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

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Foundational Concepts – Salutogenesis and Allostasis

Health is a complex, dynamic, participatory process that humans have been trying to figure out for millennia. One of my primary mentors, Steven Horne, was influenced by and introduced me to the work of Aaron Antonovsky. Antonovsky, a medical sociologist, developed the concept of Salutogenesis. Salutogenesis focuses on understanding and promoting factors that contribute to health and well-being, rather than solely on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Antonovsky said, rather than asking what causes disease, we should ask what promotes health. Steven honed this complex philosophy down to one simple statement – focus on building health, not treating disease.

Building on this foundation concept, allostasis introduces a complementary perspective, emphasizing the body’s ability to achieve stability through change via adaptation. Allostasis explains how our physiological systems adapt to both internal and external stressors, aiming not for a return to baseline (homeostasis) but for an adaptive adjustment of that baseline in pursuit of optimal functionality across varying conditions. This dynamic process of adjustment allows the body to anticipate needs and prepare for future demands, ensuring resilience and promoting well-being in the face of life’s challenges. This adaptive process, when managed within our capacity for resilience, leads to allostatic growth – the strengthening of our biological systems and our ability to handle stressors.

At the heart of allostasis is the principle of predictive regulation, a concept evidenced by neuroscience research indicating that our responses to events are initiated faster than conscious thought can process. This reveals that the brain, rather than reacting in real-time, anticipates events just before they occur based on a sophisticated analysis of past experiences, current conditions, and environmental cues. Such anticipation allows for a more efficient use of the body’s resources, optimizing readiness for potential challenges and reducing the need for stress-induced reactions. Predictive regulation further underlines the dynamic nature of our interactions with the world, demonstrating that incorporating new experiences and sensory information continuously refines and updates our internal models, shaping our perception of reality and enhancing our ability to navigate it effectively.

Allostasis focuses on the importance of embracing challenges and stressors as opportunities for growth, fostering a dynamic equilibrium that supports overall health and well-being. By integrating the salutogenic model with an understanding of allostasis and allostatic growth, we see that health is not merely the absence of disease but a continuous, adaptive process where positive stressors, when encountered with adequate resources, can lead to enhanced resilience and vitality. Thus, focusing on building health involves not only nurturing the factors that promote well-being but also engaging in practices that challenge our systems in a beneficial way, leading to a richer, more nuanced understanding of what it means to be truly healthy. 

The Pillars of Health

Public Health – The Foundation Upon Which We Build

Before we touch on the fundamentals of health building many are already familiar with, we first have to acknowledge that building health isn’t the sole responsibility of the individual. People can do “everything right” for their health, but if they lack access to clean water, or live in a war-torn country (plus many other examples), their personal “everything right” might not be enough to sustain robust health.

Many aspects of health building were once the responsibility of the community. The act of planting and harvesting, the act of exchange and barter – these were community affairs that met basic human needs. As communities grew into societies, and societies created structures for communal responsibility, the responsibilities slowly shifted from communities to government.

According to the World Health Organization, “The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels”

Clean air, safe drinking water, adequate housing, and sufficient food are instrumental in promoting health. Can you be healthy in a war-torn country or drinking water downstream from a coal ash dump?

Historical Perspectives and Public Health

In 1848 physician and scientist Rudolf Virchow was sent to evaluate a Prussian community devastated by typhus, a bacterial disease carried by lice. He found severe malnutrition due to drought unrelieved by governmental support. Virchow’s recommended solution to typhus was not medical treatment to eliminate the cause of the disease or even steps to eradicate the lice, but a radical agenda of social reform that included full employment, higher wages, the creation of agricultural co-operatives, universal education, and the separation of the Catholic Church, which essentially governed Prussia at the time.

“Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing more than medicine on a grand scale”.

Embracing the interconnected concepts of salutogenesis and allostasis, alongside the recognition of social determinants of health, crafts a comprehensive framework that redefines our approach to well-being. This holistic perspective underscores health as a dynamic, adaptive process, shaped not only by individual actions but also by the fabric of society in which we live. As we shift from the foundation to the pillars of health, it’s clear that building resilience, fostering vitality, and nurturing well-being are endeavors that transcend personal effort, calling for a collective commitment to creating environments where every individual has the opportunity to thrive. This paradigm shift, acknowledging the synergy between internal physiological mechanisms and external social conditions, guides us toward a future where health is viewed as a shared responsibility, integral to the fabric of our communities and the essence of our collective human experience.

 

Diet is a complex and often controversial topic. Food is closely tied to culture and emotions, serving both as fuel and a source of pleasure. Within it, we can find essential nutrients, conditionally essential nutrients, anti-nutrients, and phytochemicals. Food, like everything else in The Realm of Health, is complex.

We will deeply explore diet and nutrition in future chapters, but you should know from the beginning that I think there is no one diet for everyone. Our dietary needs change throughout our lives, and vary tremendously based on age, genetics, health challenges, and nutrient status. The diet that helps you recover your health isn’t always the best diet long term. The best diet for the long term might not be enough during periods of increased need. And for some, the best diet might center dietary choices based on religion or other beliefs that have little to do with nutrition and everything to do with spiritual and emotional health. I’m very anti-dogmatic about diets (and in general).

The one general dietary principle I think deserves attention here is that of nutritional hormesis. Nutritional hormesis is the idea that small doses of substances that are harmful or toxic in large doses can have beneficial effects on health and longevity. Examples of such substances include plant compounds called phytochemicals, which can act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, or modulators of gene expression, but can also cause oxidative stress, inflammation, or DNA damage in high doses. The concept of nutritional hormesis is based on the notion that mild stress can trigger adaptive responses in the body that enhance its resilience and resistance to disease.

An example of nutritional hormesis is the consumption of polyphenols, which are plant compounds that have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties, but can also act as pro-oxidants, disruptors of hormone signaling, or inhibitors of enzymes. Polyphenols are found in fruits, vegetables, spices, tea, coffee, wine, and chocolate, among other foods. The dose, source, and bioavailability of polyphenols may affect their health effects, and some people may be more sensitive or responsive to them than others.

Nutritional hormesis is a fascinating and emerging field of research that challenges the conventional wisdom of nutrition and health. It suggests that there is no one optimal diet for everyone, and that some degree of variability and challenge may be beneficial for enhancing our adaptability and resilience. However, it also implies that there is a fine balance between benefit and harm, and that more is not always better. Therefore, nutritional hormesis should be approached with caution, curiosity, and individualization, rather than as a dogma or a panacea.

 

Rest and Restoration – are essential to building health, embodying much more than just a cessation of activity. R&R represents a critical period during which the body undergoes repair, adaptation, and growth. Getting the right amount of sleep and integrating restorative activities into one’s life are not merely beneficial practices but essential components of a holistic health strategy. This necessity stems from the physiological processes that occur during rest periods, where the body capitalizes on the absence of external stressors to engage in deep internal healing and strengthening processes.

A Few of the Roles of Sleep in Adaptive Growth:

  • Connective Tissue Repair and DHEA Production: During sleep, particularly in the deep stages, the body increases the production of DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone), a hormone instrumental in the repair and maintenance of connective tissue. This hormone surge facilitates the healing of muscles and tendons, emphasizing the importance of uninterrupted sleep for physical recovery and resilience.
  • Glymphatic System Activity: Sleep activates the brain’s glymphatic system, a unique process of waste clearance that protects neural tissue from toxic buildups. This system operates predominantly during sleep, highlighting how rest is crucial for maintaining cognitive health and function.
  • Memory Consolidation and Pruning: Sleep plays a pivotal role in cognitive processes, particularly in memory consolidation, where the brain synthesizes and strengthens new memories. Concurrently, synaptic pruning occurs, a process by which the brain eliminates weaker synaptic connections to enhance neural efficiency. These activities underscore the importance of sleep in learning, memory retention, and overall cognitive health.
Integrating Restorative Activities

Beyond sleep, integrating restorative activities into daily life contributes significantly to adaptive growth and well-being. Practices such as gentle yoga, mindful movement, and relaxation techniques can provide mental and emotional relief while supporting physiological recovery and adaptation. These activities help reduce stress levels, lower inflammation, and enhance immune function, creating optimal conditions for the body to repair and grow stronger.

It’s important to note that some individuals may find certain practices, such as mindfulness meditation or deep breathing, triggering rather than restorative. In such cases, mindful or meditative movement can be an effective alternative. This approach involves focusing on the present moment while engaging in gentle physical activity, allowing for a sense of calm and relaxation without the potential discomfort associated with stillness or specific breathing patterns.

Balancing Activity with Rest

The interplay between active challenges and rest underscores a fundamental principle of health: adaptive growth occurs not just through exertion but through the balance of activity with adequate rest. This balance ensures that the body and mind have the necessary time and resources to integrate the benefits of physical and mental activities, solidifying the gains made during periods of exertion.

In recognizing Rest and Restoration as pivotal pillars of health, we acknowledge the profound complexity and necessity of these processes in fostering adaptive growth. They are not passive states but active periods during which the body undertakes crucial reparative and strengthening activities. Thus, prioritizing rest and integrating restorative practices into our routines is as essential as any physical exercise or nutritional regimen, forming the bedrock upon which lasting health and vitality are built.

 

 

Movement – as a foundational health building practice is characterized by regular challenging and restorative movements that are appropriate for an individual’s fitness level and health status.

Movement, when integrated as a foundational practice for health building, embodies the delicate balance between stimulating beneficial adaptive growth through regular, challenging activities and allowing the body to recover and strengthen during periods of rest and gentler movements. This balance is crucial, as it ensures that the body can adapt positively without being overwhelmed by excessive strain, which could lead to injury or burnout.

For movement to effectively contribute to health, it must be tailored to match an individual’s fitness level and current health status. This personalization ensures that the activities are challenging enough to promote physiological adaptations—such as increased muscle strength, improved cardiovascular health, and enhanced flexibility—while still being safely within the individual’s capacity. These adaptations are the body’s natural response to the demands placed on it by physical activity, leading to improved function and resilience.

However, the challenge arises when individuals who lead sedentary lifestyles attempt to incorporate more movement into their lives. For these individuals, even moderate activities can seem daunting, potentially leading to discomfort, injury, or discouragement if not approached with care. The key to overcoming this barrier lies in gradually increasing the intensity and complexity of movements, allowing the body time to adapt and grow stronger in response to these new demands. This gradual approach minimizes the risk of adverse outcomes while maximizing the health benefits of regular physical activity.

Incorporating a mix of challenging and restorative movements is essential for fostering a sustainable and effective movement practice. Challenging movements, such as resistance training, aerobic exercises, or dynamic stretching, drive the adaptive processes that strengthen the body and enhance its capabilities. Conversely, restorative movements, including gentle yoga, tai chi, or leisurely walks, support recovery, reduce stress, and maintain flexibility, ensuring that the body remains balanced and healthy.

In essence, movement, much like the other pillars of health, reveals itself to be far more complex and nuanced than it might initially appear, demanding a careful balance between effort and payoff to fully harness its transformative potential for well-being.

 

Connection – The importance of connection is rooted in our fundamental nature as social beings. Throughout human history, our survival and thriving have depended on our ability to form and maintain social bonds, to cooperate and communicate with others, and to find a sense of belonging and purpose within a larger community.

In the context of health, connection refers to the experience of a deep and meaningful bond between individuals, with nature, and with the divine, which involves a sense of belonging and relatedness. It encompasses feeling seen, heard, understood, and valued by others, and having positive and significant relationships with them. Connection involves a mutual exchange of emotions, thoughts, and experiences that foster a sense of community and shared identity, as well as the potential for personal growth and transformation through meaningful interactions with others.

The concept of connection as a pillar of health is supported by a growing body of research from various fields, including psychology, sociology, and public health. Studies have consistently shown that individuals with strong social connections and a sense of belonging tend to have better physical and mental health outcomes, including lower rates of chronic disease, depression, and cognitive decline. Conversely, social isolation and loneliness have been linked to a wide range of negative health outcomes, including increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and premature death.

One of the key mechanisms through which connection promotes health is by providing a buffer against stress and adversity. When we feel supported and understood by others, we are better able to cope with life’s challenges and maintain a sense of resilience and well-being. Social support can take many forms, from emotional support and companionship to practical assistance and resource sharing. By having a network of people to turn to in times of need, we are less likely to feel overwhelmed or hopeless, and more likely to find meaning and purpose even in difficult circumstances.

Connection also plays a vital role in shaping our sense of identity and self-worth. Through our relationships and interactions with others, we develop a sense of who we are and what we value. We learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and to internalize the positive feedback and affirmation that we receive from our social connections. This process of self-discovery and self-acceptance is crucial for developing a strong and stable sense of self, which is a key component of mental and emotional well-being.

Beyond its impact on individual health, connection is also essential for building and maintaining healthy communities and societies. When people feel a sense of belonging and shared purpose, they are more likely to engage in prosocial behaviors such as volunteering, civic participation, and collective action. These behaviors not only benefit the individuals involved but also contribute to the overall health and resilience of the community as a whole.

In the context of herbal medicine, connection takes on additional significance as a pillar of health. Many traditional systems of herbal medicine emphasize the importance of maintaining a harmonious relationship with the natural world, and of cultivating a sense of reverence and respect for the plants and other beings that share our environment. By developing a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all life, herbal practitioners can support individuals in finding a sense of belonging and purpose that transcends the limitations of modern society.

When an herbalist cultivates a deep understanding of the intricate web of relationships that sustain life on Earth – the delicate balance of ecosystems, the symbiotic partnerships between plants and pollinators, the cycles of growth, decay, and renewal – they can help clients to see themselves as part of this larger tapestry. By sharing their knowledge and passion for the natural world, herbalists can inspire a sense of wonder, curiosity, and reverence in their clients, encouraging them to look beyond the confines of their daily lives and to find meaning and purpose in their connection to the greater web of life.

This sense of interconnectedness can be deeply therapeutic, especially for individuals who feel isolated, disconnected, or adrift in the modern world. By helping clients to recognize their place within the larger community of life, and to develop a relationship of reciprocity and care with the natural world, herbalists can support a sense of belonging, grounding, and purpose that is essential for mental and emotional well-being.

Moreover, by attempting to model a way of being in the world that is attuned to the rhythms and cycles of nature, and that prioritizes balance, harmony, and sustainability, herbalists can offer their clients a valuable counterpoint to the often frantic, disconnected pace of modern life. Through many of the practices of herbal medicine – like the mindful cultivation, harvesting, and preparation of plant medicines – herbalists can invite their clients into a deeper, more embodied relationship with the natural world, one that can be profoundly healing and transformative.

Ultimately, by helping clients to cultivate a sense of connection and belonging within the larger web of life, herbalists can support a sense of purpose and meaning that transcends the limitations of any one culture or society. This ecological perspective on health and healing recognizes that our well-being is intimately tied to the well-being of the Earth and all its inhabitants, and that by nurturing these connections, we can tap into a deep source of resilience, vitality, and meaning

Connection can also be a powerful therapeutic tool in the context of the herbal consultation and the therapeutic relationship. By creating a supportive space for individuals to share their stories, experiences, and challenges, herbal practitioners can help to foster a sense of connection and validation that can be deeply healing in itself. Through the process of exploring the individual’s unique constitution, life history, and social context, the practitioner can develop a personalized approach to care that honors the whole person and their innate capacity for healing.

Moreover, the act of preparing and taking herbal remedies can itself be a profound source of connection and meaning. By engaging with the sensory qualities of the herbs – their tastes, smells, and textures – individuals can cultivate a direct and embodied relationship with the plants and the natural world. This sensory engagement can be deeply grounding and nourishing, helping to anchor individuals in the present moment and to find a sense of connectedness and wholeness that can be elusive in the modern world.

Ultimately, the power of connection as a pillar of health lies in its ability to transform the way we understand and experience ourselves and the world around us. By recognizing the deep interconnectedness of all beings, and by cultivating meaningful relationships and a sense of belonging, we can tap into a source of healing and resilience that goes beyond the limitations of the biomedical model. As herbal practitioners, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to support individuals in forging these connections – with themselves, with others, with nature, and with the greater web of life – as an essential foundation for health and well-being.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that connection, like all aspects of health, is shaped by the larger sociocultural and political contexts in which we live. Factors such as poverty, discrimination, and social marginalization can create significant barriers to forming and maintaining healthy connections, and can contribute to feelings of isolation and alienation. As herbal practitioners working within the Five Realms model, we must be attuned to these broader social determinants of health, and work to address them through a combination of individual support, community engagement, and political advocacy.

By embracing the importance of connection we recognize that health is not just the absence of disease, rather, it’s characterized by the presence of meaningful, supportive relationships and a deep sense of belonging and purpose.

Coherence – The Backbone of Resilience

 

Coherence, also known as Sense of Coherence (SOC) refers to the extent to which individuals perceive their environment as comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful – three key components that contribute to a person’s overall ability to cope with stress and maintain health.

The concept of Sense of Coherence was introduced by medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky in the 1970s as part of his broader theory of salutogenesis, which focuses on the factors that promote health and well-being rather than those that cause disease. Antonovsky developed the concept of SOC through his research on how some people were able to maintain good health despite experiencing significant stress and adversity.

According to Antonovsky, Sense of Coherence has three main components:

  1. Comprehensibility: The extent to which individuals perceive the stimuli they encounter as making cognitive sense, as being ordered, consistent, structured, and clear, rather than chaotic, disordered, random, accidental, or inexplicable.
  2. Manageability: The degree to which individuals perceive that they have the resources at their disposal to meet the demands posed by these stimuli – that challenges are bearable, can be coped with, and are within their control.
  3. Meaningfulness: The extent to which individuals feel that life makes sense emotionally, that the demands are challenges worthy of investment and engagement, and that life has purpose and meaning.

Individuals with a strong SOC tend to view life as understandable, manageable, and meaningful, and are better able to mobilize cognitive, affective, and instrumental resources to cope effectively with stress and maintain health. Conversely, those with a weak SOC are more likely to perceive life as unpredictable, uncontrollable, and burdensome, and may struggle to cope with the challenges they face.

Research has consistently shown that a strong Sense of Coherence is associated with better health outcomes across a wide range of domains, including physical, mental, and social well-being. People with high SOC tend to have lower rates of chronic disease, depression, and anxiety, and are more likely to engage in health-promoting behaviors such as exercise, healthy eating, and stress management.

One of the key mechanisms through which SOC promotes health is by shaping the way individuals appraise and respond to stress. When faced with a stressor, people with a strong SOC are more likely to view it as a meaningful challenge rather than an insurmountable threat, and to have confidence in their ability to manage and cope with it. This adaptive stress response helps to mitigate the negative impact of stress on physical and mental health, and promotes resilience in the face of adversity.

SOC also influences health by shaping individuals’ health-related behaviors and lifestyle choices. People with a strong SOC are more likely to engage in proactive self-care, to seek out health-promoting environments and relationships, and to make choices that support their long-term well-being. They may be more motivated to learn about and engage with health-promoting practices, and to take an active role in managing their own health.

In the context of herbal medicine, promoting and supporting the development of a strong Sense of Coherence is a key aspect of health promotion and disease prevention. Herbal practitioners can help individuals cultivate comprehensibility by providing clear, accessible information about health and healing, and by helping them make sense of their own health experiences within a holistic framework. They can support manageability by empowering individuals with knowledge, skills, and resources for self-care, and by working collaboratively to develop personalized treatment plans that are feasible and sustainable. And they can foster meaningfulness by exploring the individual’s values, goals, and sense of purpose, and by helping them find ways to align their health practices with their broader life narrative.

The process of engaging with herbal medicine itself can also contribute to a stronger Sense of Coherence. The act of taking responsibility for one’s own health, of learning about and preparing herbal remedies, and of developing a relationship with the plants and the natural world can all help to foster a sense of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness. By engaging in these practices mindfully and with intention, individuals can cultivate a greater sense of agency and empowerment in relation to their health, and develop a more resilient and adaptive stance towards life’s challenges.

It is important to recognize, however, that the development of a strong Sense of Coherence is not solely an individual responsibility, but is also shaped by the larger sociocultural and political contexts in which we live. Factors such as access to education, healthcare, and social support; exposure to discrimination and marginalization; and experiences of trauma and adversity can all impact an individual’s ability to develop and maintain a strong SOC. As herbal practitioners working within the Five Realms model, we must be attuned to these broader determinants of health, and work to address them through advocacy, community engagement, and a commitment to social justice.

Ultimately, by recognizing Sense of Coherence as a fundamental pillar of health within the Realm of Health, the Five Realms model offers a powerful framework for promoting resilience, empowerment, and well-being in the face of life’s challenges. By supporting individuals in developing a strong SOC through holistic, person-centered herbal care, and by working to create social and political contexts that foster comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness, we can help to build a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and flourish, in all realms of their being.

In this way, Sense of Coherence serves as the backbone of mental resilience – the inner resource that allows us to weather the storms of life with grace, courage, and a sense of purpose. As herbal practitioners, we have the privilege and the responsibility of nurturing this invaluable resource, and of supporting our clients on their journey towards greater health, wholeness, and vitality.

The Realm of Health In Action

Enacting a Realm of Health approach, grounded in salutogenesis and complemented by the principles of allostasis, involves a strategic, proactive engagement with health that emphasizes the enhancement of resources, identification and bridging of resource gaps, and recognizing opportunities for allostatic growth.

To begin, a comprehensive assessment is essential to identify the individual’s current health resources, including physical, psychological, social, and environmental factors contributing to their overall health. A thorough assessment utilizes a variety of tools, including questionnaires and interviews to understand the individual’s health landscape. Identifying resource gaps is a crucial part of this process, pinpointing areas where support or capabilities are lacking, whether in knowledge, physical health, social support, or access to healthcare

Following the comprehensive assessment, the next phase in enacting a co-created Health Building approach focuses on developing a personalized plan that addresses the identified gaps while leveraging existing strengths. This plan is holistic, encompassing dietary, lifestyle, emotional, and social interventions tailored to the individual’s unique needs. A key aspect of this phase is enhancing internal resources, such as resilience, health knowledge, and stress management skills, alongside bolstering external supports through community connections, healthcare access, and social networks. Encouragement of health-enhancing behaviors forms the foundation of this plan, advocating for balanced nutrition, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, and engagement in meaningful activities.

Building upon the foundation laid in the assessment and resource building phases of the Health Building approach, identifying paths of allostatic growth involves embracing and introducing adaptive stressors in a controlled and mindful manner, aimed at stimulating positive adaptation without overwhelming the individual’s capacity for resilience. This entails gradually incorporating manageable challenges that are designed to strengthen physiological and psychological systems, such as incremental increases in physical activity, engaging in new and stimulating experiences, or adopting new responsibilities that foster growth and learning. Continuous monitoring ensures that these challenges promote allostatic growth—enhancing the body’s ability to adapt to stress—while avoiding allostatic overload, which could lead to maladaptation and stress-related pathologies (more on this in the next chapter).

Additionally, fostering mindfulness and reflective practices enables individuals to recognize and appreciate their growth, reinforcing their sense of coherence and resilience. This stage is crucial for dynamically adjusting the balance between stressor and allostatic growth.

Herbal Medicine In Health Building

In the realm of health, herbal medicine plays a crucial role in supporting and promoting overall well-being. Traditional systems of medicine have long recognized the importance of health building, and the use of medicinal herbs is often central to these practices. Rather than solely focusing on treating disease, herbal medicine takes a proactive approach, using plants to nourish and strengthen the body, mind, and spirit.

One of the fundamental ways in which herbs contribute to health building is through their nutritional value. Many medicinal plants are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that form the building blocks of health. By incorporating these herbs into the diet, either as food or as supplements, individuals can ensure they are getting the necessary nutrients to support optimal physiological function. This is particularly important in cases where illness or other factors may have led to nutritional deficiencies.

Sleep is another critical aspect of health building, and herbs can be powerful allies in promoting restful, restorative sleep. Many plants, such as passionflower and chamomile have sedative and anxiolytic properties that can help calm the mind and relax the body, making it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. By supporting healthy sleep patterns, these herbs enable the body to carry out the vital processes of repair and regeneration that occur during sleep.

Energy and vitality are also key components of health, and gentle stimulants like coffee, ginseng, rhodiola, and eleuthero are known for their ability to increase energy, stamina, and resilience in the face of stress. By improving mood and reducing the perception of effort and fatigue, these herbs can make it easier for individuals to engage with other people and in physical activity and exercise, which are crucial for building and maintaining health.

In times of illness, when appetite and digestive function may be compromised, certain herbs can be used to stimulate the desire to eat and to ease digestive discomfort. Bitter herbs like gentian and dandelion can stimulate the secretion of digestive juices, enhancing appetite and potentially aiding in the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. Aromatic herbs like ginger and peppermint can help to alleviate nausea and settle the stomach, making it easier to tolerate food and medications.

Even in the context of modern pharmaceutical treatments, herbal medicine can play a supportive role in health building. For example, when dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy, herbs like ginger and marshmallow can help to reduce nausea and soothe the digestive tract, enabling patients to maintain their nutritional status and strength.

Herbal medicine also recognizes the importance of the body’s own healing processes, and many herbs are used to support and enhance these natural mechanisms. For instance, after strenuous exercise, when the body is undergoing the process of adaptation and growth (allostatic growth), herbs like turmeric and boswellia can help to manage inflammation and soreness, facilitating recovery and reducing discomfort.

The influence of herbal medicine on health building extends beyond the physical realm, also encompassing emotional and spiritual well-being. Many herbs, such as St. John’s Wort and lemon balm, are known for their mood-uplifting and stress-reducing properties. By helping to manage stress and promote positive emotions, these herbs can foster a greater sense of resilience and adaptability. This, in turn, can encourage individuals to seek out social connections, engage with nature, and pursue activities that bring a sense of purpose and meaning to their lives.

Herbal medicines can build health beyond the mere physiological benefits of plants, through rituals and ceremonies, often integral to their use across the world. These practices, deeply embedded in the traditions of diverse communities, offer more than just physical healing—they provide a profound sense of connection, meaning, and spiritual well-being. From the ceremonial tea practices in Japan to the sacred use of sage in some indigenous North American traditions, these rituals enhance the healing process by harmonizing the mind, body, and spirit.

It’s crucial, however, to approach these traditions with the utmost respect and sensitivity. Engaging with practices from cultures outside our own requires a mindful acknowledgment of their origins, significance, and the potential for cultural appropriation. As herbalists, we must be aware of the historical and ongoing power dynamics that have led to the suppression and exploitation of many traditional healing systems, particularly those of Indigenous and marginalized communities.

For those of us without direct lineage to specific herbal traditions, it’s possible to engage in the creation of personal rituals that honor the spirit of these practices without appropriating or diluting their cultural significance. This involves a commitment to ongoing learning, self-reflection, and humility. It means seeking out respectful ways to learn from and support the communities who have stewarded these traditions, rather than simply extracting their knowledge for our own benefit.

One way to cultivate a meaningful personal connection to herbal medicine is through developing a deep relationship with the plants themselves. By growing, harvesting, and preparing our own medicines, we can foster a sense of intimacy and reverence for the healing power of plants. This hands-on engagement can be a form of ritual in itself, a mindful practice that connects us to the cycles of nature and the wisdom of the plant world.

Another approach is to create rituals around the act of taking herbal medicines, infusing the process with intention and presence. This might involve setting aside dedicated time and space for preparing and consuming herbal remedies, engaging in meditative or mindfulness practices alongside their use, or expressing gratitude for the plants and the people who have shared their knowledge with us.

Ultimately, the goal is to cultivate a personal relationship with herbal medicine that feels authentic, respectful, and nourishing. By engaging thoughtfully with the cultural dimensions of herbal traditions, while also listening to our own intuitive wisdom, we can develop a holistic approach to health building that honors both the ancient roots and the evolving possibilities of plant medicine.

As we navigate this complex terrain, it’s important to remain open to ongoing learning and dialogue. By listening to the voices and experiences of those who have been historically marginalized in the field of herbal medicine, we can work towards a more equitable and inclusive vision of health and healing. This requires a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, to challenge our own assumptions and biases, and to use our privilege and platform to amplify the voices of others.

In doing so, we not only enrich our own understanding and practice of herbal medicine but also contribute to a larger shift towards a more just and sustainable model of healthcare. One that recognizes the inherent value and wisdom of diverse cultural traditions, that respects the autonomy and agency of individuals and communities, and that works in harmony with the natural world.

By embracing this holistic, culturally sensitive approach to herbal medicine, we can tap into the profound potential of plant allies to support health building in all its dimensions – physical, emotional, spiritual, and social. We can cultivate a sense of connection and meaning that transcends the purely physiological, and that nourishes the innate resilience and vitality of the human spirit. And in doing so, we can contribute to a world where the gifts of herbal medicine are accessible, respected, and celebrated by all.

Ultimately, the use of herbs as health building agents has the potential to create a ripple effect across all five realms of health and illness. By nourishing the body, supporting the mind, and nurturing the spirit, herbal medicine lays the foundation for resilience, vitality, and overall well-being. It empowers individuals to take an active role in their own health, to cultivate the resources and capacities that enable them to thrive in the face of life’s challenges.

As we continue to explore the role of herbal medicine in health building, it’s important to recognize that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The beauty of herbal medicine lies in its flexibility, its ability to be tailored to the unique needs and constitution of each individual. By working with the wisdom of traditional healing systems, while also integrating modern scientific understanding, herbalists can craft personalized strategies for health promotion that honor the complexity and diversity of human experience.

In this way, herbal medicine offers a path to health that is both ancient and timely, rooted in the traditions of the past yet responsive to the challenges of the present. By embracing the power of plants to nourish, strengthen, and heal, we open ourselves to a world of possibilities for cultivating resilience, vitality, and wholeness in all realms of our being.

Realm of Health Conclusion

The pillars of diet, rest and restoration, movement, connection, and coherence are not merely components of a healthy lifestyle but are foundational elements of a therapeutic strategy that respects the complexity of human well-being. The pillars of health represent a proactive and holistic approach to health that recognizes the interconnectedness of physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. By focusing on nourishing the body, mind, and spirit through optimal nutrition, rest, movement, social connection, and a sense of meaning and coherence, the pillars of health aim to build resilience, vitality, and overall well-being, rather than simply addressing symptoms or pathologies.

The pillar of diet, for example, goes beyond the intake of nutrients to encompass the social, cultural, and emotional dimensions of eating. A therapeutic approach to diet recognizes the importance of not only what we eat, but how, when, where, and with whom we eat, and seeks to promote a healthy relationship with food that nourishes both the body and the soul. This may involve not only providing guidance on optimal nutrition but also addressing issues such as disordered eating, food insecurity, and cultural food practices.

Similarly, the pillar of rest and restoration recognizes the vital importance of sleep, relaxation, and self-care in promoting health and preventing disease. A therapeutic approach to rest and restoration may involve not only educating individuals about sleep hygiene and stress management techniques but also addressing the social and environmental factors that can impede restful sleep, such as noise pollution, shift work, or caregiving responsibilities.

The pillar of movement emphasizes the importance of regular physical activity not just for weight management or cardiovascular health but for overall physical, mental, and emotional well-being. A therapeutic approach to movement may involve not only recommending exercise regimens but also addressing barriers to physical activity, such as lack of access to safe and affordable exercise facilities, limited mobility, or body image concerns.

The pillar of connection highlights the crucial role of social relationships and a sense of belonging in promoting health and well-being. A therapeutic approach to connection may involve not only encouraging individuals to cultivate supportive social networks but also addressing the social determinants of health, such as poverty, discrimination, and social isolation, that can erode social connectedness and contribute to health disparities.

Finally, the pillar of coherence emphasizes the importance of a sense of meaning, purpose, and comprehensibility in life for overall health and well-being. A therapeutic approach to coherence may involve not only helping individuals cultivate a strong sense of coherence through practices such as mindfulness, gratitude, and value-based living but also addressing the existential challenges and crises that can threaten one’s sense of meaning and purpose, such as illness, loss, or trauma.

Importantly, the pillars of health are not independent or isolated factors but are deeply interconnected and mutually reinforcing. For example, a nutritious diet can promote better sleep and physical activity, while regular movement can enhance mood and social connectedness. A strong sense of coherence can provide the motivation and resilience needed to maintain healthy lifestyle practices, while supportive social connections can buffer against the negative impacts of stress and adversity.

Moreover, the pillars of health do not operate in a vacuum but are profoundly shaped by the larger social, cultural, and political contexts in which individuals live. Factors such as access to healthy food, safe housing, quality education, and healthcare; exposure to environmental toxins and stressors; and experiences of discrimination and marginalization can all impact an individual’s ability to cultivate and maintain the pillars of health. This is where the intersection between the pillars of health and public health becomes crucial.

Public health, as a field, is concerned with promoting and protecting the health of populations through organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals. It encompasses a wide range of activities, from disease surveillance and prevention to health education and policy advocacy, aimed at creating the conditions in which people can be healthy.

In the context of the Five Realms model, public health can be seen as the foundation upon which the pillars of health are built. Without access to clean air and water, safe and affordable housing, quality education and healthcare, and other basic necessities, individuals may struggle to maintain optimal nutrition, rest, movement, social connection, and coherence. Conversely, public health efforts to address these social determinants of health can create the conditions that enable individuals and communities to thrive and flourish.

For example, public health initiatives to improve access to fresh, affordable produce in underserved communities can support the pillar of diet by making it easier for individuals to make healthy food choices. Policies to promote safe and walkable neighborhoods can support the pillar of movement by providing opportunities for regular physical activity. Efforts to combat social isolation and discrimination can support the pillar of connection by fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion.

At the same time, the pillars of health can also inform and strengthen public health efforts by providing a comprehensive framework for understanding and promoting well-being at the individual and community level. By recognizing the interconnectedness of physical, mental, social, and spiritual health, and by emphasizing the importance of building resilience and vitality through proactive self-care and lifestyle practices, the pillars of health can help to guide public health interventions and policies towards a more holistic and upstream approach to health promotion and disease prevention.

Ultimately, the interplay between the pillars of health and public health underscores the necessity of a holistic approach to health that transcends the limitations of conventional disease-focused models. By recognizing the complexity of human well-being and the multiple determinants of health, and by working to create the conditions that enable individuals and communities to cultivate the pillars of health, we can promote a more comprehensive and equitable vision of health for all.

As herbal practitioners working within the Five Realms model, we have a unique role to play in this holistic approach to health. By incorporating the pillars of health into our therapeutic strategies, and by working to address the social and environmental factors that impact our clients’ well-being, we can support individuals and communities in achieving optimal health and vitality. At the same time, by advocating for public health policies and initiatives that promote health equity and social justice, we can contribute to the creation of a world in which everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

As we move from the realm of health into the Realm of Maladaptations, we shift our focus from the factors that promote well-being to the ways in which the body’s adaptive processes can go awry. While allostasis – the body’s ability to achieve stability through change – is a cornerstone of health, this process of adaptation can be pushed beyond its limits by chronic or overwhelming stressors. In the realm of maladaptations, we explore how these excessive demands can lead to allostatic overload, setting the stage for the development of disease.

 

Next in this series: Part 3 – The Realm of Maladaptations

 

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