Oct 102015
 

I’ve never quite fit into “the box”. It seems that everywhere you go, people want to label you: gay or straight? Dirty hippie or polished professional? Clean-eating juice faster or candy bar craving meat lover? Everywhere we go we are inundated with ads telling us how we need to look, feel and even act so that we can fit into society’s pre-determined boxes. But I’ve never quite fit into these boxes. I’m the kind of person that likes to go out to a fancy restaurant the evening after I get back from a three day backpacking trip. I like to dress up and I like to wear the same thing for a week. I’m spiritual and scientific. These seeming contradictions reach into nearly all aspects of my life and, at one time, served to make me feel isolated in many ways. How could I reconcile my desire to dance in circles around a fire with my love of reading science journals. Weren’t these things mutually exclusive? Spiritual people can’t be real scientists. Worse, how would I combine these worlds, with the people in them so firmly attached to their ideals and so unwilling to see the other side? I needed to pick a box and stick with it.

But there’s a secret that I didn’t know. The box isn’t real. It’s an artificial construct of society, created to establish so-called norms that allow us to label people and convince ourselves we understand them. Once we place people in their corresponding box we can suddenly say “Oh those people” as if their entire existence could be understood based on whether or not they dress professionally or like to read. It allows us to live our comfortable little lives blissfully unaware of the myriad ways in which humans exist all around us. It lets us create artificial divides and prevents us from understanding those who are different. This isn’t to say that we should all have the same interests, far from it. Sometimes society gives you the box and sometimes we put ourselves in the box. But regardless of how we ended up there, the more time we spend in it the more we believe in its existence, and the more power it has over us.

passiflora incarnata

     passiflora incarnata

Choosing naturopathic medicine as my career and future was both an easy and difficult choice. Shortly after moving to Rochester, NY to open my practice as an herbalist I felt unfulfilled. I had such amazing experiences in herb school that forever changed the way I think, and even feel, my way through life. But I wasn’t fully satisfied; though I had learned a lot about health and the human body I felt limited by what I could do. Nine months into my new life in Rochester I embarked on a new journey: I decided I was going to be a doctor. I spent the next three years deep in my studies with fierce determination I never knew I had. I knew that my history of poor grades was working against me and I believed I had to prove that I could be the “good student”. As I dove headfirst into my new path I realized I had a strong hunger for knowledge. I not only liked science, I loved it. But the intensity of my studies came at a cost; I spent less time outdoors, my botany skill atrophied and the part of me that loved plants and their magic seemed lost to equations and graphs. And that was ok because I finally had a box where I belonged: I was going to be a doctor.

My preconceived notions of my future MD box had me searching for ways to increase my chances of getting into it. One of these ways was to become an emergency room scribe at a local hospital. Though I had shadowed several physicians before this job, it was here that I really had my first true taste of medicine and it was awesome. I had the privilege of witnessing people’s lives being saved first hand. Even in non-emergent cases I felt excited. How amazing to be a part of this person’s journey and process as they seek help and care. But while many people experiencing acute and severe disease states were saved, many others with chronic conditions were only palliated, or worse, not helped at all. Patients with laundry lists of medications were the rule not the exception. I couldn’t help but ask myself “how many people here today could have been prevented from coming if they were just able to implement simple lifestyle changes?” but my future MD box, which promised a steady job and good lifestyle said “that’s just the way it goes”.

I don’t remember how I came across it but somehow I ended up reading that Naturopathic physicians were getting licensure in my home state of Maryland. Naturopathic physicians? I knew a little about what they were, I even had a friend who, though no longer practicing, went through the schooling but I didn’t really know what it all meant. That little article, however, had me in research mode and suddenly I was learning all I could. Naturopathic physicians are fully trained as primary care physicians and are taught the same standard of care as taught in allopathic medical school. They are also taught nutrition, herbal medicine, spinal manipulation and much more. The curriculum draws on the ancient art of healing while being grounded in modern science. It values evidence-based medicine which includes both clinical trials and anecdotal evidence. Most of all, it felt like a career in which I didn’t have to live in what was beginning to feel like a very small box. Here I would have options: I would be able to provide lifestyle and nutritional advice to those who want it but I could also offer nutraceuticals or even pharmaceuticals to those who want or need them. Suddenly I was torn. My future MD box wouldn’t allow me to use herbs or spend hours getting to know a single patient. Old herbal medicine boxes suddenly came back into focus, wanting me to jump into them. But maybe I didn’t need any boxes at all? Maybe I could be everything I wanted without having to sacrifice parts of myself.

IMAG1262The decision was both easy and difficult. The path seemed clear, obvious even, but my fears of society’s ideas of success (a box of its own) coupled with my desire to be taken seriously (also a box) wrestled with my newfound desire. Careful thought and meditation helped me take that first step outside of the box I had convinced myself I belonged in. And that’s when I learned the secret: the box doesn’t actually exist.

So here’s my advice: take that scary step outside of your box. Go on, do it! That first step can be a dauntingly hard one to take, but once you do the boxes of the world melt away and you become truly free to be your whole self. And that is one of the healthiest things you can do.

Jun 272012
 

If you know me then you know I love food. And if you follow my blog or have ever met me you might know that I’m especially fond of wild food, and, if possible, even more fond of sharing it with others. There is something so magical, so primal and so deeply healing in going out to a wild place and foraging for food. Whether at a far away and remote mountain top or in a city park there is always something edible and delicious to be found growing freely (and free!), serving as a delicious reminder that food is all around us, constantly growing, shifting, changing and always offering a tantalizing taste of something once forgotten, possibly foreign but oh so natural all at once.

On Being a ‘Foodie’

My friends often describe me as a ‘foodie’, a title that makes me feel both fond and slightly disdainful to be associated with. The word ‘foodie’ often conjures up images of quasi-intellectual yuppie-hipster types with wannabe food critic tendencies, consuming pretentious foods with even more pretentious attitudes. And yes, maybe there is a bit of truth to this. But underneath the big shades and big words often lies the core of the foodie, a genuine lover of food. Someone who sees a meal as more than just fuel for continuing an already too fast paced day. While foodies are often associated with enjoying abstract and complex meals they are just as likely to enjoy simplicity as well; eating a whole apricot or a slice of melon, for example. For a foodie these ‘meals’ become symbols of something pure, wholesome and wholly good. Because the foodie often has an interest in where their food comes from and how it was produced it’s likely that the apricot is at the peak of ripeness or the melon is perfectly sweet and balanced. When these foods are at their peak, they need no fancy frills to make them better. The good foodie knows this and uses this knowledge effectively. When a peach is, perhaps, just a little under ripe, the knowledgeable foodie might split it in half and grill it to caramelize the developing sugars, maybe adding a drizzle of honey to further enhance the peachy goodness. Rather than view these tendencies as pretentious, one can view them as tools for connecting with something we do everyday: eat. They are powerful ways to transform what is too often an automated and thoughtless process into an enjoyable, sensuous and healing ritual.

On Accessibility

More often than not I think fear plays a big role in keeping people from enjoying wild foods. While there are certainly many factors that may keep one from enjoying wild and wonderful foods, the fear of things foreign seems to be a recurring theme. Being a foodie, it’s true that I’m more open to ‘different’ flavors; going past the usual salty and sweet I often cook with ingredients ranging from bitter to sour and everything in between. I think many people fear things that don’t taste like either chips or ice cream. There is so much involved here and on so many levels: genetic components, memories and emotions associated with certain tastes and foods, fear of change and of things that taste different. So much goes on when we eat that we don’t even realize. Which brings me to accessibility, making wild foods accessible for those that may not have ever had, or even thought of having, something from the wild. I believe, mostly because I’ve seen it happen countless times (including with myself!) that tastes can change. It may take time but after a time, what often may have once felt harsh begins to mellow out. Flavors that were once viewed as intense become intense cravings and one may begin to desire more, becoming more adventurous by the meal. Of course, we don’t just go from eating from a box to eating a diet of bitter summer dandelion greens in one fell swoop, at least not often. This is why, for those new to foraged goodies, I like to find wild foods that have some element of similarity to more modern-traditional foods. It’s approachable and respectful to both the person eating it and the plant, often resulting in a wild food convert and a lot less waste of unwanted and abstract wild foods.

Minty Things

For the month of June the Wild Things Round Up is featuring Mint and Mint family plants (Lamiaceae). I’ve pretty much been a lifelong foodie, so it might come as a surprise to you that I only recently learned to love Mint (Mentha x piperita). I was never one to love, or even like, minty things. You can take all my York peppermint patties and Life Savers, I’ll keep the chocolate, thank you. I started to enjoy mint slowly, mostly out of what I felt was a necessity. Many (including myself) found it odd that I was “the herbalist who doesn’t like mint”. The first mint that I really learned to enjoy was Spearmint, much less ‘cold’ and spicy than its close relative, I found the liveliness of Spearmint (Mentha x spicata) to enliven my mind and ease my often rumbly belly. As I delved into Mints I found that a sprig or two of fresh Peppermint went rather nicely with a tannin rich black tea, cutting away some of the bitter and adding a non-caffeinated and much needed pep to hot, humid days. Bit by bit my taste started to change and I found myself adding fresh mint to much more than tea. It was great with rich meats, cutting the fat and adding a sparkle of cool energy. It was great chopped fresh over summer berries, aiding their cool nature and playing delicately on their intense sweetness. Nowadays I can even drink straight up peppermint tea, but I, more often than not, prefer it as part of a mix in tea.

Cat Tales

Cucumbers are a funny little vegetable. I can’t count how often I hear how bland they taste and before I gardened, I couldn’t agree more. Cucumbers often tasted of little more than plain water and I always found myself adding intense flavors to them to make them taste like, well, something. Then I grew my own cucumbers and to my surprise I realized just how much flavor a good cucumber can have all on its own. Still, it’s rather rare to get those perfectly perfect cukes and more often than not they need just a little something to jazz them up. Not much mind you, just a little enhancement to emphasize that wonderful cooling and mildly sweet flavor. A little vinegar and oil with a touch of salt and pepper and maybe some fresh chopped mint makes a wonderfully simple and cooling salad on a sweltering day. In fact fresh mint is a near perfect addition to cucumber salad: aromatic and slightly spicy to balance the sweetness of the cuke and the richness of the oil. Patience! I can hear you now “but I thought this was about accessible wild foods?” And so it is. Let me tell you about nature’s cucumber.

Cattails (Typha sp.) are a common and easily recognizable plant by most people. A member of their own family, Typhaceae, they tend to grow in aquatic places, preferring to have their feel wet or at least moist. While there are a number of varying species, all Cattails can be used the same. Cattails are a great ‘beginner’ wild food not only because they are easily recognizable but also because they have many edible parts. The starchy roots can be boiled or baked to make a sweet, potato like food. If you have the time and energy, it can even be milled into a nutritious flower. The mature male flowers, producing the recognizable brown hotdog like appendage, produces a lovely deep golden pollen that can be added to breads, pancakes and the like. But my favorite part is the early spring shoot which is sweet and crunchy and most comparable to a flavorsome cucumber. Abundant and widely available across the country this wild vegetable can be eaten both raw and cooked and made into a number of delicious meals. During the summer months, when the cattails are gaining speed and gathering energy to flower the shoots can still be harvested, just remove the outer sheath to reveal the juicy, crunchy inside (hint: it should be easily crunchable and not be difficult to chop, if it is, continue to remove outer leaves until you hit a tender core).

Natural Pairings

 

Cucumber and mint seem to go together like peas in a pod. Aromatic, slightly spicy and deeply cooling mint leaves are the balancing act to sweet, cool and crisp cucumbers. It’s also a relatively known summer meal, easily recognizable by foodies and non-foodies alike (read approachable). And just as these well known culinary delights are made for one another, so too it seems are their wild counterparts. Often found growing together, wild mint complements the sweet crunch of young cattail shoots quite perfectly. Add a dash of vinegar and a bit of oil and you have a wonderful cooling salad to accompany grilled fish or chicken. Most any vinegar will do though I am particularly fond of violet and rose petal vinegars as they add just an extra touch of coolness and flavor. The only vinegar I don’t recommend using is balsamic as it tends to overpower the delicate taste of the cattails (trust me, I’m a foodie). Add a little chopped fresh mint and voilà!

 

Minted Cattail Salad

4 cups cattail shoots, de-sheathed and chopped

4 Tb rose vinegar (or other vinegar)

5 TB Olive oil

¾ tsp Salt

¼ tsp. pepper

2-3 TB chopped fresh mint

Add all ingredients together and mix. Let marinate a few hours before serving with grilled fish or chicken.

Mar 282012
 

Spring tonics…? It’s so common in the herbal world to come across the term ‘spring tonic’ in reference to what an herb is or does. But for such a common term it is rather uncommonly defined. Ask any herbalist what a spring tonic is and, much like its loosely defined close relatives the alterative and lymphatic, you will get as many different answers as herbalists you ask.

The actual term ‘spring tonic’ most likely originated in Appalachian folk medicine where the qualities of ‘blood’ are assessed and herbal prescriptions made based on those findings. However, tonics have been used the world over in various different cultures in various different settings. While the terminology is surely different, it is well known that both TCM and Ayurveda, two ancient systems of medicine that have survived to this day both have their share of ‘tonic’ herbs. In the modern world of herbalism tonics are often said to restore function and/or balance the functioning of a system. While the general concept of that seems true, I feel it is important to point out where the word tonic comes from and how it has developed into how we use it today. So what is a tonic? In the most basic sense a tonic is simply something that tones. The word itself comes from ‘tonify’ defined by Merriam-Webster as “to give tone to”. Tonics as used by the eclectics were used for tissues that were atonic, or lacking tone. This would be tissues that are leaky, drippy, atrophied, damp, etc. Often I hear various ‘spring tonics’ being offered to just about everyone in a very cavalier way: “take this herb, it’s a spring tonic! It’s good for you”. The upside to this approach is that, in general, most ‘spring tonic’ herbs are very safe and aren’t going to hurt a person. The downside, however is that this approach leaves out the person’s individuality, their body and mind and most importantly it leaves the practitioner with a very limited understanding of a potentially useful category of herbs.

In Chinese medicine Spring is associated with the element of Wood, which has a rising and growing energy. Its flavor is sour and it is associated with the Chinese concept of liver.  In TCM the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of both blood and qi. The liver is most prone to deficiency and stagnation causing symptoms of restlessness, anger, irritability and frustration. Here we can equate this to the more western concept of ‘thick’ blood. Stagnation comes in many forms, some more recognizable and others less so. The most easily recognizable form of physical stagnation manifests itself as constipation while the most obvious mental form manifests itself as stuck depression.

 

Before globalization and importation existed as it does today (imagine that) seasonal eating was not only a good-for-the-planet-earth-connecting activity but a necessity. In Winter, a time characterized by heaviness, quiet and contemplation, richer meals were used to fortify the body against the invading cold. As Autumn’s last harvest was preserved for the cold months ahead we prepared, both physically and mentally, to fill our bodies with the deeper, heavier nourishing foods that would sustain us for the coming cold. Vegetables were what could be kept in the cellar and greens were scarce if available at all. In a time before electricity our bodies were attuned with the natural cycles of light, often rising with the sun and going to bed with its setting. Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis Winter is a time of weaker sun and fewer sunlight hours, often leading to less activity and productivity and more time for rest. In contrast to the high energy and productivity of Summer, Winter was a time to give preference to resting and rebuilding. In Winter it was said that blood would often become either deficient, stagnant or both, largely due to the heavier diet, longer hours of sleep and general underactivity. In a class I took recently we talked about how we as a society like to live perpetually bouncing back and forth between Summer and Spring which for me calls into question the use of spring tonics. Perhaps, rather than using spring tonics we should be teaching people to live in the letting go season of Autumn and the recuperation and contemplation season of Winter. Just a thought.

We’ve made it through the harshness of a cold Winter and Spring has arrived. With her arrival she has brought new growth, new ideas and new energy. Just as the sap of trees begins to rise in response to her arrival so too does our ‘blood’ begin to rise. As the ‘blood’ rises, new energy is sent to our muscles and our minds allowing for productivity, creativity and energy. When blood is stagnant or deficient, it can not rise and consequently we remain in winters clutches: stuck, stagnant and fatigued.

But fortunately we have herbs! In a broad sense, any spring pot herb (edible greens) can be spring tonics.  As we talked about already, Spring’s flavor is sour and indeed, many spring greens have varying amounts of flavonoids and/or plant acids which provide a little sour-green bite to them. These can include nettles, dock leaves, speedwell flowers and greens, purple dead nettle, etc. I like to encourage people to make these a regular part of their diet in the spring and early summer. I liken them to an oil change; regular use keeps the car running smooth. However sometimes we need a more hefty tune-up. When ‘toxins’ build up and blood becomes too thick or stagnant we might need to look for more specific remedies. This could manifest as excess uric acid causing symptoms of gout or a bout of constipation from an underfunctioning liver. This is where traditional spring tonics come into play but first let’s define them a little more clearly.

Spring tonics are almost invariably alteratives and lymphatics. Like ‘spring tonics’ alteratives are often a hard to define clearly word. The following is a loosely reworded definition taken from Jim McDonald: alteratives are essentially herbs that increase and support various metabolic systems and/or organs by increasing their ability to eliminate wastes. They often affect some or all of the following organs: liver, spleen, kidneys, lungs, skin and lymph. Without going into too much physiology the job of these organs is to remove waste, foreign material and infection and in some cases to screen for and protect against invading pathogens. Lymphatics are ‘alteratives’ with a specific affinity for the lymph system. So essentially a spring tonic is an alterative herb used at an appropriate time of year to capitalize on spring’s energy of growth and movement and used to help us transition from quiet Winter to energetic Spring. As mentioned above, most herbs categorized as ‘spring tonics’ are safe and widely applicable. That said knowing some of their nuances and organ affinities as well as their energetics can help better match herb to person and provide deeper and more lasting results. Below is a list of some of my favorite ‘spring tonics’. By no means is it meant to be a complete list, rather it is a list of herbs I have used and feel most comfortable with. Enjoy!

Burdock- Energetics: Cooling, sweet, bitter, slightly oily

Burdock is a nourishing, building tonic. Its liver and kidney stimulating action coupled with its diuretic nature make it useful for removing toxic build up such as uric acid, calcium deposits, etc. It is nourishing to ‘blood’ and can improve its quality. Historically used for syphilis, gout and skin eruptions it is still a valuable tried and true alterative. It is still used for gout as well as kidney stones and eczema/psoriasis. It is specifically indicated with accompanying tissue dryness from lack of oil. Its high levels of inulin make it a valuable tonic for improving overall immunity and gut health. Consider using Burdock when clients present with typical burdock conditions (such as gout, eczema, etc.) and accompanying signs of digestive and/or immune weakness. A good tonic for Vata.

Dandelion- Energetics: Root: Cool-cold, bitter, dry. Leaf: Cool, bitter, salty, dry

Root: Dandelion root is a great mildly bitter spring tonic. Like burdock it is useful for ‘toxic’ accumulations, moderately stimulating the kidneys and lymph while cooling a heated, overfunctioning liver. Its bitter nature makes it draining and resolving to dampness. It is one of the first herbs I choose when treating constipation, especially when accompanied by tissue fullness and edema. It is also a good choice in sluggish digestion resulting in symptoms of bloating, gas, etc. Its bitter taste stimulates gastric secretions and can be useful in improving fat absorption. Its better for a ‘hot’ liver (hot liver folks look cold, they are slow—because their hot liver makes mostly building material and little fuel) A good tonic for kapha.

Leaf: Taraxacum leaf is a mineral rich moderate-strong bitter diuretic. It is useful for clearing out metabolic wastes while simultaneously increasing minerals. Unlike conventional diuretics which leach potassium and other minerals from the body, Dandelion replaces lost minerals with its naturally high content of potassium, magnesium and calcium. The salty taste indicates that it is tissue building and resolving to lymph swelling. As part of a formula or on its own, it can be useful for clearing out remnants of recent illness.

 

Sassafras- Energetics: Root: sweet, spicy, cool/warm, stimulating, dry

Sassafras is a warming, stimulating circulatory tonic. In the past used to treat such sever conditions as syphilis and gonorrhea, it is still useful as an alterative to underfunctioning tissues. Being both warming stimulating and mildly astringent, Sassafras is best suited to tissues that are cold, depressed and lack tone. It is believe to ‘thin the blood’ and is useful for stimulating stagnant, cold and congealed blood. It was employed by natives as a stimulating diaphoretic, another way to remove metabolic wastes and is still used in this way today. Matthew Wood says that, like Elder and Yarrow, it draws blood up from the core to the periphery and is useful for cleaning out arthritic deposits. Conversely, its ‘blood thinning’ properties make it cooling. Best used in early spring to wake up, invigorate, thin and move blood and break up stagnant congealed blood. Look for dark complexion around veins, heavy dragging thick pulses and bruising.

Oregon Grape- Energetics: bitter, cold, stimulating and dry.

Oregon Grape is a great tonic alterative that clears heat and infection. Unlike Dandelion which cools an overactive liver, Oregon grape stimulates an underfunctioning liver. It is best suited to hot, excited tissue states and constitutions with symptoms such as bright red tongues, yellow coating, indigestion with poor protein metabolism and a penchant for ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­‘yinny’ foods like carbs/sugar. Though it is drying, Michael Moore says it is suited to persons with thin, dry tissues. This is because the thin, dry tissues are a result of faulty anabolism and catabolism mechanisms. Essentially the liver and gallbladder are undersecreting and underfunctioning; the liver attempts to build (anabolism) but is unable to maintain it, resulting in breakdown of tissue (catabolism) and consequently ending with thin, dry and atrophic tissues.  Look for symptoms such as lack of appetite, constipation due to lack of secretion, dry scaly and irritated skin and thinness. Good for Pittas.

Cleavers- Energetics: salty, sweet, cool, neutral humidity.

Cleavers is a nourishing and gentle lymphatic alterative. It has an affinity for the muscles, kidneys and lymph and has the ability to move and break up calcifications and fibrous tissues. It is a good remedy for swollen glands, cysts and fibrous breast tissue where there is accompanying mild inflammation and subjective feelings of warmth. It is mildly diuretic and combines well with other herbs for removing urinary and kidney gravel. It is suited to irritated and atrophic tissues and is a great tonic for Vatas.

Calendula- Energetics: Sweet, Bitter, resinous, warm, sl. moistening

Like Cleavers, Calendula has a strong affinity for the lymphatic system as well as for the digestive system. It is a tonic for swollen lymph with signs of hypo-immunity and cold. The corona is resinous astringent and drying, offering a nice combination of antimicrobial and vulnerary effects while the petals are slightly mucilaginous and sweet offering further vulnerary and soothing qualities to affected tissues. Calendula is one of my favorites for people who just can’t seem to shake the winter blues or who are holding onto anger and need something to boost their moods and shake things up. In keeping with its ability to move and transform that which is being held on to, Calendula also has a place in helping the body be rid of old, lingering infections.

Nettle- Energetics: Salty, cool, dry

Nettle is a nourishing, building tonic rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. As opposed to Dandelion, it lacks a bitter taste making it less useful for draining dampness and more nourishing overall. It has an affinity for the adrenals and kidneys and through a mild but noticeable diuretic action increases the elimination of wastes while building and fortifying the body. It is useful for removing hardness, swellings and toxic accumulation, especially when accompanied by atrophied tissue. Tonic use can build up muscles, bones and adrenal function resulting in more and better quality energy—without depending on caffeine. Nettles is one of my favorites because it is usable by most anyone and so nourishing and grounding. If (like me) you find nettles to be too drying (as in you are running to urinate constantly) add a bit of mallow leaves, roots or elm bark.

Birch- Energetics: Warm, aromatic, bitter, dry

Birch is a warming, aromatic tonic for ‘thinning blood’ and increasing vitality in spring. Often, blood stagnation leads to pain in muscles, tendons and joints. Birch’s aromatics help to break up and move the stagnation while its high concentration of methyl salicylates are useful in reducing the pain and inflammation associated with stagnation. It is best for those who are made better with heat. It has an affinity with the musckuloskeletal system and kidneys and has a mild stimulating and diuretic effect. It can be used, like most spring tonics, to remove wastes and build up of ‘toxins’.

Willow- Cool-cold, bitter, dry

Willow is similar in use to birch, but better suited to those made better by cold. Not a traditional spring tonic but I want to compare and contrast with Birch, which is.

Poke- Energetics: Pungent, dry, bitter, burning

The young leaves were often consumed as a spring tonic. Considered to cleanse, rejuvenate and bring vitality they are still eaten to this day. It is recommended that they be boiled and cooked in three separate changes of water, although I find that just cooking them once suits me. As a gentle spring tonic the leaves work well, however, more serious issues such as severe stagnation, resulting in purple/red discolorations, severe lymph stagnation, mastitis, etc. respond better to both berries and root. I find the berries a bit more gentle and as such are my preferred remedy. It is best suited to thick, bulky and larger persons. It is a good remedy for Kapha.

Feb 232012
 

Mmmm the warm smell of nourishing bone broth fills my home with its rich scent and heady perfume. The combination of roasted bones and aromatic vegetables mingle for hours, and I mean hours, slowly extracting every last bit of yummy goodness. Can mere writing extol the virtues of something so primal, so deeply nourishing and satisfying? I don’t know, but I feel bone broth is such an important thing to share that I’m going to attempt it. Here we go!

Introduction to broth

Bone broth has been made for thousands and thousands of years, transcending cultural bounds and is found amongst nearly all traditional cultures the world over. Strictly speaking bone broth can be defined by a combination of simple ingredients, boiled together with water for anywhere from an hour to days at a time. While some may associate beef with bone broth, and indeed it is common, bone broth can be made from chicken bones, wild animal bones and even fish bones! Most often bone broths have some element of vegetable which not only enhances flavor but adds even more crucial minerals. Every culture will have their way of making bone broth, largely influenced by the animals and vegetables available to them and every modern cook will have their own way as well. That said following a few simple guidelines can enhance both the taste and nutritional content of your broth. In general it is recommended to add a splash of vinegar to bone broths, aiding the water to pull out minerals from the hard and dense bones (do not despair; you won’t taste it in the end!). Bones other than chicken and fish do well by browning them in an oven before making stock. While not necessary for nutrition, this action caramelizes some of the sugars and will go a long way in enhancing the final taste of your stock. As mentioned above, the addition of some vegetables and/or scraps will further enhance both flavor and nutrition. These can include carrots, onions and their skins, celery and other aromatic or root vegetables. Aromatic herbs can also make a delicious addition to stocks and can include thyme, sage or more exotic flavored herbs like monarda or wild thyme.

Benefits

Ok so we’ve espoused the flavors of bone broth and talked a bit about how to enhance the flavor even more but what about the health benefits? Bone broth is a nutritional powerhouse full of calcium, magnesium, phosphorous and trace minerals. While calcium, magnesium and other minerals may be obtained from other dietary sources (and should be) bone broth provides them for your body in a very easily digestible and absorbable form. Minerals are especially important to our health as they are responsible for not only structural formations, maintenance and repair of our bodies but are also crucial elements to many enzymatic reactions. Broth is also a rich source of collagen, a necessary component for the development and maintenance of various tissues including bones, ligaments, tendons, skin and cartilage. Collagen, known as gelatin in its food form, is a rich source of chondroitin sulfate. Yes, chondroitin sulfate, that overly priced and well-touted supplement that you are purchasing from the store. Chondroitin sulfate is a structural component of cartilage and has been shown to help with arthritis, degenerative joint disease, inflammatory bowel disease and lowered immune function. My opinion…ditch the supplement and drink more broth. Gelatin is rich in the amino acids proline and glycine which are integral to many functions of our body. Glycine supports proper digestion by enhancing gastric secretion, supports the liver’s natural detoxifying abilities and acts as a precursor to glutathione, the body’s number one endogenous antioxidant. Proline is an essential part of the structure of collagen and therefore enhances the health and nutrition of our bones, skins, tendons and joints.

See that spoon practically standing up? Beautiful gelatin!

Adequate nutrition is vital to our health. Unfortunately, subclinical deficiencies left untreated often fail to express themselves as pathologies until it is too late. In the US, true clinical nutritional deficiencies are rare. Syndromes such as rickets and scurvy have largely been eliminated due to the fortification of foods and better nutritional intake. However, while many people will survive and live “healthy” lives without developing pathologies or clinical disease many of the subclinical illnesses such as poor digestion can later morph into more serious problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Ensuring adequate nutrition early on in life and maintaining it throughout can go a long way in preventing these diseases and drinking bone broth daily or weekly is a great way to get these vital nutrients and components into your body. Of course, should these diseases develop bone broth can be a vital (and tasty) part of their treatment.

Bone broth is also extremely economical and can be made for mere cents. I buy them 15 lbs at a time for about 15 dollars. That boils down to about $1 a quart, a savings of over 80% if bought at a store (not to mention the nutritional inferiority of store bought broth). If that’s not incentive, what is?

 

The Sticks

Being an herbalist I have to mention a bit about herbs or sticks (right?). Sticks, here referring to rooty herbs and mushrooms can be a wonderful and healing addition to broths. Occasionally I find I want a little extra punch in my broth, so to speak. Adding roots and mushrooms can be a great way to tailor broths for more specific needs. For example, to enhance the immune boosting effects of bone broth add a bit of astragalus. Or, to enhance the gut healing action add some licorice or for a more neutral flavor, hemp seeds. Many mushrooms have wonderful immune enhancing effects and are also tasty. Try maitake or shiitake for flavor. More bold mushrooms like Reishi have strong immune regulating effects but also an accompanying strong flavor. Keep in mind many herbs come with strong flavors and thus will affect the final flavor of your broth. I encourage experimentation, in small batches.

The broth

Every cook will have their own special recipe and way of making broth and I encourage you to develop your own. Instead of a specific recipe, I want to share with you a loose guide that I hope you will adapt and make your own. General rules of thumb: fish, due to their small frames and strong flavor need only 1-2 hours to make good broth. Chicken, beef and game benefit from a longer cooking period, sometimes as long as 24 hours. Beef and game should be roasted at 425 degrees for 15-25 minutes or until browned.

5lbs bones (roasted or unroasted)

A good handful of vegetable scraps- onion skins, carrot peels, celery ends etc.

5 quarts of water

A splash of vinegar

Salt to taste

Herbs if using-half a handful

Roots and mushrooms if using- to taste or as desired for medicinal effect.

Place all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil. During the first half an hour impurities will rise to the surface, referred to as scum in cooking terminology. Using a spoon, skim off the scum until it stops forming. Turn heat to low and cover, simmer for hours. Enjoy the smell as it fills your home with its yummy goodness.

Once done, you can let it cool and refrigerate it. Remove the fat layer from the top and save it if desired. Put the broth into jars or other containers and either refrigerate or freeze.

Boiling broth. On the left side of the photo is 'scum'

 

Broth after refrigeration. Note the (beautiful) layer of hardened fat on top. This can be skimmed off and saved for cooking or discarded.

 

 

 

Dec 082011
 

On cold, frosty mornings nothing starts my day better than a rich decoction of dandelion and burdock with maybe a little something warming, like ginger or cinnamon. It’s a time of roots and seeds, of deeper energies and heavier foods. It’s a time of cooler winds and frost in the air and a time to prepare for the long, dark and introspective months ahead. Roots are said to have the ability to get to the root of a problem. How true this is I can’t say but they do often make superb tonics and they can help connect one to the colder seasons. They often work on the liver and as such can help with many systemic problems such as arthritis, excess estrogens, underproduction of bile, digestive malabsorption, etc.

As I mentioned in my last post, now is a good time for gentle cleansing. The season’s many roots and seeds, which often have gentle tonic cleansing effects, can be included in the diet as both food and beverage. They help prepare your body for the seasonally appropriate heavier foods that one needs for a cold, dark winter (and I’m not just talking cookies here, folks!). As we switch from eating lighter raw foods, fish and lighter meats and we begin to incorporate more starchy tubers, roots and heavier, darker meats into our diet it can be beneficial to include some bitter tonics. Bitters are traditional for prepping and improving digestion, especially fat digestion. When the bitter flavor hits corresponding taste buds on the tongue a myriad of reactions is set off by the body. First, your mouth begins to secrete more amylase, an enzyme essential for carbohydrate digestion. Soon after your stomach secretes HCL, your pancreas releases yet more digestive enzymes and your gallbladder releases stored and concentrated bile. These actions work together to prepare your GI tract for food. Combined, they help nutrients to be better assimilated, peristalsis to be more rhythmic and can tonify overall digestion. Bitters also stimulate bile production in the liver as well as increasing the livers detoxification abilities.

Especially seasonally appropriate are two of my favorite gentle liver tonics: dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and burdock (Arctium lappa and sp.) sometimes called gobo. Both of these herbs are gentle enough and tonic enough that they rarely cause any side effects and can be safely used by most constitutions. On the scale of food vs. medicine, both dandelion and burdock sit just right of food. In fact, burdock is commonly consumed in Japan, usually as a part of a stir-fry.

Dandelion is perhaps the archetypal liver remedy. Cooling and nourishing with a slightly bitter burnt caramel flavor, it is wonderful for chronically inflamed livers or just as a tonic for those wanting to gently increase digestive power. Dandelion takes well to being roasted; the heat caramelizes the sugars and adds a silky malt flavor compounding its already complex earthy flavor, but it’s equally good unroasted. It is indicated in weak digestion, liver stagnation and constipation. In TCM, the liver is said to control the smooth flow of Qi. What does this beautiful and accurate metaphor mean? Essentially, when the liver is congested, emotions get ‘stuck’ and build up resulting in feelings of irritability, lack of joy and quick anger. Regular use of dandelion root, whether as tea or food, can improve the flow of bile, improve digestion and help emotional rollercoasters to be, well, less of a rollercoaster. Dandelion is also a rich source of inulin, a pre-biotic or food source, for the myriad bacteria in your gut. By feeding your gut flora you allow them to better perform their many jobs such as converting B12 into usable forms, manufacturing vitamin K and boosting your immune system.

Burdock is another favorite liver remedy and as mentioned above is almost closer to food than medicine. It is delicious in soups, stews and stir-fries as well as just a simple decoction, alone or combined with dandelion and other ‘rooty’ herbs. Like dandelion, Burdock is rich in inulin, perhaps even more so and makes a great tonic not only for the liver but for feeding one’s gut flora as well. It is a gentle diuretic (meaning you won’t have to pee every other minute, just a notch more than normal) and consequently can help the kidneys to more effectively flush out the waste they so want to be rid of. Burdock is also said to have an affinity for the skin, helping to clear up eczema, acne and various rashes and even playing a role in the more complex psoriasis. Remember, it’s more tonic than overt medicine and results with burdock may take time.

Daily use of these wonderful, gentle cleansing herbs can tune-up our systems and prepare us for the long and often too cold winter ahead. As you cook your fragrant stews, rich with root vegetables and silky meats and as you consume more healthful fats (grass-fed butter, pastured lard, coconut oil) try drinking a nourishing root decoction a couple times a week. Your body will better handle the increased caloric load and you won’t feel heavy and lethargic; rather you will feel energized as your body uses the essential nutrients needed at this time for the thousands of functions it performs on a daily basis. Below is a recipe I love this time of year. It’s rooty with notes of bitter, slightly sweet and aromatic which combine to not only get my digestion going but to reduce post-meal bloating and gas as well. The base is Chaga, a delicious medicinal mushroom with no overtly strong flavor. Instead, it gives good body and color to the decoction. The recipe is in parts so you can easily adapt it to make a lot or a little as needed.

Nourishing Root Decoction:

3 pt. Chaga

1 pt. Dandelion root

1/2 pt. Licorice root

1/2 pt. Ginger root

1/2 pt. Cinnamon bark

¼ pt. each Black pepper, Cardamom, Allspice and Clove

1-2 good Tb. per cup of water. Add herbs to cold water, bring to a boil and simmer 20-45 minutes. Serve warm with fresh cream, if desired.

Nov 192011
 

 We’re nearing the end of one of  my favorite times of the year,  Autumn and with that comes  change. The intoxicating  smells of rotting leaves mix  with rich earth to create a  heady perfume unparalleled  anywhere else. Death and life  seems to be everywhere at  once: bare trees with their  recently lost leaves swirling in  the sky while little warm spells cause flowers to blossom in a last ditch effort to continue their species. It’s a paradoxical season for an often paradoxical world and it’s beautiful. Now that summer’s high energy has wound itself down and cool weather approaches more by the day I find my energy, like that of the plants around me, moving downward and inward. I seek more solitude and more quiet time, time for reflection and introspection.

In Chinese medicine Autumn, ruled by the element Metal, is characterized as a time of letting go as well as of inspiration. It is ruled by the lungs and the colon, both organs of elimination and so is an appropriate time for gentle cleansing (look for a future post on fall cleansing!)

It seems to me that so many people these days are caught up in the “what can I take for X mentality” that they forget an integral part of true healing: awareness. Awareness comes in many shapes, sizes and forms and it is of course impossible to be aware of all things at one time. However, cultivating awareness, awareness of self and of one’s body, can be deeply rewarding and healing to those suffering from illness or even a simple lack of connection.

I try to be aware of my surroundings, of appreciating all that’s around me but I admit: I’m not perfect. In the height of summer much of my attention is devoted to finding plants, making medicine or otherwise having an agenda. As I seek more solitude from this fast paced life I find myself wandering more through some of my favorite trails or taking naps in a favorite meadow with no real goal or purpose in mind, no task or pretense, just being. This is the time to throw all that away, lay face down on the ground and roll in the leaves until their intoxicating perfume is permeating your very being. Relax, have fun and let go.

Cultivating this awareness can deepen one’s connection to self and to one’s surroundings. It can allow you to have a more complete understanding of what’s happening with your body, something that is too often missing in this modern culture. Don’t get overwhelmed, nobody understands everything in a day. Learning one’s body is an ongoing process, it’s dynamic not static and the body goes through many changes; as we grow so does the body and its needs. Start simple: visit a favorite meadow under a full moon, whether with a friend, a lover or yourself and just be. Watch the sky, smell the Earth below you, feel the wind in your hair. If you’re cold feel it. What does it really feel like to be cold? What sensations or memories does it provoke? Feel your body’s response to it. Try finding some woods or a river near where you live and take a long well deserved nap under autumn’s dying sunlight. As the amber light filters through the trees and brushes your cheeks, feel that last bit of warmth from the fading sun. Soak up the smells and feelings you get and laugh. Laugh at the silliness of the world, laugh when you take yourself too seriously, laugh and feel inspired.

 

As flowers give way to seeds, herbage dies back and energy descends into roots to be stored for the winter take this time to let old things go, old habits die and assess how you are feeling in this season of transition. Take time to be with yourself, nourish yourself and love yourself and you’ll find not only a deeper connection with the world around you but with yourself as well.

 

Jul 212011
 

“Welcome home…” I can still hear it in my head. Hundreds of people welcoming me to a beautiful national forest. I just got back from the 2011 National Rainbow gathering in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest of Washington state and what an experience it was. This was my second year going and also my second year working at C.A.L.M., the medical area. Rainbow gatherings are a national gathering of as many as 20,000 people from all over the country all converging in one place (some national forest somewhere) for a week of camping, music and fun. As you can imagine, that number of people all in one place for a week provides plenty of first aid opportunities.

A welcome home sign, from beneficiofamily.com

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the gathering as a whole, I’m certainly glad that this space exists and happy to be there helping but I wonder how I would feel if I didn’t have C.A.L.M. to work at? Would I feel out of sorts? It’s hard to say. At Rainbow you can meet some of the most amazing, talented and sweet people you could ever imagine; you can also meet some of the most angry, sad and disparaging of people. I suppose that’s what you get when you have a completely free event and some 20,000 people show up. It’s definitely not the happiest place in the world and yet some part of it feels very home like, very comfortable. Regardless, it is the best place that I know of (actually, the only) where an aspiring herbalist like myself can go and practice first aid herbal medicine with such openness and essentially no regulation. The advantages of this are clear: a huge population of people all with varying maladies and injuries, receptive to alternative treatments provides one with experience and lots of it. People are generally open and willing to allow you to experiment and most everyone is just so grateful. Grateful to be there, grateful that you are there and grateful that someone is willing to take care of them and so many others.

This year was even better than last; there was virtually no police presence and having previously experienced a national Rainbow, my confidence was up and I felt more comfortable experimenting and treating than I did last year. Some of this year’s case highlights include an infected dog bite, a staph infected spider bite, a bad stomach bug and every kind of respiratory malady you could imagine all exacerbated by too much smoke inhalation from the hundreds of fires around the gathering burning wet wood in a low valley.

It’s a very intense experience requiring quick thinking, an ability to improvise and a general understanding that you are in the middle of a national forest and not necessarily able to get exactly what you may need. Working in an office or even out of one’s house is so comfortable, familiar it’s easy to get stuck in that mindset. When you need a pot for soaking a wound or boiling tea, chances are you have several to choose from. You also probably have tools galore, spoons for measuring herbs or mixing poultices, knives for chopping herbs and preparing medicines. In the woods you are limited to what you have around you. You need that soaking pot but so do 15 other people who are working right beside you; you need to stir that slippery elm powder but all the spoons are gone; you need to chop ginger for tea but there’s not a knife to be found. Working in the woods certainly takes some ingenuity, some improvisation but that’s also some of the fun of it. It keeps you thinking and allows for creativity to come through, maybe even more creativity than if you were in your office or home amongst what’s so familiar to you. It’s this ability to be creative that draws me so much to Rainbow, and it’s not just found at C.A.L.M. but throughout all of the gathering. From the many bridges built of fallen trees and tied with various cordage to the clay ovens built out of clay found right on site. Rainbow is a place to express oneself and one’s creativity. I used to think I wasn’t creative; I can’t draw or paint and I’m not especially gifted at sculpting. But then I found cooking. I’ve been cooking since I was 12 and since then I have experimented and experimented some more. Not all of my creations worked out and as I’ve grown older I understand more and more what works together and what doesn’t. But I am creative, my food and meals are my creations. As I’ve found herbalism, another side of my creativity comes out. I love to experiment, to try new things, to try things that aren’t common or maybe even a little bit weird and here I can do that, freely. I get to express myself and be free and help others at the same time. Maybe this is why Rainbow feels a little like home to me.

I am very grateful for this experience and I look forward to doing it again next year. I am thankful to my teachers: CoreyPine Shane, who took me for the first time last year and 7song who took not only me but 17 others so that we could have this first hand practice. It’s hard to put into words just how important this is and how unique of an opportunity it is and I am eternally grateful to be a part of it. I’m not sure what the future holds but I do hope to continue working Rainbow gatherings for the next coming years, improving my skills and helping as many people as I can.