What does "R & R" look like to you?
Everyone has their own particular favorite way to rest, restore, relax, and recuperate- mine involves a hammock and a pillow and a book and a nap- but at the heart of this idea is one particular body structure- the Vagus Nerve.
Our fight-or-flight stress response, called the Sympathetic Nervous System, is responsible for creating and regulating all our reactions to stress, and it has a clear headquarters- called the HPA axis- that controls the feedback loops that respond to all the internal and external stressors we experience.
By the way, it's our culture-informed thinking that distinguishes between "good" and "bad" stress. To our HPA axis, it's all the same stress. Survival is an extraordinarily basic need, so a phone beep is the same as a tiger. I talked a bit more about this in episode 2 of this Season 2 Stress series.
On the flip side, our R&R system, the Parasympathetic Nervous System, is the one responsible for actually opposing the stress response and allowing us to, well, live. The PNS is spread out all over the body. There's no headquarters for the Parasympathetic system because we were designed to live in this state most of the time, so it's expecting to be the default position of our nervous system.
Take that in for a second. The Parasympathetic Nervous System, the R&R system, should be our default.
But which system are your more familiar with? Right. Fight or flight, the Sympathetic Nervous System.
We live in fight or flight, we're bombarded with messages to it and information about it. That's why it takes work and practice to get back to the rest and restore state, that PNS that should be our all-of-the-time situation. It's kinda backwards, to have to work to get into a resting state, but this is the world we have created. We have to make do.
So what we've got so far is the 'fight or flight' stress response, which is the Sympathetic Nervous System, this is the one we're all familiar with in our experiences and also that we hear a lot about; and we've got the 'R&R' living response, the Parasympathetic Nervous System, the PNS, which we want to get back to more frequently and more quickly for a bunch of reasons I'll tell you about in a minute.
When we're trying to access the PNS, when we're trying to get into that R&R state, it's not as easy or straightforward as accessing the fight or flight sympathetic system is. I mentioned there is no specific headquarters for the PNS and that it's spread out all over your body. However, the Vagus Nerve comes closest to filling this role of PNS HQ.
And guess what- you can exercise your Vagus! This means you can strengthen your ability to get back into (and stay in) your R&R state whenever stress has bumped you out of it.
The Vagus is a special nerve because it comes directly out of your brain into your head and facial structures, like your ears and voicebox, rather than coming out of your vertebrae like most other nerves do, and it travels from your head down into your abdomen where it helps all kinds of organs and functions along the way.
The Vagus is involved with things like speech, thyroid function, digestion, blood pressure, and elimination. This means there's a lot of places we can impact it, and a lot of places for things to go wrong.
The amazing thing about the Vagus is that when it's activated, things RELAX. Usually, we think of the nervous system activation in terms of tension- activate a nerve and muscle contracts, that sort of thing. Instead, muscles and structures connected to the Vagus nerve expand and relax when it is activated.
This looks like:
Much of your Vagus Nerve is in your abdomen, and your abdomen is cram-jam full of stuff. You've got solid organs held in place by nets of connective tissue, hollow organs expanding and contracting, miles of intestines squashed in by core muscles, not to mention bony cages and girdles and a spine built like a stack of teacups.
Getting as much of that as aligned and functioning properly as possible is essential to the Vagus having room to activate. It can get suppressed and turned off just like any other nerve. So I'm going to share 3 mini exercises with you to help this alignment and function.
Exercise #1- Stack Your Ribs and Hips
Try this. Lie on your back and find the bony triangle markers in your pelvis- 2 hip points on either side of your hips, and a pubic bone down front in the center, south of your belly button.
You're lying on your back, so these 2 hip points and pelvic bone point should all be pointing straight up at the sky. We're not working with the side of your hips, we're working with the front of them.
Assorted belly-ness is not the point here, the bony markers are, and may I just state for the record that size is not an indicator of health, nor is health an indicator of value. Exit soapbox.
So these 3 bony markers, right, they need to be parallel to the floor. Do a little tilting forward and back- you'll find that the pubic bone raises and lowers relative to the hip points. Then find that parallel to the floor position. This is called a neutral pelvis.
Next, your ribs are probably arching up towards the ceiling. Bring them down to the floor, so the upper back is relaxed down and you feel a flatness across the shoulder blades, not a pinching or winging position. This is a neutral rib cage.
Now try these 2 positions at the same time- both sitting, and then standing. When you're upright your neutral pelvis is now perpendicular to the floor (straight up and down, aka 90 degrees to the floor), and the ribs are down over the hips, not popped forward in fake "good" posture.
These are the quick and dirty directions- I give more clarity and demonstrations in videos in my free Resources Hub.
Once you've aligned your skeleton, it's time to start letting it move in this position:
Exercise #2- Breathe With Your Lungs
Obvious, right? Well, no. We do a lot of our daily breathing with either our belly or our chest, which causes problems.
Now, breathing practices are different, and have their own purposes. I did talk last time, in the last episode [edit to add, 2 episodes ago!], about breathing as an external activity you can do to help manage your stress response. This time, I'm talking about your daily, not-really-thinking-about-it breathing, but learning this will help you in your breathing practices too.
Since your belly is so crammed with stuff but there are no bones in your belly, it's all held in place by an intra-abdominal pressure created by your core muscles. When you just use your belly to breathe, it messes with this abdominal pressure and that can lead to problems like pelvic floor issues, hernias, or even reflux.
Breathing with your chest is difficult, since the breastbone doesn't actually expand. This means your breaths will be shallow, making you breathe more often, and it can create anxiety responses because of the pressures on your upper back spinal nerves when you make the upper back arch to lift your chest to breathe in.
But because most of us walk around thrusting our chests out in fake good posture (you can fix this with Exercise #1 pleasepleaseplease), we HAVE to belly and chest breathe since the ribs have nowhere to go.
After you do exercise #1, once you've gotten your ribs relaxed down, it's time to reintroduce your ribs to the breathing machine again.
Take a belt, an exercise band, or your hands and wrap them around your rib cage so you feel the front, back, and sides of the rib bones. Slowly take a breath in, and feel for 360 degrees of rib cage expanding, all the way around. Feel tension increase in whatever you have wrapped around your torso as you inhale and expand the ribs, and feel that tension decrease as you exhale and close the ribs back together. Relax your shoulders and your belly, we're trying to move only ribs.
This might seem simple and not worth the effort of trying as you listen to me, but I challenge you here and now to see what it actually feels like in your ribcage. By popping your ribs forward, in that fake good posture, you've probably lost a lot of the muscles in and around your ribs, and the points where the ribs meet your spine are probably really stiff and inflexible. It is HARD to get your ribcage to move in the way I'm describing here. I challenge you to see for yourself.
It takes practice to get all this moving again, but once you do your ribs can do the work they were designed to; they can buffer the breathing pressures they were made for, easing the load on your abdomen and upper back. This lets the pressure on your Vagus nerve normalize as well.
Keeping unnatural pressure in your torso because of poor posture keeps the Vagus from responding appropriately. Aligning and normalizing the way you hold and move your body is the first step to improving how your Vagus nerve works.
Once this proper positioning is in play, it's time to talk about tone. You might know of tone in terms of muscles- this is when muscles have a certain amount of engagement all the time. They are ready to respond. Nerves, including the Vagus, can also have tone and be more or less prepared to respond. Good tone is always a good thing.
Exercise #3- Tone Practice
Since the Vagus goes through so many head and neck structures, there are a bunch of ways we can directly impact it to help strengthen it.
Here is a list of small practices you can work into your day. All of these trigger the Vagus nerve to activate, building its tone and also relaxing things in the body so they work better:
These ideas will improve the tone of your Vagus nerve. Why do you care? When you've got good Vagal tone during a stress response, you'll:
And good Vagal tone is associated with:
So, we're trying to access the PNS after you do experience stress, so that you can return to an R&R state. You can help this along by aligning your skeleton to ease physical stress, and by practicing triggering your Vagus nerve so it's got good responses when you need them. All of these are pretty simple, beginner level ways to exercise you Parasympathetic Nervous System, and stop living in the fight or flight system.
Now my question to you is, do you already practice any of the exercises I gave you today, or have you been inspired to try something new? Share how it feels for you by leaving a comment, and tagging me @paulasherbals if you're commenting on Instagram. I look forward continuing this conversation!
Welcome back to our ongoing series about a holistic perspective on stress. Last time we talked about the broad strokes of how we understand and manage our stress responses, and what to focus on. If you haven’t listened to that episode, hit pause and download it now so that you can catch up really quick.
I think, personally, that the topic of Stress is a great way to really explore full body ways of thinking. Everything that your body does internally, or notices externally, is a source of stress- this is how things get done in the body! It’s not inherently bad to experience stress. And the way we react, how our bodies automatically respond, is all by itself holistic. Every system in the body is constantly playing a balance game- turning up and turning down, inputting and outputting, resting and reacting.
So when we talk about “stress” as something to reduce or eliminate, we’re really talking about things you can do to help your internal systems find equilibrium, and things you can do to block or shield external stressors, including taking supplements that help your internal systems function
3 External Practices
Today, we’re going to look closely at the external stressors coming at you, and the things you can physically do to help yourself manage stress responses are going to sound like a familiar list:
The reason we care is because these active choices you’re making directly impact your nervous system. Later on in this series I’m going to tell you more about the “rest and digest” system. For now, just know that this is the system in your body that not only OPPOSES the fight or flight system, meaning it actively shuts down chronic stress when it turns itself on, but it’s also supposed to be the default position of our nervous system. We tend to live in fight or flight, but we’re supposed to live in rest and digest and our bodies want to get back there!
#1: Deep Breathing
The important thing to learn right now is that we can only influence this Rest and Digest directly in two ways- through visual stimulation, and through breathing. When we close our eyes and shut off visual input it helps our Rest and Digest to activate. The act of seeing is the act of our brains being on alert to recognize potential danger. Blocking that out is a shortcut to easing the input of external stressors.
Deep breathing is the other way we have to activate this system, which in turn quiets the fight or flight responses. There are piles of breathing practices and techniques you can learn about, not to mention apps, websites, and devices to prompt you and track you and help you practice- you don’t need me to rehash all that. Just pick one and start breathing!
#2: Exercise and Movement Practices
Now, the second practice is where I think things get interesting! This is Exercise and Movement. Exercise certainly stresses the body, that’s it’s job, and the idea is that on the other side of exercise we’ve “worked it all out” in some way and that makes us feel better. So for me the big question is, Where’s the line between helpful and just more stressful?
Again, there’s more details coming in later installments of this Stress series, but the CliffNotes version of one of the major processes going on here looks like this:
When we’re constantly exposed to micro-stressors (as in, when we live our familiar lives!), our stress response is a constant, low-level drag on ourselves. Immune function is sub-optimal, digestion is slow, sleep isn’t great, you see what I mean?
But, when we have some sort of big “event” that causes big stress (think exercise or getting cut off in traffic), AND we manage to have a concrete end to that stress (like ending the exercise class and drinking some water), doesn’t it feet really good?
That constant, low-level drag keeps us in limbo between actually having an acute response, and feeling fine, by dripping out our stress chemicals. It’s the same lifestyle that our ancestors might have recognized as seasonal lean times like Winter, for example. And when we experience this, we might start losing lean muscle, storing fat, sleeping more, and experiencing brain fog- all things that would help us survive a long winter.
In contrast, a big event dumps those stress chemicals in large enough amounts to reach the critical trigger point that also shuts them off! And you can reach this critical point with only 45 minutes of walking at a pace that makes talking a challenge. It’s that simple and straightforward.
(I’m paraphrasing here, but if you want all the good details I recommend you look into herbalist Tammi Sweet’s Anatomy courses, especially the Heart Coherence.)
One more piece here is meditation. There’s no question that meditation is a mental practice that helps us respond to, recover from, and be more resilient to stressors. And again, there are lots and lots of ways you can go about learning any of the many types of meditation, many of which include breathing practices. Personally I’ve used Chopra Center guided meditations, the Insight Timer app, and the “morning pages” style of journaling to quietly meditate.
But here’s the fun idea I want to introduce into this discussion about breathing, movement, and meditation as practices that manage stress responses. Are you familiar with moving meditations?
This can look like walking, or walking in a labyrinth, or doing a meditative practice like tai chi or qigong. It can be an engrossing yoga class, and I’ve seen it happen in my reformer pilates classes. Basically any movement that is slow enough for you to focus deeply on your movement and your breathing, and keeps you focused for at least 45 minutes, is a moving meditation.
And to me, this is the best of all worlds, a win-win-win! You’ve got your breathing, your movement, and your duration.
But however you physically get involved with improving your stress responses, the old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ certainly applies here. The more you practice, the easier and faster it is to get into the proper headspace and actually do the practice.
I call these types of practices “external” because these physical things you can do, these practices like breathing, movement and meditation, are choices you can actively make for your body.
Yes, you breathe all day every day but DEEP breathing exercises are something you do deliberately. Yes, you end up moving around during your day but choosing to do 45 minutes of moderate exercise takes deliberate thought, or they won’t happen.
One more thing- there are passive, external practices you can choose as well. Did you ever hear of a “Digital Detox”? This is a deliberate disconnection from all things technology, and it’s one major way to manage the stressors that are coming at you. By removing yourself from the constant deluge of information and noise on TV, social media, email, notifications, ringers, alarms, you’re actively relieving your nervous system of the need to respond to them.
This can be as easy as a few minutes drinking your first cup of something hot in the morning while staring out a window and refusing to do anything tech related until you’re done, or it can be as immersive as a long weekend at a cabin in a state park with no wifi or cell service. Since your internal systems are constantly filtering out stimuli and stressors, giving them a break can only help!
So we have both active and more passive external activities that we can choose to take on to help manage our stress loads and reactions. This means, logically, that there are “internal” considerations too- and this is what we’ll look at next time. You have internal systems that are already reacting to stressors- the nervous and endocrine systems causing the stress responses, the digestive and immune systems shutting down to stay out of the way, the muscular and cardiovascular systems reacting…and the ways you can influence these systems include some fantastic herbal and food based remedies.
So stay tuned for next week’s episode!
LISTEN to today's episode
It’s such a tiny word, with such a big impact.
It’s what keeps us safe, and it’s also what can hold us hostage. Finding a balance in there, where you respond appropriately and also manage to leave the response state and come back to a resting state, is the big goal.
The first thing to really understand is that stress is just the process. Back in season 1 I talked about injury and healing, that was in episode 8, and I said the same thing about the inflammation process. Both stress and inflammation are just processes that your body has, to do important stuff. It’s when the shutoff signals don’t happen, or when the stressors themselves don’t stop, that we have issues.
How We Understand Stress
Stress response is a process we just have innate in ourselves because the world is a constant source of inputs for us to figure out and decide if they’re dangerous. Sources of stress can be external (events and situations that happen TO you) or internal (self induced feelings and thoughts), and the Mayo Clinic describes these this way:
And Internal stressors:
Taken together, these are the sources of stress that we can try to influence and support so our responses to them are healthy and appropriate.
Arrgh! The stress of it all!
So, here you are. You’re stressed, and you’ve acknowledged and cataloged your external and internal stressors. Are you ready for that holistic approach to supporting yourself yet? Wait! There’s still one thing to consider- the spectrum of acute stress and chronic stress, because where you’re falling in between them matters to how, and how much, you can influence your response.
Acute stress is a slap in the face- literally and figuratively. It’s the sharp shock, it’s the “flight” reaction to the perceived threat like a saber toothed squirrel or the zombie in a haunted house at Halloween that gets you out of there faster than a speeding greyhound. It’s also the freeze response to hearing an unexpected noise in your house at night, or when you get caught doing something you shouldn’t, or the fight response you might feel when a stranger touches you in public (or maybe that’s just me!) or that gives you the surge to wrench a stuck door open when you suddenly feel claustrophobic or trapped.
And you know what? All things being equal, this acute response is pretty awesome. It allows you to react not only faster than thought, but stronger than usual. However, this uses huge amounts of resources, and your body needs time to recover from these experiences.
Herein lies Project Number One- I’m not going to call them problems because I don't want to add to your problems! But these will be projects to take on if you want to make significant improvements or changes, so…
Project #1:: R&R
Our culture doesn’t allow for recuperation or convalescence. We’re pretty much expected to pretend that nothing big happened, even when something big has happened.
That’s not normal! Having an event that causes a big, acute stress response just used up all your backup energy stores by engaging every one of your 200+ muscles- including your heart, which is now ready to outrun a hungry bear. It slapped your focus into superhero sharpness, and every excess body process you have just experienced a power outage so your energy could be diverted to saving your life. Turning your body back on just isn’t an instantaneous process, and you deserve to take some time to rest while you re-organize yourself back to homeostasis.
Oh, and bonus- even when you don’t have a big event causing a sharp response, our daily lives are absolutely flooded with micro-stressors anyway so we tend to stay in this fight or flight place all the time.
Don’t believe me? This is from a 2015 study from Florida State University:
"Cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupt performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants do not directly interact with a mobile device during the task."
And check out just the title of this 2014 study from Universität Mainz in Germany:
Using TV, videos or a computer game as a stress reducer after a tough day at work can lead to feelings of guilt and failure. Ugh.
And in 2020, Penn State announced that “[L]ife may be more stressful now than it was in the 1990s, especially for people between the ages of 45 and 64.” Ugh! Here’s what they said:
"On average, people reported about 2 percent more stressors in the 2010s compared to people in the past," said David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State. "That's around an additional week of stress a year. But what really surprised us is that people at mid-life [45-64] reported a lot more stressors, about 19 percent more stress in 2010 than in 1990. And that translates to 64 more days of stress a year."
And this study was done with data from 2012. I can’t even imagine what the numbers are today. In fact, this is a really interesting article and I do suggest you read it!
This brings us to...
Project #2: Acute vs Chronic Stress
Acute stress that doesn’t shut off and allow you to return to normal becomes chronic stress. And chronic stress is b.a.d. BAD. This happens either because there’s a problem with the “shut off” valve and the body keeps sending stress responses, or because the stressor itself doesn’t shut off and you’re in a constant exposure situation.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that I try to avoid black and white judgements. I’m very much an ‘all things in moderation, including moderation’ type of coach. BUT I draw the line at chronic stress. It’s like lead or cyanide or asbestos, in my opinion- any amount is too much!
I could go on about why it’s bad. But if you’ve gotten this far with me you probably don’t need any extra convincing. So what am I going to teach you to do about it?
Tackling Chronic vs Acute Stress
First, what is the “it” exactly? Well, your body already has a system to deal with acute stressors. The sabre toothed squirrel, the vase falling off the windowsill, the slip on the stairs- that’s all instinct; either we respond quickly enough or we don’t. Luckily, in our current world, it’s much less likely to be our demise if we don’t! So I’m not going to spend time on our acute stress response- except to say that if your responses are slowed from fatigue, stress exposure, and other chronic conditions, what we do to improve chronic situations will only help to improve acute ones.
So- chronic stress and stressors are our focus. Remember that “project number one” calls for recuperation and a return to homeostasis, or balance, and that “project number two” is halting the chronic micro-stressors that influence us so much. These two projects are what we’re going to talk about more this month.
Why am I setting us up this way? Well, the way I look at it is like this: you have a lot of authority over your life to make both big and small changes, even to things that have become familiar habits, that can improve the quality of your life. This is my general, default stance- one of my core values is the expectation that we all can exercise our own authority over ourselves.
So when it comes to stress, understanding how we can influence how it works in our bodies is a big deal to me. There are a LOT of things you can do for yourself- internally, to change or improve how stressors affect you; and externally, both in terms of your environment and with supports like herbs that support how you work internally. These internal and external factors are what we’ll dive into in the next couple of episodes.
Think of the Immune system as Mission Control, organizing the delivery and removal of everything healing needs. This might be an airborne bacteria trying to settle in our respiratory system, a skin bacteria trying to infect us through a wound, a microscopic tear in a blood vessel caused by high pressure pounding on it, or fatigued eye muscles that have stared too long at all the screens. No matter the issue, the Immune system is there to put us back together.
This is the system that notices injury and damage, and notifies all the relevant repair contributors. It’s in charge of sending crews to sites all over the body, internally and on the surface, to do their thing, including clotting blood, fighting invading pathogens, and signaling for more fluid to wash away debris and deliver more new structures. (This, btw, is inflammation. That’s an integral part of the healing process)
The Immune system uses the resources you give it to create the members of these crews and their supplies- white blood cells, clotting factor chemicals, debris removing cells, the rebuilding bits like protein and collagen and fats, all the physical and chemical components it takes to heal something.
This system also uses the rest you give your body to get work done. There’s a reason that road crews try to do major repairs on weekends and overnight- with less demands on the road, it’s quicker all around to get it done. Giving yourself enough rest means your body can catch up on its healing work.
So all these work crews are alerted, organized, and dispatched by the Immune system (and they travel through the Lymph system; we’ll get to that in a minute.) Can you guess what this process of healing is called in our popular culture?
Right?! We hear that word and immediately look for a turmeric supplement to cool us down! But here’s the thing:
Inflammation is JUST THE PROCESS. It HAS to happen, or nothing will ever heal! The fear we have been trained to feel is because of 2 steps:
Now, I’m not at all saying that our inflammation is fine and we should learn to love it. The fact is that we are much more predisposed to having excess inflammation because, like I said just now in #s 1 and 2, we’re experiencing more injury and less stop orders than humankind ever has.
In terms of "exercising" your immune system, it's this inflammation process that needs attention. An under-active process that never gets challenged, or an over-active one that never gets a break, aren't healthy. We're looking for a reflexive system, one that adapts both to turning on and off as needed. Since so much of the imbalancing comes from our environment, let's help out as much as we can!
How do we help? There’s some obvious, and not so obvious answers, but I have to warn you many of these answers are NOT the fun ones.
Exercise Your Immune System Tip #1
For one thing, the biggest supplement to help the “stop work orders” are omega 3s. Now, don’t get freaked out by the technicalities here. Basically, what happens is that when a cell tears open from an injury, both omega 3s and 6s leak out. The 6s sound the alarm- these are pro-inflammation markers, that signal the Immune system to respond and start work. The 3s are the job foremen who see when the work is done and send everybody home.
Here’s the issue: We as a society tend to be low Omega 3s in them because of 2 simultaneous issues
The balance is like a homemade salad dressing- you want a nice balance between good olive oil and the balsamic vinegar, but not only did you not know you only have a tiny bit of vinegar left in the bottle, you also dropped the oil and swamped your greens. One or the other would have ruined the salad, but both happened and it’s a mess.
This balance matters because we HAVE to eat them. Omega 3s and 6s are essential, meaning we cannot make them ourselves. I don’t give nutritional advice, but it is worth looking into a good quality omega supplement at your local health food store. Shop small, shop local! If you don’t have a local store, my local store, Holly Hill Health Foods, has a good selection and helpful staff if you can overcome your fear of the phone and call them! They’re online, look em up- Holly Hill Vitamins.com
Exercise Your Immune System Tip #2
Here’s another biggie for supporting your Immune system, and I apologize in advance. Sugar depresses the immune system. It’s dose dependent, so the more you have the longer the immune system is shut down. You know what this means.
I’m sorry. I commiserate.
Let’s have a moment of silence for our desserts.
Exercise Your Immune System Tip #3
Ok, here’s my third and biggest factor that influences the Immune response.
(But let me just say that these 3 are by no means the ONLY factors here- they’re the ones that I see most often, that my clients have the most ability to influence and that have the biggest impact on a healthy inflammation aka immune response.)
My third factor to consider is: Stress. It’s such a tiny little word, with such big and far-ranging implications! Stress is a big deal, because like sugar it also shuts down the immune system.
Essentially, our brain doesn’t distinguish between a phone ding, a cough, a huge to-do list, and a saber toothed squirrel. All are equally deserving of shifting to fight or flight mode, because why not? If your brain took a few seconds to decide, and it was wrong, that was the end of you. So we evolved to err on the side of fight or flight activation, which makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense is the sheer amount to stressful inputs we experience almost every minute of our lives now. Stress, and the fight or flight response compared to the rest and digest functions of our bodies, are topics for another day.
Let me say that, in terms of the Immune system and the inflammation response, actively, deliberately, and consistently reducing the stress in your life will BOTH
There’s more discussion of stress coming soon- so for now, suffice to say that these three factors (omegas, sugar, and stress) are all external influences you can work to improve, that will support how well your internal Immune system functions.
Obviously this is not a comprehensive examination of the immune system. It doesn’t address myriad factors that affect, for example, immune compromised or autoimmune issues, and is only looking at our Immune systems in terms of injury and healing. This is a public blog post, people! Personalized, individualized, specific discussions belong in personalized, individual, private settings. Book a chat with me here.
In the meantime, move on from Injury and Healing Parts 1 and 2 to Part 3: Lymph, coming soon.
So you’ve got pain, and you want to try “natural” stuff instead of a pill. Let’s talk about this!
I’m your friendly online herbalist, here to share my perspective- and that’s the first important part. Both plants and people are complicated, so the sooner you shift from the idea that you can “use” plants to the idea that you “work with” them, the easier this will go for everyone.
The idea that we can "use" herbal medicine in place of OTC (over the counter) stuff isn't exactly a mistake people make, though. We've gotten the expectation of "use" in an exploitative sense ingrained in our culture from generations of being told that someone or something else will fix it for us. Please don't get me wrong- there are definitely times when someone or something else can and should! I was an EMT and believe me, I don't dismiss Western medicine out of hand.
What I do believe is that there's still lots and lots of health and healing that we as individuals simply ARE in charge of, and responsible for. This is a radical idea if you think it through, because most of the messaging we get is that we're absolutely not, and it's why I say it's not a "mistake" to think it. It's a challenge to shift your thinking, especially when you can't quite see the whole new picture simply because of its newness.
So I'm asking you to practice this tiny step, and see where it leads you. When you start considering an herbal remedy, actively substitute "work with" every time your brain automatically says "use". That's all! Now, on to the main event- pain and herbs.
When you take an OTC pain reliever, it does its thing by (this is the EZ Bake oven simplified version!) binding to pain receptors and blocking their messages. This feels better, but can have some unfortunate side effects- for example, if you can’t feel the pain, you might not realize that you’re causing more damage. Or, in the case of NSAIDS, even though they do decrease inflammation, they’re simultaneously causing microperforations in the gut lining which increases your inflammation and can cause that upset stomach feeling many people get.
The first thing I want to say is that OTC is not evil. It is perfectly fine to reach for them when you need or want, just be aware of what else is going on! And some plants work the same way, binding with pain receptors, so the OTC actions aren’t inherently ‘wrong’ either, and working with plants isn’t inherently ‘right’. Let’s talk options.
I’ve got a few specific suggestions for you below, and I want to ask you to keep a question in mind- what’s the common denominator between working with the following plants?
OK, let’s say you’ve got the pain, and you know the only thing that will shake it is the NSAID- this is a familiar pattern in your life, and you just put up with the digestive discomfort. But we can help that! The herb Meadowsweet can help heal the microperforations even as the NSAIDS are causing them, relieving the stomach upset. So keep a bottle of Meadowsweet tincture next to the OTC bottle, and you’ve got this.
I get my Meadowsweet from Avena Botanicals, and there are many other fine herbal makers out there as well. One dropper (a squeeze to the bulb on top fills the dropper about half way, this is what we want) by mouth when you take the NSAIDS.
As a bonus, Meadowsweet has its own pain relieving parts like salicylic acid, so it’ll add to the pain relief you feel.
Next, let’s say you know you’ve got pain from some inflammation. Maybe it’s arthritis, maybe it’s a recent injury that’s swollen up, maybe you’ve eaten something that your body is reacting to, maybe it’s even allergies. Regardless, you recognize there’s inflammation from some source, and now you want to calm the source down so you don’t have the inflammation in the first place.
Great! Treating the root causes is a favorite theme in herbalism. First, and I can’t stress this enough, you’ve got to look at your long-term inputs. Taking care with what you choose to put into your body will reduce the inflammation load your body has to deal with. This way, when something else comes up that causes inflammation, you’ve got more resources at your disposal to help it.
A diet and a lifestyle that actively reduces inflammation is paramount. It’s simply not fair to expect a plant to take more responsibility for your life than you do! Nutrient density, phytocompounds from all the brightly colored fruits and veg, fermented foods, quality macro and micronutrients, adequate hydration- they’re all important.
It helps to take a hot second and understand that inflammation is not only a normal process in the body, but a helpful one. Your body is essentially mounting an immune response to overcome a perceived threat, and sometimes that response is out of proportion and/or won’t shut off like it’s supposed to. This is when inflammation becomes a “problem”, and when the rest of your choices can support a more appropriate response.
This is also a good time to bring up the concept of a ‘health team’. If you’re not equipped to do all this on your own, working with a good nutritionist, dietician, and/or a food based therapist might be perfect for you.
Now, in the short term, you’ve got a headache or arthritis or a twisted ankle- what can you do?
Turmeric is classic with aches and pains, and indeed it’s very helpful. It acts similarly to a steroid, bringing down inflammation systemically, and can be ingested easily as a regular food for regular support- IF you take a tiny bit of care when cooking with it. Here’s a study showing that Turmeric’s solubility in water increased 12x when it was heated, and another that its bioavailbility (how well we humans can absorb and use it) increased by 2,000% when mixed with black pepper. Historically it’s also always been cooked with a fat and is considered fat soluble. Moral of the story- cook Turmeric with black pepper and a bit of fat (including milk) for the best effects, and do it daily!
I sneak Turmeric into anything long-cooking like tomato sauces and stews, which I make frequently. The recently-popular Golden Milk recipes you can find all over the internet are tasty too, and check all the boxes for increasing efficacy.
Ginger is also helpful with pain, though this might be surprising if you think of Ginger as hot and fiery, like the inflammation is. However, spices like Ginger and Peppers increase circulation with their heat, and this can bring inflammation down by either speeding up the healing process the inflammation is trying to accomplish, or by moving more fluid through a site and washing away the pro-inflammation signals and delivering the end-inflammation ones that were stuck in the traffic jam caused by swelling.
You can work with Ginger internally (it’s yummy in a lot of the same places Turmeric is, and also on its own), and you can work with it topically too. For example, you grate it onto a cloth so the juice soaks in, and place this poultice (simply a wet, topical application of plants) right on an area of the skin that needs more circulation. You can do the same with Turmeric but be aware the skin will stain yellow, and the oils in Peppers are typically too strong for topical use.
Another problem I want to bring up is topical nerve pain. St. John’s Wort infused in oil, like this one from Barefoot Botanicals, is a good choice. SJW will help heal the nerves that are on and near the surface of your skin- mostly, in my experience, this happens with back injuries either at the site or down a nerve pathway along a leg.
So here’s the not-a-quick-fix-or-magic-pill part. Look back at the Meadowsweet, Turmeric, Ginger, and SJW descriptions. They all address the general symptom of “pain” from their own specific directions. Meadowsweet counteracts NSAID side effects, Turmeric blocks inflammation systemically, Ginger increases circulation, SJW calms and repairs nerve endings. This is important.
There’s never a “best herb for [fill in your complaint]”. There’s only how the plant interacts with us, and whether we can work with both the plant actions and our responses to them to impact what we’re trying to do.
Look at it this way- pharmaceuticals get in the driver’s seat and steer the bus for us- and sometimes that’s great, that’s perfect, that’s exactly what we need. On the other hand, plants are like good friends or therapists, nudging and guiding and helping us get where we want to be but without forcing us. The beauty is that, as humans, we’re responsible for choosing among these methods, separately or combined.
Is healing a system? Can you exercise it? Sure, I say!
I think we often understand healing, vaguely, as a process: there’s an injury, then thru some processes it’s fixed, and there’s no injury anymore. Broadly speaking, this is a perfectly OK understanding.
But have you ever had a road crew fixing pot holes on a road you travel frequently, and they just didn’t quite finish up? Sure, the pothole is filled, but now it’s a bump on the road, there’s loose gravel or something all over, water pools when it rains… but then you turn into a fancy neighborhood or cross into another township, and the roads are purrrrrfect. Smooth, even blacktop; crisp, bright lines; wide, even shoulders bicycles can fit on. It’s like a dream.
So what’s the difference between the town that has bumpy pot hole repairs and the one with perfect roads?
Resources. The time, budget, raw materials, and skilled workers to get the job done right, completely, and in good time.
I’m not here to bash local politics. Organizing things like road construction is well beyond my purview. But I can help you influence YOUR local resources, and encourage you to look to yourself- what resources are you providing to your own healing construction and repair crews?
Yes, healing is a process, and it’s one that the body often can’t do a complete job of because it’s so busy putting out fires (literally and metaphorically) all over. So providing enough resources to the systems that establish and direct the healing processes can help them do a better job, as can reducing the overall demand on the systems in the first place.
You Need Rest
A huge factor is successful fitness training (aka body construction) is understanding and appreciating the sheer value of rest. Things need to rest, settle down, and slot into place in order for them to become what they are supposed to be.
This includes you, too.
You need DEEP rest- darken your room, remove your electronics, and give yourself as much sleep as you can. Honestly, so what if you can go to bed by 8:30, or even earlier? The hours before midnight seem to count more than the total hours anyway, and who's actually judging you for taking care of yourself?
You need PHYSICAL rest- have a lazy morning. Put your feet up and read of an afternoon. Take cat naps. Indulge in a float tank or a salt room session. Get a massage. Watch a movie. Take a bath. Get in a swimming pool.
You need MENTAL rest- time when you don't think or plan or push. Schedule a day just to do the little tasks, like deleting emails, filing papers, organizing your books, sorting out of season clothes to donate or discard. Take a walk with an audio book or just listen to the birds. Garden. Journal for 15 minutes, no spelling or grammar or even spaces between the words, just whatever comes out of your head, then discard the paper. Wipe the light switches, the trim work, the door handles.
Your NERVOUS SYSTEM needs rest- put on some piano music, or whale sounds, or a rainy day youtube video. Get out a coloring book. Make something, however inexpertly. Stretch. Do yoga or tai chi. Chat with friends over ice cream or a beer. SHUT THE NEWS OFF.
You can’t fix a pothole without blocking the road. You can’t heal without interrupting our ceaseless pressure to GoGoGoGoGo.
You Need Resources
RESUPPLY YOUR CONSTRUCTION CREWS
When there’s physical injury, you need physical molecules to repair it- proteins, fats, fluid, etc.
So eat clean proteins, and collagen- we simply don’t make enough to overcome the damage this life does to us. Eat healthy fats. Drink more water. Get nutrient dense foods so your micronutrients are lavishly supplied as well- Iron, Magnesium, Calcium, Sulfur, all the vitamins, all of it.
Drink more water! Your body needs water to deliver nutrients and wash away waste from your cells. Your body needs water to create the waste you eliminate- solid, liquid, and gas. Your body needs water to keep your membranes healthy- and your WHOLE digestive system is a mucous membrane.
Eat good fats! Every single cell in your body, your entire nervous system including your whole brain, and all your mucous membranes are made of fats. They're not the enemy, they're essential. My rule of thumb is if they're from something I recognize I eat 'em- like olives, avocados, coconuts, eggs, and yes, animals.
Here's a common question: Should you take supplements? A concrete answer to this isn't within my wheelhouse. But I will tell you, hardly anyone is harmed by a quality multivitamin, Magnesium, Omega 3s, and Vitamin D.
You Need Waste Management
IMPROVE THE DELIVERY AND ELIMINATION ROUTES
Have you ever considered just exactly HOW your body actually accomplishes healing? It takes two major, underappreciated systems: the Immune system and the Lymph system.
Think of the Immune system as Mission Control, and the Lymph as both an Instant Delivery and Waste Management system.
Read more about your waste and repair crews next week in Part 2
Can you really exercise your internal body systems? Yes! They're made of organs, which are also muscles, and are full of blood and lymph and movement. Go on, exercise your systems.
Not only does this allow your digestive organs to practice contracting down to their smallest size, the emptiness allows time for any needed repair and construction work to happen.
Give your digestive organs a break, and a chance to change sizes. Give the lymph fluid and connective tissue around your organs some space, and some fresh blood flow. And give all the tissues a chance to heal: the GI tract really has a lot of constant damage to repair, so a pause gives all this a chance to happen.
Taste Your Bitters
Herbal remedy? Aperitif? Morning bowel stimulant? Yes!
The bitter taste is an amazing actor in our bodies- not only do our tongues taste bitter, but we have those same bitter taste receptors in all kinds of other body tissues too (like our lungs and kidneys). When we TASTE bitter, all sorts of things happen all over the body.
Specifically regarding digestion::
You can find alcohol-based bitters 3 main ways.
Food based bitters include liquids like Coffee and greens like Dandelion, Escarole, and Radicchio, as well as Chocolate and Cacao nibs.
Dandelion root, Artichoke leaf, Bitter Orange peel, Gentian, Blue Vervain, Angelica, and Horehound are all bitter herbs you may see on some ingredient lists as well.
Practice these 4 exercises for your Digestive System, and let me know how you're feeling! And Learn more about exercising your insides and outsides, for structural and systemic health, in my Foot to Forehead Fix program.
Yay, a picture story! This is a slide I just showed to my last DIY Herbalism class, when we dug into Immune health and the herbs that act on it.
See, what we’ve got here is a hole in the skin up top, bad guys getting in, the first line of defense trying to contain them, and notifying the rest of the immune cells to the problem. This is a super simple, easy way to see what your immune system is doing against invaders.
Much of the time, when it comes to herbs and the immune system, you’ll hear people talk about “immune stimulants” that really get this process moving in overtime. ZoomZoom the defense cells arrive and Kapow! They knock out the baddies, regroup, and speed off to the next Bat Call. It’s a good visual.
But I like to question everything, like the assumption that we even have enough good guys to go around in the first place, and what happens if we don’t.
(In addition, this kind of Rapid Response team only functions on the say-so of your Stress Levels. Too much stress will actually shut down your immune system- when you’re trying to outrun the Sabre Toothed Squirrel your body doesn’t want to waste resources on a paltry cut finger. And it expects to quit running soon, either because you got away or you didn’t, so we’re not made for the constant high-stress environment we live in today and don’t have a mechanism to keep immune function under chronic stress.)
So here’s another story.
Imagine you’re cooking pasta and the water level gets a bit low. The water gets thick, sort of gloppy, the noodles aren’t circulating as much as they should to cook evenly. What do you do? You wouldn’t turn up the heat under the pot to get the noodles to cook as much as possible in the remaining water, would you? No! You’d add water to the pot so the system works as it’s supposed to.
The same is true of the immune system. Before turning up the heat and stimulating function, we’ve got to make sure we have plenty of immune cells to go around in the first place- fill up the system, if you will (bonus points for actually adding water, those cells float!)
“But hoooow?” I hear some of you wail. “I want my immune cells nooooow!” OK, Veruca, we’re coming.
If you wade into the crazy world of the internet you’ll find LOTS of head-scratching references to remedies you’ve not only never heard of, but ones that I’ve never heard of either. It’s just not helpful to tell people to find True Indigo Root, or patented TCM formulas, or dozens of other specialized and NOT local-to-whereever-you-are plants.
Instead, let’s focus on what we CAN do because these are things people have ALWAYS done. These are all age-old techniques for building the robustness and vitality of your entire self, including your immune system.
Take a deep breath, we'll get through this together
Fun Fact: I'm an herbalist and a movement coach. Not a doctor, or a pharmacist, and not pretending to be one on TV.
This is a public space, so my writing reflects my experiences and I try to stay general enough so it might relate to you. This does not constitute medical advice, and I encourage you to discuss concerns with your doctor. Remember, however, that the final say in your wellness decisions are always yours- you have the power to choose, you are the boss of you.
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This website is provided for educational and informational purposes only and is not medical, mental health or healthcare advice. The information presented here is not intended to diagnose, treat, heal, cure or prevent any illness, medical condition or mental or emotional condition. Working with us is not a guarantee of any results. Paula Billig owns all copyrights to the materials presented here unless otherwise noted.