GENERAL HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
Holistic medicine comes from the idea that health and well-being are nurtured from many places. Genetic disposition, spiritual practices, relationships, temperament, diet, exercise, all play their role in supporting life. When you begin to feel more energy after a spell of lassitude, is it the vitamin supplements, the new mattress, or the daily walk around the park with a friend? It's all of those together, as well as the cellphone sabbath, the discovery of a new book of poetry, the monthly date night that rekindles a relationship. It begins with the intention to nurture one's own mysterious, particular evolution in every way possible.
Here's the toolkit:
Restful sleep. At least 6 hours at night and, if you can't get that, a half-hour nap in the middle of the day if possible. More than 8 hours, unless you are healing from an illness or injury, slows the metabolism and can actually make you more tired. Sleep challenges will be addressed later.
Move your body. Any way and whenever you can. Take the stairs, clean your own house, get off the subway a stop early or park far from the grocery store. When you wake up in the morning, stretch your body long long long in bed and again when you stand up. If you sit for work, do some chair stretches or walk to the water cooler every hour or two. Your appetite for movement will awaken in this way and eventually you will take the longer walk, the yoga class, the pick up softball game.
Breathe. Whether or not you practice meditation, pay attention to how you breathe during the course of the day. Does your breath become more rapid and shallow when you are aggravated, nervous, harried? Does it become full and slow down when you rest? Can you feel the subtle responses throughout your entire body when you breathe mindfully? Is your posture helping or hindering your breath?
Explore meditation. Experiment with two or three established techniques - vipassana (breath awareness), mantra (repetition of sanskrit sounds or prayers), and guided visualization are a few of the techniques around and many of them can be learned free of charge from the internet. Choose the technique that speaks to you and practice for one month each day.
Start with 5 minutes a day, sitting comfortably in a pleasant place, cellphone, tv, computer off. Settle into the experience of present and receptive in your own company, curious about the inner landscape, the intelligence, the witness, the heart centered awareness beyond the chatter of the mind.
Clean foods. Don't go to the grocery store when you're starving. Have a bag of trail mix in your backpack or purse. Eat whole foods and enjoy the preparing, even if you only have time to cut up some vegetables to eat with hummus. Try your hand at growing vegetables or herbs (much easier!). Notice how different they taste! Go to a farmer's market at least once a month and marvel at the beauty, the variety; find out what's in season. Always have fresh fruits and vegetables in your fridge. And plain yogurt or kefir. Try eliminating one culprit food for 10 days and see how you feel: sugar or dairy or gluten or alcohol or meat. If you can, try adding in some of the new seeds available; hemp seeds, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, quinoa. Learn to make pickles or sauerkraut, kambucha or kefir. And see how you feel!
Most importantly, make food a celebration of nourishment. Put on some good music when you prepare dinner, eat your main meal in good company, TV off, whisper or sing a word of gratitude or two. Taste, smell, chew, set the table, wash the dishes mindfully. Enjoying this food, here, now.
Mind over matter. Listen to your thoughts. Write them down. What is the story you are telling about your life, from one moment to the next? Is it a story that pleases you or weighs you down? If you find yourself perfecting a list of worries or grievances, see if you can make one of gratitude and delight. Surround yourself as much as possible with people who see the glass as half-full and make sure you seize opportunities for laughter, celebration, empathy. And remember that change takes time...
Worship nature. Notice the bare winter branches against the morning sky, the weeds growing courageously in the sidewalk cracks, the moon's reflection in the puddle. The starlings bathing and chattering in the sand, your cat purring. Allow the beauty of the world to fill you up.
Contemplate the mystery. Of life, of you, of your children, of the weather, of your good fortune (or poor luck, depending on the day!). See if you can embrace each moment, each experience, as a gift, a guide, an invitation. Who knows how all of the pieces fit together in the end. I like the metaphor of a tapestry, woven with threads of many colors which, when examined individually, are impossible to recognize as elements of a larger expression.
Please note that with any of the following remedies, as with any exercise, the whole health of the person should be taken into consideration. If you suffer from any chronic conditions, especially allergies, are pregnant or breastfeeding, take medications, or have misgivings about any of the remedies, it is advisable to consult with your physician before trying them. Thank you.
Otherwise known as nasal washing or cleansing, this is the ayurvedic practice of cleansing the nasal passages with saline water. You can purchase a neti pot in health food stores or online, or you can use a plastic sandwich bag. Add the tiniest pinch of sea salt to warmed, filtered water and stir until dissolved. Bend over a sink and turn your head to one side as if you were laying your cheek on a table. Put the spigot of the pot (or one corner of the baggie, its corner snipped off and held closed) in the upper nostril. If you are tilting your head to the right, you are inserting the spigot into the left nostril. The opening of the pot or baggie should form a seal with the contours of the nostril. The water will travel through the sinuses and empty out the lower nostril. You may feel some discomfort initially as sinuses are cleared of debris and mucous. Repeat on the other side. If you are prone to allergies or feel a cold coming on, do it at night before going to bed.
This is another ayurvedic practice, said to draw bacteria from the teeth and gums as well as toxins from the blood. Best performed upon waking in the morning, once a day. Take a tablespoon of coconut or safflower oil and swish it around in the closed mouth for 5 to 10 minutes. Spit into the trash so as not to clog the sink. Teeth will whiten and tooth decay and gum disease will be averted. For extra antibacterial power, add a drop of thieves oil (see below).
For a cold or stuffy nose. Fill a large stockpot with 3 inches/10 cm of water, bring to a boil. Add 4 spoons or teabags of chamomile. Cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Place on a table and sit on a chair directly in front. Uncover, bend face over steaming pot, being careful not to come too close! Cover the head and pot with a large towel, making a tent. Inhale the steam for at least 10 minutes or until no steam remains.
Arnica montana. Also very effective for bruises or sprains, it aids in circulation and healing. I like the Boiron gel, as you don't have to rub it in. Apply as soon as you can after the injury, and repeat every 4 hours for the first day. Don't use it on broken skin as it will sting. The oral pellets are sublingual - you place 3-4 under the tongue and let dissolve, every 4 hours or so. Empty stomach and no mint or alcohol prior to use. These come in different dosages. 30c is generally what I use for muscle soreness or recovery from birth or from an operation, but consultation with a certified homeopath is recommended as they will do a complete evaluation.
sprains and twists
Of course you want to see a doctor, perhaps a specialist, to determine that nothing is fractured or torn requiring medical intervention. But in the meantime you can separate an egg and apply the white to the injured area, after you've iced and elevated. Make sure you have an old towel underneath to catch any drips. Allow the egg white to dry on the skin, then apply another coat. Repeat until all of the egg white is used up. Put on an old sock or pyjama or glove and sleep with the egg white overnight. Wash with soap and rinse well in the morning. This is a slimy, gross enterprise but really works to speed up the healing. It comes from my mother, who is German and got it from her mother, who got it from her mother. You get the idea. Put on a good movie and baste that ankle!
For a bad, phlegmy cold: ginger and tumeric. Fresh ginger if you have it, about a thumb-sized piece, sliced thin and dumped in boiling water with a tablespoon of tumeric. Turn off, cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Add honey to taste and drink at least 3 cups during the day. Ginger has anti-mucosal and tumeric anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties.
For indegestion: peppermint and fennel seed. Peppermint is more for acid reflux or upset stomach and fennel seed more for gas, but they taste great together. Throw a tablespoon of fennel seeds in boiling water, add a handful of peppermint leaves or teabag, turn off, cover and let steep for 5 minutes. Add honey if desired and sip throughout the day, not too hot.
For nausea: ginger or chamomile. I have found ginger to be more effective for all out stomach flu (think ginger ale) or motion sickness, while chamomile is nice when your feeling generally crappy, possibly flu-ey. As with any herbal tea, you are boiling the water first, then adding the herb and turning it off, steeping for 5 minutes. With any stomach upset you want to avoid too hot or too cold.
For sleep troubles: lemon verbena or nutmeg. Lemon verbena is common in Europe and in North Africa, but harder to find here. Try stores that sell European foods or health foods - Whole Foods, Fairway, Vitamin Shop. Drink as directed, honey to taste. Nutmeg is easier to come by. I like a dusting in warm milk (or almond milk) with honey. Less is more - maximum 1/8 teaspoon per serving.
For menstrual cramps or menopausal symptoms: marshmallow root or red raspberry leaf. Available in most health food stores as a tea or tincture. Take as directed.
For hot flashes during menopause: sage. Take 2-3 leaves fresh or 1 teaspoon dry in a cup of boiled water. Steep 5 minutes and drink once a day.
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Excellent as supportive therapy in the context of common ailments. Essential oils are distilled from live plants and as such are very potent. Only 3-5 drops are needed in most cases. Eyes and mucous membranes must be avoided, but otherwise the oils can be added to water and inhaled via diffusers, or applied directly the the skin. They can be diluted with coconut oil or jojoba oil if skin sensitivity is an issue.
For minor burns or insect bites: lavender.
For sinus troubles: eucalyptus.
To strengthen the immune system: thieves oil.
Detoxification and antifungal: oil of oregano.
Muscle aches: sweet marjoram.
Stomach upset, gas: peppermint, fennel.
Stress, anxiety, depression: lavender.
Mental clarity, alertness, cooling: peppermint.
Courage, strength: blue spruce.
Spiritual awakening: frankincense.
Hormonal balance (females): lavender, clary sage.
epsom salt baths
Highly recommended for aches and pains, general relaxation, detoxification. 2 cups of epsom salts, mixed with 5-8 drops of an essential oil if desired, then added to a very warm bath and mixed in until dissolved. Soak for 10-20 minutes. Rinse before drying off. Most effective if enjoyed just before bedtime.
Epsom salt baths (see above); lavender, either diffused into the air, or used in an eye pillow; warm almond, coconut or skim milk with grated nutmeg and honey; lemon verbena tea; writing a gratitude list; 2:1 breathing where the exhale is twice as long as the inhale; lying on the back with one hand on the belly and one hand on the heart, awareness on the breath.
Avoid all sources of news for one week; no tv, no newspapers, no radio news programs. Instead, set a bunch of flowers on the kitchen table, read a book of poetry, talk to a stranger on the bus, help a child tie her shoe, volunteer one evening in a soup kitchen, try a new recipe, invite a friend for coffee. Write 3 pages at the beginning of the week about how you feel, about yourself and about the world in general, then write 3 pages at the end of the week. See if there's a difference...
Choose one day a week (just one) to turn it off, hide it, stuff it under the pillow. Computer included, off, off. Let everyone know. At first it may feel awkward, you may even feel a bit of anxiety. But keep on it. Insist that everyone in the household participate. Agree on the celebratory gesture at the end of the day - ice cream? A movie? Exchange of shoulder rubs or foot massages? And as you wade into the experience of disconnecting technologically, you may find it's actually pleasant to let it go, you may begin to feel the day expand, time stretch, senses heighten. What might you do instead? Take a walk, read a book, make something different for dinner, have a cup of tea with a friend, your child, your mother, your spouse. And talk. Face to face.
Found to be as effective, in some studies, as psychotherapy, journaling is the perfect forum for tending the garden of your thoughts. Everything is expressed and no one gets hurt. Oftentimes the writing out of whatever is bothering you brings clarity just by seeing it on paper. Space is created as the thoughts flow out onto the page, and the heart is temporarily relieved of its burden. You can flesh out your dreams, dramatize an imaginary conversation, make pro and con lists, you can ask for guidance or courage or mercy. Because no one will see it, it becomes your secret garden full of possibilities.
Poetry can be a form of meditation. Often, the poet is deeply tuned in to the present moment, an experience, an observation, and the sharing of it brings us into our own sense of the present. Jelaluddin Rumi, Rabindranath Tagore, William Butler Yeats, Walt Whitman, Reiner Maria Rilke, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Naomi Shihab Nye are a few of my favorites.
"And we are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love" - William Blake
Tames the savage beast, soothes the soul, inspires you to dance, enhances food preparation, motivates you on your run, ramps up the team bonding, brightens the mind.
Has become an endangered species and is therefore an essential part of any quest for well-being. Turn everything off. Lie down with a pillow long under your head and back to spread your chest. And breathe. Let the silence be like an open window, bringing in fresh air.