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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:
Nutrition and eating habits.
Relationship with the foods and beverages you consume.
The processes of digestion and elimination.
The processes of cleansing and detoxification within the body.
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.Considerations:
There is no one-size-fits-all diet. The word ‘diet’ itself can be problematic as it often triggers thoughts of deprivation. There are as many variations of ‘diet’ as there are people on the planet, because everyone is physiologically unique and may require more or less of certain foods to suit their unique constitution. Additionally, it is important to avoid dietary ruts - these can get boring, alienate you from the foods you are eating, and can cause you to miss out on a variety of essential nutrients over time. The kinds of foods you eat that work best for you will not perfectly match the recommendations listed below. The best way to discover your ideal sources of nourishment is to cultivate presence and awareness while you eat, and most importantly, take time to enjoy the food you eat!
Will this in mind, here is a starting point of what you might want to eat on any given day, based upon insights I’ve learned in practice and from my teachers:
one-half produce and plants
Of all colors of the rainbow, ideally according to seasonality and locality.
Fish, seafood, nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, beans, poultry, yogurt, eggs, mushrooms, lamb.
Slow-burning carbs, whole grain over refined carbs. Seed “grains” (quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth), which also provide protein.
a little bit of fat throughout
Fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, extra-virgin olive oil, avocados, olives, eggs.
Omega-3 fatty acids from wild-caught fatty fish like salmon, trout, herring, mackerel, and sardines (sardines are often the cheapest source and are low on the food chain so accumulate less heavy metals) consider an omega-3 supplement here.
Vitamin B Complex
Especially if you eat mostly plants.
blood panels with your PCP will help guide the amount here, also seasonality and geographic location are also considered. It’s possible to overdo it here so make sure you are aware of your current levels!
ionic sources are preferable to chelated due to better absorption (you only get about 35-45% of what you take, milligram-wise when taking chelated forms), and only about 15% when taking forms containing magnesium hydroxide.
if not able to eat fatty fish at least 3 times per week.
The best way to get the right kinds of Omega-3s is by eating fatty fish, a supplement, or a combination of both.
Nuts and seeds, including flaxseed and walnuts, are not the greatest source, as they contain high amounts of ALA, not EPA and DHA, which is what our diets tend to be deficient in (between eight and 20 percent of ALA is converted to EPA in humans, and between 0.5 and nine percent of ALA is converted to DHA).
There is no set recommendation on the amount of fish oil you should take. However, there are recommendations for total omega-3 intake, as well as EPA and DHA.
The reference daily intake (RDI) of combined EPA and DHA is 250–500 mg.
500-1000mg combined EPA and DHA seems more appropriate even when eating 2-3 portions of fatty fish per week to ensure you are brought back up to normal levels if you’ve been deficient for some time.
Generally, up to 3,000 mg of fish oil daily is considered safe for adults to consume.
When buying fish oil supplements, make sure to read the label to determine how much EPA and DHA is provided. Typically, 1,000 mg of fish oil supplies around 300 mg of combined EPA and DHA.
The RDI for total omega-3 is 1,100 mg for women and 1,600 mg for men.
Breathing and Subtle Energy
Posture and Movement
Patterns of Muscle Tension
Humans evolved to move, not to be sedentary as our culture so widely 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.
Rest after strenuous exercise / activity
Stillness and Meditation
For those of you looking for a panacea, start with 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.
And let’s not forget, sleep is also a time where humans dream, where one can be completely immersed in one’s unconscious. And in my conception of the psyche, the unconscious is what connects us to literally everything.
A lot of people use the image of islands as their ‘waking’ consciousness and the ocean beneath that connects these islands together. Sleep is a time of dreaming, of being immersed in that ocean.
Herbalist Stephen Buhner offers this: “Dreaming is a basic need like food, clothing, shelter, or touch. The historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, comments that
One of the four phases of sleep is called REM (Rapid Eye Movement); it is the only phase during which the sleeping person dreams. The following experiments were done: Volunteers were prevented from staying in the REM phase, but were permitted to sleep. In other words, they could sleep, but it wasn’t possible for them to dream. Consequence: the following night, the persons deprived of REM tried to dream as much as possible, and if they were again prevented from doing so, they proved nervous, irritable, and melancholy during the day. And finally, when their sleep was no longer bothered, they gave themselves over to veritable “orgies of Rapid Eye Movement sleep,'' as if they were avid to recover everything they had lost during the preceding nights… These experiments… confirm the organic need of man to dream…[Man]--any man--is continually fascinated by the chronicling of the world, that is, by what happens in his world or in his own soul. He longs to find out how life is conceived, how destiny is manifest--in a word, in what circumstances the impossible becomes possible, and what are the limits of the possible.
Dreaming is necessary because human beings have an innate need to make sense of things, to understand who and what they are, to continually process and interweave the meanings they encounter each day into the fabric of their lives… The purpose of dreaming is to allow the unconscious mind to work with the meanings of one's life, both interior and exterior. By this process a person integrates meaning into the fabric of his character, his life takes on a more and more meaning as time goes by, he deepens--becomes less shallow, more alive and real.
Most dreaming is never consciously remembered, but during all of it the unconscious works with the material offered up to it through daily living to extract meaning, to understand our place and relationship to the world, the Universe, and life. It is an organic process as integral to human health and life as food, this need to work with meaning through dreaming. And like all our other basic needs, it has been taken by human beings and, over time, developed into art. Before printing, dreaming was crafted as art through storytelling, eventually developing more complexity as theater After printing, storytelling followed a new tack and developed as art through written fiction. They all involve our human capacity and need to dream.” (Stephen Buhner, The Lost Language of Plants)
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 well-being and purpose.
Presence / patterns of stress
Relationship with self/body
Relationship with nature/earth
Thought Patterns - Conscious / Unconscious
Emotions and Biological Urges
Physical and emotional environment, including environmental toxins and stress
I used to call this foundation ‘Well-Being’, but felt that it was not quite the right fit, since well-being arises out of a tending to all foundations. Relationship seems to work well here, as I use it 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. You might notice a strong overlap between these last two foundations: relationship and purpose. These aspects address our mind-body connection, bringing awareness to areas of psychological need and self-fulfillment that have potential impact on our physiological health. I tend to associate relationship with more overtly psychological needs and purpose with 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, activity, and rest) 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.
Alignment with one’s vocation
Giving vs. Taking
Being vs. Doing
Developing creative abilities and talents
Being a part of something bigger than oneself
Connection to mystery and wonder
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, there is an aliveness in our physical body that is palpable, like we are a string resonating deeply and in tune with all 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, or sabotage our unfolding, our body will begin to disintegrate and break down.
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