1-2-3- magically healthy!

Those of you who know me already know I don’t believe there is a magical path to health. Question everything that sounds too good to be true, my friends. Hell, question that which sounds just a little bit good too. Critical thinking is a tool, use it. that being said, as an herbalist I do often get the question “what is the most important thing I should do for my health?” In the cranky spirit of not really talking to anyone and just linking to my blog instead I am making a list of what I consider the foundations of health. I have chosen a totally arbitrary number and I am sticking to it. SO here goes: An herbalist’s toolbox for health, happiness and abundant booty!

1. Wear minimalist shoes! I am a strong believer that our feet are the foundation of our entire body’s health. I see us putting our base into pinchy chunky footwear and it horrifies me. Alignment is important and it starts with feet. grounding is important and starts with feet. Proprioception is important and starts with our feet. Balance is a LOT easier in a zero drop shoe. I love watching my dog run outside, how she has never learned awkward gait patterns, never deformed herself with high heels or pointy-toed slides, how her paws grip the earth in a relationship that just cannot be formed with several inches of synthetic material between the foot and the earth. Yes, I love bare feet but I totally acknowledge a lot of problems that can come from shoelessness. I firmly believe that a lot of pain that we are currently treating as herbalists or as medical doctors could be at least partly remedied and/or prevented by wearing a flat minimalist shoe with a wide toebox. I highly recommend http://www.katysays.com and http://www.mobilitywod.com as great resources for information on feet, walking and alignment.

2. Exercise! I heard a doctor on the radio this week recommend 2.5 hours a week of exercise. Hmm. Well it’s better than none. But I try to exercise/move 2.5 hours a day! The benefits of exercise are vast–encouraging lymphatic movement, moving meditation, muscle building, bone building, circulation boosting, blood sugar support, balance-inducing, buttocks building, community forming, endorphin promoting, good old fashioned fun. The benefits of sitting are….um..nothing. Some great exercises are hiking, brisk walking, obstacle courses, kettlebells, dancing, sports, gardening, wood chopping, swimming, biking, yoga, mobility, plyometrics. I consider treadmilling and Jane Fonda-ing to be last resorts. You don’t have money? A jump rope is 5 bucks. You don’t have time? What the hell are you doing? You don’t have legs? I am sorry. I still suggest some type of movement though. Movement heals.

Ruby doesn't wear shoes.
Ruby doesn’t wear shoes.

3. Limit screen time. No, I am not going to tell you to kill your TV/computer/video games. Life sucks, sometimes we need to escape. And heck I like to laugh. However in my experience too much time spent watching TV steals our vitality. Sitting and zoning out should be used occasionally rather than big chunks of every day IF you are trying to achieve optimal health.

4. End the war on “dirty”. This one is a little more abstract. But the attitude that our bodies are dirty causes us to do weird things. We are very open to manipulation due to our underlying body discomfort. We speak of our body hair as dirty, or our body’s natural fluids and excretions and/or our natural non-harmful thoughts. We squirt all kinds of fluids up our buttocks, force ourselves to live on juice, imbibe scary amounts of fiber and apply hot molten wax to our vulvas all in the name of “clean”. We cover our homes in stank-ass fake spring breeze sprays, apply antibacterial gels all over our bodies and live in fear of sitting on toilet seats. Argh! We expend so much energy destroying, fearing and suppressing totally normal processes and substances-not to mention spending a pile of cash and producing a lot of garbage in this war on dirty. Chill, it’s normal.

going outside can be fun!
going outside can be fun!

5. Let go! Links between a suppression of emotions and physical illness have been identified. [see When the Body Says NO by Dr. Gabor Mate for more information, http://www.dr.gabormate.com) Our culture loves to say “smile!” as if that in some way fixes anything. We promote the suppression of anger, especially in women. Yes, unchecked anger can eat us alive and harm others too. But denying it does not help. Express yourself, even if it is just on paper, and move on. Learn to manage anger in a realistic way. As a culture we are more comfortable with vision boards and positive energy than acknowledging the dark sides of life and the dark sides of humans. But shit’s complicated, dudes. People are complicated. Explore, acknowledge, express, let go.

6. Food. Yeah, you knew that was gonna come up right? There is soooo much information out there about food and damn if people don’t ALL seem to think they have the answer. I am a Unitarian, and I am a fooditarian too. I do not accept that there is one right answer. I think humans can live Paleo or live Vegan. I think humans do well on a low-glycemic diet–yet some can eat mostly white rice. But there is one clear food rule: do not eat a bunch of crap. Large amounts of sugar is not good for anyone. Large amounts of processed food are not helpful. Be reasonable. But beyond that, I think we need to look at culture, class, temperament and lifestyle and make our own decisions.

fern
fern

7. Bacterial balance. Oh man do I ever love bacteria. I love probiotics. I love fermented foods. I love compost! I am not against antibiotics–but I am against their overuse. I also think we should limit our use of strongly antibacterial herbs and I almost never use essential oils internally. I avoid oregano oil and grapefruit seed extract. I even use Goldenseal sparingly. (To be clear, in emergencies I will use whatever works.) We are absolutely full of bacteria and I’ll be damned if they don’t help us more than we will ever fully know. So avoid killing them if possible, avoid hating them and give them a little replenishment whenever you can!

8. Go outside! Time spent outdoors is foundational to my mental health plan. The outdoors feeds me on every level. I believe it can help with insomnia, mild depression and anxiety, grounding. It deepens our appreciation of the world we live in, gets us out of human-made environments, helps us build observational skills. Very little heals me more than time spent in nature and I highly recommend it.

9. Replenish! Marketing of low-fat foods and lab-made oils has affected us deeply. But we need good fats and healthy oils in our lives. I believe strongly in nourishing and rebuilding with foods and herbs to allow the body to heal itself. It is part of getting out of our own way and just giving our body the tools to make repairs. Sometimes the easiest and most basic health support is really the best, and adding good oils while removing crap oils is something nearly all of us can do for ourselves. Additionally, sleep is extremely valuable. Repairing, dreaming, and rebuilding are vital to our well-being. I suggest viewing sleep as a pleasure rather than a pain in the ass that keeps us from making money/destroying the world/texting/whatever the heck you do.

10. Stop slathering excess chemicals on yourself and your vicinity. Hair dye, lipstick, anti-perspirant, douches, scented tampons, scented everything, Lysol tm, paint, lotions, driveway sealant, household cleaners, air “fresheners”, medications, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers, fake flavorings, dryer sheets….ack! Read the ingredients of everything, always. Question everything. Think critically about these products. Where do they go?!? Into your body? or “Down the drain”? And right into a frog’s boudouir! Yes, there is sometimes a lesser evil alternative. But giving up as many products as possible will benefit the short and long-term health of humans and non-humans alike. Trust me, I love to slather myself with homemade scented oil. I am no ascetic. But things are out of control. The air freshener aisle at Target tm is like 2 miles long. Open a window, people.

Bonus: Get some booty, friends. It’s medicinal. Tell your partner an herbalist “prescribed” it to you! No partner? I believe in medicinal masturbation. Ain’t no shame in a little personal pleasure.

Problem-solving 101 for the aspiring herb enthusiast

Why are herbalists so annoying? Why do we insist on knowing the underlying causes of your issue before we recommend a solution? Why do so many of us rail against the dreaded list of “X is good for Y”? It is a matter of using our problem solving ability. When one is solving a math problem it helps–a lot–to know the variables, right? When making life decisions one is well served by listing pros and cons, right? Well it is so in the world of herbalism too. 

Because herbalism at its best is ` the solving of a puzzle, it’s like a treasure hunt, every time it’s a little quest. Herbalists can act like bridges between the world of plants and the world of people–and sometimes other animals–we are journalists, we are detectives, we are anthropologists. We are like scuba divers inspecting shipwrecks, always asking hey, what is under the surface here? We are kicking the tires of that used car you are selling, people, turning over your rocks to see what lurks beneath. 

And a good herbalist is a co-creator. We are co-creating a solution with you, the “client” and with the plant world too. It is mostly observation and critical thinking plus a little duct tape and a tiny dose of natural magic. 

In the spirit of this herbal journalism we ask who, what, when, where and why? We look at your skin, we look at how you sit and stand, we ask what you ate for breakfast not to drive you nuts but to build a picture of your overall health situation. We need to know if we need to refer you to other care providers. We need to check out your bad attitude. We might even want to know if you’re pooping OK! 

So why is it so important to ask WHY? Let me give you an example. Mr. R asks “What’s good for foot pain?” Do you answer “comfrey salve”? Do you answer “homeopathic Ghost pipe”? Or, let’s say you ask what is the cause. Maybe there is a thorn in your shoe! Maybe your shoe doesn’t fit? Maybe it is caused by diabetes! I suggest we rule out such things first. Then, we must know-is it chronic or acute. Absolutely basic information. Coughs, nausea, back pain, it is vital to know if your issue has been going on for years or if it came up yesterday. Can we treat an underlying cause? It is the definition of insane to give herbs for a pain caused by an external factor which can be addressed, thus eliminating the problem. 

Is the problem associated with an illness, an injury, a change in lifestyle? For example, I would treat the nausea of pregnancy differently than the nausea of  post-Thanksgiving-dinner. And quite key to us is “What else are you taking?” Are you using other herbal or pharmaceutical products? Are you using vitamins? Are you using drugs of any type? It’s not about judging, friends. But if you are using a daily painkiller we will take that into account.

Sometimes a problem can be addressed by looking at hydration, or a lack of good oils in the diet, or observing poor movement patterns. Think about it: would you prefer someone sell you a product for your knee pain or point out your poor squat mechanics? Would you prefer someone sell you some “fat-melting ass oil” or help you find the right exercise program for your life stage? Would you prefer someone sell you herbs for your chronic gas or help you discover a long-standing milk allergy? We can work like a team, or we can work like evil capitalist pigdogs.

We also may wish to know your energetic patterns. Do you run hot or cold? Systems approach, baby! If you are prone to hot shooting pains in the stomach we will avoid crazy-heating tinctures, you know? Concepts like stagnation, excitation and tonic underly our decision making.

To be clear, I believe in herbs. I love herbs, and I don’t think it is always an either-or situation. We can use herbal medicines AND exercise AND hydration AND footbaths AND practical footwear. But I don’t want to throw herbs at a vitamin D deficiency. I don’t want to give insomnia herbs when a heavy curtain could do the job. I envision limitless capacity for preventive care, self-care and community-based care and  an educated population who can take care of most non-emergency healthcare issues at home.I envision YOU skeptically asking ME why too! And I envision good questions and the good answers that can come from that. Dialogue can be a beautiful thing, and nothing brings about great dialogue like an “annoying” herbalist asking the hard questions, pushing your buttons and, like a big chunk of sticky pine resin, drawing out the narrative of your health and turning it into something which works, which meets your needs both short and long term, both above and below, and for both people and plants.

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the story of soup

[Guidelines for homemade nourishing soup as requested.]
“Every gumbo tells a story” -John Besh, My New Orleans
All soup can tell a story. I do not use a recipe but a narrative, a theme, I group flavors together according to taste families. Often the family is a geographical region or some other style of cooking, such as “Italian”, Mexican”, “Mediterranean” or “Hippie”. So I cannot provide actual recipes for these 5 nourishing soups but I will cheerfully provide flavor families and guidelines.
For years I hated soup! This was due to working in a diner and watching people make it. Shudder. I think some people see soup as a way to use up leftovers and don’t give it their 100% best effort. But I have come around to the realization that it can be lovely, a good way to stretch meat, to use cheaper cuts of meat and to feed a crowd. I also see it as a a deeply nourishing and comforting food, warming for the long cold winter season here in the Northeast.
The base of all my soup and stew is real broth. Made from bones, carcasses, organs, alliums, and/or fungi. Bone broth is a basic human food which is easy to make and affordable, get a crockpot and just do it. The 2 bone broths I am most likely to make are beef and chicken but really you can use almost anything. Add salt. OK so that is your base.Then you choose your theme. A theme is a way to group flavors together and make the ingredients sing harmoniously. For example, eggplant parmesan and soy sauce don’t go together. Chili and lime does go together. We will discuss French onion soup, Pozole, Pho, Portuguese kale soup and classic Chicken soup.
As you can see, this is an international crowd here, and I should mention that they are not all my traditions. I respectfully share my take on these foods, but they are “in the style of”/inspired by and in NO way are they authentic to their homeland.
I suggest going to small so-called “ethnic” markets and diverse farmer’s markets to find ingredients for cooking. I love small markets and I encourage people of all backgrounds to explore them. However, please be aware that it’s important to be polite and respectful of other people’s traditions and cultures. Never make fun of unusual items that you see there, never ever make jokes aloud about foods or other items you find strange. Keep in mind that you might see something as strange but it may be someone’s valued tradition. Additionally, don’t be a pain in the ass. Noone wants to walk you through what stuff is-buy a cookbook, google it or just buy something and try it for yourself. And finally, I want to address the word “exotic”–it’s a huge peeve for me. Such a relative term! You may not be used to certain ingredients, but that does not make it exotic, weird, or funny. It just means you could stand to get out more.
So first, French onion soup. Wicked cheap. Make beef bone broth. Caramelize as many onions as you can–like, a lot. You can use any alliums here-sweet onions, leeks, shallots, red onions, whole cloves of garlic. Cut them up and roast on low for a few hours (1-3) with butter and salt/pepper. Those 2 items basically make up the whole thing, it sounds simple but it is not, caramelization is a miraculous process by which normal onions a returned into nature’s candy. you could add a little meat, a splash of red wine, fungi, and melty cheese on or not on a piece of bread.
Pho-It is a Vietnamese noodle soup. Let’s talk about beef, but it can be chicken, seafood, pork. Whatever you want. Make the bone broth. I simmer some Southeast Asian spices in the broth but you don’t have to. (for example, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, garlic) I cook the meat or tofu(plus onions) separately and throw the rice or bean thread noodles into the broth at the last minute.The real magic is in the assembly. Scoop out some noodles, ladle a bunch of broth, and pile your cooekd meat on. At the table, you add fish sauce, chili sauce, bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, limes, scallions, thai basil, cilantro, mint, ground peanuts.
This is absolutely to taste and the way YOU like it is the right way!
Pozole is Mexican and it is one of my favorite foods ever. I start with a good broth. Put it to the side. See a theme here? Then I saute garlic and onions, lots, maybe a few peppers, poblano perhaps? or whatever you have. I hate green peppers but you might like them. Here would be a good time to point out that sauteeing is good cooking. I never put liquid in a pot and throw stuff in. I always saute first!!! use butter, lard, olive oil, whatever non-grody oil you like. Put your alliums in and revel in the aromatherapy. then add meat-in this case I like chorizo and/or chicken but you can use whatever you have. I’ll add sweet potatoes, black beans, zucchini, tomatoes, (fire roasted if possible) and of course pozole which is a chubby chewy corn. Add the broth once this has all melded. I also add a shitload of Mexican oregano–this is Lippia graveolens not Origanum vulgare. Yes, you can use whatever oregano you have, just dump tons of it in there. Maybe some cumin.
Again, at the table one makes it custom, you can pile on onions, chili sauce, jalapenos-pickled or raw, crema or sour cream, limes, cilantro, whatever you like. Except soy sauce.
Kale soup-broth is important here too, but not as 100 % vital as the others. Saute garlic, onions, and other alliums if desired.

dino kale ribbons
dino kale ribbons
I really do appreciate truth in advertising.
I really do appreciate truth in advertising.
Pho: you add the stuff in your bowl.
Pho: you add the stuff in your bowl.
Previously roasted Chicken carcasses simmering.
Previously roasted Chicken carcasses simmering.
IMG_5582
saute first, add delicious broth second!!
saute first, add delicious broth second!!
then add meat, chorizo works great here too, or a little pork, or some chicken, Whatever. No, I don’t have any “vegan options”, that’s just not my thing. Get a luscious saute going, butter and onions and stuff, and add a ton of kale. I am a huge fan of dino kale but I’m not gonna tell you what kind of kale to eat. It’s ideal if you cut it into ribbons. Add potatoes, white beans, maybe some zucchini? And then broth, hopefully good broth. My kids like it when I put little star-shaped pasta in there but by no means do you have to do so. Simmer it for as long as you can stand to wait. It’s extra good with swiss cheese melted on it.
And finally, chicken soup. All hail chicken soup!! Honestly, to me it’s a vehicle for gelatinous goo and piles of garlic. That gelatinous goo lubes your joints and makes your hair shiny. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, saute a bunch of garlic and onions in butter or some other greasy stuff. Add vegetables such as celery, carrots, rutabagas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, leeks, and/or cucumbers. (not really.) I like a tiny bit of tomato in there. If you’re wicked fancy this would be a good place for dumplings or matzo balls but any kind of noodle or rice is fine. If you’re Paleo, add some kinda lardballs. Season to taste with salt and pepper, maybe some herbes de provence or something, hopefully you know what you like. If you’re ill you might want to use extra antimicrobial stuff here such as oregano, thyme, lemon thyme, monarda, rosemary, and so forth. You can also use the base and switch it up to be Italian-ish(more tomatoes, more oregano, tortellini), Mexican-ish (add black beans, cumin, spicy stuff), vaguely Asian-ish (add ginger, soy sauce, scallions).