Monday, May 28, 2012

Beyond the Kitchen: Ancient Plant Medicine in a Modern World

A Field of Dandelions
I love plants- a budding gardener I am.  Slowly, but surely and as time permits, I am learning more about plants and growing some of my families food, including herbs. I have always had a fascination with herbs and the plants that are often times considered 
weeds: dandelions, chamomile, mint and arugula. I remember spending summers at my grandmother's home in the boondocks. I would pick and eat what I am sure amounted to pounds of wild mint, strawberries, blackberries and honeysuckle as well as picked a ton of dandelions which I presented to my grandmother upon my return from foraging. She would tell me stories about when she was a kid during the depression and subsequently raising her five children, (they did not have a lot of money) and how she would make dandelion salad. I would make a scrunchy face, stick out my tongue and proclaim "Eww!"  Little did I know, 30 years later I would have a voracious appetite and appreciation for salad greens including dandelion leaves. Furthermore, who knew that greens such as dandelion leaves and arugula would be a staple in many of the spring salad mixes now available in your run of the mill grocery store. This makes me incredibly happy!

I've always had an appreciation for plants not only for their beauty and culinary uses, but the aromatherapy uses as well. In recent years, I have become intrigued by their medicinal application too. Lucky for me, in my journey to better my health and spiritual well-being, I have met a lady who has training and expertise in herbalism.  I asked her to share her story and enlighten us to the power of plants- beyond the kitchen. 

Ancient Plant Medicine in a Modern World
                                           by Ashley Litecky

Every young girl needs a fairytale she can live into. My fairytale began with tall trees, luscious moss, and a vivid imagination.  As a young girl growing up in the suburbs of Maryland, the great outdoors held magic, mystery, and best of all, it held plants, which in my child-mind were the holders of a knowledge I wanted to remember. One of my roles in elementary school was as a speaker for a tree that we thought had the answers to all of our questions.  My friends would whisper their question into one of the gnarled knobs on the tree, and my job was to put my ear against another knob and translate the answer. Whether I was actually gifted with the ability to ‘hear’ the trees offering, or if I was simply the most imaginative of the group, I’ll never know.  Yet, I will always remember the comfort that I felt around the plants and trees and the curiosity they inspired within me.

Along with my deep reverence for the magic of plants, came allergies. I remember my time outside was like a game of Russian roulette.  Some days, I could roll in the grass, pick buttercups, and have not a single care in the world, other days a whiff of pollen would send me into an asthma attack and sometimes to the emergency room. It was my severe sensitivity to plant pollen, mold, and weather changes that prompted my mom to bring me to a natural doctor, since all conventional treatments were no longer keeping my asthma at bay.  At the age of 13, my life changed. I became a vegetarian, each morning I would take a ‘pile’ herbal, homeopathic, and nutritional supplements.  After 6 months of treatment, my asthma and allergies came to an end, and my interest in health, wellness, and spirituality began to take off.

Clinical Herbalist Ashley Litecky of
Sky House Yoga & Deep Green Wellness
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when I started studying plant medicine.  It was around 1998 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina when I began to read books on herbs and found local herbalists leading herb walks. In these vast forests, I started to tap into a rich tapestry of information about plants, our co-evolution, and later traveled to Australia and Costa Rica to learn how the Aboriginal people worked with plants. Through this work I began to recognize that by engaging with plant medicine, my ability to relate with my internal and external ecosystems was expanding. I realized that my choices in how I was ‘healing’ myself were directly impacting my environment.  How do we engage in the dynamic balance of keeping ourselves healthy yet also honoring the health of the planet? Plant medicine seemed to be the natural link.

The maintenance of health is a very ancient practice that blends the best of the arts and sciences.  Our ancestors knew which foods to eat in the spring and which to eat in the winter. The image of the herbalist, with their bags of dried flowers and powdered roots is alive and well today.  We are blessed to have thousands of years of knowledge captured in books and living teachers who have received the teachings through long lines of plant speakers and healers. Most herbalists today blend ancient wisdom with what we have learned from modern science. We now look at lab results to see the blood glucose and cholesterol levels in the body and fit these into the context of the organism as a whole. In weaving all of this information together we can create a picture for the client that will help them see what they can do to shift any imbalances on a practical and spiritual level.

From what I have seen in my practice as a clinical herbalist, most people can drastically improve their health with a few simple changes. These pieces of advice are as old as our species, and have been common antidotes for just about every illness, in every part of the world, throughout every age.  We start with water. Water is critical for keeping our muscles, organs, and tissues soft, flexible and balanced. We can drastically improve our health by filling up our glass or steel water bottles at least 3 times a day. Proper hydration is essential for the functioning of every organ system in the body and reduces high blood pressure and tension in the neck and shoulders.

Water along with plenty of plant fiber helps us to move our bowels, which is critical for moving toxins out of the body.  Most disease patterns start from an accumulation of toxins, so we can start by reducing our intake of processed foods, eat more plants, which are medicines themselves, and our bodies will function as they are designed to. Another thing that is essential to health and happiness is creating time for outdoor activities where we can play or chat in the sunshine and soak in vitamin D.  Most Americans are deficient in vitamin D and when it is lacking we can feel fatigued, down, and can lack motivation.  

When we are healthy and feeling good it not only helps us but helps everyone and everything around us. We feel more inspired to contribute to our family and community.  If we are all healthy there is no need for pharmaceutical or recreational substances which require a large amount of human and financial energy to produce, and also enter into our water supply and affect the delicate chemical balance of our planetary ecology.
In my practice as a clinical herbalist, my role is to study the patterns that a person is presenting.  Much like a biologist studies the patterns of a particular species, like what do each day and how they interact with other species, an herbalist studies the individual in much the same way.  In a typical session, I will ask questions pertaining to each organ system and its functioning.  I ask about relationships, to friends, family, food, and rest. I will feel the pulse of the client and look at their tongue to glimpse inside the system and see what patterns of dampness, dryness, agitation, or fatigue can be seen and how this relates to all of the other information I have gathered.  From here I create a protocol that includes nutritional advice, daily practices or meditations, and an herbal formula that addresses the physiological, emotional, and sometimes spiritual roots of the imbalance.

The herbs used by a clinical herbalist vary.  Most practitioners have their favorites.  These are based on the types of illnesses a practitioner most often sees, particular affinities they have with particular plants, and mostly due to their experience with certain plants and really figuring out how they work.  The classical culinary herbs are usually front-line, as they are safe, effective, and familiar to most clients.  For example, I often have clients eat a clove raw garlic a day to combat yeast infections, or to stave off an impending cold.  Another piece of advice for those with sluggish digestion and metabolism is to add cayenne, ginger, or any other heating spices to their foods. 

Without even knowing it, we are treating ourselves with herbal medicines every day.  When we eat a handful of blueberries we are ingesting helpful antioxidants and antibacterial agents that cleanse the urinary tract of dangerous bacteria that can lead to urinary tract infections.  Another common herb that we use is black pepper. Pepper is a strong antioxidant, increases digestion, is high in vitamin C, and increases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients in the food we have sprinkled it on. As Hippocrates once said, “Let food by thy medicine,” and we can use fruits, vegetables, and spices to keep our bodies healthy and strong.

Often people ask me what my favorite herbs are.  The ones that I think everyone could use and receive benefit from.  Right now, as we inch toward summer, the herbs that I would recommend are dandelion root and nettles.  Dandelion root supports the healthy functioning of the liver which helps the body breakdown and release toxins.  Since most of us live in urban or suburban areas, even if we are eating well, we are exposed to toxins in the environment.  Taking dandelion root regularly in the spring and summer can help us efficiently process and excrete these harmful substances while at the same time boosting the healthy flora that lives in the gut.  Nettle leaf is another great plant that makes an excellent tea.  This plant is high in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium and a large array of trace mineral that our bodies need.  I think of nettles like a food, it is safe and naturally helps to balance the mineral levels in the body which in turn helps us to appropriately hold and release fluids.  
Nettle Leaf

Most people I see are deficient in nutrients especially minerals, so this is an easy way to hydrate and add minerals and electrolytes in the warmer summer months when we tend to sweat more. I would mix 2 tablespoons of nettles and 1 tablespoon of dandelion root in a quart mason jar, fill it with water and let it sit in the sun for 4 – 5 hours.  Then strain it and add a little raw local honey, and add to a glass with ice. This is a delicious way to cleanse and build the body at the same time!

Being healthy is easier than we think.  If we can return back to the basics and follow the advice of our inner grandmother, we can restore our health. As we simplify and move with the natural rhythms and cycles of nature and listen to the very basic needs of the body, we have the potential to rebalance ourselves and the planet we are so fortunate to live on.

Ashley Litecky, M.S. is a clinical herbalist living and practicing in Silver Spring, MD.  She holds a masters of science in clinical herbal medicine from the Tai Sophia institute where she graduated in 2007. Ashley continues to study plant medicine and weaves it with her work as a yoga teacher and trainer. She is the owner and director of Sky House Yoga, a donation-based wellness center in Silver Spring. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How I Changed My Life by Adopting a Healthy and Active Lifestyle

Vicki VanArsdale
Freelance writer, artist and 
codirector, fitness walker leader for the
Galloway Marathon Training Program  
Even though my Mom made home-cooked, well-balanced and healthy meals, I was overweight. Maybe it was all of the junk food and pre-packaged snacks I ate, or all of the sugary juices and sodas I drank. I remember being called out of my 4th grade class to go to a special seminar with the school nurse. It was for fat kids. In high school I hated gym class and conveniently “forgot” my bra on more than one occasion.  I preferred chorus and writing to anything physical. 

I’m an emotional eater, and after I graduated high school I was depressed and used food for comfort.  Before I knew it I hovered between 235 and 250 lbs.  I wore the same clothes often because nothing else fit, and I was too embarrassed to find something new to wear.  I was unhappy and unhealthy. Finally, after I transferred to a 4-year college to get my Bachelor’s Degree I lost some weight and wore a normal size. I exercised and walked a lot, but I didn’t eat healthy. A few years after college I was depressed again and the weight came back on, quickly. At age 28 I suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome and had to have a colonoscopy. I started taking antidepressants. At my largest I wore a size 24 pants and 3X pajamas. That was my breaking point. I had had enough. I couldn’t live like that any more. 

I started walking and going to a gym. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing, but I kept going. I started cutting back on sugary, pre-made foods and stopped drinking soda. I started eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water. I walked a 5k and, at the time, it was the hardest thing I had ever done. I read everything I could about health, wellness and nutrition. I realized food holds the key to health and wellness, and if we aren’t moving toward health we’re moving toward disease and illness. 

As I gained confidence and self esteem I tried different things at the gym and took a few classes. I swapped full-fat dairy products for low-fat cheese and plain, nonfat Greek yogurt. I started drinking soy milk – chocolate at first, then vanilla – and finally I’m at a place where I prefer plain, unsweetened soy milk and almond milk. I rarely eat white bread, flour, sugar or potatoes. I may have a soda or a donut once a year. Foods that I used to eat now disgust me. I can’t even believe I ate that crap – fake foods with no nutritional value. Now it’s all about eating clean.

My body is my temple, and I honor it with lots of fruits and veggies, kale and apple smoothies, little or no meat, some seafood, almost no dairy, lots of whole grains and eggs.  (If I eat a whole egg I add a few egg whites to it.) My staples are oatmeal, Ezekiel Bread, lentils, quinoa, brown rice, fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, nut butters, beans and legumes. I drink water, red wine, coffee and plant-based milks. I’m a chocoholic and I satisfy my daily need for chocolate with unsweetened cocoa powder or 85% dark chocolate. 

I’m far from perfect though. I’ll always be an emotional eater, and I face challenges with that daily. I go on vacation and eat dessert - every night!  I get in a slump and don’t exercise as much as I should, or life just gets in the way.  But when I slack off for too long my body lets me know it’s time to get back on track.

As for my exercise routine, I love spinning, walking, weight training and anything outdoors.  The girl who hated gym class has completed 5 marathons, 3 half marathons and some shorter races.  I’m training for my first 10k trail race in June. I’m really slow but so what. I’m out there having fun and getting fit. People pass me but that’s ok. They don’t know the journey I’m on. 

Five years ago I joined the Metro DC Galloway Marathon Training Program, which trains with the run-walk method. I was a pace group leader for the 14-minute mile group for a while, and now I co-direct the entire program and lead the fitness walkers. I’m also a certified personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. I love inspiring people and helping them to reach their goals.  

I’m living proof that small changes over time can lead to big results. If I can do it so can you!

Thanks Vicki for sharing your story. What a wonderful inspiration you are!

By Vicki VanArsdale
Freelance Writer and Artist

Friday, March 30, 2012

Spring Cleaning: Breaking Free From the Clutter

Awe, Spring! The bounty of spring is upon us with it's effusive energy, kaleidoscope of color, heightening of the senses and brightening of the spirit- about time if you ask me!  It's a much welcome sign when the cherry blossoms begin to bloom, because that tends to align so perfectly with my awakening from the bleary-eyed haze winter casts upon me. When I do awaken from the fog, I am welcomed with a whole bunch of junk. From the physical clutter in my home to the clutter of pent up emotions and energy bursting from within, add a dash of weight gain and overall stuffiness and stiffness, well you've got one rattled and anxious lady, ready to burst. Mark Twain relayed the feeling best, " It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is.  And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"

It's so nice to be able to get out and get moving again- to loosen-up, release energy, build-up strength and endurance again.  It's also a great time to open the windows, let in the fresh air and do some spring cleaning- breaking free from the clutter that physically surrounds and from the jumble within, in order to better take advantage of the new possibilities spring affords us.

Research shows cleaning and decluttering your home or office makes you feel better, decreases stress and anxieties, and can give you a workout!  You know I love anything that get's people moving and has the potential to make people happier!  So it couldn't have been better timing when I meant mother of three, professional organizer and owner of Around Tuit, LLCLeslie Berlin Clesner, about a month ago. She kindly agreed to share her professional wisdom and some decluttering advice.

How and why did you become a professional organizer?
I was working for a non-profit in DC and there wasn't any more room to really grow, so I hired a career coach, knowing I needed to leave my job, but had no idea where to go.  While working with her, I stumbled onto the website of a professional organizer and laughed that people got paid to do what I've be doing my whole life! So, we explored it further, I found out there was a National Association of Professional Organizers, went to a meeting, met some people - and other "newbies" and it started there!  My best friend's mom (the girl whose closet I would organize) was my first client!

What exactly do you do? How do you help people get organized? 
A lot of what I do for people, most can really do themselves.  Oftentimes, people are just so overwhelmed with their "stuff" that they don't know where to start.  Or they are just too busy.  I can put things into perspective for them.  I'm a 2nd pair of eyes that sees something completely different from my client.  When you are living in something for so long, it becomes the norm.  You are blinded by and often paralyzed by your options.  I can determine the best place to start.  What to do first.  I put blinders on my clients to only focus on one thing or one space at a time.  I have rules and guidelines to follow.  I give direction.  And, I'm hands on.  I actually help you do the work.  Every client is different so things sometimes change from time to time.  But my methodology is usually the same.  I come and evaluate the situation, talk to the client about their daily and weekly habits, find out what is overwhelming or paralyzing them, then create a game plan.  What people don't realize sometimes, is that you sometimes have to work backward.  If you want to organize the basement, you may need to start somewhere else, especially if some of the stuff in the basement belongs somewhere else!  It's important to understand the client.  Everyone is different.  Some people want things behind closed doors.  Others are visual - out of sight, out of mind.  So, it's important to understand your client so that you are really helping them, and not making it harder on them. 

As a hands-on organizer, I physically help go through whatever it is we are working on, helping my clients make decisions as to what they should keep or not, what to do with it once a decision has been made and if they keep it, how best and where to keep it, and if they don't, what to do with it - recycle, donate, consign, sell, trash, etc.  I love finding a place for everything!

It's hard to pick one example of how I helped someone, but one client in particular has been a lot of fun for me.  I started working with him a few years ago - he wanted to rearrange his condo, re-paint, re-organize, etc.  I loved that he trusted me to help him pick paint colors, new furniture, a new layout for his space.  He has since called me back any time he wants to do something different in his place.  He's since re-done his bathroom and kitchen.  Most recently we did a de-clutter session which prepared him for replacing carpet, buying new bedroom furniture and getting rid of some old stuff.  I've seen his entire place completely re-done and I was a part of that.  He's also considering a job change, so I have put him in touch with my career coach, and I love knowing I'm a part of him taking a huge step forward in his life.  I love knowing when he takes that giant step toward a career change, his home is in order, the work has all been done, and he can relax knowing that's all behind him and focus on his "new" life! 

Any tips, tricks to help us declutter this spring?
Like with like.  That to me is one of the most important techniques in organizing.  If you get all of the same items together, you really get the big picture of how much you have of one specific thing.  It helps when making decisions of what to keep or not keep.  Once that's done, it's important to find a permanent home for the items.  This way, when you need something you should only have one place to look for it.  Certain things may need to be split up for convenience, for example, cleaning supplies in an upstairs bathroom for quick cleans, etc.  But, the bulk of the cleaning items in the house should all be together in one place.  And another thing I personally love to have is a container of misc. items.  It's sort of a "like with like" scenario.  All of these items have no home, so they "live" together.  And, when you are looking for that missing puzzle piece, or one of something, again you only have one place to look for it.  Another tip is to identify the "hot spots."  The places that constantly build up clutter.  See what the clutter is made up of.  Do these items have a home?  Can you remove the surface they are building up on?  Can you prevent some of these things from either coming into the house or ending up in that spot?  Be realistic.  If mail builds up right inside the front door, see if there's a space for a recycle bin or shredder.  Go through the mail immediately and get rid of the pieces you don't need.  The next step is to decide what to do with the pieces you keep.  That's where I come in.

What's one organizing tool, gadget, thing you can't live without- something that everyone should be using, should have.
I LOVE The Container Store's Elfa drawer carts.  They come in a variety of sizes and I just love them.  I can put one in every room in my house!  They are sturdy, good quality, smooth-gliding drawers that can fit in a closet, inside cabinets, or just as a piece of furniture.  They can hold everything from clothing to office supplies to arts and crafts.  I have one in my kitchen I use for snacks for the kids and another in my linen closet holding cleaning supplies, kids bath stuff and first aid items.  Their uses are endless!  I also love the men's and women's shoe-sized containers from The Container Store.  They have a good snap on lid, are clear to see what's inside, stack nicely and fit just about anywhere.  Great for sorting like items and storing them too!!

I am overwhelmed! My house is a mess!  There is no end to the madness. Junk has piled up and up and up- the kids, pets, what have you, have taken over the house and I don't know where to begin. What's your best advice?
Call me! :)  If you aren't doing it yourself (doesn't mean you can't), and you are at your whit's end and overwhelmed, call someone who can.  Sometimes you just need to admit you need some help and let someone else do it for you.  If your toilet was leaking, you'd call a plumber.  If you are disorganized, call a professional organizer!

I hope Leslie's advice has inspired you to do some spring cleaning. It sure has helped me tackle some of the big projects that were giving me anxiety in my household, such as the giant pile of  my daughter's accumulated school work and art projects as well as the overflowing linen closet. I feel lighter, relieved and productive since I have dug-in, dug-out and decluttered. Thank you Leslie!