July 27-28, 2024 in Andalusia, Alabama  –  “Energetics, Somatics and Sensory Experiencing” with Thomas, Mel and jim mcdonald now enrolling!

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Shaping Experiences and Access to Care

The Realm of Eco-Sociocultural Political Context acknowledges that health and illness are not just individual experiences but are profoundly influenced by the broader contexts in which we live. The Realm of Sociocultural Context is not merely another component of the framework, but rather an all-encompassing, pervasive force that permeates every aspect of our lives. This realm, which includes the ecological, social, cultural, and political contexts in which we exist, is inescapable, shaping our experiences, beliefs, and behaviors in ways that we may not always recognize or acknowledge.

The Realm of Sociocultural Context encapsulates and surrounds the other realms, acting as a backdrop against which all other dimensions of health and well-being unfold. From the air we breathe and the water we drink, to the social norms and cultural beliefs that guide our interactions, to the political policies and economic systems that shape our access to resources and opportunities, the sociocultural context is a constant presence, influencing every aspect of our lives.

One important dimension of this context that is often overlooked in conventional medicine is the role of nature and ecology in shaping human health. The field of ecopsychology suggests that humans have an innate need to connect with nature and that disconnection from the natural environment can contribute to various psychological and physical health problems. This perspective is rooted in the idea that humans have evolved in close relationship with the natural world for millions of years, and our bodies and minds are adapted to function optimally in the context of natural environments.

Research has shown that exposure to nature can have significant therapeutic benefits for both physical and mental health. Spending time in nature can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, improve immune function, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life. Some of the proposed mechanisms for these effects include exposure to natural light and circadian rhythms, increased physical activity and social connection, and reduced exposure to air pollution and other environmental toxins.

From the perspective of the Five Realms model, the therapeutic potential of nature and ecology is not just limited to the Realm of Disease but can have profound impacts across all dimensions of health and illness. In the Realm of Health, connecting with nature can be a powerful way to promote resilience, vitality, and overall well-being by providing opportunities for physical activity, stress reduction, and connection to something bigger than self. In the Realm of Maladaptations, nature-based therapies may help to correct subtle imbalances and dysregulations in the body’s stress response and immune function, preventing the progression of disease.

In the Realm of Experience, connecting with nature can be a profound source of meaning, purpose, and spiritual connection for many individuals. The experience of awe, wonder, and beauty that comes from immersing oneself in natural environments can provide a sense of perspective and interconnectedness that can be deeply healing and transformative.

However, it is important to recognize that access to nature is not equal for all individuals and communities. Many people, particularly those with limited economic resources, may face significant barriers to connecting with natural environments on a regular basis. These barriers can include a lack of access to transportation, limited time due to work or family obligations, or insufficient financial means to afford travel to natural areas or to live in neighborhoods with green spaces. These obstacles are often more pronounced in low-income communities, contributing to health disparities and exacerbating existing inequities in health outcomes.
For example, someone working multiple jobs to make ends meet may have little free time to visit a park or engage in outdoor activities, even if green spaces are available in their area. Similarly, someone without access to reliable transportation may struggle to reach more distant natural areas, such as forests or beaches, even if they have the time to do so. Moreover, the cost of living in neighborhoods with ample green space or in close proximity to nature reserves can be prohibitive for many, further entrenching disparities in access to nature.

These economic barriers intersect with other forms of marginalization, such as racism and classism, to create complex patterns of environmental injustice. Low-income communities and communities of color are often disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards, such as air and water pollution, while simultaneously being denied equitable access to the benefits of nature and green space.

Addressing these inequities requires a multi-faceted approach that goes beyond simply prescribing “nature doses” to individuals. It involves advocating for policies and practices that promote equitable access to green spaces and natural environments, such as community gardens, urban parks, and nature preserves. It also involves working with communities to develop culturally-responsive and context-specific interventions that leverage the therapeutic potential of nature in ways that are meaningful and relevant to diverse populations.

For individuals who may have limited access to large-scale natural environments, even small-scale interactions with nature can provide important therapeutic benefits. This can include activities such as gardening, caring for houseplants, or interacting with pets or other animals. By cultivating a sense of connection and stewardship with the natural world, even in small ways, individuals can tap into the healing potential of nature and promote a sense of well-being and resilience.

In addition to the role of nature and ecology, the Realm of Eco-Sociocultural Political Context also encompasses the broader social, cultural, and political factors that shape health and illness.From the beliefs and values that define our communities to the structural inequities that limit access to care, these contextual factors play a powerful role in determining who gets sick, how they experience their illness, and what resources are available for healing.

One key aspect of the contextual dimension is the way in which cultural beliefs and practices shape the meaning and expression of illness. In some communities, certain symptoms or conditions may be seen as a sign of spiritual distress, requiring the intervention of a traditional healer or religious leader. In others, the same symptoms may be heavily stigmatized, leading individuals to suffer in silence rather than seek help. These cultural frameworks can have a profound impact on how people perceive and respond to their own health challenges, as well as how they engage with different forms of care.

For example, in some traditional Indigenous cultures, mental health challenges may be understood as a disruption in one’s relationship with the natural and spiritual world, rather than as a biomedical disorder. This understanding may lead to a preference for holistic, community-based interventions that focus on restoring balance and connection, rather than individualized pharmaceutical treatment. As herbalists working across cultural contexts, it’s crucial that we take the time to understand and respect these diverse belief systems, working collaboratively with community leaders and traditional practitioners to provide culturally safe and responsive care.

Another critical aspect of the sociocultural dimension is the impact of social determinants of health outcomes and access to care. Factors such as income, education, housing, discrimination, and geographic inequities that lead to increased exposure to toxins from sources like coal plants, mining, radiation, and bombing sites can have a massive influence on an individual’s risk of illness and their ability to access appropriate treatment. In many communities, these social determinants are shaped by histories of colonialism, racism, and economic exploitation, leading to stark health disparities along lines of race, class, and geography.

For instance, studies have consistently shown that Indigenous communities in many parts of the world face disproportionate rates of chronic disease, mental illness, and substance use challenges, linked to the ongoing impacts of colonial violence, land dispossession, and cultural suppression. At the same time, these communities often have limited access to culturally appropriate health services, due to a combination of geographic isolation, economic marginalization, and systemic racism within mainstream healthcare institutions.

As herbalists committed to social justice and health equity, we have a responsibility to understand and address these structural barriers to care. This may involve advocating for policy changes to improve access to herbal medicine services, partnering with community organizations to provide low-cost or sliding-scale care, or working to diversify the herbal medicine profession itself to better reflect the communities we serve. It may also involve using our platform to raise awareness about the social and environmental determinants of health, and to challenge the systems of oppression that perpetuate health inequities.

Ultimately, by attending to the sociocultural dimension of health and illness, we recognize that our work as herbalists is about more than just individual treatment plans and herbal formulas. It’s about understanding the complex web of social, cultural, and political forces that shape people’s lives and experiences, and working collaboratively to build a more just, equitable, and holistic approach to health and healing.

This may involve stepping outside of our comfort zones and engaging in difficult conversations about power, privilege, and oppression. It may involve learning from and uplifting the voices of those who have been marginalized within mainstream health discourse, including Indigenous healers, community health workers, and disability rights activists. And it may involve being willing to challenge our own assumptions and biases about what constitutes “legitimate” knowledge and practice in the field of herbal medicine.

However, by accepting this intricacy and dedicating ourselves to a genuinely comprehensive and equity-focused approach, we hold the capacity to change not only singular lives but also whole communities and structures, recognizing that our shared understanding and collective efforts are key to promoting health and well-being for all. We have the potential to create a new paradigm of health and healing that recognizes the fundamental interconnectedness of personal, social, and ecological well-being, and that works to uplift and empower all people in their journeys towards wholeness and vitality.

Some concrete examples of how herbalists can engage with the sociocultural dimension of health:

  1. Learning about the traditional healing practices and cultural beliefs of the communities we serve, and when appropriate incorporating this knowledge respectfully into our work. This could involve attending community events, building relationships with Elders and knowledge keepers, or taking courses on cultural awareness, responsiveness, and humility.
  2. Advocating for policies that improve access to herbal medicine and address social determinants of health, funding for community herb gardens, or safe consumption sites for people who use drugs.
  3. Offering sliding-scale or low-cost services to ensure that herbal care is accessible to all, regardless of income. This could involve partnering with community health centers, social service agencies, or grassroots organizations.
  4. Using our platform as herbalists to raise awareness about health inequities and social justice issues, through writing, speaking, or community organizing. This could involve challenging the cultural appropriation of traditional plant knowledge, advocating for environmental justice, or supporting Indigenous sovereignty movements.
  5. Collaborating with other healthcare providers, such as Elders and knowledge keepers, physicians, nurses, or mental health counselors, to provide integrated, culturally responsive care that addresses the full spectrum of a person’s needs. This could involve developing referral networks, participating in multidisciplinary case reviews, or creating shared protocols for treatment.
  6. Continually examining our own privilege and positionality as practitioners, and working to dismantle oppressive dynamics within our own lives and practices. This could involve pursuing ongoing education on anti-racism and anti-oppression, seeking feedback from clients and colleagues, or using our resources to support the leadership and self-determination of marginalized communities.

By weaving these practices into the fabric of our work as herbalists, we begin to embody a truly holistic and socially engaged approach to healing – one that recognizes the profound interconnectedness of personal, social, and ecological well-being. We begin to create a new paradigm of herbal medicine that is not just about treating symptoms, but about transforming the conditions that give rise to illness in the first place.

This is the heart of the Five Realms model – a recognition that health and healing are not just individual pursuits, but collective ones, requiring a deep engagement with the ecological, social, cultural, and political contexts in which we live and work. By embracing this complexity and committing ourselves to a justice-oriented practice, we have the potential to create real, lasting change – not just in the lives of our clients, but in the very systems and structures that shape our world and ourselves.

This is the transformative potential of herbal medicine – not just as a modality of treatment, but as a catalyst for social and ecological healing. And it is a potential that we, as herbalists, have the power and the responsibility to actualize, through our words, our actions, and our ongoing commitment to a more just and sustainable world.

Exploring Herbs In Different Realms

Let’s use the herb peppermint as an example of how a plant might work in four different realms.

The Realm of Health

Peppermint is an herb rich in minerals and in strongly smelling aromatic compounds. You can decoct peppermint, evaporating off most of it’s aromatic compounds, leaving you with a mineral rich tea that can build health like any other mineral rich plant can. You might also make peppermint tea daily, as a self-care ritual that you do every day as soon as you get home from work. Rituals can help with a sense of coherence by providing a framework for meaning-making and creating a sense of order and structure in our lives. In this context, peppermint would be building health by strengthening coherence and fostering mindfulness, an excellent exercise for relaxation.

The Realm of Maladaptations

A common adaptation to stress is holding tension. Many people hold their tension in the stomach, and experience occasional stress related stomach discomfort. That discomfort might not occur frequently enough, or be discomforting enough to be classified as a disease or disorder – it’s a pre-pathology dysfunction that would probably be ignored by modern medicine, but it’s often easily remedied by peppermint.

The Realm of Disease

If stress related stomach tension continues for a long time it might worsen and lead to irritable bowel syndrome – a condition that responds well to enteric coated peppermint oil capsules. A bonus for peppermint in people with IBS is that in addition to its antispasmodic properties it’s also antimicrobial, and helps reduce bacterial counts in Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.

Multiple studies have shown that using peppermint oil as a local topical treatment for tension headaches is significantly more effective than using a placebo. Peppermint oil targets the underlying causes of headaches in various ways, and its effectiveness is comparable to that of acetylsalicylic acid or paracetamol. In Germany solutions containing 10% peppermint oil in ethanol are authorized for treating tension-type headaches for individuals aged 6 and above. It has been included in the treatment recommendations and guidelines of professional societies in Germany and there it’s considered a standard therapy for the acute treatment of tension-type headaches.

The Realm of Experience

I could make the argument that the stress and pain in the Realm of Disease were actually part of The Realm of Experience, and plants acting upon pain and stress are a big part of shifting experience in the Realm of Experience, but then I wouldn’t need to explore the interesting chemistry of peppermint! Peppermint oil is predominantly menthol. When the protein TRPM8 is activated in your nerve cells, your body perceives a sensation of cold. This signal is then transmitted to your brain as a cold sensation. Menthol is capable of activating TRPM8, which deceives your nerves into believing that they are experiencing coldness when they are not. When you drink peppermint tea, you transform the experience of temperature, probably one of the reasons it was traditionally used in fever.


Next in this series: Part 7 – The Dance of the Realms



 The botanical illustrations used in this post were created by Annie SewDev.