Rediscovering herbalism

Credit to Quinn Dombrowski for this photo of holy basil!

As I write this, I’m drinking lemon balm tea with tincture of holy basil. Yesterday, I’m pretty sure this combination is responsible for what I called in my journal, “Friday’s herbal miracle”. The miracle was that for the first time in weeks, I felt steady. Cheerful, too, and stable in terms of symptoms I was feeling throughout the day. I’m superstitious about talking about it (my husband recently bought me a bumper sticker that said, “I’m not superstitious: that would be bad luck”), but I’m going to talk about it nonetheless.

I have a condition, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, that has a name. I also have some other labels: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and ADHD. But labels only tell you so much about a person’s experience. You can make a few assumptions safely; beyond that it’s peril to assume too much. It’s interesting to talk to other people who share one or more of these labels. Sometimes we’ll be able to read each others’ minds, our experiences are so similar and have left us with the same fears, the same scars, the same neurotic little habits or perceptions. Other times I can tell that what one person experiences as anxiety, or “lack of executive function” (a common description of ADHD), isn’t at all the same as my own, which I find pretty fascinating.

Anxiety, especially, is incredibly subjective. In my fifteen years dealing with panic disorder, I’ve long since left the clinical definition of a panic attack, not that this stops any new healthcare practitioner from writing anything I describe off as “anxiety”. I saw a wonderful naturopath at Bastyr a few days ago, who asked me what my panic attacks felt like. I had to admit that she’d need to be more specific, I have a range of what I call “panic attacks”, each with its own constellation of symptoms and sensations. I was grateful when her response was, “Really? Tell me more.” I have to admit that naturopaths seem to have great people skills, which is why it’s especially frustrating that I’ve never found one who could help me with anything. Years ago, I came to this very center to be treated for fatigue (what would later be diagnosed as Fibromyalgia). They put me in a peat moss bath, and when that left me weaker and considerably anxious, threw up their hands. But, knowledge of CFS and Fibro has come a long way (not nearly far enough, but farther than seven years ago). I’m really hoping that this new start at Bastyr is the beginning of getting some real help.

Which brings me to my lemon balm tea. After two hours of discussion, my naturopathic doc and her student team came back with their recommendations, which (among other things) included lemon balm tea. I thought, “Tea? Really?” But then I remembered how into herbs I used to be, when my kids were little. I had taken a beginner’s online course through ACHS, and read a lot of books on theory, but hadn’t practiced very much beyond – haha – a few teas, an herbal vinegar or two, and I may have gone so far as a tincture. My interest in alternative healthcare modalities remained, but my interest in herbs kinda slid away. But when my doc prescribed the tea, I remembered learning about how powerful herbs could be, and it got me curious about the field again.

This is a great book. (And it’s not an affiliate link. I go back and forth on my feelings about Amazon, but for now I’m choosing not to use their affiliate program.)

A day later, I bought a book about adaptogens, herbs that are particularly good at improving a body’s resilience to stress. I’ve thought for a very long time that what’s wrong with me, in part, is a very abnormally functioning stress response, so the idea of hebs that could help this, intrigued me a great deal.

Here I will stop and say, please keep in mind I’m not giving medical advice, to people with CFS or to anyone else. I’m relating my experience and my thought processes about my own symptoms, that’s it. It’s important to me that we (people with chronic illness) are able to talk about what’s happening with our health and the setbacks or progress we’re making, but it’s also important to me that even as we suffer from these frustrating conditions that don’t have any answers, that we don’t lose track of the usefulness of western medicine. It’s a hammer, to be sure, and not everything is a nail. But it’s worth noting that I’m approaching this whole thing from the perspective of someone who has checked for nails. My PCP (primary care physician) is very good at her job, and takes me very seriously, and has checked me out for many, many things that could explain the problems I have living in this body. She’s found very little to go on. It’s because I’ve checked for the big obvious things with a doctor I trust, that I’m moving toward the more subtle things.

So, back to adaptogens. One herb discussed with a lot of affection is holy basil. Traditional Medicinals makes a tea I really like called “Tulsi”, which I didn’t know until reading this book is the Hindi name for holy basil, and it’s considered a very powerful herb in India. Under the heading “Modern Uses”, the book talks about many interesting effects, but what caught my eye was its considerable anti-stress properties. It helps regulate blood sugar and cortisol. It reduced the stress of mice “exposed to acute and chronic noise stress” – which is not nice to think about. I’m not a fan of animal research. (It looks as though animal studies are unfortunately pretty common in herbal research if the descriptions in this book are any indication.) One of the authors writes that he uses holy basil to enhance cerebral circulation and memory. He has some synergistic uses (combinations with other herbs) for brain fog due to various things, including perimenopausal symptoms and ADHD. This is only a small part of what the herb is used for, please read the book if you’re interested, I’m really enjoying it.

We’re really fortunate to live near the Dandelion Botanical Company, an herb store right here in Ballard. There I bought some Holy Basic tincture from Herb Pharm. For half a day, I drank lemon balm iced tea, with a dropper full of the tincture. I think I had two tall glasses, and two dropper-fulls of herb that day. The next day, yesterday, I started my morning with that same glass of tea and tincture, and by the second glass in the afternoon, I had gone from feeling my usual new level of awful to feeling….pretty good. It was startling. I didn’t know what to do about it, at first. I had been writing my progress for the morning in my journal, and it’s kind of hilarious how it stops almost mid-paragraph to record that…waitaminute….things are…improving? Shut the front door!

At first I didn’t want to tell anyone, but then Greg texted his usual daily inquiry into how things are going, and I had to say it: “Uhhh…..good!” I said I wasn’t sure why the change, but I think it might be the herbs? Lemon balm is supposed to be great for stress and anxiety, that’s why my naturopath advised it, and then combined with the holy basil, maybe I’d finally stumbled into a modality that had something to offer my exhausted, ravaged system?

Today, I can feel that things are shifting. I slept better. This morning I woke up in less pain. Today has had a similar trajectory to yesterday: feeling not so great in the morning, but then improving considerably an hour or two after my tea. I can’t yet know anything for sure, it’s too soon. Confounding variables abound, and yet, this is the first supplement or medicine of any kind that I’ve tried that has had an effect other than “neutral” or “made it worse”. As the joke goes, “I’m intrigued, and I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter.”

I more than subscribed, I decided to take an online class. It’s perfect because I’m about to be done with yoga teacher training, and if I’m not actively learning something I feel stagnant and go a little mad. So I spent the whole afternoon searching reviews of herbal programs and finally decided to take the Introductory Herbal Course at The Herbal Academy. I’ve bought a few books, but I like having the structure of a course as well.

I don’t know where I’ll end up, but god, it feels so good to actually be excited to explore something having to do with my health. I’m so weary of this whole journey. It’s just a long slog through appointments, people with no answers, test results that lead nowhere, and lately therapy appointments centered on just coping with the damn stress of it all. Learning skills to deal emotionally with exhaustion, fatigue, and the reality that you have a disorder keeping you from fantastic things, that no one can cure or make sense of, and will likely haunt you your entire life. Maybe herbal medicine can help? I don’t know, but (almost) anything is worth a shot.


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