Podcast 155: Equinox Thoughts On Balance & Amphoteric Herbs
We’re discussing the notion of amphoteric herbs today, because it’s the Spring equinox and we’re thinking about balance. The term amphoteric is orginally a chemistry term meaning “having characteristics of both an acid and a base”. Herbalists use the word to mean an herb that has a balancing activity, one that is capable of acting in ways that seem opposite, depending on the context in which it’s taken.
But to understand how amphoteric herbs could be balancers in this way, first we need to investigate the concept of balance a little bit. What does it mean to find balance, or stay balanced? What does it mean that we’re all seeking balance? How can the experience of building physical balance skills teach us about finding mental & emotional balance? And of course: how can herbs help us find it, and maintain it?
We’ve been thinking about balance a lot lately – not just because of equinox, but also because we’ve been working on our Musculoskeletal Health course. If pain, tension, or stiffness are inhibiting your balance, herbs can help! This course covers our favorite herbal musculoskeletal remedies and strategies for combining herbalism and movement practices to get results. You also get access to our twice-weekly live Q&A sessions, so you can connect with us (Ryn & Katja) directly!
As always, please subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen, so others can find it more easily. Thank you!!
Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.
This episode was sponsored by Mountain Rose Herbs. We thank them for their support!
Hi, I’m Katja.
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. Yeah. Well, today’s the Equinox. And it might still be where you’re listening, or it could just be after, but close enough.
Yeah. It’s close enough.
You know, equinox.
It’s the equinox-ical time of year
Equinoctal, perhaps, something like that.
Yeah. That’s what I wanted.
And so, of course, we’re thinking about balance. We’re thinking, what does it mean? What does it mean that we’re all looking for it, that our Instagram ads tell us that we can find balance with this clever new product or this excellent meditation program or whatever else. Also, we’re going to be thinking today about how can the experience of building physical balance skills teach us about finding mental and emotional balance.
Yeah. That’s really on my mind lately.
Yeah. In particular. And of course, because it’s an herbalism podcast, we’re going to talk about how herbs can help us to find balance too. But first we want to remind you that we are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.
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.
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, we’re not trying to present a dogmatic right way that you should adhere to.
Everybody’s body is different. So the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about and some ideas to research further.
Finding your way to better health, and better balance, is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey, but it does mean that the final decision when considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always yours to make.
Well, also I really am excited to say how grateful I am to Mountain Rose Herbs, because they have decided to sponsor our podcast. And you know, I’ve been talking about how Mountain Rose has really been a helper and a partner in education in herbalism in this country, and really supported herbal students in this country ever since it started. And so one of the things that I want to think about when I’m thinking about balance is how often people come into herbal study with ideas about what they have to do to be considered an herbalist. And sometimes people are like, well, in order to really be an herbalist, I have to grow all of my own herbs or wildcraft everything myself or whatever. If I just order it, then I’m not really a good herbalist.
Yeah. I’ve occasionally had people ask me, you know, in the apothecary. And I’m like, well, we grow a few, but you know, almost the majority of these we ordered in, most of them from Mountain Rose. Once or twice, people are a little disappointed. You can kind of tell
But also, like that is balance. You can’t work your day job and take care of the household and all the other things and study and grow every single herb. Growing herbs is a full-time job. So although I do think that it’s really valuable to grow like one herb. Maybe you have a big garden and time to tend it and you can grow a bunch of herbs. That’s fantastic.
Yeah, which is great.
But realistically speaking, maybe you can’t. And so I do think that it’s valuable to grow like at least one. This year we’re promoting calendula to be an herb that we all grow together. It’s really cool to watch an herb through its whole life cycle and to be in relationship with a specific plant and then to work with it medicinally. But you are a real herbalist, even if you buy in almost all your herbs. That is fine. And if that is the way that you find the balance between the obligations in your life and getting the herbs that you need, then that is so legitimate. And we like to recommend Mountain Rose Herbs, because they do have really good quality. And so if you’re busy and if you’re a beginning herb student, and you’re trying to think, like, I need to find a place that has good herbs, and I’m not even sure if I know how to judge that yet. You can trust them to have good stuff. So, if that’s you, you can check them out at MountainRoseHerbs.com.
Nice. All right. So onto today’s topic. We’re all looking for balance, right? And I was a little snarky earlier about the Instagram ads and the whatever else, but it is a real phenomenon. And of course, advertisements are there to make us want things, but they’re also to tell us where the things are that we want.
I think, like, a third thing is they’re also a reflection of the things we already wanted. Right? Like they write the ad because everybody’s already feeling unbalanced. And so they’re like, oh, everybody’s feeling unbalanced. If we tell them that this will give you balance, then you’ll want to buy it.
What is Balance?
Right. Yeah. And that can work out. But I think that it’s important for everybody to kind of investigate a little bit, like, what do I mean by balance? What would that look like? What would that feel like? How would I know if I did it. With any kind of health goal, this is a good thing to sort of stop and check and be like, wait a minute. How would I know that I had done that? Or yeah, how would things be different?
I think that so often our cultural concept of balance actually means I don’t ever want to be unhappy, or I don’t ever want to feel discomfort.
Like you get to work life balance when you’re happy while you’re working, and you’re happy while you’re at home, and you have enough time for both, and everything is just easy.
Yeah. And your house is always clean, and you have an enormous garden that you have plenty of time to tend. And like, no. Honestly, maybe that might happen for a couple of people, but that’s not going to happen, because it’s just not. It’s not realistic. There will always be things about work that are too busy and un-fun.
Right. There’s going to be friction.
Yeah. Like there’s always going to be not enough time to tend the garden. There’s always going to be whatever. There’s always going to be that pull.
Yeah. And oftentimes the picture, the image, even the language that we use around this is very static in nature. It’s like, I want to find a balance. And then once I have, I want to stay balanced. And it’s got kind of an image of, I don’t know, maybe you’re in a yoga pose, or maybe you’re up on one leg, you know, or whatever. But you’re like, I found it. Now, as long as nothing moves, I’m all set. And a lot of times that is the idea. It’s like, all right. As long as I get everything lined up in my job and in my home life and in my finances and in my relationships and whatever else. As long as I set up all of these Jenga pieces in just the right arrangement, everything’s going to be perfectly balanced, and it’s all going to be fine.
It’s such a trap, because that’s never going to happen.
Right, because the dog’s going to run through the room and bump against the table. And then the Jenga tower is going to fall down.
Exactly. And so not only is it never going to happen, but also now we’re trapped. We’re trapped thinking that it should happen, thinking that it’s possible to happen, and then thinking that we’re bad, because it hasn’t happened for us yet. And like chasing it was so much effort to try to make it happen, because that’s what’s going to mean that I’m good. And just, in case you didn’t have a lot of time today and you need to check out right now, I’ll just tell you right now. You are good. You are good.
Yeah. Well, so we’ve been working on our musculoskeletal health video course just lately. And so we’ve been thinking a lot about balance, but also about sedentism. And it occurs to us that a lot of the ways that we talk and think and picture balance in our lives and all that…
Like as a culture.
New Speaker (00:08:46):
Yeah. They are images of sedentism, right? There are images of being in one place and being whether it’s at peace or whether it’s just being like, all right. I’ve got everything stable for this moment. And now I can just kind of pause and freeze time and stay here forever.
Yeah, nothing move.
Right. You know?
No, like literally now nothing move. That is sedentism.
Yeah. So you know, balance, if we think about how that can really play out or how that can really manifest in your life, it’s going to be that sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down, right? Emotionally, sometimes you’re going to be happy, sometimes you’re going to be sad. And it’s not just that we get into some kind of neutral place and we kind of stay there forever. When we think about physical balance movement, you have to kind of practice being off balance a bit and then coming back to center, if you want to develop your ability to stay balanced,
I mean, that’s what a balance beam is for. It’s not inherently easy to walk on a balance beam or on the curb or on a two by four that’s laid on the ground or whatever, or even just on one stripe that’s painted somewhere. It’s not inherently easy to do that. That is the practice situation, and it’s difficult.
Yeah. The connection there is that you kind of need to allow or experience times when you’re off balance in order to build balance. So again, balance is not neutrality, right. And when we teach herbalism, we’re always teaching it through the context of what we call energetics and hot versus cold, moist versus dry, tense versus lax. And we’ll talk a lot about how each person and each condition or state that you’re in any given moment, it’s going to have one or another of these qualities. And so we do want to balance them out, yes. But that doesn’t mean that we want to get you totally neutral, like bring you to the middle point of all of these graphs right? First off, because you can’t do it.
We would all be automatons if we did that. We would all be like nameless, faceless, exact replicas of each other if we all were balanced with all the elements in exact equal proportion.
Yeah. I mean, how exciting is it if your food and your drinks are all lukewarm? I mean, like, we like some cool things. We like some hot things. Lukewarm is kind of like, well, okay, I guess this is how this goes.
Yeah. Room temperature.
I ignored my teacup for too long, you know, that happens. Or if we take all the colors in the world and kind of mush them together, we’ll get a sort of muddy brown or something like that. Or, you know, go from black and white into gray. Like this isn’t really what we’re looking for. And even when we’re seeking balance, we’re not being like, okay, I want to get to this perfect gray, neutral, lukewarm spot where everything’s sort of undifferentiated. On the other hand…
I was going to say, yeah. On the other hand you were talking about the black and the white and the gray, it’s also not like well, first I’m going have total extreme this. Like total extreme white absence of whatever, and then total extreme black. That is maybe a kind of balance in terms of equal parts this and that. But it’s the extreme swings between them that is uncomfortable. And almost, I feel like when we talk about balance in our lives, we’re not quite talking about actual balance, like in a scale or like in chemistry terms or whatever. What we’re really talking about is do I feel like I have a sense of myself and a little bit of calmness as I go through all of the different things that happen in my day and in my life. As opposed to things happen in my day in life, and I swing wildly along with them, or as opposed to things happen in my day in life, and I have no response to them whatsoever. I really think when we’re talking about balance, what we’re really trying to achieve is that feeling of not losing our center as the world changes around us.
Balancing is Individualized
Yeah. And balance is always going to be contextualized, and it’s going to be individualized, right? So like if you’re trying to stand on a balance beam that’s flat on the top, or you’re trying to stand on a rail that’s rounded on the top, or if you’re on two different rocks in the middle of a stream balancing as the water rushes along, you’re going to need different positions and different movements to get you across. You need to be responding to that. But also there is some individuality to this, right? Your center of gravity is your own. So again, in like herbalist terms we say that nobody’s neutral, but each of each of us has our sort of like home base area of warmth or moisture or tension.
Like the place where we’re sort of most comfortable.
Yeah. And that too isn’t a single point, but it’s like an area that you move around in. You’ve got kind of your comfortable space, and then there’s like another shell out from that that’s going to be slightly uncomfortable. And you get a little too much further in either direction from there and now nothing’s are really problematic. So we’re not trying to make you neutral. We’re trying to keep you in the comfort zone or the zone to which you can adapt easily. Yeah.
It’s like how some people go to Arizona and they’re like, this is my kind of place. And some people go to Florida in the like hot and the humid, and they’re like, this is my kind of place. And some people are in like, far, far north in the Tundra, and they’re like, yeah, I feel really comfortable. I know that for me, when I go out west where it’s very arid, I feel really uncomfortable. I feel like, huh, if there was an emergency, I don’t know where I could get water here. Like if I were dropped off in the middle of the…. well the middle of the woods is very different there. But like, if I’m dropped off in the middle of the woods in New England, that’s no problem. I mean, it might not be super fun. I may be cold and wet, but I will survive. It’s fine. Not in Arizona. And I’m so aware of it that it’s very uncomfortable there. It’s very uncomfortable. So I think that really, like, if we think about that as that place of balance. Like if you drop me off in the woods in New England, and I don’t know where I am, I’m not necessarily going to have an easy time of it. Not every moment of it is going to be fun, but I’m fine. Like I can be in my center place. I might, you know, panic once in a while. But I’m like, nah, I can do this. I can adapt the way that I need to, to do this.
Right. And the same in the desert. Like you could learn how. You could adapt. You could start to be able to see where the water is and where the sources of demulcency are even in the desert, even in the sand.
They are there.
Right? And I think that the more that you do that, the more comfortable you’ll become in those places. But again, that’s like taking an area where it’s not comfortable for you, and getting some hours in, getting some contact time.
Yeah. Doing the practice required to say, all right. Now I can feel like I am still me here. Like I don’t get knocked out of my center in this place, because I’ve learned how to manage it.
Right. Yeah. And a big part of that is not getting too rigid. Trying to be like, I am centered, rigidly.
Yeah. I will be fine as long as I can find the individual areas where the same plants are growing that will grow in New England. Then I will be fine. Like, no, I need to be more flexible and be able to be like, well, there are new plants here. It’s time to learn them. And as I do that, then that is what makes me more comfortable in that environment.
Right. Yeah. So whether it’s just about your ability to stand on one leg or to walk down a narrow line or a balance beam or a branch in the woods or whatever, or whether it’s balanced in the sense of like, you know, environments that you feel comfortable in. We’ve been talking in physical terms, but you could also make that in emotional terms as well, right, or relational terms to other people and things going on. But the point is that balance is something that you have to find, and you find it with some exploration, right? With gently pushing on your boundaries. In a lot of ways building balance physically, practicing balance skills and developing your ability to do this, is part like developing flexibility. Because there is literal flexibility involved in balancing. Like if you want to be on a narrow rail and have both of your feet pointed the same way. And like, oops, I lean a little to one side. Okay, well, I’ve got to let my leg go up in that way. And if you get too tight in the hips or in the ankles, especially, it’s going to really limit your ability to balance well. So you have to stretch for balance a bit. And bounce is also like strength because you have to work for it a bit. And again, that’s true literally when we’re talking about physical balance. There are supportive muscles and stabilizer muscles and other things that we don’t always call on if we live in human shaped environments and we walk on mostly flat surfaces and mostly stable surfaces and all of that. Then we don’t really call on them very often. And then when you’re suddenly standing on a branch that’s over a stream, and it’s a little rickety. And now here’s a little side to side action, a little vibration up and down, there’s a lot of new demands happening on your structure there.
So, physically then in the muscles, there’s these elements of flexibility and strength, both of them. Balance requires this combination of relaxation and tension. You can really feel that if you try to stand on a line or on a beam or a two by four on your floor or whatever else, and just lean to one side. You have to tense up the opposite side of your body so that it’s kind of holding everything in, holding it together. But you also need to relax parts of you so that you’re not having excessive tension. And now your center of gravity is getting thrown off.
Or you injure yourself, you know, because there was too much tension in a place where you needed some flexibility and you sort of went “oops.”
Yeah. It’s amazing. When we start balance practice in like a little movement class or something, it’s always like, okay, all right, I’m going to bounce now. And we get a little jacked up and a little tense for this. Or sometimes people will like stick their arms up straight to both sides and be like, I’ve seen people balance this way. So, I’m just going to hold my arms out as tense as I can, and that will help. But so often you get a ton of improvement in your feeling of flow or your feeling of ease by releasing, by peeling away any unnecessary tensions.
Breathing & Your Center of Gravity
That you could say again. Right there. Just peeling away unnecessary tension. I think that is a very big part of the key. I think this is why people talk about meditation and breathing exercises also, for when we think about it emotional balance. But that’s actually true physically too. Like if you stop breathing – whether you are a person who has some familiarity with yoga or has some familiarity with like sort of circus type movements, like hand stands or whatever, or if you have familiarity with more natural movements like balancing on a log in any of these cases – if you hold your breath, it’s way harder. It’s way harder to find your center of gravity.
Yeah. It interferes, and especially when you’re moving, right? When you want to stay balanced while moving, it means continual adjustment. It means adapting to what you just stepped on. And oh, that slid underneath me. Or like, oh, I’m starting to move my weight forward, and realize that that’s not actually stable. So I have to pick my foot up and adjust. There’s continual adjustments that are going on. And yeah. A lot of times the big trick is to keep breathing.
Yeah. And even like that description right there about like you’re moving through the woods, and then like sort of a stick rolled out from under you a little. And you didn’t fall down, but you had to make adjustments. If you think about that emotionally too, like when we’re seeking balance in our lives, it isn’t that the world around us doesn’t ever have a stick under our foot. It is that it is reasonably comfortable for us to adapt when that happens. And we don’t get thrown out of alignment when the ground changes a little under our metaphorical feet.
Yeah. So often when you are walking or balancing or doing things like this, getting lower helps you to balance a lot more easily. You know, you would have that inclination if you were thrust into a position where you had to crawl on a log to get across a chasm. You’d be like, I’m going to stay close to this. I’m not going to be up on my tip toes to go across.
Because just in case I start to slip, I can grab it and hug.
Yeah. So what you’re doing is you’re bringing your center of gravity closer to your surface of support, to whatever you’re standing on. And that basically just means that there’s less of a lever length between your center of gravity and that surface. And so the forces are easier to control as you get down there. But I think again, let’s make an emotional metaphor out of this, right? If we can get our center of gravity nearer to our surfaces of support. Yeah. That helps all of us stay better balanced, doesn’t it?
Yes. I also think about..
or sources of support you could say.
Yeah. Exactly, sources of support. I also think finding your center of gravity physically, and I think about that emotionally. And I’m like, okay, well, when there’s a problem, stop drop and… You know, like we learned in kindergarten, if there’s a fire, don’t panic. Just stop, drop, and roll. And they like drilled it in. I don’t think there’s anybody who grew up in this country who is not like stop, drop, and roll. That’s what. And when I think about that – as a matter of fact, I even wrote it in my calendar this quarter – one of the things that I was going to do to help us stay on track with our goals for the courses that we’re producing right now was that as soon as we bump into any kind of trouble, just stop, drop, and meditate. And I think that works out really well. We could also just say like, stop, drop, and breathe, right? Like if you’re having trouble, if it’s physical and you’re starting to lose your balance, you can just keep chasing it. But chasing it, it’s a kind of rigidity. Like, no, I have to stay on this path. Well, that path is having you fall off the log. But no, no. I have to clench into this path until I recover it. And just like, wait, stop. Just drop down. Find a center of gravity that’s lower and more stable, and breathe a little bit. And that will help you peel back the tension. It will help you release the things that you need to release so that you can say, all right. What’s my next step now?
Yeah. For sure. So these are all metaphors that we find helpful. But we’re also thinking about how this kind of physical training of the body is going to impact your emotional body. That capacity just to have those experiences of being off balance, and like what are the useful responses that you can train in until they become your new instinct? And so lowering yourself down, finding a broader stance, things like this that you can develop there. That’s going to help to develop emotional patterns as well, especially if you’re aware of them at the same time. If you try to take those metaphorical lessons from your physical experiences.
You know, the feelings that we have can be the same. If you have ever tried to balance on something that is slippery or very challenging for you to balance on – whatever that level of balance is, a wet log, a rock, whatever – and you start to lose your balance, that feeling in your stomach of like a little bit of panic. Like, oh no. Will I hit my head? You know, whatever. And then you think about when you are starting to like lose your emotional balance, it’s actually a very similar feeling physiologically. You still get that feeling in the stomach of like, oh no. What’s going to happen? Am I going to hit my head? Like metaphorically, like whatever. And so I feel pretty connected to – this is not a unique, this isn’t something I dreamed up. Many traditions have this kind of a teaching. But it really speaks to me about how if you start to train, that when you have that feeling in your stomach or wherever it shows up for you, that you then train yourself to start taking a deep breath. That helps you to lower the tension level. And so even if we think about that, I feel like, wow, okay. When the world starts to sort of change out from under me, I lose my emotional balance. But then you say, okay. Well, I’m going to just practice. I’m going to put a two by four in the living room. And I’m going to pretend it’s a balance beam and I’m going to practice walking on it. And when I lose my balance, it’s pretty safe, because you’re only going to fall… a two by four isn’t actually even two inches tall. It’s like an inch and two thirds or something. And if you fall off of it, you’re pretty safe. But you can sort of allow that to create that experience for you. So that you can practice, like, okay, as soon as that starts to occur, I’m going to take a deep breath.
Training a Response to Imbalance
You know, I’m going to start to train myself to find responses that work for me. And when we train in not real situations, like sort of contrived situations – I mean, this is how meditation is too. You kind of contrive a little situation and then you breathe through it. Or many meditation exercises are like that. And so the same thing. If we sort of contrive a little situation where we’d get ourselves off balance, maybe a little on purpose, and then we practice taking a deep breath and allowing that to help us find our balance again. Then when these emotional situations come up that knock us off balance, we have a tool not only that we can choose to turn to, but that we have kind of trained into our body that it’s going to start to happen automatically as we recognize that feeling.
Yeah. You’ve been thinking about U-turns lately also.
Yes. I was thinking about how some people, when they realize that they’ve taken the wrong turn, it takes them a long time to then say, okay, I will turn around. And then sometimes even they say, okay, we’ll turn around, but then six driveways go by that they could have turned around in. And none of them were appropriate. Even after the decision that, yes, okay. We’ll turn around. Still turning around is not happening. And that is that kind of rigidity.
When you’re stuck on your current momentum. .
Yeah. That tension of like, arrrgh. And so too, if that is a thing that happens in your life, then a way that you could train to start to sort of stop, drop, and breathe would be to just intentionally take a wrong turn. Just go ahead and do it on purpose. And then be like, oh, look. I took a wrong turn. I’m going to turn around at the very first opportunity. Hey, this driveway looks great. And then I’m going to go back to my last known position, like whatever. Yeah. It’s a little silly, but it is training into you a new kind of behavior that you want to have in a moment that you need it. And so you’re practicing it in a moment when it is not consequential.
Right. Yeah. This is kind of like some recommendations I’ve made for folks some times. It’s like, okay, so you’ve got a really fiery constitution, and we’re going to work out with some herbs that are going to help to balance that out and cool it down a bit. But it would also be good for you to practice some earthy kind of movement, like long hikes instead of short sprints. The short sprint is really fiery in nature. The long hike is really that like earth, stamina, stability building kind of exercise. So you can find ways to think about what you want to cultivate, and then you can find a style of movement, a style of herbalism, a diet, all kinds of different things that help you to get there. And it may be a little uncomfortable at first, right? Your tendency might be, well, I’m great at like sprinting, but you want me to go for a long time at a steady pace? Oh man. And often it is that way, including with the herbs. I’ll speak my own experience. I run dry, I run tense. And finding demulcent herbs has been a multi-year journey to find the herbs that I do enjoy and that I will take consistently, or to find ways to take herbs that are a little less pleasing innately and make them palatable. So that kind of work applies in lots of different areas of your life. Yeah. Okay. So, these kinds of practices you’ve been saying, they’re practice, right? Practice can make perfect. No, better?
Year, Practice can make better. Yeah. It can make easier. It can get us to that place of like, oh, the goal is not unchanging-ment. I’m not looking for a state of nothing is going to change. I’m looking for a state of, I can stay centered. I can adapt quickly and without a bunch of fuss. And hey, you know what? If you adapt just in time and with a bunch of fuss, also fine. Not every moment of your life has to be grateful. I mean, graceful. Every moment, grateful. That’s good. Not every moment of your life has to be graceful. .
Yeah. And again, you maybe weren’t super-efficient, but you were effective. You got over the log, you got over the beam, whatever. You were a little wobbly along the way, but you made it, like you’re there. That was the goal. So, balance while you’re moving is a series of responses that are appropriate to the terrain, they won’t all be perfect, and they’re contextualized, right? The series of steps and stretches and patterns of tension and release you need to use to get from here to there, it’s going to be different in another context, or in a different forest.
In the same forest, on the same log, on a different day. Oh, you’re a little dehydrated today or whatever, you know?
Yeah. We’re all navigating different terrain. And we’re all going in different directions in some ways, right? Like your vector. We’re not all going in the same direction at the same speed.
Yes. If Katja is traveling 30 miles an hour with a cup of hot tea, and Ryn is traveling… Yeah.
Right. I mean, when you cross that same terrain, if you want to take it at a super slow pace, that is going to involve a certain kind of balancing movement. If you want to run across it and leap off the other end, that’s a very different arrangement. Yeah. So, when we say that we’re looking for balance, maybe we really mean, or we could mean, that we want the ability to recover with relative ease when we get thrown off of our balance. We want to have some resilience. We want to have adaptability
Which sort of sounds like adaptogens.
Yeah. Is this reminding you of that? It should, right? They are often called balancing herbs or immune balancing or endocrine balancing or this or that.
Amphoteric Herbs & How They Act
Yeah. We’re going to come back to that, because some of them are more balancing than others. And context is really important. But there’s another way to talk about herbs that do balancing functions, and that word is amphoteric.
Yeah. So amphoteric it turns out it was originally a chemistry term and in chemistry it means that this would be a compound or a molecule or whatever that can have the characteristics of both an acid and a base. And that means it could either donate or accept a proton. So like in chemical reactions, you can be trading electrons, and you can be moving protons around. And so whether you’re acidic or basic is about that kind of molecular movement. So that’s pretty neat. But the word amphoteric is more often used by herbalists, and they’ll use it to describe like a plant or an herb that has a balancing or normalizing activity. And usually what’s being said is that it’s capable of either stimulating or sedating. It can act in ways that seem opposite depending on the circumstances in which one takes it. Right. So like here we’ve got a person with high blood pressure. Here we’ve got a person with low blood pressure. We give both of them Hawthorn. They both get improvements, but in opposite directions.
For a long time the concept of amphoteric action has sort of been taught as like, oh, this herb magically knows what you need, and it will just do that for you. And that is not what’s going on. Instead what’s happening here is that these herbs are…we could call them modulating. We could call them regulating. They are herbs that are able to restore your body’s own ability to self-regulate. And our bodies are supposed to be able to do that, ideally. All kinds of things push us out of the ability to self-regulate, and you can see this just in your regular life. You don’t even need to do it on the microscopic scale. You can just think about, well, how much sleep did you get last night? And if maybe you got very little sleep, and also the sleep you did get was interrupted by the cats fighting in the living room or who knows what.
Last night they were particularly vigorous. I can see where that particular example floated to mind. Yeah.
Yeah. They were definitely having a thing in there. And so, if that is your state right now, then self-regulation can be really difficult. Especially if somebody who really maybe is good at annoying you shows up in your life now with you not having had enough sleep and feeling really irritated anyway. So, we don’t even have to look at a microscopic level to see that there are many things that can throw us out of the ability to self-regulate. And then there are herbs who can bring us back into that place of being better able to do that.
Yeah. I think that in that herbalist definition of the amphoteric, there are some really key points, right? So one of them is seemingly opposite ways that it can act. And the other is the circumstances in which it’s taken. So, seemingly opposite. Let’s start there. So sometimes this is a misunderstanding. And it happens a lot with the terms stimulating and relaxing. We tend to think of those as opposites just in common thought, right? We think I take coffee because it’s stimulating in the morning time. And then in the evening I drink a glass of wine, and it’s relaxing. And we think of those as like pointing in opposite directions from each other. But then we can look at an herb like tulsi, for instance, and we can say tulsi has relaxing qualities to it, and it has stimulating qualities. And so if we think of those as opposites, we might say, well, how can you push in two directions at the same time? And really what’s going on here is that stimulating isn’t really opposed to relaxant. If anything, it would be opposed to sedative. Where stimulating is to increase activity, to increase metabolism, to increase organ function, and sedative would be to slow down any and all of those things. And relaxing would, in fact, not be opposed to stimulant, but to tonifying or tightening. So we can take an herb that releases tension. We can take an herb that helps to build up good structure and help you hold yourself together, man. So in that way we could kind of lay those out and say like, oh, well, stimulating and relaxing. They’re two different two different poles or two different spectra here. And we can make a little coordinate space and say like the top left corner is going to be where the stimulating relaxants live. Great. So yeah. So they weren’t actually opposite to begin with. And the fact that we can feel both those effects from tulsi is because it just has those qualities simultaneously. No contradiction here.
Right. And I think so much of that comes because we use the word stimulant to describe caffeine. And caffeine is really the opposite of getting any kind of relaxation. So, we think that those are opposites, because our definition of stimulant is kind of limited to caffeine and things that look like caffeine in the body. And when in fact we start to think about stimulant as well, it could just be making your circulation flow better, you know. Then we realize, oh, okay. That actually isn’t the same as relaxing necessarily.
Yeah. So that said, there are plenty of herbs that we do feel how the kind of amphoteric quality to them.
Or we can identify it. Yeah.
Providing Necessary Nutrients or Stimuli
Right. That we can look at that. So, the question then would be, well, how can they accomplish that? And there’s a few different possibilities here, and more than one of these can be a play for any particular plant. And certainly there could be others, but we’ve got, I think, four or five. So we’ll start with these. So maybe the herb is amphoteric because it’s providing necessary nutrients or stimuli, which if they were lacking, could lead to an imbalance in either direction. So an example here might be it’s possible to work with bitter herbs to stimulate digestive fluid production, and that’s going to be some stomach acid and some bile and some pancreatic juice and all this other stuff. And that can really help out with both what we’d call deficient and excessive digestive activity. If it’s deficient, well, we’re going to get those fluids moving. We’re going to stimulate the process of breaking down the food and getting everybody the proper set of chemical signals so that each step in the chain is going to work out well. But when it’s excessive, bitter herbs can also help to kind of normalize or to regulate your secretions.
Especially because so many of them are cooling.
Cooling in nature. Yeah. Right.
We can think about, this is a little bit more complicated of an example, but we can think about bladderwrack and it’s high iodine content – except don’t just limit it to the iodine. There’s a whole complex of minerals going on there – and how that can be helpful, both for low thyroid function, but also high thyroid function. Now, sometimes we need to be a little careful about this, because if we’re going to work with a high mineral herb with someone who has high thyroid function, it is going to be aggravating at first. Because suddenly we’re going to be giving so many more minerals for that thyroid to rev up even more. But very frequently, there can be exceptions, but very frequently a high functioning thyroid is actually the precursor to a low functioning thyroid. It’s your thyroid saying, man. I don’t know. This is a hard job. I’m starting to feel really tired and kind of burnt out. I better drink some coffee and pump up the production levels around here. And so we see that sort of overproduction because there’s a problem. And ultimately several years down the line, sometimes faster than that, what ends up happening is sort of a crash into low thyroid function. So in that sort of a situation, I’m not necessarily going to apply this to universal thyroid issues, but in that sort of a situation, then bladderwrack could be seen as completely amphoteric, it’s going to provide the minerals for that low functioning thyroid, but also it’s going to help a high functioning thyroid resolve. Because in this situation, the thyroid was high functioning due to trying to compensate for lack in the system. So we’re replacing that lack, and it might take a minute to normalize. But ultimately we will see that normalization because ultimately the lack was the thing that was causing the problem.
Yeah. So this would mostly be for borderline cases or where things are developing. You haven’t been a raging hyperthyroid-ist for 10 years now, right? Yeah. You know, there’s an example with nettle here as well, particularly around menstruation and blood flow there. So nettle is a drying herb. And especially if you were to pick nettle root, well that would be an herb that could really cut down on excessive menstrual bleeding because of the astringency of it and the affinity it has for the pelvic organs. And so it could reduce excessive bleeding that was happening there. But on the other hand, if we’re taking nettles, and we’re taking it as a nutritive and staying responsive to the person’s constitution, then it could help to improve menstrual flow where it had been kind of scanty or intermittent and all of that just from the nourishing and the blood building effects of nettle.
You know, also just from the straight astringency and tonifying effects, for a person who has trouble menstruating – it’s deficient or it’s like slow and sort of scant – bringing more tone, more function to those muscles of the uterus can help to get things going and also make expulsion complete.
Right. That could be a case where it’s like slow to get started, takes a long time, always just tiny little bits and like the cramps are just not effective to slough it off.
Yeah, exactly. But then in that excessive menstruation situation, that actually might be that the uterus is pretty atonal. It doesn’t have enough tone to sort of moderate. You know, like instead of, okay, well we’ve got our endometrial lining out and now we’re done all in one giant floosh. Like, okay, well, we could just do this more regulated over like a day or two. Because now we have enough muscle tone that it’s not just falling out. It’s like, okay, we can kind of tone up those muscles and regulate it a little bit more.
Removing an Obstacle
Yeah. Yeah. Okay. so again, that was something was lacking a nutrient or a flavor sensation like bitterness, or some other kind of stimulus that could lead to an imbalance of this kind in one body and that kind in another body. That’s going to be based on your constitutional patterns primarily. So, an herb could also be amphoteric by removing some kind of an obstacle in the body that can lead to various presentations. When there’s tension somewhere in your system, that can lead to heat in certain people and it can lead to coldness in others.
Right. If you think about, and here we can think about it in the context of chamomile, because chamomile is really, oh my goodness. It is the magical herb that will magically fix all problems. Wait, no. If you think about, in the context of chamomile, so we can say that a person who has a lot of tension – let’s identify the digestive system to make this a targeted example – a person with a lot of tension in the digestive system. For some people that’s going to end up looking like heartburn. Like ultimately we might get all the way up to heartburn when it’s tense. It’s hard to eat. Everything is sort of contracted.
It could be spasming pains.
Yeah. And then that spasmy action can also, you know, ultimately be moving upwards with some acidy action too. But on the other hand, we can think about somebody who tends to run cold anyway, and they have a lot of tension in the gut. And they’re just going to get colder. And so now we’re in a place of like very stagnant digestion, constipation, and the whole system just sort of like grinding to a halt. But both of those coming from the tension. We even could, if we go back to that hot person, we could think of, okay, well, maybe they can eat. But if we think about it a little lower down in the digestive tract, it’s just going through them like super-fast. Like they’re having a bowel movement like six times a day or whatever. Because the tension is just like, get it all out. Get it out. Get it out. Get it out. So in all of these cases, chamomile can be really, really helpful, because it is relaxing the tension. Not necessarily because chamomile is great, whether you can’t poop or whether you poop six times a day. That’s not why. It’s because oh, both of these problems in these cases are being caused by too much tension. And chamomile is going to help release that tension.
Yeah. Another example would be with Solomon’s seal. So Solomon’s seal improves lubrication in your joints, in your connective tissues. It helps to move fluids into your collagenous tissues in your body. And that both serves to make them more stable. They have like an appropriate degree of tension or tone to them. They’re better able in that state to kind of hold things in place. I’m thinking not just about like the ligaments in your knee, but the fascia and the connective tissues that are like the bungee cords that keep your organs where they are, instead of all sloshing around and sliding against each other.
Just floating in your belly somewhere.
Right. Yeah. When there is systemic dryness and it’s affecting the connective tissues, then they can get stiff. They can have excessive amounts of tension. But they can also start to become lax when that gets really extreme, and where your dryness has progressed over into atrophy. We see that in some states or in some bodies down in the pelvic organs where there is a prolapse, or just an excessive degree of laxity and where it’s being driven often by excessive dryness in the system. So, the lubrication from Solomon’s seal can help out there to kind of pull things back into place a little bit. But in other cases that fluid hydration there can help to make those tissues release more and to help them to come to a nice relaxed state. And so if we just say, well Solomon’s seal can either make things tense or lax depending on what is needed, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense. But if we say it can help to bring in fluid into those tissues and that helps them come to an appropriate degree of tension here and relaxation there. Okay. Now that’s making a little more sense.
Supporting an Underlying System or Function
All right. So, another way that an herb could be amphoteric might be that it’s supporting an underlying system or a function in the body, which if it’s going wrong is going to manifest in both this way and that way, right. One way and the opposite as well.
You know, I think about that with ashwagandha a lot, a plant that’s just near and dear to my heart. So one of ashwagandha’s big mechanisms of action is around moderating the circadian rhythm. It’s like a metronome for your circadian rhythm, right? I’m just like how can I say this? You know it helps that to get back into rhythm. It’s like how Stella got her groove back. Ashwagandha is how you get your rhythm back. Your circadian rhythm is I should go to bed when it’s time to go to bed. And I should wake up when it’s time to wake up. And for most people it is, although not necessarily most fun, it is most healthy to go to bed when it gets dark and to wake up when the sun comes up. There can be variations, but for the vast majority of people, there are not as many variations as people think that there are variations. But our culture has created variations. And you know, electric lights have really screwed up our circadian rhythm. And one way that you can really notice that is if you go camping. And suddenly it’s like 8:30 and you’re like, oh, ready for bed. It must be midnight. And you’re like, oh, it’s 8:30. How am I so tired? So, that can play out in many different ways. It could be somebody who is sleepy all the time and never really feels like they get a good night’s sleep. But it also could be people who have their sleep cycle super shifted. And they stay up way late at night, and they can’t go to sleep, because they’re too amped up. We would look at these two people and be like, well, they’re kind of opposite. Like this person’s sleeping all the time, and this person is too amped to go to sleep. But both of those problems are being caused because the circadian rhythm is out of balance. And because ashwagandha resets the circadian rhythm, that is what allows it. It isn’t like well, ashwagandha just magically knows that you need to go to bed earlier and you should stay up another hour. Like that’s just not what’s going on.
Yeah. Another example could be with licorice, right? So licorice has a lot of activity connected to the hormone cortisol in your body. And sometimes you’ll see people write about licorice being amphoteric to cortisol activity. And so again, how could this happen? Well, licorice can kind of preserve the cortisol that you’ve already produced and help you to get every last drop out of it. And in that way, you don’t have to produce as much. Your adrenal glands can get a little break, because you’ve made X amount of cortisol in your system, and then you introduce licorice in there. And now it can do more than X amount of work, whatever its habit, whatever its usual had been.
X plus licorice.
Yeah, there we go. And so, that can be helpful if your problem had been that you were struggling to produce sufficient cortisol to do the job, but it could also be that your body was getting triggered to produce so much cortisol, that it was kind of spilling over everywhere and it was causing collateral damage as a result. Licorice can kind of help the stuff that you’ve made be more efficient at what needs to get done. And that could curb overproduction just as much as it could help out if you were in an under-producing state. So again, it’s kind of about getting down to an underlying, in this case, organ and hormonal activity. Both ashwagandha and licorice are adaptogens. And a lot of folks argue that any adaptogen has to be amphoteric. This goes back to like the definition from the 1950s and the Russian scientists recommend and all of that. So there it’s often discussed in the context of the stress response, right? And there, what they’re really saying is that it’s amphoteric to the symptoms of stress. So whether your symptoms are exhaustion or whether your symptoms are anxiety and anxious energy, adaptogens can help out, because they’re operating at a lower level down than depression or anxiety. They’re operating down at the level of stress response and how your body tries to adapt and correct for that.
And like endocrine function in general.
Yeah. We can get into the HPA axis or, you know, whatever you want for individual plants. But that’s kind of the schema that we’re working in there.
Although again, just to note that some of the adaptogens can be very stimulating, can be very zingy in direct regards to energy levels. And so while physiologically there is amphoteric action, culturally, we can take that amphoteric action and turn it into just sort of, we’re really only working with this plant for the stimulant action.
Yep. Easy to do.
Yeah. And taking doses at a high enough level where we’re really getting that stimulant action and not… Okay, what I’m trying to say is that a five-hour ginseng energy shot is not amphoteric.
Signaling the Body
Yeah. Right on. All right. So lastly, herbs can be amphoteric because they provide a mix of signals to your body. And the body is going to most vigorously respond to the ones that were most needed or most lacking. And so a great example here, I think, is immunomodulating herbs, which there’s a lot of crossover with adaptogens there. Here with immunomodulators we’re thinking about astragalus, codonopsis, reishi, schisandra, shiitake mushroom, you know, things of this nature. And these are herbs that can help out if your immune reactions are deficient. You’re not responding enough to infection or exposure to really fight off infection. But these herbs can also be helpful for auto-immune disease, where one way to look at auto-immunity is excessive immune function, misdirected, or mistargeted immune activity. Right.
I think a lot of that is because none of those are stimulants. They’re not just indiscriminately stimulating immune function. For the most part, those are all nourishing herbs that are providing the materials for your body to self-regulate. They’re providing the materials for your body to say, I have what I need to do my job. And because I have everything I need, I can make good decisions about how I’m going to do that.
Right. Yeah. And, you know, we could get microscopic about it. And we could say that when we look at these plants or study these plants, you can see them activate or increase activity of some pro-inflammatory signals in your body, and also some anti-inflammatory ones. And remember inflammation is immunity. It is a big part of your immune response and your immune surveillance and everything. So when people are saying, well, it upregulates IL-6 and down-regulates IL-12 and this and that, you can take the kind of net of that. But you can also recognize that it’s like one or another of those signals is going to be more important or more lacking in a body that has overactive immune function or underactive immune function as well. And so you will have a differential response to them based on where you start from, you know, who you are.
All right. Another example of a mixed set of influences here is actually with calamus, right? So calamus is a bitter relaxant. And because of that, it’s extremely helpful for either excessive stomach acid production leading to heartburn, or for deficient stomach acid production leading to heartburn. And the reason is because with the bitterness, you are going to improve stomach acid production. But with the relaxing effects you’re going to reduce the likelihood of reflux, because tensions in the GI tract are major contributors to reflux, and are actually, I would argue, more important than the raw amount of stomach acid that you produce. So calamus is often our first choice as a bitter herb for people who are dealing with heartburn and have signs of impaired digestive function, even if we can’t quite sort out in this very moment whether they are high or low in terms of their basic stomach acid production.
Yeah. It’s a very safe herb to start off with in that situation.
Yeah. And it’s because it brings these two qualities together. Or we could look at hawthorn. I think we mentioned hawthorn way up at the beginning as one of these amphoteric herbs. And hawthorn again, it can help for people who have low blood pressure and people with high blood pressure. So it does dilate your blood vessels. It does slow down the rate at which the heart beats, and those are influences that would tend toward reducing blood pressure. But it also strengthens the heart itself. And it strengthens the vasculature in the body.
Both of those are actually how it brings down the heart rate. It doesn’t just bring down the heart rate magically because it says so on the label. How is it doing that? Oh, when you strengthen your heart so that each beat is more efficient, you don’t need to beat as frequently. That’s why exercising more lowers heart rate overall. Even if you exercise every day at 10:00 AM, and you check your heart rate at 6:00 PM, it is still over time going to keep going down, because a body that exercises, overall you’re strengthening the heart’s ability to pump blood. So it doesn’t need to do it as frequently. But then also strengthening the ability for the heart to pump the blood is also going to help for somebody who has really low blood pressure, because if they were in that place where the heart just wasn’t really up to snuff, then of course there isn’t enough pressure. And if the vasculature, especially the arterial vasculature, doesn’t have the good muscle function, then again, the pressure of the blood through those areas, through the vessels, is just never going to really…I’m making physical movements of “oomph” here and I don’t know the word for like “oomph.”, But it’s never going to have that, because there just isn’t the strength behind it.
Yeah. And when it comes to amphoteric herbs, including hawthorn here is just bringing to mind that, we’re going to be having them in context. We’re going to be having them in the context of the individual, but also usually formulation. And so if I’m putting together a hawthorn and friends herb for someone with chronically low blood pressure, the friends are going to be really different than hawthorn and company for somebody with high blood pressure. Yeah. So that’s one thing, too. And it’s an important note here basically that when we talk about an herb being amphoteric, it’s always amphoteric to…fill in the blank. So hawthorn is not amphoteric to every function and every measurement in your body. None of these herbs are. They’re amphoteric to something in particular, to a particular context or to a particular vector, like a path that you want to take. Right? So back to your adaptogens thing, ginseng and rhodiola. They can be amphoteric to stress responses and to the symptoms of stress response overload in a person’s body, but they’re still stimulating herbs. So we always want to keep those in mind.
Yes. It’s extra special, because our culture predispositions us to forget that part.
Yeah. So these are our thoughts on these balancing herbs. And I think that having listened to that, you can hear that this is really active, right? That it’s about relationship and about response. It’s about the herb and the body and the need and the goal. And the way all of these different factors are influencing each other and coming together. So, just to say I want to find a nice balancing herb. Let me Google some amphoteric, isn’t going to do it. It’s not going to be stuck in place. And by that I mean the choice of the right herb or the right formula, the right exercise routine, the right balancing practice, you know, whatever. It’s going to be different for everybody. It’s going to continue to evolve for each individual. So it’s different from everybody includes you now and you later.
Right. And all of it is in direct relation to your own body and all of the inputs of your own body. So you now and you later don’t have the same needs. So, you can’t expect that if you address your own needs today, for what you need to be grounded and centered and in your place of balance, even though that’s a problematic word, that’s not necessarily what you’re going to need next Tuesday, because there will be different inputs. You will be different next Tuesday. Who knows how much sugar you had on Monday night, you know?
Yeah. You won’t be 180 degrees different.
No. I mean, for me blue vervain and ginger and chamomile and even catnip are always helpful in finding some balance, or in other words, releasing the tension that is causing me to not be able to find my place in the center.
Yeah. And so, right. It may be that you need some herbs to help release tension. It may be that you need some herbs to help build some strengths. And again, we can be speaking physically, muscularly, we can be speaking mentally, metaphorically, all these levels simultaneously. And so yeah, what you need is going to vary. It’s going to change, but you can explore, right? You can explore movement practices, you can explore herbs, you can find the ones that are giving you the kind of challenge or the kind of supports or the kind of release that you need to find your balance places. So, like we said up front, people are always going around saying they want to stay balanced, but again that’s really static imagery. So how about keep on balancing or keep on finding your balance.
Finding your balance without too much kerfuffle.
Okay. Yeah. It’s ongoing. It is an ongoing process. It’s not something you do and then you’re done. And now you’ve achieved balance and that’s it. Okay. So those are some of our equinoctal thoughts on balance and on balancing herbs. Thank you for listening. We’ll be back next time with some more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea and keep on balancing without too much kerfuffle. Thanks again. Bye.
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