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by Alex Williams October 17, 2021
Here are what I consider to be the foundations of health and vitality. These are fundamental areas of awareness and are important to address before even considering the use of herbs. Using herbs without an awareness of and focus on these foundational areas can often cover up issues and encourage a dependency on herbs to ease symptoms rather than address root causes. Using herbs in this way is making herbs do more than their fair share of the work.
The integrity of each foundation is reinforced through a combination of rituals and habits that we can work to become more aware of as we deepen our relationship with our body. These rituals and habits become points of self-awareness that shed light on where we need to challenge ourselves to change and grow.
Additionally, these foundations remind us that there is no magic potion, no quick-fix, and no such thing as “swallowing the solution”. Our journey towards vitality, well-being, and self-actualization requires work, self-discipline, and often challenging ourselves to do the very opposite of what we’ve learned to become comfortable with. While the work is hard, you’ll find that what you discover along the way about your body and self is absolutely worth the trouble.
I hope to offer future writings to dive more deeply into these foundations, exploring rituals and habits that move us towards a deeper resonance with ourselves in each of these areas. For now, here’s a quick summary of each foundation:
Everything you ingest influences your body. Every human body is equipped with a resilient and intelligent digestive system which breaks food and drink down into tiny little pieces and absorbs or eliminates them. What is absorbed through the blood or lymph serves as the building blocks for all physiological structures and processes your body creates and carries out. This is why all aspects of nourishment mentioned above, including the relationship you have with the food you eat, are fundamental points of awareness for any long-term health journey.
It is also a foundation I revisit frequently with every person I work with. Digestion and elimination via the GI tract, liver, urinary systems, and skin are often the first place herbalists start since optimizing the health and function of these systems tend to benefit many other organ systems in indirect ways, including allergic sensitivity, infections illness, hormonal balance, and musculoskeletal inflammation. This is also the starting point when it comes to sustainable energy, since it is the food we ingest, along with how we process and make use of that food, that informs our energy levels throughout the day.
It is important to remember here that dietary perfection is an unattainable goal, and striving for such may cause ourselves stress that impedes our ability to digest our ‘perfect’ diet in the first place. Striving for good habits, while being flexible and kind to ourselves will allow us to explore the ways we get our nourishment with playfulness and curiosity.
If you're still looking for that panacea, the best I've got for you is sleep. Sleep is the time when your body does a majority of its restorative maintenance. Your body is able to repair damage, detoxify, fortify and strengthen your immune system, hormones and neurotransmitters are given a chance to come back into balance, and your musculoskeletal system is given a much need chance to relax and let go of any tension held throughout the day.
When you don't get enough sleep, your body doesn’t have enough time to engage in this restorative maintenance. With chronic sleep deprivation, our body begins to deteriorate and all major areas of our health start to break down.
On the other hand, getting extra rest when you’re sick or recovering from strenuous activity, you will recover more quickly and be able to get back out and enjoy the activities you are passionate about.
The capacity to rest and reflect upon our lives in a holistic fashion also allows us to reflect upon areas beyond our basic physiological needs like purpose, spirituality & relationships.
Humans evolved to move, and our bodies desire play. We did not evolve to be sedentary in the ways our culture encourages (through work environments and human connection being limited to virtual space). Movement, or lack thereof, has just as much effect on your overall well-being as nourishment. We grew as a species to collect our food and carry out chores without the luxury of machines or other people doing it for us. Movement was built into the cultures our bodies evolved through. Carving out time to move into our daily routine can help compensate for the more sedentary lifestyle our culture succumbs to. The kinds of movement accessible to you may vary from person to person. Depending on your body type, or limitations to range of movement from disability, you may have to make accommodations and adjustments to your movement.
Like plants, we are all woven into an ecological context, the inputs and outputs of which have a drastic impact on all aspects of our health. We are both a part of the environment while the environment passes through us either absorbed through our skin, respiratory system, digestive system, and nervous system (as sensory input).
So, it's important to be aware of environmental factors that can contribute to our everyday and long-term health.
Our purpose and gifts intersect, inform, and relate to every foundation of health mentioned above. Likewise, our bodies constitute themselves around our purpose, our direction, and our actions in life.
We are informed by the experiences we encounter, while simultaneously shaping these very encounters and experiences. When we are aligned with our purpose, are connected spiritually, and are tending to meaningful relationships, there is a unique aliveness in our physical body that is palpable, like we are a string resonating deeply and in tune with all of life. Likewise, if we get in the way of our own unfolding, the body responds and communicates this to us. Some go as far as to say that if we abandon our purpose, and do not tend to our spiritual practice and relationships, this is a way of sabotaging our unfolding, and our physical body will reflect this spiritual malnourishment.
I employ the term 'relationship' here in the way Krishnamurti uses the term to evoke not just relationships among humans, but relationships with parts of yourself, the non-human world, your behaviors, and stress. This final foundation addresses our mind-body connection, bringing awareness to areas of psychological need and self-fulfillment that have potential impact on our physiological health. It encompasses more overtly psychological needs as well as spiritual and creative self-actualization. But they all connect and deeply inform our health and vitality. Cultivating self-awareness in the foundations of health mentioned above (nourishment, rest, and movement) will also help us to refine our self-reflection skills which we can learn to apply to our relationships, the ways we experience and handle stress and anxiety, and the ways our thought patterns influence our actions and behavior.
This self-awareness also helps us to tune into what herbalist Stephen Buhner refers to as ‘Heart Perception’, or perceiving the world through our emotional heart in tandem with our thinking mind to gain a more comprehensive feel for the world we navigate daily.
On a physiological level, how you think and feel has a direct impact on your overall health (and your overall health has a direct impact on how you think and feel). Paying attention to this foundation will help support your nervous and endocrine system health, improve your stress response, and foster resilience by increasing your resistance to illness and disease.
Reflect upon where you are at in each of these areas. What is getting in the way of flourishing in each area? Consider: am I getting in my own way here, or are there social barriers that get in the way of achieving quality nourishment, depth of rest, energizing movement, healthful environment, and a sense of purpose in my life and relationships?
In sociological terms, asking these questions helps us to parse out the difference between personal problems and public issues. More often than not, we might think of an individual health issue as a personal problem when really it's a public issue (shared by many individuals of similar background and social location). Seeing it as such can help often help to resolve guilt and shame related to your unique state of health in any of these particular areas, allowing for clarity in how you may move forward.
So, in each category make a list of all the social barriers you can think of (for example in nourishment: cost of good quality food, living in a food desert, access to knowledge around what constitutes good quality food, etc...).
Then make a list of all the ways you get in your own way in each of these areas (for example in movement: "while gym membership is expensive and exclusive, it is still possible to find ways to exercise at no cost in my apartment, but I find it difficult for these reasons...")
In your reflections, remember to challenge yourself, but also be kind and forgiving to yourself. This exercise is intended to expand your awareness around your personal health and well-being. It is not about shame or guilt around your health and vitality. If you find yourself experiencing shame or guilt in any of these areas, remember: everyone is enough as they are, there is no perfect picture of health and no perfect ideal to strive towards. Ultimately, growth and transformation is guided by a deepening of awareness in the process of becoming more essentially who you are.
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