This post has been updated from when it was first published as more information became available.
First, I thought it might be helpful to explain how I came to embody my life as Artist/ Herbalist. It has been a process of choosing, of following ideas, of intentional and dedicated learning, of remembering, of digging in the past, and finding. Art is about that. It is a process of discovery, of thinking, feeling, and responding. When it comes from the "gut", it resonates. Art isn't only object-making. Art is being, observing, questioning, and living. It's a lot like science, which is why the two sit so comfortably with me. I worked as a Registered Nurse for 13 years at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Harvard's teaching hospital. I cut my teeth on an acute medical floor for 3 years and then worked in Clinical Research for 10. My mission is to allow my history with science to coalesce with the tradition of herbalism, allowing those of us who grew up only believing in science-based evidence to feel comfortable with a world where plants and their properties are an integral part of human health. Herbalism existed before "science" but the process of experimentation, observation, and conclusion is the same. Herbalists accumulated knowledge long before scientific journals and double-blind experiments. Their "clinical trials" lasted thousands of years and that knowledge has been passed on generationally. I spend a lot of time looking for scientific research to back up what herbalists have been doing since the beginning of humanity. The best part is that I always find it. After leaving nursing, I found art and have been working as an artist since 1995. Being an Herbalist evolved out of my art practice and is my art practice. It is my center, an evolution of self, the embodiment of everything I ever was, everything I ever knew. I'm grateful. It has taken me 58 years to be here. Be patient if you haven't "found" yourself yet. Each phase is part of the whole. Time limits only exist in your mind. How did I arrive here? I followed my "gut". The gut. Our intestines. Scientists now call the gut our second brain. So did our ancestors. It is a place of autonomy, where the body thrives without checking in with that orb that sits on top of our shoulders. Some say it's a place of instinct, a place of truth, a place our ancestors used for survival. Yes, science has found a connection between our gut and mental health. In my shop Spiral Herbal Remedies, located at 810 Washington Ave, in Brooklyn, NYC, the majority of people I see present with some sort of inflammatory process. During our discussions, I suggest plant-based tinctures, oils, salves, balms, and teas that I make myself in Brooklyn. If you've visited me, you know that most discussions also include gut health. There is a lot of information in this blog. It is meant to be a reference as well as an introduction. After reading it, you might want to press copy and paste it into a word doc. Just remember to reference me if you use it in the future. When this topic comes up again in conversation, trust me, it will, you'll have access to all the latest. New research suggests an unhealthy gut or microbiome contributes to 90% of all diseases, including IBS, autism, allergies, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. It also suggests that our well-being, our mental health, and our feelings of security, are tied to our gut and that which lives within it - our microbiome - we have found that gut health is a huge contributor to inflammation, particularly inflammation of the nervous system and brain. What is the microbiome? (Micro - extremely small, Biome - a community of flora and fauna in a habitat.) Did you know that 90% of the cells on or in your body are not human - they’re microorganisms such as bacteria, yeast, and viruses? Our skin and the inside of our body is host to millions of living beings that are not human. In fact, your body is made up of only 10% human cells. And that's normal. Digest that for a minute. How is that possible? The truth is that in nature, it is not unusual. That’s the way things work. No one, no thing is completely autonomous. I like to think of humans as one part of a giant macrocosm that we call the planet and universe. Each living being, each inanimate being is part of a whole. We can’t always see it, we’re too close. And our focus has shifted off of our environment and onto our individual spheres of existence. But our ancestors knew. This blog post is a gentle reminder.
The macro view is interdependence. Now let’s switch to a micro view. If you take a swab of your hand or any other part of your skin and look at it under a microscope, you will find that you’re covered with bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, and an organism I never heard of before called archaea - which inhabit hot springs and salt lakes, along with the human body. Those same microorganisms live in our noses, throats, and intestines. And the so-called “bad” bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can make us sick - live there as well. They only become problematic when they're given a chance to proliferate. I'll cover those circumstances below. Here’s the thing, all those "bugs", as the medical world likes to refer to them, are supposed to be there. They serve a purpose. We can't live without them. We know that these organisms compete for space and resources. They control each other’s growth either by physically occupying space that the others would occupy or by excreting substances that are toxic to the others. In a healthy gut, no one part of this miasma of organisms dominates. Everything is kept in balance and disease is prevented. We’ve learned a lot about what bacteria do for humans. In our intestines, they aid in digestion, stimulate parts of our immune system and alter our mood. Yeast (a fungus) has even been found to drive our food cravings. Let’s step back again and think about what is going on. We have a variety of different species living in and on our bodies. They are our cohorts, collaborating with us and perhaps collaborating with each other. Interspecies collaboration is not uncommon. When it happens, it’s called mutualism. Each organism benefits in some way from the relationship. For microorganisms - human skin, the intestine, nose, and throat are a warm and (mostly) moist environment where they can thrive, sustained by a ready supply of nutrients. And we benefit from their presence.
We don’t know as much about why the fungi and viruses are there but a brilliant example of mutualism is how fungi work in the landscape, serving trees. This will give you a framework for thinking about them. Did you know that fungi create networks between the roots of same-species trees? These networks literally connect the trees together, allowing them to transfer nutrients among themselves. The trees will feed kin that are weak or sick, so they heal. "Mother" trees will send nutrients to their offspring. Trees chopped down hundreds of years ago have been kept alive by their kin - maybe because that tree was at the center of the network before being chopped down and keeping that stump alive allows the nutrients to travel to trees that can't be reached any other way. Keeping tree-kin alive creates groves and living in a grove creates microclimates where moisture and temperatures are stabilized. The trees thrive by working together and fungi, an unrelated species, are responsible for that tree collaboration. What’s in it for the fungi in this mutualistic relationship? Access to nutrients they can’t produce on their own.
It's safe to assume the fungi are happy to have us as their hosts since they're alive and well within and on us. But what's in it for humans? One study found that fungi might be responsible for controlling inflammation in the gut. We’re still not sure why viruses are there but give that time too. Or, how about this… just trust that they serve a purpose. Trust that there is some sort of order and reasoning for their existence. Granted, it’s really cool when we understand the details too. Another benefit of a healthy microbiome is that it keeps foreign, potentially toxic microorganisms from setting up shop in our bodies - there is no room for them. Trouble happens if one group of microorganisms is killed off, like when we take antibiotics, eat a lot of food with preservatives, or for a host of other reasons listed below. Antibiotics and preservatives kill bacteria, leaving gaps in the microbiome landscape. Those gaps are quickly filled by other multiplying microorganisms, throwing off the balance, and allowing one group to proliferate. You might start with a bacterial infection but after taking antibiotics, you can end up with a yeast infection or an infection from a different bacteria that wasn’t killed by the antibiotic. Keeping a balance of all the “good” and “bad” bacteria, fungi and viruses, etc. is important to our health but how do we accomplish that? Here are some suggestions.
Add fermented food to your diet daily. Or even better, several times a day. Fermented foods contain “probiotics” - a mix of healthy bacteria and often yeast as well. This will help build up and sustain a colony of healthy microorganisms in your gut. You want to have a diverse colony of microorganisms, so eating a variety of fermented foods daily has an advantage. Humans used to ferment food to keep it from spoiling. It was a normal part of our diet. Preservatives and refrigeration have eliminated the need for fermentation. Add it back into your diet. *** Foods high in probiotics include Kimchi, Kombucha, Kefir, Sauerkraut, Pickles, Natto, Kvass, Raw Cheese, Raw Apple Cider Vinegar, Brine Cured Olives, Tempeh, Miso, Fish Sauce, Yogurt (if it has live cultures), raw milk, cheese, etc. Pasteurized milk products have been boiled at high temperatures. This kills all of the natural bacteria in the milk, which is great if it’s old milk. However, fresh raw milk and raw milk products from an organic farmer are loaded with good bacteria/probiotics.
Avoid processed foods. Cook at home with fresh ingredients more often. Processed foods not only contain fewer nutrients, they’re loaded with preservatives. Preservatives are designed to kill the microorganisms that spoil food. They also kill the microorganisms in your gut.
Avoid GMOs. Genetically modified plants have been designed to survive herbicides/weed killers (usually roundup). Entire fields of crops are now regularly sprayed with herbicides. The weeds are killed but the crops survive. Herbicides remain on the crops and we consume them. Some plants have been Modified to excrete pesticides, which we also eat. There is evidence that the combination of these two modifications is particularly toxic and damaging to our gut microbiome.
Add more Plants to your diet. The bacteria and yeast in your gut consume fiber. Feed them. This includes fruit, veggies, and whole grains. (For those of you who are gluten intolerant and can't eat grains, try organic, non-GMO grains. Ancient grains haven't been modified so they're often a good choice as well. See above.)
Cut back on your consumption of processed sugar. It is digested so quickly that your microbiome doesn't have a chance to consume any of it, so the microbiome doesn’t get enough energy to stay alive. Without a regular food source, the microorganisms will resort to consuming your stomach lining. Additionally, yeast loves sugar and will proliferate, disrupting the balance. Add complex sugars like fruit, dark chocolate, coconut flour, honey, etc. ***When I mentioned food cravings above, this is what I was thinking about. Some research suggests that when there's a lot of yeast in your gut, the yeast signals your brain to eat more sugar. Seriously. A microorganism is dictating your behavior. ***Watch this video to see how another fungus, cordyceps, dictates the behavior of infected insects.
Modify your alcohol intake. Alcohol kills bacteria. Think about the movies that showed field surgeons in the civil war. How did they clean a wound - they poured booze over it to disinfect (kill all the microorganisms.)
Avoid taking antibiotics unless necessary. This includes those hand sanitizers that kill microorganisms on your hands. Wash with soap and water instead. This way you only remove the bacteria, etc. You're not killing everything. ***Spiral Herbal Remedies' Gone Viral tincture is an alternative. The plants it contains have been found to kill Strep and Staph along with the flu virus without killing your "good" bacteria. Gone Viral is meant to be taken early in an infection before the virus or bacteria have really spread. It usually works in a few doses and then you stop taking it.
Try to quit smoking. Aside from damaging your lungs, it kills your microbiome. ***Think about trying to Spiral Herbal Remedies' Chill Your Bones smoking blend to wean yourself off of tobacco and weed. Both create cravings and dependency. The smoking blend relaxes you while you're decreasing the amount of tobacco or weed you consume.
Emotional stress, a lack of exercise, and poor sleeping habits also have a destructive impact on your microbiome. ***Spiral Herbal Remedies' CBD oil has been shown to be effective on the Nervous System, calming it down. It also contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties. ***Check out my last blog post for other ways to control stress.
Switch to organic, preservative-free skin products. There is a connection between your gut microbiome health and your skin microbiome health and vice versa. 60-80% of what we put on our skin is directly absorbed into our blood. Don't put toxins on your skin. *** Spiral Herbal Remedies' skin products were designed for that reason. Try switching out one product a month. Or make the investment and switch all at once. Several of my clients have done this.
I hope you find this blog post helpful. Feel free to write in the comments with questions or feedback. Of course, if I've missed something, I'd love to hear about that as well. My Herbalism shop is Social Practice. I am becoming the Healer, Wise Woman, Shaman, Witch. Don't worry, "Witch" refers to a word used in the middle ages to kill millions of Female Herbalists. These peasant women were organizing against wealthy landlords who claimed common land for their cattle and sheep. The landlords and church instituted a law that made it illegal for these women to heal their community because their knowledge didn't come from the church, it came from the landscape and their pre-Christian pagan beliefs. The women were said to be dealing with the devil and were burned alive. Read Witches, Midwives, and Nurses for an eye-opener. Check out the rest of my website for some of my recent projects. Becoming an herbalist is an act of resistance, a political statement, and a powerful feminist move. I descend from Irish healers that practiced in the Middle Ages. I am reclaiming my ancestral knowledge. All rights reserved. @Copyright Donna Cleary