Allostasis – an integral model for health and disease and its intersections with Chinese Medicine and Karma.

Jay Schulkin’s book, Rethinking Homeostasis: allostatic regulation in physiology and pathophysiology, is s a thorough discussion of the concept of allostasis. The concept of allostasis as described by Schulkin is a useful model that integrates often disparate scientific realms from the biochemical, the genetic, the molecular, the organismal, the psychological level, and places them in a social, environmental and evolutionary perspective.  Schulkin’s book is extensively well researched, with a bibliography spanning over 100 pages. Schulkin suggests the following definitions:

Allostasis; ” The process by which and organism achieves internal viability through bodily change of state. Allostasis comprises both behavioral and physiological processes that maintain internal parameters within the limits essential for life.”

Allostatic state: ” Chronic over-activation of regulatory systems and the alterations of body set points.”

Allostatic overload: ” The expression of pathophysiology by the chronic over activation of regulating systems.”

Allostasis provides a vital new model for approaching health because it integrates different fields and levels of understanding into a coherent picture and provides a whole person (from his genetics to his environment) understanding of an individual that is completely absent from our current medical model. In essence the concept of allostasis provides the beginnings of a western scientific model comparable to the Chinese or Ayurvedic “energetic” models that integrates the artificially sundered concepts of body, mind and soul. It does so by showing how behavior, emotions, social status, life events, etc., can effect physiology and neural patterns and potentially lead to pathology at the clinical level. This is the place where the Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine believe illness begins; the “energetic” and “emotional” level. Chinese doctors traditionally looked not just at the individual but their place (whether harmonious or disharmonious) in their family and community. Schulkin addresses the importance of social setting and human communications and physical contact in health, as well as stressful or traumatic live events  (allostatic state and overload) and discusses their physiological effects, and the circle of how the physiological then effects the emotional and behavioral level and ripples outwards to the social setting and environment. The physiological and behavioral patterns discussed by Schulkin regarding states of chronic fear or angst, anxiety, depression,  the effects of allostatic overload in pregnancy and on the fetus, and in drug addiction are strongly reminiscent of the symptom patterns described in Chinese medicine where pathology at the gross, organ level (western pathological diagnosis) is less informative than the actual emotional and physical symptom pattern displayed by the individual which is the apparent information that provides the practitioner with the data needed to find the root imbalance. In Chinese medicine this is described using energetic terms. In Schulkin the imbalances are either deficient or excess secretions of hormones, neurotransmitters or neuropeptides which effect metabolism and cause a complex pattern of changes visible at the metabolic, physical and emotional and behavioral level, or, the creation of states of hyper or under reactivity(such as increased number of CRH receptors-could this correlate to ideas of so-called false-excess or apparent deficiency in TCM?). These patterns (physiological, emotional and behavioral) are self-reinforcing-the more they’re used the stronger they get. Even more interestingly they can be propagated through the generations; patterns of anxiety can be passed on by the mother to their offspring, and even at the social levels we can see different cultures contributing to such patterns by their moors, rules, behavioral issues, dietary habits and they’re methods of interacting with “strange” behaviors (psycho-active drugs both prescribed and self-administered, etc). This summons to mind the concept of Karma, sometimes described in Buddhism as the net sum of an individuals thought, words, and actions, and the use of meditation and “right thought, right speech and right action” to erase old patterns (“bad karma”) and create new patterns of good behavior and calmness and clarity, as well as Karma as inherited karma and family or cultural karma. Interestingly, Schulkin brings up that researchers on allostasis have suggested that people should do activities that promote calmness such as transcendental meditation and that physiological states of chronic anxiety or hypersensitivity (so prevalent in our current culture) can be corrected. He also states that “consistent and reliable positive human touch and contact can mediate long-term effects of trauma and perhaps influence pathways related to CRH activity.” Which is proof enough that we need more hugs and less drugs in our modern health care system. Hopefully one day the medical system of the USA will catch up with the concepts of traditional knowledge and the scientific knowledge that so beautifully explains it in the language of western science.

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From Chaos to Quest – An Adventure in Nature


From Chaos to Quest – An Adventure in Nature is a “wilderness therapy” adventure facilitated by Owen Okie, wilderness guide to our inner nature, and mountain guide Tim Hamlet.



Why from Chaos to Quest?

From Chaos to Quest is a response to the current state of the world, the possibility for something creative and new to emerge from stormy waters, and how your day to day action, when aligned with your core values, can benefit yourself and the world around you.

Deep beneath the turbulence of our times there move hidden currents of meaning. These mythological, archetypal and universal strands interwoven into a complex tapestry of life, evolving, both individually and collectively. How do the individual strands of meaning and purpose in your life interweave into a cohesive and unique vision that integrates into the broader tapestry of life? Without meaning we are lost, adrift in the chaos of our times, the violence, the numbness, the heart-rending rat-race pace of modern life. In nature our physical, emotional, and mental rhythms slow into a greater coherence within ourselves, between us and other, and us and nature. In this state of coherence creativity can emerge from chaos, clarity from muddle, inspiration from lethargy,  and vision and purpose from meaninglessness.

Has time spent outdoors supported you through difficult times? How have you benefited from the healing and transformative support of nature? What if you could learn to access this support as needed to uplift you and find clarity in troubled times or when in search of wisdom and inspiration? Let me know how nature has supported you.

Testimonial from a previous EarthMind workshop:

“I’d not done an exercise like this before and so had no expectations. It turned out to be a very profound experience that blew me away. Accessing Nature’s voice lead me far into the forest and further still into the heart of me. It helped me to debunk many recent fears by illustrating very strongly my life’s journey and my actions needed for resolution. I came away feeling like I’d had given my soul a spa treatment!”






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How to reset your body clock, and get better sleep, with hiking boots and a tent – The Washington Post


I’ve written before about disruption to circadian rhythm and the “body clock” by electronic devices and their impact on sleep. This article brings up another solution, camping and time outdoors, as a means of restoring healthy circadian rhythm. It also provides a western scientific explanation for the benefits of aligning with the yearly cycle of the seasons. This is well aligned with practices in Chinese Medicine, as well as the recommendations of many herbalists, to allow oneself to rest and sleep more in the winter and to allow one’s rhythm to be determined, as much as possible, by sunset and sunrise. As a wilderness therapist and avid camper (I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1999) I’m personally very aware of the benefits of sleeping in a tent when it comes to my own quality and quantity of sleep. If you are having sleep issues I would highly recommend giving this a try.

“Studies find that being in the great outdoors, without a lot of light at night, resets our clock.

Source: How to reset your body clock, and get better sleep, with hiking boots and a tent – The Washington Post

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Herbs and Meditation – using herbal medicine to support your spiritual practice.

Herbs and Meditation

In addition to supporting general health and vitality there are a number of ways in which herbs can support your meditation. Their effect can be initiated in various ways – they can interact with your brain via your olfactory system in the form of incense or essential oils, applied topically in the form of herbal oils or salves, or be taken internally as teas or powders. Below is a brief list of possibilities:

1) Modulating stress response – regulating the HPA axis – Adaptogens such as Ashwagandha, Schisandra, Ginseng which help alleviate the impact of stress and support a healthy and functional response to stress with long-term usage.

2) Releasing Muscular and Mental/Emotional Tension and Anxiety – relaxing and calming the contracted body and spirit and appeasing the monkey mind. Nervines such as Skullcap, Passionflower, Chamomile. Skeletal Muscle Relaxants such as Skullcap, Black Cohosh, and Cramp Bark, massage oils. Essential oils can also shift mental and emotional states in particular ways and release tension from body and mind.

3) Shifting States of Consciousness – shifting from sympathetic to parasympathetic states. From predominantly beta brain wave patterns to alpha, theta and delta. Herbs such as: Holy Basil, psychoactive herbs, Nervines, essential oils (lavender – known to promote alpha brain-wave states), and supplements such as L-Theanine.

4) Deepening and improving breathing – Essential oils or teas of Mint or Thyme,  herbs such as Lobelia or green tea. Deep and relaxed breathing is an important part of most meditation techniques as well as practices such as Yoga and Tai Chi. Expanding and relaxing the bronchial and opening the respiratory system (or unclogging a stuffy nose) can really make a difference in the quality and ease of our meditation or practice.

5) Improving concentration – for short-term effects herbs such as Green tea, Mate, or Calamus may enhance meditative focus and alertness with less of the jittery effect associated with caffeine. Many essential oils can also provide a awakening and focusing effect as well.

6) Stimulating or Calming sexual energy. In some schools such as Kundalini Yoga and Tantric practices one deliberately uses specific techniques and sometimes herbs such as black pepper to stimulate“Kundalini” energy and the 1st and 2nd chakras. Conversely, in many monastic traditions, including Yogic and most Buddhist, hot spices such as garlic, cayenne, pepper and ginger are often avoided as over-stimulating – instead one is intent upon cooling or calming these energies. This is reminiscent of Gerard accusing Rosemary of stimulating the baser passions in his treatise on herbal medicine, as well as the history of hops and the creation of the Germany Purity Laws prohibiting the use of more stimulating herbs in beer in favor of the very sedative hops.

7) Optimizing cognitive capacity and memory – Herbs such as Bacopa, Gotu Kola and Gingko, as well as nutrients and supplements such as fish oil which may enhance mental function with regular usage. Bacopa and Gotu Kola have been traditional used to support meditation Such herbs may also assist in development of your cognitive line by enhancing your ability to study and learn (see Herbs and Scaffolding).

8) Constitutional Balancing – often our physical health, behavioral emotional, mental and spiritual patterns will fit into a constitutional profile. Imbalance in our lifestyle and diet can result in symptoms of varying subtlety from an overt pathology to a maladaptive behavioral or emotional pattern. Herbal and nutritional recommendations, as well as lifestyle practices (exercise, mindfulness, pranyama, etc), can return the individual to a healthy balance thereby creating an optimal state for meditation and spiritual practice.

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Book Review – The Wisdom of Not-Knowing

Hello Friends,

This is a book review written by Dr Laura Colucci-Gray, one of my advisors at the University of Aberdeen, on the collection in which I published an essay last January. She takes a look at the subject of “Not-Knowing” from the angle of education.






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What is a Herbalist?

A herbalist is a health practitioner whose primary tool for supporting an individuals health are botanical medicines and foods. There are many lineages of herbal medicine, and Western Herbalists are essentially eclectic in their influences, often bringing together a strong foundation in physiology and Western medicine (both herbal and conventional) with Eastern approaches such as Acupuncture (from China) or Ayurveda (from India). Underlying their diversity herbalists generally have several elements in common: they focus on the individual in the context of their environment (ecological, socio-economic, cultural and interpersonal), they take into account mind, body and spirit, they spend significant time with their clients (my initial consultation lasts two hours), and they use a combination of plants, supplements, and nutritional and lifestyle recommendations to support their clients. Herbalists believe in the healing power of nature and the human capacity for adaptation and the mind-body’s inherent drive towards healing and self-renewal.

Working with a herbalist is a collaborative process and requires self-responsibility, motivation, a willingness to learn and to examine (and change) one’s habitual patterns (behavioral, emotional, mental and interpersonal). Herbal medicine often exemplifies the “person-centered,” and “evidence-based” (in its original and not its restricted sense) approaches to medicine and combines elements of counselling, psychosomatic, psychosocial, lifestyle, functional and evolutionary medicine. These influences may originate from their studies of Western medicine and science or from the very integral medical paradigms of the East. When it comes to diagnosis and assessment herbalists often combine lab data, information about medical diagnoses from conventional practitioners, and in-depth case histories. This is frequently tied together in a more coherent framework using Eastern techniques such as pulse and tongue diagnosis to assess the individuals constitution (a typology seamlessly integrating mind and body). The consultation results in a gestalt of these varied strands of information forming a comprehensive picture of the client and their dilemma. This informs the herbalist in their recommendations and in particular their choice of specific botanical medicines, often in the form of a complex and synergistic formula.Though occasionally using single plants, most herbalists use formulas of 3 to as many as 30 (in formulas from Chinese medicine) plants. These will be taken or applied in the form of tinctures (usually hydroalcoholic extracts), teas, powders, capsules, essential oils, creams and salves.

In addition to this panoply of plants the practitioner-patient will collaborate in developing a strategy for improving nutrition and making key lifestyle changes for addressing poor sleep, energy levels, stress and emotional issues, relational or work concerns and increasing health positive activities (exercise, time in nature, meditation, etc.). An important part of the partnership lies in exploring the inter-dynamics of the clients life, helping them increase self-awareness of patterns of behavior, diet, exercise, sleep, emotions, physical symptoms, and so forth and elucidating problematic components and supporting health positive ones.

In their journey with the client the herbalist often plays many roles and must be adept in changing hats, often spontaneously, throughout the consultation as appropriate. The herbalist’s clients are often motivated by one of two, possibly overlapping, reasons. Some want to take a natural approach to supporting their health before resorting to conventional medicine, and so when a health issue arises they go to a herbalist first. Others are at their wits end, having been shunted like a hot-potato between medical practitioners, both GP’s and specialists. They have tried everything, sometimes suffering for years, often with little to no results. Some have been “given up on” by the establishment, and the herbalist amounts to their last hope. Why and when one approach fails and the other succeeds and their relative strengths and weaknesses is a significant part of this work and where Integral Theory can provide an invaluable contribution.

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Leading doctors list dozens of procedures that ‘give no benefit’ | Society | The Guardian

This article speaks for itself. It is a good example of the self-correcting process of science, and how it trickles down (eventually, and sometimes with resistance) into the practice of individual doctors and health-care institutions and medical schools. I find it very encouraging when the practice of medicine is “updated” to reflect the ever-growing body of research. It is a sign of openness, willingness to re-examine old assumptions and to change habitual practices. This is the step-by-step process by which health-care slowly improves.

yours truly




Doctors should think carefully about whether some procedures, including x-rays and casts, are needed, says Academy of Medical Royal colleges

Source: Leading doctors list dozens of procedures that ‘give no benefit’ | Society | The Guardian

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