I’ve recently been going through the most difficult thing in my life to date. And, I’ve developed a slew of digestive issues, and a return of migraines, to boot.
My dear cat, Norton, was diagnosed with intestinal cancer a week before Christmas. I honestly, naively, thought my 17yo cat had worms and that’s why his belly was so bloated and he was losing weight so fast. (Oh the things we tell ourselves!) The vet, in a moment deeply lacking in compassion, told me that I’d have two good months with my cat left, and that I’d have to euthanize him after that. (I have not gone back to this vet!) I am still fairly certain that I, for one microsecond, disassociated from my body because I remember feeling like the room got really big and I saw things from a different angle while she told me this.
It was a completely and utterly heartbreaking vet visit.
I have cried so much since then my eyes have felt like there were particles of sand in them.
After the news I spent a couple of weeks sleeping on the couch with Norton, compromising my well-being to be by his side as much as possible. Trying to capture every moment.
I now also have a recurrence of migraines the likes of which I have not seen in years and years.
What’s interesting about this last bit is that I have been avoiding all my migraine triggers for foods, I’m moving every day, I’m meditating, I’m playing/practicing my violin, I’m talking with friends and family about what’s going on, and now I’m writing about my situation.
As always, I hope that in sharing what is going on with me, that it strikes a chord with you and you find solace in not being alone in what you are going through.
So now I have developed, in addition to these migraines, regular digestive issues. Everything that I eat sits like a lump in my stomach. I still feel like my lunch from yesterday is still being digested. It’s gross. I’ve taken my herbs (Bao He Wan is a great formula for that kind of stomach upset, and stomach upset in general), I’ve had teas, I’ve eaten as simply as possible, you name it I’ve tried it.
Then I had a thought: what if it’s not about the food that I’m eating (or not eating), or the exercise and creative outlets and emotional expression, but about this most difficult and heartbreaking situation?
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, as I’m wont to investigate, this would be akin to my Spleen/Stomach (or Earth element) being unable to digest my current situation. I cannot break it down, I cannot assimilate it, I cannot transform it – not yet.
I’ve been asking myself:
What would it mean to transform this experience?
What would it mean to assimilate this heartbreak into my being?
What would it mean to really be in this grief?
Grief is the emotion of the Metal element, it’s the holding onto and letting go of experiences.
What would it mean to let go of what I’m feeling about this situation?
What else am I holding on to, and how can I work on letting that go?
I’ve had glimpses of these moments, and some answers to these questions, but then the grief and heartbreak come pouring back in.
I think, like digesting an overly indulgent meal, it is going to take time and some discomfort and lots of my herbal helpers: ginger, cardamom, bitters blends, artichokes, orange peels, Bao He Wan, hawthorn berry, rose and albizzia for my heart, ocotillo to move what is stuck…
402 consecutive days of meditation: I wonder why I’m bothering tracking it, much less why I am bothering meditating every day regardless of where I am at physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
The tracking of meditation sessions is surely born out of a combination of ego-based satisfaction and accountability. I fully admit to that. It feels great to say that I’ve meditated every day for over a year. Why not be proud of this “accomplishment”?
It would be so so so easy to say, “I don’t feel like meditating today” and not meditate. To have this number creeping higher and higher (along with my funny “prison calendar” of days marked with an orange slash to indicate that I’ve meditated) somehow holds me accountable to keep sitting even when I feel like crap, or plain old have a childish response: but I don’t want to, I don’t have to do this, I don’t feel like it!!!
And really, even with all of these sessions under my belt, my legs still go numb/fall asleep halfway through my session on my zafu, my mind still reels and tries to reel me in, and sometimes I cannot help but be caught – until I catch myself and let go.
Sometimes I’m so exhausted in the morning (or evening) and I fall asleep, and sometimes just before the timer goes off I really let go for a split second and I sigh in frustration over the session’s end.
Other times I let go right away, and my mind creeps in and holds on for such dear life that it’s like I’m a sinking ship and the rats of my mind keep clawing towards higher ground.
So, just like life, meditation has its “ups and downs” because it is what it is, and that’s that. It truly is what we make of it.
I’m applying these principles to other aspects of my life right now: daily violin practice. On Saturday I had a headache, but I had not practiced yet. Lo and behold! I practice for 45 minutes and the headache that I started with vanished within minutes of my practice session. How easy would it have been so say that I didn’t feel well and then not practice? How easy would it be to say, yesterday, that I saw one of the best violinists in the world and “why bother” practicing.
No excuses, show up, do the work, and who knows what beautiful things may happen, what I may discover, and what I allow myself to be. That’s why I bother to meditate.
Here’s one beautiful thing: my husband telling me that I am sounding so good after my one lesson with my new teacher, and me knowing that this compliment is sincere.
I have a plant that sits next to my computer. It is in dire need of a larger pot.
In fact, it is so big it is growing up and out of the pot that it is in, yet the leaves are starting to wither. The plant is starving and dying to grow – it cannot expand its roots thanks to the too small pot.
I cannot help but think of this plant, its too small pot, and the energy that all of us expend to stay rooted in the same ways of doing things.
What holds people (including me) back from taking on more of the life we individually dream? We all wonder, worry, and fear if this new pot that we want to move to is not going to be right, a good fit, too big, make us suffer or feel uncomfortable. When we stay rooted in our current situation, we expend an immense amount of energy and complexity involved in maintaining the status quo.
We expend tremendous resources to reroute the energy that should be expanding outside of the status quo, growing into something new, and end up expressing this energy in unconstructive ways that ultimately hold us back. In doing so, we resist the deep inner call to step outside of our self-limited spaces.
We get angry, irritable, depressed, anxious, downtrodden, and listless. We can develop strange symptoms that are seemingly unrelated, and can make ourselves crazy with chasing one thing after the next after the next. Have periods that are painful, outbursts of anger, or mood swings with insomnia? Hot-tempered or easily angered in situations that are not going according to plan, or running smoothly in general? Have bowel movements that alternate from diarrhea or loose stools to constipation, or belching, abdominal distention, or gurgling in the abdomen? Or, do you feel plain old stuck in life – like there are too many obstacles in your path that you cannot see or work around?
Are you plain old stuck in a pattern that is no longer working for you?
When was the last time you looked at your roots?
Just like a potted plant or tree that has outgrown its home and is no longer thriving, if you have been in your modus operandi for too long, you may start to feel stifled, frustrated, angry, and have mood swings. If you have been forcing yourself to tap into your reserves of energy (i.e. pushing yourself to keep going even though what you are currently experiencing is no longer nourishing you), it is time for you to consider what sort of pot, soil, land, you are living in and how you are taking care of yourself, is your life taking care of you.
Is your modus operandi too small for the life you want, the life you are living?
Is it time to break out of your too small pot, to expand your roots?
In Chinese medicine, the creative – or Hun- spirit rests in the Liver. Much like life, the Hun and Liver operate on a cycle: sleep-wake, birth-growth-maturity-death; spring-summer-fall-winter; day-night; creation-destruction-creation from the destruction; menstrual cycles; and so on. We, as humans, go through creation cycles just as much as the world around us. The Liver energy is in charge of ensuring that these cycles run smoothly – that no step is missed or out of sync.
If we get out of sync (i.e. stuck in production day-time mode all the time), everything else suffers. We cannot function the way we were intended to, we cannot grow -nor rest- the way we need. We get stuck in a dysfunctional modus operandi.
This energy gets very frustrated when it cannot grow and move the way it needs to – sound familiar to you?
We all have a seed of potential within us that can be nourished and cultivated to manifest fully in our lives. It doesn’t matter if you live in a concrete jungle, or in wild unspoiled terrain – life finds a way to manifest in the smallest cracks, on rock cliffs, even deep in the arctic and the depths of the sea. It is all there, waiting to be nourished and to grow. As one season follows the next, our creative energy (Hun) follows our soul’s spirit (Heart, the Shen) throughout the cycle of life, in a dance between sleep and activity, creation and contemplation.
If we listen to, and follow, our Heart to manifest the potential in our life the Hun will ensure that we have creative solutions and plans to manifest those dreams. I think this is why, when we follow our Heart’s inner call, things seem to fall into place for us. Solutions which once seemed impossible spontaneously manifest, plans come together, teachers appear at the right time, help shows up, we flow and get what we need – all so we can follow our inner call.
Listen deeply, carefully, and sincerely; then make the choice to start, take the first step, the next, and another, and another, ad infinitum. If we are moving forward, toward the dream, the goal, nourishing our inner call and potential, we are unable to stagnate and become root-bound in our too-small pots and lives. The world opens up for us, our roots can grow where they need and we can rise to the occasion free of the exhaustion and frustration of another dead-end or block, free of the feeling that we are stuck in the same patterns of living. You become free, your body and soul open up, take it all in, and uses that energy to catapult you forward.
What is stopping you?
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Using herbs to bring yourself back to health is a wonderful idea. I wanted to share with you a handful of my herbal favorites, that you can use on a daily basis to help you on your path to health, or maintain your current state of health.
Bitters – I LOVE bitters, especially bitters made with gentian and bupleurum – it really keeps the Qi flowing. I have a couple of different kinds here at home that I like using. I’ll use either whenever there is digestive upset, when I know I’m going to eat something that normally upsets my tummy (like pizza, or anything with an acid/dairy combination), and even after eating way too much at a dinner party then getting home and saying “oh no, I can’t believe I ate that much.”
Chamomile – I grew up in a household where chamomile was the go-to herb. As a chile I loathed the taste of chamomile, now I love it. I’ll even poach pears in chamomile tea when I’m not feeling well, it’s delicious! Use chamomile for headaches, indigestion, insomnia and menstrual cramps. I follow a standard Chamomile Tea recipe: take 1oz of chamomile (by weight, by volume this is around 1.5c) steeped in 1pt of boiling water, with two slices of ginger, covered for 20 minutes. The ginger helps the body assimilate the chamomile faster.
Ginger – I always have ginger root at home. I put it in soups and stews to help the digestibility of meat, I make strong teas of it for fomentations, use it in baths for an invigorating winter warm-up, and drink a strong tea of it whenever I feel “off”. Ginger nearly always sets me right.
Slippery Elm and Marshmallow – With all of the recycled air, dry heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer, dry and irritated sinuses, even a dry throat after a cold – sometimes I feel dry, dry, dry. Whenever I experience that kind of dryness, I’ll make a tea of slippery elm or marshmallow. Take 2tsp-2TB of the powdered bark or root, pour 1c of hot water over it, let steep for 20 minutes then drink up! For irritated stomachs, after a stomach flu for example, I recommend making a porridge of slippery elm (with honey to taste), by combining slippery elm and boiling water together until the desired “cream of wheat” consistency is reached. If you have dry and irritated eyes or sinuses, you can make a cold-water infusion (pour cold water over the powdered herb, let sit overnight, then use as a tea) and use it as an eye wash or with salt as a neti-pot rinse. NOTE: if you are using this as a neti-pot rinse, pour the boiled water over the salt, let dissolve and then cool a bit, then stir in the powdered herb. (As an FYI, Slippery Elm is endangered and if you are using it, please get it from an ethically wildcrafted source.)
If you are looking for a source of herbs, I recommend Mountain Rose Herbs.
That’s the top of my list right now! What are your favorite herbs at the moment?
Let’s get you on the path to a healthy menstrual cycle with simple herbal remedies for PMS!
All of these suggestions are things that you can do at home, for deeper and more thorough herbal suggestions you need to speak with an herbalist.
Choose the pattern that most fits with your presenting signs and symptoms of PMS, and try that herbal remedy for two to three cycles.
Liver Blood Deficiency
If you tend towards crying and depression, with scantier periods, tiredness, fatigue, dizziness, and poor memory – this is a sign of Liver Blood Deficiency.
Since the Liver controls the smooth flow of Qi and Blood, this means that if there is not enough Blood in the Liver or body-at-large, your period shows as deficient and almost malnourished. I liken this feeling to your body squeezing out every last drop of energy it can muster, leaving you more and more depleted as each month passes.
To alleviate Liver Blood Deficiency symptoms, eat: blackberries, raspberries, mulberries, huckleberries, black currants, dark raisins. Consume liver, spinach, beets, molasses, and goji berries, to name but a few. Drink this simple Liver Blood-Building tea daily. Both Goji and Mulberries affect the Liver, helping the body build Blood per TCM. The berries are sweet, soft, and nourishing. The mint helps to keep your body’s energy flowing, and has the added benefit of being great for Liver Qi. Ginger helps to keep things warm, helping to move the herbs into the body.
Liver Blood-Building Tea:
- 1 tablespoon goji berries
- 1 tablespoon dried mulberries
- 1 tsp mint
- 1 slice ginger
- 1c boiling water
- Pour boiling water over the berries, let steep for 10-15 mins, drink the tea then eat the berries!
- Drink this tea every day.
Deficient Yin (Liver and Kidneys)
Another portion of PMS in relation to depletion is Deficient Yin (specifically of the Liver and Kidneys.) Yin is the moistening, nourishing part of our bodies. Yin provides the lubrication in our joints, and ensures moist skin, nails and hair. Yin cools the body, it is the feminine aspect and is represented as muscle, flesh, blood, fluids, and our organs. Yang, on the other hand, is that which is energetic and warming, it is masculine. Yang is that which moves –bodily functions (such as libido, appetite, digestion)- and is the functional part of the body. Yin is night and the moon, Yang is day and the sun.
If you are Yin Deficient in the Kidneys and Liver, your PMS may manifest as poor memory, dizziness, insomnia (difficulty falling asleep), scanty periods, dry eyes/hair/nails/skin, and irritability. You may even feel hot in your hands, feet and chest but not anywhere else (this is called “five palm heat”.) You may have the tendency to dry stools.
To build your Yin, drink the Liver Blood-Building Tea from above, with the addition of marshmallow root (use 1tsp per cup.) and eat black sesame seeds. Eat nori, seaweeds, oysters, asparagus, string beans, dark berries and cherries.
If your PMS manifests with bloating and water-weight gain, drink an infusion of nettles daily. Nettles is nutritive, being high in minerals, and is beneficial not only to the Kidneys (which control the water in our body) but also to our energy levels as well thanks to those minerals. It is what is called a “nourishing infusion” herb, in that you can take it every day as an infusion. Nettles is diuretic (will make you pee), be forewarned!
- 1oz nettles
- 1 quart of water
- Place nettles in a quart jar
- Pour boiling water over nettles
- Seal jar
- Let infuse for 1-2 hours
- Drink 2 cups or more daily
- You may re-infuse the nettles a second time using the same method as above.
If the nettles infusion alone does not affect the water-weight gain, add 2tsp of dandelion root to the infusion. Dandelion is The Liver herb (or one of at least) so you really cannot go wrong with incorporating dandelion into your tea.
Stagnant Liver Qi
This is the most common type of PMS: emotional instability, moodiness, depression, breast tenderness, and irregular menstruation present with this pattern.
An easy, at-home, preparation to assist your Liver Qi and emotions is to make rose petal paste.
Roses are used in TCM, Ayurveda and Western herbology. In India, rose petals are mixed with sugar, and turned into a paste that becomes Gulkand. Roses are considering cooling to the body in Ayurveda, but in TCM they are considered warming. TCM uses roses to regulate the Qi of the Liver, and finds that roses are specific for premenstrual breast tenderness, menstrual cramps and irregular menstruation in addition to moodiness. Ayurveda uses roses in a similar way to TCM. In Western herbalism, roses are also utilized for their menstrual regulating properties as well as a range of digestive symptoms and as a calming, balancing nervine. Nervines are herbs that affect the nervous system, in rose’s case it is a nervine that relaxes the nervous system thereby calming and centering the individual.
Honey is a Qi tonic (meaning: it builds the Qi of the body), and thus works with the rose petals to both nourish and move the Qi. It is also drying, and is thus beneficial for fluid retention – an oft-maligned symptom of PMS.
Rose Petal Honey Paste for moving Liver Qi:
- Acquire fresh or dried fragrant rose petals, the darker and more fragrant the better (organic, not-sprayed)
- Chop until very fine
- Mix 1 part rose petals with 2-3 parts local raw honey, stir very well – set in a cool, dark place for two weeks. You may add more honey if the mixture seems dry.
- Take 1tsp+ every day. You can spread it on toast, stir into congee, have with tea, put in a smoothie, etc. I really like it stirred into hot milk or tea, or spread on top of homemade rustic bread.
- You can have as much as desired and tolerated, provided you are not pregnant or nursing!
This is also great with a little bit of orange or lemon peel: finely grate 2 teaspoons of lemon or orange peel per pint of rose petal honey, and stir to combine. Citrus peel is a great Qi mover of the Liver! With the combination of the three herbs (roses, honey, citrus peel) you have a tasty and powerful herbal formula that is uplifting to the spirit and great for your Liver Qi Stagnation PMS symptoms.
Stagnant Liver Qi with Heat
For PMS with an increased sense of stress, insomnia (with difficulty staying asleep), frustration, depression, and/or irritability, digestive upset, and headaches, I like lemon balm, mint, chamomile, and burdock as a tea blend. The lemon balm is calming and beneficial for those who are stressed, depressed, and irritable – it is a calmative. Chamomile is a calming nervine, and alleviates feelings of nervousness (including that “butterflies in the stomach” feeling), spasms, indigestion, and menstrual cramps. Mint is cooling, and helps to move stuck Liver Qi. Burdock is a great Liver, blood and lymph cleanser – it is fantastic for Stagnant Liver Qi issues when you feel “hot and bothered”.
Lemon balm, chamomile, and burdock tea:
- 1TB each of lemon balm, mint, chamomile, burdock root
- 1 pint of water
- Place herbs in a quart sized jar
- Pour boiling water over herbs
- Seal jar
- Let infuse for 20-30 mins
- Drink 1 cup twice a day
Note: if you have hypothyroidism or are taking thyroid medications, please speak with an herbalist and your doctor before utilizing lemon balm as lemon balm is best avoided in hypothyroid situations. There are other herbs you can substitute lemon balm with, ask your herbalist which herbs are best for you.
It is important to mention vitex with this discussion of PMS and herbs as is touted as the best herb for PMS. I feel that it is best when recommended and used with supervision alongside a qualified herbalist, because not all PMS is created equal or has the same root cause. Thus, what vitex (or any of the suggestions above) may do and benefit for one person, may prove to not be beneficial for you. Don’t just take vitex (or any other herb) because it worked for someone else!
Choose the most appropriate herbal remedy for your type of PMS, and combine with the discussion of emotional, dietary and lifestyle factors to consider parts two and three. If, after two to three cycles you see no improvement, consult a qualified herbalist. As always, if you can’t take care of it yourself with simple at-home remedies please see your doctor or healthcare practitioner for a medical checkup to rule out anything serious or demanding of medical intervention – working with an herbalist alongside medical doctors is a great way to get truly holistic care.
Next up: strategies for dealing with menstrual cramps! Stay tuned!
Lifestyle and Diet Strategies for PMS are a vital part of resolving PMS.
If you aren’t moving enough, from being sedentary or from fatigue and lethargy, this can contribute to PMS symptoms. Moving is key to keeping the blood flowing in the body. If we don’t move, our blood and energy gets stuck and stagnated. Remember the river analogy from before? Think of your body’s blood and energy as being a river, if the river doesn’t move (whether it be blocked by a dam or rocks, or not enough water to keep it flowing) – the water stagnates and turns slimy and gross. This is especially true with your Liver and moving, the Liver loves it when you walk because it helps the Liver do its job of keeping everything moving and flowing smoothly that much easier. Help and love your Liver by moving, whether it is walking or some other kind of movement.
Movement is not “exercise” (I don’t really like “exercise”.) Movement can be walking, hiking, bicycling, swimming, dancing, gardening, household cleaning, playing with the kids or dog, anything that gets your heart-rate up and your blood pumping! I particularly like movement outside in the sunshine, the sun is like a light shining through to the innermost part of you. Couple movement and sunshine together and you have a fantastically simple way to benefit your self and body at the same time.
Lack of creative expression and lack of emotional expression and release is a surefire way to guarantee PMS every month – find a way to release your emotions and express yourself creatively. As the Liver is the seat of creativity, when you express yourself Liver loves you for it! Suppressing emotions stifles the Liver’s ability to ensure the smooth flow of Qi and Blood. Remember that Qi is energy? Positive and negative thoughts and emotions are also energy, and thus affect the body.
Some examples of expressing yourself: journal, draw, paint, garden, sculpt, knit, stitch, cook, clean, move, talk, sing, scream, make music, dance. Sometimes I’ll color in a coloring book, draw mandalas with crayons, or doodle circles and squares if I’m not feeling particularly creative; other times, I’ll rearrange my closet or create a playlist to listen to during the day. Rearranging furniture, decorating the house, and cooking a new dish all help to express your creativity. The advantage to creative expression is that it allows the mind to take a backseat, while letting your self, your soul, come to the forefront. The mind gets quiet, and you are connected to your true self.
Emotional expression is vital to the healthy body and soul. When you do not release the emotions that are within you, and instead keep them under a lid, your body is forced to shuttle those bits to different parts of the body. How this manifests is different person-to-person the consistent factor with everyone is that the Liver is affected, and with women often the lidded emotions “erupt” as PMS. If you are unable to express how you feel with your loved ones in a supportive and non-judgmental environment, find someone who you can work with (be it a therapist, spiritual advisor, doctor, mentor, teacher, herbalist, etc.) Helpers, as I like to call those who help us on our paths, often appear just as we realize we need help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who you think may understand what you are going through.
We are what we eat. If you are not eating a nourishing diet that is rich in whole foods, foods high in omega-3 rich foods (such as wild salmon, grass-fed organic humanely raised meats, evening primrose or borage oil), and fresh vegetables, you can become sluggish and your body is unable to support the demands that is placed upon it. A good metaphor is to think about what happens to a car when you put the wrong gas in the tank – the car can’t perform the way it is supposed to, and develops lots of problems!
Here’s a simple healthy-PMS shopping list for you:
Foods to avoid:
- Caffeine (coffee, black tea, colas, chocolate, mate)
- Nuts and nut butters – small amounts are okay
- Flour products
- Fried, fatty, greasy foods
- Refined and processed foods
- Turkey and red meat that is not grass-fed organic
Foods to enjoy:
- Dark leafy greens
- Cooked vegetables
- Whole grains and seeds (quinoa, rice, barley, amaranth, millet, wild rice, etc.)
- Legumes, beans, lentils
- Meat, eggs, omega-3 rich fish – as appropriate for your needs
- Small amounts of fresh fruit
In other words, cook your own food, purchase your food in as close to its original form as possible. This ensures that the food you ingest is easier to assimilate and nourishing to your body. Eating this way does not have to be boring, monotonous, or distasteful (nor does it have to be a lot of work.) Look at eating this way as the ultimate gift to your body and self.
From the women that I’ve spoken with regarding PMS, removing dairy was one of the number one helpers for relieving their PMS symptoms. It took less than two weeks for one woman to notice the positive effect on her menses at the end of the two weeks. Are you the part of the population that gets phlegm or mucus after eating dairy? If so, I suggest removing it for at least two cycles, preferably three, and reassess how you are feeling at the end of that period of time.
The key with cravings is to figure out what it is that your body is asking for, in many cases your body is asking for nutrient dense foods, vitamins, and minerals. Cravings can also indicate a “lack of” emotional support or expression.
Be aware of and learn when your craving is from an emotional lack, boredom, or need to express (or stuff) versus a physiological need. It may take time for you to figure out which is which, when you do, you will feel more empowered when it comes to your food and nourishment needs at that time of the month and always.
Carbohydrate cravings also can take over at this time. Carbohydrate cravings can indicate a need for more protein in the diet, if you add more protein to each meal, in the form of lentils, beans, eggs, fish, meat, seeds, etc., you will notice a significant improvement in your carbohydrate cravings. If plain-old sweets are what you crave, take or eat something bitter, have a glass of water, then wait 10 minutes to see if the craving is still there. After that, well, the rest is up to you…
For years we’ve been told that chocolate cravings indicate a magnesium deficiency. Why is this? Raw cocoa powder (a 2.5TB serving) contains 92mg of magnesium (according to the FDA, that is 23% of the RDA.) That pretty much means that if you eat that whole bar of dark (80%+) chocolate, you are getting a whole lot of magnesium that you are mostly likely not otherwise getting daily. But, I am not telling you to eat the whole bar of chocolate! I’m explaining why eating all of that chocolate tastes and feels so good to your body.
Magnesium’s role in the body is to relax the muscles, and it is crucial for enzyme creation and responses, to name but two of magnesium’s many functions in the body. Do your muscles twitch, are you irritable, suffer from muscle spasms, have tender breasts, or have painful menstrual or muscle cramps? If so, your body is screaming that you need magnesium!
To address, take strong Epsom salt baths, a magnesium supplement (citrate, glycinate taurate, aspartate, chelated magnesium, malate, succinate, fumarate are the best forms), and eat foods rich in magnesium.
About magnesium supplementation: You can take from 400mg to 1,000mg of magnesium per day, the RDA for magnesium is 300mg/day – the RDA amount is not enough to maintain a healthy balance of magnesium in our stressful day-to-day lives. The more stressed out you are, the more magnesium you lose because the stressed body creates a vitamin B deficiency which then leads to magnesium deficiency because the body needs B-vitamins to absorb magnesium. Note: ensure you are taking a B-vitamin with B2, B5 and B6, since B-vitamins help the body absorb magnesium. Bonus tip: this information also applies to migraine sufferers!
A possible side effect from taking too much magnesium is diarrhea/very loose stools. According to several sources, magnesium glycinate prevents this from happening. If you do not have magnesium glycinate, but magnesium citrate (for example) start off with a minimal dose (ie 125mg if you are not taking any at the moment) and work your way up over the course of several days and weeks until you reach what is called “bowel tolerance.” Bowel tolerance is a nice way of saying that you experience loose stools/diarrhea. When you do reach bowel tolerance, back off the dosage of Magnesium slightly, and monitor how you feel. I prefer a combination of topical magnesium (Epsom salts, “oil” – which is a super saturated solution of magnesium chloride and water) and internal magnesium. This two-pronged approach allows for the muscles and parts of the body that need the magnesium the most (i.e. – tight calves) to get the topical treatment -skin is the body’s largest organ- while the rest of the body gains benefits from the internal treatment.
While you are working on your magnesium supplementation, eat Magnesium-rich foods: Figs, dates, spinach, swiss chard, beet greens, pumpkin seeds, collard greens, avocado, parsley, beans, barley, dandelion greens, almonds, brazil nuts, filberts/hazelnuts, wheat germ, kelp, dulse, pecans, walnuts, sesame seeds are some foods that are high in magnesium. (Limit your nut intake, as nuts can clog up your Liver’s works!) Remember, so much of our soil has been depleted from over-farming, and poor farming practices, that even if you ate a magnesium-rich diet you’ll most likely still need to supplement magnesium. As with everything, monitor how you feel and react, check in with your healthcare practitioner, and have your blood levels checked by your doctor.
Here’s a magnesium-rich recipe, just for you!
- Boil one bunch of: organic spinach, swiss chard or beet greens in salted water until tender – drain, squeeze out excess water when cool enough to handle.
- Grind 2TB pumpkin seeds to a fine powder, set aside
- In a separate bowl, combine sesame tahini (2TB), rice vinegar (1TB), soy or tamari sauce (1/2TB), and water (1/2TB) – stir to combine
- Once the liquids are combined, stir in the pumpkin seeds.
- Season to taste with additional vinegar, salt and pepper
- Dress your greens with the dressing – enjoy!
- This is even better if you have it with a piece of wild salmon!
When making any changes such as these, give yourself at least 2-3 cycles to adjust and see if changes are happening. Write down how you feel month-to-month, note any changes you’ve made, have felt, and anything else you think is worth mentioning (out of the ordinary or not.) When you do this, you’ll see if the changes you’ve made are helping in the long-term or not. So often we think what we are doing is not working, when we often have made great strides and don’t see it because we are in it. Having it written down shows us the progress we’ve made.
In Part Four, we will explore herbs and techniques that are commonly used to promote a healthy menstrual cycle.
This morning, at 4.45am almost three hours before I normally get out of bed, I was woken from a great deep sleep to the sound of glass crashing. The crash was from two very nice wine glasses, that we received as wedding gifts, one of my cats knocked over. I couldn’t go back to sleep. Running on about five hours and forty five minutes of sleep is not enough for this eight hour a night woman. I managed to get to work alright, almost fell asleep on the subway twice, and started to feel a migraine headache coming on. I immediately began my step-by-step migraine “plan” and was back to normal within 3 hours and the worst that I felt was an aura, slight nausea, and a headache that was not quite at the vice-grip/cotton stuffing phase but more at the slight piercing phase.
Migraines, in TCM, can be rooted in several different imbalances. Today I’m focusing on symptomatic relief versus long-term root-causes. I hope to have an in-depth look at Migraine headaches written some time in the near future.
1. Make a very very strong cup of chamomile tea (1oz by weight of herbs -about two large handfuls- per 1 pint of boiling water, or 5 teabags per mug of boiling water, cover the mug/vessel and let it steep for 20 minutes then strain and drink.) If you happen to have fresh ginger around, put two or three thin slices of ginger in with the chamomile. Strain, and drink.
This method helps relieve the nausea that is often associated with migraines, as well as the headache itself.
2. While some people have not had success with this herb, I feel it is a great migraine-reliever (especially when taken at the first sign of a migraine) – feverfew. It is best fresh, but I use it in powdered form in capsules from the healthfood store. Take 2-3 capsules at the first sign of the headache, then 2 capsules every 20-30 minutes thereafter (until relief is achieved.) Likewise, if you can get the fresh herb, chew one leaf every day as a preventative measure.
This herb helps “cool” the body down, and reduce the upward piercing pain that’s often associated with migraines/headaches.
3. Take herbs that are known to cleanse the Liver. Yogi Tea’s Green Tea Antioxidant has served me well in the past, and is easily purchased at the grocery store: place 2 teabags in a cup of boiled water and let steep, covered, for 20 minutes. This tea has both burdock and dandelion, two Liver cleansing herbs. Taking dandelion tea (or burdock tea) will also work well.
4. Get peppermint or lavender essential oil, depending on which scent you prefer if you can handle a strong scent at all. Dilute the essential oil (1 drop of essential oil mixed with 10 drops of a “carrier” oil such as jojoba, apricot kernel, olive, coconut, sesame, etc) and gently massage into the temples, between the eyebrows, and the tragus area of the ears. You can also rub this mixture into the base of the skull, gently massaging it. Those four areas cover a lot of points/areas that can offer relief for migraines.
For long-term help/relief:
1. Re-examine your diet.
Eliminate known migraine triggers: canned foods, pickled/heavily vinegared foods and vinegars, citrus, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol (especially red wine), artificial sweeteners, nitrates/nitrites and sulfates/sulfites, MSG, benzoates, nuts, soy, fermented soft cheeses (blue, Brie, cheddar, “moldy” cheeses, hard cheeses like Parmesan.)
If eliminating these foods does nothing for you, you might consider a food elimination diet. Eliminate all dairy and wheat/gluten from the diet for 6 weeks, then re-introduce one of the two items into the diet. Ingest those items two to three times per day for at least three days, note your reaction and then add the other item(s) back into the diet the same way – for a total of 6 weeks. Then repeat the elimination and note how you feel. This ensures that the initial elimination results are not placebo effect.
Examine what foods you are craving, oftentimes a craving for something (say a giant glass of orange juice when you normally don’t ever drink or eat oranges) is an indication not only of a vitamin/mineral deficiency but that a migraine is on the horizon. When this happens, take steps to ensure you are eating a balanced diet, and get plenty of rest for the next few days.
Take a quality multi-vitamin, vitamin D3 supplement (at least 1,000IUs/day), and a magnesium supplement (NOT magnesium oxide.) If you are under, and feel, considerable stress take a B vitamin complex. Many, many, migraines are caused from vitamin and mineral deficiencies – hence the need to supplement and eat whole, unprocessed, foods.
2. Ensure that you are getting adequate rest, sleep, and exercise.
Most migraine sufferers are lacking in work/life-relaxation/action balance – make sure you are balancing your life with not too much work, not too much rest/relaxation, not too much sleep, not too much exercise but moderate amounts. Try adjusting your routine and priorities list for a period of time, to see if that affects your migraines.
3. Learn to effectively manage stress and become resilient to it.
Begin a meditation, yoga or Tai Chi/Qi Gong routine to help you regain your center and balance, which will then help you manage your stress levels more effectively during stressful times. If this does not help, seek the guidance of a therapist.
4. Pay attention to the weather.
That’s right! Pay attention to the weather forecast. You might be surprised with how many people get migraines the day after it rains and it is bright, clear and windy! By paying attention to the weather, and barometric pressure in particular, you can effectively plan for how you might feel and be proactive. On days like the above, be sure to get adequate sleep, plan for extra rest, avoid stressful situations, and eat especially well!
5. Avoid fluorescent lighting.
Some migraine sufferers are extremely sensitive to fluorescent lighting, if this is you, do your best to avoid it. Work in an office? Move your desk close to a window and get an incandescent or halogen desk lamp to offset the fluorescent lights above you. Better yet, don’t use the overhead fluorescent lights if possible.
If you can’t avoid this type of lighting at work, try to take breaks and get outside whenever possible (at least once per day for 20 minutes mid-day.)
6. If you have not seen a doctor about your headaches, especially if they are frequent and/or severe, please go see one. If you’ve been unable to manage your headaches with diet and lifestyle changes, something else may be going on.
7. Consult with a qualified herbalist.
You’d be surprised what a daily herbal, diet and lifestyle protocol can do for migraine relief. Oftentimes, migraines are tied with other health issues that are not viewed as connected by medical doctors.
This is in part a candid disclosure of how I came to be where I am now, how I decided to become an herbalist and also a bit of a love letter to my school: East West School of Herbology. Thanks to East West, I have learned about how I’ve come to be as I am now, with my imbalances and all. So, let’s start as close to the beginning of the start of my ills as possible:
As a kid, I suffered from a lot of repeat infections and rounds of antibiotics. I’d go through periods where I was totally healthy, then get sick and unable to get rid of it on my own. Sometime in middle school, I started getting migraine headaches. When I went to college, I was on no particular sleep pattern – staying up for days on end with all but two hours of sleep – and having a similar eating pattern as well. When I finished college, and got a job, things got better but I still suffered from migraines, and horrible PMS (that I had had at the onset of menses.) Let’s just say that I felt like I couldn’t catch a break with my health!
A couple years before moving to Brooklyn, I was the victim of a sexual assault. That was very difficult time to get through, and I’m not ashamed of what happened to me. I’m talking about it here because I think things like this have happened to far too many women who have remained silent on the issue, including myself, who then go on to have a variety of health issues later on in life (physical/psychiatric/emotional.) It is important to talk to someone about it, and get the help you need. You don’t have to remain silent on the issue.
A year or so later, I started dating my husband and we decided it was time to move in together. I moved from a pretty comfortable and convenient life, happily living alone with my cat, pretty easy all things considered though not carefree by any means, to Brooklyn. I also started a very new and very demanding job. It was a huge change! That’s the second thing that really messed me up – the complete life overhaul. The new job that I had was so different from what I went to school for (I have a Master’s in Teaching, and a BFA in Printmaking), I had felt like some sort of failure for 1. not being able to get a teaching job in a city where there was a “teacher shortage” with a very expensive Master’s degree and 2. not being able to make any progress with art galleries and my artwork. It took me a long time to realize that these things really did happen for a reason. I felt so lost with my career path, this feeling went on for years. (I still work that same job from when I moved to Brooklyn, and I adore my boss. I’ve learned a lot from this job and her, and am very grateful.)
In the midst of my feelings of career failure, I developed a terrible depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (a severe type of PMS), seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that was so bad I would consider dropping everything in my life and running away, and then I began having regular migraines that almost cost me my job. I became more and more despondent, saw my doctor, began taking Prozac, put on 20lbs then became both emotionally numb and ashamed for gaining 20lbs. I had relationships that were toxic to my well-being, the list goes on! In short, I was a mess.
I got so tired of feeling horrible, I went to my doctor asked what I could do to help that wasn’t pharmaceutically driven – the suggestion: get a light box or go on birth control pills. Thus, I got a light box (10,000 lux) for my SAD, started taking St. John’s Wort, stopped taking Prozac and slowly started to see some semblance of light. Thankfully, my diet has never been a huge issue, but I still ended up making some changes (limiting dairy, and limiting/avoiding spicy foods.)
I kept getting migraines despite my best efforts, and I still felt incredibly stuck. I just couldn’t figure it out.
A year and a few months after I stopped taking Prozac, I had popped over to East West’s website and saw that their new coursebooks were available and being offered at a nice rate. That was October 2011. It was the best decision I’ve made regarding my “life’s work.”
It wasn’t until February of 2012 that I really had a breakthrough. After doing some major cleaning in my life, I had an “a-hah” moment during my East West lesson reading. I learned that a good deal of my list of issues fell pretty well into the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) pattern of Liver Qi Stagnation. One of the biggest causes of Liver Qi Stagnation is emotion stuffing – wherein a person does not express themselves often enough. Since starting with an herbal formula, I’ve felt like I’m more me and less my problems.
I feel “lighter”, no longer stuck, like my depression has decided to leave the building or at least not rain on my parade every single day. I feel less better at that time of the month, I feel like I can do things and that things will unfold when they should unfold. I’ve even caught myself singing (in the shower, walking down the street, cleaning, you name it.) I can’t remember the last time I would randomly start singing. A nice bonus is that I’ve lost about 15 of the 20lbs I gained from being on Prozac – that’s not entirely due to the herbs, but a combination of herbs, diet, exercise and I think general well-being gains. I haven’t had a “stuck all day in bed” migraine in a year, huge compared to the once a month plus ones I was getting! I’m a work in progress, I still have problems – but my problems don’t seem so difficult anymore, certainly not as insurmountable. It’s taken a lot of work and time, it has been worth it.
That is why I became an herbalist. If I can pull myself out of a terrible “stuck” with the use of herbs, diet and lifestyle changes (as well as some deep internal work), you can choose to get back to health too. I want to help people feel their best, get better, and become happier with their lives and selves. I want to share these joys with you.