Podcast 044: Empty Nests & Challenges

If back-to-school means the nest is empty, you may want some herbal support! Katja shares her favorite allies for this difficult transition.

Ryn reflects on a forest movement immersion event he experienced recently, and shares some lessons he [re]learned there about challenge, adaptability, and seeing the complex context.

Herbs discussed include hawthorn, motherwort, sage, catnip, chamomile, & goldenrod.

Mentioned in this podcast:

If you like our podcast, you might like learning from us in a more intentional way – like with our Family Herbalist program! It’s a great way to start incorporating herbs into your daily life, to keep you and your loved ones healthy and resilient all year round!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


Episode Transcript

Katja: 00:11 Hi I’m Katja.

Ryn: 00:13 And I’m Ryn.

Katja: 00:13 And we’re here at the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston Massachusetts.

Ryn: 00:17 And on the Internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast. Hey, we’re not doctors! We are herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja: 00:28 The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So these discussions are for educational purposes only. Everybody’s body is different, so the things we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but hopefully they’ll give you some information to think about and research more.

Ryn: 00:48 We wish to remind you that good health your own personal responsibility.

Ryn: 00:52 The final decision in considering any course of therapy, whether discussed on the Internet or prescribed by your physician is always yours.

Katja: 01:00 Yeah.

Ryn: 01:03 Alright. Housekeeping. We want to give some shout outs this week.

Katja: 01:06 Yes. We want to say hello to Casey who found us at Herbstalk’s Harvest Festival, and Steph who was listening to the herbs for introverts and extroverts episode while she was making dinner. And on Instagram to Sarah Marie Studio who is doing her very own schisandra project.

Ryn: 01:25 Nice.

Katja: 01:25 Yeah it was pretty exciting. Also to Naomi in New Hampshire and Peggy who said I can barely wait for the podcast. It’s like my chocolate. Oh my god y’all! We’re chocolate.

Ryn: 01:37 Wow. That’s pretty good.

Katja: 01:38 That is awesome. Also welcome to Alexis who doesn’t have kids but loves to learn and is a new listener to the podcast. [laughter]

Ryn: 01:48 These are all very interesting defining features you’ve chosen for each of these listeners.

Katja: 01:52 I get so excited when people write to us and make reviews and whatever else. I just literally – it is like meeting a new friend every time and I feel so excited about it.

Katja: 02:04 Also, last week, 937 people listened to our podcast.

Ryn: 02:10 Wow!

Katja: 02:10 I know, right? It’s kind of crazy. If 10 percent of you could give us a review on iTunes this week, that would really help us out. It only takes a minute to do and it’s like giving a cup of herbal tea to a complete stranger. Because more reviews means the podcast gets recommended to more people. So make the algorithm overlords happy.

Ryn: 02:32 Thanks, guys.

Katja: 02:34 Yeah. We appreciate it a lot. And most importantly, some stranger that you may never meet who finds this podcast and thinks it’s really helpful for them – is going to thank you a lot.

Ryn: 02:45 Yeah. A good podcast is worth paying attention to and sharing. And we want to share with you guys that there’s the HerbRally podcast. They’re some friends of ours, and we actually recorded a guest episode for them this week. It’s about how to not be a guru. So go check it out.

Katja: 03:08 [Laughter] That podcast is about our thoughts around student/teacher relationships and power imbalances that can happen there and active steps that we can take in the herbal community to avoid that from happening. We think it’s really important because we love the herbal community and we know that we’re all responsible for building it into something that is sustainable and just. So – anyway – give it a listen. We hope that you’ll like it. Plus the HerbRally podcast is awesome!

Ryn: 03:38 Yeah, there’s tons of good stuff over there. You can check them out at HerbRally.com. They’ve got podcasts. They’ve got monographs. They’ve got a listing of local events all over the country and a bunch of other good stuff. Go check them out.

Katja: 03:55 Yes!

Ryn: 03:55 Cool. So what is on your mind this week, Ladybird?

Katja: 03:59 I’ve been thinking about empty nest syndrome. Last week, we were talking about back-to- school season. And,, for some of you this year that means that you’ve got kiddos leaving the nest and moving out on their own. Maybe they’re going to college or maybe something else. My dear friend and I here in Boston both have that going on right now because our teenage daughters simultaneously decided to change schools. Her daughter is starting a boarding school in Vermont right now, and my daughter moved to her dad’s house to attend school in his town because there’s a stronger engineering program there. And also possibly because she’s 15 and mom doesn’t live at dad’s house.

Ryn: 04:44 Possibly. [laughter]

Katja: 04:44 You know but when I was 15 I left the country to be an exchange student – and actually you were an exchange student too.

Ryn: 04:52 I did. Yeah.

Katja: 04:53 I think it’s really important for kids to just get out on their own sometimes, and that happens at different ages for different kids. But, regardless of when it happens and how it happens, it’s really hard on parents to deal with the whole empty nest thing. So I wanted to talk about that. And – I don’t know – the thing about parenting is that it’s temporary. And even just saying that is kind of hard because, you know, there’s like “I’ll always be your mother” and all those things that we tell our kids and also all those things that we tell ourselves. But, really from the moment that they’re born, as parents we’re learning to let them go and to surrender to them that which has really always belonged to them – but just that we held in trust. And that’s their autonomy and their independence. You know, as they’re growing slowly they take the parts that they’re ready for – bit by bit – or sometimes chunk by chunk. But, in that last moment, it’s like ripping the bandaid off and then it’s just like – boom! There’s nothing left for us to hold. So. I don’t know. It’s good. It’s the way it should be. It’s right for them. It’s hard for us, but it’s also good for us as parents because now it’s our time to remember what our lives are like as individuals and what our identity is. When people call us by our names and not just “Amber’s mom”, you know? Anyway, it’s hard but it’s good – and herbs can help. So two herbs that are at the core of my survival strategy right now are hawthorn and motherwort. Hawthorn is an herb that supports the heart, especially in times of grief – and that’s really what that is. We’re mourning the loss of our babies, but I think what we’re really mourning the loss of time. What I mean is the time that we thought we had to do a little better at the things we didn’t get quite right and that we always knew we didn’t quite get quite right, but it was like – “I’m going to fix that”. Or time we still thought we had to do things that we wanted to do but we didn’t have time for. There’s just this aspect of realizing that – I don’t know – It’s like you have an exam and you have a certain amount of time to finish it. And now that time is up, but you’re not done with the test – and it’s done. It’s out of your hands now. No matter how much you thought you prepared for this, there’s still that aspect of grief. And this is where Hawthorn really shines. Of course we love Hawthorn just for the physiological heart health as well.

Ryn: 07:46 Oh, yeah.

Katja: 07:46 But really any any of those sort of “hole in the heart” kinds of feelings -or whenever there’s an empty spot – that’s when Hawthorn is just beautiful. And I’ve been really working with the berries. The leaf and flower are great as well, but lately it’s been all about the berries for me. I think partially because they just taste so good. I don’t know, but it has been all berries all the time over here. Motherwort is another, and motherwort we often talk about for things that require big courage. Like – if a child has to go to the hospital and a parent can’t show their fear so that the child won’t be afraid. And that, you know, comes right back from the name, Leonurus cardiaca. It’s another plant that has a lot of physiological support for the heart itself but also for these emotional situations. And when we’re letting our children fly out on their own or – I don’t know, they’re going to do it whether we let them or not. But, you know, when we are supporting our children flying out on their own, it’s a thing that requires a lot of big courage too. There are so many what-ifs. Actually, let’s not list them so that we don’t go crazy. Suffice it to say, motherwort is a really good friend to just be strong and have courage and have faith in our kids – that they’re going to go out there and they’re going to be fine. Because they are. Motherwort is also an herb of boundaries and it’s actually time for that. It’s already in our children to close themselves off to us and head out in the world. That’s just part of being a teenager. Though, of course, they each have their own way of doing that. But it might be a little harder for parents to turn off the habit of holding on because we’ve been doing it for so long. So an herb that can help with healthy boundaries and remind us that it’s OK if we don’t hear from them every day or even maybe every week is going to be really helpful. It’s going to help us to make that shift towards finding ourselves again. And especially the parts of us that we put on hold and squeezed into the margins while we focused on our children. It was right for us to focus on our children. But it’s time now for us to go and get those parts out that we put aside for a while and develop and inhabit those again, as people who are not just parents. So in that regard, too, sage is also a dear friend. When I think about sage, I think about returning a mother’s body to herself in a sense. It’s really helpful in postpartum recovery, especially topically for tearing and also in a sitz bath. And later, when it’s time to wean, sage helps stop the flow of milk. So those are two times when a mother’s body has really been taken over for baby’s purposes and Mom can often feel like her body is not her own through this time or like somebody else has exclusive grabby rights regardless of what you might want to be doing. And I know that my daughter breastfed for a long time and and she definitely was old enough to toddle around and – you know – kind of come over and be grabby. And that is wonderful and also a drain, you know, it’s also hard. So I really kind of think that, with sage, it’s not just about the physiological drying-up of the milk flow. It’s also about that idea of going through that transition where your body belongs to you again. So now that we’re a long way from breastfeeding and babies and they’re going off on their own, I feel like sage again is helpful in this transition – even though it’s been years and years. It’s time for them to take their own priorities and it’s time for us to start to rebuild our sense of self without them. You know, sage is also this way in menopause – you know – really helpful in menopause. I just feel like sage is just so frequently an herb of transition and support through transition. Not only that, but Sage is one of my favorite emotional support herbs for the times that we feel overwhelmed. For me that usually looks like a to do list that seems to grow by several items for every one item I cross off.

Ryn: 12:32 Right. [laughter]

Katja: 12:33 And I start to feel like there’s just no way to get it all done. [thunder rumbles] And that’s ominous thunder, while I’m talking about my to do list. [laughter] I don’t know. In those times sage really helps me to stay sane, focused and not to let feeling overwhelmed spiral me into anxiety and despair – which might sound a little overdramatic, but when you’re overwhelmed everything is overdramatic and sage just brings that down to a way more realistic place. So I really appreciate that. And then some other herbs that I’ve been really enjoying have been Linden because it is so calming and soothing. You know, we love to call linden “a hug in a mug”, and I can’t think of a better name for that tree. It is just so beautiful and wonderful. It’s so calming to the nervous system and also to the heart. I really love catnip right now. Catnip is really for all rising feelings but in this particular moment those rising feelings of “oh no!” – like the sudden feeling of panic that unreasonably grips you in a quiet moment or the rising feeling of dread of “How am I going to get through this?” -or even worse -” Is she going to be okay?” Catnip can just settle those feelings down and help you remember, “Yes! She’s going to be okay! This is what they’re supposed to do.” Chamomile is a good friend in these times. Okay, you know me. Chamomile is a good friend in all times. But right now it is delightfully anti-spasmodic and it helps to release tension that you’re holding in your body as well as in your nerves. So frequently, when there is tension in the nervous system, that starts to happen physiologically like in the muscles, as well. It’s very uncomfortable, so – chamomile. Goldenrod, who is a big friend right now. Goldenrod is a plant who can really help you soldier on when the going gets tough, and it is sure to be that for us parents left at home while our kids are flying off to make their way. Just, you know, sometimes it’s like “Yay! Guess who I didn’t have to drag out of bed this morning?” But sometimes it’s like, “Oh, when is she coming home to visit?” You know, it’s sometimes there’s some trudging to be done and just sort of waiting as you get through the marathon. You know – that’s okay. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But goldenrod’s last name is Solidago, and that means to make whole. And I think that’s particularly appropriate here because a little piece of our hearts are flying off with them – and it’s time for us to be whole on our own again without having our kids tugging at us. Anyway, you can put all six of these friends – was that 6? 1, 2, 3,4 – that’s 7 – because math is hard. You can put all seven of these friends together in one big tea and drink it all day long, which I definitely have been doing every day – literally by the half gallon. You can blend yourself up a delicious elixir. Or you can just pick the one that best fits your feelings in any given moment. Trust me. The kids – they’re off having fun and being so busy with the work of independence. So let’s make a cup of tea and get to work on our own independence. It’s time to do that. We’re still here for them and they’re still gonna need us. But it’s time for us to get back to ourselves. Also actually a little bit of a footnote, I wanted to say that – even though I’m talking here about these emotional aspects of all these plants – they’re all physiological, too. More and more, the more I study and learn and work with plants, the more I realize that the emotional work that plants can do reflects the physiological work that they do. Or, in other words, the things that plants do in our body, they do in our emotions – because, of course, that’s where our emotions are. So it’s not surprising that plants that can help with rising heartburn or rising feelings of nausea can also help with rising feelings of panic or discomfort or any of that stuff. So.

Ryn: 17:06 Cool. Well, that kind of leads into some of the things I wanted to talk about this week -this idea that the emotional and the physical have a really strong connection. And herbs are one of the places we can see that very clearly and see that demonstrated and explore that for ourselves. What I had in mind this week was some thoughts on challenge and a large part of it is because last weekend I went up to an event called the MovNat Immersion up in Vermont. We went up to this wonderful piece of land on a permaculture farm on the side of a mountain and spent a few days moving around and doing some practicing and some instruction and in-depth investigation into some movements. But it was kind of all building up to this main event on Sunday. And so we spent part of Friday and all of Saturday kind of getting oriented and stretching out a bit and getting familiar with some movements. It was a mixed group and some of us already were familiar with these or seen them before. And other people were kind of brand new but just getting familiar with some basics and a few methods for traversing a particular kind of terrain or going from one place to another. But also – a lot of it was interspersed with these sort of philosophical ideas around movement and nature and what it means to be a human in the wild – things like that. And a lot of different ideas around how to find presence and find focus and to stay with the movement to stay with a feeling, even if it’s one of discomfort and how to make that an active effort and an active practice. And all that kind of came to a head on Sunday morning and we had kind of a leisurely morning and they made sure to give a long span of time between breakfast and when we really got going – which became immediately apparent as to why once we started. But before we leapt into action, we had a little circle and the group leader spoke about how – “Okay. For this, we’re going to be playing a really big long game of follow the leader, and there’s going to be times when we stop and you have like a challenge movement or a particular jump that I want to see everybody do so there will be moments when you’re not actively the person performing right now. But rather than sort of standing around and chatting or saying whatever comes to mind, I want us to remain mostly silent for this whole event and to just stay present and focused on your movements – focused on bringing your best efforts and challenging yourself so that it’s not all coming from outside but that sure you’re stepping up on the inside as well.” And that’s what we did. We went on and we had about four hours of basically constant movement – running and climbing and hiking and jumping from downed tree to downed tree and climbing over big piles of pine trees that had fallen all over each other. You know, you step on something and it sort of moves under you. And then you leap from there over to another one and climb under this and through that and over there and do that for just four hours straight. Then, any time that there is a pause where we’re all going to jump over from this rock to that rock or climb up this kind of this pole and go over to the other side and jump down – even in that moment, you’re going to be standing up and sitting down again or holding a position and shifting from a deep squat to a deep knee bend to kneeling to a lunge position to standing and back again down the other direction. So we were just fully present and really moving the whole time. And so this was quite a challenge. I feel like I’m a fairly fit individual.

Katja: 21:11 He’s very fit, you guys.

Ryn: 21:13 You know, I try to kind of move a lot and we’ve built our house – or our apartment – in such a way that it cultivates movement. You know we don’t have furniture. We sit on the floor. We lay on the floor for bedtime. We have monkey bars in the house. There’s toys to play with.

Katja: 21:30 It’s funny whenever I say, “Oh can you do this on the monkey bars? Okay. Well, now jump in between them. Now move them around while you’re hanging from them. No matter what crazy thing I dream up, he can still do it!

Ryn: 21:45 She has a high opinion of my capacity. But, anyway, so I feel pretty good but this was a hard day. It was a real challenge. And, like I said, it started off right at the beginning because we began by running up to the top of a hill and then log rolling down it – which I remember that being really fun when I was a kid. But somewhere after that, like the 10th or 12th rotation, it’s like – “Oh, there’s a long way to go!” And I’m kind of dizzy. And one guy did throw up. [laughter] So, yeah, that kind of set the tone for the rest of it – like “Oh boy, this is challenging in ways I did not expect!” Which was exactly the point – for it to be like – oh yeah – you’re just going to let gravity do the work, right? But suddenly that became much more challenging than it looks from the outside or than I thought it was going to be.

Katja: 22:40 So whenever I listen to that story, I just think, “Boy if you thought it was that challenging, I’m so glad that I didn’t go!” [laughter]

Ryn: 22:46 Yeah, but it was good, you know? And the other part of what we were doing was like – nobody’s going to get left behind. If the group is forward and someone else is catching up, no problem! We’re going to stand on one leg until you get there. We’re gonna all hang from from this tree branch until you make it up, and that’s just how it’s going to work. And so there was a camaraderie there even though we were silent. And I think part of it was enhanced by that. Because you get your words out of the way. And it was just -“You’re here. This is what you’re doing. Just keep moving. Move as a group.” And you kind of -I don’t know – for me, it was very effective in getting into that flow state of mind where you’re really present in exactly what it is you’re doing right now – and you’re not bothered with thoughts of the future or the past.

Katja: 23:32 Or even with thoughts of what am I going to say next.

Ryn: 23:35 Right. Yeah. “What are they thinking about me? I don’t know. I’m too busy.”

Katja: 23:38 Or what’s the right thing to say.

Ryn: 23:40 Yeah.

Katja: 23:41 Don’t have to think about it.

Ryn: 23:45 Right. Yeah. So – that was a lot of fun, and other things that we were exploring in that were fatigue. Because, you know, it’s like run around and play and do some jumps and then after like the first hour of that you’re like, “Oh right. This is going to go on for a while.” So yes – fatigue and its relationship to focus was something we were exploring there as well. Basically just saying like, you know, your body is actually still able to do these things. It’s your mind that’s starting to get distracted. It’s your mind starting to get in the way of good efficiency with your movements and you really need to work to keep that focused.

Katja: 24:21 I had a yoga instructor who used to like to say, “The body is willing, but the mind is weak. Of course, that was always funny because usually people say that in the other direction, but it’s really true. The body is usually willing. It’s the mind that gives out.

Ryn: 24:41 Yeah. And you could feel it too, right? Because if you come back to your breathing and you focus yourself and stay present, you can make that jump. But if you just try to rush through it because you’re tired and you want to get on to the next easy thing, then nope! Do it again. [laughter] So yes there is part of that and then part of it around discomfort. A lot of people run the course barefoot and get scratches. You know, when you try to climb up on something and rub the inside of your thigh on some really rough bark, then you’re having an experience there. You’re having an intimate encounter with that tree. [laughter] And so, you know, maintaining a presence in the face of discomfort is also something we really got to explore in a real visceral way. So all of that kind of got me thinking afterwards about some ideas that I’ve thought about before and some things that actually have a lot of direct relevance to herbal medicine and herbal practice. I was thinking about how our outlook shapes our experience, right? Like the setup, the having the time to practice some movements in a very low stress environment and feel like you have some comfort with – “Okay, how do I hook my leg over this branch and swing up on top of it and then lift my body up and balance on top? And now I’m up there and where can I jump down from here and where do I feel safe and where is my edge?” So we had time to work through those things and then we had this challenge – or instruction . “This is how we’re going to stay present and this is why we’re going to do it this way and this is the kind of attitude I want you to try to cultivate and hold on to as we go through it.” And so all of that shaped our experience of the stress of the Challenge Day, right? And actually from there even the impact that it then had on the body, right? So everybody who completed that felt really fantastic and super energized. We had a nice meal afterwards and everybody was really chatty and it was just a lot of “Ah! We did it!” – a lot of satisfaction going around. But you know if it had been an emergency or something that came on all at once and it wasn’t just for fun that we were climbing through the woods but because we were running away from a wildfire or people who wanted to come and get us or something then the experience of it and the impact of it would have been really different. So. You know I was just thinking a lot about that and about how the the mindset or the outlook that you bring to any given challenge is going to have a really strong influence on the way that plays out for you. And that that in turn is also shaped by your own prior experiences – by the kind of food that you’ve been eating lately, by the kind and amount of sleep you’ve been having, you know? And what kind of stressors you’ve been experiencing – and what your habits have been around movement. You know? This was a bunch of people who signed up for this kind of thing and had already some facility with movement and agility and strength and all of that. And so they were bringing that to the moment. They were bringing that to the challenge in advance. And so it’s really different if you don’t have that as a baseline. And so that kind of goes back to why we try to have healthy habits. You know, it’s not just because you get health points for that. [laughter] I mean I’m sure somebody has gamified their daily meditation. And I mean, yeah, I’ve used apps on my phone to help me meditate and they count your streak of how many days you do in a row, and they tell you how many minutes you’ve spent over the past month and all of this. Okay? That’s cool. But really the point is that I can be a little less of a jerk. I mean if I’m in a bad mood or if it’s a difficult day, the point of meditating is what happens when you get up off the cushion. And in the same way the point of practicing movement – natural movement and all of that – is so you can actually do something helpful with it, right? So don’t just necessarily be strong to look pretty but be strong to be helpful.

Katja: 29:02 Yeah

Ryn: 29:02 Yeah, that’s the goal. Well, anyway, all of that kind of in turn makes me think about this broader idea of what’s called a hormetic stressor or – in plainer language – stressors that make you stronger. And so – exercise in general is kind of the classic example of a hormetic stressor. And it would be contrasted with a stressor that’s just causing trouble for you. Right? So a good stressor could be I go and I have a workout and I tear some muscle fibers and I push my energy system to its limits and then I rest and I recover and I grow back stronger than I was before. And so I would point out right up front that these can only really be identified as a hormetic stressor in the broader context. The workout itself could be good for somebody or it could be bad for somebody. If it was way beyond their capacity but they really push themselves through it and sprained ankle or pulled a shoulder out in the middle of it, well – that’s not a good stressor for you. So the activity itself doesn’t really count. It’s in the broader context, like how much time do you take for recovery. And do you have the nutrients in your diet that you need to build the new tissue that you’ve demanded your body to produce. Things like that. Right? So not all exercise is equal, but there’s a lot of different ways that exercise can stress your system in a way that makes it stronger. If you think about it like a sprint workout. You demand from your body the generation of energy and the use of it in a fast environment where you’re not relying on oxidation to take place. So when you have a habit of doing a sprint workout, whether you do a formal tabata sprint – or if you just go to the park and chase your dog around and try to catch the first before she does, then you’re still training your body and saying, “Hey this is something that might be demanded of you in the future. So you need to be able to meet it.” And one of the ways your body reacts to a sprint workout is to put more mitochondria into your muscles so that there are more energy-generating powerhouses there and so that they’re better able to just make it happen. Get that sprint out and let you go. If you do a body weight workout, then you’re saying I need to be able to lift more weight and move it around – I need to be able to do this many push ups or sit-ups or squats or whatever it is. So you know there’s lots of different ways that exercise can challenge us and can make us stronger. But not all exercise is created equal. You know if I go out and I just jog at that sort of a medium/high pace and I just keep it up for hours and hours and push through the discomfort, there’s some benefits to that on a mental level or on a level of fortitude. Or again – if that’s necessary or I want to be able to do that. But if that’s the only kind of exercise you get, you’re spending a lot of time in a stress state and maybe not sufficient time in the state of recovery. Or you are demanding of your body or a particular kind of exertion. And it’s not necessarily one that really tracks with our evolutionary history or with the way our bodies like to be exercised or prefer to be exercised.

Katja: 32:35 Or maybe expect to be.

Ryn: 32:38 So this is getting into that range of what people call chronic cardio or just the kind of work out where it’s producing more stress hormones than it is producing healthy stressors in your system. So, you know, after a while of your jog, you start to rely really heavily on cortisol and adrenaline to get the energy moving and get it where where you need it and where you’re demanding it. But there can be downsides to that’s where now you’re not able to control some inflammation that’s in your knees or in your guts or somewhere else. So you can start to get into that problem of overtraining. I mean that’s the real concern there. Anyway, all of this is to say that there’s this idea of the hormetic stressor. There’s this idea of a kind of stress or a kind of workout that can make you stronger and make you more resilient. But that has a lot to do with the broader context. So if we try to carry that over to herbalism, there are a lot of parallels. For instance, if we think about some of the ways that herbs can challenge the body and then think about the context in which that happens, I think there’s a lot of interests to be found in that. So one example would be with bitter herbs. So bitter herbs. Well, they’re bitter.[laughter] That alone is a challenge for a lot of people. Especially people who are new to herbalism might say, “Oh do I have to? Can I just put it under the tongue or maybe a capsule so I don’t have to taste it?” And the answer is no. You need to taste it for it to work really well because your body reacts. It responds to the flavor, right? it responds to that taste and you secrete more digestive juices, and you’re better ready to digest whatever it is you’re about to consume. And, you know, there’s different ideas around why that happens with bitter things but one pretty good theory here is that it’s because some bitter things out there in the natural world are actually poisonous. And in case what you ate was not only bitter but had a little bit of toxicity to it, if you break it down, if you tear it into component pieces then maybe it won’t harm you. And so our bodies have learned over a long time to respond to the bitter flavor with increasing digestive activity. The net effect is that we can observe from where we’re at now in evolutionary history that bitters are a bit challenging to the body. And when we work with them we can react and become stronger. We can become better digesters and they can improve immune function, and lots of other good things can happen for us when we work with bitter – and that challenge can make us healthier and stronger. This is also something that occurs with the broad, broad category of antioxidants from our foods and from our plants. A lot of the things that are labeled as antioxidants are actually -when they first encounter your body and your system -they’re actually pro-oxidant. They actually cause some irritation or they cause some kind of challenge to your body. And it’s in response to that – that you react by stimulating or activating your endogenous antioxidant defenses and you sort of overshoot the mark a little bit so you don’t just clean up the oxidative stress from your dark, red hibiscus and rose hips and goji berry tea. But even a little more than than was actually called for there. And so now it goes and cleans up some other inflammation that was present in your body and gets things a little bit normalized. So these are things that we think of as, “Oh, antioxidants! That’s good for me.” Yeah, but part of the reason it’s good for you is because you are challenged by them and you react and you rise up to that challenge. And that’s the part where you actually become healthier or stronger. One more example for this is that in some medicinal mushrooms and some immuno-modulating herbs, there’s this category of constituents called beta glucans. And these are like these complex polysaccharides or complex sugars. And one of the ways that they seem to operate in the human body is that they go in and aspects of your immune system -these things called toll-like receptors- they’re like surveillance. And they monitor what’s coming in. And when you drink back some nice reishi mushroom decoction or -you know- some shiitake or maitake mushroom is in your in your broth or in your soup, these complex polysaccharides from the mushrooms come in and make contact with your immune system and your immune system looks at it and says, “Huh, that sort of looks like some slime that this bacteria I met last week was secreting. And I think maybe that might be you. So just in case I’m going to upregulate our white blood cell activity and we’re going to just be better safe than sorry here, We’re going to react as if you’ve just drank a big cup of E. coli slime.{laughter} And just in case we’re going to get everything ramped up and ready. And so, again, it’s a sort of a challenge. It’s a sort of a way where your body reacts to something that it could be a threat or it could be a difficult moment. And because of that you actually become better able to fight off or deal with other pathogens. So some examples from the herbal world there. But you know more broadly nature in general gives us many opportunities for exposure to these kinds of challenges. You know, when you run around barefoot in the woods you get a lot of dirt on yourself – especially if you’re doing that while crawling or shimmying or sliding along on your belly. So we get a lot of dirt time and we get a lot of contact with soil organisms. Many of them are friendly to us. But not all of them. Right? We recognize that part of the benefit of probiotics in the very general sense and especially the ones we get from exposure to healthy soil whether that’s in the forest or in your garden. Much of that benefit is coming from giving our immune system something to do, right? So this goes along with what’s called the Old Friends Hypothesis. Or sometimes it’s called the Hygiene Hypothesis, which basically says that in our modern environments there are places where we’ve made things so sterile that we are lacking an ancestral level of exposure to microbes, pathogens – even parasites – and that getting that back into our lives can normalize some immune functions. Which, if we don’t have that kind of normal ancestral exposure, our immune system goes looking for a fight and decides to attack your lungs -and then you’re a kid with asthma or to attack your guts – and now you’re more prone to allergies or other kinds of problems. So the Old Friends Hypothesis is basically that, yeah, not everything out there in the natural world is actually friendly to us. But the challenge that it provides can help to normalize our system. If humans have evolved over the long time with an expectation that this was one of the challenges we needed to face, and if we don’t provide that, then things can go haywire and we can start to have problems.

Katja: 40:13 Kind of like, if you have a friend that you like to debate and you get together pretty regularly and you have a beer and you have a good debate and kind of get it all out of your system.

Ryn: 40:24 Yeah. So there’s that and then also just being out in the forest ,you know just being out there and smelling the dirt and breathing in organic chemicals when you do that. And, you know, if there’s lots of pine trees around – you smell them. And, you know, while we were out there one of the other rules for the for the challenge itself was – you’re not going to carry anything. So no food, no snacks, no water. We stopped a couple of times in that four hour stretch to drink some water. We cycled back around by the faucet. Stuck your head under there for a minute,{laughter} took a gulp, and then went back to the run you know. But we didn’t really carry anything else with us, but we did all grab an apple off of the tree as we went by and eat one of those. And they were really small – you know – really sour, almost wild apples and all of that and you know that felt so good and it tasted so good after a couple hours of exertion and ,you know me, I saw some mugwort leaves and grabbed a handful of those at one point on the run. And I kept reaching out and chewing on these goldenrod flowers that were there and – you know – just kind of like incidental, opportunistic exposure to some different tastes and different chemicals and different kinds of plant matter. And that’s a very you know ancestral way of moving around, “Well, I have to get over there. All right, well, if on my walk I encounter something tasty, I’m going to take some.”

Katja: 41:50 “Yeah I’m going to eat it.”

Ryn: 41:52 Yeah. So, you know.

Katja: 41:53 If only you had encountered some raspberries.

Ryn: 41:56 There were some blackberry bushes and we did get a few wild blackberries.

Katja: 42:05 You did encounter some.

Ryn: 42:05 Yeah. [laughter] So anyway, again, I just wanted to share some thoughts around these connections between those general ideas that a challenge can make you stronger, but a lot of it depends on the environments in which you meet that challenge, the way that you’ve been prepared to meet it, and also on what happens afterwards. Right? So if I had done that whole four hour day of movement and challenging and pushing and really reaching my limits and everything – and then, you know, tried to go and write a bunch of classes and teach until midnight and stayed up super late and went out partying – whatever – then I would have felt even more sore the next day than I already did.{laughter} Right. So we need to see each challenge in the broadest context possible in order to understand why it’s difficult, how to make it maybe not easier but more like better able for us to meet that challenge. And then also to think about how we react afterwards and how do we process that. How do we come out of it strengthened rather than weakened.

Katja: 43:16 I really like what you are saying about discomfort. So much of our modern culture is about minimizing discomfort. And that’s not necessarily healthy for us. You know, like kids don’t want to eat their vegetables, but it’s good for you, so you eat your vegetables. I think that’s a theme that can use a little meditation on a regular basis.

Ryn: 43:43 Yeah. So you have to seek your own challenges. You know, like one of the one of the reasons for this whole weekend was – we talk about natural movement and you know we teach you how to have a good landing when you jump forward or jump down off of something. And here’s a natural movement pattern that, if you find humans from anywhere and have them jump off things, you can see this emerge. Especially if they’re used to moving around. So there’s these patterns, right? But the pattern itself is isolated. We often practice those in a gym or in a flat space or somewhere, and when you’re starting out that’s still a challenge for you. And it’s important for you to start out with yourself where you are, right? But we go to the forest for complexity and for variability , because there’s – like I don’t know how fancy your gym equipment gets – but it’s never going to present you with the same degree of variation that you find when you walk out into the forest and you try to balance on this log and jump to that one, and

Katja: 44:44 Oh, that rock is slippery.

Ryn: 44:46 Right. Yeah, a bunch of times we would be jumping from one log to another and the first people had it easy. But then with more landings and more feet, then the bark starts to strip away. And it’s really slippery under there. [laughter] So it’s harder as you go along. So it’s constantly changing. It’s constantly presenting you with something that’s always just a bit different. And humans really are strengthened by that variability. So your training isn’t just, “Can I lift something heavier?” But, “Can I lift something that’s more awkward? Can I do it when I’m standing on uneven ground or when I’m carrying something else? Or like, “What else can we add there?” So I would encourage you to think about those ideas around challenge and adaptation and complexity in the herbal world as well. So. OK. Yeah.

Katja: 45:40 Well that’s some stuff to think about.

Ryn: 45:42 Yeah. Yeah. But I encourage you to try to think about it while you move. So it could be good. Let’s see. Some ways to get that into your normal movement. Maybe just take your standard workout and put it somewhere else. If you normally work out in a room inside your house, try doing it in the yard. Part of your challenge there will be, “What if people see me? [laughter] What if they think I’m weird for doing my push-ups in the grass instead of on the path?” Right. Even if you just have a walk. Can you walk in that little piece of grass that’s next to the sidewalk instead? And how does that feel if you do that the whole way there? How do your ankles respond? Once you get there, you might be surprised at the degree of sensation that you experience when it’s even a small uptick in variability or adaptability.

Katja: 46:35 I remember when I first started doing that and we’d get some place and my ankles would be really tired. Even though the grass next to the sidewalk is pretty flat, it’s still not actually flat.

Ryn: 46:45 Yeah. And then, you know, the other thing is to say you know when you’re faced with a challenging day, whether that’s because you have to give a presentation and you don’t like public speaking or you know that you have to go to the RMV and you feel freaked out by bureaucracy or it’s because you have to work with this particular person on a project and you don’t really get along very well. Those are all challenges too. And just like we try to think of our physical challenges as something that can strengthen us. We can think of those social or emotional or psychological challenges in the same way. But just in that same way that we think about preparing to have a basic level of competence and flexibility and adaptability before we go into the woods, you want to think about, “What are my weak spots and how can I build them up?” So that when I am faced with a challenge that can be maybe even enjoyable. And, if not that, then at least something you recognize as having benefits for you. Even though it’s hard. In fact, because it’s hard.

Katja: 47:52 Yeah. Builds Character.

Ryn: 47:58 Mmhmm. [laughter] Okay. Well. If you have any thoughts to share on that, we would love to hear them. That or anything else really. We love to hear from you.

Katja: 48:05 We do. We love to hear from you.

Ryn: 48:07 You can always go to our website: CommonWealthHerbs.com. And you can find our contact form there. Drop us an email and you can reach out to us on Facebook and Instagram and – you know – everywhere else basically. And since you’re listening to this podcast, feel free to leave some comments right there.

Katja: 48:25 Yeah. People have asked questions in their reviews. It’s okay to do that.

Ryn: 48:28 Yeah. Totally allowed.

Katja: 48:31 Alright, you guys. We are off to the woods. We have our second year students who were taking on their camping trip this weekend. So we’ll be doing a lot of sensory integration and do some time in silence and some other stuff.

Ryn: 48:46 Yeah.

Katja: 48:46 Talking about how, you know, those skills relate to working with clients and helping people. And so we will be back next week with fun, new things and talk to you then!

Ryn: 49:01 Yeah, we will! Take care.

Katja: 49:01 Bye!


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