Bringing balance to our medicine

05/02/2019

So much of our modern world and lifestyle is out of balance with our body’s natural state of homeostasis. Many of us find ourselves over-extended, our children over-scheduled, our society over-consuming, and our nervous systems over-stimulated. We become distressed, and may tip so far out of balance that we become sick.

Our modern approach to medicine offers prescription medication for symptoms of distress and imbalance. In fact, many of our most commonly prescribed medications, from blood-pressure and blood-sugar modulators to antidepressants and antipsychotics to acid-blocking and anti-inflammatory medicines, are used to powerfully attempt to bring our systems back to a “safer” place. This is heroic medicine, and it is often life-saving. Yet these medications do not support our bodies in finding their own balance, and their use often throws off our systems even further.

The reliance on heroic medicine comes at a heavy cost. For example, acid-blocking “proton pump inhibitors,” best used for no more than a month or two (except under certain circumstances), can cause problems like vitamin and mineral deficiency, osteoporosis, a dangerous bacterial overgrowth known as Clostridium difficile enterocolitis, and an increased risk of pneumonia. Ibuprofen, so commonly used, becomes quite risky in people older than 65, as it can hurt the kidneys and cause life-threatening bleeding ulcers. Sedatives like Valium and sleep medications like Ambien increase the risk of falls and the likelihood of developing dementia. Anti-depressants and anti-psychotics alter brain chemistry and can increase the risk of death. 

The tragic story of our collective over-prescription and use of opioids is well-known. In fact, a study published in the Lancet in 2015 found that, in the United States, engagement with medicine—either through side effects, medication interactions, or errors made in the practice thereof—is a leading cause of death.

In addition to the very real risk of side effects, medicating symptoms limits our ability to listen for the changes we need to make to bring ourselves into balance.

A movement is afoot in clinical medicine to “deprescribe” the riskiest of medicines. Spearheaded by Canadian family physicians, this movement is shining a light on the importance of revisiting with patients whether prescribed medications are still needed, and of trying to come off of risky medications in favor of safer alternatives. This is becoming the accepted best practice in our country too. 

Regaining balance is central to decreasing our reliance on dangerous pharmaceuticals and experiencing the benefit of more gentle, supportive approaches. Doing so requires a courageous look at the way our lives are structured, and reflection on how we can slow our pace, decrease our consumption, and increase the mindful, moment-to-moment inhabiting of our lives. Collectively, we can revisit systems structured around productivity rather than quality. Change can happen. In my world, the Coastal Health Alliance recently responded to feedback from health care providers and patients by adopting 30-minute office visits. How might the realms in which you live and work become a little slower, a little deeper?

As we slow down and reconnect with ourselves and our loved ones, it becomes increasingly possible to decrease our symptoms with gentle, supportive medicine, such as that offered by our plant cohabitants here on Earth. 

Plants, the original source of so many of the active ingredients in our pharmaceuticals, have evolved with humans over thousands of years. They breathe out what we breathe in, and vice versa. Our bodies are full of receptors for the nourishing, healing chemicals they make. These chemicals have properties that support the immune system, fight cancer, regulate blood sugar, lift the mood, decrease stress hormones and inflammation, slow the aging process, lessen coughs, soothe skin, support digestion, and more. In short, getting to know plants and taking them into our bodies—as food or in the form of teas, tinctures, hydrosols or creams—supports healing on so many levels.

Plants can even heal us without our eating or making medicine out of them. Beholding a plant being with fascinated curiosity and appreciation triggers beneficial neurohormonal responses in our bodies. Breathing in the volatile oils plants release provides aromatherapeutic and anticancer benefits. Tending to the needs of another, as one does in the garden, lifts one out of the heaviness of one’s own experience and brings joy and satisfaction. Surprising things can happen when we quiet our minds and bring ourselves into connection with plants.

Like so many of us, I often find myself navigating the edges of over-extension and even teetering into diagnosable states of distress. When the “physician, heal thyself” opportunity arises, going outside, breathing in the scent of lemon balm, and getting my hands in the soil sets things right. In this I feel a connection with a lineage that can be traced back thousands of years, when nature was seen as the source of our healing. As our society teeters into diagnosable states of distress, there is an even greater need to reconnect to this source.

Part of our collective healing will be found in moving from a culture of consumerism toward a culture honoring deep relationships, including to the Earth and all its beings. As I look for ways to embody this in my life and in my practice, I am becoming acquainted with medicinal plants, cultivating and tending them, and working with them medicinally. Plant medicine is blessedly un-patentable, independent of the petroleum industry, and capable of shifting our focus from relentless anthropocentrism to reciprocity. 

There are many opportunities for us to engage in this healing relationship. I feel blessed to be able to share the beauty of plant medicine through my work in the Commonweal Garden, including in an upcoming workshop in May. What could you grow in your garden? Or in pots on your porch or kitchen window? Bringing curiosity on rambles through meadows and woodlands fosters a deepened appreciation of plant community members. Pausing to smell the roses—or the mint, thyme, rosemary, lemon balm, bay, yarrow or coastal sage—restores us to the present moment, where healing begins. Join me there.

 

Anna O’Malley is an integrative family and community medicine physician, the founding director of the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden, and a Bolinas resident. She loves therapeutic hemlock-pulling.