedy or protocol you’d like to try, there are some things to consider.

purityKeep protocols pure. The most important piece of advice I can give is to stick to a protocol as it is given. If a protocol says to eat whole, fresh oranges in the morning, then don’t eat them in the afternoon, squeezed into juice! If you make changes then you’re no longer following the protocol and you’ve gone “off the grid”. There may be reasons why the instructions are given a certain way that don’t seem obvious. If you want to mix and match, do it after you understand the protocols individually, otherwise you might not know why something does or doesn’t work.

There’s something a lot more important underlying this approach. When something works, you can reverse engineer why it worked. For example, if you take an herb to calm your nervous system and it makes your chronic condition better, it might indicate that your condition is triggered by stress. This is called diagnosis through inductive reasoning. You look at the clues and make educated guesses about your health. By keeping protocols pure, you can follow the trail of bread crumbs back to root causes.

high_qualityKeep medicines high quality. Many people write off protocols as useless without realizing that the quality of the medicines they were using were not very good. Synthetic medicines like pharmaceuticals tend to have a much longer shelf life than plant based medicines. There are also different manufacturing standards. Herb stores that have low product turnover, or herbs exposed to air in big jars on the shelves, will tend to have lesser quality. Some companies use fillers and additives, or the herbs they source are grade B or C instead of Grade A. It takes some research, or a professional herbalist, to source the best quality for you. If you are using the best, then if it doesn’t work you know for sure that quality wasn’t an issue.

patienceLongevity and patience. As a general rule, remember that the longer you’ve had a chronic condition for, the longer it usually takes to treat. When you try a protocol, you might not get the full result instantly. Sometimes it takes weeks or even months, depending on what you’re doing. Many patients who’ve come to see me over the years are looking for a quick fix. When one week’s worth of herbs doesn’t radically cure them, they are disappointed. The reality is that peeling back the onion layer takes time, patience, and gentleness. Remember, this is not about symptom relief but treating root causes. Symptoms are easy to suppress but root causes take longer.

Less is more. The “go big or go home” approach doesn’t tend to work too well with chronic conditions. If you research an herb or vitamin that might be good for you, taking more of it doesn’t mean you’ll get better faster. Often it overloads the body and progress slows to a halt. Using smaller amounts over a longer period causes long-term change. It’s better to start small and then gradually increase. If your condition is complex, then adding a bunch of things at once or too much of one thing will cause pushback. Trust me, I learned this the hard way!

comparing_apples_orangesAvoid comparisons. While it’s great to get advice from other people, don’t assume that what didn’t work for them won’t work for you either. Everyone is different and medicine is highly individual! Comparing yourself to others may be like comparing apples and oranges, which youwill discover if you attach yourself to someone else’s process to closely.

record_experimentsRecord your experiments and your progress. As your own private eye, I recommend keeping a journal or log of everything you try. What worked? What didn’t work? How did it make you feel? Thoughts, feelings, impressions in your body — it’s all relevant. You might think that you’ll remember that really weird herb name and what it did to you, but maybe 10 or 15 experiments later you’ll find it slipping your mind. I’ve found this kind of journaling really useful over the long-term because eventually when I want to mix and match different protocols, I can take the best of different systems that have worked for me and try putting them together.

May this advice help you to refine your process a little be more in your health goals! If you have any questions please comment below or send me an e-mail through the contact page!

Frontier Medicine in an “Incurable” World (PART 1)

PART 1: An Explorer in Uncharted Territory

So you’ve received a diagnosis attached to the word “incurable”, or maybe just “really darn difficult to treat”; or maybe a treatment is offered but it’s a tough pill to swallow because it conflicts with your ethics, it has potential major side effects or life altering consequences, or it’s just seems plain crazy.

One of the most difficult challenges is developing a chronic health condition that seemingly has no cure in the modern world. You eventually come to face to face with the limitations of what doctors and healers can do for you, or so it seems. It can be a shocking revelation, especially for those of us who have been raised in societies that put so much faith into medical systems. In my own struggle I found myself thinking at many points, “My god, is this the 16th century? How can they not know what’s going on?” And then it dawned on me – this is universal, it’s in every generation, and humanity is always dealing with the mortal coil. Welcome to Critical Care 101.

Settling in for the long haul (March 2015)

Settling in for the long haul (March 2015)

Key pieces of information and guidance can come from the most unlikely sources. In the beginning you may try doing things the way you’ve always done them, and as things get worse you begin to consider stepping outside of your limitations. It goes from “I need to do this the familiar way,” to, “I am committed to finding answers no matter where I have to look.” A valuable life skill! For some people this transition is difficult, but in the end is always motivated by the reality of suffering or lack of positive results. The saying necessity is the mother of all invention could not be more relevant! So, if you find yourself hitting a wall about how to deal with a health challenge, I’d like to offer four practical tips about what to do next:

1) Get as much information as possible. Learn the basics of your condition, from your doctors and practitioners, from your own intuition, from literature, from everywhere you can. Often when we first receive a diagnosis we get a bit blindsided by our lack of knowing, especially when treatment advice is already being suggested by a professional. If you can, take pause. You have a right to know more before you make any decisions. You also have every right to disagree with an approach. It’s your body! Accept their suggestion, but feel free to wait until you know more if you can. When you apply for a job, you make sure you know the terms of the industry you’re applying for, or you get trained in knowing them. You don’t get thrown into a job without this knowledge or guidance! Getting sick is no different. The sooner you are able to learn the insider lingo, the sooner you can begin piecing together the trail of clues that can lead you to understanding. Knowledge is power! There are innovative solutions out there that won’t be apparent at the beginning. Have faith! When doctors gave me a life or death ultimatum, I had to delve deep into my intuition and compassionately refuse their recommendations. I didn’t have the answers, but I knew deep down that there had to be another way. This was how my search began.

healthnet2) Network with others who are facing similar circumstances. When I was at my worst, I had 30 minutes of useful energy per day, and going right to experienced knowledge sharers spared me a lot of aggravation. These days we have a global network of information sharing. Why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to? Consider it a valuable resource that you can use, or that someone else can help you use if you’re not able. There are people who have been where you’ve been, and who have been dealing with it for longer. You may begin to see that the culture of medicine is different everywhere. People will see your condition, its causes and treatments, very differently depending on who you ask. There are many world views to investigate! Networking moves us beyond our limits and into possibilities. It also helps us feel less alone. Some great resources are: internet forums, academic journals, blogs, peer support groups (in person or online), online health practitioners, meetup groups, social media groups (like Facebook), e-mail lists, and book review websites. The only real limit to research potential is your own creativity! Leave no stone unturned.

3) Allow yourself to feel. A diagnosis can mean big life changes. The entire process can be so overwhelming that we forget to check in with ourselves. When I first found myself descending into critical health, I was still trying to be the “perfect patient”. I was feeling angry, confused, sad and lost, but I kept it hidden so that others wouldn’t worry. It was also a form of self-protection. I kept trying to resume a normal life and a normal appearance even though that was becoming gradually impossible. The truth is, you’re going to face many bumps in the road. There may be treatment failures. You may try one thing after another and not get resolution. You may have times when you feel defeated, in despair, and hopeless. I’m here to tell you that this is all normal!

Make sure you take pause to really acknowledge what’s going on inside you. It’s a powerful time, one might even say a rite of passage. It’s like being initiated into a whole new life that you weren’t prepared for, and that’s bound to cause some shaking of your foundation. Let it out, and be real. Take time out, as much as you need. You deserve recognition. It takes courage to navigate it all, especially when it involves facing feelings and experiences that most of the world is busy avoiding. You don’t need to have all the answers right now. Like peeling back an onion, you will likely go through the layers bit by bit over time. Chances are, you didn’t develop this condition overnight, so improvements are going to be an ongoing process. Breathe. I know it’s not easy, but the silver lining is that you’re going to learn a whole lot about yourself that you never knew!

tcm_herbs4) Try new kinds of practitioners. If you’ve only used modern medicine, try alternative practitioners, or vice versa. We all have our comfort zone that we know and trust, but when it comes to being a frontier explorer of human health, you will usually have to go beyond those familiar boundaries. Let go of your disease’s name and be prepared to look at your imbalance through different ways of thinking and feeling. I have learned such amazing and valuable things from all kinds of practitioners, and I can honestly say that putting the pieces of different systems together has made me realize things that nobody has ever written about. It is an unexpected reward to be gifted with secret knowledge that has been hard earned from a strong desire to heal, and the incredible thing is that every person who undertakes this healing journey is going to come into possession of such secret treasures. Every person you come into contact with on your search is going to have a gem of wisdom to offer you.

You may sample different practitioners. I have found that personal chemistry with a practitioner is just as important as the kind of medicine they practice. There are skilled and unskilled practitioners in every field. Keep searching, and be prepared to receive from unlikely sources! A lot of my most powerful healing experiences have been from people who never went to school or got certified in anything. Healing is a form of energy that moves through the universe, and is not limited to any shape of form. As you move beyond your limits, there will be insight awaiting you everywhere.  Practitioners are helpful because, when you’re in a position where you have to become your own healer and navigate a degree of uncertainty, it’s crucial to have a team you can consult with who are maintaining a case history and have made it their life focus to do this kind of work with you.

Once you’ve figured out your first steps and what you’d like to try, how do you get best results? Stay tuned!… I’ll be talking about just that in “Part 2: A World Of Choices”

Starting Anew: A Re-launch!

candlesburning

I’ve decided to restart my health blog after a hiatus of a couple of years. It has been a difficult but rewarding time. In 2015 I was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition that rapidly sent me into life threatening circumstances. My world got turned upside down very fast in every single department. I was tossed into what seemed like an unimaginable situation – some days it still feels that way! It has been a radically transformative experience all the while, with quite the winding road, filled with ups and downs, surprise cameos, as well as great sorrows, great joys, and impacting realizations.

It’s my hope that I can share a big part of myself with you, as well as spread the word on some of the knowledge and experience I’ve gathered during this time. There are many levels of gratitude that I wish to convey about this ongoing experience. One level is that it has been very special and life affirming to be a healer who has been moving through territory that is at the frontier of what humanity knows about health and medicine. It has encouraged me to dig deeper than I ever have before, to form connections to people, topics and ideas beyond anything I could’ve imagined just a couple of years ago. It seems that every trauma that happens, every challenge, every mountain to climb becomes a sort of piece of the puzzle to the greater Mystery of living, and I know that anyone out there who has had health or personal challenges will relate in some way to this shared human experience!

Chiron of ancient Greece, the centaur of healing who himself is wounded in battle

The Wounded Healer: Chiron of ancient Greece, the centaur of healing who himself is wounded in battle

Such imbalances can bring you a greater balance, just by living through them. They reveal precious jewels within your being, in places you’d never normally think to observe. While it hasn’t been a cake walk, I have nonetheless found my challenges highly instructive. They get to the bottom of things. They point you directly toward everything about yourself that you don’t yet understand, or maybe that you weren’t prepared to look at. And when the imbalance is very serious, it can even show you how much you’ve been invested in repressing the very thoughts and feelings that would heal your life in a revolutionary way, if only you had been able to endure the fear associated with beginning to feel them a lot sooner. In other words, say hello to your wake up call!

I hope you continue to stay tuned. This is going to be an evolving project and I can’t really predict what forms it will take on. It will be organic and creative. There will surely be recipes, focus topics, philosophy, personal stories, and lots of other gems that I’d like to pass on, all of which will be interwoven with the tapestry of my own process.

There are various services that I’m currently offering, and the different pages on my site will be added over time to explain these services. This will be a work in progress! For now, please enjoy this blog as my offering to you. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. Also!… please also feel free to give suggestions and feedback in the comments section on this page below! If there’s a topic you’d be interested in hearing more about, or you’d just like to say hi, I welcome it!

 Thank you for reading, it is an honour to share this with you! Happy Harvest Moon!

Detoxing using springtime greens!

Ever since the Winter Solstice, the return of the light has incrementally brought us to the point that we have finally begun to thaw out. The days are showing signs of getting longer, and some animals are beginning to poke their heads out to rummage around and check out the weather. This year, for those of us in the Pacific northwest and Vancouver, we have been greeted with unseasonably warm temperatures and sunny skies. This means that our spring herb season is kicking off sooner than expected!

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), each season marks the next chapter of the body’s cycle, and spring is the liver time. Although spring doesn’t officially kick off until the Equinox in March, nature is already furnishing itself with the medicines necessary to do the liver work post-winter. As animals come out of hibernation, the vegetation that tends to be available to them comes in the form of young shoots and buds, all which have concentrated medicines. The animals eat these to purge their bodies of winter wastes and to raise digestion into higher metabolism again. Although humans now have access to a global market that provides any kind of food year round, the original, localized diet would have meant that we spent the majority of winter consuming starches and meat. It’s because those were the easiest the store without spoilage. Unlike fresh produce that goes bad within a week’s time (unless fermented or preserved), root vegetables, dried corn, and cured meats could last all winter. These calorie rich foods give humans the energy they need to stay warm in the winter months.

All those heavy foods take a longer time to digest, and over the winter months it means a more sluggish, somewhat stagnant digestive system. Once spring time comes, the diversity of food choices begin to come back, and the first plants to appear in the wild are related to the liver. They are packed with bitter medicine and enzymes that aid the body in purification for the gathering season of summer. For this reason, it is a wonderful time to forage for the small, delicate greens now appearing. Not only are they tasty, but you will feel a certain lightness return to your body and consciousness if you include them in your diet regularly.

Dandelion, from dent de lion, or "Lion's Tooth"

Dandelion, from dent de lion, or “Lion’s Tooth”

Dandelion (taraxum officinale) is probably the most famous, and the most abundant. It’s an introduced species to North America, brought here by early European settlers. At this time of year, the polysaccharides (sugars) in the root have mostly been expended from the wintertime, so what remains is a concentrated source of yellow, bitter medicine. Yellow is the colour associated with the digestive system in the medicine world, and this form of bitterness is much lacking in the modern western diet. Bitter regulates the digestive system, frees up stagnation, and gets the gallbladder to excrete bile.  Bitter gives the body much needed chemistries for purification. A lot of scientific research on dandelion is revealing that the root can selectively target cancer cells, and this has gained a lot of attention in the modern medicine community.  The fresh dandelion greens appearing now until the end of March are very tender and delicate, with a more palatable taste in salads, compared to the more mature leaves you’d find in the summer time. The roots can be cleaned and added to soups with other vegetables.

Our friend nettle!

Stinging nettle (urtica urens) is another great addition. Most people shy away from this plant because they believe it will harm them, due to the name alone. There are many species of nettle which grow in the lower mainland, and urtica urens is the one which is safe to use as medicine. Its sting has serotonergic properties, meaning it stimulates the serotonin system of the body. Many people report that minutes after the initial sting, they actually notice improvements in their mood. So it seems that nettle’s sting is a gentle request to go away, just long enough until we feel better about having done so! For the purposes of springtime, you can snip the new leaf growth right at the top of the plant and dry it out for use as tea. Fresh nettle can be added to stir fries and soups, as it is extremely nutritious. As for the sting, it doesn’t actually penetrate the skin. The top of the stinging hair breaks open when it’s brushed against, and spills formic acid onto the skin, causing a micro burn. However, it fades quickly, with some mood elevating results, apparently! When nettle is cooked, frozen or dried out, the sting goes away, though some people report very minor stings from dried, whole nettle. Nettle is the great blood tonifier of the herbal kingdom and is a wonderful restorative for the nervous system too (which some refer to as “adrenals”). Its most popular use in herbalism is as a preventative of seasonal allergies, which means if you eat it now then come April your hayfever symptoms might not be as severe.

Abundant chickweed, with its tiny white flowers.

Abundant chickweed, with its tiny white flowers.

Chickweed (stellaria media) is another nutritious find at this time of year. It tends to grow in tangled vines and has a mild, piquant flavour. The usual part that’s harvested is the leaves for adding to salads and soups. It also has that bitter edge to its flavour, which helps the liver get a move on for the coming season.

Robust and powerful yellowdock

Robust and powerful yellowdock

Yellowdock (rumex crispus) is a powerhouse for the liver, and its leaves are really only edible in the early stages of spring when the growth is the youngest. Some people are sensitive to oxalic acid because their livers can’t process it very well, and they should stay away from this herb. For those that aren’t sure if they’re sensitive or not, you can try eating a small number of beet tops or swiss chard leaves. They also contain oxalic acid. You’ll know you can’t process oxalic acid because you’ll become nauseous, get abdominal cramps, and probably diarrhea. Small amounts won’t harm you though, it’ll just feel uncomfortable. If you have this sensitivity, then don’t go for yellow dock, and instead stick to other spring time medicinals.

Clover, easy to recognize!

s Clover, easy to recognize!

Red clover (trifolium) grows practically everywhere, in both red and white forms. Many herbalists believe that the red is more potent, and I tend to agree. The entire above ground plant is edible, including the flower which has a slightly sweet taste due to the nectar inside. Red clover has been a topic of research in recent years because it too has anti-cancer properties, and reduces the harsh side effects of chemotherapy. The flowers are also used to help quell menopausal hot flashes due to their phytoestrogenic properties. In spring time though, it just serves as a wonderful addition to salad greens. The flowers are really beautiful and seem to be a favorite of bumblebees and honeybees!

These are just a few edible wild plants that appear at this time of year, there are many others. There’s enough that could be said on any of them that they deserve their own articles, but this should provide a snippet of what’s possible! Getting acquainted with what is local can take time, and it helps to know an herbalist who is able to identify the plants. Nothing beats meeting a plant in person, getting to know its personality, and seeing the kind of environment it grows in. Once you make that connection with a plant, you tend to start noticing it more and more in your daily life. What you might’ve thought of as “weeds” before now seem purposeful and useful. You may find yourself grabbing little bunches of edibles on your way home from work one day to add to a delicious salad. As with any herbal medicine, it’s important to sample things and start small. If you have a particular condition in mind that you’d like to try treating with an herb, or if you have any pre-existing conditions and you’re concerned about these edibles being incompatible with your health, you should consult an experienced herbalist.

On the brighter side, wild harvesting is fun, and these plants tend to grow in abundance yearly. If you find a big patch of them, consider taking only what you need, and not taking the entire plant so that it can continue to grow and prosper with the coming season. “What you need” is generally defined by immediate needs, and not the hording mentality. If you pick all the leaves or harvest all the roots in an area, then the plants may not grow back. Think sustainably. Besides, if you’ve been successfully using the springtime herbs in your diet, then your body will already be prepared for the next season!

Disclaimer: this article does not instruct in how to identify herbs, only their uses and benefits. For wild identification, please consult a field guide or a knowledgeable expert before harvesting.

Oregon grape to reinvigorate

mahonia

Of all the plant spirits I’ve worked with in the past five years, oregon grape (berberis aquifolium or mahonia aquifolium) has been richly rewarding. It’s a common low-lying dweller in the undergrowth of northwestern forests, preferring shady areas, and having a distinctive leaf similar in shape to the holly tree. It also has clumps of little purplish-blue berries starting mid summer which are the source of its modern common name, though these berries are not grapes in the true taxonomic sense. Oregon grape has been gaining a lot of attention recently due to the scientific discovery of its ability to reduce anti-biotic resistance across the board. Preliminary studies show that it’s able to do this by reducing bacteria’s ability to excrete pharmaceuticals from their cell walls, though the exact mechanism remains a mystery. This research, however, is only touching the tip of the iceberg of what traditional herbalists have known for a long time: oregon grape regulates our internal ecology through the synergy of its many constituents, the most famous being berberine. It’s interesting to note that in the pharmaceutical studies on anti-biotic resistance, berberine alone was not able to achieve the same results as the whole plant extract, which gives further credence to the concept of plant synergy, or that a plant medicine is more than just the sum of its parts. Each component works together with all others to make it a medicine, and not the idea of “key constituents” or isolates.

The term “herbal anti-biotic” gets thrown around a lot but it’s not exactly comparable to something like penicillin. The reason is that plants from the berberine family, like barberry as well as the famous (and now endangered) goldenseal, don’t kill off all micro-organisms wholesale. They modulate organism environments, keeping certain species in check while promoting the proliferation of others. In a forest, what humans would call “infection” is merely the excessive growth of one bacterial species over others, causing imbalance. Certain plants, such as oregon grape, keep populations at appropriate numbers so that none becomes an excessive problem. Oregon grape has the ability to do this within our own bodies at smaller doses. If there’s bacteria that are not native to our healthy internal ecosystem, or there are numbers of certain bacteria overgrowing, it will modulate them. Compare this to penicillin, which will kill all bacteria, friendly or not. The root bark of oregon grape is where we find the highest concentrations of medicine, and it’s been noted by ethnobotanists like Elliot Cowan that the bark is teeming with bacteria that don’t seem affected by the high levels of berberine within the plant; and yet, those same bacteria would be swiftly dispatched within our bodies if we take oregon grape as a remedy. Somehow this plant spirit synergizes with immune systems, knowing what belongs where, and in what numbers. It’s this function that continues to be a marvel in the world of herbalism!

When you treat any kind of infection with oregon grape, you are reinforcing the body’s native balance, not “fighting the infection”. Anything that restores balance restores health. This is why oregon grape receives the herbal label of alterative. It gradually alters the body over time to bring it back into better health, with more permanent results.

 

Yellow medicine to the rescue!

Yellow medicine to the rescue!

The medicine of this plant is yellow and its nature is cold. This gives us a hint into what it does. Yellow in Traditional Chinese Medicine relates to spleen and stomach, the digestive system. Yellow is also the colour of dampness and heat combined, which is the colour of what is released by the body during specific kinds of infections. Its drying and cold natures do mean that it’s more suitable to bodies that tend to have excessive mucous and phlegm, or watery conditions, especially in the digestive tract and lungs. It also means that it’s better at treating fiery infections, or heat related conditions, at higher doses.

That said, west coast herbalist Michael Moore has been promoting another use of oregon grape in recent years, through its tonic action. Tonics gently strengthen the body over time, usually by promoting the metabolic action of one or more internal organs. Some tonics have a whole-body effect, like the ginseng family. Oregon grape on the other hand, in smaller doses, has a tonic effect on the liver and over all digestive health. (In larger doses it acts as a remedy for acute bacterial infections).  The tonic doses are well indicated for people who have “cold livers”, as it’s put. If you have a “cold liver”, it means your liver is sluggish. People with this condition tend to do well with carbohydrates and foods that are easily but rapidly processed. Foods that are dense or high in protein won’t go over well and cause a feeling of heaviness. To these people, the idea of eating a cold salad is irksome. They also tend to have poor appetite in general. Oregon grape helps such individuals to reinvigorate their digestive fire, as well as to train the body to accept denser or cooler nature foods again over time. Paradoxically, higher doses of oregon grape are good for fiery infections, and yet at lower doses it helps to stoke the heat of digestion. Very dualistic! I’ve noticed in my practice that individuals with this constitution grew up in conditions where food was more scarce, or where food was abundant but it was all refined (processed food, sugars, starches). As a result, their digestion tends to be more delicate and doesn’t like to expend a lot of energy breaking down cold or dense food. Oregon grape teaches the body how to accept these foods into the constitution again over the long-term, through its alterative action.  It’s also a wonderful restorative for those who have had chronic illnesses or recent acute illnesses that knocked out their digestion and their appetite just hasn’t been strong enough since.

Because it’s a cholagogue, oregon grape is a great blood purifier. The promotion of bile excretion means that any built up wastes in the liver can be eliminated more efficiently, which also promotes bowel movements in those with constipation. That makes it a great potential remedy for those with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, which are conditions spurred by the presence of pathogens or allergens in the blood that make it to the skin and cause immune reactions.

In a nutshell, you can sum up oregon grape as: digestive tonic and invigorator of slow digestive systems, blood purifier and clarifying agent, and modulator of flora. So many wonderful uses!

I’ve found that through my own experiments with oregon grape in the past few years that its spirit medicine tends to relate to clarity and one’s ability to digest life on life’s terms. In other words, acceptance. This looks a bit different than grief, which is difficulty accepting loss. The kind of acceptance that oregon grape helps us with is our ability to accept what is presented to us in any given moment, metabolize it, understand what it means to us, and then make appropriate decisions. It is an herb that brings us back to centre through teaching us to stop arguing with reality or resisting the nature of what is, by clarifying internal blocks that obfuscate perception. If you tend to get contractions in your gut whenever you have a hard time stomaching a situation or making a major decision, and if those contractions tend to lead to disturbances to your digestion (loss of appetite, constipation or diarrhea, only being able to eat lightly or easy to digest foods), then this plant spirit may be a helpful ally.  It should be used long term for this effect and at much smaller doses than what you would use to treat an infection. For more information on which use may be appropriate to you, and the necessary dose, be sure to consult someone with a lot of herbal experience who can do a proper workup on what you need. All in all, oregon grape is a very powerful ally to have on hand and is one that deserves a great deal of respect.

An Original Pro-biotic: Homemade Sauerkraut

close-up-jar

What are pro-biotics? The simple answer is that they are beneficial bacteria which live in our bodies and support a wide range of healthy, biological activities. Here’s a brief summary of what these little beings do for our over all health: production of vitamins, fortify the immune system and keep invaders out, reduce inflammation, regulate blood pressure, process internal toxins and waste, help convert food into useful neurotransmitters that our nervous system uses to keep us regulated with a stable mood, maintain a healthy skin barrier, and much more. There’s almost no end to the ways that bacteria keep us alive and well, and even modern medicine is finally starting to take a look at these dynamics.

The most common occasion for people to find out about the importance of pro-biotics is following a course of anti-biotics to thwart infection. Anti-biotics have the unfortunate effect of wiping out the body’s native immune system in the process of attacking the invading pathogen. This is because anti-biotics have no discernment between the good and bad bacteria in our bodies – they more or less kill whatever they come into contact with. Because all of these beneficial bacteria are so important for the continued health of the immune system, repeated antibiotic use can actually make you more prone to infection if more of those good guys aren’t re-introduced.

Natural health care industries have taken advantage of this awareness by fashioning pro-biotic pills that contain anywhere from 500 million to 50 billion bacteria per dose. The amount listed on the bottle is at the time of manufacturing, not the time when you buy it; and if it’s not in a refrigerator, you can bet that the numbers are a lot lower than stated. For this reason, pro-biotic supplement use has inconsistent results.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what humans did to balance gut flora prior to the era of modern technology? Why, they ate fermented foods! Of course, they didn’t have microscopes to tell them that it had anything to do with bacteria, but they did know that regular consumption of ferments were part of a healthy lifestyle, and that taking even more ferments after periods of illness would help restore health a lot faster.

All over the world, unpasteurized ferments are in use to this very day: sourdough, yogurt and kefir, kimchi, kombucha, ginger and root beers, fermented fish, the list goes on.  They’re very easy for the body to digest and assimilate, and they surpass probiotic pills because they contain literally trillions of beneficial microbes in single servings. In this article, I’m going to focus on how to make one of the best ferments through a process that’s so incredibly easy that you might wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Enter sauerkraut! It literally means “sour cabbage”. Most people have been exposed to sauerkraut through hot dog stands – it’s a popular addition to fast food. The great thing about cabbage is that it already has the good bacteria on it, so making a sauerkraut doesn’t require you to add bacteria cultures from an outside source. Unfortunately, most sauerkraut on the store shelves has been pasteurized by exposing it to heat, completely eliminating its bacterial content and likely some of the nutrition as well. Here are just some of the benefits to consuming raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut:

  • Source of vitamins B, C and K, folic acid, the minerals iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium, and is a great source of dietary fiber
  • Lactose free and gluten free
  • Loaded with enzymes that aid digestion, specifically the breakdown of protein (which is why sauerkraut is popularly served with meat)
  • Beneficial bacteria like lactobacilli are present in the trillions, and these help regulate gut health without the need to consume dairy ferments or pro-biotic pills

That’s why I recommend you make your own at home, using the very simple recipe below.

What you’ll need:

  • A one litre (1L) mason jar
  • Cheese cloth, enough to cover the top of the jar
  • An elastic band
  • 1 smaller jar to fit inside the mason jar
  • 1 head of fresh cabbage (green or purple, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s cabbage!)
  • Sea salt or himalayan salt
  • Optional: other veggies to layer into your kraut. We added some sliced carrot, beet, and spring greens like dandelion and mustard greens. If you’re a fan of wild foraging for tender springtime greens, they make an excellent addition!
  • Optional: flavorful spices. In the example below we used dill, celery seed, black pepper, and a bit of cayenne

How it all works:

Make sure all cooking surfaces and hands are clean. We want to make sure that no unfriendly bacteria get introduced to the process.

Step 1: Remove the outer layer of cabbage and discard it. Cut up the cabbage into small segments and place in a clean bowl. The size of the cabbage pieces is really a matter of preference. Some people grate their cabbage to make it even smaller.

Keep a big piece of cabbage leaf. I’ll explain why later!

We chopped our cabbage into larger pieces

We chopped our cabbage into larger pieces

Step 2: Add about half a teaspoon of salt to the cabbage.

Himalayan salt, yum yum!

Himalayan salt, yum yum!

Step 3: With clean hands, begin to crush and massage the cabbage. If you’ve cut a whole head of cabbage and you’re doing this alone, the massaging part should take you about 10-15 minutes or so. Eventually the cabbage will start to get watery and soggy, and your hands will be dripping. The salt extracts the liquid from the cabbage and makes it ready to be bottled.

Crunch crunch crunch!Crunch crunch crunch!

Step 4: Once the cabbage is limp and soggy, you can add your desired spices to the mix. We used dill, celery seed, black pepper and cayenne. How much you add is really up to your personally taste.

step 4

Step 5: Now comes the fun part! Start packing the wet cabbage into your mason jar. If your hand can fit into the jar, make a fist with it and really pack the cabbage down as tightly as possible. If not, then use a spoon to really pack it in. You’ll notice that as you pack more and more cabbage, there will be a lot more liquid coming out of it that begins to submerge the cabbage. This is known as the brine, and it’s an essential part of the process!

If you decided to add some extra veggies, you can begin adding them in between cabbage layers. When you add veggies, just pack more cabbage on top of them.

Rainbow beets and carrots, sliced thin, added on top of the first cabbage layerRainbow beets and carrots, sliced thin, added on top of the first cabbage layer

Step 6: Stop packing the cabbage when you get close to the top of the jar, you’ll want to leave room for all that brine. As the sauerkraut ferments over the next week or so, more liquid will be created by the bacteria that might spill over. It’s all part of the process!

Next you’ll take that big cabbage leaf from earlier and wrap it around all the veggies at the top of the jar to prevent them from floating. As long as all of the vegetables remain beneath the brine, they won’t go bad. In fact, they will keep fermenting!

Use the smaller jar to pack down the veggies, and then leave it in there to hold everything down.

step 6Cabbage and other veggies submerged in the brine

Step 7: Because sauerkraut needs to breathe during the fermenting stage, you won’t put a lid on the jar. Doing so could cause explosive results! Instead, use some cheese cloth and a rubber band.

 

step 7

That’s all there is to it! Place the jar in another bowl to catch any spills, and put it somewhere safe at room temperature to ferment for the next week or so. You can start eating it as early as 5 days, but some people prefer their kraut to taste really strong so they’ll keep it fermenting for 10-14 days. Feel free to taste it every day after day 5, and put it in the fridge to stop the fermentation once it’s to your satisfaction.

Some people have permanent kraut on their counter tops in bowls. When they remove cabbage to use, they just add more and weigh it down with a plate. It’s possible to maintain such continuous ferments for years! The ferment is continuous and never goes bad as long as everything stays below the surface. Mold may occasionally grow on the surface, but it has no impact on the ferment underneath the liquid. You can skim the mold and the ferment will be just fine, but of course, use your best judgment!

Add the kraut to any dish you choose, it adds the much needed sour flavor to the diet and will help digest any meal you’re chowing down. You can also eat it on its own too in fork fulls if you are a big fan of the kraut itself!

Devil’s Club to club your devils!

devilsclub

Recently I had the privilege of working with a pacific northwestern plant called Devil’s Club, also known as oplopanax horridus. As both the common and Latin name suggest, it’s a bit of a tricky plant to deal with because of its fierce looking exterior. Its entire stalk and even the leaves are covered in devilish looking spines that will lodge themselves beneath the skin if you’re unlucky enough to get impaled. The fresh thorns contain bacteria and chemistries that cause some wounds to blister, and it’s this lovely feature that both prevents most people from ever harvesting it, and gives us clues to its medicine! Interestingly, the same infections it causes can be cured by the root bark itself, and modern research demonstrates that it also has the amazing ability to thwart tuberculosis and antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria such as the infamous MRSA. As the “panax” portion of the Latin name indicates, it comes from the ginseng family and has many similar adaptogenic qualities. It boosts energy metabolism, soothes the pain of arthritis, and regulates blood sugar, making it an effective medicine for type II diabetes.

Some thorny love to remind us of self-protection!

Some thorny love to remind us of self-protection!

Most of the coastal and interior First Nations who occupy the range of this medicine revere it with sacred respect. If you ever work with Devil’s Club in the wild, you’ll notice that its roots form a lattice beneath the peaty, wet understory it inhabits, and that the roots are thick and well established. This gives us a hint at the deep, interconnected medicine it offers us on emotional and spiritual levels. Those who take Devil’s Club find that it tends to regulate the root and solar plexus regions of our body (known esoterically as the 1st and 3rd chakras). It goes to the origin of past traumas and ‘unroots’ them from our psyche so that feelings of insecurity, lack of safety, and former attacks on our self-esteem become gradually absolved — a great helper for one’s journey in resolving the inner critic!

The traditional spiritual uses of this medicine relate to protection. Pieces of the root were carried on the person to promote safety, and important rituals were shrouded in Devil’s Club segments to ensure that undue forces did not invade. These lessons are carried into our psyche as we work with Devil’s Club: no matter what happens in the external world, we’re going to be okay, and we’re going to make it. Even though everything in nature is interconnected and we all depend on the web of life for survival, each individual is also granted the gift of sovereignty and personal lessons that he or she alone is here to work with. Devil’s Club helps to de-tangle what doesn’t serve us, while energizing our being for the important work ahead.

Root bark that has been removed

Root bark that has been removed

Transforming Devil’s Club into useable medicine is definitely a group project, and it makes a lot of sense given that the plants themselves do not exist in nature as individuals, but a tethered and tangled group. If a plant’s stem falls lopsided and hits the ground, it immediately begins the task of transforming its stem into adventitious roots which fuel the network and become new shoots. Even mature plants can become roots again, and this practical life cycle means that root, stem and aerial components are all merged into interchangeable components over the years. This tells us that Devil’s Club medicine affects us on all levels, as it is prepared to become what is needed to serve the healing process.

Handling the root bark with one’s bare hands ensures transdermal contact with its living essence, and during the processing its unique fragrance fills the room and becomes mildly intoxicating. A sense of energized mirth overtakes each person until there is an ambiance of warmth, laughter, and protected carefreeness. Worries and anxieties give way to courageous stamina, and whatever seemed to be bothersome before no longer seems like that big of a deal. The spirit of the plant encourages us to lighten up and begin to release even the deepest of wounds so that we can gradually and lovingly return to our grounded centre. As a friend aptly pointed out recently, this medicine helps us to “club our demons” so that we are no longer held back by the shadow.

One important note though… it takes some years for Devil’s Club to grow into mature plants so it’s important to harvest it with great care and respect. In my journeys around the Pacific Northwest I noticed that it tends to grow in somewhat isolated communal patches, and not in huge swaths. It’s not the kind of plant that can be sustainably harvested wholesale, so only take what you need. Like Goldenseal, it’s a slow growing medicine that could easily be threatened with overharvesting. Just as Devil’s Club is a protective medicine, we must also show it the same kind of protection!

The sweetness of harvest

In the modern western calendar we divide the seasons into four, but in the ancient calendar there was a fifth season known as late summer, or indian summer. It’s a transitional period wherein the heat of summer is not quite that hot anymore, the trees and plants are still relatively thriving, and it’s not cool enough to be considered the onset of fall just yet. At the same time, there are changes in nature that can affect health and wellness that are distinct from those of the intense heat of the proper summer season.

Late summer tends to coincide with the abundance of the harvest, spanning all the way to the Autumn Equinox on September 21st in most seasonal growing areas. It’s because of this relationship to food that this time of year is associated with the flavour of sweet, and the TCM organ of spleen. The TCM spleen is a different concept than the modern western spleen. It represents the functions of digestion: our ability to transform the food we eat into forms that our body can use, and the body’s ability to transport substances to their proper places in the body. When transformation is hindered, a person will not adequately break down and absorb their food, leading to diarrhea and undigested food passing through the body. If transportation is hindered, there may be problems with fluid metabolism such as edema, or a sense of low energy due to nutrients not being distributed properly to all areas of the body.

This season’s natural environmental influence is dampness. If we look at the Summer Solstice on June 21st as the peak time of yang qi or fire energy, then the very next day represents the reintroduction of yin into the environment. With each day that passes after the Solstice the day grows a tiny bit shorter until finally the darkness dominates at the Winter Solstice. With the development of yin comes more moisture in the environment, more humidity and haze, and more turbidity. Early mornings are met with more and more dew and even during the peak heat of the day the air can feel stuffy. It is also known as the season of “rotting and ripening”. With dampness comes the influences of nature which break down what is not harvested, and these come in the form of fungus, bacteria and other useful organisms in the biosphere, but which can become hindrances in a person suffering from a damp related illness.

Our spleens enjoy warm foods that are not too salty, sweet, greasy, or mucous forming. It’s important to realize that dampness is not an enemy, it is a necessary part of our health. In very dry conditions, damp foods are favorable; however, in a season like late summer where dampness dominates, we have to be careful how much additional moisture-building foods we introduce into our diets. If there is too much clinging moisture in the gastrointestinal tract, it will cause the formation of excessive mucous, which in turn inhibits proper absorption of food. Dampness also has the additional symptoms of causing sluggishness, a sense of heaviness in the body, and can manifest as fluid-like weight gain, poor appetite, diarrhea, chronic fungal and bacterial infections, achy joints and arthritis, and many other conditions.

Because the spleen enjoys warmth, you can help it out by making sure food is always cooked during this season. Something raw that is steamed for 5 minutes is still considered more warm in nature. Warm in property is also useful. Adding warming spices like ginger, pepper, garlic, cinnamon, and most of the savoury cooking herbs will aid digestive ability. During the late summer season, it is a time when root vegetables tend to dominant. Beets, carrots, potatoes, yams and other ground dwelling starchy vegetables are the kind of “sweet” the spleen can enjoy, when taken in moderation. It’s also important to eat clean foods, which are those without too much refined sweet, salt, or artificial additives. Spleen likes “clean and clear”. If you stick to this dietary plan during the season of damp, you can prevent a host of bodily problems.

There are medicinal herbs and acupuncture techniques which also invigorate and tonify the spleen, encouraging the body to use more of its resources to focus on digestion and clearing dampness. For people who live in the Pacific northwest, dampness has a constant presence and the people of this region will relate to its challenges more than neighboring regions. For this reason, practitioners in any holistic health field should be well versed in the signs of symptoms of dampness and how to treat it.

A Heartfelt Sun

Welcome to my health and wellness blog! Given the season we are passing through, as well as the appropriately named website this blog is hosted on, I thought I would start out by giving a brief introduction to the seasonal energetics of heart medicine.
hands-heart-light-summer-love

Oh how the summer heat basks us in its glorious light for those few great months every year! During the spring, people slowly emerge from their hibernating mood and their lives begin to bustle with fiery activity once again — such is the promise of the summer months. In many traditional medicine practices, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, it’s understood that the summer is the time of the heart. Our “summer romance” with light, beauty, activity and connecting with others brings us a renewed hope for the future. It is a time of levity, joy, fun, and perhaps even the development of new and promising relationships. In accordance with the cycles of nature, it is also a time of gathering energy to generate abundance in the season of harvest which comes later. It’s when plants begin to fruit and all animals are active in absorbing the active yangqi (or fire energy) of that time of year.

In terms of bodily balance, many people experience a sense of hyperactivity during the summer months, as though there is an urgency to go out and get everything done right now. It’s a sense that there’s not enough time in the day and that rest is hard to come by. According to the principles of yin and yang, when the yang is highest, yin struggles to be preserved. In the presence of all that fire, many feel exhausted. It might manifest as feeling too hot all the time, having a mind that is excessively busy and a nervous system that is constantly on the alert; it might also look like trying to fit 48 hours into 24, or subconsciously trying to gather, gather, gather without taking adequate time for rest, peace and reflection. For those with high blood pressure, summer can present a time of health challenges to the cardiovascular system. It’s important during this time to consume cooling, moistening foods, to take time out in the shade, and to not get carried away with so much activity that we lose ourselves in the commotion. One of the other actions of all this fire energy is that personal challenges or difficult emotional experiences may appear magnified and exaggerated, leading some to take drastic action before taking time away in solitude and serenity to examine things more closely.

The summer season’s fiery nature represents a time when we must take pause for grounding and refreshment, whether it’s literally just having a delicious cooling salad and watermelon to eat, or if it’s literally inviting the philosophy of stillness into the forefront. Don’t get me wrong, all of this activity is supposed to be happening and it’s just what summer does to our health and consciousness; and in turn, all of this yang energy is used to build our yin stores for the coming months of dormancy in the winter. The key is to allow the yang energy to take hold in our lives without it completely consuming what stores we already have, which looks like burning the candle at both ends. Some people become so excited by the summer that they are non-stop, and once autumn arrives they fall into a much lower energy state. By tempering the yang with the yin, this health conflict can be avoided and a sense of equanimity can follow us into the light of sun.

In addition to inviting the yin nature into our lifestyles during this heated time, there are well-practiced acupuncture and herbal applications available to calm down the body. The heart all responds well to the flavour of bitter, which can be found in foods like collard greens, carrot and beat tops, dandelion, and swiss chard. Of all the organs in the body, the heart is the most sensitive to heat, and as we look at the esoteric function of the heart governing the spirit (神shen), there can be what are called vexations to consciousness during this time. Many people experience heat stroke delirium or a sense that their clear thinking is impaired by the heat of summer, and that even as the sun sets there is a lingering heat in their bodies that doesn’t quite seem to dissipate.  Any herb or food that has a bitter edge to its flavour will encourage the body to clear heat which in turn calms the spirit of the heart. Some great examples are chamomile, garden sage, peppermint, cucumbers, and melons (especially watermelon). If food sources don’t seem to clear the intense heat, then acupuncture can help, usually within a single treatment.