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.

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