Podcast 074: Herbal Energetics: Tissue States
When choosing herbs for a health issue, herbalists like us use a system of organization called energetics. In this week’s podcast, we have an excerpt from our Energetics & Holistic Practice course about a key component of herbal energetics: tissue states. This term refers to the quality and activity present in a given organ or tissue of the body, and is based on three pairs of opposites: hot & cold, damp & dry, tense & lax.
When we have an injury or dysfunction somewhere in the body, herbalists ask: How much heat (or metabolic activity) is present in the area? How much moisture is flowing through (or stuck within) the tissue? How tight or loose is the organ, or muscle? These fundamental qualities are what help us match herbs to health problems more precisely – hot states call for cooling herbs, tense states need relaxing herbs, and so on. Learning to identify these states, and learning which herbs counterbalance which states, is an important part of your herbal education.
In these excerpts, we discuss each of the six primary tissue states, teaching you how to recognize them and how to understand what those observations mean. We also talk about the way these states can change from one into another, because in real life they’re moving targets – they change and shift as time passes. Knowing a bit about how one state is most likely to evolve into another makes you even better able to help with the right remedy at the right time.
If you’d like to get deeper into herbal energetics – going into details like individual constitutional types and herbal actions – then you should consider the complete course:
Katja: 00:00:13 Hi, I’m Katja!
Ryn: 00:00:14 and I’m Ryn.
Katja: 00:00:15 and we’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.
Ryn: 00:00:18 And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast.
Katja: 00:00:21 Woo hoo!
Ryn: 00:00:23 Woo hoo! This week’s topic is tissue states.
Katja: 00:00:26 Not Kleenex.
Ryn: 00:00:28 No, no, nope. This is one of the fundamental skills of the holistic herbalist and it’s something that you really, really need to know so you better stay tuned, right?
Katja: 00:00:38 But first we have to say the thing…
Ryn: 00:00:40 We are not doctors, we are herbalists and holistic health educators.
Katja: 00:00:44 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. Everyone’s body is different. So the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but they will give you some information to think about and research more.
Ryn: 00:01:03 We want to remind you that good health is your own personal responsibility. The final decision in considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by your physician, is always yours. All right. So this week we have an excerpt for you from our energetics and holistic practice course. It’s all about tissue states, and these are the observable qualities of an injury site or an organ in the body, and that’s having some trouble or any other trouble spot in the human body. If you know how to identify the patterns of heat and cold, dampness and dryness, tension and laxity, that’s a key step in the process of choosing the right herb for a problem. But fortunately, learning the basics is really easy.
Katja: 00:01:52 So in this section of our online course, we are talking about how each of these six fundamental tissue states looks, how it feels and how it behaves as well as how one state might progress into another one. Because in the real world, of course, these are moving targets. So knowing a little bit about how one state is most likely to evolve into another makes you even better able to help with the right remedy at the right time.
Ryn: 00:02:19 Yeah. The complete energetics and holistic practice course includes a whole bunch of stuff. We’ve got classes in there about wholism and vitalism. These are some not so new ideas about health and care and healthcare.[both laugh] It’s about how to think like a holistic herbalist, how to align ourselves with what nature is doing and what the body is doing so that we can get the best results. In this course we get into constitutions; the ways we can see energetics playing out on the whole-body level, both in world traditions from around the globe and through time and also in our modern practice, the way that katja and I do it.
Katja: 00:02:58 Yeah.
Ryn: 00:02:59 We also do a deep dive on herbal actions and herbal tastes, which is information that can turn your mouth into a portable chemistry set, or maybe train you about how to use it.
Katja: 00:03:10 Yes, you already have it.
Ryn: 00:03:12 Yeah.
Katja: 00:03:12 You just need to know how to use it.
Ryn: 00:03:13 Right. And I mean, just imagine knowing just what effects an herb is going to have just by tasting it. It’s not crazy talk. This is a normal day at the office.
Katja: 00:03:21 Yeah. It’s not like our ancestors were just guessing. You know, like today when we are trying to figure out what herb would be appropriate for our situation, we just like Google and hope like, I dunno Google, give me multiple choice. I’ll just pick one. This is like a test I didn’t prepare for, but that’s not how our ancestors did it and that’s not how we have to do it either. There is a system, you don’t have to guess. You don’t have to hope you got the right thing. If you learn it, then you will know it and you’ll know for sure that you’re choosing the right herb for the right situation.
Ryn: 00:03:59 Yeah. So like every course that we offer, this one comes with lifetime access and there’s no period of time where you have to do the whole thing and then it goes away, you know?
Katja: 00:04:10 It doesn’t expire.
Ryn: 00:04:11 As long as the Internet’s around, you’ll be able to get to your class. You also get access to weekly live Q and A sessions with us, on Tuesday or Thursday or both if you want to.
Katja: 00:04:21 Yeah!
Ryn: 00:04:22 There’s an integrated discussion feature right in the course so you can ask questions as they occur to you. There’s some printable pdf materials if you want to get old school and paper-based. We also give mp3s of all of the video class content so that you can take them with you wherever you go, just like you do with our podcast. And we even offer a no risk money back guarantee. So what are you waiting for?
Katja: 00:04:47 Well, maybe they’re waiting for a preview. So that’s what this podcast episode is going to give you. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Katja: 00:04:58 [class recording begins playing]So once we understand the constitution of the person that we’re working with, the next thing that we need to establish is the state of the local area, the tissue state. If they have a sprained ankle, for example, what is the state of that ankle right now? Or if there’s a wound, a fever, or a respiratory infection, we want to look at the area that’s having the problem and figure out what, what is the state of that area.
Ryn: 00:05:27 And this starts just with things that you can observe directly with your senses. You know, for your sprained ankle, you can see it, you can look at it, you can compare the sprained or the injured ankle to the one that wasn’t. And you can say, boy, yeah, it’s really swollen up. It’s got a lot of extra fluid inside there and the skin’s all kind of red. Those give us information about what’s going on, on the level of energetics or on the level of the tissue state there. The swelling and the stuck fluids tells us there’s a dampness issue. The redness tells us that there’s heat and you may even be able to feel excess heat coming off of the skin in that area. So again, it goes back to things you can observe directly. It’s not like you have to have some kind of special powers or portable laboratory or something. It’s just there with you the whole time, it’s something that you just need to call out and bring forward.
Katja: 00:06:20 It’s not, not-technology, it’s just technology that you were born with. It’s technology that is standard part of the human being.
Ryn: 00:06:29 There we go. Yeah. [katja laughs]
Katja: 00:06:31 So when we think of constitutions, remember we were saying it’s like the climate and if we’re comparing this to Arizona, then it is usually dry in Arizona. So as a whole, this person might usually be a particular way. When we’re talking about tissue states that’s localized or it’s in a local area of time. So that’s like the weather for today, right? Even though it’s usually dry in Arizona, sometimes it does rain. And so even though ryn is usually a reasonably dry person, when he sprains an ankle, that area of his body gets damp and gets heated up and gets, you know, all the things that happen when you sprain an ankle.
Ryn: 00:07:17 And in a similar way that if it rains in Phoenix, Arizona, that’s very different from when it rains in Seattle, Washington, because one of those is usually a hot, dry place. And the other is usually a cool, damp place. They respond differently to an extra expression of that particular state of rain or of dampness, right? So if you have somebody who has a really dry body most of the time, but right now there’s a localized area with a lot of extra stagnant fluid and moisture going on, that’s gonna express differently and it’s going to require a different set of approaches than if there was somebody who tended towards dampness and now had an even more damp than usual sort of thing going on, in that same body that might call for a different approach. A very simple way to understand this is that if you are starting from a place of dampness and you’ve got even more of it on top of that, that’s the place where you can work with really dry herbs or really drying actions or therapeutics. But if you had somebody who was baseline dry and they were expressing some dampness right now, you have to be a little more careful not to overshoot the mark. So you’re going to be a little more restrained in the kind of choices you make.
Katja: 00:08:34 Yeah. And so you can see where having a really clear understanding of both the person overall and the localized area that we’re trying to work with is going to help you make great choices about which herbs you should work with. The words that we’re going to use here to describe tissue states are the exact same words that we used for the constitution. Those words are going to be constant throughout our whole system because that is our common denominator, right? If we are going to describe an area as cold, then we might say, hey, I should get a warm herb to balance out that cold state. And having the same descriptive words through all three areas really helps us to match things up appropriately.
Hot and Cold
Ryn: 00:09:26 Yeah. So let’s go through these one by one and get a few examples and kind of get our minds thinking in this method or in this perspective. If we’re talking about a hot tissue state or what we sometimes refer to as a state of excitation in a given area, what’s that gonna look like? Well, we might actually detect extra heat, you know, like I was saying with a sprained ankle or sometimes, for instance, with a fever the person’s actual physical body temperature measured by mercury or whatever digital thermometers use [katja laughs] is going to be higher than usual. Right? So literal physical heat is a heat sign. Okay.
Katja: 00:10:09 A burn would be a great example there too, because when you touch it, it’s hot, but you also have that redness that goes along with it. And I bet that that was what you were just about to go to, right?
Ryn: 00:10:18 Yeah, yeah. So redness, right? Color. Redness, but also yellow. If you think about, the eyes or the tongue, if you see yellow coloration like in the eyes or like on the coating of the tongue, that’s also indicative of heat. So it’s not just red. You can see yellow, red, orange, fiery kind of colors. It makes sense on that intuitive level. What else could be heat expressions? Itching is one and in some ways you can think of that either as like the nerves themselves are kind of irritated and agitated and they’re sparking a bit or it could also be due to your body’s sort of natural inflammatory processes getting turned up a bit too high and that can show up as itching or it can show up as just obvious inflammation or swelling. It can show up as pain in certain areas. Itching is definitely one of those things where you see that and you’re like, yeah, that’s a heat sign. We’ve got to work on cooling that down.
Katja: 00:11:25 Well, when you think about heat, anything that is excess, anything that is hyper functioning or too excited or too agitated, all of those words also make us think about heat. So whether somebody is emotionally very agitated, in which case that might be heat in the nervous system, or whether there is agitation on some organ level like hyper-thyroid, the thyroid is moving too quickly. Then those are indications of heat in the system.
Ryn: 00:12:01 Yeah. And it’s true regardless of what the particular organ is, you know. If it’s the heart of the cardiovascular system there, we’re seeing an accelerated or a fast heart rate, maybe high blood pressure cause there’s lots of force, lots of movement behind it. But this could also be happening in say the bowels if you just have really fast transit time and you’re not really digesting your food cause it just zooms through too quickly. That’s a heat problem, right? So there’s that degree of over-activation, over excitation. Things are speeding through too quick, or they’re turned up too fast or too high. Those are all going to be categorized as heat. Yeah. Okay. You know what, actually before I move on to cold, I did want to make sure that with each of these states we think about what that looks like on the level of the nervous system and the emotional patterns as well. Because that’s sometimes a little less obvious or a little less something that it’s easy to see when you’re starting out using this kind of terminology or this lens. So, you know, heat in the nervous system, heat in the emotions. There are some emotions and some nervous states that we think of as hot and fiery, like the fight or flight states or like states of anger and frustration and outrage and fury and things like that. You know, like we always have like fiery kind of metaphors that go along with the way we describe those. Heat in the nervous system. It can manifest with insomnia. It’s that like I can’t turn it off. I can’t shut down. I can’t rest and relax. But also anxiety, just like everything is a little more agitating than usual and I’m not sure what to focus on and I’m just sort of everywhere all at once. That’s heat. It’s not like focused and directed. It’s dispersed in nature.
Katja: 00:13:47 Also in the nerves themselves. Nerve pain is a heat state, especially when that pain is very stabby. Any kind of sharp driving pain, or a burning type of pain. So it is possible to have pain in the nervous system that is cold. That would be more in the numbness kind of direction. Any heat kind of pain is jabby, stabby, ice pick kind of pain.
Ryn: 00:14:18 Or electric.
Katja: 00:14:19 Yeah, yeah. Buzzing sort of pain. And so you can think even of some symptoms of Fibromyalgia for example. The way that sort of pain is in the body, you can think of that and say, oh yeah, the way that people describe that frequently is heat. And not only that, but many, many people report that a cold shower or swimming in cold water or a coldpack relieves that heat, that pain in Fibromyalgia. And we’re talking here about palliative relief. But that’s okay. That helps us understand what we’re working with.
Ryn: 00:14:59 Yeah. And you know, when we’re thinking about things from this perspective, oftentimes one of the best ways to figure out what’s going on for somebody is to say what actually makes you feel better. Right. I just had a client yesterday who had a bunch of different things going on and had some itching, had some anxiety and had some insomnia and was already, you know, aware for herself that cold showers, swimming in cold water, ice packs, that these things were helpful. And so that made it very clear to me right up front that there was a problem with excessive heat in her system. And so we were going to need to choose cooling herbs if we wanted to bring that down. So you can often ask people like, okay, so you’ve got a headache. Check, do you want something warm on there or do you want something cold? And that tells you something about the nature of what they’re experiencing.
Katja: 00:15:48 In my body, I never want something cold. Not ever.[ryn laughs] I don’t even put ice in my water. I mean it can be a billion degrees out and I don’t want to drink something out of the refrigerator. I want it to be room temperature. And if I have a headache, I never want cold on it. That’s cause I run cold and that constitution state in my body also tends to influence the type of pain I usually experience. Not that I haven’t ever experienced hot pain. I’ve been burned. I’ve had cuts and wounds like that that certainly do have pain that feels like heat. But in general in my body, paint tends more in a cold direction. So when we think about cold in the nervous system that is that dull, throbbing, slow ache kind of pain, um, and the kind of pain that even just the thought of cold makes you kinda curl up and like want to get away from it. The kind of pain sometimes that is even caused by cold. In the emotions for cold, that also is very similar. You might see depression and it is the kind of depression that doesn’t have a lot of energy behind it. Right? The kind of depression that is sorta like, I’m just going to lay here on the couch because I just can’t even, you know. So those sorts of feelings and emotionally a person in a cold place might be withdrawn or they might, um, they might be sad or they might be just have low feelings and they’re less likely to react with a big burst of anger. Doesn’t mean that it can’t ever happen, but cold in the nervous system, cols in the emotions is that sort of low feeling.
Ryn: 00:17:50 Yeah. People of the cold type, if you do provoke them to anger it takes a long time. But then once it has arrived, it’s not going to go anywhere for a while either.
Katja: 00:17:58 Yeah. It’s going to get stagnant. That anger is going to be stagnant.
Ryn: 00:18:02 Yeah. So those are like nervous system and emotional expressions for cold. Other kinds of things that point us to saying like, Oh yeah, the current state you’re in there, or the state of that organ or that tissue as being cold. We think about when things slow down, when function is depressed from its normal baseline or its normal metabolic rate, when things are lower than that. Like hypo-thyroid, right? Wherein the person is usually physically cold, needs more layers of clothing than they used to before this became acute for them. Where there’s a reduced metabolic rate, where there’s reduced digestive secretions and so they don’t digest their food as rapidly or as thoroughly. Those would be called patterns expressing in the digestive tract. If it was again, like the heart or the cardiovascular, that’d be a slow heart rate. Low blood pressure. Slow circulation. Maybe the circulation isn’t getting all the way out to your fingers and toes. Things are kind of stuck here in the middle. It’s not moving with enough force or enough heat to disperse and to move around. You know, I keep using this word disperse for heat, like outward moving. Cold is the opposite of that. It’s condensing, it’s inward moving. It’s centralizing. So like any pair of opposites we’re going to encounter or talk about, we need to have both and we need it to be able to move back and forth. But when one of them is aggravated, that’s when it shows up with these kind of signs we’re talking about. And just like heat had colors of like red and orange and yellow and fiery colors with it. Cold has kinda opposite tones, you know. It has blue and it has pale and whitish and you know, just purple-y colors. Just like, these cold types, these cold palettes.
Katja: 00:19:46 Even if you’re thinking about acute injuries and how would you imagine what an acute injury that is cold would be like? Well frostbite, but a bruise is cold too. A bruise is, you know, those are the colors that you see. You see the blue and the purple and those dark colors cause it’s just hanging around in there, being cold. Normally like, even if you put your hand on a bruise, it’s not like if you put your hand on a sprain or a break or anything like that, it’s hot in that swollen area. But on a bruise, it’s not. It’s not necessarily colder than the rest of your skin, but there’s no heat going on in there. [ryn hums in agreement] Any place that there’s just a slow down of function. Even something simple like constipation or brain fog, you know, those are areas that are just slow. Brain fog I suppose, can also be in a dry kind of place because you’re so dry that it’s all blowing away and you can’t like pull it in.
Ryn: 00:20:51 Yes. It’s not so much fog though. That’s like, I dunno,that’s like a dust storm.
Katja: 00:20:58 Yeah.[katja chuckles]
Ryn: 00:20:59 It’s different. Yeah. Okay. So that’s cold. That’s it on the hot-cold polarity. So let’s move on to damp and dry. So with dampness, the major thing to look for is, is there a bunch of extra fluid hanging around in a given area. So the swollen ankle or if there is edema, you know, like in both ankles or in the lower legs, there’s all that stuck fluid in the area and you want to drain that out or squeeze that out somehow.
Katja: 00:21:26 Varicose veins fall into this category as well. And hemorrhoids, also. Hemorrhoids are just a varicose vein in a very specific location. But that’s what’s going on is a weakness in the vein wall. And when you look at a varicose vein, it’s kind of bulgey and it’s just very obviously a water balloon, you know. Sort of a, not all the way filled water balloon, but still like there’s that water there.
Ryn: 00:21:58 Yeah, yeah. Or you know, just like retaining water or having fluid bloating maybe around the belly or something. Say like if you have a food allergen and you eat it, then you’ll often get a bunch of swelling around the belly, some extra fluid in the lymph nodes all around the guts there. Then you feel like, oh, it’s just all stuck. It’s not moving around very well and you feel uncomfortable. There’s pressure that comes from that. So a lot of times the dampness and stagnation patterns like this can lead to some pain cause the swelling causes some pressure on the nerves and that registers as pain. So that can show up this way sometimes.
Katja: 00:22:34 You know, you mentioned the lymph nodes and that makes me think also dampness shows up in the lymphatic system all the time. Anytime you have an infection, you will notice swelling in the lymphatic system and that’s dampness. And that’s not necessarily a problem. That’s what those lymph nodes are supposed to do. But it is an accumulation of dampness and it is something that we can help along on its way. And while we’re up in this area, although you do have lymph nodes all throughout your body, I’m also thinking about sinuses and respiratory infections and many of those are really damp, boggy situations. I’m thinking about, you know, like a really entrenched bronchitis or you know, just cruddy lung infection where you’ve just got big phlegm, thick, thick gross…yeah. Every time you cough you can hear it gurgling. That’s a really damp kind of situation. And again, we can see some pain from that dampness, especially from the full sinuses because they’re filled with dampness. That can really wreak havoc on your poor head. You can show up with a crazy sinus headache and it’s really just because of all this extra dampness. Conversely, in a dry situation, especially, you know, right now there are so many fires happening in so many places in the country and actually across the globe. And so when we do the live Q and A right now, we’re getting so many questions about herbs to help support people through those situations. And all of that is dryness in the respiratory tract, right? Just that arid, painful, irritated situation in the lungs that actually can feel sharp and hot because it’s so dry that it’s become inflamed. It’s become hot because it’s so dried out.
Ryn: 00:24:42 Yeah. That’s another idea that we will come to a little more thoroughly in a moment, but oftentimes one state can lead into another. You can have cold leading to accumulations of dampness, you can have dryness leading to friction leading up to heat. These are often going to move into each other or connect one to the other. You know, one of the things that can show up with dryness, especially if it’s extended over a period of time, is what we call atrophy. A loss of function in an area because we are ‘wetware’ [both laugh] Humans and plants for that matter. We need water in order to function well and to hold our structure and keep things working the way they’re supposed to.
Katja: 00:25:25 Yeah, we get kind of wilty.
Ryn: 00:25:27 Yeah, wilting is just exactly the right metaphor for it. You know, you see a plant hasn’t been watered for a while and it just, it can’t hold itself up and it flops right over. That happens in us too if there’s an internal organ or muscle tissue or even the skin itself, if it’s not getting adequately circulated with fresh fluids, then it starts to dry up. It starts to lose its ability to retain vitality and to exchange oxygen and do all the other things that a hardworking cell needs to do in a day. So it can start to atrophy and to be unable to perform those functions for you. So we don’t want that.
Katja: 00:26:10 No! And then of course, the easiest expression of dryness to see is when it’s in the skin. You have literal dry skin and maybe it’s flaky, that’s the most obvious. You look at that and you don’t have any questions, you’re like, yep, there’s dryness there. It can really run in any of these directions. But in the nervous system and emotionally, it might be a little bit more difficult to imagine what that’s like.
Damp and Dry
Ryn: 00:26:38 Damp or dry. Here, you know, for me, I always find it helpful to go towards elemental metaphors or descriptions. So we’ve talked about heat as a fire sort of a thing and cold sort of tracks with the earth element in the model that we work with where there’s a lot of structuring and building and solidifying and condensing, going on with damp and dry. Damp is about softening. It’s about blending things together. Like if you paint with watercolors, you can mix the colors together with the water, right. Whereas dry is about hardening and separating. In our front yard there’s a little stone walkway and then there’s the yard with the grass and the soil and everything. When it’s rained maybe like three hours ago, you can see this really clear dichotomy between the dry, hard stone and the saturated wet, muddy earth. You can really see how dryness does lead to hardening and separating and dampness leads to softening and blending together.
Katja: 00:27:42 But even actually lately it hasn’t rained so much. And so along the edge where the pathway is, the soil has sort of dried and pulled away from it a little bit. Sort of shrink up a little.
Ryn: 00:27:59 Right. And, you know, if you get a cut on your knuckle or something and it’s kinda hard to bandage and you say, yeah, it’s split open but I can still work. Maybe you put a little salve on there, a little cream or something and it kind of stays moist for awhile and then you go and you’re working and you sort of forget and then it’s eight hours later and it’s like dried out and split open again. And you can see it’s kinda hard and crusty inside there. Same demonstration of that principle. So that was all just to get us into a space where we’ve got like a few, are there words to attach to dampness or dryness and see how those can play with emotions. So that idea of the damp element or the water element on the emotional or the nervous system level, we’re thinking of when things are softening and smoothing and when there’s a little less of these hard delineations between things and more of an ability to see those in-between spaces. So that’s valuable. That’s important. There’s a lot of people like me who could really stand to practice that and to spend some time meditating on those concepts and trying to explore them and get fluent. Which is exactly the right word for something fluid. In that kind of a language and experience, however, like anything, if it’s carried to extremes, then it can also lead to problems. Like not really knowing your own boundaries or not really being able to express your own opinions or your own positions on things. The water element and water type individuals or people who are being dominated by water in a current moment, they tend to school like fish or they tend to be like water and take the shape of their container. And not so much like this is who I am and what I do, but what are, what are they doing? What are we, what are we up to? Oh yeah, sure. Let’s do that. Just kind of going along with things. Again, an excess that can lead to going along with things that you don’t really want to or not feeling like you can speak out when you’d rather stop going along. Some people run into that sort of issue.
Katja: 00:29:53 I think another place where dampness shows in the emotions and also the nervous system, it’s that idea of sort of boggy stagnation. When everything just feels oversaturated. It’s almost like there’s no room for anything. Like kind of if you imagine, a beautiful, clear running mountain stream and then you imagine the opposite of that; a stagnant pond and nothing is moving anywhere and it’s all just sort of glommed, you know. Like even the top is kind of glommed together. When your emotions start to feel that way and you can’t stir them up. It’s just the same boggy feelings over and over again, then that can be dampness in the emotional state.
Ryn: 00:30:47 Kind of undifferentiated. And so it’s hard to move from one place to another cause they all seem the same. So, the dry states would be the opposite of that and literal physical dryness in the nerves is a, is a problem that many conditions can arise out of. On the physical level, the nerves are largely composed of water and fats. There’s a sheath called the Myelin sheath that sort of wraps around the nerve tissue itself and protects it and helps to convey the signals from one nerve to the other. And it’s super important. But we can run into a lot of problems with that. Some autoimmune disorders, the immune system starts attacking that tissue. But even some states of a malnutrition issue can lead to dryness affecting the nerves on a literal physical level cause you don’t have the right kind of fatty acids to construct a healthy myelin sheath. To keep the water in place there and everything. And then that leads to these kind of sparky intermittent communication disorders where maybe you have some sharp shooting pains and then they disappear for awhile and you’re like, what happened? And then it comes back later and now maybe you’re losing feeling and then it feels like pain and then it tingles and then it’s gone again. And it’s these things that change rapidly and are inconsistent and have a lot to do with, a failure of communication. Maybe touch is being interpreted as pain somewhere along a broken chain of communication. So that’s a physical sort of issue. That would be a matter of dryness in the nerve tissue itself, dryness in emotions is going to be, again, kind of the opposite of the damp states, right? So where damp was like blending and mixing and smoothing and softening, dry is gonna be hardening and blocking things off from one another. Which you need to do a little bit, right? You need to know what your boundaries are and you need to be able to say this is self and that is other and you know, maybe we can dance together, but I can also know what parts are going home with me at the end of the day, you know? But again, it’s easy to get carried away too far with that and to be too caught up in making things black or white or this or this or that, but no in between. We think of that maybe more as a state of mind or a state of like the way you view the world, but in many ways that is an emotional pattern just as much as a mental one.
Katja: 00:33:22 Another place that we see this dryness happening both in the nervous system and in the emotions and actually also in the end, this crossover to the endocrine system here is any time that you would describe yourself as fried or frazzled, right. If you imagine a rope that was frazzled or frayed at the end, that’s drying. I suppose you could then dip it in water and it wouldn’t be dry anymore. But that’s dryness and I think it’s really great that we use these words in our everyday speech, you know. Oh I am so fried. I am dried out, I am wrung out, I don’t have anything left. I’m completely depleted. I don’t have any more resources. And so when we see an emotional state where someone is not able to recover from something negative happening and they don’t have the emotional resources to be resilient, that’s a dry state. Or when they’re just so tired and they don’t have enough reserve to be able to call on in a time of need. That is a dry and depleted state.
Ryn: 00:34:43 Yeah. And sometimes that makes it difficult even to rest effectively. Right? Like you’re always a little bit on edge or a little bit unable to stay centered or to relax all the way down. So if dampness is the water element, dryness is going to be the air element and air is restless. Air likes to move. Air is hard to keep ahold of or to keep still in one place. And hey, we need movement, we need change, we need circulation. But an inability to settle into the center sometimes is really a big problem. So dryness can lead to tendencies to ramble or to be escapist in nature. So those would be some of the kind of patterns that we would observe there as well.
Katja: 00:35:32 And you might think, hold on a second. Rigidity and rambling seem really opposite to me, but if you think about dryness in nature, different things can happen. You can have a tumble weed that literally goes rambling or you can have clay that dries itself out and sort of compacts itself into a little brick or into a clod of clay. And that is sort of a compressed state of dryness and it doesn’t really blow around, you know. Or you can even imagine two different deserts in your mind. You know, you can imagine death valley with those cracks in between and everything is sort of compacted and hardened. Or you can imagine like a dunes kind of desert like the Sahara and that it’s just all fine pieces of sand that shift around in the wind. And so even though those have a little bit of a different end result, they’re still both being caused by dryness. So how would you understand that? How would you look that and say, ah, I don’t know? Well, because it’s not just the dryness that we’re looking at. We’re looking at the dryness in the context of the person that’s in. When we see dryness and we see a person who maybe already has a tendency to some rigidity or already has a tendency to some of those aspects then more dryness in the emotional system–the nervous system, the endocrine system, all the different parts of the body that interact to create emotions– that may then result in an exacerbation of that rigidity. Whereas if it’s a person who already was a little bit of an air head, if you can imagine, that’s a phrase we use. And so somebody who already was maybe you know, in that direction just a little bit, but usually sorta like kept it together, but then they get exacerbated by dryness, then that person is gonna be like way scattered or very escapist or rambling or any of those sort of blow away type air/dryness aspects.
Ryn: 00:38:01 Yeah. Cool. So we’ve got damp and dry then. So our last pair is tension and laxity. So tension in a given part of the body, especially somewhere muscular, that’s pretty obvious. You can feel it being tense and tight and hard.
Katja: 00:38:20 Or you can see a person who’s holding a lot of tension.
Tense and Lax
Ryn: 00:38:23 When we spoke about about the whole body or the whole constitution, we thought about the very rigid, upright, sort of tense person and then like slack, loose; I’m just here man, kind of excessively lax situation. You can see one person that has a mixture of these, and most people do if for no other reason than a lot of the muscle groups in our bodies work with opposite pairs, right? Like you’ve got a bicep and tricep and one is tight and the other one loosens and they have this back and forth relationship with them. Or your diaphragm expands down and you inhale. And then there’s these transverse muscles here that squeeze it back out again when you exhale, if you’re doing your belly breathing. So there’s a lot of places in the body where we can get ourselves into a state where one member of those pairs is super tight all the time and the other one is a little bit loose all the time cause it’s never really fully engaged and that’s bad for both of them, right? Because in order for the muscles to be healthy, they need to go through their whole range of motion so that blood is squeezed through every little inch of the blood vessels that those muscles are next to and that’s going to move lymph along. That’s going to keep your fluids circulating. So there’s a lot of connection between problems of tension or imbalances of tension and problems of fluid stagnation or dryness. Stagnation because you’ve captured some fluid in an area and it can’t get out. Dryness because you’ve squeezed off the entry into an area and fluids can’t get there in the first place. So there’s this relationship between the tense state and dryness or dampness depending on where it is in the body and what else is going on there.
Katja: 00:40:14 I’m thinking about carpal tunnel syndrome as a really good example of that. Like over tension in one area and some laxity in the other, or under-development might be another word that you could use. So you know, so much of our lives we spend with our hands kind of in this position or in this position or in this position, you know, like these are all very similar actions. Yeah. That everything is being turned inward all the way from the shoulders down. But when there’s a lot of typing, for example, um, then there are certain muscles that are super contracting to be able to keep everything in that place and they’re not having their corresponding, um, relaxation time or stretching out time. And so that is creating too much tension in one set of the muscles and sort of an underdevelopment in the other set of muscles. Now of course, it’s much less common for them to do surgery on carpal tunnel and much more common for them to send you to physical therapy, recognizing that this is an over-development and under-development pair problem. But there’s a lot that we can do with herbs to support that as well to help support both a relaxation of that tension and a return to flexibility in the area. So there’s a lot that can be done. That’s not the only example of that, but it’s just a very easy-to-see example of that pairing.
Ryn: 00:41:50 Yeah. So muscles, connective tissues, we sort of expect and understand there to be tension versus laxity problems there. But we can also see tension and laxity internal to the body. And one place where this is super important and it’s going to be both ends of this pairing is in your mucus membranes or in barrier tissues inside the body. So mucus membranes is like in your sinuses, in your throat, inside your ears, down in your lungs, in your whole GI tract and the urinary tract all the way through. You’ve got these mucous membranes where most of them you’ve got a tube of some wave-ly wiggly kind, right? And then you’ve got the meat of your body is on the other side of that tube. So that’s a type of a barrier. The intestinal barrier is a thing that obviously we have a lot of interest in. And a lot of problems originate when that barrier is too leaky or is compromised or extra inflamed or whatever else is going on. There’s also barriers like the blood-brain barrier or like the barrier of the skin itself. Barrier sort of implies ‘impenetrable’, but none of these are that way at all.
Katja: 00:43:08 It’s more like a filter with a regulator. Imagine if you could have a filter that could like strain your pasta and it would have like the wide holes or it could strain your coffee and you could like adjust it to have very tiny holes.
Ryn: 00:43:24 Nice.
Katja: 00:43:24 That’s what these barriers, these permeable membranes in our body actually can do. They can decide how large they want the holes to be and how fine they are filtering the things that are supposed to be flowing through them.
Ryn: 00:43:39 Well they should be able to do that, but we can run into a bunch of problems. So if those barriers are too tense or too closed down, then if it’s the GI tract, it’s hard for you to absorb nutrients from your food. If it’s the sinuses, then it could be that they got too closed down, too tight and now the fluids can’t flow through from inside out. And so you can’t actually produce helpful mucus. The kind of thing that helps you to expel the pathogens and just blow your nose and get all that crud out of you. If you get too tense, which often again follows from a dry state here, then it’s not gonna work effectively. It follows from or induces a state of dryness cause these things, they are like multi-directional streets.
Katja: 00:44:27 Yeah, they can flow into each other.
Ryn: 00:44:29 Yeah. So, constriction or tensity affecting mixed membranes or barriers is going to be like that. Laxity on the other hand, is where those pores are too open or things are just oozing. So if instead of having like dry sinuses, you had ones that were just flushing, there was just water coming through. It wasn’t really snot even, it’s just like–
Katja: 00:44:56 –thin and watery and you’re the kind of person who doesn’t ever leave home without a handkerchief, that’s just l too much laxity in those mucous membranes. Like a drippy faucet.
Ryn: 00:45:10 Right. So, you know, tension. It could also be impacting the way that blood moves around the body. It could be impacting the way that bile flows through and out of the liver and into your digestive tract. So the basic idea with tension patterns and problems or tension states is that it impairs the flow in the body. And that can be flow of fluids like we’ve just been describing. But it can also be flow of nerve signals. So if I have thoracic output syndrome, right? Where it basically means you’ve got a lot of tension in your shoulders and your neck and everything’s getting squeezed up in here. Then like it’s hard for nerve signals and for blood supply to flow down from my arm. And so it starts to go, hey, hey, it’s something’s wrong over here. And I get pain shooting up into there.
Katja: 00:46:01 It can even just be numbness. It can be sort of like, hey, well we’ve clamped everything down up here. And it doesn’t even have to look all weird. It could just be because you wear a bra that’s too tight. But if you clamp everything off at the source, then you’re just not getting enough into the whole arm. And when nerves don’t have fresh oxygen and all the other nutrients that they require, they get numb. They sort of fall asleep just like you do when you’re in an office building that doesn’t have good air circulation. You get really tired. It’s just the same in your nerve cells.
Ryn: 00:46:34 Yeah. And this affects all your internal organs as well, you know, and that can be a combination pattern where there’s some muscular tension, there’s some internal tension, there’s a few other things contributing and now you’re not moving freely. Maybe you’re really stiff. Maybe your whole upper body moves as one unit instead of allowing you to bend and twist and get everything really like… a little bit of Hula going on, right? Like here, you’re preventing those tissues from stretching and bending and moving around in such a way that all their fluids get exchanged and circulate. A lot of your internal organs kind of act like sponges. Like they will have fluid exchange, but they need a little bit of squish to happen in order for it to take place. And if you don’t bend and twist your body freely, then those things don’t move around.
Katja: 00:47:23 Yes. You’re never wringing out your sponge, so it can’t ever soak up new stuff.
Ryn: 00:47:27 Yeah. And so then they’re not going to be functioning too well. Now you’re moving in that dryness direction, you’re moving in that atrophy direction. So, we’re seeing how that plays in.
Katja: 00:47:39 You know, tenseness in the emotional state is also one that’s fairly easy to recognize because we see it a lot. You know, somebody gets very tense and we know right off what that looks like. It’s a word that’s very common in our language. Laxity in the emotional state though can be a little bit more elusive. What does that look like? You might think of somebody who’s just too chilled out. And that’s true. But also a person who just sort of can’t get any traction, who can’t quite get it in gear if you think about that. And maybe that’s just cause I drive a stick shift car, but that’s, a feeling that I’m very familiar with that sometimes it just doesn’t quite connect.
Speaker 4: 00:48:37 Yeah. I think that’s a useful metaphor because it’s speaking to that state of laxity in a problematic context that’s agnostic about whether the person is hot or cold or damp or dry or whatever else, right? Like maybe the engine is revving and they’ve got a lot of heat and fire, but they can’t seem to do anything with it is there’s not enough traction to keep that moving. So it’s just like slipping away cause it’s too loose to hold on. Yeah. We described a few states of laxity. I mean you can have more like, gross scale states of laxity, like say maybe your internal organs are not really in the right place. Like in here, you’ve got a bunch of connective tissues and things that pretty much hold your organs where they belong, like a bunch of bungee cords in there. But if they’re too loose and slack and things start to follow gravity and they flunk down and they start to put pressure on your bladder and things can even start to sort of fall out of place a bit. The extreme versions of this are things like uterine prolapse, which can literally mean that parts of your inside are coming onto your outside. So laxity there is, just exactly what we’re looking at. But I’d say probably more often we see laxity in the mucous membranes or in those matters of barrier function. Or just in that inability to really engage productive tension, right? We need to have that healthy balance of tension and relaxation. If we want to to move anywhere, want to get anything done. Yeah. It’s just mechanics.
Katja: 00:50:28 I would say maybe one other emotional example is that, in a too lax state, that’s also not having any filter or having a filter that is too stuck open. Right. And so that might be extra in terms of output. We use that phrase to describe people–that person has no filter, you know? Like they’re going to say all kinds of things and they might not be socially acceptable. But that can also be input. A person who has a filter that is too lax may be more prone to anxiety or more prone to feeling overwhelmed cause they’re not able to effectively strain out the things that don’t apply to them or create a good tight barrier to keep some things from coming in. Whereas a person who has too much tension in the nervous system or in the emotional aspects, they may have their filters so clamped down that they can’t be receptive to new ideas. Believe it or not, these things actually do respond really well to herbs. So when we get to the nervous system, we’re going to talk a lot about how to work with that.
Understanding over Memorizing
Ryn: 00:51:46 Yeah, and if you’ve gone through the Materia Medica course already, then you know that we speak about the physical and emotional and mental and spiritual aspects of herbs pretty much interchangeably because while it comes out of this very concept that we can understand heat on a physical level, but also an emotional one and a mental one and all the way out to a spiritual one. And it’s the same with each of these qualities. So herbs, operate on the entire holistic human. They don’t just choose your physicality or your mentality or whatever else to effect.
Katja: 00:52:22 They don’t check your gender before they go to work. They don’t check any of that stuff. They just do what they do. And so because of that, even before we get to the nervous system videos, you can already start thinking, well, wait a minute. That’s a tense situation. That’s too much tension in the emotional place. Maybe I need an herb that can increase flexibility. What are some herbs that I know that can do that? Oh wait, Solomon’s Seal helps with that. And then you could just go ahead and start, even before we get to the part in the nervous system where we tell you, yes, Solomon’s Seal will help with that. Or the same with someone that is not having a really good filter and feeling a little too lax in their emotional state. You could say, well, gee, what kind of tightening up herb could I think of? Oh, maybe something astringent, maybe something like lady’s mantle might be a good choice. Yes, it might. That’s why learning stuff is so important because if you come across something you’ve never seen before, it doesn’t depend on whether or not you’ve memorized what herb might be good for a situation. It’s kind of like, when I was in geometry in high school, I had a teacher whose name I should remember, and I don’t, but I’m still very grateful to them who always said it’s not important to memorize the formula. It’s important to understand the formula because if you understand it, you can rebuild it. But if you don’t understand it, then even memorizing it is sort of precarious cause you don’t understand why it works. It’s the exact same with herbs. If you understand these foundational things, the state of the constitution of the person and the state of the thing that you’re trying to work on–the illness, the injury, the tissue state–then you can make really good choices. Even if it’s something that you’ve never seen before, you don’t have experience with. Well then you’re going to say, well, gee, I’ve never seen this before and I don’t have experience with it. But what I do see here is I see a bunch of dryness and I don’t know if it’s going to work, but we could try some marshmallow root because I know that that’s going to be moistening and the likelihood is that you’re probably going to provide some effective help. Even if you don’t take care of all of the, everything even that is still probably going to be quite helpful. So it’s just nice to be able to logic it out from the start.
Ryn: 00:54:58 Now, when you’re actually dealing with real living people, you’re gonna see that you don’t tend to just get one single clearly defined tissue state all by itself for you to work with and make it nice and easy.
Katja: 00:55:10 Wouldn’t that be nice?[both laugh].
Ryn: 00:55:11 Yeah. And that’s true both in place but also in time. So it’s very frequently the case that you have somebody and they have maybe some dampness in one part of the body and dryness in another part or heat over here and cold over there. And so you’re gonna need to be working in such a way that your herbs have a little more specificity, a little more of a targeted aspect to it so that you can warm up this part, but you can help that other part to stay the way it is or you’re going to be juggling those kinds of concerns. So that’s like a spacial issue. But there’s also questions about how this plays out over time. Very frequently you’re going to have somebody that progresses through multiple different tissue states over the course of an illness. A short term example of that could be if you catch a cold, or the flu. Let’s imagine how that might progress. So maybe you’re extra sedentary or weighed down or sluggish or you’re just in a low energy sort of a state, maybe because something else exhausted you, but for whatever reason you’re in what we’d call a cold state right now. Right? Everything’s kind of slow. It’s heavy, it’s stuck. Things aren’t moving or flowing. There’s not a lot of fire in your body.
Katja: 00:56:22 And just to interrupt, that can happen even to a person who usually runs warm; you just get a little rundown sometimes.
Ryn: 00:56:31 Yeah. So a struggle is that when you’re in a cold state, you’re more likely to catch an infection, like in this case the flu or a respiratory issue. So now you start to get sick and your body begins to respond and hopefully you start to mount a fever because your fever is your best offense against the infection. So now you make a big hot fever that night and you’ve gone from a cold state to a hot state, right? Your body’s producing all of this heat and all of this fire. Now in the course of your fever, you don’t have much of an appetite. Maybe it’s hard to drink things. Maybe you get some nausea. And so you start to not be taking in new fluids while you’re also sweating out a bunch of fluids and you’re going through a sort of transient state where there’s a lot of dampness or a lot of moisture movement in the body with fluids mostly moving out. So now you get dried out, right? You lose that water and now you start to get dehydrated. And so we went from cold to hot to damp, flowing to dry. Hopefully we’re gonna wind that back. We’re gonna moisten you back up again in some way, and then we’re going to cool you down after the heat fever has done its job and then you’re going to settle down. But you’re gonna hopefully recover to a place where you have some good healthy warmth again. Right? So that’s sort of an acute situation where that may happen, but this does also play out over the longer term. Very frequently chronic illnesses can sap somebody’s vital fire over time.You can see them getting colder. You know, as time goes on, a number of illnesses dry people. There are pharmaceuticals that can have these kinds of effects. Shortcut here is that most pharmaceuticals are very strongly drying. There’s other qualities that they may have as well. So, you know, we’re going to see these shifts of somebody’s tissue state or of their whole body state as they go through an illness on a short or long scale.
Katja: 00:58:37 And so when you’re watching that happen, don’t be surprised. They’ll be like, wait, but I thought I was dealing with this. It’s totally normal. It’s totally okay if what you’re seeing in the tissue state is changing over time. All you have to do is keep reevaluating; look at what’s in front of you. Say you know, Paul Bardner always used to say, treat what you see. Of course, as herbalists, we don’t use the word ‘treat’ because that’s a medical word. But we definitely work with what we see. And so if right now what you see is a person having a fever, then you work with that fever. And if tomorrow what you see as a person who got a little bit dried out, then you work with that situation and you even can start to predict how things will go. As you’re looking at somebody who’s getting really hot with their fever, you can be thinking ahead and saying, hey, when they start to sweat this out, they may come out of the other side a little on the dehydrated side. So if they’re very nauseous right now and I can’t get them to drink anything, then I should maybe put them in the bath tub or do something else to help them hold onto some of that fluid. So if you know that these sorts of transitions are coming, then you can work to correct them ahead of time so that they don’t ever swing too far out of balance.
Ryn: 01:00:04 Yeah. Now sometimes these sort of tissue states are going to be very localized or like just right here in one spot. If I get stung by a wasp, then I’m going to get a welt and it’s going to be red and it’s going to be swollen and it’s going to be inflamed. So we have a hot and a damn state going on there in that little area. No problem. Really localized. But sometimes–
Katja: 01:00:24 –and actually to interrupt you, when you have a state like that, it is best to address it right in that location. So if a person has a bee sting (and they don’t have a pervasive allergy to bee stings), they’re just having that red welt right now, then it’s going to be way more effective to deal with it topically than it is going to be to drink some tea and wait for it to get all the way through the system to that localized place.
Ryn: 01:00:54 Yeah, definitely. Sometimes, especially in a chronic illness, it can play out such that a sort of tissue state starts to spread and maybe even spreads to the entire body. And now it starts to shift that person’s constitution or the presentation of these kinds of things that you’re going to be seeing from them.
Katja: 01:01:17 I have a really good example of that actually with a client I have right now. She is currently a little overweight. She has a very sedentary but stressful job. She’s having a lot of headaches, a lot of migraines. And has some unaddressed food allergies and just overall her whole body is looking cold and damp. She’s puffy, and has some edema–mild, but it’s definitely visible. So this is the state that I met her in and I made an assumption that constitutionally she was running cold and damp, which right now it looks like she is, but she’s been in this state for 10 years and with this stressful job and, the whole story. But before that, what I didn’t know until I talked to her about it, was that she used to be very athletic. She used to always be the warmest person in the room. This whole, like, I feel cold a lot of the time is very unusual for her. And even though it’s been almost 10 years of this unhealthy state for her, she still sees it as abnormal in her body because she remembers herself as being a very warm person, a very vigorous person, a very like jump up and go kind of person. But because I didn’t know her then I didn’t realize that that’s what her underlying constitution really was because this chronic state has become so pervasive that it seems to have taken over her whole body. Again in that kind of a situation, you don’t have to panic. This is one place where I just love herbs because we’re not doing big, dangerous, like “there’s a point of no return” type of work. All the work that we’re doing is very supportive. So I can take the state that she’s in right now and say, wow, this person is looking really cold and really stagnant and we need to get things warmed up and get things moving again. And that’s what I see right now. So that’s what I can work with. And over time, if we get her back to a place that is to her more recognizable as her actual constitution, then we can start saying, okay, I’m seeing you warm up now. I wanna slow down a little. I don’t want to push it too far into the warm. But you don’t have to be too afraid if what you’re seeing might be not the whole story because just like when you walk into a kitchen that has a giant pile of dishes and empty pots on the stove and you know the trash is full, you just start doing something. You just start washing something. You just start cleaning something. It’s the same with herbs. You look at what you see if what you see is cold and damp, you just start working and then you continually reevaluate so that as things are shifting, which you expect them to do and which you want them to do, as things are shifting, that you are shifting your strategy to meet it.
Ryn: 01:04:46 Okay everyone, we hope you enjoyed that. Remember you get a lot more in the complete energetics and holistic practice course, so bounce on over to that. The link’s in the show notes and give it a look.
Katja: 01:04:58 And as always, you can find all of our course offering at commonwealthirbs.com/learn.
Ryn: 01:05:06 We’ll be back next week with another episode of the holistic herbalism podcast. Until then, drink your tea and take care of yourself. Bye.
Katja: 01:05:17 Bye!
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