July 23rd, 2011 § § permalink
During my interview for Chinese Medicine school, one of the interviewers asked if I had ever had acupuncture or taken Chinese herbs. “Of course! Why else would I be here?” was my response. I thought they were either joking or patronizing, but they looked dead serious. They didn’t respond. I asked if people actually went to school for acupuncture without ever having it, and they replied with, “some people go through school, pass their boards and start practicing without ever having it.”
I was shocked. Chinese medicine isn’t the sort of field that people pick with the mentality, “I need a job, so why not do acupuncture?”. As I worked in the herbal dispensary and took Herbology classes, I found that its not entirely rare for students to have never taken the herbs they prescribe.
It hit me when I asked my provider if they could make my bulk formula taste a little better. In truth, it tasted a lot like rotten stomach acid mixed with a side of fermented garbage juice – it was very difficult to swallow, literally. He had no idea what was so bad about it, and said something like: “I don’t know how to do that. This is the formula, and it tastes the way it tastes”. Well, this particular formula had 15 grams of Ai Ye (Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris) per dose, in addition to several other incredibly bitter herbs, that were boiled for 50 minuets in just over a quart of water, making for some very concentrated tea.
In prescribing individuated formulas, it is difficult and indeed impossible to try every formula you give to others. However, making and tasting some classic formulas and as many individual herbs as possible is not only doable, but required (in my humble opinion) to fully grasp the medicine. I am happy to report that we are doing just that in the lab portion of Herbology classes this summer. Bring it on, Gui Pi Wan!
This got me thinking of ways to engage with plant medicine to deepen our understanding of them and the gifts they have to offer. Luckily, there are a plethora of classes, workshops, study courses, books and blogs out there that explore medicinal plants in depth. For starters, check out the information on Dancing in a Field of Tansy‘s blog and join her in discovering an Herbal Ally. Here you can learn just about every way to both prepare your herb (teas, slaves, tinctures, ect…) and learn about its properties, energetics, and personality.
When I come across a new herb on the intellectual plane (from a book or class) I tend to ask myself these questions:
- What is this herb’s botanical name and family?
- Where does it grow, where is it cultivated and where is it native?
- What does this plant look like?
- What part or parts are used for medicine?
- What unique features does it have?
- Who are the closest relatives to this plant in my environment?
- What does it smell like, how does it taste? Why does it have these attributes?
- What are its energetics, actions and constituents?
- What formulas feature this herb and why?
- Is it endangered, commonly adulterated or heavily chemically sprayed?
- Is this plant mentioned in folk lore, ancient texts or old herbals?
- What, if any, research surrounds this plant?
Learning herbs in a school setting is an incredibly time consuming task as it is, so I can’t imagine that I will be able to to do this type of investigation for more than a few herbs at a time. But I can’t NOT do some digging to find answers and information – I am much too curious, or obsessed with herbs, or both (probably the later). I am going to do my best to sift through these questions and find some answers, busy as I am.
February 28th, 2011 § § permalink
I am in 2 of 12 terms in school. The pace at which we learn things is incredible. Study a subject for one week and bam! you are expected to know everything (yes, this is an overstatement) about the muscles of the thigh, the Spleen meridian, the integument system, and (as luck would have it) certain categories of herbs. Tomorrow is out first herb test, which will consist of answering questions about the 14 herbs we learned in the “Warm Herbs that Release the Exterior” category.
Starting in 2002, I regularly studied herbs in earnest. That meant that on most day of the week, I read about, tasted, looked at, sat with, thought of, gardened, identified and wildcrafted, and took notes about the herbs that I was studying. Since I was in a self-education situation, I tended to migrate towards herbs that myself or my friends and family needed. There is the time to sit and digest (literally and figuratively) all the information and subtleties about the plants.
With all the ways I studied herbs, I never though to add memorization to my ways of understanding herbs.
But now I have to.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t seek to be centered and connected to the plants I am learning about. We have samples of the herbs to gaze at, nibble, and smell. The texts that we have are amazing at describing the energetic nature of the herb, comparing and contrasting similar herbs, and using references from the classics. I do work study in the clinic’s herbal dispensary, where I fill bulk and granule formulas, so I get to further familiarize with the herbs as I see them in formulas, and I did some gardening in the herbal garden in the beginning of the year.
One thing I like to do that I don’t really have a chance to do is taste the herbs. I could find a way to get some, but the school won’t let you but herbs unless a faculty has signed off on a formula, like a prescription. Apparently it’s a liability issue. This is probably my biggest frustration: HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN ABOUT THE HERBS IF I CAN”T PREPARE AND USE THEM? There, I am done ranting.
Here is a sample of the information we need to know:
Jing Jie (Schizonepata tenuifolia, Lamiaceae)
- Slightly Warm
- Enters the Lung and Liver meridian
- Dose: 3-10g, short cook
- ~Relieve exterior syndrome by eliminating wind, promoting skin eruption, stop bleeding.
- Headache, fever, aversion to cold with no sweating, for either wind-cold or wind-heat.
- Itchy skin, urticaria, slow skin eruption in measles.
- Epitaxis, hemafecia, urinary bleeding due to various causes.
- Early stage of carbuncles or boils with exterior syndrome.
- Deficiency of exterior (wei qi, yin, or deficient heat).
- Opens sores.
- Absence of pathogenic wind.
- Fully erupted measles.
Jing Jie or Schizonepata is very aromatic. A classmate asked if it is related to lavender, because the spikes resemble lavender tops and also because of it’s smell. Indeed, they are in the same family! I think the dried herb smells like a cross between a wild mint that grew next to stream in Minnesota and sweet pennyroyal, but I bet there are similar species like that all over the world.
I find it odd that Jing Jie is said to be slightly warm, because as a minty-mint I expect it to be slightly cool, like spearmint (although I can see how peppermint is sometimes considered warm, cool and sometimes both). It is considered to be antipyretic, diaphoretic, antibiotic (the decoction is effective against staph, strep-B, salmonella, Bacillus tubercuili), hemostatic (according to Chen, charred Jing Jie speeds coagulation time by 77%, while regular Jing Jie does by 30%), analgesic, and a bronchiodialator that relieves spasm and wheezing. As you may of guessed, it is full of volatile oils, along with flavanoids, phenolic acids, and monoterpine glycosides.
Since it is slightly warm, it can be used for both heat and cold situations. It is relatively mild all-around, so it doesn’t damage yin, and is not as drying as the other herbs in this category, but it still is drying. According to the texts, the important factor for it’s effectiveness is that wind must be present. Wind is one of the six exogenous (outside) pathogenic factors and is characterized with sudden, acute situations (like colds and flu), aversion to wind, itching, convulsions, spasms, trembling,as well as stiffness or paralysis (where wind is internal and not moving).
It can be used with spasms in general, especially muscle spasms. The texts say it is useful for postpartum spasm and muscle cramps. It is featured in many topical formulas for itching or wind attacking the skin like with rashes or eczema.
I able to get an intern to sign off on a 10 gram order of this herb for me to try on my dog. She has been very itchy, with pretty bad eczema. I made a wrapped Jing Jie and calendula in a thin cotton towel, poured some boiling water over it, and let it steep, covered, for about 30 minuets. Isis (my dog) seemed to like it, but she pretty much always likes compresses. I did notice she was much less itchy for the rest of the night, and the inflammation decreased. I would combine it with comfrey next time, because it was more drying to her than the calendula alone (which is not a particularly demulcent plant itself). I think it might be a good herb to add into a dry, itchy skin salve… and it has been such a long time since I’ve made a salve…
One more thing about Jing Jie. The tea was quite tasty, very aromatic with sweet, warm mint undertones. I am actually surprised that it is not considered “sweet”, because it strikes me as very sweet in both smell and taste. The flavor has a touch of licorice or stevia sweetness to it. Now that I think about it, the flavor reminds me of many herbs, but anise hyssop, pennyroyal and wild mint come up the most in my mind. Maybe it’s just me, I don’t know. I did experience a little nervine effect, not as pronounced as lavender or lemon balm, more similar to that of spearmint.
Sigh, I suppose I should go back to studying now…
February 20th, 2011 § § permalink
Herb Books, mmmm… I buy them, read them, and re-read them as often as I can. For every herb book I have, there are three more that I desire. So many amazing herbalists have published books, on just about every topic imaginable.
It was tough to narrow my favorite herb book selection. I sat in front of my bookshelf and paged through title after title; after 20 minuets of “this one is my favorite”, “this one is my other favorite”, I realized that all of them are valuable, useful, inspirational and informative (other wise I would not have shipped three boxes of them from Minnesota to Oregon). Some are sentimental, like Susun Weed’s Healing Wise. That was one of the first herb books I bought, and it significantly shaped both my view of plants and healing philosophy.
Here is the semi-narrowed down list.
#1 Most used, referenced, practical, favorite:
- “Medicines From the Earth” Conference Notes
These ‘books’ aren’t really books at all, they are a compilation of lecture notes to a botanical medicine conference. Many conferences have these sorts of publications, and even more conferences have recordings for sale. I find them truly, truly indispensable. Almost every day I engage with either the notes or the recordings (my iPod is full of Jill Stansbury, Donnie Yance and Mary Bove, among others). This particular conference is not unique in that there is a variety of herbal practitioners, from wild crafters, TCM practitioners to naturopaths. For a specific condition, and practical applications for practice, these are my absolute favorite.
Books for Understanding The Essence of Herbs:
- Matthew Wood’s The Book of Herbal Wisdom
- Micheal Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West
The Book of Herbal Wisdom is the herbal that I have read the most. The stories, the history, the energetic details of the plants are enthralling and help the medicinal uses of the plants stick in my head. This book held even more relevance for me because much of it took place in my ‘backyard’ of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I had seen many of the plants in the specific places mentioned in the book, like yarrow on the rocky, windswept north shore of Lake Superior.
A few weeks before moving from Minnesota, a friend gave me her copy of Micheal Moore’s book. I have enjoyed reading it since, a herb or two at a time, as a way to get to know the herbs out here in Portland. Both of these books are very much infused with a sense of place, which I love. Wood seems to connect with the herb’s being or essence, while Moore has a deep understanding on what the herbs do in the physical body, or at lease that is what I take out of them.
Books for the Inner Goddess/Healer:
- Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Healing for Women
- Earth Mother Herbal by Shatoiya De La Tour
Anything by Rosmary Gladstar, could be on this list, really. She gets you to touch, taste, dream, sing and tell stories about the herbs, as a way of learning. Her work is infused with wisdom and ‘beautility’, inspiring her readers and students to be stewards of the earth and protectors of the plants. I have to wonder: just how many people have learned about herbal medicine because of her? Rosemary’s body care recipes are my staple, they are are so simple yet revolutionary.
The Earth Mother Herbal is a sweet, succinct and surprisingly diverse book. There is information about growing herbs, harvesting, making products, and for each herb in the herbal section an unique recipe or two follows. What struck me about this book is the encouragement of De La Tour to permeate your life with herbs, and not just for medicine. One section that I particularly love outlines examples of herbal gatherings for different seasons, with food, drinks, favors and activities all related to herbs.
Books for Women’s Health:
- Ruth Tricky’s Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle
- Aviva Jill Romm’s The Natural Pregnancy Book
- The Core Balance Diet by Marcell Pick (one book that are not really an herbal)
When I said there are many herb book that I desire, most of those book are on the topic of women’s health. Australian practitioner Tricky’s book covers in great detail hormones and the menstrual cycle (as the title implies) with sound advice on herbs and supplements. The herbal entries are based both on historical and folk use and on modern research – a blend that not everyone can pull off as well as Tricky. I use this book as a reference constantly for both physiology and herbs. Reading this book helped me further differentiate herbs that may seem similar on the outside (like adaptogens or uterine tonics) through her specific examples based on the herbs themselves and as well as the intricacy of the body.
Romm’s pregnancy book made the list because it is the book that I lend out the most. It is at a beginner level as far as herbs are concerned, but that is a fine place to be at in a pregnancy book; you don’t want to be overwhelmed with herbal details when you have pregnancy, birth and postpartum to focus on.
The Core Balance Diet is indeed not an herbal, but it does have a good deal of herbal information in it. It made the list because I have found that applying the concepts in the book can greatly enhance the way I use herbs in everyday life. Don’t be put off my the word Diet in the title. It is about understanding six different ways our body interacts with the world (adrenal, hormonal, neurotransmitter, digestive, detoxification and inflammation) and how we can get our trouble areas back on track to lead a more balance life, inside and out. Very pertinent information for herbalists, I believe.
Best quick reference:
- Micheal Tierra’s Planetary Herbology
- Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine
Just the other day I was reading in Planetary Herbology‘s “herbs that release the exterior” category and gained some insight about the relationship and differentiation between diuretics and diaphoretics. Little thing like that happen whenever I open this book. When I want to know some basic information about an herb, this book clearly lays out the energetics (taste and temperature), constituents, actions, organs entered (this Chinese concept is useful for western herbs, too) and so on.
Making Plant Medicine seems to get opened in acute situations. Need a direction as to which herbs to use topically like right NOW? Cech has it. After making my much needed remedy, I go back to the book and read some more. I love Cech’s writing style and information. If it’s useful, it’s in this book.
Books for the Chinese Medicine (or the Books I Wish I’d Gotten Sooner):
- Dan Bensky’s Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica
- Dan Chen Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology
Before going to Chinese medicine school, I had an interest in Chinese herbs, but my first love was Western herbalism and I stayed away from the heady, theory-laden tomes of Chinese medicine. What a mistake! You don’t have to know Chinese medicine theory, Yin and Yang, or the 5 elements to benefit from these texts. Both books have the same information about the indications of the herbs, but Chen’s has a more western feel, with medicinal actions (diaphoretic, antimicrobial, brochiodialtor, ect..), chemical constituents and modern research, while Bensky is the standard herbology text and draws more from classical texts.
There are a few reasons I say this. First, because of the incredible organization of the material that is very conducive to learning. The herbs are grouped in ways that make exquisite sense, with explanations to why they are groups that way.
Another reason I love these texts is because of the importance of energetics. After reading one single entry (Ma Huang, ephedra), I understood more about energetics than after 8 years of studying Western herbalism and 4 months of formal Chinese medicine education, combined. What really helped me ‘get’ it was both the comparisons between herbs in the same category and sample herbal combination. Reading things in the line of “this herb does this to release the exterior, while herb #2, with a different flavor, does more of this action” is so helpful.
Non-herbal Gateway Book:
- Christiane Northrup’s Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisodm
This book has been a catalyst that has lead many people to herbalism. It may seem strange, because it talks a lot about natural health, nutrition, and emotions but not necessarily herbs. I mention it because I have lost count of the number of people I ran into that said this was the book that started their healing journey – myself included, this I consider it a ‘gateway’ book.
February 12th, 2011 § § permalink
Learning herbalism is one things; learning pathology is quite another. Just today I was struck yet again with the realization that I can study what herbs do until I am blue in the face, but what good is it if I don’t know when to apply them? It’s an ongoing process to be certain, but one thing is quite useful for this; learning energetic qualities.
Southern blood typology is interesting because it is an energetic system that is rooted in a physical phenomena, blood. Even though blood is quite tangible as a life-giving substance, here it is infused in energetic language and symbols. It makes me think of what I’ve learned about Yin (blood) and Yang (energetic) being both mutually dependent and ever transforming and flowing into each other. Speaking of Chinese medicine, many of the Southern blood classifications share similarities with TCM, like blood deficiency, heat in the blood, and so on. Again, I have to direct you to my list of references (Wood in particular, as this is mostly taken from him), because there is a decent amount of information out there about Southern herbalism.
There are a number of variations of Southern blood typology. A system currently in use by herbal practitioners in and out of the south contains the most adjectives and thus gives rise to more individualized diagnostic and treatment options. Basic blood classifications includes the locations (high or low), viscosity (thin or thick), an overall cleanliness (clean or dirty, synonymous with good or bad), and flavor (bitter or sweet). Other systems may also include temperature of the blood, (hot or cold), speed (slow or fast), or a combination of any of these qualities. For example, sweet blood may be included under high blood (Mathews, 888) and can be treated with bitter herbs to lower the blood from the head, neck and chest to the center of the body. The system illustrated below places sweet blood as cause of thick blood, as excessive amounts of sugar in the blood may contribute to high cholesterol (Wood, 24). Just as the sap flows unconstricted in the warmth of summer, thin, high, hot and fast blood as associated with summer, while cold, low, thick and slow blood are more likely to come up during winter.
Good or clean blood is the state of blood in healthy, strong and vibrant people. It is the state of blood resulting from a good constitution married with healthy lifestyle habits and choices. Herbal tonics are consumed daily and adjusted seasonally to keep the good state of blood stay where it is, like ‘seng (ginseng), sassafras and sarsaparilla.
Bad or dirty blood contains various chemicals (a modern concept), impurities or waste products. It is called “dirty” or “toxic” in popular natural commerce. Alterative herbs like burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, as well as lymphatic herbs like poke, red clover or echinacea can be used to clean the blood. The bitter flavor is also an important blood cleanser, as seen in the role of spring tonics and salad greens, especially important after the winter, a time of dirty, thick or slow blood easily accumulates toxins.
High blood is located high in the body, accumulating and causing pressure in the head, face or neck. It can also mean high blood pressure and refers to high volume of blood. It is not uncommon to hear people in the south refer to high blood pressure as “high blood”. In its past, Western medicine used blood letting to release high blood. Accounts from the turn of the last century of traditional herbs used for lowering the blood included sassafrass, wild cherry, onions and garlic (Cavender, 123), while modern herbalist use diaphoretics that release the surface and soothes capillaries, like yarrow, hawthorn, peach leaves, vervain, angelica and aspirin (Wood).
Anemia or malnutrition are clinical manifestations of low blood, which can be due to blood that is lacking vitality and is low in volume, low in the body or low in pressure. Fatigue and looking ‘peaked’ are symptoms of low blood, as is dizziness upon standing (Cavender, 124). Blood builders and things that raise the blood, stimulate circulation and tone the veins are used in modern practice. Traditional remedies include cooking on iron pans, adding iron nails to water pitchers, as was eating spring greens and taking a compound of molasses and sulfur (Cavender, 124).
Thin blood is somewhat related to low blood, but it is more watery and occurs in thin and cold people. Frequent bruising, clammy skin, frequent urination and having a blue or purple tinge to the skin are common manifestations of thin blood (Wood, 22). Warming angelica or feverfew can be helpful to increase the circulation, while astringents like raspberry leaf, red root, rose hips are herbs useful as they tone the tissues and stop the leakage of fluid.
Thick blood is sometimes called oily blood. It can be caused by excess fat, sugar and other metabolites in the blood or when waste products from bad blood accumulate and coagulate. Blood viscosity is reduced, leading to stroke, heart attack, high cholesterol and obesity (24-25). Treatments for thick blood are many and share treatments with other blood conditions (especially high blood). Often alteratives are used, along with blood thinners (a bioregional favorite is tulip poplar), cooling fruits like huckleberry and aromatic circulatory stimulants like yarrow, safflower, angelica and sassafras.
Fast blood is related to hot blood, with the most obvious symptom being a racing heart beat. Hyperthyroidism and chronic stress can be present with fast blood, along with nervous energy or anxiousness. Sedatives are used to calm the nervous system, like poplar bark, motherwort, or hops; stronger antiseptics like figwort, echinacea and baptisia have been traditionally used in chronic, stagnant cases or with throbbing infections or pain (27).
“Slow blood develops over a long time, due to chronic influences” (27), and is a more severe form of bad blood often with additional causative factors of cold, low or thick blood. Basically the vitality of the blood has been worn down, whether from constitutional weakness chronic or severe disease. Herbal treatments will vary according to the individual and the reason slow blood developed.
Hot blood can include fevers, infections or rashes, as well as a general hot constitution. Cold blood is similarly obvious in its’ meaning; it refers to states of coldness whether it be due to chills, spasms, arthritis or stiffness. Both hot blood and cold blood cross over a bit from their obvious naturalistic meanings of tending to excess heat and coldness respectively to the psychological realm. At the extremes, hot blooded people anger easily, have violent tendencies and live excessive lifestyles, while cold people are seen as tense, removed and are capable of premeditated crime (28-9).
Cavender, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia.
Light, Phyllis. “Southern herbalism: Southern Herbalism, My Story”. An article from: New Life Journal [eDoc/Amazon Short].
Light, Phyllis. Lecture notes: Southern Folk Herbalism. 2007.
Matthews, Holly F. “Rootwork: Description of Ethnomedical System in the South.” Southern Medical Journal, July 1987, Vol. 80, No. 7.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal