Herbs, Food, and Holism

Even before training as a naturopath, I had a love for plants. Spending the early years of my life living close to nature in an isolated rainforest in Tassie, I created my own invisible friends and befriended the local trees and wildlife. My mother was a fan of the Australian naturopath Dorothy Hall, and as such, we grew up knowing a lot about how to recognise nutrient deficiencies and what foods would correct them.

With this background, I got a little bored with the emphasis on supplements in our naturopathic nutrition training, but I absolutely fell in love with herbal medicine, which not only considered the nutrient content of specific herbs, but also the therapeutic actions provided by various natural botanical chemicals like tannins, saponins, mucilages and alkaloids. This therapeutic biochemistry isn’t limited to herbs, it also apples to the foods we eat on a daily basis, and my favourite herbs, quite naturally, are food herbs.

Over the years I have become fascinated with the way taste can impact physiology (like the way bitters stimulate digestion and balance hormonal function, for example), as well as the energetics of plant foods. These interests have lead me down more of an Eastern herbal pathway, providing a valuable counterpoint to my western naturopathic training.

Plants produce a vast array of complex chemicals and as consumers, we have evolved in response to these plant chemicals, learning how to make best use of natural pesticides and toxins, while also developing symbiotic relationships with plants we are interdependent with. You can’t examine anything accurately while isolating it from it’s environment, and the conclusions we come to based on research into isolated and concentrated plant chemicals are seriously blind-sided.

Nature is the grandest science project ever on a scale we could never truly hope to comprehend or replicate. I wish we could honour her wisdom a little more deeply. For me, being a naturopath is all about being a Nature-Doctor…. a student of nature and the wisdom she teaches. I groan when I watch the crazy antics of the natuopathic-supplement industry grinding its wheels in the world around me, because it lacks so much soul and authenticity.

For me, being a naturopath and a healer is about honouring wholeness. I don’t want to be a pseudo-doctor, isolating and concentrating plant chemicals in little labs… I want to be connected to, and connecting others to, the healing properties of the natural world around me. I don’t want to carve nature up into tiny pieces and discard everything except the ‘active ingredient’. We are so incredibly blind when we dismiss the diverse complexity of a whole plant in favour of an isolated compound. We are completely overlooking the complex dynamics at play when a multitude of plant chemicals enters the body as a whole. There are powerful interactive, syngeristic factors here that we are still too young (as scientific thinkers) to comprehend.

What is happening in the body as a whole, or even within the microcosm of the cell membrane of an individual, when a person consumes a whole food? And how does the community of plant chemicals within a whole food interact with one another and the host/human? You can get what science thinks of as ‘inactives’ (chemicals they haven’t yet found a useful market for; chemicals that they can’t measure the effects of), that, when combined with other plant chemicals, in the right human at the right time, can unleash an incredibly powerful sequence of events, leading to profound and long-lasting change in the eco-system of the human.

When I think about a herb or a whole food, I ‘see’ an incredible array of hundreds, possibly thousands, of different chemical structures. This three-dimensional lattice shape is the overall structure, but when you zoom in, you suddenly realise this shape contains smaller lattice-shapes. Each one of these is a single plant chemical. The connections between one chemical and another are changing all the time, like the magic staircase in Harry Potter’s school of magic. The chemicals are in a relationship with one another, first inside the plant as they work together to compose the entire being of the plant…. and then inside the human as they are ingested, breathed in, absorbed through the skin and so forth. The auric therapist/poet in me wants to also say ‘as the frequency of the plant comes into contact with the frequency pattern of the human, beautiful new ripples, shapes, and possibilities are created’.

A lot of this magic happens in the tissues of the body as the plant chemicals travel through us, sometimes in teams, sometimes broken down into parts, other times meeting up with each other or other chemicals in our digestive system and later, our blood. Each time chemicals meet, they do a little dance…. and often, during these dances, they transform into something new.

Let me tell you about a drug, or a supplement, by comparison. I see a different picture. I see the body being bombed by what, in smaller quantities and in more complex, balanced patterns with other chemicals, could be healing. I have never forgotten the Arnold-Schultz Law I learned in high school biology:

Small doses stimulate

Moderate doses inhibit

Large doses kill

What creates magic as a catalyst, stimulating and providing the basic food for natural bodily functions in a smaller dose, can become a bulldozer or a tank in larger quantities, forcing itself on the body rather than offering itself politely. In fact, when we are talking about drugs (prescribed medications), it goes a step further and becomes truly invasive. The drugs take over a part of the body’s function altogether, while shutting other areas down. It is impossible not to have side effects with medical drugs because of this very powerful forcefulness, this ‘taking over’. Never does this ‘taking over’ encourage a return to normal homeostasis- it doesn’t actually fix anything, it just takes over and tells the body it might as well give up trying to return to homeostasis because the drug will take care of everything.

I’m not saying we should never use drugs (or supplements), I just think we overuse them in our quest for fast and powerful fixes, and we don’t do the real work ourselves. Real healing takes time and involves living in harmony with nature, not trying to trump it or ignore it. Real healing includes prevention and correction in the form of ongoing adaptive responses. We take wise action to prevent harm in the first place and then, when imbalance occurs, we LISTEN to the little whispers before they become shouts, so we can take corrective action.

The other two nature-science moments at school that really stood out for me were learning about ecosystems in primary school and learning about homeostasis in high school. Scientists seem to forget these two things exist. They are too quick to mess with things, or to intervene, in a heavy-handed manner from a reductionist perspective. For me, healing often involves getting out of my own way and letting my body do its thing without putting roadblocks in it’s path.

While I know without doubt I will suffer illness as I age, I haven’t had trouble with any chronic illnesses yet, aside from food sensitivities and the odd musculoskeletal challenge. I suspect that part of the reason why is because I listen to my body and respond, as best I can. People might think I am ‘strange’ or ‘defective’ somehow to have food sensitivities. But in actual fact, I think I just had the good grace to come from a family who had listened, and made connections…. realising that this symptom was linked to ‘that’ food or ‘this’ behaviour.

The list of health problems I used to have when I was younger was quite long but these issues have all resolved as I listened and responded. My health is getting better as I get older, as a result. Again, I know there is a tipping point, where age will catch up with me, but I feel better than I ever have, mostly due to improved dietary and sleep habits, improved stress management skills, healthier relationships, more exercise, fresh air and sunlight: all good quality, basic naturopathic principles.

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