A Tonic Approach
the life Energy
An essential aspect of my healing philosophy is to encourage healing through nourishing deficiencies, and to avoid suppressing symptoms or excesses as much as possible. In this way, I encourage the body’s natural tendencies of the body rather than fighting it.
The life energy of the body is naturally good at equalizing itself, distributing or concentrating itself as necessary as long as the body’s normal functions are maintained. Sometimes, as when a flu virus is contracted, the priorities of the life energy (the anima) shift to immediate concerns of defense and cleanup rather than normal maintenance. When this happens certain healing response will kick into high gear, in this case a fever and possibly profuse facial discharge, the life energy will be focused in one primary area. When the issue is resolved and lymphatic cleanup is completed, then the body will come back to normal and the life energy will distribute itself more equally through the body.
In the case of many chronic diseases though, the body has, through habits, necessary compensation or even inherited factors, created an unequal distribution of the life energy which leads to over abundant focus in certain parts of the body. Michael Moore elaborates on this concept, noting that certain people use their native stress responses (sending life energy to the heart, lungs, muscles and nerves while taking energy away from the digestive organs for example) as a strength to draw upon, and habitually re-emphasize this energy imbalance because a)they’re used to it, and b) it works (at least for a while).
It’s often most easy to recognize the presence of excess life energy as it usually manifests in an outright way, like elevated blood pressure, heart palpitations, hot flashes or an inflammatory reaction such as arthritis. In Western medicine, the tendency is often to systematically shut these excesses down with direct suppression, often with drugs that will need to be taken indefinitely in order to maintain the effect. This is because, at least in part, even though the excess symptom has been squashed the root has not been addressed. So, you take beta-blockers to lower your blood pressure and wow, it works great and the numbers are nice and the doctor is pleased. But underneath the symptomatic improvement, the deeper problem grows. There was a reason the blood pressure was high, a necessary compensation for some other system, the blood pressure rose in order to maintain homeostasis. Herbs aren’t so good at direct suppression but I’ve witnessed many cases where practitioners try to use herbs as “little drugs” in order to do just that.
Unfortunately, squishing the life energy and diverting symptoms often cause more problems in chronic illness than they cure. Don’t get me wrong, Western medicine has a place, suppression has a place, usually in acute, life threatening situations - like a severed limb, acute systemic infection or even blood pressure so high that the very symptom is threatening the well being and life force of the individual. Then symptom suppression, and often life force suppression, may be appropriate.
For the folk herbalist using herbs to treat day to day disorders, and often chronic disease, it makes far more sense to encourage the body in its natural, amazing way by nourishing parts of the body that lack life energy. Michael Moore has written that it often works best to note the main complaint, often an excess of some kind, and then treat everything else. I find that in non-acute, long term situations that this is definitely a useful primary approach to treatment.
For example, a person presents with chronic constipation, fatigue, minor arthritis in the hands, seasonal pollen allergies, headaches and “bad skin” with discoloration, low-grade acne and dry hands and feet that crack and then heal very slowly. Their main complaints are the constipation and arthritis, which they’ve been treating with cathartic herbs and over the counter laxatives, with the predictable outcome of worsening constipation in the long term, and the occasional appearance of new symptoms like lymph glands that swell slightly during a virus and then refuse to resolve for a long period of time. Their body is further aggravated by periodic NSAID binges to alleviate the painful arthritis.
My tonic approach is twofold. One, give the client something that will help in the short run, to help encourage them, give them faith in the herbs and to generally perk up the system. Two, give something to help nourish the underlying deficiency, in this case a sluggish, underworking liver and metabolism. In this case I would give Rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.) for general central nervous system stimulation and increased digestion and to help shift the vital energy out of it’s habitual rut of flaring into periodic inflammation and into the digestion and metabolism. Oregon Grape Root (Mahonia spp.) for increased liver stimulation and protein metabolism which will eventually result in increased and more efficient peristalsis, better skin and healing, and less constipation, allergies, arthritis and most likely, fewer headaches as well. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) to harmonize the remedy, stimulate digestion and soothe inflammation. The Rosemary will act fairly quickly, giving energizing results within a few days to a week usually, especially since it’s such a life energy shifting herb and will continue to work for most people for a long time. The Oregon Grape Root will help some through immediate bitter stimulant effect on the digestive system, but the most impressive and long lasting results may take a month to three months to become noticeable and often even longer than that to really retrain the body’s habitual ways of channeling energy. The Ginger has some short term and some long term results, depending on what it’s combined with.
The above is a straightforward and frequent situation with a clear pattern and simple treatment, though it can take some time to correct. Other cases can be far more complicated especially where very common symptoms like headache or digestive upset present in a seemingly isolated fashion. However, taking into account everything going on the body (or at least everything that is noticed and disclosed) will allow the herbalist to look for deficiencies to nourish for the long term, and the to do whatever possible for the worst symptoms in the short term.
So, part of the key in dealing with acute symptoms in chronic illness can be to look for what the body is TRYING to do, but may or may not be succeeding at. If it’s a healthy inflammatory reaction in order to heal a new wound or broken bone, it’s better to allow the body to do its thing and just nourish with tissue building foods and herbs. If however, the body is stuck and still trying, unsuccessfully, to heal a wound with periodic acute flare-ups of inflammation in between longer rounds of seemingly unrelated symptoms like swollen glands or digestive upset, it’s time to look at what the body is trying to do and stimulate the function that’s not working with a good lymphatic, an immune modulator and mineral dense foods and herbs to give the body the building materials it may be lacking for healing.