Integrative Medicine: An Interview With Dr. Tieraona Low Dog
This article was republished from Numen Blog.
We were so grateful to be able to interview Dr. Tieraona LowDog for Numen where we spoke outside her office at the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine where she serves as the Director of the Fellowship program. She has recently published a book, Life is Your Best Medicine, in which she shares much of her health philosophy as well as many personal stories and life experiences. It is a wonderful book! She offers a distance learning course, weekend courses for health professionals and more. She also has a YouTube channel with numerous brief videos offering health tips.
Our conversation was far-ranging and many of the highlights are included in Numen. Below are some selections from the interview, some of which made it into the film and some of which did not.
Plants And Spirit In Integrative Medicine
Ann: What role do intention and spirit play in herbal and integrative medicine?
Tieraona: I think there is a lot to be said about intentional healing or spiritual healing. Herbalists talk about the spirit of plants, the spirit within the plants that creates healing. I’m not sure how much of that aspect of healing can really be experienced when you’re sucking back a couple of capsules with a swallow of water on your way running out the door to go to work.
There is something more profound that happens when you actually sit and prepare tea. You have to boil the water; you see the loose herbs. You pour the water over the herbs and let it steep. You strain the chamomile. You sit down. You drink the tea slowly because it’s hot. If you allow it, it can be a totally meditative experience.
But I’d take it even a step further. Some of the most profound healing associated with plants is found in Nature herself, in a garden, a forest or the desert; when you’re out amongst the plants themselves. Much of our lives today are spent apart from the natural world and I think there is a longing, a deep need, for human beings to be part of Nature. But many people today just want the capsule, give it to me quick, I want it now, make it simple, I don’t want to taste it, I don’t want to have to interact with it, I don’t want to experience it. Just fix me. Let me be a passive recipient, not an active participant in my own healing process.
Ann: In your chapter in Ecological Medicine, you seemed to have a certain amount of outrage or incredulousness around how we have lost common sense in treatment. Can you can talk about the loss of common sense and how we get back to that?
Tieraona: Common sense. It’s the least common sense of them all, isn’t it?
So much of our health is grounded in personal responsibility. You could take all the immune herbs in the world but if you don’t wash your hands, what use are they? If you eat a diet that doesn’t nourish you, it doesn’t matter how many vitamins you take, it’s not going to make you feel healthy. The field of neuro-psycho-bioimmunology has shown us that the way you think and feel affects your physiology, that the relationship between the mind, body and spirit is real. And we act as if this is something new. I bet if we polled most of our grandparents or our great grandparents, that would not surprise them. Our very language demonstrates a connection between our emotional state and physical being: it broke my heart; I had butterflies in my stomach; it took my breath away.
It bewilders me why so many refuse to do the things that will keep them healthy and strong, instead relying upon the prescription drugs to treat many disorders that have their roots in poor lifestyle choices. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for biomedicine, I am grateful for the medications that have been developed and I am also outraged at the illusion that we continue to perpetuate that it is the only approach to health or to disease.
To give you a classic example: We now have many studies showing that a Mediterranean dietary pattern is far better than a low fat diet for reducing the risk of heart disease and heart attack. The Lyon heart study actually found that in men who’d had a heart attack, that it reduced the risk of having another heart attack by more than 70%. Compare that to the 34% reduction in risk in the simvastatin statin study. But here we are still promoting statins and low fat diets, when the overwhelming amount of evidence shows that if you cut out refined processed carbohydrates and eat a varied amount of fats, lean meats and fish, and lots of veggies and fruits you’ll cut your risk of heart disease dramatically, as well as reducing your risk for diabetes and certain cancers.
Physicians tell me they prescribe statins because patients won’t change their diets or exercise. I don’t think everyone is that short-sighted or uneducated or unmotivated; I include myself here because when it comes to our healthcare, we are all consumers. There is power when a clinician tells you that you can cut your risk of heart disease essentially in half if you change your diet, walk more, manage your weight. Or if you prefer, you can take this medication that may give you muscle weakness, harm your liver and possibly even raise your risk for diabetes. The choice should be ours to make, but patients aren’t always, or even usually, presented all the options.
Ann: Is it simply a matter of needing to educate patients and consumers of health care or are we up against something more sinister like greed and the bottom line in the approach of pharmaceutical companies?
Tieraona: I believe that health professionals must remain, to a certain degree, separate from industry. You have to always check yourself to make sure you are always advocating for the patient, not the drug company. And the scientific evidence needs to have integrity. What you read in scientific journals must be as honest and forthright as possible with clear transparency about who is conducting the research, who paid for the research, and who stands to gain from the research.
I would also argue that we must have the same transparency in the dietary supplement world. An herbalist must be, to a certain degree, separate from industry and we must be clear and transparent about any connections that exist. Does the author of an article also have an herb company and will they benefit if the readers of the article buy their products? If the research is sponsored by the herbal products industry, that has to be clear and transparent as well.
And the patients, the consumers who are trying to advocate for their own health, must have a certain amount of cynicism, they have to think critically about what they’re reading and what they’re hearing. When we look at the broad population, I realize not everybody is going to have the same knowledge base needed to make critical decisions, and that’s why medical journals, supplement/herbal journals and advertisements must have integrity about the way they convey their messages.
We have to bring the same critical edge needed in the drug industry to our own industry of herbal medicine. Sure one industry is enormous and the other small. But the ethics must apply to us all. We can’t suggest in any way that just because you’re in the field of herbal medicine, just because you dance with the plants, that by default you have high integrity.
The Business of Herbs
Ann: There is a lot of question these days about the quality of the plants in the herbal medicine that is sold. What are some of the challenges of sourcing plant medicine?
Tieraona: As herbal medicine has become more popular, it has become a huge industry, billions of dollars in global sales. This raises many issues regarding quality. Are the ingredients what they claim to be on the label? Is the product free of contaminants and adulterants? And even more, what about the sustainability of the herbs, are they organic, were they wildcrafted in an ethical manner? There are ethical issues about intellectual property rights of indigenous populations who “share” their knowledge of herbs and then we take those plants and profit greatly while possibly depleting the local environment of the peoples’ medicines.
Or course quality matters. Your finished product can only be as good as your starting material. It can only be as good as what you put into it. I love the growing number of companies who grow the herbs themselves, who control them from seed to finished product, and who make their own tinctures from herbs they have grown. They’re in control from the very beginning to the very end. Many of these companies are growing their herbs bio-dynamically and organically, tenderly caring for their soil and plants. Let’s be clear, though, that this represents a very small part of the industry.
I used to wildcraft herbs and I’d keep some and sell some. I remember going out to harvest chaparral. It was a lot of work. We’d have to head out early in the morning and harvest before the heat of the southern New Mexico sun overwhelmed both the pickers and the plants. After the picking, you had to garble, clean and dry the herbs. Then we’d try to sell it and you’d be offered less than a buck a pound. It would take hours and hours of work to get ten pounds of really clean chaparral. And who wants to do that for $10 a day?
There are a lot of layers to the industry. Are we willing to pay the price for people to do this type of work? We exploit many people in third world countries to harvest what we need to make our essential oils and provide our raw materials. We cannot go after the coffee companies or other industries without being willing to shine that light on our own industry, as well.
For me, I personally believe it is important to teach people how to make their own medicine, things like Echinacea, Catnip, Chamomile and Barberry tinctures and/or glycerites.
It’s really no different from cooking in your kitchen. We’ve made this so complicated that people feel like they couldn’t possibly make their own Chamomile tea or Echinacea tincture. Well, making a chocolate soufflé is much harder than making an Echinacea tincture for your own family’s use. Making home remedies is not the same as starting an herb company and selling tinctures across fifty states. But it is the same thing as making cookies for your daughter’s bake sale. You just have to make sure you have the right herbs to use.
I am a strong advocate for this kind of information and education. I don’t see any difference between making my cough drops and rolling them out in slippery elm powder and putting them into a tin than I do from making homemade bread. It’s really the same skill set. You just have to know that your starting material is of good quality.
This is an art that is being lost. I see many herbalists recommending products that their clients must buy instead of teaching them ways to grow some of these herbs in their garden and/or make those tinctures and cough drops themselves so that they can not only save money but also become more self reliant and self responsible.
This is also part of the healing that comes with plants. When you grow the herb in your garden, pick it and make it into a tea or tincture, you have a different relationship to that plant than when you buy it in capsules off the shelves. It’s like watching your children eat veggies right out of the garden or picking the apple off your own tree. It’s magical.
I’m not anti products. I’m just saying that there is a different relationship with the plant when you make the medicine yourself. I want to help people learn to use common things to treat common things, to be able to treat the minor stuff that pops up easily, inexpensively, and with many of the ingredients they probably already have in their kitchen.
Our conversation then turned to a discussion of what people are looking for when they are sick, what allopathic doctors can offer and what herbalists can offer. The highlights of that conversation are included in Numen. Below, to me, is one of the most powerful points Tieraona made in our conversation.
Tieraona: Women will come in and say, you know doc I just feel tired, I don’t feel right, I just don’t feel good in myself. And we’ll screen them for anemia, check their thyroid, make sure their liver is working right, we do all these laboratory tests. And when they come back two weeks later we say, “Good news! Everything’s fine, you’re fine.” They leave the office but still don’t feel right. Everything isn’t fine. They still feel the way they did when they went to the doctor, but now they’ve been told everything’s okay. Where do they go? What do they do now?
While it could be any number of physical problems that don’t show up on a lab test, I have to say that I find that many people are looking for something more. They want narrative, they want some context for the way they feel. They are looking for the connections, for meaning in their lives. The level of soul sickness, soul pain, spirit pain I see in my practice is immense. This can’t be found in laboratory value or by doing a scan. But it doesn’t make the pain and anguish any less real.
This article was republished from Numen Blog.
Numen is an award-winning documentary film celebrating the healing power of the plants. Featuring stunning footage of medicinal plants and thought-provoking interviews with Drs. Tiearona Lowdog and Larry Dossey, the late Bill Mitchell, ND, author Kenny Ausubel, herbalists Rosemary Gladstar, Phyllis Light and many others, the film calls for a re-awakening of traditional knowledge about plants and their uses. Watch the trailer here.