Lower Back Pain

If you’re getting older (and who isn’t), you’re probably going to experience lower back pain at some point. 75 – 85% of Americans do. [1] Bones become thinner with age, and connective tissues experience wear and tear. The structures of your spine will also warp to adapt to the physical loads of your daily life, causing disc bulges, disc space narrowing (or disc height loss), and disc dehydration. Your spine is a delicate weave of 31 paired spinal nerves and 33 interlocking vertebrae extending all the way from your neck to your tailbone. It’s vulnerable. All kinds of things can go wrong here.

But what has always fascinated me about back problems, or even about pain in general, is the inconsistency of the correlation between tissue damage and felt pain. There isn’t always an obvious cause. Doctors cannot predict who will suffer pain and who won’t. Scans often show nothing amiss.

When it comes to lower back pain, disc degeneration or disc slippage are often blamed for the pain people feel. Yet, a handful of studies have shown that some patients with very little disc degeneration can have severe pain, while others with severely degenerated discs don’t feel any pain at all [2]. Very often, it’s a mystery why some people feel pain and others don’t. Sufferers of fibromyalgia, a condition of unexplained, chronic musculoskeletal pain, know this well. Conventional doctors have offered muddled and inadequate responses to their pain for decades.

Into this gaping lack of understanding have leaped Ancient healing systems, such as TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Ayurvedic medicine. They offer up ideas of qi stagnation or blood stagnation as culprits for chronic pain. After thousands of years of technological development, these theories are still the best we have to offer those who are suffering. They provide a solution beyond the shrug and inevitable prescription for addictive painkillers that conventional medical doctors currently provide. Most importantly, they provide the relief we need.

When I started learning TCM theory, one of the first big patterns we learned was the connection between lower back pain and kidney weakness. It was hammered into us early, in foundation level courses. The idea does make a certain sense. The kidneys are located in the mid to lower back area. If there is pain there, it stands to reason there might be something wrong with the kidneys. And I have seen many people’s lower back pain improved by taking kidney tonic herbs, including my own.

Of course, kidney tonics work best if you also experience many of the other symptoms included in an over-arching pattern of kidney weakness, such as; frequent urination, feeling cold even when others are warm, low energy, dark circles under the eyes, a tendency to be fearful, and low libido. The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that kidney weakness is at the root of your pain. On the other hand, if lower back pain is the only symptom that matches, then it’s more likely that something else is going on.

Other common causes for chronic lower back pain are qi stagnation or blood stagnation, as I mentioned above. These issues are involved in any case of chronic pain throughout your body, not just in your lower back. And, in fact, most TCM formulas for back pain include herbs that circulate the blood and/or the qi, along with any warming kidney tonics.

If you happen to have more symptoms of blood stagnation than signs of kidney weakness, a formula more specifically based on moving blood may be more appropriate in your case. Symptoms of blood stagnation include; purplish skin areas, or a purple discolouration of the tongue, instances of fixed, stabbing pain (rather than a moving or aching pain), menstrual pain with clots during your monthly flow, or other signs of blood stagnation, such as varicose veins.

Regardless of its cause, I always love the expression of surprise on a client’s face when an herbal remedy for pain actually works. When the suffering they’ve endured for years isn’t just numbed for a couple of hours, but disappears completely. I can only explain what happened through “woo-woo” TCM terms that sound weird and inadequate. But the results tend to speak for themselves. There’s an element of wonder and mystery here that I love.

Healing is an enigmatic thing. I used to try hard to understand what was going on within the body, to try to explain why something was working, or why it wasn’t. Increasingly, I am learning to rest in the wonder of it all. To just trust in the process. Your body wants to heal itself. All herbalists do is help it move in the right direction.

  • 1. https://www.biomedcentral.com/about/press-centre/science-press-releases/27-04-2015
  • 2. Boden SD, Davis DO, Dina TS, Patronas NJ, Wiesel SW: Abnormal magnetic-resonance scans of the lumbar spine in asymptomatic subjects. A prospective investigation. J Bone Joint Surg [Am]. 1990, 72: 403-408.

Winter Is Kidney Time

Winter is a difficult season. Nothing works well in the extreme cold – including us. Doors that are usually quiet, now screech horribly. Cars stutter and take forever to warm up. The ground itself is no longer trustworthy and can upend you in seconds. It takes longer to get out of the house because of all the extra layers you have to put on, and everything you touch feels taut, like it’s on the verge of shattering.

How can you ensure your winter months are spent in greater equanimity? Well, if you follow Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, you should take this time to strengthen your kidneys. According to TCM, winter is kidney time. This means that, if your kidneys are weak, you will not handle winter as well. On the other hand, winter is also an excellent time to take care of your kidneys and try to heal them, so there is opportunity here as well.

Why is winter particularly taxing for your kidneys? Well, for one thing, your kidneys strongly dislike the cold. Older, retired people know this well. As their kidneys age and weaken, they can’t manage the cold as easily and prefer to spend their winters in a warmer climate. Meanwhile, children with their young and healthy kidneys barely even notice the cold and can play outdoors for hours.

Other signs of weakened kidneys? Well, your kidneys are located in your lower back, so this means that if your kidneys are weak, you will have a tendency towards lower back discomfort and pain. It’s not just all the snow shovelling which causes this; there is usually an underlying weakness that contributes.

Your kidneys are partnered with your urinary bladder, so frequent urination, weak urine flow, or incontinence are additional signs. A healthy kidneys and bladder have the ability to pull calcium out of your urine so it can be stored in your bones. So, when your kidneys become weak, osteoporosis is another result, as well as weak nails and loosened teeth.

Other signs and symptoms include weak legs, and weak or painful knees. Your complexion will tend to be a bright white (indicating cold), and there may be dark shadows or baggy areas underneath your eyes. There will also be a tendency towards edema, particularly in the lower legs, as well as loose stools. If you have just one or two of these symptoms, you don’t necessarily have weak kidneys. However, the more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you have some strengthening to do.

The effects of weakened kidneys aren’t just physical; they can also show up in your emotions. Someone whose kidneys are weak will tend to be more fearful, and suffer from anxiety attacks. They will feel more apprehensive, panic easily, and tend to be suspicious and distrustful. With enough exposure to these kinds of feelings, a sense of inferiority and inadequacy is also common, along with low self-esteem.

These feelings of fear and inadequacy are a double-edged sword. They are not just signs of weakened kidneys; they can be a source of kidney weakness as well, if felt for a long enough period of time. People with chronic illnesses, who feel fear and inadequacy in spades, will have a tendency towards kidney weakness for this reason. All illnesses, if experienced for a long enough period of time, will eventually make their way into your kidneys.

The kidneys house the will and are the source of our willpower. Therefore, if your kidneys are strong, you will be able to set goals easily and follow them through. On the other hand, if your kidneys are weak, you will tend to be easily discouraged and led off course. You will drop projects before they are finished, and lack the drive to continue with them.

So, what can you do? How can you strengthen your kidneys? Well, prevention is part of the cure. Make sure that your lower back area is well protected against the cold, particularly during the winter months. Please, no bared mid-riffs! In Japan, people traditionally wear a haramaki around their mid-section. This is a band of soft, stretchy cotton that keeps the lower back and digestive organs warm, so that blood can continue circulating well and the body remains strong.

To further protect your kidneys, you should avoid creating internal cold too. This means, no cold foods or drinks. Drink warm teas, eat your food well-cooked rather than raw, and avoid cold indulgences, like ice cream. Tropical fruits also tend to have a cold energy inside your body and are best avoided, especially during the winter months. These foods would include; citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and limes, as well as melons, and bananas.

Warming spices, like cinnamon, fenugreek, black pepper, and cardamom invigorate the kidneys and help them work better. Additionally, warming herbs, like eucommia bark, ashwagandha root, celery seed, cordyceps, morinda root, and Japanese teasel root can strengthen your kidneys. But be careful! Your kidneys also dislike becoming too dry, so moistening kidney tonics like goji berries, prepared rehmannia root, and shatavari root are best included with any kidney formula.

To preserve your kidney strength, it is also important to avoid excessive stress, particularly physical stress. This will deplete the kidneys and age you. So, don’t overwork yourself, or stay up too late at night. Make sure you take breaks, allow yourself time to relax, and be sure to get enough sleep.

This applies to the good stuff too. Don’t spend all your energy at parties, have too much sex, or over-do your exercise routine. Yes, socialization, physical closeness, and exercise are healthy, but not if you push your kidneys past their limit. Even good things can be bad for us when done to excess. “Everything in moderation” is an excellent motto to have here.

I hope this has given you some food for thought as we continue to struggle through the dreary months of winter. In the west in particular, we seem intent on weakening our kidneys. We are so fond of cold drinks! And also of overwork! We will actually pat ourselves on the back when we’ve pushed ourselves hard in pursuit of a goal. This seen as a sign of dedication and strength, and it is a sign of strength, of course. But keep in mind that this strength is fleeting. Please preserve it for something truly important to you, not on some whim from your boss.

Now that you know all the ins and outs of kidney health, you can take steps to protect yours. The kidneys are the root of your strength and vitality. Once they’ve become depleted, they’re incredibly hard to regenerate. Please protect yours.

Is There Any Way to Protect Ourselves Against Microplastics?

We would all like to be rid of plastic waste, but unfortunately, it is here to stay. It is found everywhere on our planet, and all throughout our food and water supply. Worse yet, recent research has revealed that the contamination of our food supply is even worse than we had previously imagined.

How Bad is the Problem?

A recent study from Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto[1] found that 88% of food protein sources (chicken, beef, fish, and even plant-based burgers) contain high levels of plastic particles, even if they are classified as “organic”.

Can vegetarians breathe easy? Not quite. In fact, a study published in 2020 in the Environmental Research journal found that edible fruits and vegetables also contain high levels of microplastics and nanoplastics[2].

Bottled water is full of plastic too: another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences[3] found that one litre of bottled water typically contains roughly one quarter of a million nanoplastic particles: much higher than previous estimates which were based on microplastics. This is because nanoplastics are even smaller than microplastics. A nanoparticle measures less than 0.001 millimetres in diameter. This made them very difficult to detect until recently.

Is There Anything We Can Do?

Unfortunately, reducing your exposure to zero is a pipe dream. Microplastics are so prevalent that they have been found in the Marianas Trench: the deepest and most isolated place on Earth[4]. But there are certain processes that can remove or reduce the plastic particles in your diet, and we can start with water, because water is such a critical part of our diet.

Tip #1: Drink tap water.

People have preferred bottled water over tap water for many years, but an analysis of microplastic contamination in tap water and bottled water published by IJERPH, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health[5], found that tap water had generally less microplastic particles than bottled water: a phenomenon which the researchers attributed to the purification processes that are performed on tap water. Of course, this depends on where you live.

Tip #2: Avoid reusable plastic bottles.

The IJERPH study found that contrary to what you might expect, single-use disposable plastic bottles actually have fewer microparticles than reusable plastic bottles, despite their flimsy appearance. The researchers attribute this to the fact that as plastic ages and undergoes the wear and tear of use, it becomes more vulnerable to erosion from the water. Even glass bottles were found to contain microparticles, because of rubber or plastic in the lid.

Tip #3: Use high-quality water filters.

Not all water filters are the same. Brita, for example, makes an “Elite” filter which is certified to remove so-called “Class I” particles as small as 0.0005 millimetres[6], but their regular filter cannot do this. Unfortunately, the Elite filter is 3 times more expensive than the standard filter. Nevertheless, if you live in an area with good municipal water treatment and you then run that tap water through a Brita Elite filter, you will have water which is far cleaner and safer than bottled water.

Tip #4: Avoid highly processed foods.

While the Ocean Conservancy/UofT study found microplastics in all proteins, they found the highest levels in highly processed foods. Chicken nuggets, breaded shrimp, and fish sticks are examples of highly processed foods, even when they are plant-based vegan substitutes. Researchers surmise that extra particles are added to highly processed foods during the processing and packaging stages. Such foods are handled by workers with plastic gloves, pumped through machines with rubber or plastic components, and often packaged in plastic bags.

Tip #5: Look for chicken breast recipes.

Unprocessed chicken breast had the lowest microplastic contamination of all the proteins tested in the Ocean Conservancy/UofT study.

What Else Can We Do?

Ideally, we would try to reduce the problem at the source, and industry would take strong measures to reduce the amount of plastics they release into the environment and into our food supply. Unfortunately, political advocacy is difficult. Many people are wary of environmental advocacy because they see it as a threat to personal liberty, and this makes it difficult to advance an agenda which could infringe upon personal liberties and increase the cost of living for all of us.

Therefore, you as an individual cannot rely on controlling the problem “out there” in the world, but you can try to reduce your personal exposure through the choices you make in your own kitchen.

Note: This is a guest post written by my husband, Michael Wong, P.Eng, MBA.


  1. Milne, M., De Frond, H., Rochman, C., Mallos, N., Leonard, G., Baechler, B. (2024). Exposure of U.S. adults to microplastics from commonly-consumed proteins. Environmental pollution, 343, 123233. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2023.123233.
  2. Conti, G., Ferrante, M., Banni, M., Favara, C., Nicolosi, I., Cristaldi, A., Fiore, M., Zuccarello, P. (2020). Micro- and nano-plastics in edible fruit and vegetables. The first diet risks assessment for the general population. Environmental research, 187, 109677. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.109677.
  3. Qian, N., Gao, X., Lang, X., Min, W., Rapid single-particle chemical imaging of nanoplastics by SRS microscopy, Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 121 (3), e2300582121. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2300582121
  4. https://oceanblueproject.org/plastic-pollution-in-the-mariana-trench/
  5. Gambino, I., Bagordo, F., Grassi, T., Panico, A., & De Donno, A. (2022). Occurrence of Microplastics in Tap and Bottled Water: Current Knowledge. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(9), 5283. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19095283
  6. https://www.brita.com/assets/23601607167498ba405a22f7692b3b86.pdf

A New Year’s Intention

I don’t know about you, but over the years I’ve grown to hate the very idea of a new year’s resolution. I think I’ve broken too many of them. Now, the fear of failure looms larger than any hoped-for gain. It’s not a happy frame of mind to have at the beginning of a new year.

Perhaps you feel the same way.

In the past, I’ve used brute force to push my way into new habits. I’ve forced myself out of bed, even when I’ve felt unwell. I’ve worked longer and harder, even when I felt tired. Initially, this may have won me some short-term gains, but it never seemed to last very long. When my energy inevitably flagged, I would return to all my old habits.

A turning point came a few years ago after I read The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. In this book, she shares surprising research that self-compassion and self-forgiveness are much better motivators for changing our behaviour than guilt-tripping or condemnation. At first, I was skeptical that going “soft” on myself would reap any rewards, but I actually found it to be incredibly helpful.

It turns out that my self-destructive tendency to push myself way past my limits was a big part of my problem. I wasn’t able to see that until I finally gave myself permission to stop.

Since then, I’ve noticed how common a problem this is. In Western society, we’re terrified of being seen as lazy, slothful, or unproductive. The good old Protestant work ethic has turned us into slave-drivers, expecting more and more from ourselves and from others, for less and less remuneration. Yet, studies show that a culture that emphasizes kindness and empathy, avoidance of blame, and forgiveness of mistakes, reaps greater benefits for both individuals and groups over the long term.

Over the past couple of decades, I think our entire culture has become more corporatized, to the point that we treat ourselves like little mini-businesses, expecting year over year profits and gains. But I’m not a business, and neither are you. We shouldn’t have to prove our value to others. We have a right to exist, regardless of how much money we make, or what we produce.

This year, I encourage you to be a little softer on yourself, to treat yourself with a little more kindness. If you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed, it’s OK not to have a New Year’s resolution. If you didn’t make any particular gains over the past year, that’s OK too. It’s OK if all you did was survive.

You have a right to be here, no less than the trees and the stars. You have unique gifts that are yours and yours alone. Your very presence on this earth is a gift and a blessing. This year, rather than setting a New Year’s resolution, how about setting a New Year’s intention instead? Give yourself permission to be kind.

Silent Night

Today marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. As the month of December has advanced, the sky has been darkening earlier and earlier with each passing day. But on this day, that cycle will come to an end. Tomorrow, the day will be just a little bit longer, just that little bit brighter. This is a hopeful change.

Each day when I come home from work, I look around at the lights decorating our house, and watch them twinkle in the dark. It’s a moment of beauty in an otherwise cold and barren landscape. I’m so thankful we got our Christmas lights up early this year. It’s been a welcome change from years past.

This feeling of Christmas tranquility has been all but impossible for us for about the past ten years. It’s funny how the weight of those years became almost invisible to us back then, we’d been carrying it for so long. But now that it’s gone, I can remember the weariness more clearly. Its sudden absence brings a feeling of relief, but also of sadness.

Those who live with family members suffering from dementia will probably understand.

Caring for someone with dementia is challenging. As much as you try to remain patient, as much as you prepare yourself for each day, you will inevitably lose your temper. And then, you will chastise yourself. You will feel guilty for becoming angry at someone who, though an adult, has the mental and emotional understanding of a toddler.

During the last few years of Julia’s life, we put up a Christmas tree only mechanically. In her final year, we didn’t bother putting one up at all. It just created too much trouble. Julia would ask: “What is that? Why is it lit up? It bothers me,” or some variation of those responses. Then, she would unplug the lights, and the tree would sit in darkness. This would happen about every hour, if not sooner. Since it was impossible to keep the lights on, Christmas was effectively cancelled.

It wasn’t just Christmas lights, though. Julia would also turn out room lights, even if you were still in the room! She would unplug the stove while you were trying to warm it up. She would stop the washing machine, mid cycle. Then, she would take clothes out of the dryer and spread them out about the house, not knowing whose they were, or what they were for.

She was also paranoid about the front door being left unlocked, so she would check it all the time, pulling hard on the knob, twisting and turning it one way and then another. We actually had to replace the doorknob twice because she broke it. I didn’t even know you could break a doorknob until Julia did it. It boggled the mind. How could such a small woman cause such damage? And yet she did.

She would regularly open and close the garage door, multiple times a day. I never quite understood why. I think maybe she was just checking inside, but the cycle would inevitably end with the garage door being left wide open, exposing our junk for all to see, and potentially steal. During those years, I often felt like I was leaving the house in my underwear every day. My entire life felt exposed for all to see. Nothing was private anymore.

As Julia’s dementia worsened, she got kicked out of the local supermarket. The manager called the police, who threatened to take her to the police station. I guess she had been bothering other customers, probably giving them dietary advice they weren’t interested in receiving. She also got banned from the bulk foods store – for life. I have no idea what she was doing in there, but we suspect she might have been eating indiscriminately from the bins. She was impossible to contain. During those years, life was never dull!

Now that Julia’s gone, and her husband too, the house feels unnaturally quiet. The night more silent than I can recall it being in years, if ever. The losses are really hitting me now. The warmth and comraderie of the Christmas season seems to draw it out.

This Christmas, I would like to extend care to all who are struggling with burdens of various sorts. To those struggling to care for elderly parents, as we did for years, I wish you patience and fortitude. For those struggling financially, I wish you abundance. For those who are alone, I wish you moments of warmth and connection. For those who are grieving, I wish you love.

The night may be dark tonight, but tomorrow brings the beginning of greater light, increased brightness. May the lights of Christmas bring you solace during the more difficult days that lay ahead, and hope for a better and brighter future just around the corner.

The Season of Gratitude – Part 2

In my last blog post, I wrote about my difficulties feeling gratitude in the past and how allowing myself to feel all the feels opened up some space in my heart, allowing the gratitude to finally move through me.

In this blog post, I’d like to delve a little deeper into all those murky feelings and then talk about choice.

Back in 2010, when I was in the thick of my struggle with CFS, I remember watching an interview with Karen Armstrong. In case you don’t know her, Armstrong is the author of many books on comparative religion, and during this particular interview, she was promoting her latest book (at the time), Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

I was not paying particular attention to what she was saying in this interview until she openly admitted to feeling bitter. Very bitter about life. That got my attention. An expert on religion, and author of a book on compassion, was declaring herself to be bitter? I wanted to know more.

She spoke about her past as a nun in training in Ireland, and about the Superior who was responsible for her. This nun had had a very difficult life, going deaf at an early age, and then being sent to a convent. She happened to be dying of cancer and was in extreme pain, yet she had still spoken kindly to the nuns under her watch. As Armstrong said, “she had trained herself, through all those difficult years not to become bitter, not to think, why me? Why am I deaf? Why am I wasting my life? And as a result, she has remained in me as an icon of what a good person should be”.

And then Armstrong said, “Becoming bitter is always a choice”. In essence, she was saying that life is a road with two very different paths, both equally valid. The decision you make will determine the quality of your life going forward. You can either decide to be bitter and angry about the difficulties and injustice in your life, or you can choose to be compassionate instead.

Her comment really resonated with me because I was slowly coming to the same realization myself. Stuck in bed and unable to accomplish any of my life goals, I was feeling frustrated, angry, and yes, definitely bitter. But I was also realizing that this was not the kind of person I wanted to be.

I think it’s the same with gratitude.

We are living in difficult times. A lot of people are struggling. In many cases, basic needs are not being met. The climate is worsening. Wars are being fought. Everywhere you go, people are suffering. It is very easy to feel hopeless and despondent at the number of crises surrounding us.

It is at these times – often especially at these times – that we realize we have a choice. We can either choose to become bitter, or we can aspire to something a little more noble.

During my years of difficulty, I would often console myself with the beauty of my neighbour’s garden. I may not have had the energy to care for a garden myself, but I felt grateful that I could still enjoy the gardens of others around me.

I became spellbound by the gracefully arching branches of the tree outside my window, watching its many moods as the seasons changed. I may not have been able to spend much time outside, but being able to watch that tree outside my window was a lifeline for me.

I was also deeply consoled by the laughter of the neighbourhood children as they walked past my home on their way to and from school. I may not have been able to see them, but I was grateful for my ability to hear their small voices, and to feel the bubbling energy of their youthful selves.

I know it’s been said before, but it is often when life is at its most bleak, when we are grasping at the smallest example of beauty or kindness, that possibilities for gratitude are fully revealed to us.

This doesn’t mean we don’t also acknowledge our pains and our struggles. It means that, while still feeling our pain in all its fullness, we make the choice to be grateful anyway. It’s a powerful choice. I can’t promise that it will magically make your troubles go away. What I can promise, is that it will make your heart lighter, and your burden easier to bear.

The Season of Gratitude – Part 1

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve been often reminded about the importance of being grateful. I admit, there have been many times in my life when I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking I am not good enough, that my life is not exciting enough, or that I don’t have enough of the things that I want.

By and large, I think it isn’t just me that struggles with this. We humans have a natural tendency to want more and better, no matter the abundance that we already have. And then, the western economy is also built on this idea of lack – that there is always something more we should have, some other experience we need to feel, in order for our lives to be complete.

In acknowledgement of my problem, I kept a daily gratitude journal for years. In the evening before bed, I would list off 5 things for which I was thankful. On the whole, I think it’s a very good practice. And studies show that when people show more gratitude, they are happier.

But I have to admit, the practice started to falter for me when I noticed that I tended to list off the same things every single day: gratitude for a roof over my head, for my loving husband, for healthy kids, and the regular presence of my furry dog. I began to feel that I had only those 5 things to be grateful for. And even though those are not small things, depression started to set in, as it often does for me. The daily gratitude practice no longer seemed to be helping.

This past week is Thanksgiving in the US, so I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently, and those struggles I had with it in the past. I’ve also been wondering why I feel so much more gratitude now than I did then. Why didn’t that daily gratitude practice work for me? And what has changed now?

For an answer, I turned to my herbal studies and its discussion of feelings. Interestingly, in Chinese medicine, feelings of all types are held in greater regard than they are here in the west. In fact, they are considered such harbingers of illness that, for thousands of years, doctors treated people by helping them to resolve their feelings with counter-feelings, rather than prescribing herbs or acupuncture.

Here in North America, feelings are given nowhere near that amount of respect. If anything, feelings are thought to be a problem, an obstacle that gets in the way of forward progress. We are advised to ignore them, stuff them, or push past them. People who dwell on their feelings are considered soft and weak.

But feelings have a seriously negative effect on your health. In Chinese medicine, it is well known that anger congests your liver, sadness constricts your lungs, worry weakens your spleen, and fear depletes your kidneys. Before you dismiss this concept, understand that western medicine is starting to come around to the same conclusion. Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician with particular expertise in the treatment of addiction, trauma, stress and childhood development, has written a number of best-selling books on the negative effect emotions can have on your health. When the Body Says ‘No’ and The Myth of Normal are the two most recent.

In the intervening years since I kept that daily gratitude journal, I’ve done a lot of work with my emotions. I’ve spent hours sitting in meditation, I’ve discovered the power of restorative yoga for processing my emotions, and I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking through my triggers and trying to heal the emotions behind them. Although scary and difficult, I have found this work to be transformational.

Liver and gallbladder flushing can also prove tremendously helpful and many of our customers have testified to this. Your liver stores a lot of your emotions. Anger, frustration, envy, moodiness, and depression are all common emotions for people whose livers have become stagnant. When herbs are taken to clear away congestion in the liver, these emotions tend to leave too. It’s a fascinating process.

Once all those negative emotions are cleared away, a space is created for more positive emotions like gratitude, compassion, and love to take hold. An important discovery I’ve had as I continued my healing journey, is that emotions are things. They are not ephemeral nothings; they have weight and space and can’t just be shrugged away. If you avoid feeling them, your body will just hold on to them for later processing. And the longer you hold them, the sicker you can get.

If you’re struggling with gratitude this holiday season, consider the possibility that you’re holding on to some difficult emotions. It’s not unusual. We all have them. I know it’s scary, but the next time you feel them, recognize where the tightness is. It’s often in your chest, but it can also be in your belly or your shoulders. Try to soften into those places in your body, and when the emotions arise, allow yourself to really feel into them. But be gentle with them. Show these feelings kindness. They are there to take care of you.

One good practice I learned is to go to a quiet corner where you won’t be disturbed, and then purposely feel the emotion in all its intensity – really push it to the limit! If you feel anger, allow it to build and build and feel it to its completeness. Welcome the anger. Really revel in it. If you stop this process and still feel a residue of anger inside you, it means it hasn’t been fully spent yet. Cultivate it even further! Trust me, if you take the time to feel it fully, it will disperse.

Emotions need to be felt. Pushing them away only makes them toxic. So, try accepting them with kindness and grace instead. Allow them more space. By accepting them and allowing them, they usually start to shift a little. And into that space, amazingly, there will be a possibility for more joy and gratitude. And who doesn’t need more of that?

Boat-fruited Sterculia Seeds

Sterculia Seeds

According to Chinese medicine, autumn is lung time. This is the time of year when the lungs need to be strong. If they aren’t, health issues related to the lungs are more likely to be felt. If you regularly struggle with allergies, or asthma, or chronic bronchitis, you know what I mean. Symptoms tend to set in each year when we descend into fall and the air turns cold and dry.

The lungs are delicate. They are the only internal organ exposed to the outer environment through our breath. This is by necessity! We have to take in air in order to survive, even though this does expose us to smoke, chemicals, and other contaminants, all of which can injure the lungs over time.

The lungs are even affected by the air itself, becoming more parched in dry air, or more moist and heavy in damp air. It’s no wonder they are considered the “princess organ” in Chinese medicine. They are incredibly vulnerable.

Western medicine doesn’t provide much help for the lungs. Doctors can prescribe you an inhaler, which will relax the muscles of the airways into your lungs, making it easier to breathe. Or they may prescribe a nasal spray, which reduces swelling in the airways and dries up mucus. Both can be useful for short periods of time when you just can’t catch your breath, but neither will get at the root of the problem, which is often dry lungs, weakened by the presence of phlegm.

Luckily, there are herbs that can help with this! This is where sterculia seeds come in. The pinyin name for sterculia seeds means “big, fat sea”, which describes both the seeds themselves, as well as what they do. Julia also used to refer to them as “Expanding Seeds” because when you add hot water to them, the seeds will start to expand and soften, looking somewhat like a strange sea creature.

But what do they do? Firstly, sterculia seeds cool and moisten the lungs. This can feel incredibly healing in and of itself. If you’ve ever dealt with a chronic dry cough, a parched throat, and tight chest for any length of time, you know you’ll do just about anything to relieve it. Sterculia seeds will help. They act just like the sea, moistening the lungs and soothing your throat, while also healing a hoarse or lost voice.

Secondly, they dissolve phlegm. This is what causes that tight sensation in your chest – the presence of hot phlegm. As sterculia seeds moisten your lungs, they also start to break down rubbery, difficult-to-expectorate phlegm, loosening and healing your lung tissue in the process. Again, magical relief!

You’ll know that sterculia seeds are helping when the phlegm starts to come up. You may notice that you need to blow your nose more frequently as phlegm in your nasal passages starts to loosen. This discharge will likely be sticky and yellow, green, or even brown in colour, depending on its age. You may also notice phlegm coming up from your lungs into your throat, causing frequent throat-clearing or coughing. While uncomfortable, these are all good signs, indicating that old, rubbery phlegm is finally being discharged and brought up to be expelled from your body.

Ideally, you will continue to prepare sterculia seed tea until any discharge is thin and clear, your chest no longer feels tight, and there’s no longer any phlegm in the back of your throat.

A customer recently asked me how to cleanse the lungs. I told him that you don’t usually cleanse your lungs. However, upon reflection, it is true that your lungs can easily pick up toxins from the air, which can irritate lung tissue, and then cause the formation of phlegm. I’m now thinking that it certainly can’t hurt to spend a few weeks each year drinking sterculia seed tea to bring up whatever has gotten stuck down there. And honestly, it’s such a relief when it comes out! Autumn is a great time to do this.

As a side effect, sterculia seeds will also help dry constipation [1], and have been shown to lower blood pressure [2]. They have even been used to successfully treat children with acute tonsillitis [3]. I would consider those potential effects a bonus. Really, their lung-moistening and phlegm-dissolving properties is reason enough to use them.

If you are interested in trying sterculia seeds, you can find them in the tea section of our on-line store.

  • 1. Chang Yong Zhong Yao Xian Dai Yan Jiu Yu Lin Chuan (Recent Study and Clinical Application of Common Traditional Chinese Medicine), 1995; 468:469
  • 2. Ibid
  • 3. Zhe Jiang Zhong Yi Za Zhi (Zhejiang Journal of Chinese Medicine), 1966; 5:180

Remembrance Day

“I’m not a hero,” said the old man, a veteran of the Korean War. It’s a moving refrain you often hear from soldiers who feel guilty for having survived something their comrades-in-arms did not.

“Yes, you are!” assured the reporter beside him. And the old man shook his head and looked like he might cry, even all these years later.

I was profoundly moved by the annual Remembrance Day services this morning. Maybe it’s because of what’s currently happening in Gaza, or because of the war in Ukraine, but I seem to finally understand, now, that we will never be at peace. There will always be conflict somewhere.

I grew up in the 1980’s, during the time when there was a Cold War between the US and Russia. I think we really believed, then, that the next war could never be fought because it would mean the end of all humanity. And yet, here we are. Still at war. Still maiming and killing one another. We just took a step back from the nuclear option so we could keep on hurting one another without the mutually assured destruction that inevitably comes with it.

Yes, I know that there have been many wars fought since the Second World War – roughly one every decade – and many more fought without the involvement of the US and its allies. I suppose I just thought that these were “smaller” wars that would eventually play themselves out as humanity continued to mature as a species. You can call me naive. I’ll admit to that.

What I feel now is sadness. And also profound empathy and remorse for those who are currently caught in the familiar snare of hatred and violence. There doesn’t seem to be anything we can do to stop this regular flaring of vengeance.

I’ve been reading a lot about trauma recently, and so I can’t help but think about how much pain the victims are in and whether it’s even possible to heal them. If it’s true that hurt people hurt people, then how do we ever stop the hurting?

I read a book recently about the World War II bombings in London. In it, a bookshop owner says to the young protagonist (who is struggling with what to do with all the suffering around her): “Just do what you can, when you can, whenever you can, and don’t worry about the end results. It’s all any of us can do”. I found that really inspiring.

And so, I will keep on trying to heal people, through herbal medicine, and through yoga. I will continue to remind them to inhabit their bodies and feel their emotions, and in that way, to begin to alleviate their suffering. It may not make a great difference to the world at large, but it may prove helpful to someone in their time of need.

In the coming weeks, we will have a new offering at our humble yoga studio. One that I hope will remind us of our similarities to one another. That will help us to feel more connected. After all, we are essentially all the same. We all suffer, we all have people we love who we don’t want to see harmed, we all want to belong. We all know pain.

It is my fervent hope that we learn to know our connectedness better than we do our separateness. That when we feel most hurt and alone, instead of lashing out, we learn how to lean in instead. It may not be realistic, but it’s a vision I will keep fighting for.

Trust the Flow

Rainbow over Niagara Falls, Canada

Recently in my yoga classes, I’ve been focusing on flow. The flow of your breath, the flow of energy in your body, and the flow of your emotions. It’s so easy for this flow to become stuck.

This can happen due to stress, when we tense our muscles and hold our breath, allowing energy to become constricted. Or, it can happen if we hold on too tightly to an idea of how the world should be, rather than allowing life to play itself out as it is. We can also become stuck in our emotions, refusing to let go of sadness, resentment, anger, or frustration.

I know I’m regularly guilty of all of the above. In recent years, I have experienced stuckness all over the place, and seem to have lost a basic sense of trust. Trust that things will generally work out, trust that certain people will come through for me. I don’t believe any of those things anymore.

And yet, if I allow myself the time to sit still, I can still sense the flow. I can still feel that my breath is a wave. That air flows in, and it also flows out. There is a natural exchange in that flow of energy. And it’s beautiful. I’m trying to trust in that.

A couple of weeks ago, we said a final goodbye to my father-in-law as we spread his ashes in the Niagara River. We gathered in a park by the water, and my husband and his brother took turns emptying the contents of his urn into the river. The sky was a slate grey above us as we watched the proceedings in silence.

His ashes were an interesting tan colour, lighter than the dirt around us, and as the waves gently washed in, they mixed in with my father-in-law’s remains and carried them out to sea. Accepting them, diluting them, spreading them. My father-in-law is now one with the river.

On that day, I looked out at the horizon beyond the water, and then turned back to look at the pretty autumn leaves all around us, and felt that my father-in-law was at peace. He’d always loved Niagara-on-the Lake, and had visited this place regularly during the last few years of his life. I could feel his approval of our choice for his place of rest.

The next day, as we were heading out of town, we decided to stop by the falls. It somehow seemed wrong to leave the area without taking a look at what has always made it famous. As we stepped out of the car into a sunny day, with a clear blue sky, we noticed a big rainbow over the falls. One of the biggest and clearest rainbows I have ever seen.

As legend has it, the rainbow is a Biblical sign of God’s promise, that He will never flood the earth again. But it’s also a sign of hope. Of beauty. Of impending good fortune. On that day, it also felt incredibly fragile, like we could lose it at any moment. So, we all grabbed for our cameras and took plenty of shots, trying to capture the moment forever. Holding on. Blocking flow, as we humans tend to do. Knowing that this moment may not last.

And then, as we slowly walked back to the car under the shadow of the trees, the wind suddenly picked up and showered us with red and gold leaves. They fell all around us, dropping lightly, and swirling, like feathers to the ground. It seemed to me in that moment that the trees weren’t losing their leaves, they were giving them to us as a gift. It wasn’t loss. It was reciprocity. Unlike us, they weren’t trying to hold on. They were giving back to the earth. The natural give and take of life.

In that moment, I could really feel the flow of the universe. The flow of the water that carried away my father-in-law’s ashes, the sudden appearance of a rainbow above the mist the falls, the shower of leaves as they cascaded over our heads – it was all movement. Nothing was stagnant here, except perhaps myself.

The universe was showing me how to inhale and exhale. It was showing me how to trust in the flow. It was reminding me that, even though we may lose things, we can still gain them too. The world will go on – if we let it. We just have to keep breathing, keep moving, and keep watching for that rainbow in the sky.