Sunday, May 31, 2009

Aspirin or a Willow Tree?

The difference between herbal medicine and pharmaceutical medicine is the difference between aspirin and the bark of a Willow tree.

Aspirin is acetysalicilic acid, a synthetic chemical modeled on compounds called salicates originally found in the bark of Willows that reduce fever, inflamation, and pain.

But aspirin can cause gastrointestinal bleeding -- Willow bark does not. (In fact, at the turn of the century, Maude Grieve wrote in A Modern Herbal that White Willow (S. alba) bark "has been used in dyspepsia connected with debility of the digestive organs." And the bark of both White Willow and Black Willow (S. nigra) can be useful in treating diarrhea.)

This is because though modern medicine considers sacicates the "active compound" in Willow bark, they are not the only medicinal compounds in Willow. And biochemists have not yet decoded the chemistry of Willow bark (or Yarrow blossom or Skunk Cabbage root or any of the many other botanical medicines that contain salicates) well enough to understand how the many chemicals in the plant work together to negate the negative side effects that saclicylic acids have when they are introduced into the body alone.

Unlike the bark of the White Willow, aspirin is useless in treating infestations of parasitic worms. Unlike the bark of the Black Willow, aspirin is ineffective as an aphrodisiac and has no history of being used to treat cancers or stimulate hair growth.

And even if pharmeceutical companies completely decoded the chemistry of Willow bark and succeded in creating a synthetic pharmaceutical that could do all of these things, that pill could never sing in the wind or provide shade on the banks of a river on a hot summer day or teach us about strengh, grace, and bending. Or inspire words like "wise and witch." All of this is as much a part of Willow's medicine as its ability to ease pain an relieve fevers.

The humility to know that our minds cannot surpass the brilliance of a living, changing planet, and the vision to understand that the medicine is in the whole and not in the parts is the fundamental difference between pharmaceutical medicine and herbal medicine.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Rethinking "Invasive Species"

Last month in Tommy Priester's Shamanic Plant Journeying class, I felt some resistance come up when I heard that we would be working with Japanese Knotweed. The idea of working with an invasive species that is seen as crowding out native plants didn't sit well with me.

The spirit of the plant told me -- "You aren't from here either."

Neither are many of the plants I work with -- Elecampane, Plantain, Dandelion, Apple all came to this country with early European colonists. But they have been part of herbal traditions on this continent for so long that most of us don't think about their origins. Some, like Elecampane, have been here for so long that tribes like the Maliseet and the Delaware long ago found uses for them that the immigrants who planted the first seeds of the species on this continent never imagined.

One interesting thing about more recent "invasive" species is that they tend to provide medicines that help address newly emerging diseases. Stephen Harrod Buhner writes in Healing Lyme that:
"[For North American herbalists] part of the importance of Japanese Knotweed as a new medicinal useful in clinical practice, is understanding that invasive plant species are specifically indicated for use with invasive or emerging diseases such as Lyme, West Nile encephalitis, SARS, hepatitis C, HIV, and so on. The use of invasive species of plants in treatment reduces the impact on non-invasive medicinals and begins using plants that are accompanying invading pathogens as they move into new ecoregions."
Indeed, I've been told that Japanese Knotweed seems to be extending its range in the same areas where the spirochetes that cause Lyme disease are expanding theirs -- though I don't know if anyone has researched this phenomenon in depth. Japanese Knotweed is also one of the plants most likely to be helpful in treating Swine Flu -- it is a great anti-inflamatory with a strong affinity for the respiratory system and most people who die from the flu die from respiratory inflamation. Another "invasive" species, Purple Loosestrife shows great potential for dealing with the effects of flus on the digestive system because as a plant that is both astringent and muscilaginous it both tones and soothes tissues. (See Jim McDonald's excellent monograph on Purple Loosestrife.)

(If there are any Native herbalists or ethnobotanists or medical anthropologists reading this, I would be very interested in knowing whether there is any evidence of eastern North American tribes using the plants the European invaders brought to treat the diseases the European invaders brought.)

Both Japanese Knotweed and Purple Loosestrife tend to colonize areas with highly polluted soil and help remediate the toxins. Jim McDonald writes:
"This brings to light an entirely new consideration as to the role of Purple Loosestrife in the environment: Is it coincidence that the plant has become invasive in environments that it just happens to be able to cleanse pollutants from? Or, in some way, does this tendency exhibit the unforeseen ways in which Nature tends to and heals itself?"
As tempting as it is for us to want to believe that we can someday restore this continent to the state it was in prior to the European invasion, that is not something we or are children or even our great-grandchildren are likely to accomplish. North America is not the same place it was two centuries ago -- culturally or ecologically. The people and species that are here now shape and are shaped by their environment. The solutions to our problems will emerge from that reality.

That means that we can't afford to ignore the role recently introduced plant species have in healing damaged bodies and damaged land. Living systems work with what's at their disposal and do what they can to find balance. As herbalists doesn't it make sense for us to do the same?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Listening to the Forest: What the Lichen Told Me

Tree doctor. Green Man's Beard. These are the names Usnea whispers to me when I find him in the forest.

The lichen helps to filter the air for the trees where he grows and produces broad antibacterial and selective antifungal compounds to protect the trees from infection.

While he grows in many places, energetically Usnea is a medicine of the north, a bear medicine, with a strong affinity for the lungs and an ability to restore a healthy balance of bacteria in the body's mucous membranes by culling overgrowths of Gram positive bacteria and gently supporting the immune system.

Matthew Wood writes that in many North American indigenous traditions, "To dream of the bear brings empowerment in healing and work with plants."

So it makes perfect sense that this bear medicine was the forest medicine that initiated me into my work as an herbalist. (Never mind that Usnea isn't really a plant.)

He first spoke to me in the late spring and early summer of 2007, when I was wandering the Bangor City Forest, my heart breaking as I felt someone who had seen and touched and transformed me deeply slipping out of my life. (I had yet to learn that nobody who touches and is touched that deeply really ever disappears from your life forever.) Usnea reached his green threads into the cracks in my heart and began working to awaken my primal memory of my connection to all things, and my power as a healer.

I returned to that same forest this week, to listen deeply to Usnea again.

He spoke with grief and concern for the health of the forest.

Bangor City Forest is on the southern edge of the great boreal forests. The trees Usnea has been doctoring are feeling the effects of climate change. Within a generation or two, the forest here may transition completely to the kind of eastern temperate forest found in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

The retreat of the boreal forest marks the retreat of the north -- the place of darkness, of deep winter dreams, of ancestral memory. Something fundamental is lost when we lose touch with such a huge part of the original darkness and wildness from which we emerged.

Two centuries ago these woods were full of caribou and timber wolves. Polar bears would sometimes range south searching for food.

With settlement, we lost that degree of wildness. And now climate change threatens to take the boreal forest itself from large parts of Maine.

Usnea is calling on us to reawaken that wild darkness within us that can help us dream our way back into connection with the living Earth and let her work through us to help us remember ways of living that will let the forest breathe, grow, and thrive.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pandemics, Trauma, and Fear

Pandemics don't happen just because pathogens mutate. Pathogens are mutating all the time -- a process accelerated in our own time by the indiscriminate use of antibacterial and antiviral medications, increased presence of synthetic chemicals and ionizing radiation in our environment, and the creation of environments that produce the perfect crucible for viral and bacterial mutation (ie. cesspools at industrial farms filled with the feces of livestock who have been fed massive doses of antibiotics throughout their lives.)

If our bodies got sick everytime they were exposed to new bacteria and viruses, we would never be well. The truth is that we are not discrete organisms whose bodies malfunction when they are infiltrated by microscopic creatures. Our bodies are more akin to ecosystem made up of many kinds of cells many kinds of cells, some of which can't survive on their own and some of which function independently but symbioticly. We maintain health by maintaining that ecological balance.

But that balance itself is disrupted by physical and emotional stresses. The body responds to all stresses as though they were threats to its survival, gearing up for a "fight or flight" response -- and preparing its immune system to respond to the need to prevent possible wounds from becoming infected. When the body is kicked into that kind of response over and over again, the immune system becomes burned out and depleted. That increases the chances that bacteria or viruses will begin go reproduce out of control in the most vulnerable parts of the body.

This is why pandemics tend to strike in times of collective trauma -- trauma leaves people in a vulnerable state. The flu of 1918 took its greatest toll on a generation that had either fought in World War I or watched sisters and brothers and lovers come home injured, "shell-shocked," or dead. The current flu emerged in a country plagued by extreme poverty, violent repression, and the disintegration of families and communities due to mass migration and spread from there into a country plagued by layoffs, foreclosure, and economic collapse. Its no mistake that one of the first Mexican states to report deaths from this flu was Oaxaca, a state where the government brutally put down a popular uprising two years ago.

Collective panic about a pandemic contributes to the existing stresses people are under, increasing the likelihood of its spread. As herbalists, the best thing we can do is help to put people's fears in realistic perspective and then help them to take control of their own health by taking sensible preventive measures like washing with vinegar, feeding their immune systems with healthy foods, and working with herbs that will support the immune system without stimulating it like astragalus and usnea and herbs that help to regulate stress responses and immune responses like ashwagandha and eleuthero while avoiding herbs like echinacea that can overstimulate the immune system.

We can also share the knowledge that if the epidemic does spread, the plants that will cure the disease will become more abundant and more apparent as well. Much as we try to seperate ourselves, we are part of the ecosystems around us, and what we exhale and excrete prompts plants to produce chemicals to balance out our chemistries -- there is a natural feedback loop that allows the system to maintain homeostasis. "Invasive" species like purple loosestrife and Japanese knotweed show great promise in providing medicine for viral pandemics as do the sumac the sumac that grows in places where fields are slowly beginning the long process of becoming forests again and the sweetfern that grows in disrupted areas. [Thanks to Tommy Priester and Madelon Hope for much of this information.]

We are children of a generous universe, living on a planet generous enough to offer us medicine to heal the diseases that result from the violence we do to Her and to each other if we will open our hearts to the information Her plant children offer us. The way out of the pandemic is to create balance in our bodies, our communities, our ecosystems, and our planet.