We have all had that experience of typing a symptom into google, only to have the shocking realization that you must have at least 2 terminal illnesses and a plethora of other terrible diseases. Usually this is followed by a sense of your inherent “brokenness”. In general, our symptoms are often seen as some sort of enemy that must be fought and defeated, or some great symbol of malfunction and “wrongness”.
But I’m interested in what would happen if instead we look at these symptoms in a less judgmental way, with more of a gentle curiosity. We may be able to see them for what they are: messages from our body or mind or spirit, usually encouraging change. Maybe it’s a change in diet or lifestyle or thinking, but it’s part of a built in feedback system that our brilliant bodies have been endowed with in order to communicate with us. In this sense, we can see these symptoms as gifts and opportunities to create new patterns, instead of enemies we must eliminate, or an embodiment of our brokenness. In my experience, this harsh mentality can actually impede the healing process, by creating disempowering emotions such as shame, self criticism and defeat.
Now, I’m not saying that if you are experiencing chronic migraines that is a great and lovely experience that you ought to enjoy. Rather, I’m encouraging a more gentle view and relationship with oneself. That you are not broken or wrong, but receiving a very strong message from your body, and one that as an herbalist I want to help you to interpret.
When we have a repeated disturbance to our bodies homeostasis, especially through stress or inflammation, our cells and systems respond, store this information and remember it. Usually this response is repeated until there is something to break or change the feedback cycle.
The amazing thing about herbs is that their purpose and function is not to mask a symptom, although they can often provide us with comfort or relief. Instead they can communicate with our bodies, support them, and help to create new, more healing patterns.
A truly fascinating example of this, in my opinion, is that of adaptogenic herbs, which among other properties, can actually change the way that our body responds to stress. They do this through a complex series of feedback loops, up-regulating certain responses and down-regulating others, based on the individual person’s physical constitution and situation. The complexity of this is still beyond our understanding and ability to mimic synthetically.
“Adaptogens act to restore hypothalamic and peripheral receptor sensitivity to the effects of cortisol and other adrenal hormones. In this way, adaptogens enable the body to mount an appropriate stress response with lower amounts of cortisol than would otherwise be required.”
– Ward Dean, “Role of Novel Russian Adaptogenic Compounds in Restoration of Adrenal Function,” published in the Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients (Nov. 2001)
When an over-stimulation of stress and cortisol floods our system repeatedly over time, our bodies can become desensitized, limiting the ability to appropriately respond. As stated above, some adaptogenic herbs work by actually re-teaching certain receptors how to be more sensitive, yielding the appropriate stress response. Rather than just enacting upon our bodies like many synthetic medicines, they can actually receive information and in this way, have a conversation with our bodies.
This is also demonstrated by herbal medicines and their ability to simultaneously affect many different physiological systems. A single herb, for example St. John’s Wort, can work through our serotonin receptors to treat depression, kill tumor cells, and/or strengthen the nervous system depending on the individual person’s physical situation and make up.
Herbal treatments are not a quick fix. In our current culture of Western medicine, many people are looking for something to fix the immediate situation or symptom at hand. However, if one sticks with an herbal plan over time, the body may experience an even deeper level of healing by re-wiring certain destructive patterns and processes learned by the body in times of stress or trauma. In this way, we benefit from the intelligence and receptiveness of our plant allies.
Personally, I’m always interested in the intersection of science and spirituality (which in this case I mean, very simply, the acknowledgement of the spirit present in all things), and I see a deeper and more intuitive exchange at hand. Plants are alive and have a living spirit. When we commune with them or ingest them in some way, we essentially fuse our spirits together in a way where a living exchange can take place. In a way that can’t be replicated in a lab.
This simple shift in mindset could drastically alter the way that we interact with other beings and our environment at large. If we started seeing the life around us as intelligent allies and living beings that we interact with, rather than commodities or resources that we “use” and act upon, I think that it would transform the way we interact with eachother and the greater world.
This has been a super important aspect of my educational work, especially with kids – they are already so in touch with the living spirit around us, in the trees, garden, bees, etc. They are still in touch with the unseen, the unmeasurable.
So when I bring kids into my garden, we look to the plants and insects as our friends. And if we taste a plant, we always make sure to ask first, and say thank you after.
I approach herbal medicine in the same way. My heart is full of gratitude for all of these amazing plants and the medicine that they have to share.
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