Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Beyond Adaptogens: Holistic Strategies for Surviving Late Capitalism

A little while back, I wrote about the problem with using adaptogens as our primary way of addressing stress -- basically, the function of adaptogens is to allow people to continue to function at relatively high levels while under stress without necessarily mitigating the damage done by that stress.  In the process they tend to normalize the intolerable conditions of people's lives under late capitalism. 

I promised I would follow up with some suggestions about other therapeutic strategies for dealing with stress - -  harm reduction techniques that we can use while we await the removal of the largest obstacles cure in human history - structural violence and systematic oppression.  So, here are a few approaches I am using in my practice:

Removing Straw from the Camel's Back: Reducing the Allostatic Load

Stress occurs when we experience a real or perceived threat to our ability to meet our survival needs and maintain health.   Allostasis is the ability of our bodies to fluidly respond to stressful situations -- for example, under normal circumstances, if we here a bump in the night our muscles might tense and our heart rates might increase, but when we realize its just a cat leaping from the couch to the floor, our heart rates would slow down again and our muscles would relax.

Each of us has a limit, though, an amount of stress we can respond to fluidly.   If I were sleep deprived and worried about someone breaking into my apartment my heart rate might stay elevated and my muscles might stay tense even after I realized the sound I heard was just a jumping cat.

The things that take reduce our ability to respond to change collectively form our allostatic load.   Unresolved trauma, especially from early childhood, takes its toll on us, reducing our capacity to respond to new stressors.  So does having unreliable access to the means to meet out basic survival needs - food, warmth, loving connection.   And because poverty and oppression make people more vulnerable to attack and limit people's ability to meet their fundamental needs, they tend to have a tremendous impact on our allostatic load.   The greater the allostatic load, the less capacity we have to heal.

This phenomenon partially explains the seemingly sudden emergence of chronic conditions -- thyroid disorders that begin in pregnancy, food sensitivities that seem to appear in stressful times in adulthood, etc.   The underlying pattern giving rise to the condition has often existed for a long time, but the body was able to correct for it and prevent the development of symptoms until something came along that overwhelmed its ability to maintain allosatasis.

As practitioners, we are often tempted to focus on finding the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back -- the stressor that finally pushed the body into a state where it could no longer regulate itself.   But identifying and removing that particular stressor is less important than reducing the overall allostatic load.   The camel's back will heal best when the load it is carrying is smaller.  At that point it won't matter whether the straw that broke it is among the straws that remain or among the straws that were removed.

So I work with people to find what changes we can make in their lives that will make things just a little bit easier: finding foods we can add to help their bodies be more deeply nourished, working on strategies for deeper sleep,  reducing pain, addressing acute anxiety, any helpful change that can be incorporated in a person's daily life without adding stress.  (I will sometimes advise against particular changes, like quitting Tobacco, if someone is really shaken up or really depleted, and making that change will cause more stress than it will relieve.)   As simple changes come into place, room gradually opens for larger changes.   When a person reaches a place of relative stability and solidity I often recommend working on some of the deeper factors contributing to the allostatic load.  I tend to find somatic approaches to healing from trauma to be especially effective at that stage.


Feelings of helplessness and isolation often accompany or underlie chronic stress.  Solidarity is a powerful antidote to alienation -- when we know that others are standing with us in our struggles for survival and liberation,  the challenges we are up against become a little bit less overwhelming.

One of my goals as a practitioner is to shift the dynamic in the sessions I hold with people from one where a patient is receiving a commodified service from an expert professional to one in which everyone in the room is on equal footing, working together to find ways to shift challenging situations in one person's life.   Part of that work involves witnessing that person's pain and that person's strength, and part of it involves coming to collective agreement about what changes we want to try to create and how we want to go about making those changes.   In all of this, the degree to which our plans fit the person's life and increase their experience of personal sovereignty. 

Whatever else does or doesn't happen, creating spaces where people can shift their experience of health care as something done to them to an experience of health care as something done with them can often bring profound healing in and of itself.

Connection with the Living World

Our nervous systems and endocrine systems evolved in the context of a world rich with phytochemical and mycochemical stimuli, molecules morphologically and functionally similar to our internal chemistries of thought and emotion. And the chemistries of the plants and fungi in our ancestral environments would shift and change subtly in response to the chemical outputs of their human inhabitants. Mental and emotional regulation were never meant to strictly inside jobs.

In an article last year I wrote:

Our ancestors evolved in a context where they were constantly taking in a varied abundance of medicines through breathing in the chemicals plants were releasing into the air, absorbing chemicals from plants as they brushed against them with their skin, drinking in the chemicals that filtered from their root systems into the water – and that is not even taking into account the plants they ingested. This wove them integrally into the ecosystems they inhabited, and the fluidity of those ecosystems and the ever changing nature of the chemical inputs into their bodies created a fluidity in their experience. Water soluble compounds from plants interacted with their endocrine systems and oil soluble compounds from plants altered their brain chemistries, shifting their perceptions.

Simply bringing people into the presence of plants or bringing plants into the presence of people reawakens our sense of connection with the living world.

Aromatic plant compounds have a special role to play here.  Inhaling the volatile oils of plants sets off a chain of events which activate the parasympathetic ("rest and digest") nervous system and relax tension in the small muscles around the blood vessels, helping us come down from the "fight, flight, or freeze" response.  (For more on this see Guido Masé's The Wild Medicine Solution.)   This is likely one of the reasons that the Japanese practice of "forest bathing" seems to have such a profound effect in preventing and ameliorating stress-related illnesses.

These are just a few initial thoughts on approaches to mitigating chronic stress -- please share your thoughts and strategies in the comment section below!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

NEW CLASS: Changeling Medicine - Herbs and Autism

10 Teleseminars
June - August  2015
Sliding scale:  $100 - 300

some full and partial scholarships available for Autistic/Neurodivergent/NeuroQueer people who would not otherwise be able to afford to participate

William Blake famously wrote of the doors of perception which, when cleansed, opened into the infinite.   Contemporary neurobiology calls these doors sensory gating channels.  To be Autistic is to live in the world with those doors wide open. In this course, led by an Autistic herbalist, we will explore and de-pathologize Autism, look at how concepts of "neurotypicality" and "high function" and "low function"  arise from and serve a capitalist culture and do violence to Autistic people, and explore the ways in which plant relationships and plant medicines can help Autistic people deal with the sensory overwhelm that comes from living in this culture and with health struggles that commonly impact Autistic people.  

The course will consist of a series of lectures delivered via conference call which will also be available as recordings for those who are unable to call in when the lectures are happening.   There will also be an e-mail discussion list where participants can ask questions and share experiences and where the instructor will share articles and other resources.

No prior knowledge of herbalism or neurobiology are needed.  Compassion and respect are expected and required at all times.

Week 1 -- Queering Neurobiology:  Neurotypicality and Neurodivergence

Week 2-  Sensory Gating 

Week 3 --  Cooling the Head

Week 4 -- Cutting through the Fog

Week 5 -- Safe Touch and the Oxytocic Paradox

Week 6 -- Porousness and Empathy

Week 7 -- The Trouble with Normal:  Stress, Trauma, and Passing

Week 8 --  Nutrition and Digestive Health 

Week  9 -- Autoimmunity and Inflammation

Week 10 --  Neurodivergence and Magic

Conference calls will be scheduled for the day and time the greatest number of participants can consistently attend.

To register or for more information e-mail


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Of Capitalism and Cortisol (or the trouble with adaptogens)

 Recently, while preparing a lecture on stress hormones, I came across a quote from the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst,  Slavoj Žižek:
"Think about the strangeness of today's situation. Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism"
and it struck me that what Žižek describes is the collective manifestation of the effects of consistently high levels cortisol on consciousness.

Cortisol, like all of our hormones, alters our consciousness.   Released by the adrenal cortex, cortisol serves to keep us in a position to respond to danger when an immediate threat has passed but we are not entirely safe yet.  It acts to elevate our blood sugar so more energy will be quickly available to our muscles, to dampen the inflammatory responses brought on by the adrenaline/norepinephrine response we had to the initial threat, to favor the storage of excess energy as fat over the construction of muscle -- and to make us more afraid of and more prone to perceive immediate, cataclysmic threats in the world around us while also diminishing our cognitive capacities.

From an ancestral survival standpoint this all makes sense -- if you have just escaped from a mountain lion you are better off perceiving a rabbit in the bushes as another mountain lion than perceiving a mountain lion in the bushes as a rabbit.   In response to short term stresses, pessimism serves us well.   And you are also better off remaining focused on crashing sounds in the bushes than on contemplating the nature of mountain lions or future strategies for dealing with them.

In a contemporary context, this doesn't serve us.  When the threats to our survival come from not being ale to pay the rent or afford groceries or from not knowing whether we will be shot by police as we walk down the street we seldom reach a point where we can relax fully enough for our cortisol levels to go down because the threat never really goes away.   High cortisol levels cause us to be prone to fear of sudden disasters, and they diminish our ability to analyze the situation and see alternatives.  They also, of course, contribute to stress-related illnesses.

Contemporary responses to chronic stress amount to battlefield medicine.  The role of a military medic is not to help people  heal but to get troops back onto the battlefield as quickly as possible.  Under capitalism, the role of health care workers is not to help people heal but to restore their economic productivity.   And this gets justified in terms of meeting patients' expressed needs, because most people's day to day survival depends on their being able to continue to work to earn money to meet their basic needs, so the patients themselves get put in the position of needing to ask for the medicine that will restore their functionality rather than the treatment that will support their recuperation and restore their vitality --  since the latter requires rest and restructuring of life, luxuries available only to those with enough wealth not to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

The same imperative was true under state Communism.   Soviet scientists set out to find medicines that would improve people's ability to perform key functions under prolonged stress.   They discovered them in a class of herbs they called adaptogens -- herbs which act by extending the cortisol dominated resistance stage of stress, staving off a complete adrenal crash.   The first such herb researched was Siberian Ginseng -- which was found to allow auto-workers to work long hours at grueling jobs without having to take as many sick days as those who didn't take the herb.

Reimagined in a capitalist context, adaptogens are sold and prescribed as herbs to help people remain active and focused while living stressful lives.  They do this -- for a while.   They buy time, putting off the point where the body can no longer function in the ways a person wants it to, masking and delaying symptoms of fatigue that would normally tell us we have pushed ourselves too far.   And, yes, sometimes that is necessary -- a person working three jobs to feed their kids can't take a week off to sleep and can't reduce their hours and can't go off to the woods for days on end.   But they are not really a solution to the problem at hand, and we need to be honest about this.  Especially because they tend to have the effect of making us normalize the situations we are living in and inhibiting the process of questioning the systems that make survival so brutally difficult.

Last December, I wrote:
"It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them.   I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative.  And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal.  Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse."
Maybe the process begins with giving people medicines and practices that connect them with new senses of possibility --  in my next post I will explore some of these approaches .  .


Want to read more about dreaming and thinking and working our way out of the mess capitalism has put us in?  Go to:

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Hyperlexic Paradox

The precocious development of a large vocabulary and the use of unusual and complex sentence structures are common elements begins of early childhood for many Aspies, and remain a features of our communications well into adulthood.   And it is one of the reasons we are so often misread.

Some see us as cold or formal or distant because to those who don't know us well our expression comes across as more similar to literary or academic writing than colloquial speech -- a byproduct of our hyperlexia.  When you are 9 and the only person whose words reflect an understanding of your inner reality is a dead Irish poet, you tend to find yourself communicating in strange ways.  And those habits stick.

Others take the complexity of our language and our obsessions with it as signs  that we feel at home expressing ourselves with words.  For me, they indicate the exact opposite.

All my life, I have been trying to communicate what I think and feel in a language that evolved from a way of viewing the world completely alien to my own experience.   In the folklore of my ancestors, precocious speech was seen as a sign that a child might be a changeling -- all I can say is that is not far off the mark.   From an early age I always imagined that I came from another world where people thought and felt like I did.  I assimilated language in an unsuccessful attempt to explain my reality.  And when speech and prose failed, I tried poetry.

Speaking of the way modern Irish literature grew out of the experience of colonization, Malachy McCourt thanked the English "for stuffing their language down our throats so that we could regurgitate it in glorious colors."  I could say the same of the "gift" of a language shaped by a culture that aims to limit the acceptable bounds of sensation and perception -- being an Autistic person whose only available means of communication was a language shaped by neurotypical assumptions made me a poet. 

 Ironic, perhaps, because the assumption is commonly made that Aspies don't understand metaphor.  But what I actually find is that usually when I am speaking literally people take it as metaphor, because what I am speaking of exists outside the world that their sensory gating allows them to perceive, and when I am speaking metaphorically people tend to take what I am saying literally, because I have translated it into terms that appear more concrete to them than my actual concrete experiences do (which tend, in turn, to be misinterpreted as abstractions.)

You might think that being a poet makes it easy for me to express my feelings.  But I write poetry precisely because everyday language doesn't readily convey what I feel.   When it comes to things I am feeling intensely, sometimes conversation is nearly impossible.   Knowing that my words will only express an approximation of what I am saying, I become slow and meticulous in attempting to choose each one.   And each one also is a signifier fraught with a dozen layers of meaning for me.  And sometimes typing or uttering them can bring me into a place of being completely overwhelmed by the thoughts and feelings they evoke.

And once I have written or spoken words, I often hear them repeated to me in a new context that shifts their meaning.  I hesitate in conversation when it is important for something I say to be understood because I see how quickly meanings I did not intend can become attached to my words, and the ways in which the words I use take on a life of their own.  As Adrienne Rich writes in her poem, "North American Time"

"Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill.

"We move but our words stand
become responsible

for more than we intended

"and this is verbal privilege"

A verbal privilege not shared by my Autistic kin who this culture deems "low functioning" and who most people assume lack a rich inner life -- until someone like Carly Fleischmann finds a way to all too briefly break into the world of language and describe her experiences.  (That is, until they are silenced by electroconvulsive therapy as Carly was . . .)

Sometimes speaking or writing at all feels like a betrayal of my own heart and my own experience.  The harsh sounds of English doesn't reflect their flow.  The concepts the words of the language refer to are not mine.   The history that shaped the language and the culture is a history of brutality.   And I want to stand outside of history.  But poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history, and neither did I.

And so I write.  Knowing that I will be misunderstood.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Trouble With Normal

On my way to class yesterday, I saw the police breaking up a temporary homeless camp just outside the college.

In my classes, there are students who are underslept because they are working too many hours to try to pay their tuition, and students who are going hungry because there are not enough decent paying jobs and Victoria is an expensive city.

Economists tell us this is "the new normal" -- a phrase I have hated since the first time I heard it used by the army when they were telling families about the changes they could expect to see in their loved ones returning from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury   As humans, we have the capacity to normalize a lot of things.  But, as Bruce Cockburn says, "The trouble with normal is it always gets worse."

We have normalized police harassment of Black men on the street to the point where ostensibly serious journalists and politicians are getting way with blaming Eric Garner for his own death, saying that he should have known better than to ask the police not to arrest him or to take their hands off of him.   We have normalized the glorified jail cells in schools that children -- most of them people of color -- are locked up in when they fail to maintain a performance of neurotypicality.  We have normalized the murder and disappearance of Indigenous women.   We have normalized rape culture.  We have normalized violence against Trans* people.  We have normalized the Oil Sands.  We have normalized twenty three years of war in Iraq.

To be sure, many of us don't approve of these atrocities.  But too many of us never give any of these realities a second thought as we go though our days unless they show up in the headlines or in our facebook feeds or touch the life of someone we know.

But when I show up in clinic, no matter who is sitting across from me, I see these realities etched in the bodies and hearts of the people coming to me for help -- because what our minds rationalize our hearts absorb and our bodies experience.    To be sure there are places where the scars left are deeper and more obvious. (Though still invisible to too many in medicine.  Why is that more doctors don't make a connection between the elevated rates of hypertension in African-American men and the dangers of being a Black man walking down the street in America?)   But even people further removed from the most immediate and deadly impacts of the physical and psychological violence our culture has normalized are still living with the effects of its cultural and ecological violence.    Its no accident that we call heart disease, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression, and autoimmune disease "the diseases of civilization" -- they are the direct consequences of the physiological and emotional stress of living in a culture that depends on massive structures of organized violence for its continued existence.

 As Denise Levertov wrote decades ago in words that are still too apt:

The same war

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,

our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it

It makes no sense to speak of healing people if we are not willing to address what is making them sick and ultimately killing them.   I tell my students all the time that my prescription for everyone who walks into our clinic is the complete transformation of this society, and that anything else we do is harm reduction -- necessary and often life saving but not curative.  And while I don't have a roadmap to guide that transformation, I can tell you one thing -- the first step is refusing to accept the cruelty and suffering around us as normal.  Because the trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Famine, Plague, and Colonialism: Thoughts on Ebola

There is a saying in Ireland -- "God put the blight on the potatoes.  The British put the famine on the Irish."

In other words, while the blight that hit Irish potatoes in the nineteenth century was, in a sense, a disease of natural origin, the mass starvation that ensued was the result of the Irish people, under a centuries long military occupation, being forced to grow a single crop on badly depleted soils.  A people given control over their own lives and the way they lived on the land their ancestors had inhabited for millennia would never have created such a vulnerable food system and economic system.

In the same way, we can say that while the Ebola virus is a product of evolution, the Ebola epidemic is the product of centuries of European in West Africa, wars fought with weapons made by those same colonizers, and a global capitalist system that has consistently looted the global south for the benefit of the ruling classes of North America and Europe (and, more recently, and to a lesser extent, Japan and China.)

Western journalists, speaking about the spread of Ebola in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia have tended to pin the disease's rapid spread on burial customs that involve touching the dead.   While it is true that contact with the dead can result in the transfer of bodily fluids that spread the disease, focusing on burial customs pins the blame on the people impacted by the disease while ignoring the larger forces at play that created the conditions for it to become an epidemic.  These conditions include:

  • The collapse of the agricultural sector throughout the global south together with civil wars pushing more and more people into crowded urban areas where disease can spread quickly.
  • The lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation.
  • The overwhelm of underfunded public health systems already strained by dealing with diseases like malaria
  • Malnutrition making people more vulnerable to infections disease
and these factors all have their roots in the current and historical economic and military policies of colonial and neo-colonial powers.

As Allyson Pollock, Professor of Public Health at Queen Mary University in London, says:

[Liberia and Sierra Leone] had a total erosion and collapse of their public health care systems and this is the tragedy.  So the population has very, very few doctors and nurses.  They simply cannot cope and of course the public facilities that are there are overcrowded, they are in terrible conditions and they are completely and utterly understaffed.  So this problem of an epidemic was going to hit them, it could have been Ebola, it could be something else – it could be cholera or whatever. This was actually going to come home to hit these countries very hard indeed.  This was entirely predictable and it’s been predictable for more than 20 years and it is what the public health lobby and the public advocates have been talking about.  The solution to these epidemics is not the magic bullets of vaccines and it is not sending in the troops.  It’s structural, it’s social, it’s economic, it’s environmental and it is putting in all the public health measures.

There is not much we can do as herbalists to heal those now infected with Ebola.  Even if we had the perfect protocol for treating the disease, getting the relevant herbs to people and finding a safe way to administer them would be next to impossible.   But as people living in nations that continue to benefit from colonialism, we can address the roots of the epidemic by addressing the destruction wrought by global capitalism.

As I often tell my students, the prescription for almost every health care crisis we face is the dismantling of systems of oppression.   Everything else is harm reduction -- necessary and right and good but not a cure.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Gathering the Edgewalkers: The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference

I am, by nature, a witch at the edge of the woods, as my friend Kiva would say.  Sometimes, quite literally -- right now I live in a small cabin on unceded W̱SÁNEĆ territory on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, on land surrounded by Douglas Fir and Hawthorn and Big Leaf Maple.   Sometimes my solitude has been more closely surrounded by people and the trees have been further away.   But my work happens in the places where the wild, the human, and the divine meet, both within me and around me.  Its a calling I was born to in many ways, coming into this world with a queer neurobiology.  It has opened me to unspeakable beauty.

But it has also been a lonely calling.  I have found myself an outsider among outsiders again and again -- among hippies, activists, and pagans, finding that my difference was different from the differences that united them, and ending up feeling more alone than I started.

To some extent this is to be expected.  Anyone who has read enough Terry Pratchett knows that "the natural size of a coven is one" . . .   But they also know that now and then those solitary magical ones need to come together to make sure nobody has "gone off cackling."

Sometimes I find those moments of connection visiting another herbalist or witch, or even grabbing a few moments on the phone or online (though the people I actually enjoy talking with on the phone are few and far between.  Phones can be pretty stressful.)  Often I will find those moments of connection with students and patients and other teachers.

But all year I look forward to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference (thought it has sometimes gone by other names in recent years) -- where a ragtag bunch of herbalists and activist and witches and curandero/as come together from across the continent to share our love of wild medicine in a place where our individual and collective strangeness is enot just welcomed but celebrated.

I have been going to the conference every year since its inception.

The first time I came, I had never been to a major herb conference before, and arrived feeling a little awkward and intimidated.  But by the end of the first day, I found myself sharing meals with people like Matthew Wood and Howie Brounstein and jim mcdonald whose work I had been following for a long time, and was struck by the way that they treated me as a colleague and an equal, encouraging my work while they shared theirs.  

The second year, I was moved to find that Wolf and Kiva were willing to take a chance on inviting an unknown herbalist living in rural Maine to teach about working with Skunk Cabbage, Ghost Pipe, and Black Cohosh to connect with the underworld and with submerged aspects of the self.  The experience helped me realize that when I taught  from my own experience rather than just repeating things I had read and heard I could begin to help other people engage or re-engage their own hunger for authentic connection with plants in a way that could change their lives.  

The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference has always emphasized this kind of vital teaching and practice, bringing forward new voices and challenging established herbalists to bring forward aspects of themselves that don't often get seen in public.   This year's iteration of the conference, the HerbFolk Gathering, brought that to a new level, as elders of the community like David Hoffman and Matthew Wood and newer voices like Asia Suler and Rebecca Altman taught classes infused with enchantment, where their love and passion for the healing found in forest and desert and swamp and field was palpable and contagious.  The magic spilled into the evening, as a community danced and celebrated.

The connections made at these conferences have extended into the rest of my life too.   Friendships made over plant conversation and strange libations have evolved into a network of witches at the edge of the woods who keep each other from going off cackling, and a continually growing confidence in the necessity of my own strangeness.

Gathering the edgewalkers may be like herding cats, but somehow Kiva and Wolf have turned a bunch of scattered feral cats into a pride of lions.   There is room in the pride for you too!