Natural Healing Omaha Blog

The Payoff for Practicing What We Preach

The Payoff for Practicing What We Preach

Tony and I meet in a small room once a year for a couple hours, and what we do is enough to satisfy both of us for another year. I feel so good after we’ve spent time together. We don’t waste time on small talk. We get right down to business.

Tony is my health insurance agent.

We get along great, because we agree completely on one very important thing – the best way to lower health costs is to take care of yourself.

Taking His Own Advice
Tony’s an ambitious guy, and he makes it a priority to keep my health insurance cheap. He’s gotta make a living, just like me, so he makes it his job to keep me happy. I’m not his typical client, as you can imagine.

And he’s not your typical insurance agent. We had our annual insurance review recently, and I noticed that Tony, who is 70 years old, looks as good or better than he did last year. From the smile on his face to his enthusiasm for work, he’s one of those rare people you know you’re gonna like right when you meet ‘em.

“Did you lose weight?” I asked him.

Feet on yoga mat is money in the bank
“About 12 pounds,” he answered in his typical no nonsense, matter-of-fact tone. Then he excitedly shared that he recently took up practicing yoga at home 4 days a week. “I want to improve my flexibility and strength so I can keep golfing 3 days a week.”

Can you believe this guy?

My 70-year old insurance agent is practicing downward dog to his “Yoga for Wimps” CD 2 hours a week, between a 15–minute recumbent bicycle warm-up and 15 more minutes of stretching and hamstring work.

The Power of Inertia
For the same reason that I want my healthcare providers to be the picture of health, I appreciate that my health insurance agent practices what he preaches. And does he ever.

What keeps a guy like that working – and working out – at his age? It’s like that law of physics – an object in motion tends to stay in motion. His philosophy is “use it or lose it”.

People fascinate me, especially the ones who live in ways contrary to popular habits. On my morning walk one day, I greeted this guy who had paused his daily jog momentarily to pick up trash from the street. During our brief conversation, I discovered he’s long past retirement but still teaches at a local university Math department.

What compels him to jog in his 70’s? “You gotta keep moving to feel young and healthy.” Today, after our usual quick exchange of hellos, he proudly announced that he’d beaten his one and only health problem (insomnia) by quitting soft drinks. This guy totally gets it – he’s exercising his power to choose health.

Uphill Battle Worth Fighting
I’m 52 next year, and staying in shape and good health takes a bigger commitment than it did 20 years ago. This is truer every year.

Up through my 40’s, I could take a 45-minute walk 5 days a week and that kept me at a consistent weight, without too many reasons to see a doctor, other than yearly checkups.

These days, I need twice as much exercise, plenty of daily herbs, and I have to be on guard about everything I put in my mouth. Weight goes on SO easily and comes off only with serious struggle. And it’s not just me. Women around my age tell me this every day.

The last time I had a check-up (full disclosure: this was in early 2014 for an insurance physical), my blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol were all inside a ‘healthy’ range. Problems like these run in my family, so news like that is always a sweet affirmation.

I watched my dad exercise every day until he died jogging at age 60 – 15 years longer than his father and brothers lived. He set a good example, and I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t quit exercising, no matter how lousy I felt.

Walking, yoga, Qi Gong and hiking make me feel energetic. When I feel good, I’m likely to eat well and feel optimistic. I try not to resent the time it takes. Of course, sometimes I’d rather be spending it on my butt watching TV or eating vanilla sugar wafers. Man, I love sugar wafers. But they don’t love me.

Some days it’s a struggle and some days I look forward to the time outside or on the mat, sweating and swearing at my yoga teacher under my breath – “Oh pleeeease, not another plank”.

The Lesser of Two Evils
Staying healthy as we age takes a bigger chunk of our time and attention. And some days that kind of sucks.

But it doesn’t suck as much as being sick all the time.

If you need help getting well enough to start working out, let’s talk. Adaptogen herbs can restore the strength and energy you’ve lost to chronic illness or poor lifestyle habits. You can read more about adaptogen herbs in this earlier blog.

The next time I see Tony will be around Christmas next year. And that’s soon enough. He’s already given me the gift that keeps on giving – a cheaper monthly premium than last year and a good reminder to keep moving.

I’m planning for plenty of healthy years ahead of me.

 

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Back to Herbal Basics with Tough Cases

Back to Herbal Basics with Tough Cases

I’ve been quiet lately.

For the past 3 months or so, no emails, no blogs, no monthly newsletters. And barely any Facebook posts or Tweets.

I haven’t given up on technology or social media. I’ve been doing other work. Actually, I’ve been studying.

And getting together with groups of other herbalists – there’s a growing community here, you know.

And I’ve spent lots of weekends with my grandbaby, who’s now almost a year old! Here she is:

Grandbaby at the pumpkin patch

 

For a while, I wondered if I’d run out of things to say about herbs. But there’s been plenty of inspiration lately.

In fact, my patients are responding to their herbs so well that my patient schedule is filling up. That’s great news for my practice.

Not all the news is rosy
But, to be completely honest with you, not every patient is doing as well as I hoped.

Like LouAnn, who suffers from painful arthritis and persistent fatigue.

LouAnn’s been coming to see me for a year, but around 6 months ago, her progress started to level off. When this happens, sometimes it’s because the patient has gotten tired of taking herbs and constantly having to monitor their health habits and practices.

It’s hard to blame people for slacking off. Getting healthy when you’ve been struggling with chronic illness can be a chore. A serious uphill climb. It’s like a full-time job with no vacation.

But LouAnn takes her personal health seriously. She never takes a day off from the herbal and lifestyle plan we put together.

Definitely not a quitter.

No one to blame
But something happened. She stopped improving. For a month or two, whenever she visited me, we’d try to sort out why no changes were happening.

“Did you stop taking your herbs?” No.

“Has your life been extra stressful lately?” No, not particularly.

“Are you still exercising?” Yep, still at it.

Does that ever happen to you?

Do you ever feel like just when you have a grasp on something, you have to return to the basics and re-learn what you thought you knew?

It was so tempting to take her ‘lack of progress’ personally.

Digging deep for answers
But instead of pointing fingers or just accepting that she’d stalled out for no good reason, I realized she wouldn’t magically get better with time. This would take some extra effort outside of her appointments. Time I was spending posting, emailing and writing.

I set her patient file aside and in my shrinking spare time, instead of blogging about a cool herbal remedy, I dug deep into my herbal resources –  professional books, textbooks, practitioner guides and Chinese Medicine philosophy – for answers.

And it’s starting to pay off.

Studying patients like LouAnn, with complicated health histories and unusual symptom patterns, makes me question my assumptions. And in the end, it rearranges what I understand about ALL of my patients.

Fortunately, my patients don’t mind becoming a case study. Unfortunately, other things I really like to do, those blogs and newsletters, have to be put aside for a while.

I’m glad my practice is attracting patients with more complex concerns.

Otherwise, my clinical skills might get a little stale.

I might start to think I know everything.

I might stop trying so hard.

~~~

Today, I’m back to blogging just long enough to tell you that I’m still here.

I’ve just been a little quiet lately. Questioning my assumptions.

Sharpening my herbalist skills.

Thanks for hanging in there with me…

 

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7 Powerful Prairie Herbs You Might Not Know

7 Powerful Prairie Herbs You Might Not Know

I have a secret.

I used to be ashamed of my secret, so I kept it hidden.

Especially from other herbalists.

If they discovered the source of my shame, I feared rejection, loss of respect and failure.

Now I know there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

So, I’m ready to declare the one thing I’m most afraid to admit.

I DON’T TALK TO PLANTS.

I always imagine a collective gasp among my colleagues when this kind of thing gets out there.

What kind of Herbalist doesn’t hear the plants talk?

Isn’t that how herbal healers acquire their knowledge?

Isn’t a deep, spiritual connection to plants a pre-requisite for this profession?

Hearing plants speak is probably a handy thing, but it’s not part of my toolkit.

Yet.

When I was in herb school, our yearly gatherings in the redwoods of California were one big circle of plant people. People who cultivate herbs, people who wild craft and harvest them for medicine, and the ‘my grandmother was a wise woman who taught me how to heal with plants’ kind of people.

My path was a little different.

I grew up in a suburb of Omaha. We were one city block from a cornfield and a 10-minute skip to the nearest creek. There’s a Nebraska sensibility in my soul. I’m as common and native as a sunflower after 47 years on the Great Plains. Even with my prairie state roots, the healing power of prairie plants was lost on me until recently.

My first teachers, Mom and Dad, never knew there was a field bursting with medicine surrounding our growing subdivision. Their generation was lured by a siren song that promised wonder drugs from the corner pharmacy.

Nature’s own medicine chest faded from their minds like two-party phone lines and black and white TV.

The past decade of studying herbs helped me recognize a few of nature’s most common weedy healers like plantain, ground ivy, nettle leaf, motherwort, and dandelion – in the yard, the neighborhood park, practically every open space in our river city.

Until recently, I didn’t recognize native herbs that grow in carefully restored prairies a few miles from my urban home.

I’m still at a loss to identify lots of common, local plants and weeds that herbalists like me use in clinical practice every day.

So this Summer, I’m working my way backward. I’m getting out of the clinic and into the field, where the plants have a chance to tell me their story.

I’m wearing out my Android battery taking photos everywhere I go. These amateur pics tell a story of medicinal herbs pointed out to me or discovered on prairie walks from rural Kansas to just outside city limits.

Butterfly milkweed or Pleurisy root a prairie healer

Butterfly milkweed or Pleurisy root

Pleurisy root (butterfly milkweed) –  What a show-off. In botanical medicine, orange signifies anti-oxidant properties, especially for the eyes (think carrots). Maybe it does strengthen the eyes, but in my practice I use it when someone with a history of respiratory problems points to a rib and says “it hurts right here when I breathe”. Native Americans, including the Omaha tribe, were known to prize the root for ceremonial use, for bronchitis and lung disorders, and swift healing of wounds and sores. Can you picture a swollen snakebite covered with a mash-up of plant roots? It sounds so intriguing! [1]

Prairie phlox of Nebraska

Prairie Phlox standing tall in a field of Summer grass


Prairie phlox – (pronounced flox)
I once planted ornamental phlox in the cracks of a retaining wall, and watched it grow year-after-year until it cascaded over the rocks like a bright purple veil for just 2 weeks every summer. I can’t say for sure which phlox relative this is, but Native Americans treasured phlox as a tea for pregnant mothers to insure the birth of a female baby, as a ceremonial Love Medicine, and even as a “wash to make children grow and fatten”.  [1]

Echinacea pallida on the Kansas plain

Echinacea pallida on the Kansas plain


Echinacea
it’s a popular Top Ten remedy for cold and flu, and here’s a little-known-fact: Native Americans called it snakebite medicine. Eclectic physicians used the root topically to cleanse and remove the putrid smell of festering boils. Nice. [2]

 

Lead plant [Amorpha spp] with distinctive pea-family leaves

Lead plant [Amorpha spp] with its pea-family leaves mingles with prairie grasses


Lead plant
seeing this plant up close taught me why it’s called bird’s wood. It’s one of the tallest and sturdiest plants on the prairie, a nice perch for wayward birds. My favorite common name is buffalo plant – smearing a plaster of the roots over the skin was said to attract buffalo and ensure for the hunter a good kill. I haven’t used it as medicine yet, but the leaf is said to close wounds and cure eczema topically, and kill parasites and worms when taken as a tea internally. [3]

Wild indigo flowers on Nebraska prairie

Wild Indigo flowers in full bloom


Wild Indigo – Warning: you might want to put your lunch down before you read this. Wild indigo roots and leaves are used for conditions that have lots of ‘putrid heat’ – translation: pus-filled, decaying, infected and inflamed tissue. Gross. It must’ve been an essential herb for seriously infected wounds with the threat of gangrene. [2]

Wild violet hidden under towering early Summer greens

Wild violet hidden under towering early Summer greens


Wild violet
My Native American herb book says wild violet varieties were used for respiratory problems like cough, mucus and even asthma in children, plus hundreds of other uses. It’s in my own daily tincture because I know it keeps the lymph system functioning well, especially in the breast area or Liver meridian. Last week, a patient of mine applied a poultice of crushed violet leaves to a large, nasty-looking cyst and wouldn’t you know, it broke right open and started draining. Powerful medicine for such a delicate plant. [1]

Rattlesnake master on Nebraska prairie

Rattlesnake master stands out from the softer grasses around it


Rattlesnake master
–don’t walk too close to this one, with its sword-like leaves edged with spikes. It’s not hard to spot. It looks out of place on a prairie. The common name reflects its use as a rattlesnake bite remedy, but a curious practice by 19th century medical students and doctors points to it as an emetic (induces vomiting) to purify themselves after a patient death. I wonder if today’s physicians have anything like a purification practice, other than a good hand-wash or anti-bacterial foam. [1]

I’ve got two good Summer months of prairie walks ahead of me. Check back every now and then for more pictures – and stories – of native herbs I’ve discovered.

Have you had a healing experience with plants that you’d like to share? Can you teach me more about native prairie plants? Do plants speak to you? Share your plant experiences and pay it forward. Contact me at info@naturalhealingomaha.com.

 

1. Native American Medicinal Plants, Daniel E. Moerman, Timber Press, 2009.
2. Eclectic Materia Medica, Harvey Wickes Felter, M.D., 1922.
3. http://www.wildones.org/download/people/stiefel/stiefel2.html

 

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Herbal Relief for PMS Acne, Cramps and Migraines

Herbal Relief for PMS Acne, Cramps and Migraines

Lily was bursting with excitement when she returned for her second visit to my office. “Could those pills you gave me work really fast – I mean, like overnight?” she asked, only half-ready to believe my answer.

During Lily’s first appointment, she shared that since her first child was born, her PMS has been hellish. For a week before her period, her face, back and chest breaks out in painful acne.

She braces herself for a 7-day migraine that forces her to miss work at least one or two days every month. The headaches are bad enough, but the breast tenderness and swelling make certain movements – like holding her daughter up close – very painful.

And then there’s the cramping.
These aren’t your ordinary ‘pass me the hot water bottle’ cramps you can wait out for a day or so. We’re talking about severe, please-put-me-out-of-my-misery muscle spasms. Over-the-counter pain medication barely takes the edge off, but Lily is afraid to take a dose large enough to make a difference.

It’s no wonder she was a little skeptical about the quick action from her herbal formulas. How could anything as gentle as a plant relieve such horrendous PMS?

Getting Comfortable with Natural Healing
Those gentle plants have been a reliable source of healing medicine for every culture that’s ever existed. Lily’s never seen the power of herbs growing up in her modern family. Today’s medicine is all she’s ever known.

A little modern physiology sprinkled with Chinese Medicine explains how the Liver takes center stage in many PMS problems:

  1. Hormones that regulate your menstrual cycle are manufactured, regulated by and excreted in the Liver
  2. At the same time, the Liver is very busy filtering out or metabolizing all the natural waste material circulating in the blood, including waste that comes in through food and fluids.
  3. The Chinese call this organ ‘The General’ because of its commanding role in keeping order and smoothly moving blood and hormones through the Liver and out to the rest of the body.
  4. Anything that disrupts the smooth circulation of blood can interfere with menstrual cycles.

Your Liver is a fantastic, hard-working organ, but it can only take so much.

Pollutants in our air, water and food are a big source of strain on the Liver. So are heavy medication use, alcohol abuse, and fatty, fried foods, which disrupt the filtering mechanism, clogging up and slowing down the Liver’s waste removal functions.

Another Kind of Toxic
Lily has led a super clean life – no junk food, no drugs or alcohol, organic everything. She’s done a great job of protecting herself from outside stressors on the Liver. Strictly speaking, she’s a model patient. So, what’s going on here?

At our first appointment, I asked Lily if she was in a nurturing and supportive relationship. You’ll see why this matters in a minute. Her answer helped us both understand the deep source of her pain.

For years, Lily has watched her husband’s gambling habit deplete their savings and nearly bankrupt them.

She’s ashamed of their situation, and keeps her worry, frustration and fear to herself. Whenever she tries to have a conversation about her concerns, she feels intimidated and manipulated by her spouse’s angry tone of voice. She feels trapped in this no-win situation.

Bottled Up Emotions
Just as pollutants, drugs and alcohol can impede the flow of blood through the Liver, unexpressed feelings take their own toll. The Liver holds the key to your creativity and free, healthy expression of emotions. What happens when you don’t speak your mind?

Anger. Frustration. Irritation. Depression.

Lily’s marriage to a gambling addict has given rise to a build-up of toxic emotions that have immobilized the free flow of energy through her body.

Herbal relief for menstrual cramps

Without a free and easy flow of emotions, blood and Qi in the Liver become stagnant, leading to symptoms like:

  • Painful and sharp or dull, achey cramps
  • Migraine headaches
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Clotted blood flow during periods
  • Anger, frustration and resentment
  • Constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Fibroids and cysts
  • Skin eruptions like acne or rashes
  • Breast tenderness and swelling or breast lumps
  • The feeling of having a lump in the throat
  • Erratic stools, bloating and nausea

Notice how nearly all these symptoms feel like something is stuck – bloating, clots, constipation, swelling, cysts, stagnant emotions, intense pain?

Kiss Your Pain Good-bye
One answer to all this ‘stuckness’ is to get moving. And one of the most enjoyable ways to keep the Liver energy moving is by having sex – but don’t take my word for it.

A neurologist at the University of Munster (Germany) published a study showing that sex relieves migraines in about two-thirds of sufferers. It’s a great example of how moving the pelvic organs decongests and breaks up congealed blood that causes pain. Try it!

Yoga, tai chi, and dance are other great ways to move stagnant blood, Qi and emotions, opening up your Liver’s energy flow for a more creative, happy life.

Find ways to communicate in difficult relationships by seeking counseling or reconnecting with activities you used to enjoy together. So much emotional pain can be avoided just by learning to speak your mind in a non-threatening way.

Roots and Shoots for Shooting Pain
Herbs like motherwort, dandelion root, cramp bark, lavender, white peony root, figwort, blue vervain (especially when there’s neck tension), and burdock root help smooth the flow of Qi through the Liver, activating movement of blood and fluid.

One of my favorite Chinese formulas for PMS is aptly named Free & Easy Wanderer [Xiao Yao San]. It unlocks the toxic emotions that become trapped when we feel unable to express ourselves. It releases pain and lifts mood, often relieving digestive stagnation along with trapped emotion.

Herbalism has so much to offer for all sorts of female concerns. You can get to the bottom of PMS pain with safe, natural and effective relief – from Mother Nature herself.

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Are You in Heavy Period Hell? Herbs Offer Safe, Gentle Relief

Are You in Heavy Period Hell? Herbs Offer Safe, Gentle Relief

“My period is like clockwork – it comes every two weeks.”
“Seven days of hell, that’s what I call it.”
“I might as well stay home from work.”

You don’t put up with horrible periods because you have some twisted relationship to pain and misery. You just don’t know what else to do.

Maybe you’ve worked with your doctor, tried multiple combinations of hormones, and even put yourself through major or minor surgery looking for solutions.

There’s a new game in town, though it’s anything but new.

Plants to the Rescue!
Herbal healthcare is experiencing a much-needed resurgence across the country, as part of a larger health revolution. There’s a not-so-subtle undercurrent that’s pulling us toward safer, more natural, sustainable remedies.

Every day, more women like you are turning to natural solutions for discomforts like these:

  • Headaches and migraines
  • Fibroids, cysts or lumpy breasts
  • Chronic yeast infections
  • Crabby, irritable, weepy or sad feelings
  • Long periods

And let’s not forget these lovely ones:

  • Spotting between periods
  • Mid-cycle pain
  • Breast tenderness or swelling
  • Moderate or severe menstrual cramping
  • Cyclical bloating, gas or nausea
  • Chronic diarrhea, constipation or both
  • Infrequent periods
  • Irregular or short cycles
  • Fatigue

Any single one of these symptoms can be miserable on it’s own. More than one at a time can completely disrupt and drain the joy out of an otherwise great month.

The Queen of Period Problems
One of the most distressing and exhausting problems for women is heavy periods. What do I mean by heavy?

  • Super absorbent tampons are a joke
  • Backup pad protection is no guarantee you’ll contain the overflow, especially at night
  • Embarrassing stains are so common that you never, EVER wear white pants
  • You make frequent bathroom visits to check for leaks

Excessive bleeding can make you feel like the life is being drained out of you, ounce by ounce. And often it comes with a crampy, dull, aching sensation, as if your pelvic cavity is being turned inside out. Like everything is dropping to the floor.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t
If you’re a patient of mine, you’ve probably heard me talk about Qi [pronounced ‘chee’]. Qi is an elusive but vital energy source that permeates every breath, digestive function and blood cell. It’s sort of like wind –you can’t describe what it looks like, but you can see the effect it has.

You can see the effects of weak Qi in heavy bleeders, especially. It’s the full-time job of Qi to keep blood inside the body. When blood literally pours out, and for that matter, when skin sags and the bladder or uterus prolapse, these are signs that your Qi isn’t doing its job of holding things in place.

Why does this happen? Two main reasons: heavy blood loss itself depletes Qi, leading to the proverbial vicious cycle. But other factors can weaken Qi, such as long-term emotional and physical stress, resulting in gradually heavier periods.

The Downside of Hormones
Hormone therapy can regulate monthly blood flow – so does herbal therapy for many women.

You may get temporary relief from a hormone patch, cream or pill, but tinkering with hormone levels won’t address the underlying Qi deficiency that led to the bleeding.  A key symptom of Qi deficiency will remain – weakness.

The classic Chinese formula for deficient Qi, Four Gentlemen, contains tonic herbs for weakness, the most common side effect of excessive menstrual bleeding. When you’re feeling bone tired, lack an appetite, experience loose stools, and your skin has an unhealthy yellowish complexion, tonic herbs restore strength, improve digestion and bring back your luster.

Blood loss also starves the heart and mind of vital nutrition, robbing you of restful sleep and weakening your memory and focus. Blood tonics like the well-known Dong Qui and lesser known rehmannia, white peony and ligusticum restore blood to the rich, nourishing fluid needed to keep your heart and mind sharp.

Relief from insomnia, poor memory, fatigue, and digestive weakness is a lot to ask from any hormone supplement. Fortunately, this is where herbal and natural therapies do their best work.

Yes, Ma’am, Herbs Can Do That
While Chinese herbal formulas help rebuild Qi, herbs like yarrow, shepherd’s purse, raspberry leaf, eclipta, ladies mantle, tienchi ginseng and even our kitchen friend, cinnamon, can lighten blood flow and tone the female organs. These herbs individually or in combination give you hour-by-hour relief from heavy bleeding.

Mineral rich herbs like nettle leaf and oatstraw gradually replace lost nutrients and freshen a sallow complexion. Yellow dock root releases stored iron into the blood, relieving mild anemia.

The herbal approach to hormone imbalances naturally nudges your body’s built-in capacity to heal, without the risks associated with hormone replacement.

“Let Food Be Your Medicine”
Naturally, food also helps to gently restore Qi and blood.

A nourishing diet of warm root vegetables including squash, beets and sweet potato fill your plate with color and your mouth with the mildly sweet flavor that strengthens Qi. Dark, leafy greens restore iron and other minerals to a weak, depleted blood supply. Beef and lamb are a protein power duo when you feel wiped out by your periods.

Self-Care is NOT a Luxury
Rebuilding Qi takes some time and patience. In the meantime, light exercise, rest, extreme self-care and major de-stressing maneuvers have to be moved to the top of the list.

Start with something as simple as letting those calls rollover to voicemail and taking a few moments for a power nap. Do you have a supportive family member who might alternate meal prep or shopping duties with you?

Can you fit in a 20-minute walk after dinner? Exercise, rest and support are not luxuries when you’re exhausted and weak; they’re a prescription for recovery.

Qi deficiency by itself isn’t a life-threatening matter, but ignored long enough, it morphs into a depleted immune system and lower resistance to disease.

Today is always a good time to start new habits that support a long, healthy life. If you’re tired of heavy, draining periods every month, choose something safe, natural and effective for long term relief.

Call today for an appointment that just might change the way you think about healthcare. Period.

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From the Ground Up: Tips for First-Time Gardeners

From the Ground Up: Tips for First-Time Gardeners

I have a confession to make. The last time I planted a vegetable garden, I was 10 years old. It was a little patch of lettuce on a bare spot in our suburban lawn.

Before that little backyard experiment, you probably have to go back 3 or 4 generations to find a farmer in my family. Maybe that explains why gardening isn’t something that comes ‘naturally’ to me.

Lately, something‘s been tugging on me to get my hands dirty and plant some herbs. So I called on my friend Chelsea Taxman for a little practical advice. Chelsea is the Education Director for Truck Farm, an urban agriculture education program in Omaha. Here’s a little peek into our conversation:

Mo: I’m thinking about planting a vegetable or herb garden. How many plants should I start in my first year?

Chelsea:   Mo, the amount of plants you grow depends on how ambitious you are in the first year. If your schedule is busy, start small. Work with something you can check in on every day. There are salad green varieties available on the market that can be planted from seed and harvested within 20-40 days. Quick crops like lettuces, arugula or radishes provide instant gratification.  Success with a few plants will help you feel more confident to try more the next year.

Mo: Are there certain plants that are especially easy for first-time gardeners to grow in our Nebraska climate?

Chelsea: Perennial plants (meaning they die back in the winter and come back up in the spring) are recommended for first-time and even old-time gardeners. Perennial plants and herbs need less attention and less water each year, but you still reap the benefits of their beauty and fragrance, and you’re creating habitat for the wild.

I recommend herbs in the Lamiaceae (mint) family if you have space. These plants smell and taste delicious, their flowers attract pollinators, but they do spread throughout the garden if not controlled. I personally like when they spread in between my other plants, but my garden isn’t the most tamed.

–       Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis); especially good as a tea to calm nervous tension, promote restful sleep and relieve mild seasonal affective depression

–       Catnip (Nepeta cataria); fussy babies and adults feel relief with catnip tea

–       Mint (Mentha species); summertime is great for this cool, digestive herb that tastes sweet and mildly spicy

–       Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium); avoid internal use without some herb knowledge, but it’s a great ground cover

First time vegetables that are “easy” include radishes, spring greens, lettuces, beans, spinach and other cooler season crops.  First-timers might want to stay away from midsummer plants that need a lot of attention, a lot of heat and even more water.  This includes melons, corn, tomatoes and peppers, to name a few.

Mo: Is it ok to start with seeds outside? And what’s the best time to plant my seeds?

Chelsea: This again depends on the crops you want to plant. Yes, you can start root crops like carrots, radishes and beets in the spring when the soil is thawed.  Also, lettuces, salad greens, arugula and spinach can all go straight in the ground as seed.  Most seeds can start outside except longer season crops that need more attention and heat like tomatoes and peppers.  Most people start these ahead of time as well as some herbs, kale and Brussels sprouts. There are just so many options, Mo!

Start SMALL.

Mo: Can you explain a simple, 3 or 4-step process for preparing the ground for planting?

Chelsea: I am still a young gardener, but this is my process the past few years. I start preparing my beds in the fall by layering fallen leaves and compost (grass clippings, coffee grounds, etc.) all over the area of my future garden site. This can be referred to as Sheet Mulching.  Then the material will sit all winter long under the snow and decompose adding more life to the soil.

In the spring when the ground is thawed enough to dig, I turn the leaves and compost under the top layer of soil. Some people call this Double Digging. I use hand tools and elbow grease instead of machinery like a tiller. This year I will be adding more cover crops to my garden in the fall and spring like Buckwheat.  A cover crop will cover the soil that I’m not currently cultivating and keep the top soil from blowing away in the wind. Cover crops can also add nutrition like nitrogen into the ground when I turn it under.

Mo: For gardeners who have limited yard space, what herbs or vegetables are easy to grow in pots?

Chelsea: There is often the option to join a neighborhood garden or community garden for more space and support your first year.  I have heard of neighbors sharing their backyard and space, too.  As far as pots go, there are many plants that can be grown in pots.  Herbs and flowers are generally easiest. I wouldn’t start these from seed, but I would support a local grower and purchase plant starts.  You can find local growers at Farmer’s Markets in Omaha and sometimes during garage sales.  Nursery plants are locally owned, but sometimes they tend to use more harmful chemicals than a local organic grower.

I know many people who have success with tomatoes and peppers in pots. The most important thing is space. Make sure your pot is large enough for the root systems.  There is even a corn variety called Blue Jade that can be grown in a pot! (seedsavers.org) I wouldn’t recommend root vegetables, but you can always try.

Mo: Where can I look for help if I have a bug problem or general questions about how to water, fertilize, grow or harvest my plants?

Chelsea: I recommend you contact the Master Gardeners in Omaha. You can reach these experts through the Douglas Country Extension.  The Common Soil Seed Library (inside the Omaha Public Library’s Benson Branch) offers ongoing free classes about seed starting, germination, seed saving and more.  The listings are online at the OPL website.

Mo:  What if my garden grows like crazy and I have baskets of extra food or herbs?

Chelsea: There are many places that accept donations or might even purchase your extra production.  Or get to know your neighbors, let them know what you’re doing in your yard and share the abundance. You can share your surplus online through websites like Small Potatoes, NextDoor, Facebook, etc.

Table Grace Café at 16th and Farnam Streets is a donation-based restaurant that sources locally grown food. The owner and chef, Matt Weber, will happily take your donations. Call ahead or stop by.

 

A native of Omaha, aspiring herbalist, permaculturist and home gardener, Chelsea travels to Omaha Public Schools offering education to youth about where our food comes from today. Chelsea incorporates lessons of healthy eating, movement and sustainability into the Truck Farm curriculum. She is a Registered Yoga Teacher and co-founder of Black Iris Botanicals, a wild-crafted and locally-sourced herbal beauty product line.

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7 Natural Remedies for Spring Indigestion and Bloating

7 Natural Remedies for Spring Indigestion and Bloating

Yesterday, I felt like I was gonna burst out of my jeans. I’ve never felt so bloated and miserable without actually being sick. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about here – it was a fat pants day, all the way!

And you know what?

LOTS of people are having these kinds of problems right now. This week.

When Spring starts, all hell breaks loose in stomachs everywhere.

I see it every season, especially at the start of Spring and Fall. Patients who normally don’t experience digestion problems will start reporting heartburn, headaches, indigestion, constipation, irritability, and the queen of digestive distress – BLOATING.

Why is this so common this week? We can turn to Chinese Medicine for some wisdom on this weird seasonal phenomenon.

The Chinese tell us that the short two-week period between seasons is when the Earth Element is most active. Of the 5 Elements, Earth is the one that regulates digestion, keeps us rooted and stable, and makes sure we crave tonifying foods.

Maybe you’ve noticed you’re more hungry the past week or so? That’s your Earth element saying ‘feed me so I can keep you going’. Springtime demands nourishment for new growth. Not the kind of growth that puts on pounds or sprouts leaves.

You’re coming out of a dark, cold, inactive season into one that’s sunny, warmer and allows more movement and waking time. You’ll need more fuel for those more physical, energy-burning activities. A healthy digestive system will signal you to ‘load up’ for the work ahead.

The trouble starts as you give in to your bigger appetite. Your digestion says ‘whoa, hold on there, pal, I need to catch up’. Next thing you know, you end up bloated and stuck very quickly.

What’s the remedy for this temporary backup? Probably not extreme dieting or over-the-counter anti-gas products, which can throw a delicate system into even more imbalance.

Instead, try one or more of these Spring Bloat Busters:

  • Fennel seed tea – boil 1 Tbsp of fennel seed (yep, you’ve probably got this in your spice cabinet) in 1-2 cups water for 15 minutes. Strain the fennel seeds and drink the ‘decoction’ (tea). By morning, most of the bloating should be relieved.
  • Epsom salts – Run a bathtub full of warm water or fill a shallow bucket with warm water and add 1-2 cups Epsom salts (if you like essential oils, you can find lavender or eucalyptus scented salts in any pharmacy). Soak yourself or just your feet for up to 30 minutes, enjoy a good night’s sleep and feel relief when you wake up.
  • Digestive Teas – one of my all-time favorite teas is Eater’s Digest, created by a company called Traditional Medicinals and formulated by herbalists. This blend isn’t just delicious – it’s medicinal. With peppermint, fennel, ginger and other ‘carminative’ herbs [a fancy term for digestion-mover] this is the tea for ‘fussy’ tasters. My kids instinctively choose this tea in the evening, probably because it helps soothe their stomachs after a big meal.
  • Go Chinese – for stubborn digestive systems that don’t respond to simple remedies, Chinese herbal formulas will gently strengthen the Earth element while stimulating ‘chi’, blood and fluid to move. Many people feel a gentle bump in energy when they take the formula that’s right for their constitution. Ask an herbalist what formula is for you.
  • Eat green and bitter – pucker up baby, ‘cuz bitter, leafy greens like kale, beet greens, mustard greens, chard, spinach, dark salad lettuces contain digestion-stimulating elements that increase bile production. Bile breaks down stubborn food congestion, unclogs you and gets your gut moving again.
  • Hold your horses – pull back the reins on those heavy, winter-style meals. Load up instead on vegetables, berries and lighter fare like chicken, fish and meatless meals.
  • Move it – Expansion and contraction of muscle is a natural way to squeeze out gas and relieve bloating. Yoga, walking and simple stretching work equally well. I remember giggling in a yoga class when the ‘wind-relieving pose’ did exactly that for the guy on the mat next to me!

Without doing something radical, my jeans fit more like normal today. A few simple practices like the ones listed here, and a good walk this morning straightened me right out.

There’s no need to suffer with abdominal bloating and indigestion. Try a simple, natural remedy first. If the problem persists, get ahold of me and we’ll talk it through until we discover what’s best for you.

Find answers to more of your digestion questions in this related blog –  Has Your Digestion Taken a Vacation?

 

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What if Doctors Handed Out Vegetables, Not Prescriptions?

What if Doctors Handed Out Vegetables, Not Prescriptions?

As a student in herb school, I remember learning about a system of medicine where families would pay the village doctor to keep them healthy, but once a family member became ill, the service was free. What a brilliant twist on today’s approach to medicine – provide incentive to keep you from becoming a patient.

I’m not suggesting you pay me in chickens to keep you well all year. But if you could correct unhealthy patterns before they become disease, would you? If you could switch the focus to staying well instead of insuring expensive fixes to preventable problems, wouldn’t that make good sense?

Today, I saw a patient who totally gets this approach. She isn’t suffering from any serious problems, eats a healthy diet, does work she loves, and is in a fulfilling relationship.

She’s a model patient, and frankly, seeing her was a no-brainer. Until I understood what she was asking from me.

She wanted a different kind of patient-provider relationship than I’m used to having. Instead of struggling to correct problems, she wanted my support and guidance to stay well.

She saw me as someone who could step back, look at her whole life, her daily practices, her dreams for the future, and offer some advice on how to stay in the good health place she’s in.

In the end, what she wanted was help managing her enthusiasm for the projects ahead of her, without getting overwhelmed and disorganized.

Health care isn’t about insuring against what might go wrong. It’s what you do to prevent that: exercise, schedule down-time, stay in community, laugh, work, eat a variety of foods, and check in with someone who asks what you’re doing right, not what’s going wrong.

Who’s keeping you accountable for your own good health? Is there someone you can call to ask about minor concerns before they become major problems?

For years of vitality, not a future of prescriptions and surgeries, start now with a baseline assessment,  then follow up regularly to stay on the health track.

You can expect to feel healthy and vital as you age, and if that’s not the message you’re getting, then it’s time to see someone who practices health, not medicine.

What are your practices for staying healthy? Do you follow a special diet, workout plan or spiritual practice that keeps you well? Share your comments here and let us know what’s been working for you.

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How to Choose an Herbal Remedy That Works

How to Choose an Herbal Remedy That Works

Jan sat down across from me with a familiar look on her face. Hope. Resignation. Confusion. Overwhelm.

And next to her, in one of those reusable grocery store bags, was a jumble of every health food store supplement she’d bought in the past 6 months, some still unopened.

This was how Jan understood her health problem up until now – as a collection of deficiencies that she could supplement her way out of. It’s a pretty common misunderstanding, and it’s not her fault.

We fall prey to this thinking because we’ve been trained to think of health care as a one-for-one proposition.

If anti-depressants are for depression, and statins are for high cholesterol, then there’s probably a vitamin, mineral, anti-oxidant, enzyme or protein for every disease, symptom or syndrome.

The thing is, that’s sort of a piecemeal approach that never really gets to the bottom of things. When heartburn, bloating, headaches, pain, insomnia, rashes are viewed as unrelated and disconnected problems, each with their own separate solution, we miss the big picture.

When you take a this-for-that approach to health care, you never see the patterns that emerge from looking at the bird’s eye view, like the tendency of your problem to be spasmodic, or worse in cold weather, or have a damp quality, or that stress makes it flare up. These patterns provide subtle clues to the remedy or healing method for you.

Instead of asking what pill goes with what symptom, ask what’s the nature of your misery?

  • Is the problem worse or better with heat?
  • Does it stay in one place or move around?
  • Is there pain, and is it sharp and stabbing or dull and achey?
  • Does the problem get worse when you feel tight and tense?
  • Are there other symptoms that mimic the sensation, frequency or severity of the issue?

Your problem has unique qualities that distinguish it from everyone else’s. So it makes sense that the remedy you take to feel better matches YOUR variety of trouble.

Let’s look at digestion, for instance. When symptoms like heartburn, gas, abdominal pain, bloating, belching, diarrhea, constipation, cramping or hemorrhoids get to be a regular thing, it’s time to look for patterns and apply some general rules:

Cold makes things loose, clear or white, mucusy and slow. If your digestion or stool has these qualities, you need a remedy that warms things up. Herbs like fennel seed, cardamom pod, cinnamon bark, thyme leaf, sage leaf, oregano leaf, horseradish, ginger root, rosemary leaf, garlic bulb and black pepper introduce warm, stimulating, toning properties, lessening the constant need for over-the-counter anti-diarrhea products and even relieving a constantly runny nose.

Heat makes things activate. That’s mostly a good thing, until there’s too much heat. That looks like burning or heat sensations, hot burps, irritation, bleeding, redness and swelling (anywhere in or on your body). Look for herbs that cool and calm the heat– lavender flower, mint leaf, basil leaf, dandelion root, plantain leaf, elder flower, marshmallow root.

Most of these herbs for heat coat and soothe irritated tissue, especially in the digestive tract, reduce swelling, and allow heat to clear. This can eliminate or reduce the need for anti-inflammatory medicines or antacids, which deplete essential stomach acid and worsen digestive irritation over time.

When energy gets stuck, there’s usually cramping, pain, gas, bloating or constipation. Choose herbs that relax tissues and allow the ‘Qi’ to flow. Anti-spasmodics like cramp bark, skullcap, wood betony, hops, and oat seed blend well with the hot or cold herbs mentioned earlier, depending on which category you fall into.

When both your mood and your stomach are fussy and irritable, choose herbs that soothe, heal and calm your over-sensitive nervous system: catnip, chamomile flower, lavender flower, oat seed, meadowsweet, peppermint, anise seed, blue vervain and lemon balm.

Plants know how to repair themselves and grow in cold, hot, soggy, dry, crowded or stressful conditions. They reach around obstacles for light, water and nutrients. In you, they gently nudge your built-in healing capacity.

Remember Jan? Jan was off to a good start buying and trying supplements one at a time. Her intention was to find a natural way to solve an imbalance before it became a disease with a name.

Like Jan, you might be looking for an answer to solve the supplement puzzle and avoid expensive medical visits, tests and medications. Looking for patterns in your symptoms helps you decide where to start.

Next time you reach for a supplement bottle at your local health food store, ask yourself ,“Is there a plant with this name that grows in nature?” If it doesn’t grow in nature, it’s not an herb. If it’s not an herb, it doesn’t carry the healing energy of a plant that’s survived and thrived against all odds. Start over and look for an herb that matches your symptom pattern.

Multivitamins, CoQ10, fish oils and iron supplements might be useful replacements for simple deficiencies, but they won’t stimulate your body to heal itself the way herbs do.

If you’ve been struggling with a chronic problem that’s not responding to ordinary dietary supplements, turn to the plants. Herbal Medicine, and especially Traditional Chinese Medicine, have safe, natural and effective answers for many of today’s common ailments.

Tell me how you applied an herb to a health problem. Did it help?  What was the result?

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Food Fear Isn’t Making Us Any Healthier

Food Fear Isn’t Making Us Any Healthier

8 seconds. That’s how long I searched Facebook to find a blog/link/post about some kind of food being ‘bad’ for me. Then, when I Googled the phrase ‘bad food’, I got 2.1 billion search results. Billion! That’s more than Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber combined!

Food-bashing is nothing new.

In the 70’s they told us fat was bad for our arteries, so my mom switched us to margarine instead of butter- my dad had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a family history of heart attacks. His doctor told him to cut down on salt, so the only time we enjoyed that spice was on taco night – and boy, did we load it on! And forget about eggs. No way. Big killer.

In the 80’s we counted calories, because we were already starting to put on weight from the so-called food that replaced the evil fats we cut out the decade before.

In the 90’s, convenience was king, and we threw out all the rules and enjoyed our fast food lunches crammed into our 10 hour workdays. Why? Because it was all about success and big houses and keeping up with the Joneses.

Honestly, I don’t remember all the food fads over the past 40 years (and excuse me if I mixed up my decades), but some pretty lousy advice has been handed down under the guise of ‘research’ from food manufacturers, healthcare providers and mass media.

I feel so guilty eating practically everything these days, because somewhere, at some time, every food on the shelves, in the CSA box or from the garden has been so demonized that I’ve had the fear of God scared into me over ever bite I take.

Even something as purely healthy as an egg gets analyzed, researched and questioned until someone comes up with a ludicrous list of qualifications a simple egg should meet to enter our mouths:

  • Free-range
  • Omega-3 enhanced (what in the world did those poor chickens have to go through to qualify?)
  • Gluten-free (seriously?)
  • Farm-raised – what farm these days is good enough to meet this standard?
  • Local (that’s always nice, I guess)
  • Fresh (doesn’t that go without saying?)

Remember when eggs came in 4 sizes and that’s all we cared about?

For that matter, remember when the only bread choice we ever considered was homemade or store-bought? Now we worry about gluten, whole-grain, transfats vs polyunsaturated ones, and food coloring – since when does bread need to be colored?

For once, I just want to eat without running through the pedigree of my meal. I know I should be buying my food from local, organic farmers with free-range animal products and environmentally sustainable practices. I fully support these practices, in theory, but when it comes right down to it, I’ve realized that this takes an enormous amount of time and effort and planning.

And I’m working on it, little by little. I started by shopping the organic section of my grocery stores, reading food and farming blogs, and I’m finally going to join a CSA this Spring and see what THAT’S all about.

But for now, I’d like to pour a bowl of oatmeal without worrying about whether it’s organic or gluten-free, and top it with walnuts without wondering if they’re covered in pesticides, and mix it up with some organic milk that might not be from a farm nearby, and top it off with dried cranberries that probably have some sugar added because I couldn’t find the unsweetened ones I’m supposed to buy.

It would be a little slice of heaven to enjoy a warm spoonful of breakfast and not once, not even for a split second, wonder if the grain in there is genetically modified.

I love to eat, but we’ve taken all the fun out of eating in our culture. Food is a minefield of potential cancer-causing, inflammation-inducing terror. No wonder everyone is so confused and stressed about what to feed their families.

Today, for just one meal, eat without guilt, or fear, or disappointment. Before you start your new eating habits – low fat, high fat, low sugar, no sugar, vegetarian, paleo, vegan, grass-fed – enjoy that juicy steak and baked potato smothered in gravy with a side of delicious, and sugary, fatty, gluten-laden pie for dessert with a big smile on your face.

Life is stressful enough. Enjoy your food, even if it’s not the most healthy thing you’ve had this week. Then tomorrow, pick just one thing to do differently. Eat a little less, skip dessert, add a vegetable to your plate without worrying about who grew it. You’ll get there. It’s a process. One step at a time.

If you’re serious about eating more local or considering joining a CSA, check out my Resources page for links to trustworthy products and businesses in our community.

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