Grassroots Healing, Plant Medicine

On reviving the Vital response.

I have to confess that sometimes, I struggle to articulate myself well. I read a lot, I study a lot, I learn a lot from my clients as well as my elders, and I experience all of my roles in life deeply. As such I have a lot going on upstairs, and in my heart. I also had a really bad case of writer’s block for several months. At some point, I will seek out the wild calamus root and take a bite or two. In the meantime, I need to quote the wisest man that ever was with the disclaimer that;

there is nothing new under the sun.”

and warn you that this post will probably be quote-heavy.  I would also like to give thanks to my teachers Sajah Popham, Matt Wood, David Winston, Kiva Rose, the eclectics, physio-medicalists, my guru – the Rambam (Maimonides), the Myddfai physicians, Hippocrates, and indigenous peoples everywhere for the following insights and (re)discoveries. And obviously to the great Creator for making it available and giving us the faculties to sense it.

So with that being said……

Once upon a time, I was an eight year old girl who, watching as my 22 y.o aunt suffering with neurofibromatosis died in a medical system that has little changed since, came up for air from my dreamworld long enough to wonder if the humans had lost sight of the forest for the trees. Why did she have to die? I heard rumours whispering through those trees that she was fine until the doctors opened her up, and then the thing spread like wildfire. But she did die, and I retreated back into my dreamworld, all the while keeping these thoughts of ‘but why?’ tucked in my subconscious until the absorbed experience of other relatives and friends, and far off acquaintances and their plight at the hands of this system became too much to ignore. Surely, I asked myself, there is a better way?

You are greater than the sum of your parts.”

It is human proclivity to assume that the ancients – or even our previous generation – were primitive in thought; stupid, unintelligent, and lacking a general understanding of how life works. I have a teenager who reminds me of this often. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In a world now long gone, and devoid of digital distractions and #fakenews, some of our ancestors knew very intimately how life worked. Either agrarian or nomadic, they knew the ley of the land, the wheel of the year and it’s cycle of seasons, the migratory or growth patterns of various species, the value of relationship with the land, the creation and each other. And they became skilled observers of the patterns that emerged from the flow of the very essence of life, that of the Vital Force. Fortunately, these observations were preserved in the various healing traditions of East and West – before the advent of chemical medicine, and these are still available today. In these traditions the Vital Force is termed Prana (Sanskrit), Qi (Chinese), Life force, or the Ruach (Hebrew). There are probably many other terms specific to the culture in question. This Vital Force is that which enlivens and directs our integrated being – spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical.

The Vital Force unfurling. Image credit: ©M.Carnochan 2017 

This observation and acknowledgement of the Vital Force provided a foundation for a truly Wholistic view on the human condition, in sickness as well as health. It allowed a system of healing to develop that considered the unique and tangible constitution of the individual, as well as sound diet and lifestyle practices to support optimal health and healing, and plant medicines to address the specific patterns that the vital force worked in sickness. It also allowed for a system that acknowledged that plants, as well as people, are greater than the sum of their parts.

Our modern practice of Western Herbal Medicine, if it’s wholistic, draws much from the observations of the ancients, as well as those more contemporary practitioners with a keenly developed insight into the natural world. I say, “if it is wholistic”, because I see an unnerving trend to practice from the biomedical, or largely reductionist perspective, especially if it’s in the name of integration. We see this in the many soundbites and memes breeding in the interwebs that include such gems as, ‘if you have inflammation, take turmeric!’, or this classic, “Juniper essential oil is good for kidney infections!” My alarm bells reach fever pitch every time I log onto Facebook. And if you bear with, I’ll get to the point and tell you why.

Unfortunately, reductionism – that lovechild from the ‘age of enlightenment’ – is the lens through which the modern world views Life. In his book, The Lost Language of Plants, the inimitable Stephen Buhner quotes James Lovelock, author of Healing Gaia;

The problem of reductionism lies with the belief that the method of examining systems by taking them apart is all that is needed. Reductionists are certain that there is nothing in the whole system that cannot be predicted from the knowledge of the parts….[But] to understand [the universe] and its most complex entities – living systems – reduction alone is not enough.”

Stephen then further comments; Reductionism presents further significant problems. The greatest indicator of fundamental errors in the epistemology of science is what happens over time to the peoples and nations that internalise it as a primary epistemology. Specifically: How do they treat other people, other life forms, the environment? What happens to their culture?

Let’s all take a moment to think about that. Like, seriously. How many specialists did you say you have? How many drugs are you taking? They want to do What?!

While reductionism, or breaking things down and isolating their parts, has proven itself in helping further our knowledge of the intricacies of our exquisite organism, and granted, conventional biomedical thinking has its place in therapy, it has also given us the age of ‘wonder drugs’ and the mindset of the silver bullet, that ‘quick fix’ approach to medicine, the one-size-fits-all approach. The poison, cut, and burn! approach. It has given us antibiotics, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, opiate drugs, vaccinations, and hormone drugs – to name but a few – all of which fail to address the bigger picture and, due to their designed nature of not being readily broken down by the body and thus readily excreted along with your normal waste into the waterways, have done indisputable and potentially irreversible damage to the Earth’s eco-systems.

Alienated from Nature, human existence becomes a void, the wellspring of life and spiritual growth gone utterly dry. Man grows ever more ill and weary in the midst of his curious civilisation that is but a struggle over a tiny bit of time and space.”

(Masanobu Fukuoka; The Natural Way of Farming.)

So my eight year old self grew, and I found that there is a better way of viewing life, and a more complete way of how we can heal. And I began to practice Western Herbal Medicine as a Vitalist, just as the sense-able humans had always done, because there’s nothing new under the sun and when you’re onto a good thing, you should probably stick to it. This accounts for the success of Ayurveda and TCM.

So what does a Vitalist foundation or a truly wholistic practice of Herbal Medicine look like? And what differentiates it from the biomedical approach – or conventional medicine?

I’m glad you asked.

After assessing the necessary lifestyle and environmental factors, we seek to determine the unique constitution of the individual. This allows us to see behind the physiology, the psychology, and the organism as a whole. (Sajah Popham)

In the Ayurvedic tradition of India, it is said that we have two constitutions;

  1. Prakviti– the innate or essential nature that we are born with. This is where we see inheritances of personality, physical appearance, genetic inheritances and weaknesses, and the influence of our womb experience manifest.
  1. Vikruti – the assumed or current patterns that we see that have arisen from our diet and lifestyle practices, habits, and environmental influences. In modern speak, we may think of this as  our epigenetic constitutional picture and will largely influence the local state of the tissues as described further on.

In the majority of systems that acknowledge constitutions, the basis of differentiation is on the elements – earth, water, fire, air – each representing various aspects of the body such as structural – bones and connective tissue (earth), fluids – water, oils, blood, plasma, lymph (water), digestive and metabolic power (fire), and respiration (air). We see these in the four temperaments of early Greek medicine (Melancholy, Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic), the three doshas of Ayurveda (Vata -air, Pitta -fire, Kapha water/earth), and the 5 elements of TCM (they include wood and metal as a sub for air), and there are others. There are also constitutional systems that I am aware of based on endocrine (or hormone) preponderance, body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), and the animal representations devised by NZ medical herbalist Richard Whelan. However these also follow the same energetic patterns of the elemental models. It is a universal application. The relative ratios of these elements differentiates the organism and this determines the individual constitution.

In brief, if we were to take the Ayurvedic constitutions (doshas) as an example, they would look a little like this (these may also occur in combination);

Constitution Main Characteristics
Vata (air/wind) Cold, dry, changeable, nervous restlessness, typically thin build and quite tall, or petit. Overactive mind, hard time focussing. Very imaginative. Digestive issues such as gas and bloating. Dry skin and hair. Worse for movement.
Pitta (fire) Hot, driven, ambitious, focussed. medium height and build. Hot temper. Strong digestive fire, can lead to acid reflux etc if imbalanced. Active.
Kapha (water/earth) Slow moving, sleepy, sluggish. Slow metabolism. Nurturing by nature. Can become depressed, sad, dull and foggy, and needing to hold onto things.

But we can go even deeper in our differentiation

The Vitalist practitioners of the physiomedical tradition of 19th century North America introduced the Six Tissue State observations. This has been further developed by the master herbalists, Matthew Wood and David Winston, along with the corresponding tastes and vitalist actions of the plants, which I’ll outline further on and go into more depth in my next post. The six tissue states determine the specific constitution of the tissue and therefore determines the state of the organ. This provides an extraordinary insight into the movement of the Vital Force in the pathology of illness and disease. It also provides a more specific, wholistic, individual, and appropriate use of the herbs. The Six Tissue States are as follows and they are based on Temperature, Moisture, and Tone of the tissue.

  • Heat/Excitation
  • Cold/depression
  • Damp/Stagnation
  • Dry/Atrophy
  • Damp/Relaxation
  • Wind/Tension

and we can observe them in the body like this;

Tissue State Spiritual Mental Emotional Physical
Heat/Excitation Zealot, enthusiastic in the faith- can lead to Extremism. “Type A’ personality, driven. Temper, ‘fired up’, passionate. Irritability. Anxiety, tension, restlessness. Warm/hot to touch, redness, irritation, swelling, tender, burning sensations. the tongue is elongated, flame-shaped, bright pink/red. The mucous membranes and the capillaries are typically affected by heat. Rapid bounding pulse. may have high blood pressure. Hypersensitivity, hyperimmunty.
Cold/Depression Lacking in faith, no sense of purpose, unfruitful. Dullness of mind, apathetic. Prone to depression and melancholy. Low energy. fatigued. Cold skin and extremities, poor peripheral circulation. Pale skin. Pale tongue with white or thick coating. Under secretions. Septic, or putrefying conditions, prone to infection. Slow wound healing. Pulse is weak and slow.
Damp/Stagnation Stuck in a rut, bogged down in one aspect of their belief, but wanting to grow. Depression, dullness, cloudy thinking, can’t concentrate, lack of focus. Languid. A build up of waste products due to poor elimination, which leads to a thickening of fluids (lymph,etc). Pain feels heavy, dull, dragging, bearing down. Bloating. Because of lymph stagnation and liver congestion, the skin is typically affected and skin conditions are common. Hangover. Fibromyalgia type pain.
Dry/Atrophy Once had faith and and a sense of purpose but it wasn’t affectively nourished. Withered, weathered, diminished. Nervousness, tension, stress, lack of confidence, hard time asserting themselves. Low will power and vital reserve. Anxious. Weakness, withering, emaciation, loss of flesh. The tongue is typically dry, the skin is dry, and there may also be constipation or poor digestion. The mucous membranes, the skin, and the synovial fluids that lubricate the joints are most typically affected due to a lack of secretion. Sticking, sharp pains. Irritated coughs due to dry respiratory conditions. The dryness is due to lack of water as well as oils. The atrophy due to undernourished tissue.
Damp/Relaxation No solid framework to their faith or belief system. Goes with the flow, can’t seem to grasp a clear sense of purpose. Often a mellow, relaxed disposition. Goes with the flow’. The tissues can’t hold onto fluid due to a lack of tone. There may be prolapse or herniation. Excessive sweating, salivation, diarrhoea, urination, menses. Varicose veins
Wind/Tension Fixed in a belief, but is changeable and then they become fixed in that belief. Anxiety, stress, tension. There’s a significant nerve/gut connection here. nervous, tense, wound up. Constriction and cramping, spasms. Symptoms come on suddenly or come and go, they are irregular, or alternating (eg; constipation and diarrhoea). The gut is typically affected, although this has much to do with its connection to the nervous system as the smooth muscle tissue is affected.


Herbalist, Sajah Popham teaches the wonderfully useful perspective of our internal ecology as a reflection of the earth’s ecology – hence tissue states may be likened to dry desert like conditions, swampy or boggy conditions, cold tundra, or humid rainforest conditions etc. This is useful because it begins to reconnect us with the rest of creation, and it also increases our understanding of the plants that we might use.  The tissue state isn’t always this delineated however, and some tissue states can give rise to others, for example a hot/excited state can lead to dry/atrophy. A damp/stagnant state might also lead to heat/excitation, which may then lead to dry/atrophy. The beauty of this system is that coupled with an understanding of anatomy and physiology, we can still observe these patterns through our modern eyes, through the lens of biomedicine and see that it is translatable. The main difference is that with this wholistic understanding we are viewing life through a wider lens. We are treating the whole person.


Perhaps the most classic example of the intelligence of the Vital Force and it’s movement in the body can be seen in the mechanism of Fever. The body’s ability to generate a fever is an important part of our immune health. At the beginning of an illness which produces a fever, we feel cold and shivery and look pale. This is because the hypothalamus, (which regulates our body temperature) has turned up the heat, whilst at the same time constricted the blood vessels under our skin so the heat can be kept inside. This increase in heat creates an environment which pathogens don’t find very hospitable. But if it gets too hot, damage to the internal organs (especially the brain) can occur, so once the immune response has been stimulated the hypothalamus begins to cool the body down by relaxing the constricted blood vessels allowing sweat to escape. This is when the fever ‘breaks’. The sweat contains toxins and debris from the pathogens as well as the body’s own metabolic waste. It is a relatively quick and efficient method of cooling the body and excreting waste products, and people typically feel much better afterward. (The sheets on the bed that the patient is resting in should be changed regularly during the course of the illness due to this toxic sweat). Conventional wisdom uses drugs such as Tylenol or Panadol to suppress the fever, however this ‘quick fix’ approach of suppression can do more harm than good in the long term, because it stops the movement of the Vital Force and can drive the infection deeper into the body.

Chronic suppression of acute conditions leads to chronic disease.” (Sajah Popham)

The Vitalistic and wholistic approach endeavours to support the movement of the Vital Force. For this we typically use herbs appropriate to the underlying tissue state and that also possess a diaphoretic action. A diaphoretic opens the pores to allow heat and toxin-laden sweat to escape the body. This has an after effect of cooling the body down. The art and science of herbal medicine therefore meet in the skill of the practitioner to assess the underlying state, and then prescribe accordingly.

So why do my alarm bells go of when I read infobytes on the internet about this herb being good for that? Because, conversely, just as the human body is enlivened by a Vital Force, so to are the plants, and just as we experience patterns of energetics, so too do the plants. For example, the taste and effects of Juniper is spicy, pungent, and stimulating. The essential oil (volatile oils) concentrates these characteristics. Infection in the actual kidney is a pretty serious affair, and somewhere in its pathology will be a hot and irritable state. Giving a plant that is by nature warm and stimulating will only aggravate this state and potentially cause more serious damage. The same can be said for Turmeric. It is also a warming, pungent, and drying plant. It is often combined with black pepper to increase it’s absorption in the body – a plant which is warming, pungent, and stimulating. If a person is constitutionally hot and dry, then taking turmeric and pepper long term will aggravate that constitution. The ‘anti-inflammatory’ effects of Turmeric are based on the biomedical isolation of a key constituent called curcumin. If we take the whole picture of person and plant energetics into account, then a typically hot, dry, and inflamed person can take turmeric when it is balanced in a herbal formulation with more energetically appropriate herbs by a skilled practitioner. This will then ensure a much more successful treatment.

In my next article, I will discuss the Vital intelligence and the energetic patterns of the plants in more depth. As a brief outline, plant energetics also follow the same principles of Temperature, Moisture, and Tone. These are largely ascertained by the taste of the herb and the effects that we notice in the body as a result. This way of directly experiencing a herb as a potential medicine using our senses is known as Organolepsis.

Temperature – the herb may taste or produce a sensation of warmth or heat (the effect of this is a stimulation of the vital force, metabolism, so we use it to relieve the cold/depression tissue state.) Conversely, it may produce a cooling sensation (this sedates or slows down the metabolic fire, so we use it reduce tissue irritation.) The plant can also be neither hot nor cold. This is a neutral temperature and can be used across all constitutions and tissue states.

Moisture – the effects of the taste, or the mouthfeel of the herb might be moistening, and may produce more secretions such as salivation, or it might be a mucilaginous plant (this energetic lubricates and softens hard tissue, and reduces atrophy.) A plant might be considered drying if the effect is to produce a dry mouth, or it has a diuretic action. It removes excess fluid from the tissues, and we use it relieve stagnation or relaxation. The final sensation is balanced and it us used to harmonise a herbal formula and normalise the tissues.

Tone – The herb may have the effect of constricting, or tightening tissue (such as ‘puckering’ effect in the mouth), this increases the tone of the tissue, it also reduces excess secretions, and we use it to counteract increased relaxation of the tissue structure, such as with bleeding. A plant might have a relaxant effect – we see this as an antispasmodic action and therefore useful in tension and cramping pain. This effect also increases secretions and counteracts tension and constriction. The final energetic effect here is nourishing. These are the nutritive herbs which are typically rich in mineral salts and help to feed and heal the tissues.

There are Five key tastes and Four ‘mouthfeels’ that give rise to the energetics as well as the actions of the herbs on the body, and the affinities they have for the specific organs. The tastes are also largely indicative of the constituents (or chemical makeup) of the herb. The tastes are:

  • Bitter
  • Pungent
  • Sour
  • Sweet
  • Salty

The ‘Mouthfeels’ are: astringent (drying, puckering), acrid (like Bile), oily, and mucilant (slippery, moist, slimy)

If you’ve stuck with me this far, well done and thank you so much. Coupled with the aspects of life that we should always first consider: good diet, regular movement, nourishing sleep, optimal hydration, regular exposure to sunshine, an environment conducive to good health, and a sense of purpose in life, we can see that an understanding of the Vital Force, and how it moves in our unique body as well as the plants we use, outlines a truly wholistic system of healing. What I have shared in this post is but a brief glimpse at this beautiful model. I hope it has piqued your interest enough to join me as I endeavour to go into further details in future posts.

Michelle x

References and Resources.

Buhner, Stephen. The Lost Language of Plants. White River Junction, VT. Chelsea Green. 2002.

Griggs, Barbara. The Green Pharmacy.

Popham, Sajah. The School of Evolutionary Herbalism. Lecture notes.

Waller, Pip. Holistic Anatomy: An Integrative Guide to the Human Body. Berkley, CA. North Atlantic Books. 2010.

Wood, Matthew. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism. Basic Doctrine, Energetics, and Classification. Berkley, CA. North Atlantic Books. 2004.

_____________ The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkley, CA. 2008.

______________ The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. Berkely, CA. 2009.  assessment of constitution from an Ayurvedic perspective. Also has a great list of recipes and looks at the energetics of food. New Zealand medical herbalist, Richard Whelan’s animal archetypes. Herbalist, Rebecca Altman has written several articles discussing the four temperaments.

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