Podcast 127: Herbs for Trauma Recovery & Resistance
America is blanketed in righteous protests against police brutality and impunity. This is necessary. In the course of this work many people are being traumatized, whether through direct violence or by observing violence inflicted on their friends, comrades, and communities.
Herbs can’t solve systemic racism, but they can support recovery and build resistance. We can work with herbs for trauma processing and stress reduction, we can work with herbs for pain relief and tension release, we can work with herbs for comfort and self-care, and community care.
Take this information, use what helps you, share it with anyone who might need it. Take care of yourselves, take care of each other, drink some tea – and keep up the good fight.
Mentioned in this episode:
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Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.
Hi, I’m Katia.
And I’m Ryn.
And we’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.
And on the internet, everywhere thanks to the power of the podcast. All right. So time for episode 127.
This is sort of part two in a maybe three part kind of loose series on all the things going on right now.
All the things, yeah.
You know, like this is the place where if you were reading it on Twitter, there would be little brackets and then it would be like gestures wildly at all the things.
Yeah. So last time, you know, we were talking about community and community support and how important that is as herbalists, as activists, as people in the world today. And this time we want to talk about trauma and about recovery from trauma and resistance to trauma. These are really important, really for all people all the time, but specifically right now, there’s a lot going on that is traumatizing. And so we want to help people have some ways to move through that and to resolve lingering effects of it. So that’s going to be our topic.
Before we jump in, we should tell you, and also we want to tell you, that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.
The ideas we discuss in our 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 things we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But they will give you some information to think about and some ideas to research further.
We want to remind you that good health is your own personal responsibility. The final decision, when considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours. And I guess right now, I also feel the need to put a little asterisk next to that because good health is your own personal responsibility. But good health and your ability to execute your responsibility for your health depends on privilege in this country. And it’s really important to recognize that people in marginalized communities, people in minority groups, people of color do not have access to the things that they need to provide for their own good health in so many cases. So I think that that is a really important thing for us to keep front and center. And also to remember that systemic racism directly impacts the health outcomes of Black Americans, of people of color, of marginalized communities, even when they are taking full responsibility. They’re doing everything that they have access to do. That systemic racism still is an enormous factor in the health of these communities.
Systemic Racism is Traumatizing
Yeah, for real. So, If you yourself have been out in the streets at any of the many, many, many protests that have been taking place, or if you’ve just been following and seeing videos on, you know, your Twitter feed or Facebook, Instagram, or just on the news anywhere else, then you’ve seen some really painful images. You know, you see people get knocked over, you see people get hit, you see people bleed, pictures of the injuries people have sustained. And that alone can be, can be very upsetting. You or people that you care about may have been injured, may have been directly harmed.
Either in this current protest environment or like over generations because of the systemic racism that people are protesting right now.
Right. Yeah. Or, you know, it may be that this is all another round of seeing images of people like yourself being hurt and murdered by police or by other people. And so this is all trauma, right? Whether it happened physically to your body or whether it was something that you’re seeing, that is having an impact on your mind and on your emotional state, that’s all trauma. That all goes into that category.
I was going to say too, that it is a privilege, and I know that you want to talk a little bit more about this, but it’s a privilege for this to be shocking. And for so many of us who are White, so many of us who are privileged, that shock itself is traumatizing. And coming to the realization that this country is not what you were raised to believe that it was or not what you have experienced for all people. And that doesn’t let anybody off the hook, but that’s another way in which things can be very upsetting right now. And we need to be able to take that upset and quickly harness it into action.
Ways to Advocate for Change
Right? Yeah. I mean, a lot of White people and other people of privilege are experiencing this as a wake up call or as a new revelation. You know, you hear people saying, wow, I can’t believe that the police would do that to those peaceful protesters. And, you know, the thing is that this is what Black people, marginalized people experience in our society every day and have for hundreds of years. And so when they see that kind of action, you know, being taken by the police or by the authorities, they’re not in any way surprised. This is just an extension of what they experience every day. And so, you know, I know that’s true for many of our listeners, people who follow our pod have been having that kind of experience as they see these things coming along. So look, herbs can’t change systemic racism. I mean, you know, it would be nice if we could all spend time in nature, and talk to the trees, and talk to the flowers, and have some land to take care of, and connect to the earth that way, and get in touch with the mycelial network, and all of those things. And like, yeah, that might help in some ways. But look, the problem is way more acute right now. The problem, and it has been again for hundreds of years, the problem has been acute and serious. And we can’t wait for slow change to do this, right. So herbs can’t change it on their own. I don’t have a flower that can either make somebody stop being racist or can erase the trauma and the pain that someone has suffered as a result of racist activity. So for that, we have to organize. We have to advocate, you know. And so there are places to do that. And if you don’t know where to start, well, you can start with Black Lives Matter. You know, that is an organization you can donate to., You can start with Campaign Zero, which is working to advance policy changes in police departments and in municipalities, which are shown to reduce incidents with police violence and brutality. And to make those universal, right, to put them into practice everywhere. You can look at they have an extension of that program right now called 8 Can’t Wait, and that’s choosing eight specific policy changes that are, again, shown to reduce police violence, in some cases by up to 72%. So, that’s substantial. It’s not perfect, it’s not everything. But it’s a step and it’s one that there’s strong evidence for. And it seems like why wait, you know, at least get that into play. And then we can move on to the next step to dismantle this system, right? So again, herbs can’t do all of that work alone, but they can help, right? They can mitigate some of the impacts that all of this stress trauma has on individual people’s health and wellness. Herbs can help to relieve pain and fear. They can help us return to a state of calm, to build or to restore resilience in people. And so we feel like herbs do have a lot to contribute in those ways.
Herbs can help you not be stuck in despair. Not be stuck in the feelings that are coming out of the trauma, from what you’re seeing and what you’re experiencing. Whoever you are, and at whatever level that is happening for you, herbs can help you either to, you know, if you are a person who has been experiencing this for a long time, you’ve been in this fight for a long time, either because you are a Black American who has been dealing with the systemic racism every single day, or because you are a White ally or anybody who’s been fighting to fix this system. Then herbs can help in that regard to help give you energy and strength and endurance on a physical level, but also on an emotional level to keep going through what seems like an impossible slog to fix things. And if you are new to this fight, then the whole thing coming at you at once may feel overwhelming, and you might feel like I would like to hide now. I would like to not face this stuff. And so if you’re feeling those kinds of feelings, herbs can help you to harness what you’re feeling to face it. Face it in a constructive way so that you can see clearly what you need to do. And then move forward in that direction, instead of feeling overwhelmed by what you’re seeing. And there’s no time for us to be overwhelmed. We need to take action.
Ongoing Trauma Leads to Elevated Inflammation
Right, Yeah. You know, so a lot of times when we think about herbs, we’re thinking about self care or community care, like taking care of yourself, taking care of people around you. For Black people and marginalized people in the United States, self care is a radical act, because the structure doesn’t want you to take care of yourself. It wants you to be used up as a resource and to shut up while you do it. So self care can be a radical act in and of itself. You know, nobody can be out in the streets if they’re in too much pain to walk, if they’re, you know, physically unable. So if we can take care of ourselves, if we can take care of each other, we can get out there again, right? For White people in the U.S., community care is a duty, and that’s becoming more and more clear, you know, in these times right now, but it’s been that way, right? We need to take care of other people. We need to share what we have. We need to offer what we can to the people who don’t have it and who are in need. So if you want to help, there are lots and lots of ways. Again you know, meet the need with what you’ve got. But one way is to learn some herbs and how they can help with trauma recovery, how they can help build resilience. So just briefly let’s talk about trauma and also about, about PTSD, right? So PTSD is a state of high stress, but coming together with some particular symptoms, right? So an increase in vigilance, or like being on alert a lot of the time. An increase in what’s called the startle response, which is like, if there’s a loud noise or something surprising, to crunch in and to cover and try to protect your soft underbelly, you know. So, you know, more of that happening. The feeling of reliving a situation and being unable to move on from it. So, you know, like people expect with flashbacks and so on. But all of this is coming in the context of a heightened degree of systemic inflammation. Because the trauma you experience, and especially when it’s ongoing or chronic, that elevates pro-inflammatory signals in the body. And this can persist long after the trauma so-called has passed. Right? And you know, that’s often, you know, stated in a study where they’re looking at somebody who suffered a single or an identifiable traumatic event or period of time, and now has changed their context. And how they’re living and everything has gotten away from that. But it’s often treated as if, okay, the trauma was then, and this is now and it’s different. But, you know, in so many cases, and especially when the trauma is coming from racism or other systemic factors, trauma is ongoing, right? It’s every day. And so that can lead to this ongoing elevated level of systemic inflammation, which can put you at risk for a lot of other illnesses, disruptions in endocrine communication in the body. So a lot can come out of that. And this podcast is not about like all of the ways that PTSD happens and all of that. There are physiologic reasons for all of this, right? But the point here is that it’s an ongoing situation. It’s something that persists, even if, again, the trauma, one traumatic event is in the past. The effects of it remain and they stay with you for a long time. But again, herbs can help because they can start to turn some of those processes around and shift your internal environment. Right? It’s not an overnight thing. It’s not a one moment. But it’s about changing that environment through sustained kind of gentle pressure.
Yeah. Yeah. One thing there that, as an herbalist, I kind of grab onto is that inflammatory cytokines part. And when I was saying earlier about how good health is your own responsibility. But that for people who live in under-resourced areas and marginalized communities it’s hard to fulfill your responsibility to your health, because you don’t have access to the things that you need. And in this case, one of the things I’m thinking about is good quality food. And the food that’s widely available in marginalized communities is pro-inflammatory food. It’s stuff that has lots of preservatives, that has lots of sugar, lots of added sugars and corn syrup, lots of high carbohydrate, highly refined carbohydrate foods, and all of these are seriously pro-inflammatory. So this gets us into like a spiraling downward cycle of the experience of trauma and of systemic trauma elevating inflammation. And then your environment elevating inflammation because of the food, but there’s other factors too, like stress and lack of sleep and all those other things. I’m just picking food because it’s very tangible and easy to see. And so this begins to spiral, and this is a huge part of the enormous disparity between White Americans, White people in the United States, and Black people in the United States. People, even if you look at Black people who have economic parity with a White person of privilege. So I’m thinking like if you took a Black lawyer and a White lawyer, you would see far more chronic inflammatory diseases in the Black lawyer than you would in the White lawyer, so even if we’re controlling for so many other factors. And so all of this is just intertwined, so much in all of it is stuff that actually we can start to improve with herbs. And that’s very exciting because a lot of the herbs that we can do this work with are accessible and cheap and can be grown at home.
Food is Foundational, Including Herbs
Right. Yeah. So you know, we’re going to highlight some herbs for kind of specific purposes related to trauma in a couple of different stages of that process. But we can say that in general, you know, there is a strong case for diet and for lifestyle playing a big role in the way that trauma affects a person, and how well or poorly they’re able to recover from it in that moment, in the following moments and over the course of their whole life. So there is a big role here for kind of lifestyle interventions and foundational work. You know, so not an exhaustive list, but just a few quick things that we may be considering, especially for the longer term. We’re going to be looking, like you said, to analyze the food a little bit and see what we can do there. If we can choose foods that are less sugary, you know, have less corn syrup in them and all of that, to the extent that that’s possible. That can help in a number of ways. That can help to lower insulin levels. Reducing the amount of sugar in your bloodstream is just a good way to reduce the propensity for inflammation. Sugar is kind of like gasoline in that way, any inflammation, it’s going to enhance that. So trying to change diet that way can help. We think a lot about leaky gut here, too and about effects on the intestinal lining, right? That’s one of your boundaries. And if that one is leaky because of a food allergen or from dysbiosis, you know, bad bacteria in the gut, then your other barriers or resiliences are also going to be compromised. Right? So identifying food allergens, working with good old gut heal tea, probiotics or fermented foods, which doesn’t have to be expensive. You know, a head of cabbage.
Yeah, you can make them at home.
A head of cabbage and some salt. That’s the ingredients for making sauerkraut, you know? So, you know, things like that.
In here too, a couple of herbs I want to call out one is plantain. Not the banana, I mean, plantago, the little green plant. Sometimes it has long narrow leaves: Plantago lanceolata. And sometimes it has sort of very rounded, sort of broad leaves: Plantago major. And this is a plant that grows anywhere there’s compacted earth. So you find it on playgrounds, you find it on any kind of green space in any kind of urban environment. And it is pretty happy to grow even in poor soil. And this is one of the most important plants in our gut heal tea blend, specifically, when we’re thinking about fixing the damage that’s caused in the gut that leads to leaky gut or that is leaky gut. So, you know, calendula is wonderful and all the other plants that we typically put in a gut heal tea. Our base blend is calendula, plantain, chamomile, catnip, and ginger or fennel or both. But if all you could get was just the plantain,because it grows near you, that would be enough to do a lot of work. And fennel is pretty widely available too even just at the bodega or whatever. A lot of times you can get big bags of it for just like $2 or $3. And that bag is going to last you for a long time. So if you have like an Indian foods store or a middle Eastern food store in your neighborhood, that’s a really good place to get fennel seed. Ginger is often pretty accessible as well, but like I said, even if all you could do was for $0, go out and collect a lot of plantain. That’s going to make a really big difference. And the other herb I want to mention here is nettle. Nettle actually grows pretty willingly all throughout urban environments, even suburban environments. You don’t have to be out in the country to find nettle. It’s pretty surprising. So you might be able to find it where you are. But this is another one that is really happy to grow anywhere. And so if you can get your hands on some seeds, this is one that you can grow, even if you don’t have much space. And even if the space you have is crappy soil, like, just not great. It is one that really can improve your nutritional state. Even if you don’t have access to lots fresh vegetables, just having a core of nettle tea every day can resolve a lot of those deficiencies that are caused by lack of vegetables in the diet. If you can’t grow it, that’s a pretty inexpensive herbs to purchase. So if you could only get two things to fix those problems, it would be plantain and nettle. At least in my opinion.
Consistent Sleep and Being in Nature
Sure. Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, some other things that we’re going to want to do that can help here are to establish a circadian rhythm. So, you know, ideally to be awake when the sun is up and to go to sleep around the time or a little after the sun goes down. But really just to establish a rhythm that works for you, whatever your schedule is, your commitments, your needs are to have a schedule that you can keep relatively consistent from day to day will help your body to maintain normal fluctuations in your hormones, including hormones involved in the stress response. So whatever you can do to establish a rhythm around when you wake up, when you go to bed, what time you eat your meals is a contributor to this also. And when you have your physical activity or exercise, if that’s part of your life, the more that those can be consistent from day to day, the more that helps your body to bring those things back into balance. Being outside in nature can be very beneficial for resolving stress. Of course we recognize that for many Black people, nature in the way that it’s constructed in our country, isn’t particularly welcoming. So, you know, the fact that there are fewer welcoming spaces for people of color, that are, you know, parks or nature trails or things like that, is a real problem. There are some great groups though, that are working to turn that around. So one of those that you might want to check out is outdoorafro.com, which looks pretty great and has places to meet up and connect with folks all over the country. You can also check out DiversifyOutdoors, which is a website, but also a hashtag, because these days a lot of great stuff is shared that way. So just a couple of examples, there are plenty more out there that you might want to look into or create, you know. But yeah, that’s something to consider for sure. So, but, you know, that aspect recognized as real, there can still be benefits of going outside into nature, spending time in the wild. Even if the wild is you’ve got a little patch of some bushes, or a couple of trees around, or a little green space in your neighborhood or somewhere that you can get to and to spend some time there, you know? So yeah, so being in nature can be quite helpful
Really, like if can hear some birds or see some squirrels running around it’s enough. Like I think about here in Boston. Honestly, even just being on the Common and watching the squirrels run around. It’s still substantially different than being on the sidewalk, you know?
Minimizing Stimulants and Depressants
Yeah. And I mean, look, this is one of the problems. One of the expressions of systemic racism in our society is if you look at the places where marginalized people live, there’s just fewer trees. You can pick them out by looking at a satellite image of a neighborhood, you know. It’s real and it’s problematic because it does have direct effects on health. So, okay. So all of that and then some other things that follow to the extent that it’s possible. So avoiding stimulants is a good idea when trauma is present or when it’s been something that you’re recently coping with. So just to be aware of that. Like a little caffeine, isn’t really so much what we’re talking about. But over intake of that can be problematic. It can lead to the trauma extending in time or being harder to shake off. One thing to recognize here is that sometimes PTSD is actually misdiagnosed as ADHD, especially when it’s taking place in children. And so in those cases, it can actually worsen the symptoms and make it a lot more difficult to resolve. So that’s something to explore a little further if you have young people in your life, particularly if any of them have been put onto medications like Ritalin. Those are stimulants. Similarly we would be looking to avoid depressant agents while we’re working through trauma and coping with it, you know. So that would include things like alcohol and cannabis, especially the kind of heavier, you know, couch-lock kind of strains. So they may feel comforting. They can, in some cases, serve as harm reduction measures. And again, that’s real. That’s, that’s a fact, right? Yeah.
It doesn’t mean that you can’t work with stimulants or depressants. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have coffee or even a lot of coffee, because sometimes that’s what you need to do to get through your work. Especially if you work a weird shift and then also have to take care of the kids and whatever else. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t have some depressants. It doesn’t mean you can’t have some alcohol to just dull things for a while, or some cannabis to dull things for awhile. It just is that if you understand that they do kind of get in the way of processing PTSD then you can take compensatory action. So in one moment you might be thinking, all I need to do right now is tread water. I am not processing anything. I’m just trying to get through this day. Fine, do what you have to do to get through that day. But when you’re in a safe place and you’re like, okay, it’s time for me to process some of this. Then that’s a good time to find alternates or to cut back on depressants and stimulants. Like if you’re in a safe place where it’s like, well, I can sleep a little more right now. I can cut back on the caffeine on purpose, because I know that will help me in my work, in processing this trauma. But we don’t want to imply that, like, if you’re just doing what you’ve got to do to get through your day, that that’s somehow bad and that you’re hurting yourself with that. You’re maybe not helping yourself, but you weren’t trying to help yourself. You’re trying to just get through the day. And there is nothing wrong with that when that’s what you have to do.
Right. Okay. So, you know, all those things can be an influence, but it turns out that the largest risk factor for PTSD is a lack of social support. And so, you know, this is the whole problem, right? Is that the society at large doesn’t support the whole of the society. And so, you know, that’s what we’re trying to change. Okay. Well, one quick thing before we leap into some specific herbs for coping with PTSD and responding to trauma, when you’ve just come away from a difficult situation. I wanted to highlight a paradoxical reaction that sometimes takes place when people start to work with these herbs or even other kinds of of therapeutic intervention, which is that if we induce relaxation in people, through herbs that we work with, or even, you know, through like if people take pharmaceuticals for this. If somebody has a history of trauma, they can get stuck in a mode of hyper vigilance and alert and self protection. And then if that same person then takes one of these relaxant agents, then it can feel like their safe state of tension and protection is being taken away. And that can trigger a kind of a rebound of panic and of excitation or agitation. So this doesn’t by any means happen to everybody, you know. By and large many people who take these herbs are going to have all the effects that we’ll describe. But I do want to recognize that sometimes a person takes blue vervain or they take kava or something like that. And instead of feeling some relief, it actually exacerbates what they’re experiencing,
Right. I mean, they are feeling relief in terms of relaxing the tension. It’s just that the sudden lack of tension induces a little panic because you’re thinking, Oh, no, I’m not protecting myself anymore. And one way to work with that, if you’re anticipating that that could be you is to, before you work with herbs that will help you to relax, is to set up other protection systems. So to tell yourself, okay, I am in my house with a safe friend and I have taken X, Y, and Z steps that will make me feel comfortable., whatever it is. Whether, you know, sometimes that’s a heavy blanket to give you the feeling of protection around you, so that it’s okay for you to release the tension in your body, because you still feel the weight of other protection. Or, and I think, you know, this is why it’s often comfortable to wear a jacket even in the summer, to wear more clothing, even in the summer, because it feels like protection. It feels like armor. And so use that, you know. If you’re like, okay, I’m home, I’m safe. And I’m in a safe space, maybe your home isn’t safe, but you’re in a safe space. And it’s okay for me to relax. Now, I’m going to put on a little armor around my body so that my body itself no longer has to be the armor. And that can help a lot, or any other thing that helps you feel safe. Setting that up is going through a process of telling yourself I am setting up a safety system so that my personal physical safety system in my body is allowed to come offline. Now it’s okay. Like I am off the job because this other system that I have set up is taking over for me for a little while. So whatever that is for you, putting that in place before you take some herbs that will allow you to relax can be really effective.
Second Aid Herbs: Blue Vervain & Friends
Yeah. Okay. All right. So let’s, let’s talk about some herbs for trauma resolution. And the first category I want to look at is, today, let’s start with some herbs for what I’d call second aid, right? So first aid is you know getting away from danger, treating serious injuries.
Stopping the bleeding.
Stop the bleeding, you know. If there’s a panic attack, then something to calm that down. So the idea of second aid is like, okay. All of the critical stuff has been taken care of, but by no means are we like back to normal, everything’s great. You know, like there’s still a lot to be done in that stage of the work, right? So these are herbs for those moments, and primarily to help to shake off or to release the excitation, agitation, and tension that develops when you’re in a traumatic situation. So this could be like, you know, you were at a protest, things got really violent, and you got away. And now you’re in a safer space. You know, maybe you’re headed home or you’ve gotten home now and you’re able to settle down. But you’re still agitated and amped up and still feeling all of those feelings. Right? So one herb that I would find really helpful there would be blue vervain.
Oh, my goodness. Blue vervain has been a plant that I’ve been really relying on for the last couple of months. I’m a person who really holds that like physical armor, you know, that the tension that puts a boundary between me and the world. And it’s hard for me to let that go. And another thing is that another way that I make myself feel safe is by ordering things around me. So that I feel like I have a sense of control over what’s going to happen in my day or whatever, like whatever things in a day that you can control. I really like to hold on to those things. It makes me feel very comforted. And especially in times right now where I can’t control anything. I mean, honestly, we never can control anything, but this is a very high level of not being in control. And also it’s not time for me to be in control. It’s time for me to take direction. It’s time for me to be directed in my efforts by Black Americans. It is not time for me as a White person to be leading. And so blue vervain is really excellent in just allowing that stuff to let go, all the forms of it.
Yeah. I mean, so often when, when herbalists, you know, of this time discuss blue vervain, it’s all about like, Oh, it’s good for Type A individuals. It’s good for people who can’t delegate. And I love the way that you’re kind of applying that framework to this work and this advocacy.
Yeah. I think that especially for White allies right now, just by nature of being White, it is very natural to take control in a situation. It is very natural to feel like a leader. Even if you are not a person who has a very outgoing personality, systemically people of privilege are raised to expect that if they ask the manager for something to be fixed, that they’re not happy with the customer service that they got, that it will be respected. You know, like, there’s that idea of like, I have some power. And I can walk onto a scene with that power and take some leadership.
Right? Yeah. And that subconsciously translates to, well, if we yell at the police, then they’ll have to do what we say. And it would be nice if it was that simple, but ask anybody who’s done it and they’ll tell you that doesn’t work like that. Right?
In these times right now it’s really important that as we bring our bodies, as we bring our voices, as we bring our skills to help in this situation, that we are bringing those things in service and not in leadership. It’s okay for us to take a leadership role in terms of talking to other White people and educating other White people about things that Black people are telling us need to happen. But it is not okay for us to be taking charge. We need to be taking direction. And so if that is hard for you, because you are a Type A person and you’re just accustomed to being the team lead. Or if it is hard for you because you are a person of privilege and you never even realized how much you just automatically expect to have a leadership position. Either way, blue vervain is, I think, like a really good herb for White allies right now.
Yeah. But that’s by no means the only application though. Right. So, I mean, I’ve given blue vervain to plenty of people who are not Type A by any stretch. Because, particularly in this kind of like second aid, or like, you know, relatively acute application, vervain has some immediate effects, right? So when we take this herb, it’s quite bitter and it’s quite cooling in nature. And it exerts that cooling, quieting, like slow down effect on the nerve structures in the body. So that can take a state where you feel heightened, where you feel like your skin is more sensitive, where you feel like everything is louder and closer than usual. And it can kind of like put those things at a little more of a distance, right? Turn down the volume on all of the input that’s coming in. Inside the nervous system, it helps to transition us away from the fight or flight state, or the sympathetic nervous system state, to the rest and digest state or parasympathetic mode. And in our bodies by and large, it’s kind of like one of these is activated or the other. You know, there’s a sort of a gradient, but you can really switch, you know, switch tracks from one to the other. And herbs like blue vervain are very helpful for making that transition. And again, think of that in the context of you need your stress response, if you are in a violent confrontation with police. You need that. You need to get your heart rate up. You need to be able to run. You need to be able to move and see what’s right in front of you and just go, right? But then when you get home, when you go to any kind of a safer space, then you need to be able to come back out of that. Otherwise you’re just going to be influences on your health, on your heart function, on your digestive activity, on all kinds of different things, both acute and chronic, if we can’t come back out of that state. And so vervain helps with that transition to move you over. Okay. So there are a number of other herbs are that are similar to blue vervain, right? You can’t always get blue vervain, but there may be some other one that’s similar and has the kind of effect we’re looking for here. So you can look at plants like skullcap and passionflower. We really like to work with betony, wood betony for this. Motherwort is a really good one, particularly if the heart is racing or if there’s pain effecting the heart. Hawthorn and linden are two other heart-centric, nervine herbs that can be very calming and soothing and help us to recover from stress.
And, you know linden is a more expensive herb, but it starts to bloom around the middle of June. And it is actually a tree that grows in a lot of urban environments. I’m not actually sure why, but lots and lots of cities grow Linden trees. Like when the department of public works puts in a tree on a street or whatever, it’s often linden. So if you walk around, you may find linden trees where you can harvest the flowers yourself. And then you would have it available to you for $0 dollars instead of…I mean, it’s not like the most expensive herb on the planet. It’s just a more expensive herb. And it is something, that actually, you often can find in cities, even though you might think, Oh, I would never find this. You actually usually can.
Yeah. Linden is very common. It is fairly common and it’s also calming and soothing. So that’s a nice one to integrate really into long term intake. Honestly if I could provide hawthorn and linden to every Black person in America, that would probably be really great. So anyway, yeah, that’s a nice heart protective kind of an herb as well. And there’s other plants too, you know, aromatic herbs like lemon balm and lavender, even spearmint. You know, they can help a little bit with that shifting of the internal state and the release of some tension and frustration. So yeah, those are really valuable plants.
Help With Sleep and Pain: Wild Lettuce & California Poppy
I really am excited to talk about wild lettuce. Wild lettuce is another plant that grows just all over the place in urban environments, but also in the suburbs and also completely out in the country. Like it is a plant that literally you’ll find everywhere. And a good way to know that you have wild lettuce is that it looks like a dandelion that has a very tall stalk. So the leaves look very much like a dandelion and very early in the spring. Sometimes it’s hard to even tell. You might be looking at it and thinking it’s dandelion, but then it starts to grow a stalk up the middle. And it will grow however tall it grows. It can be taller than me. It can be like six, seven, even eight feet tall.
Most of the city ones are like between a foot and, I don’t know, two or three
Like knee height, you know, maybe. But the flowers on wild lettuce also look like dandelion. They look really, really similar to dandelion flowers. So this is the way that you’re going to know. The leaves look similar to dandelion. The flowers look similar to dandelion. And there is some variation, but there’s also variation in dandelions too. Like some of them are super toothy and some of them are not as toothy. So, I mean, you can look up pictures also, but that kind of gives you a guideline. But wild lettuce is very cooling, but it’s more sedating. So it can really help to get to sleep after you have had a scary experience, a stressful experience, a traumatic experience
And a painful experience, because wild lettuce doesn’t just take like your brain and quiet it down, but it helps all the nerves in your body. And I mean, in your brain, that’s where you’re experiencing the pain, you know, the signals go and they get interpreted. Okay. But the effect though is that the herb can help to relieve pain. Physical, musculoskeletal, you know, injury based, whatever. It can help to turn down the dial on that. And that may be really important for enabling sleep to be achieved at all.
Yeah. Especially if you have been in a protest where they used tear gas or any other of the kinds of, you know, pepper spray or any of the other chemical crowd control agents. That is a kind of pain that lingers. It continues to hurt for a really long time, like a couple of days. Or, you know, maybe even a week later, you’re still feeling just very sensitive on any part of your skin that came in contact with it, and certainly in the face and eyes. And so taking wild lettuce just to kind of calm the buzz.
Yeah. You can adjust your dose. Right. So like we often talk about wild lettuce as a nerve for sleep and, you know, the kind of structure and dosing that we need to help you sleep with this herb. But if you take a smaller dose, you know, maybe it’s a half a dropper. I mean, your body size could be really different than mine. For me, it would be half a dropper. And that wouldn’t so much like make me fall over with sleepiness in the middle of my day, but it would really quiet down agitation, and feelings of pain and all of that. So you can find the dose that works for you. Right? But you can have a kind of like daytime quiet, calm pain reduction dose, and then a nighttime, like, let me sleep kind of a dose.
You can make wild lettuce into tea. It’s quite bitter. But it’s really effective as tincture. And there’s one benefit to making it as a tincture. And that is that the part of the plant that may be most responsible for the pain relief is the sort of white sappy juice that is most prevalent in the stalk of the plant. I mean, it’s in the leaves too, but most of it is in the stalk. And when you dry the plant for tea, you don’t get as much of that. I don’t think you get none of it, but you don’t get much of it. When I make tincture from wild lettuce, I don’t just tincture the leaves. I like to tincture the stalk. And in fact, I like to cut the stalk long ways so that it’s open. And then maybe even do it again, so that it’s like in quarters long ways, and then chop it up however much you need to so it fits in the jar. But my point here is that I like to expose as much of the inside of the stalk as possible.
Yeah. I mean, you can even take your plant material and your alcohol and put it all in the blender.
Yeah. You might need to chop it up first because the stalk, depending on how big your plant was. It might be kind of tough and depending on how strong your blender is, it might, it might not like that.
Yeah, that’s true.
But so if you chop it up first, then that’s fine. But the point here is that I want as much of that sap into the tincture as possible. And there’s actually a way to make a very potent pain relieving tincture by making a cut on a living wild lettuce plant, just so one little drop of that sappy milky stuff comes out. And then it kind of dries a little and you take that. You’re going to need a ton of wild lettuce plants and also a lot of time. Because you make one little cut every day and then get one little drop every day. And for me, I don’t have that kind of time. But also I find doing it this way, where you just take the whole stalk, chop it up so that as much of the inside of the stalk is exposed as possible, and then tincture that. You’re getting most of the sap that’s in that plant, but you’re also getting all the other parts of the plant as well. It’s not just the sap that is great from wild lettuce. So that is actually my favorite way to tincture it when I really want something strong for pain relief and strongly sedative as well. Then you can determine how sedative you want it to be based on the dose that you take later. Yeah.
Yeah. Okay. An herb with some similar effects that may be more prevalent in your area, especially if you live over on the West coast, is California poppy. And so that’s one that has a lot of crossover, you know, it’s another pain relieving herb that can help you go to sleep and quiet down that state of nervous agitation and excitation. So depending again on where you live that may be more accessible. Yeah.
Longer-Term Resilience: Tulsi
So we want to have some herbs here also for kind of longer term recovery, but also endurance building resilience or maintaining your resilience. And I know that we talk about TLC a lot, but also I can’t not talk about tulsi in this aspect. Tulsi really helps with so many factors of stress response. You know, it helps you feel better. And it’s an exhilarant and it lifts the heart and lifts the spirits and those kinds of things. And I don’t want to say, but that’s not important, because that’s utterly important.
It is important. Yeah. You need to have that experience sometimes in order to actually recover from a traumatic intervention.
Yeah, there has to be some happiness. Yeah. but also tulsi, so yes, it is helping 100%, 110% on the emotional side, but tulsi also helps on the endocrine side. It helps with blood sugar levels. It helps with cortisol levels. It helps with all of that chronic inflammatory stuff that we were talking about in the beginning. And so it’s really broadly, it’s like a broad spectrum action here. It’s not just a bandaid. Like it’s not just, Oh, I’ll just have this little bandaid herb that’s going to make me feel better for a couple of minutes just so I can get through my day. And then I’m not going to feel good again. And I’ll just put up with it. It’s going to help you feel better right now. And it is addressing the longer term issues that are going on in the body that are contributing to break down of resilience, or contributing to feeling tired from the marathon or all those things.
Yeah. One of the things that tulsi is doing is increasing cerebral circulation or blood flow up to your brain, which can help out with issues of memory and of brain fog and feelings like that, which often accompany, you know, a traumatic situation or PTSD. But tulsi is also enhancing blood flow and enhancing recovery of particular areas in the brain. So the hippocampus and the amygdala are two areas that tulsi seems to act on, because it helps with recovery, again, from trauma. And trauma, especially if it’s sustained, it can impair the function of those parts of the brain. One of the major functions of the hippocampus for instance, is where you’re going to convert short term experience into long term memory. And in the context of a scary or traumatic experience, the conversion there is from something that’s acute and needs a response or a reaction or an alertness now, to something that is fully in the past and is something that, you know, you’ve coped with, and we could say moved on from. I don’t want to say like, just got over it, unless that’s positive for you and you’re like: yeah, I had troubles. Then I got over them. You know, like some people will have that way of explaining what they felt and how they’re moving. So if that works for you, that works.
Yeah. It’s like that phrase has been kind of weaponized. And I personally feel that it is a helpful phrase for me to be like, Oh, okay, Hey, I’m past that now. But only, like, the baseline is still true in that tulsi does help you process the things that need to be processed. And then you can use whatever language is uplifting for you about what that feels like in your body.
Yeah. So, you know, through this set of effects that tulsi has, it’s very helpful for when people are stuck in their trauma, right? Stuck in either the flashbacks or the memories. Flashbacks, by the way, don’t always come in the form of, like actually, you know, like the classic one of like hearing the fireworks and then thinking it’s shells or something.
Like you see in the movies, you know, and they play the little, they play the scene and you like are watching it like it’s a movie inside a movie. It’s not always like that.
Yeah. You know, a lot of times that kind of stuckness or even flashback, it can be more that the pattern of behavior that got you through the scary incident is what is asserted or what comes forward most easily in those moments. And so if it was that something was violent and scary and you had to fight, or you had to match that, then that might start to become a response you have to other moments that get your energy up or that scare you. And so that too is a form of flashback or of being stuck in those same responses. And again, tulsi is not going to do this overnight. But with time, with extended work with this tulsi can help to to shift that sort of reaction to help you to recognize not just intellectually, but like all the way through to the middle of you, that the situation has changed. And that different reactions are more appropriate now or safe now, you know?
Yeah. Or safe now. Right. Like you’re allowed to have a different reaction now and it’ll be safe to do that.
Right. Yeah. You know, in that context, we’ll often take tulsi together with other plants to kind of enhance that specific activity of it. We find it really great together with betony. We often are putting together a little bit of rose petals in with the tulsi. That can have a nice kind of, you know, security building feeling to it. Sometimes folks need a little bit more activating herbs, so something like damiana or rosemary, particularly where the expression of trauma is very like cold and inward turned and shutting down on the outside. Tulsi, together with rosemary, together with damiana, it can help to bring things a little bit up and out and help that person to emerge from there. So lots of options with tulsi. It combines well with so many other herbs. It doesn’t have a flavor that’s like overwhelming or off putting next to almost anything.
Yeah. You can go in a mint direction, you can do ginger, you can put in cinnamon, like, whatever your kind of flavor is. It tastes great with chai spice. I don’t really like tulsi all by itself as a flavor, but it’s great with other flavors. And actually you had just said something and in that one moment, I was like, wow, tulsi. It’s like the Phoenix herb, you know. It’s like the rise from the ashes kind of… Somehow the way that you were describing cold trauma. And I was thinking about, you know, like having a traumatic experience. And then wanting to hide under the desk or hide under the bed, like whether or not you actually take that action, but feeling like that’s what you want to do. And that happens for me. You know, I want to roll up into a ball. And then the tulsi, and then even if you add in some rosemary or something like that, to sort of like have that uplifting. And it’s like that rising up out of it. And I think about too, I wanna say this well, but I think about so many amazing Black women that I know personally, or that I don’t know personally, but that they’re public people and I see them behaving in public. And they are like, phoenixes. They are like just the strength of all of those ashes and amazing role models. And they should never have had to be, but you know, like they are like tulsi. You know, and I can’t, there’s a… I wish I could say this better, but it is that amazing community organizing, amazing power that comes from the trauma that they have lived through and that they still get out of bed in the morning.
The necessity of it.
Yes. Yes. The, well there’s kids to feed. There’s, you know, and so they just get up again the next morning. And they just take care of the kids again and get everybody to school and do your homework. And like all this stuff. And in the face of all of the terrible stuff that has to be lived through. And it’s like, that’s the tulsi energy.
Building Endurance: Eleuthero & Rhodiola
Yeah. But what you’re describing there also makes me think about eleuthero, which is another one we wanted to talk about here. So eleuthero, it’s sometimes called Siberian ginseng. But we mostly call it eleuthero. This one is really similar to ginseng though. It’s another adaptogenic herb just like tulsi. But this one is more, in our experience, more about building endurance and about building stamina. And I think about this one lately a lot for people who are going out. You know, it’s been 10 days now that there’s been a protest, nine or 10 days that there’s been a protest every single night in so many cities all across the country. And you know, folks are out there in the streets every single night and then still going to their jobs in the daytime. And then taking care of their kids and feeding themselves and doing all of this stuff. And then still getting back out for another one. Right? So if that’s you, or if that’s somebody that you know, and that you’re supporting, then consider eleuthero. It’s a an herb for stamina, for resilience. It can help to speed up recovery from physical exertion including injury. And it can improve alertness and cognitive function when you are under stress, when you’re under long hours of work or action that you’re taking. So, you know, we often think about eleuthero for like medical staff, for people who are on on the night shift or on flexi shifts, for students who have to cram for tests or whatever. But lately I think about protesters and I think about eleuthero a lot. It’s helpful, even if you’re not getting adequate sleep, even if you’re not getting adequate nutrition, you know, even if you’re burned out. If you can provide those things, like we set up at the top, that’s great. But eleuthero will help you to get through a period where that’s not available or easily accessed. Eleuthero. What do you want to throw in here?
I actually kind of want to add rhodiola into your discussion here. Rhodiola is an herb that I love. And I’m also sometimes hesitant about it because it’s kind of trendy. And it’s trendy in a way that is not super healthy in our culture, because it’s an herb that helps you keep going, even when you’re exhausted by capitalism and you should actually be allowed to rest. You know, that kind of… And so often I am pretty conservative about rhodiola just because I don’t think that the answer is push yourself to work harder. I think that the answer is we should be allowed to rest. And, okay. So all that said, in this particular case, I think rhodiola is just perfect. And, so rhodiola comes from the far North, you know, where it’s cold and damp for a really long time, and dark. And right now it’s hot and oppressive actually. But if you think about the weight and the like, Oh, grimness, that’s the word I want. Grimness of getting through a long winter in a place where like the daytime doesn’t even, the sun doesn’t even rise. And an herb that can help you get through that, these times can feel like, you know, the metaphorical sun doesn’t even rise. And the amount of strength that’s required to get through it is monumental. And whether that is happening for you for the first time right now, because you’re shocked by what you’re seeing. Or whether that has been happening for your entire life, because you have grown up Black in this country. I think that rhodiola is actually uniquely awesome for this particular period in time. And actually, as I’m saying all that eleuthero, like where it grows native, is also in the far North. And so even though it is summer and it is hot and right now I’m really actually uncomfortably warm, it’s the metaphor of that.
Yeah. You know, both of these herbs have been tested out for helping people with heat stress, you know both directions, right? So cold stress and heat stress. Each of these herbs can help your body to react to that physical stressor as well. You know, so again, if you’re out there in the streets, you’re marching around, you know, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. But also eleuthero, rhodiola these kinds of adaptogen herbs, they can help your body to stand up to that form of stress better too. Yeah. Rhodiola can be quite stimulating. If you have stimulant medications in your life right now, like Ritalin, like Adderall, something like that, then just be aware that there would be an additive effect here. And that you might not want to go with rhodiola in that context. I find eleuthero to be a safer herb in that regard. But other than that…
I would say on the other hand, right now there are 42 million people out of work. And many of those people hadn’t had healthcare through their employers. Many of them did not have healthcare because we live in a country where you’re not allowed to have healthcare. But this is relevant because if you are a person who finds Ritalin or Adderall helpful for you, and for whatever reason, it is not accessible to you right now, there have been several instances in which we have substituted rhodiola there until the person was able to…because they lost their insurance or for whatever reason, they weren’t able to get their prescription…and rhodiola was able to help fill that gap and get them through. So while I would not take it concurrently with Ritalin or Adderall or any of those things, if you are suddenly not able to get your prescription, rhodiola can be helpful in that way.
Restoration: St. John’s Wort & Yarrow
Yeah. All right. There are other adaptogens that are kind of similar. These two are the ones that I think of most when it’s this kind of, you know, marathon, ongoing, you know, resilience kind of situation. But maybe another one is easier for you to access, right? Or that you’ve already got on hand. So plants like ashwagandha, codonopsis, jiaogulan is one we like a lot, schisandra berry. And then the ginsengs, you know, I would probably steer people more towards American ginseng, because that’s a little more sustaining and resilience building. But you know, again, if it’s a long night, then some Asian ginseng, some kind of red ginseng, that’ll get you going. That’ll give you some energy and help you to push on through. So, you know, that’s a necessary kind of a medicine these days.
Alright. We also wanted to talk about one more plant and this is about st. John’s wort. So St. John’s wort is often thought of simply as an antidepressant but there’s really a lot more to it than that. We find that St. John’s wort can help to restore the health and the function of nerves in the body. And I’m here thinking about, like you said, the tear gas exposure. I’m thinking about people getting zip-tied at the hands and having circulation cut off. So, you know, I mean, even topical applications of St. John’s wort oil, or even tincture to places where there’s been acute nerve damage, that can be very helpful.
It will hurt if there is broken skin. And a lot of times zip ties do you break the skin? But once that part is past, tincture is going to be very effective.
Those topical applications are safe for people who are taking pharmaceuticals, but internal ingestion of St. John’s wort is not always safe when people are taking pharmaceuticals. So the default position there should be, if there are pharmaceuticals, avoid St. John’s wort until you consult with an experienced herbalist who can tell you that for sure, you know, yes or no. But if they’re not in play for an individual, then this is an herb that, I mean, you don’t need to be depressed to drink St. John’s wort every day. Honestly, I’ve been doing that a lot lately and I feel like it benefits me substantially when I do stay consistent with including St. John’s wort in my daily tea. It’s an anti-inflammatory, it’s a nerve protector. It does have some effects on neurotransmitters. But it’s not like an SSRI drug. You know, sometimes I’ll even see people like St. John’s wort, the herbal SSRI. No, it’s not quite like that. You know, a lot of its effect is actually taking place down in the digestive system to restore integrity to the guts, to reduce inflammation there. And like we were saying, that’s one place that can both exacerbate, intestinal inflammation can exacerbate your experience of trauma, make it harder to get through it and get past it. But it’s also something that can be instigated by traumatic experience. So regardless of it’s the chicken or the egg, St. John’s wort is still helpful, you know?
You know, also just going back to sort of the really kind of basic stuff here, if you were exposed to tear gas or other chemical agents, St. John’s wort helps with clearance. Like it improves liver function, it helps get stuff out of your body. And so whether that is that you have been eating a lot of sugar because that’s what’s available to you, or, you know, a lot of junk food because that’s what’s available to you, or because you’re really stressed out and you’re stress eating. And that is real, that’s a thing that happens. You don’t need to feel guilt about that. That St. John’s wort can help compensate for that by clearing out both toxic chemical things, and also just the everyday crud of, Oh, I didn’t eat my best food today, you know?
yeah. And also all the stress hormones that you produced while you were in the acute stress phase and probably continued to produce for quite a while afterwards, right? Those too need to get broken down and eliminated from the system. And St. John’s wort, you know, through its effects on liver function and digestive activity, it really helps that to take place. So yeah. So I do think that’s quite a valuable herb in these contexts.
So this is a plant again, that you can’t take if you are taking pharmaceuticals, because it is so effective at simulating liver function, that it will clear the pharmaceuticals out of your system too quickly. However, yarrow is another plant that has a lot of similar actions and grows really profusely in urban, suburban and rural environments. It grows in really hot places. So you might find it even by the side of the road, which isn’t necessarily the best place ever to harvest.
For flowers, I mean, leaves, that’d be fine.
The flowers are the least impacted by toxins in the soil. So if you had to, you could do that. But yarrow does not have the same kind of pharmaceutical interaction problem that St. John’s wort has. It’s much much more widely applicable. It’s never, like no herb is ever a hundred percent guaranteed not to have drug interactions, but yarrow doesn’t have the same intensity of liver clearance and stuff like that that St. John’s wort does. But it can have a lot of the same sorts of benefits, even though it actually does it by somewhat different mechanisms.
Yeah. And, you know, yarrow also has some other relevant applications here as well. You know, yarrow, well, first of all, it can be a nice first aid herb. It can help to stop bleeding. It can help to disinfect wounds, you know. But I’m also thinking about the way we work with yarrow for spiritual or for psychological purposes, where yarrow can help you to feel like you’ve got a thicker skin, or like you’ve got that layer of armor you were talking about. Yarrow is good at building that feeling of resistance or like reducing a feeling of vulnerability. Yeah. All right. So again, this was just a few. And with herbs, there are always other options, right? So if none of these herbs grow near you or are accessible near you, don’t despair. But think about the activities that we’ve been discussing. And maybe there is another herb around you that can perform those same jobs. And that’s the perspective to take when you’re looking at herbalism, you know, is it’s not so much that this is the one perfect plant that can do that thing. It’s that the herb has a set of actions, a set of affinities in the body. And you can find another one. So if you want help, then you can find your friendly neighborhood herbalists.
Yeah. And if you don’t have a friendly neighborhood herbalist, well you have us. So feel free to shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we can try to put you in contact with folks in your area, or try to help you out ourselves. And in the meantime, like we said, this was part two of a maybe three part series, or maybe more, on these things. And next week I really want to talk about what we, as herbalists, can contribute to the change we want to see in the world. And so I’m excited to share that. And until then we’ve got some work to do.
Yeah. So drink some tea and share some tea. And let’s get out there and do what we gotta do.
Alright. Talk to you again next week.
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