This is one of those “by request” posts – since the whole topic of energetics has been tossed around so much lately in the natural health world, and there is a bit of popular confusion, I hope to be able to help sort some of it out. Plus, it’s a favorite topic of mine, much like anything herbal. I’m always happy to talk plant medicine!
To start off, contrary to what you may have heard, energetics are NOT, by definition, solely related to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine, which employs a sophisticated and very specific system).
As an herbalist working in the Western Tradition, energetics are part of my everyday toolkit; I couldn’t imagine working without understanding how they operate in the body and in the plants. Understanding the concept of energetics is essential, alongside the foundational knowledge; actions, biochemistry, preparation and dosing, formulation and botany. (Lest that litany sound intimidating – learning is a lifetime process for an herbalist. You don’t have to master it all in 30 days, or even, as one of my own teachers likes to say, in 30 years) I do think it’s important to grasp the core concepts of energetics right away, not learn “everything else” and then add them in, as I did, and as many in the Western system (my generation, anyway) have done. While many think of the term itself as kind of “woo”, working with energetics is actually very straightforward (at least initially). The concept is built right into TCM and Ayurveda, immediately discernable; it takes a little more digging to find it in Traditional Western Herbalism, but it is not only there, it’s an integral part of how we work.
Here is a description of the core idea behind energetics, from New Mexico herbalist Kiva Rose.
“Herbal energetics are the understanding and utilization of observable
(through taste, touch, sight, smell and the other senses) properties in
plants, usually as pertaining to their use in healing. It also includes the
recognition and modification of patterns of harmony and disharmony in
the human body.”
I really like this; for those new to the concept, it is succinct and accessible. If you decide to go deeper into the study of an herbal tradition, of course it gets more complex. But, the foundation starts with this. Plants possess many actions that are not immediately observable – but energetics are. And we learn about these from reading, sure, but most importantly through direct contact with the plant. A description of the clinical herbalist’s work is to identify “patterns of harmony or disharmony” in the body, and match herbs energetically. So, a simple example might be, you have cold extremities, you make use of a warming herb like ginger, to help bring heat into the cold areas. You can describe this process using scientific terms, or using the herb’s clinical actions. But on a level of what you feel right away, ginger is warming (very). It will help warm extremities but also heat up the GI tract. So while we are busy learning all the actions and compounds and applications of ginger, a common and popular herb, we want to directly experience it in our own bodies.
That’s the core meaning of energetics…observable properties that pertain to healing. All systems work with patterns that fall into specific categories; temperature (assessment of where the herb falls on the hot/cold spectrum) moisture (herbs can be drying – neutral- moistening) and flow (this somewhat vague term refers to whether a given herb tends to stimulate or relax). It’s important to note that this isn’t a simple dualistic system, there are all kinds of gradations, but let’s start with just the assessment of temperature, moisture and flow, and bear in mind that all of these are actions we can experience directly.
So, how do various herbal traditions utilize/explain/understand energetics? In a hundred words or less? Obviously much more than a blog entry can cover, but a brief outline might be useful.
1) Traditional Chinese Medicine – cornerstones of this system include qi (chi), yin and yang, the five elements, the three humors, the five tastes, organ networks (meridians) and pernicious influences (called “evils” in TCM). Training starts with five years pure study and follows up with another 5-7 years in apprenticeship. Simply using herbs from the Chinese Materia Medica and referring vaguely to warming/cooling foods does not make one a TCM practitioner in any way, shape or form.
2) Ayurveda – you may have heard the terms “doshas” and you may be aware of the tridosha system, from the ancient system based in India we know as Ayurveda. A brief introduction to the principles: “Ayurveda describes the human being as being composed of five elements, three doshas (biological energies), seven dhatus (tissues), and numerous srotas (channels). The five elements are ether, air, fire, water, and earth. These five elements, which also make up all of Nature, are not meant to be taken literally. They are ideas described as elements. They are the ideas of space, motion, heat, flow, and solidity respectively. They have the qualities as noted above. The three doshas, the biological forces that govern the functions of the body, are composed of these elements.” (Marc Halpern, founder of the California College of Ayurveda) As with TCM, mastery (or even fluency) in Ayurveda takes years of training and dedication.
3) Western Traditional Herbalism – originated and grew from the Greek and Roman traditions(Galen, Dioscorides) and developed throughout Europe (think: Culpeper, Gerard, Hildegard von Bingen and Mrs. Grieves) before spreading to North America, and incorporating a wide range of native and modern influences. The WHT bases its system of energetics on the Greek humoral system, but with several modern variations. I’ll go into this more specifically in the next entry on understanding Western Herbalism.
One of the most important books on Western Herbalism, I’ll reference many more in the next article on this top.
So where does this leave the average person, maybe just interested in incorporating some awareness of energetics into their own and their animal friends’ diets and herbal support? I’d suggest, start simply by noticing the reaction you have in your own body, to heat (think, ginger, cayenne, turmeric, cinnamon and fennel – all warming but in varying degrees) think about and notice foods that cool you down (watermelon, cucumber) and herbs with cooling action include common and safe choices such as burdock and dandelion root. An obvious example of the contrast between stimulating and relaxing would be coffee on the one hand, and chamomile tea on the other. Bear in mind, too, that extremes are always easier to identify than moderate impressions. Tannic herbs wil feel very drying on the tongue right away, but a nervine formula that has been composed of all drying herbs, when taken over time can have some unwanted, drying effects in the body. Without overloading you right away, my initial suggestion is to think about the foods and herbs you use in terms of temperature, moisture and flow, and you will be making an important start towards understanding how energetics work. It may just pique your interest enough to pick up some studies – it’s a fascinating and foundational aspect of herbalism.
Let me leave for now with an example of how it can get very confusing to work with a multiple approaches overlapping and no real focus on a system.
Lately I see an awful lot of “a little TCM, a smattering of Ayurveda, some allopathy and who knows, maybe even some Western insights” all in one article or protocol. More often than not, it isn’t a viable approach, especially for those not deeply knowledgeable about all of the above. Let me try and make this a bit more clear with a case study/ example.
Shawna and Sharon are just one of many cases I’ve worked with, where the first part of my job was to disentangle all kinds of ideas thrown into a pot without any real idea what the recipe was supposed to be. And it’s not that any single system is preferable to others, in case anyone misses my point. It’s the coherent and experienced efforts of one practitioner (or in many cases, two working collaboratively, as I often do with the vet) that brings about the greatest result.
Sharon and Shawna
Shawna is a 7 year old Shih tzu whose mother Sharon absolutely dotes on her. Shawna had a good start in life, with a loving home, but a commercial food that is not what we consider one of the better options, and yearly vaccinations for everything..she did well until she hit her third birthday and things began to change. About four years ago, Shawna started to exhibit the classic symptoms we associate with food intolerance/allergy – licking her paws obsessively, a bright red rash on the underside and yeasty, inflamed ears. A trip to the conventional vet yielded a diagnosis of atopy and Sharon brought her little girl home with Apoquel and antibiotics. The vet also suggested a prescription diet, and all of this seemed to help Shawna’s symptoms a lot. Then one day, on the internet, Sharon read that Apoquel is not without drawbacks and that the costly prescription food was notorious for it’s mediocre ingredients. She had noticed Shawna getting a dull coat and a little pudgy, she seemed to have lost her lustre. Sharon consulted with an holistic vet, and was incredibly optimistic and excited about the new world that had opened up to her. The vet ordered a popular saliva test to identify food intolerances, took Shawna off the meds, and sent her home with some vague instructions about feeding a “cooling diet”. Food was to be raw, varied and there was a list of foods to avoid (warming). There was also a herbal formula that was geared to help restore balance to the “whole dog”. Sharon couldn’t wait to try it all and to connect with others online, and she found a huge world of raw feeders and very vocal proponents of natural health. It was a great time for her, but then, the saliva tests came back in right about the time that Shawna’s symptoms started to come back, and the bubble began to burst.
As it turned out, all the “cooling foods” that Shawna had been eating, were also very high on the scale of intolerance. After she went through the holistic vet’s advice and the scan results, she was left with only a couple of difficult to access and expensive proteins. There was no explicit advice about how to add nutrients such as calcium, zinc, all the vitamins and minerals a home prepared diet must supply. The couple of remaining proteins that were ok on the test, and not considered warming, were not resolving the issues and now Shawna was having intermittent diarrhea, on the new, very haphazard diet. Sharon started adding anything she could find that was supposed to reduce inflammation: fish oils, turmeric (but wait, that’s warming) chia seeds, coconut oil, and the list goes on.One list informed her that probiotics were needed, but that the pills were “toxic” and that a spicy fermented food (kimchi) was the better choice. That experiment almost landed Shawna in the emergency clinic. Sharon trusted the “holistic ” people more than her regular vet and had no understanding at all about energetics, so it hadn’t occurred to her that the advice she was getting online was not from educated and experienced sources. By the time this case came to me there was no question that on top of her (fairly straightforward) sensitivities, she was now suffering from serious malnutrition along with a number of secondary problems, related to the restrictions and additions that had been tried. And all of this could have been avoided if Sharon had worked with a team that collaborated, not a variety of conflicting opinions and ideas.
When this case arrived in my Inbox, here is what I did I did: I formulated a truly balanced recipe using the foods that the scan identified as ok for Shawna. Yes, they are considered by some to be warming foods, but the herbal protocol I developed is cooling and moistening, and the gut protocol I used helped build a more robust digestive system, so eventually we were able to re-introduce many other foods and expand Shawna’s recipes. She’s 7 now, and doing fabulously. In this case – as in all cases – there were multiple factors to consider, and compromises to be made. Working within a more focused system has made a huge difference.
Takeaway message: All herbal traditions involve indepth study and practise; as is often said, “it is necessary to understand the nature of the patient, the nature of the disease, and the nature of the remedy.” My advice to the beginner; find a tradition you are drawn to and work at it! Many practitioners do use more than one system in their work, but that means understanding one before moving to the next. Take your time, love the process, and the rewards are many.