Throughout the world you will find people walking out their back door and picking weeds and plants that grow nearby. They will throw them into cookpots, make tea from them, turn them into healing medicines for their friends and family. This is the herbalism that is practiced everyday by billions of people, mostly poor and mostly from developing countries. A new mother drinks a nourishing broth filled with garden herbs. A grandmother throws sprigs of basil into the family’s chicken soup. A father helps his young son with a bad cough to breathe in steam of cedar leaves.
This is folk healing. It is simple, inexpensive, and mainly reliant on using weeds and cultivated plants to make tea and to add to the diet. If you have ever sat down to a bowl of vietnamese pho, brimming with onions, anise, cloves, scallions, cilantro, chilies and basil, you will know the power of folk healing first hand. The chicken broth will nourish you. The herbs will make you heat up and sweat and you will feel strengthened and cleaned out at the end of your meal. In India, if you sit down to eat chicken curry, you will likely be taking in garlic, ginger, bay leaf, cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, turmeric and cloves. Again, the simple process of eating a meal also becomes medicinal: strengthening, warming and clearing.
Folk healing is based in kitchen and backyard herbalism; the idea that most of our healing comes through what we eat locally, and a few herbs that grow nearby in the gardens and in nature. Picking huckleberries and blueberries in the summer time. Collecting roots from the forest. Harvesting mushrooms for soup in the Fall. There is no complex cosmology around this. It is based on common sense and time honored traditions. Go back just a hundred years in America and most of the grandmothers knew what herbs were helpful for this or that condition, what type of food can help heal you and strengthen you. Meals were full of whole and unprocessed foods with nutrient rich vegetables organically grown and usually coming from the neighbor’s farm.
The Rise of Modern Mental Health
The idea of food and local herbs as medicine mostly dried up after world war II. Processed foods, microwave dinners, industrialized agriculture and shopping markets filled with food from far away started to dominate the Western landscape. Food became very very bland and tasteless. The notion that food was the essential medicine was overwhelmed by the idea that medicine was found in a drug.
The psychiatric revolution really began in earnest in the 50’s at the same time that industrial farming took off. The first antipsychotic known as thorazine was synthesized in 1950 and was given to people who were deemed psychotic or labeled with schizophrenia. Interestingly, this first widely prescribed psychatric drug was first developed as a pesticide to kill parasites in pigs.
Thorazine was followed by other major tranquilzers such as melaril, stellazine and haldol; drugs known for overwhelmingly tranquilizing people and leading to neurological degradation and conditions such as tardive dyskinesia (irreversible psychomotor tics). In the 60‘s and 70‘s tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazapenes such as valium were marketed and often targeted at anxious housewives. In 1987 prozac made banner headlines as part of a a new class of serotonergic antidepresants. It was explosively popular and was soon followed by other antidepressants such as paxil, celexa, wellbutrin, effexor and zoloft. Today one out of ten people take an antidepressant.
I don’t think that its coincidental that the rise of psychiatric medicine coincided with the rise of industrial mass monocrop agriculture. By the 50’s we started to rely on processed forms of just a few crops (wheat, soy, rice and corn) that lacked nutritional value due to being heavily refined into packaged foods. These new processed foods also lacked nutrients because the soil these crops were growing in had been quickly used up only to be replaced by chemical fertilizers. We mostly stopped eating wild game, local farm grown food and herbs from our backyard and the forests. We relied on prepackaged meals and then drank, smoke and downed pots of coffee to make us feel better since the industrial food wasn’t doing the job. We got sicker, crazier, more depressed and anxious.
Psychiatry has risen in large part as a response to industrial agriculture and the end of folk and kitchen based healing. It offers drugs that are strong, overwhelming, and often effective, at least in the short term. 1 out of 5 Americans now takes a psychiatric drug for some form of emotional distress. On many levels, using psychiatric drugs for mental health mirrors the use of industrial agriculture for our food. Both involve the idea of blanketing an entire ecosystem (the land or the body’s complex terrain) with a single item as a way of providing sustenance or healing.
The refined form of corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup is similar to a psychiatric drug in that both are stripped down chemical compounds, devoid of nutritional value, providing an initial improvement in mood, but then leading to numerous side effects and complex health problems if consumed over a period of time. Just as industrial monocropping has led to a degradation of the land, long term use of psychiatric drugs lead to a degradation of human health. Though motor tics and tardive dyskinesia has long been associated with antipsychotics, the newer antipsychotics such as zyprexa and risperdal also lead to complex metabolic disorders, loss of libido, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Even the modern antidepressants, thought of as more benign, are leading to challenging health problems. The newer antidepressants are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Serotonin is an ancient chemical found through the plant, fungal and animal world. In the human body it is primarily found in the gut (95 % of serotonin is found there.) Serotonergic antidepressants work by inhibiting the reabsorption of serotonin in the synaptic cleft in neurotransmission. This has shown to lead to an elevated mood but also to a number of side effects. In many ways SSRIs act in similar ways to individual moncrops, damaging the internal and intestinal ecosystem through a one size fits all approach to health. In humans these problems are often experienced as nausea, diarrhea, constipation, libido loss, mania, confusion and insomnia.
While drug based therapies for emotional distress can be key to helping people in crisis conditions and for those working through severe mental illness, they tend to be vastly overprescribed and traditional healing tools are largely ignored or overlooked.
Returning to Roots
That is a far cry from folk healing and diet, which involves the idea that healing often involves ingesting plants with many different complex constituents acting in concert, as well as a varied and diverse diet with multiple types of vegetables, fruits, grains and meat. Healing takes place because the body is well nourished and strengthened by the food and herbs from the nearby environment. Humans have lived in symbiotic relationship to these varied plants and animals for tens of thousands of years and we have suddenly changed to seeing “medicine” as a chemical and food as a the refined product of one or two plants. That narrow and reductionist way of approaching health and wellbeing has helped lead us to an epidemic of depression, anxiety and madness.
As I look at the twin interlinked crises of worsening mental health and the degradation of the land from industrial farming, I am reminded of how my ancestors lived, ate and took their medicine. They ate simple whole foods grown nearby. They hunted wild game and incorporated herbs from their gardens and from the forests and the fields. Medicine came in the form of a healing bowl of soup filled with fresh herbs. Healing happened in the kitchen, in the nearby fields and forest, in the love a grandmother shared through a warm meal. The process of healing our collective depression and anxiety involves rewilding, reclaiming our roots, our ancestral ties to the land and to the food and herbs we collect from the Earth. The process of healing from our collective emotional distress means reweaving these strands of our past that have been cast off as unscientific, primitive and backwards and returning to the roots of healing that are as old as time.