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. 


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