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Exponential Medicine – Recap & Reflections

I just got back from attending the Exponential Medicine (#xMed on Twitter) conference hosted by Singularity University in San Diego. This conference, similar to TEDMED, aims to share innovative ideas and developments in medicine and healthcare. It seeks to answer “what’s next?” in these fields.

The conference and innovation lab was predictably occupied with speakers and companies in the fields of stem cell research, tissue engineering, bioprinting, regeneration, synthetic biology, big data, mobile app technology, AI.

I’m very intrigued on conversations about the future of anything, but most importantly when it comes to medicine or healthcare. These fields are vital for the continued evolution of humanity, and all life on earth. When something becomes ordained as The Future of X, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We race to get to the future first, chasing the next big thing. So I watch these developments with as much of a critical eye as I can muster, especially attentive to the origins, trajectories, and meanings of these ‘futures’. These innovators rarely, however, examine our past or roots. Or the ecological context in which they are an inextricable part. They can’t. The whole field is too specialized. But how can you assert a future without a global view?

I am not against technological development or advancing medical technology as much as possibly. On the contrary: these technologies can and will save lives and improve quality of life for those who can access it. But I stand as an outsider looking at the greater social context, and wonder.

I did not see anyone questioning the fundamanetal tenets of their field– a practice which could surely expose blind spots or reveal some kind of blue sky for future developments. A couple speakers argued that better access and more meaningful patterns from big data can provide patients and providers with more relevant and actionable knowledge than RCTs–a good point. Data mined from real patients in real situations is more realistic than trial patients, who are often excluded if they have a comorbid condition. (That and I think RCTs testing treatments against placebo is unethical, but that’s another post.) No one, except for Paul Stamets (pictured above), advocated for even a remotely ecological or cross-species view of health. With an increasingly myopic view of heathcare, we lose context and are therefore subject to poorly performing interventions.

These technologies are beautiful. I’m excited for what they can bring. But we may well go even further by flipping the subject and seeking innovation in tradition, examining why we do what we do, how we know what we know. I’d love for medical educational programs conferences to philosophize a bit more with these subjects. I think only then do we fully engage the subject and envision the future we want to create.

And the setting? Lovely.

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Hotel Del Coronado

What Is Botanical Medicine?

Botanical Medicine – also known as Herbalism, or just Herbal Medicine – is the study and practice of safe & sustainable use of herbs for whole-person health, including gathering & use of safe/available plants, basic medicine making & basic nutrition. In the process, we learn more about our environment and the natural world. Read more

The Herbalist’s Chain of Custody

In my practice I often play the role of an ambassador, explaining the thought processes & approaches of a clinical herbalist. One of the ways that makes practicing herbalists distinctive from other professions is the chain of custody of their medicines, and their embedded connection with the living, breathing landscape.

Herbalists occupy & triage the continuum between patient, practice & Earth. This is especially true when they make their own medicines–they oversee and craft a chain of custody. When I supply a formula of marshmallow root & chamomille flowers that have come from my garden, I’m not offering just a product. I’m offering a deep understanding of how those plants grow, evolve, and interact with their environment. In overseeing the craft of that product, it’s not just better quality–we invite a dimension of knowing unique to our practice. We are helping our patients evolve their narrative and understanding. This is an important aspect of the long-term healing process.

It’s as if we have one hand stretching into the landscape; formulating, crafting. And with the other, we can offer another a connection, language and, in some ways, a truth.

Herbal Terminology Demystified: A Bit on Herbal Actions, Energetics & Listening to the Language of the Plants with our Bodies

(For a PDF handout version, see Resources.) Plants are complex, living beings—just as we are. And their interactions with our bodies in the context of healing can begin to be understood in terms of patterns of basic energetics: heating & cooling, drying & moistening.

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Herbal actions describe the observable effects of herbs in the body. Energetics refers to the overall characteristic or quality of an herb— for example, we know cucumbers are cooling and ginger is warming. This language of energetics & actions gives us a way to understand the broad spectrum of plants in a healing context. It also allows us to get creative with plants and determine substitutes when our first choice isn’t available. A number of bitter plants can be used to assist digestion. Similarly, a wide range of antiinflammatories can be called in to relievethe pain & tension associated with certain types of inflammation. Familiarity with the language of herbal actions and energetics opens our senses & imaginations to the plants around us, and ultimately helps deepen our practice with them.

Botanical medicine is an art & a science. And this is the art part. The way plants flow through us can be perceived & described in several ways. Read more

Turkey Tail Mushrooms & The Antifragility of Immunity

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Plant Healer Magazine, one of this era’s finest publications for plant aficionados.

Medicinal mushrooms have a lot to contribute to an herbalist’s practice. Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor[1]) is begging to be used, like the little kid persistently raising its hand in the classroom, “Pick me! Pick me! Pick me ppllleeaassee!” This little mushroom–so tenacious, resilient & adaptable–has so much to offer in terms of medicine. Their earthen-colored fan shapes herald the arrival of the rains as they move in and digest dead trees, turning them into soil so new life can sprout. These decomposing fungal organisms (known as primary decomposers) are vital in the cycle of life & the seasons, each one an agent in an autumnal pull back to the earth, doing the good dirty work so new life can leap forward in the next season[2].

Turkey Tail mushrooms are busy little beavers in our ecosystems, aiding decomposition & soil generation. In human & animal bodies, the story changes. They means by which they support immune function are enchanting–providing clever little nudges here & there that invigorate our immune response. They’re ubiquitous in the wild and versatile in combination with other plant medicines. To me, this makes them a key member of the apothecary. Read more

Pseudotsuga menziesii: Windows into Forest Medicine

This was one of 3 trees covered in my Trees, Humans & Healing talk at the 2nd Dandelion Seed Conference in Olympia last weekend. I wrote an expanded piece on Douglas-fir, which may behoove the reader to peruse before or after grazing this post. 

Origins & Ecology 
Douglas-fir is the dominant tree west of the Cascade Mountains and is this continent’s second tallest tree (exceeded only by the Redwoods in the South). It’s found in coastal regions stretching South into the Santa Cruz Mountains up to West Central British Columbia, and East into Northern Idaho and Western Montana.

Douglas-fir is, as a name, a misnomer. It’s not a true fir (which belong to the Abies genus). Its genus, Pseudotsuga, translates to False Hemlock. Other common names it’s had over the years include Oregon Pine, Oregon Spruce, Red Fir. Due to confusion around the name ‘Douglas-fir,’ some botanists have proposed the name ‘Douglasstree’ as comfortably distinct from other conifer common names. It got its name from a Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who conducted a botanical expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1825. During his tour, he also named a number of other plants: Doug-fir mistletoe, Douglas aster, Douglas gentian, Douglas buckwheat, Douglas onions, and more. Its species name, menziesii, is named after Archibald Menzies, another Scottish naturalist.

Doug-firs migrated to the area at the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age 11,000 years ago when the climate transitioned from subarctic to temperate. This brought mild/wet winters & dry summers to the West—conditions which favor conifers. The first species to migrate North was Lodgepole pine. And as the area warmed, Douglas-fir began to enter the landscape.

This tree has a special relationship with fire. The seedlings are shade intolerant and require sunlight penetration through the canopy to grow. Forest fires that clear out the understory/deadwood are necessary for them to proliferate. (This also happens when an area is logged. In fact, the logging practices of the last 200 years created artificial disturbances that enabled Douglas-firs to thrive.) Doug-firs possess thicker bark and a faster growth rate than most climax trees of the area (such as Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar). This quality gives Douglas-firs a competitive advantage when the forest experiences a major disturbance such as fire. Read more

Crataegus spp: Sweet, Tender & Tough as Nails

Origin & Ecology 

Hawthorn is of the most well known herb for heart health. The genus, Crataegus, contains over 1000 species. While Crataegus species are found throughout Northern hemisphere, the best studied is C. monogyna. Our local trees are often hybridized species, and there’s great similarity between the leaves, flowers, and berries among them. They’re planted ornamentally, and readily naturalize. They readily cross-pollinate & hybridize, continually obscuring attempts at classification.

Hawthorn has been long used as a boundary marker, forming dense hedgerows. (In fact, the word haw applies to the fruit, and was originally it was an Old English term for hedge.) The trees are hardy & adaptable, tolerating both drought and high moisture conditions. The wood is dense, and the branches possess sharp thorns. Being rather short trees, they typically remain under 50’ tall.

Lore & Mythos
Hawthorn is rich with lore & recorded historical use, mostly in Europe. An alternate name for Hawthorn is Mayblossom, as the blooming of the tree heralded Mayday or Beltane in European folk traditions. The crown of Jesus Christ was reportedly constructed with Hawthorn branches. In Southern Europe, Hawthorn was considered an emblem of hope. Brides in Ancient Greece carried boughs of it to the altar, as it was sacred to the Greek god of marriage. In Ancient Rome it was used to protect babies as a tree of Cardea, the Roman goddess of childbirth. In Welsh lore, the Goddess Olwen “She of the White Track” once walked an empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way galaxy. Read more

Alnus rubra: Of Water, Purity, and Pioneering

Origins & Ecology 

There are 35 species in the Alnus genus. The name is derived from the Old English Alor, Germanic Elo which means reddish-yellow.

Alder trees have an affinity to water, and can be found in meadows, marshes, stream beds, etc. They have a smooth grey bark, and the cambium (living sapwood) stains red underneath. Alder bares both cones & catkins. Male catkins are long & drooping; Female cones are short, developing into woody cones that remain on tree throughout the Winter. (It’s also the only broadleaved tree to have cones.) They arrive often before leaves appear and are mainly wind-pollinated. Read more