Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Magic of Wellness

note:  This post was written while still very sick.  Please pardon the topic shifting and disjointed tone.

"If we ignore the magical level of our herbal tradition, we would be throwing away a great portion of our literature, whether we are speaking of European or Native American or some other kind of lore. In herbal tradition, medicine plants have long been associated with magic."  ~~ Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom

Many herbalists say that herbs work on the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels, but I also feel that herbs work on a magical level as well. My early years of learning about medicinal plants involved hours of time spent within and around the plants. Sometimes I would just sit amongst stands of chickweed, or nettles, or red clover, or trillium and listen.  Listen to my own internal chatter, listen to the sound of the forest, listen to sound of the plants. Magic can be found easily when one sits amongst the plants deep within the forest.

Magic is more difficult to see when experiencing the physical agony of illness.  When racked with fever, body aches, and chills, the only thing most people desire is for the symptoms to end quickly.  It is very difficult to endure sickness with grace and patience.  Add a nursing baby, or several young children, household chores, and work obligations to the mix, and one's tolerance slips quickly into the abyss.

I was raised by a God-fearing Mother, and she believes that sickness comes straight from Satan.  When experiencing a throat burning with the embers of unrelenting pain, it's easy to see why.

When contemplating the origins of our solar system, and thinking about how bacteria and viruses played an important role in the organization and evolution of life, I wish I could feel some philosophical comfort when I can't sleep because of fever, discomfort, or pain.

The fact is it's difficult to be sick, and it's hard to wait for the sickness to be over.

Herbs can be very effective at lessening the length of illness, and can help to alleviate symptoms of a variety of ailments. When necessary, herbs can often be combined with over the counter remedies, such as acetaminophen and  ibuprofen, and prescription meds like antibiotics. I have reliably used herbal medicine to soothe symptoms, decrease the duration of illness, and to prevent illness from taking root into deeper, nastier problems like sinus infections and bronchitis. One of the biggest dilemmas most people faced when taking herbs, however, is that they expect some sort of rapid, end-the-symptom result.

Herbs offer a biochemical synergistic response within the body that will not look like taking a prescription or over the counter medicine that was designed to produce a certain result.  If a person takes a certain herb or a set of herbs with the idea that the herb is going to remove certain symptoms promptly, or force the illness to leave the body, they are likely to be disappointed.  Although it's a sort of crap shoot with prescription and over-the-counter meds as well, which may cause undesired side effects that are as uncomfortable as the condition being treated. Sometimes herbal preparations will work rapidly and bring prompt relief, and other times they are working subtley and under the surface--bring no obvious response on the outside, but affecting processes on the inside and preventing further problems down the road.

With herbs, most often people do not take the right preparation, or take enough of the herb for the herb to have much of an effect on the body.  Drinking a cup of tea is not the same thing as drinking an infusion.  A cup of tea, while generally relaxing and enjoyable, is not a medicinal preparation.  An infusion is usually one to up to several ounces of a single herb or blended herbs, steeped in a qt of water.  Honey or maple syrup can be added for sweetness, but it often will taste nothing like your favorite cup of chamomile!

The problem with relying solely on over-the-counter or prescription meds is that they often work to suppress the symptoms the body is experiencing. Symptoms are a part of an illness, but often not the illness itself. A suppression of the symptoms does not help support the body in the healing process. Suppressing symptoms works to alleviate the discomfort associated with an illness, but the body is still working through the suppression to remove the pathogen from the body, and with the symptoms removed, the body may have to work harder to get better.

Herbs work in conjunction with the body, supporting internal and external systems, as well as working with the specific symptoms the body is presenting.  During a fever, some herbs, like lemon balm, catmint, or yarrow, work to open pores to facilitate sweating, thus working with a fever to remove the pathogen, and cool the body from the outside in. Mucilaginous herbs work to moisten and lubricate mucous membranes that may be irritated and inflamed from spasmodic coughing, or from an aching sore throat.

Sometimes...the results are not so obvious, and the herbs are working at an internal level to facilitate blood circulation, move bile within the liver, and move lymph fluids through the lymphatic systems.

For five days, I've been experiencing the absolute most severe sore throat I've ever experienced in my life. This pain has been so severe that the only real analogy I have for it is that it is nearly identical to the "ring of fire" a woman experiences moments before giving birth when the head is crowning. The fact that this pain is unrelenting, and can be lessened, but not eradicated, with ibuprofin and aspirin, led me to believe this was not a typical cold caused by a rhinovirus. After doing some research of medical journals, based on the symptoms each of my family members has experienced, I'm pretty certain that this particular virus is an Enterovirus, most likely a coxsackie strain, or possibly even an Echovirus based on the lesions I saw on the back of one tongue in the family. The most interesting aspect to these kinds of viruses are that a person can shed them fecally for up to 8 weeks after an infection has cleared. Alcohol does not break their outer envelope of echoviruses, so hand sanitizers do not kill them. They are generally spread via the fecal-oral route, but can be passed through respiratory droplets from sneezing or coughing. They can also be passed via fomites--things such as towels, toys, books, etc. 

This virus was certainly different in that it began with a severe sore throat immediately--although I did feel somewhat nauseous the day before, but I thought it that was attributed to 4 straight vegetable meals causing a bit of harsh-gut. No other symptoms for several days, with the exception of two--a fever on the second night and several clusters of itchy blisters on my right thigh.  Severe pain.  No runny nose, no congestion, no cough.  Full-on unbearable pain that made me want to crumple up and disappear.  The flu had nothing on this illness--for me, anyway.

My girls each had the exact same symptoms, and the peak discomfort for them lasted but a mere 48 hours.  They each began with a sore throat, not severe, and then they had conjunctivitis (that was obviously not bacterial in that it was green, only present in the morning, no itching, and disappeared quickly) in one eye that lasted for about 2 days.  Then they each developed a cough.  Neither of them experienced what I have been experiencing.

Day 4 I lost my voice, and during that night I developed a deep bronchial cough.

Today, is day 5.  I feel much better mentally, but I'm still relying on ibuprofen and aspirin to relieve the pain, which is still present, but in the background.  Scott developed a severe sore throat, followed by a cough almost immediately. On day 6 he developed large fluid-filled lesions on the back of his tongue.  That was my first clue that this wasn't just another cold virus...this was some specifically nasty virus!

Both my In-Laws contracted it as well, and each of them presented with symptoms in their own way as well. My father-in-Law had what he describes as mostly a bad cold.  My dear Mother-in-Law developed fluid-filled blisters around her mouth and inner cheeks.  Commonly brushed off as fever blisters, this was yet more confirmation that a possible coxsackie virus is what we are dealing with.

Virology is a fascinating science for me, and I sometimes fancy the idea of pursuing a career in that field, although that would be quite a feat! The fact that these microscopic beings can have such a profound impact on people is remarkable.   The fact that my usual herbal allies that often do bring prompt relief have had no impact was frustrating. But, as an herbalist, I know that the herbs I have been taking have been working to support my inner systems despite the lack of sore throat relief. I quickly felt the burdock and red root formulas removing the swelling from my glands.  The cough syrups have been keeping the sap-like green mucous from setting up shop in my sinuses and bronchials. The last couple days of sunshine without wind have helped to restore my state of mind to one that's positive, rather than feeling like this pain will never subside.

Cheers to good health!