Black Pepper – Nature’s Stimulant

Known as the “King of Spices”, and traded like gold in the ancient world, black pepper is now mostly overlooked. It’s an obligatory ingredient in most recipes, added without much thought or question. Everybody has it in their cupboard, usually conveniently situated beside the salt. Nobody raises so much as an eyebrow for pepper. But does anyone know what it actually does? Why do we even have it in our cupboards?

Well, there’s its characteristic “peppery” taste, which many enjoy. Back in the Middle Ages, it was likely coveted, not only for its flavour, but also because it helped to prevent spoilage from bacteria at a time when there was no refrigeration.

In Chinese medicine, black pepper is known as “barbarian pepper”, because it was introduced to the country by traders from the West. It gained popularity there like nowhere else in the world, and now nearly half of all pepper production worldwide goes to China and Chinese restaurants worldwide [1]. (Black pepper beef, anyone?)

Why is this spice so valued in China? Well, it’s hot and acrid nature helps to warm the stomach, making food more readily digested, and Chinese culture has always been very focused on improving and protecting good digestion. In fact, when pepper is added to meals (particularly when combined with turmeric), it increases the bioavailability of nutrients [2] by a whopping 154%, and also reduces absorption time by half. That’s incredible!

In Ayurvedic medicine, pepper is also widely used, as it is considered an anti-kapha medicine, which burns up digestive ama, the sticky, mucus-like build-up of poorly digested food that tends to coat our digestive system over time. Its drying nature means it can help to clear up any kind of cold-damp mucus condition, such as sinus congestion, runny nose, or diarrhea.

It assists the liver in the detoxification of cancerous substances and protects it from damage almost as well as milk thistle does [3]. And its warming nature also stimulates blood circulation, and increases metabolism. I bet you didn’t know it did all that. No wonder it was once valued like gold!

The best way to use pepper, besides just sprinkling it over your meals, is to grind it up and add it to a warm glass of milk, preferably along with some turmeric. Then, add some honey to sweeten it. If you struggle with weak digestion, this will get your system humming in no time.

You can also consider using the Ayurvedic remedy Trikatu, which is a mixture of ground black pepper, ground pippali long pepper (or anise), and ground ginger in equal amounts and then made into a paste with the addition of honey. Add a teaspoon to a cup of hot water or warm milk and drink daily.

As someone who struggles with weak digestion myself, I have come to really value the properties of black pepper. Now is the time of year when people are most drawn to cold beverages and foods, which may help you feel cooler in the moment, but will only weaken your digestion over time. Consider adding pepper to your foods (and perhaps even your drinks) to keep this from happening.

  3. Singh A Rao AR Evaluation of the modulatory influence of black pepper on the hepatic detoxification system. Cancer-Lett. 1993 Aug 16;72(1-2):5-9

The Homunculus Has No Clothes

You could say my husband is a “straight talker” – straight talking meaning bluntness, I suppose. But in my opinion, his “straight talk” goes much deeper than that. He doesn’t just state his opinions bluntly, he has this ability to see things that other people don’t.

By this, I don’t mean he is clairvoyant. He can’t see the future. He also can’t see your aura. I guess I would describe his “vision” more as an ability to see through your rationalizations. He can tell when you’re way off base, when your reasoning doesn’t hold up, and when you’re just bull-shitting yourself – or others.

I’ve relied on this particular ability of his many times in my life. In fact, I have valued it most when he sees through my own bullshit. For example, he will bluntly tell me when I am avoiding something out of fear, and not because it doesn’t make sense. He will call out my paranoia, when I think people are saying or doing things behind my back, reminding me that mostly, they’re not thinking about me at all. He has a big problem with lies, and he is contemptuous of manipulators. Somehow, he is able to detect all these things before I even get a whiff of them.

I have often thought he is the quintessential little boy who sees that the emperor has no clothes. Because he doesn’t just notice these things, he also can’t help saying something about them, no matter the social cost. He’s like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, who won’t stop barking and pulling back the curtain until everyone can see that the person they’re afraid of is really just a small, elderly man frantically fiddling with a bunch of levers.

That tiny man – the homunculus – is the supposedly rational mind that, for decades, we’ve been told is directing all of our thoughts and actions. Except that now, we have access to oodles of brain studies showing that this is complete hogwash. Hardly any of our decisions are rationally considered, and we are easily led astray by simple things like the current ratio of hormones in our bodies, consolidated memories from our past, the amount of trees in our environment, and even if we’ve eaten in the past hour.

I learned all this from the book Behave by Robert Sapolsky. It’s a mammoth book, in which he dissects the entire anatomy of human decision-making, from the smallest of neurotransmitters to entire brain regions, from the narrow effect of hormones to how those relate to our larger social environment. Along the way, he cites so many opposing scientific studies that by the time you’re halfway through the book, you’re confused as hell.

What causes us to do what we do? It’s impossible to tell. Every biological marker depends on something else to activate it. So much of what we do is context- dependant. He takes the concept of epigenetics to an entirely new level. In his quest to discover what makes people do what they do, we find no solid answers. You might as well shrug your shoulders and throw a dart, because that’s as close as you’ll ever get to deciphering their reasoning, or lack of it (at least at this time). This should make us all more hesitant when we decide to mete out punishment.

What we do know for sure is that the homunculus has no clothes. Just like my husband, who is constantly pointing out when I get lost in my own head, we as a species are also lost. We need to stop pretending that we’re not. We’ve bungled a lot over the years, from our decision to burn women at the stake for witchcraft, to our long-time defence of slavery.

We make better decisions as a group, when we are confronted, uncomfortably, with many opposing views and perspectives. It helps us to get out of our own heads for awhile and see things from someone else’s point of view. It stimulates openness and creativity. Just like me, we all need someone around to tell us when we’re full of shit. Because it’s rare to the point of impossibility when we can see it for ourselves.

The Waayyy Behind Book Club – June 2023

Hello, fellow readers! My book choices this month have left me thoughtful and reflective. It will be a deep dive, as we consider the nature of evil, profound hurt, and whether it’s possible to heal. For instance, what makes someone evil? And if we have suffered under its harms, particularly for long periods of time, is it even possible to be happy and whole? Most importantly, can we avoid passing on our hurt to others as we seek to heal ourselves?

Let’s dive in! The first book I read this month is called Eichmann In Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Eichmann was a prominent Nazi in Germany during WWII. In particular, it was his job to handle “the Jewish problem”, by removing Jews of their German citizenship (and hence, their rights), forcing them to emigrate, and eventually, managing the trains by which Jews were removed from their homes and taken to concentration camps to be exterminated. This book is the story of his trial after he was abducted by Mossad agents and brought to Jerusalem.

Early on in the trial, it was established that the idea of the killing the Jews – The Final Solution – was not his. He was merely following orders. The trial, and the book, explores Eichmann’s culpability. Is it possible he didn’t understand what he was doing? That he was killing people? Well, it turns out he knew, but didn’t realize it was wrong. How could he not know this was wrong? Well, people far more educated and important than him had assured him that this was the “moral” thing to do. ‘Scientific’ thinking in Germany at the time had declared Jews (and gypsies, and Slovaks, and the disabled and the mentally weak) were genetically inferior. Therefore, for the sake of the human species, and the German Volk in particular, they were better off gone.

But then, he also went along with Hitler’s orders because he didn’t want to face the consequences of disobeying. And it certainly didn’t hurt that his obedience greatly furthered his career – 3 promotions in only 18 months! Eichmann was granted upward mobility and greater social respect by following Hitler’s orders without question. As an uneducated, blue collar worker, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams when he became a part of the Nazi machinery. Who among us could resist that heady mix of power, esteem and respect? Who among us does not wish to belong? In a society where people like Hitler are revered, thoughtlessness and casual cruelty are an asset. So, was Eichmann at fault? Or was it the entire country who validated Hitler’s ideas by electing him in the first place?

Hannah Arendt, the author of this book, is the person who coined the term “the banality of evil”, for in Eichmann, we see a man eerily like ourselves. He wanted to be promoted, so he did his job well. He had no particular antipathy towards the Jews (in fact, some of his good friends were Jews); it was just a job that needed to be done and he happened to be the cog in the wheel that smoothed that path. During the trial, it became clear that he could never have lead, conceived, nor implemented such a complex solution on his own. So how evil was he exactly? And how should he be punished? (Spoiler alert: he was hanged).

We come to the ineluctable conclusion that ‘evil’ can be perpetrated very simply. For, it is nothing more than a lack of thought or consideration. A lack of empathy. How often have any of us hurt someone without thought? I know I have. In the moment, usually under stress, I just didn’t consider how someone else was being impacted because I was more concerned with myself. I didn’t learn of their pain until much later. By then, much harm had been done. Was that evil?

Yes, I know, Eichmann’s life presents us with a much more extreme situation. People weren’t just hurt. They suffered and died. Horribly. I’d like to think that if I had found myself in his exact position, I would have made a different choice. But Stanley Milgram’s electric shock experiments from the 1960’s definitely cloud things. The results of these experiments showed that the vast majority of us are disturbingly obedient to authority, even when we know someone is being hurt. (Look them up if you haven’t read about them yet. They’re fascinating – along with Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiments). Arendt’s book leaves you with the thought that empathy is everything. Without it, we’re just animals. The most cruel and heinous actions can be perpetrated, and justified, whenever we fail to show it.

In last week’s blog, I already mentioned my second book this month. It’s called What My Bones Know by Stephanie Foo, and it’s the story of her journey from a scarred, traumatized child, to a healing, more self-aware adult. Her mother abused her as a child, and her father neglected and then later abandoned her. As many Asians do, she succeeded spectacularly despite this harrowing past, but not without hurting many people along the way.

This book is the story of how she tried to heal herself, and resolve generations of family trauma, through conventional talk therapy, EDMR, restorative yoga, meditation, IFS, and the help and support of friends. She tried everything. ‘Hurt people hurt people’ was her mantra. She just wanted to stop all the hurting. I can’t recommend this book highly enough, particularly for those who are also struggling to recover from difficult pasts. Her perseverance and determination to improve herself, despite the odds, is incredibly inspiring.

Finally, I rounded out the month with another tremendously helpful book, Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson. Hanson is a psychologist, and I’ve read a couple of his books, and also attended some of his free Wednesday night talks. He never fails to show kindness and compassion through both his words and his writing. The concept of Hardwiring Happiness is pretty simple: as Hanson says, “our brains are velcro for difficult experiences, and Teflon for good ones”, meaning that we tend to hold on to our negative experiences much more tightly than the positive ones, which causes us no end of emotional problems.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. We need to know where the dangers are if we want to survive. No doubt, this tendency to place more emphasis on negative experiences than positive ones helped humans to band together, avoid death, and thrive. But in our modern lives, holding on to these negative experiences long after their usefulness has only made us more anxious and depressed.

Hanson reminds us that our brains have plasticity – meaning they can grow and change under the right influences. We aren’t static. We have choice, and we can use that choice to ‘hardwire’ our happiness by remembering our positive experiences, savouring them, and then blending them in with all of our negative experiences to create a more complete picture of our lives. We tend to forget that, mixed in with our faults and failings, each of us also has many good traits, good times, and happy memories. Times when we felt safe, and loved, and connected. We just need to remember them, and emphasize them instead of only remembering the negative ones.

I did all the exercises at the back of the book, and found them really helpful. The concept of Hardwiring Happiness is pretty simple, and the book can get repetitive – the whole idea can be summarized in a paragraph! But the implications of the practice are profound. I really believe that these exercises can help a lot of people who struggle with depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, hopelessness, and feelings of loneliness. You just have to be consistent with it.

So, there you have it! The books I read this month. I hope you didn’t mind the deep dive today. I really enjoy complexity, and books that give me food for thought. Until next month, keep reading. 🙂

Asians: The Model Minority

On several different occasions while I was growing up, I remember my mother remarking, “I just love Indian children. They are so well behaved!” At the time, I just shrugged my shoulders. My mother was a teacher at the time, and I was a neurotic adolescent. So, while she had pretty strong opinions about teaching and child-rearing, I mostly had no opinions at all.

I could imagine groups of clean, smiling Indian children, trying their best to be polite. It fit the stereotype. My mother’s remark made a certain sense, even though it rankled a bit. Even then, it seemed wrong to predict someone’s behaviour based entirely on their race.

I also remember when I first met my husband at university. We would often engage in these long, philosophical discussions in my dorm room, and on one particular occasion, I made a comment about all Asians being good at math. Mike bristled, which surprised me at the time. “Not all Asians are good at math,” he told me. “That’s just as ridiculous as saying that all Caucasians are good at math.”

I didn’t quite get it. All the Asian people I knew were good at math (although, admittedly, I didn’t know many). What I didn’t understand at the time is that there could be many different reasons for Asians shining in the classroom.

For one, most Asians who immigrated to North America in the late 50’s and early 60’s (as his parents did), tended to be the best and brightest. They won scholarships to attend university in North America, so it’s natural that their kids might be particularly bright as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all Asians everywhere share this same talent, though.

Secondly, and the focus of this particular blog: the kids of many Asian immigrants were often forced to be good at math through repeated beatings and scathing verbal abuse. They were the best and brightest because their parents simply wouldn’t accept anything less.

You might recall a popular book published in 2011 called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. It became a best-seller because it promoted the idea that if you wanted your kids to succeed, you needed to push them hard. Everybody wanted their kids to succeed like Asian kids, so a lot of mothers took Chua’s advice and strived to be Tiger Moms too.

But at what cost? As it turns out, the lives of those Asian immigrant kids was not so great. Now that these kids have reached middle age, they are starting to speak out about their experiences, and this is the subject of Stephanie Foo’s incredible book, What My Bones Know, a memoir of her struggle to overcome complex PTSD as a result of her parents’ excessive discipline when she was growing up.

In the book, Foo describes how her mother would beat her with chopsticks, a tennis racket, a plastic ruler, a wire hanger – anything she could get her hands on – and often for the smallest reasons, like putting her foot up on a chair. Or opening up the plastic wrapping on a copy of People magazine before her mother could read it. Or failing to say she was sorry about any number of things, depending on her mother’s mood of the day. She was regularly told she was useless, ungrateful, and ugly. She was hurled down the stairs by her ponytail, kicked mercilessly, or threatened with a raised cleaver at her wrist, or her neck.

My husband tells similar stories. He was beaten regularly with the rubber Hot Wheels tracks many of us played with as children. When those weren’t immediately at hand, he was also just plain slapped or hit. He was told he was stupid, lazy, and useless. He was also waterboarded: held upside-down with his nose directly under a running tap. On some occasions, his father would strip him naked and then lock him outside the house for an indeterminate amount of time, even during the coldest days of February. When I asked how old he might be when this kind of punishment occurred, he said about 7 or 8.

Those Indian kids who my mother thought remarkably obedient and polite probably acted that way because they’d be beaten savagely if they didn’t. Those Asian kids who got high marks and achieved first place in every mathematics competition likely faced severe punishment if they failed. It shines a different light on all that good behaviour, on all those spectacular successes.

What I like about Stephanie Foo’s book is that, while she doesn’t shy away from showing the abuse, she also strives to understand why her parents did it. She knows the pressure they felt to succeed, having sacrificed so much to get to North America. She knows the traumatic pasts they were often escaping. Her parents had hard lives. They took it out on their kids. It’s incredibly sad, but also incredibly human.

So, what does all this mean? I guess it means that you should never assume someone else has it easier than you unless you’re able to walk a mile in their shoes. I think it also means you should try to appreciate all the good things you have in your own life. You might not get the highest marks in school, or the job promotion at work, but at the very least, you know your parents care about you (at least I hope you do!) Many Asian kids didn’t have that same assurance, and they still suffer because of it.

Rhubarb Root

The very yellowish rhubarb root and its tart red stems

It was around this time of year that I baked my very first pie. I was 22 years old at the time, and a university student. Although I had baked cakes and cookies before, I had never yet attempted a pie. It just seemed too challenging. I preferred to stick with safer baked goods.

However, that summer I happened to be housecleaning for an older cousin of mine, and after my chores were done, she decided to show me how to make a pie. I remember carefully breaking up the butter into little crumbs and then mixing it together with the flour. My cousin watched over my shoulder the entire time to ensure that I had the correct ratio of butter and shortening to flour, knowing how important that was for the creation of a tender, flaky crust.

We then filled the pie with strawberries, and – you guessed it! – rhubarb from the garden. We sprinkled the strawberries and rhubarb with sugar, put it in the oven, and I have to say, that pie was pretty darn good!

But! We did not use rhubarb root. We used the tart, reddish coloured stems of the plant, to the great relief of both our palates and our intestines! For, while rhubarb stems are fibrous and tart, and no doubt good for the liver, the root is very bitter and yellowish, and is a highly regarded laxative for the intestines.

The Chinese pinyin name for rhubarb root is “Da Huang”, which means “Big Yellow”. Of all the yellow rooted herbs in Chinese medicine, this one is considered the most powerful, and the most yellow! When we make our GCG tincture, which includes rhubarb root, it tends to stain everything yellow. We have to be so careful of our clothes, since even bleach can’t eradicate a strong rhubarb stain.

So, why is rhubarb root considered “big and powerful”? Because it’s an excellent purger of heat, infection and stagnation in the lower body. It doesn’t just cool inflammation, as many other detoxifying herbs do, it also kills bacteria, stimulates blood circulation, and stops bleeding. It works well for people with strong constitutions, and yet is also gentle enough for people who are weaker. Basically, it covers pretty much any health problem in the lower body. It’s magnificent!

First, there are it’s well-known laxative properties. While other herbs, such as senna leaf, buckthorn bark, and even aloe vera leaf can purge a little too strongly and create cramping or laxative dependencies, rhubarb is gentler and can be taken for long periods of time without causing problems. This means that it works a little more slowly, with its effects not occurring until 6-8 hours after ingestion. However, because it doesn’t affect the small intestines, there is no issue with cramping, and it also doesn’t interfere with the normal ingestion of nutrients. [1]

It has broad spectrum antibiotic activity [2] and its ability to increase blood viscosity and stop bleeding make it an excellent remedy for bloody intestinal problems, like dysentery, or intestinal abscesses [3].

It protects the liver from damage, and increases the excretion of bile within just minutes of ingestion [4]. And its ability to stimulate blood circulation makes it an excellent herb for the heart, increasing oxygen consumption in the cardiac muscle, while also reducing heart rate and blood pressure [5][6].

Rhubarb root has even been used to successfully treat acute pancreatitis. In a study done with 100 patients who had pancreatitis, doses of straight rhubarb root – nothing else added – resolved the condition in almost 100% of cases after just 3 days. In this case, 30-60 grams of rhubarb root were given every 1-2 hours until symptoms subsided [7].

You can see why rhubarb root is revered in Chinese medicine. There’s plenty of reasons why you might want to keep some rhubarb root in your cupboard. Just make sure you don’t put it in your pies! You’ll be wanting to use the stems for that.

1. Zhong Yao Xue (Chinese Herbology), 1998; 251:256
2. Ibid.
3. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine), 1982; 2:85
4. Xin Yi Yao Xue Za Zhi (New Journal of Medicine and Herbology), 1974; (5):34
5. Chang Yong Zhong Yao Cheng Fen Yu Yao Li Shou Ce (A Handbook of the Composition and Pharmacology of Common Chinese Drugs), 1994; 226:323
6. Zhong Guo Zhong Yao Za Zhi (People’s Republic of China Journal of Chinese Herbology), 1989; 14(10):46
7. Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi (Journal of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine), 1982; 2:85


Very little grows on jagged rock.
Be ground. Be crumbled,
so wildflowers will come up where you are.

You have been stony for too many years.
Try something different. Surrender.


“Where in your life have you demonstrated resilience?”

It’s a question our instructor, Alexa, asked us this past week as part of our compassionate resilience training.

I paused and thought about this for a beat, a note of panic rising in my chest as I searched through the dark woods of my memories for an example to share.

I found it a tough question to answer. It’s not that I haven’t gone through hard times. In fact, I often feel like I’ve spent my entire life stumbling from one disaster to the next. But have I ever demonstrated resilience?

The short answer to that question is a big, fat “No”. I feel like a failure. Tears come to my eyes. I’ve always tried so hard. How is it that despite all those efforts, I’ve still managed to do so badly in life?”

As my tears begin to flow, some of my classmates pipe up. They tell stories of shock and trauma. Of abuse and isolation, and how they’ve managed to pull themselves back up again despite their circumstances. They tell stories of the resources they tried to access, sometimes incompletely, but always making the attempt. They tell stories of how they stumbled, but still moved on as best they could.

Is that what resilience is? The mere survival of difficult circumstances? I’ve always thought of it differently. I’ve always pictured it louder, with a more triumphant ring of success.

When I look resilience up in the dictionary, it says: “the power or ability of a material to return to its original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity,” or “the ability of a person to adjust to or recover readily from illness, adversity, major life changes, etc.; buoyancy“.

These definitions suggest a return to wholeness, with an unchanged spirit. Like the bad event never even happened. That’s how I’ve always thought of it too. That if you can’t bounce right back to the way you were before, then you’re clearly not resilient and you’ve failed.

But as the stories of my classmates keep coming, they describe something rather different. They detail all the ways they tried to survive. The ways they managed to find some sense of control over difficult events. The steps they took to make themselves feel better, even if only for a moment. Success, when it came, was often far into the future.

And as I begin to reflect further, I think to myself, “Didn’t I do that too”? Didn’t I seek out someone to talk with? Didn’t I start meditating? Didn’t I learn to be with my feelings, rather than constantly pushing them under? Didn’t I create a safe space for myself where I could retreat when times were tough? Didn’t I keep going, despite everything?

Traditionally, my way of dealing with life’s many crises was to criticize myself, often quite severely. It was to deny my feelings and push myself even harder. It was to hate myself for all the mistakes I’ve made, and chip away at my sense of strength and self worth until I was left with nothing. But I am changing. Little by little, I am growing. This time, I didn’t do that.

Slowly and persistently, I have become more resilient.

As my classmates continue to describe their own pain and all the little sparks of resilience that followed, I allow some compassion to flow towards myself, as I’ve learned to do. I soften my heart, and show myself some tenderness, recognizing that I’ve always done the best I could.

Suddenly, my perspective starts to shift, and instead of seeing a life filled with stumbles and mishaps, a new and different narrative opens up. A narrative where I’m not necessarily a failure, a helpless victim bouncing from one crisis to the next, but more of a steadfast warrior. As a woman who has somehow managed to keep going, despite everything, with a heart that’s still beating. With a body that’s still breathing. With a spirit that is still warm and open.

Yes, I am resilient too.

In the past, I’ve always thought that if I wanted to be strong, I had to be hard on myself. But I’m gradually learning that resilience only comes when I can show myself some softness. When I can recognize that I am still a good person, with good intentions, who may have made some mistakes, but is still beautiful, and valuable, and unique, nonetheless.

And when I remind myself of this, the tears stop flowing. My chest opens. My shoulders become less tense and I find I can breathe more deeply again.

The world is full of hardness. This time, try something different. This time, see if you can soften towards yourself. See if you can crumble, so wildflowers grow where you are.

The Waayyy Behind Book Club – May 2023

Hello everyone! I hope you have all been enjoying the emergence of spring. In Toronto, where I am, the weather has been just lovely. So lovely that I have been enjoying reading out of doors on my front porch, where I have planted some pretty geraniums and impatiens in pots.

I finished reading just three books this month, but two of them really blew me away and generated a lot of inspiration. I hope you find them helpful too.

The first book this month is The Great Work of your Life by Stephen Cope. I’ve read a couple of books by Stephen Cope in the past. In particular, I really enjoyed Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. But this book was a whole other level of awesome. It is based on the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu spiritual book that is required reading for many yoga teacher trainings.

Before you distance yourself from this book thinking it sounds too foreign or weird, just listen for a minute. The book is focused on finding your dharma, calling it your most holy purpose in life. In essence, your dharma is your calling. It’s that thing you were born to do. That thing you find most enjoyable in life, that lifts your spirit and is your gift to the world. There’s nothing outrageous about that.

The book is filled with inspirational examples of people who followed their dharma, like the poets Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, and the naturalist Henry David Thoreau. He follows Susan B. Anthony in her quest for equal political representation for women, and psychologist Marion Woodman through her battle with cancer. Harriet Tubman and Mahatma Gandhi exemplify selflessness, and the courage required to buck popular thinking and go your own way. In between the famous examples, Cope also inserts people from his own life who struggled for a time and then managed to distill greater meaning and purpose from their own lives.

It may not sound like it, but it’s actually a page-turner, and an invigorating one at that. It is guaranteed to get you thinking about the meaning and purpose of your own life and how and where to find your dharma.

The second book I read this month is The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. I actually didn’t like this book very much. This surprised me, because it’s a historical novel, which I normally love. It’s set during that often ignored, turbulent period just after the end of the US Civil War. President Lincoln has just been assassinated, the streets are awash in wounded soldiers, and now a string of grisly murders are being perpetrated in the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The murders just happen to mimic the deaths described in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is confusing, because the book had not yet been translated into the English language, so only an intellectual would know about it. The list of suspects is small.

After finishing this book, I looked back at the plot and the characters, trying to figure out why I found it so unsatisfying. I had no problems with the writing. The characters were distinctive and memorably drawn. If I had to make a criticism, I think maybe Pearl spent more time describing the mood of the time than he did advancing the plot, which caused the book to drag a little. But that’s just me. If you also enjoy historical fiction, you can give the book a whirl and let me know what you think. It’s possible it just caught me in an off mood. The book is a national best-seller, so it definitely has its fans.

The third book I read this month was Widen the Window: Training your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma by Elizabeth Stanley. I found this book absolutely fascinating! If you are an adult and have been alive on this earth for the past few decades, you need to read it. It’s all about trauma, stress tolerance and resilience.

In the first part of the book, Stanley describes the physical signs of unhealed stress and trauma. You will recognize plenty of them. The more periods of stress you have undergone in your life, without managing to heal, the narrower your window of tolerance for further stress. And who hasn’t been under a lot of stress over the last few years? Common signs of unhealed stress include greater emotional reactivity, poor decision-making, and the sudden surfacing of inexplicable health problems, to name just a few.

Stanley rose to the level of captain in the US Army before having something of a nervous breakdown. As she tried to recover, she did a lot of research on stress and trauma. She discovered scientifically proven methods for widening your window of tolerance and eventually created a program that the US Army now uses to prepare its soldiers for the stress and rigour of war. The exercises she outlines in the book can be used for everybody, not just soldiers. Anyone who is trying to heal from the cumulative stress and trauma of living in the 21st century on planet Earth would benefit from this book.

I hope you enjoyed reading my impressions of these books. Maybe you were even inspired to check one of them out! Until next month, enjoy the sun, and happy reading. 🙂

Ligustrum Fruit

Ligustrum fruit, otherwise known as glossy privet fruit

Spring has sprung in Toronto and it certainly feels like it. Everything is greener now, and flowering trees and bushes are blooming. Why are we suddenly walking through a greener world? Because it has been raining almost constantly for the past few weeks. There’s nothing like a warm rain to stimulate rejuvenation.

As the saying goes, “April showers bring May flowers” so it’s hard to complain. If I want the pretty trees and flowers, I’m going to have to accept some rain, and that’s a transaction I’ll accept. But all the rain and moistness does remind me of ligustrum fruit, our featured herb this month.

Ligustrum fruit is an ancient Taoist longevity tonic, and one of the herbs in our Shou Wu Plus tincture. It is considered a yin tonic, and like all yin tonics it soothes and extends the life of certain major organs, particularly our liver and kidneys. It is soothing because it is cooling and moistening, and subdues inflammation.

As we age, we tend to become drier and more brittle. Our muscles and tendons tense up and can become cramped and injured more easily. Regular exercise will keep our blood circulating well so that our organs and tissues continue to be invigorated. However, herbs like ligustrum fruit can provide an invaluable assist, adding in extra moisture to heal and resolve these symptoms of dryness.

According to Chinese medicine, ligustrum fruit not only tonifies liver and kidney yin (nourishing and moistening those organs), but it also restores “jing”. Jing, otherwise known as “essence”, is the energetic bank account we are all born with, and which varies from individual to individual, depending on our constitutional inheritance. It’s the internal juice that we dip into whenever we push ourselves beyond our limits. It fuels our “second wind”.

The more we strain and extend ourselves in life, the more our energetic bank account is depleted. Jing can be depleted by having too many children without enough recovery in between, by engaging in sexual activity too frequently, or simply through long-term stress and overwork. Understandably, if we want to have a long and healthy a life, we want to preserve our jing as much as possible and dip into it only when absolutely necessary.

By middle age, most people start to notice that their jing is being depleted. Common signs are; forgetfulness, hair loss, blurry vision, deafness, premature greying, incontinence, infertility, sterility, menopausal hot flashes, osteoporosis, and diseases like Parkinson’s. The sooner you start seeing these signs of aging, the more quickly you are burning through your jing bank account. If this is happening to you, I would recommend making some adjustments to your lifestyle, if possible. And an herb like ligustrum can be an invaluable help.

Ligustrum fruit has demonstrated an ability to increase white blood cell counts and thereby stimulate the immune system[1]. It can reduce plasma glucose levels and thereby reverse signs of type 2 diabetes[2]. It can also reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels[3]. It has natural anti-inflammatory properties[4], and is hepatoprotective, lowering elevated liver enzymes and preventing liver damage due to dryness[5]. It can also stimulate the production of new red blood cells, increasing your energy level[6].

Julia used to prepare ligustrum fruit as a tea with eclipta, another liver and kidney yin tonic. When paired together, these two herbs are commonly used in TCM to lower blood pressure. She would drink multiple cups of this tea on a daily basis, and that may be why she was so spry and energetic well into her 70’s. Customers and friends alike would often comment on her youthful movements.

So, if you’re feeling dry and stiff, consider giving ligustrum fruit a try. As I mentioned above, it is an important ingredient in our Shou Wu Plus tincture, and you can also purchase it in our Shou Wu Tea, or even on its own – just ask if you’re interested! As ligustrum fruit is a yin tonic, its properties are extracted more readily in a water base, like a tea. However, if you’re short on time, the Shou Wu Plus tincture is still beneficial. When restoring your jing, any way you can get that herb into your system is better than nothing!

  • 1. Zhong Chang Yao Yan Jiu (Research of Chinese Patent Medicine), 1982; (1):42
  • 2. Zhong Guo Zhong Yao Za Zhi (People’s Republic of China Journal of Chinese Herbology), 1992; 17(7):429
  • 3. Jin Zhou Yi Xue Yuan Xue Bao (Journal of Jinzhou University of Medicine), 1983; 4(1):40
  • 4. Zhong Guo Zhong Yao Za Zhi (People’s Republic of China Journal of Chinese Herbology), 1989; 14(7):47
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Zhong Yao Tong Bao (Journal of Chinese Herbology), 1983; 8(6):35

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