Friday, January 21, 2011

Bare Bones Energetics: Part 1 -- Energetics of the Human Body

A lot of times people will ask me "What's the best herb for a stomach ache?" or "What's the best herb for a respiratory infection?"

My response invariably begins with "It depends." Followed by a lot of questions about symptoms and signs that may at first seem entirely irrelevant.

That's because as an herbalist I work to support the body's healing processes rather than to eliminate a specific symptom. And in order to support the body's healing, I look toward energetic patterns, and find herbs that will shift those energies in ways that will bring the body back toward health.

Because most of us living in the U.S. in the twenty-first century don't have a language for describing those patterns, a lot of herbalists tend to borrow heavily from Chinese and Indian traditions to explain the energetics of people and plants. But newcomers to our craft can be quickly confused and overwhelmed by a proliferation of unfamiliar terms.

Its well worth taking the time to sink your teeth into Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other energetic systems -- both because they provide terms to discuss herbs and conditions with other practitioners, and because they provide rich models for understanding the interaction between plant medicines and the human body.

But its best to begin working with a simple, largely intuitive approach to energetics. Here's my attempt to lay one out.

(Before I go on though, let me say that I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Matthew Wood, Margi Flint, Paul Bergner, and Jim McDonald for helping me understand the core concepts I use here.)


At any given moment, all of the tissues of our body are to some degree warm or cold, moist or dry. They may also be tense. Or atrophied. Or both.

Each person has places on these spectra where they tend to fall. Together they define a person's constitution. The constitution is analogous to the climate. Miami will almost always be warmer and wetter than Denver.

From day to day, from moment to moment, any part of their body or their entire system may become warmer or cooler, wetter or drier, tenser or more lax than usual. These qualities define the condition. And different conditions can prevail in different parts of the body at different times. The condition is analogous to weather. Just because Denver is generally cool and dry doesn't mean you can't have rain and high temperatures there in August.

Physical signs can help you interpret what's going on in the body. Reading the face and tongue for those signs is an art that takes time to learn well. (And I highly recommend Margi Flint's The Practicing Herbalist as a guide to that art.) But there are some basic indications that can help you get a quick sense of what's going on in someone's body.

HEAT signs include red on the skin and on the tongue, rashes, rapid pulse, extreme thirst, swelling (the body brings in fluid to try to cool the heat,) dark, scanty urine, and restlessness and irritability . Because heat rises, symptoms will move upward -- liver heat producing headache and nausea, heat in the stomach producing heartburn. If there is an infection, mucus will be yellow or green.

COLD signs include pale skin, constipation, dull aches and pains, pale mucus, lethargy, and a slow deep pulse. Symptoms move downward (as a lingering bronchial infection cools down it moves into the lungs and becomes pneumonia.)

Heat moves from the center to the periphery.

Cold moves from the periphery to the center.

Generally speaking, heat is associated with the vital force, and so hot conditions are usually conditions of excess and cold conditions are generally conditions of deficiency.

I'll talk about the exceptions as I address dampness and dryness.

DAMP conditions are marked by puffiness.

Matthew Wood divides damp conditions into two categories: flowing and stagnant.

Flowing dampness is marked by lots of free flowing fluids -- sweat, urine, thin mucus, sweat -- it is a condition of excess.

Stagnant dampness is marked by swollen, weak tissues infiltrated with water and with metabolic waste. All that excess fluid makes the body cold but it is nevertheless a condition of excess for the affected tissues (though it is often linked with deficient or congested kidney or liver function.)

DRY conditions are marked by dry, rough skin, scanty, dark urine, and creaky joints.

The depletion of fluids heats the body and can lead to what Chinese medicine refers to as "false heat." The body is deficient but appears to show heat signs (ie. redness across the cheeks or a red tongue.) Leslie Tierra describes this condition as marked by:

night sweats, a burning sensation in the palms, soles, and chest [ . . .] dry eyes, blurred vision, dizziness, nervous energy, taking fast but tiring quickly [ . . .]

CONSTRICTION is marked by tension and shaking.


In addressing any of these conditions our goal is to help the body return to its healthy state.

The great nineteenth century Physiomedicalist physician Dr. T.J. Lyle wrote

"in the art of curing disease we can but influence to contract and relax with varied degrees of rapidity and energy in imitation of nature's way of using these structures in health."

In doing so, its necessary to find the imbalance -- the obstacle to cure -- that is preventing the body from healing itself, and remove it.

Usually that occurs through choosing plants that will create an equal and opposite reaction to the imbalance. Lyle wrote:

"In the work of restoration the attempt must be to restore to some extent the opposite condition of that abnormally existing. If the parts are congested apply heat and relieve the circulation. If the body is emaciated give proper food and sustain digestion. If there be too much relaxation, stimulate to the relief of such abnormal relaxation. If there be too much rigidity, relax to the relief of that rigidity."

But in doing so its important to differentiate between disease and the body's response to disease. And assess whether the body's response to the problem is under appropriate control.

Fever, for example, is something we have been trained to think of as pathological. But in reality, a fever that develops in response to an infection is part of the body's attempt to eliminate the infection. And the hypothalamus will not allow a fever to rise to a point where it becomes dangerous. So in the case of fever, the best course of action is to support what the body is doing. Keep the body hydrated. If the body is seeming limp and tired give warming, stimulating herbs to move the heat from the core to the periphery. (I'll talk about which herbs those are in the next section.) If the body is seeming tense and hot give herbs that will relax the body and open the pores to let heat escape.

On the other hand, inflammation of the respiratory tract is also part of an initially healthy immunological response to infection. But the body doesn't have the same kind of fail-safe mechanisms for reining in the production of inflammatory cytokines that it does for body temperature. So at the point when inflammation begins to interfere with breathing it becomes important to cool it down.

This is where healing becomes an art, and where we learn from watching people's bodies and paying attention to the knowledge and wisdom of experienced keen observers. I highly recommend reading the works of some of the great nineteenth century physicians like William Cook, T J Lyle, and Finley Ellingwood to get a sense of the energetics of the human body.

(COMING SOON TO A COMPUTER SCREEN NEAR YOU: The energetics of plants.)

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