The Cycle of Life

Michael during one of his lectures.

Spring is such a beautiful time. Everywhere you look, there is a sprouting of fresh green. The days have become longer. The sun feels brighter. The temperature is rising, and the tulips in my neighbour’s garden have begun to show their beautiful colours.

And yet, this time of year also marks many endings. It is the end of winter, for one. For university students, another term is now complete, while public school students are looking forward to summer vacation. It is the time of graduations, a time when the end of one block of life is formally marked, even as we anticipate the beginning of another.

I suppose it’s because I am now firmly in mid-life that I keenly feel both the beginnings and the endings of this time of year. When I was younger, I was always caught up in the beginnings, in the excitement of what would be coming next. I don’t think I ever gave much thought over what was being left behind. But now, after a year where I lost both my mother and my mother-in-law, I have to say that I can really feel the endings.

And so, I am feeling sad to report another loss, for me. A mentor of mine is hanging up his spurs and retiring. Michael Tierra, widely considered the father of North American herbalism, has sold the East West School of Planetary Herbology, and is moving on. He is 84 years old this year, so I don’t begrudge him this move. It is just sad to see him go.

Chances are, if you have read any book on herbalism over the last few decades, it was written by him. Author of The Way of Herbs, The Way of Chinese Herbs, The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs, Treating Cancer with Herbs, The Natural Remedy Bible, and the best-selling Planetary Herbology among many others, Michael resurrected herbalism from its doldrums in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He studied with Native American herbalists, and Chinese herbalists, and even started his own line of herbal products. He is the founder of the American Herbalist Guild. Through his school, he taught and inspired scores of new herbalists, including me.

He is also one of the kindest men I have ever known. Over the years, I have attended hours and hours of his lectures and classes. He has overseen many of my cases, and even personally called me to encourage me to join his Free Clinic this past fall. I will miss his encyclopedic volume of knowledge, and also his warmth, his sense of humour and his inclusiveness. He always made everyone feel welcome, and has been resolute in his mission to restore herbalism to its proper place beside conventional medicine. I think it’s safe to say that he changed the world.

This spring may mark the end of Michael’s tenure, but it is also the beginning for those who will carry on with his work. Right now, I am reminding myself that it’s all part of the cycle of life. But I will still miss him.

Chinese Scutellaria Root

Ah, scutellaria root! I have a certain fondness for this plant since we have spent so many hours together over the years. During the making of our tinctures, I have spent countless hours sifting through pound after pound of scutellaria root, selecting the healthiest, most yellow roots possible. I know its colour and texture well, and wouldn’t be surprised if I could recognize its distinctive, pungent odour in my sleep!

In Chinese herbalism, scutellaria root is known as one of the 3 ‘Big Yellows’ – herbs reknowned for their ability to clear internal heat in the body. Here, the word ‘big’ refers both to its importance in the TCM pharmacopia, and to its incredible ability to clear ‘big’, excessive heat, while the word ‘yellow’ is used because the root has a distinctive, yellowish tinge to it.

The other 2 ‘yellows’ are coptis rhizome, and rhubarb root, in case you’re wondering. These other two herbs are also heavily featured in our collection of tinctures, but here I will be talking only about scutellaria root. (A quick bit of trivia: in truth, there are actually 5 ‘Yellows’ in Chinese herbalism- herbs with the word ‘yellow’ right in the middle of their Chinese names – but only the ‘Big Three’ clear intense, excess heat).

The word ‘yellow’ is an important association to make with scutellaria root as it helps with identification. In fact, the distinctive yellowish tinge of scutellaria root has long been such a selling point that many Chinese herb growers used to add sulphur to the root to make the colour really stand out. It made the roots appear more potent. It’s been many years since this practice has been banned, but the basic fact still holds true: if you are looking for a really healthy scutellaria root, it should have some yellow in it. Brown, bedraggled-looking roots are of poor quality.

So, why is scutellaria root so great? Well, as I’ve already mentioned, it excels at clearing intense heat, particularly in the upper body. Accordingly, it has been shown to be effective in treating any upper body condition where bleeding is involved, be it blood-streaked sputum, frequent nosebleeds, or in stomach conditions where there is blood in the vomit [1]. In TCM, bleeding is a sign of heat so intense that the inflammation causes blood vessels to break open. This same, potent heat-clearing ability is why scutellaria is also a good herb of choice for lowering fever [2].

Since high blood pressure is another common sign of heat in the body, it’s not surprising that scutellaria root has been shown to reduce hypertension too. It appears to do this by dilating blood vessels so that pressure is reduced, but it also has the effect of “cooling” the sympathetic nervous system, so that the effects of stress on the body are reduced [3]. This means that scutellaria root may also be helpful for those who are chronically stressed.

Although it is most often used in Chinese medicine to treat upper body conditions, scutellaria also has a powerful effect on the liver, which is a little lower down in the body. Here, it has been shown to stimulate both the production and excretion of bile, thereby preventing the formation of gallstones. It also protects the entire biliary system from inflammation [4], and it has been successfully used to treat both infectious and chronic hepatitis [5].

To top it all off, scutellaria has powerful anti-bacterial effects similar to antibiotics such as ampicillin, amoxicillin, methicillin and cefotaxime. In fact, if scutellaria is used in conjunction with these antibiotics, their effectiveness against antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as beta-lactam-resistant staphylococcus aureus, and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is suddenly restored [6][7]. Wow!

If you’re interested in seeing the powerful effects of scutellaria root for yourself, you can find it in both our Chinese Bitters tincture and our Curcuma tincture. These two products are known for their ability to soothe liver issues, improve digestion, and increase blood circulation through the liver area, among other effects.

  1. Chem Pharm Bull, 1984; 32(7):2724
  2. Zhong Hua Yi Xue Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Medicine), 1956; 42(10):964
  3. Zhong Yao Xue (Chinese Herbology), 1988; 137:140
  4. Ri Ben Yao Wu Xue Za Zhi (Japan Journal of Pharmacology), 1957; 53(6):215
  5. Zhong Hua Nei Ke Za Zhi (Chinese Journal of Internal Medicine), 1978; 2:127
  6. Zhong Yao Xue (Chinese Herbology), 1988; 137:140
  7. J Pharm Pharmacol 2000 Mar;52(3):361-6

Death and Rebirth

Small plant growing from cracked and dried barren land

Every spring without fail, it surprises me when tulips start to sprout out of my garden. Partly, it’s because I’m a half-hearted gardener, at best. But it’s also because I planted those tulip bulbs many years ago during a time of pain and sorrow. By planting them, I was hoping their bright goblets of colour would lift my mood come spring-time. And they did. Every year since then, their faithful sprouting has been a potent reminder of my survival, and also evidence that bad times do end, and better ones can always begin.

The concepts of death and re-birth are common in many religions and myths. The most famous of which is Jesus Christ, who dies on the cross on Good Friday, and is then resurrected on Easter Sunday. But there is also Osiris, the Egyptian god of harvest who is cut down and scattered in the fall, only to rise once again in the spring. And Dionysus, the Greek god who was torn apart and eaten by Titans, and then lovingly restored to life by his grandmother, who finds and stitches back together the broken pieces of his heart.

For those who struggle, stories of death and re-birth can be particularly reassuring. When a dream dies, a friendship fails, or a sickness endures, we may wonder if we’ll ever survive it. Stories of resurrection can then serve as a source of solace and as a guide during those dark times. They encourage us to keep going. They remind us that death is not failure. They tell us that, as long as we keep trying, a happier ending may yet appear.

This Easter, I invite you to gently bring to mind a story of sorrow or hurt from your past. Nothing too traumatic. Just a episode where you felt some emotional pain. As you bring back this memory, start to notice the feelings that arise within you. Observe where in your body you feel them the most. It may be a particular tightness in your chest, a tension in your jaw, or perhaps a clenching of your stomach.

With gentleness and compassion, allow yourself to feel these emotions in all their depth. Don’t be afraid. With each new breath, try to create more space for them. Resist the urge to push them away. Welcome them as honoured guests, as important messages from the deep. Be curious. And then watch as, with enough time and space, they gradually crest, loosen and float away.

By feeling and releasing these old and painful emotions, you are making way for new life to come forth. Opportunities for growth can now emerge. Maybe not right away, but soon. Be patient. Always remember, your story is not yet over. A new one is still waiting to be told. It’s all part of the magic, and the promise, of spring.

Trauma and Connection

When my youngest son was born, he was a tiny little thing – only 7 lbs to my older son’s nearly 8 lb birth weight – and held himself in the fetal position for months after his birth. At each checkup, my doctor would try to pull his legs down away from his chest to straighten them, worried about his physical development. He advised me to do the same whenever possible, but my son kept pulling them right back up again, as if he needed that skin to skin contact.

In addition to his tendency to hold himself in the fetal position, my son also grew into a colicky baby, who spent more time crying than he did anything else. During that first year of his life, I found it easiest to co-sleep with him. That way I could quickly cradle him whenever he cried, and vigorously jiggle my arms up and down until he settled again. He would resume crying again easily if I put him down too quickly, so I spent many hours dozing in an upright position, his tiny body clutched firmly in my arms.

I remember one time when he was about 8 or 9 months old and he contracted a fever. For long hours of the day and night, I would lie with his hot little body curled right up into my chest, just resting there. I felt so much love for him then, when I realized that the thing that brought him the most comfort was this simple, physical contact with me. Even now, we are still close. He contacts me every week, checking in with me to see how I’m doing. Sometimes now, it feels more like he’s the parent and I’m the child.

Clearly, my son has always needed close, physical connection. But it’s not just him. Connection is important to everyone. As social animals, we need emotional and physical contact with others in order to feel well, in order to be at our best. The pandemic was a good teacher in that respect. Those who were isolated and without a social bubble tended to fall into bouts of anxiety or depression, or both. Those who lived in a full household with plenty of social support weathered the storm more easily.

This is something that I’ve been reflecting on recently, as I think more and more about trauma and how to manage it. I used to think that trauma was an event. That it was something that happened to you, like a beating or a rape, or the sudden death of someone close to you. I thought that if you experienced something like this, you would naturally have trauma. But apparently, that’s not how it works.

Terrible events like these are certainly traumatic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they cause trauma. According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is not the event in and of itself, but the emotional response to that event. This means that we only experience trauma when we find ourselves without the resources or supports necessary to successfully navigate it. In short, we experience trauma when we are alone, or when we feel alone. We experience trauma when we lack connection.

Social support has repeatedly been shown to be one of the strongest protection factors against the development of PTSD. It’s an emotional regulator. It helps us feel stronger and more courageous than we could ever be on our own. And while compassionate support is powerful, it’s absence can be equally devastating.

I find that incredibly empowering. Every day, we have the opportunity to make a choice between kindness and compassion or its opposite. Within every hour, we can either save someone’s life, or make it worse. Which is why it’s so important to be mindful. Please remember that many are struggling right now. Please know that we all need care. And with that knowledge, proceed accordingly.