Herbs and mushrooms have been the primary medicines of humankind for millennia, across the globe. When we design our formulas, we not only consider the modern scientific understanding of the therapeutic qualities of herbs and mushrooms, but also the traditional understanding of them. Having been used for much longer than modern pharmaceutical medicines, we feel it is paramount to also include traditional knowledge and understanding of utilizing these natural medicines. Not only does traditional wisdom help us better understand herbs and mushrooms, but also the very nature of general health and well-being, disease and injury.
TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF PERFORMANCE AND HEALTH GOALS
So how does traditional medicine relate to performance and health goals? Let’s look at the topic of energy levels for example…
From a modern scientific perspective, we understand that this topic is largely related to the endocrine system. A cascade of signals starts with the hypothalamus and pituitary gland located in the brain, which then trigger the adrenals to release certain energy-related hormones such as adrenaline. The adrenals also work in tandem with the thyroid gland, creating and maintaining healthy energy levels.
Interestingly, energy levels from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine are strongly related to the health of what’s called the “kidney meridian”. Although it is not specifically the actual kidneys which relate to the factor of energy, sitting directly on top of kidneys are the adrenal glands which play an integral part of this meridian. Called the “house of Yin and Yang”, the kidney meridian is understood in a modern scientific sense as relating to the sympathetic (Yang) and parasympathetic (Yin) nervous system. Biologically, these functions are governed by the adrenal medulla (sympathetic/acute functions) and cortex (parasympathetic/chronic functions).
While our modern paradigm often describes energy issues as simply “adrenal burnout”, traditional understanding goes deeper, differentiating exactly what aspects of adrenal health may be off. Kidney Yin (the parasympathetic nervous system) may be deficient or out of balance when there are issues relating to rest, calmness and restoration. Kidney Yang (the sympathetic nervous system) may be off when symptoms of low energy or delayed reaction time are present. To support such conditions most efficiently, these nuances are very important to understand. All too often herbs and mushrooms which support the adrenal glands are lumped into a single category known as “adaptogens”, lacking further specification. Knowing specifically which herbs and mushrooms effect which aspects of adrenal and overall endocrine health, allows us to very precisely select the ingredients used in a formula.
Beyond the “active” and “passive” functions of the adrenals, represented well by Yin and Yang, there are also the energetic states associated with these concepts.
ENERGETICS AND TASTES
A common denominator connecting traditional systems of medicine is the classification of foods and natural medicines by their energetic attributes and tastes. Simple concepts such as heat, cold, dryness, and moisture are utilized and correlate intimately with the tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, pungent, and salty. These energetic concepts correspond with all body parts and organs, all bodily functions, diseases and ailments, emotions, and mental health. These terms can indicate a very literal meaning, but largely are symbolic of more vast concepts.
- Hot/Warm= raising of body temperature, fast actions, inflammation, catabolic processes etc.
- Cold/Cool= cooling of body temperature, slowing things down, anti-inflammation, anabolic processes etc.
- Wet= hydrating, lubricating, nourishing etc.
- Dry= drying, astringent, cleansing etc.
SYMPATHY VS ANTIPATHY
The energetics of natural medicines and foods can be used sympathetically and antipathetically to improve health, homeostasis and act preventatively.
Examples of antipathetic treatment strategy:
- “Hot” acute swelling from an injury can be treated with “cooling” anti-inflammatory herbs.
- “Cold” stagnant digestion can be alleviated by carminative, warming and pungent spices.
- “Hot” anger aggravates the liver, cleared by hepatic and nervine bitter herbs and food.
- “Dry” dehydration alleviated by the “moist” nature of demulcent herbs and fluids.
Homeopathic and other specialized types of extracts can be applied as a sympathetic treatment, such as the case of an allergen being used to treat an allergy. Examples of this include using pollen to treat a pollen allergy, or bee venom to treat a bee sting allergy. Regarding sympathetic treatment, spagyric essences and homeopathic dilutions of spagyric tinctures can be employed.
Other examples of sympathetic treatment include:
- Using something hot to release heat: Cayenne pepper to causing sweating, which cools the body.
- Using something cold to warm a cold constitution: Cold water causing the blood to heat up in response, thereby raising body temperature.
Rather than a linear spectrum, these energetic concepts are truly circular, one polarity leading into the next. This helps the understanding of how both sympathetic and antipathetic treatment strategy can be used to achieve balance.
“like is cured by like”
THE TASTES OF HERBS AND FOODS
As mentioned, the tastes are intimately involved with the energetics of foods and herbs. Tastes are a key and obvious indicator of overall energetic values.
Sour= astringent and stimulating, moves energy, aids digestion, most often cool and dry. Examples: Lemon, Rosehips.
Bitter= astringent and cleansing, stimulates digestion, most often cool and dry. Examples: Dandelion, Gentian.
Sweet= moist and nourishing, tonifying, immunomodulating, most often neutral to slightly warm and wet. Examples: Astragalus, Shatavari.
Salty= astringent, micro-nutritionally rich, cool and dry. Examples: Nettle, Kelp.
Pungent= stimulating and strongly aromatic, clears stagnation/blockages in the digestive and respiratory systems, most often warm/hot and dry. Examples: Garlic, Cannabis.
Spicy= stimulating, moves energy in the cardiovascular, respiratory and digestive systems, warm/hot and drying. Examples: Black Pepper, Cayenne.
Acrid= irritating or tingly sensation in the mouth, effects the nervous system (analgesic/antispasmodic), a range of hot to cold, usually drying. Examples: Lobelia, Black Cohosh.
THE SIX TISSUE STATES
Although simple at first glance, the fundamental concepts of traditional energetics of food and medicine delve deeply into the complex nuances of health. They are now reclaiming their rightful place in harmony with modern perspectives and sciences. A recent interpretation using modern terminology is the "six tissue states" system, which focuses on metabolism, fluids, and tone.
Metabolism is measured as hot or cold, meaning underactive or overactive.
Fluids are damp or dry, meaning excessive or deficient.
Tone is tense or relaxed, meaning spastic or atonic.
Armed with the basic principles of energetics, we are much more apt to program our diet and medicine in a deeply specified way. Often people wonder, why does this herb work for a condition in one person and not in another? This discrepancy can often be boiled down to the unique energetic blueprint of everyone. A flu virus for example, can present in a wide variety of symptoms, depending upon the energetic architecture of its “host”.
Keeping this in mind, when we create our formulas we seek to create energetically balanced formulas that don’t stray too far to any extreme. We use carefully chosen combinations herbs and mushrooms which naturally buffer and balance one another, finding a middle ground which is more suitable for the general public.
While we may start off with a modern biological target function such as increasing energy, improving sleep or strengthening immune health, we fine tune each of our formulas using traditional methodology. This allows us to choose ingredients which work specifically with all of the body systems involved, in an energetically balanced manner. Traditional energetics provide a model which also benefit the target function of a formula in a holistic way, considering not only the obvious symptoms of a health issue, but also the root cause.