A recent publication in the journal of the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors; a meander through the evolution of my understanding of cultural sensitivity.
I came to both my career and my spiritual community as an adult. I was familiar with neither growing up, and when I encountered each I felt a deep resonance and a sense of home. Over the years, I've noted a number of similarities between my chosen profession and my chosen faith; they were brought to the forefront again this morning while listening to my wonderful minister Shawn Newton preach about what it means to be Unitarian-Universalist - not the least of which is the tendency of members of both communities to eat tofu and sprouted grains.
If you're not familiar with Unitarian-Universalism, here's a primer. If you're not totally sure what naturopathic medicine is all about, here's some info on that too. And now that you're an expert on both, I will share some reflections on the connections that I see.
Both naturopathic medicine and Unitarian-Universalism (UUism) are defined not by a set of rules, but by principles and values. This to me is the most important similarity, and what sets each apart so distinctly from other approaches to health care and other religions. Just as naturopathic medicine is not defined by the tools used (acupuncture? herbs? nutrition? homeopathy? ... depending on the naturopathic doctor you see, you will likely get a different approach to your concerns), UUism is not defined by doctrine. Members are not expected to believe in a particular god (or any god at all), nor to pray in a particular way, nor to engage in specific rituals or sacraments. Neither is guided by rigid structure, but by values and principles that act as filters through which I see the world and my patients, and make choices.
This makes for tremendous diversity within both communities. Shawn commented this morning that a group of UUs will tend to have incredibly diverse views on a topic, which, in my opinion, is what makes the community so rich and interesting. It is the same with naturopathic medicine. Many colleagues have expressed concern that the diversity in our profession is a weakness - it leads to lack of clarity within the public and among allied health professions around what it is we DO. However, I feel it is a deep asset. Diverse views and approaches allow for growth and thoughtful individualisation. In healthcare, it enables consideration of the whole person (a core principle of naturopathic medicine), and the evolution of our understanding of medicine; in religion, it allows for a free search for truth and meaning (a core principle of UUism). Both emphasize responsibility in this process. I consider myself largely agnostic when it comes to both my profession and my spirituality. It's impossible for me to say what will work medically for an individual - even if the best randomized, controlled trial shows an awesome efficacy, every recommendation in the clinic is a brand new n-of-1. Similarly, I would feel arrogant to assume I understand the mysteries of the universe - although I am familiar with the comfort of feeling part of something greater, and believe deeply that if there is a god, she is benevolent (an important component of the Universalist part of UUism).
Accredited naturopathic medical colleges provide education in a variety of interventions - nutrition, lifestyle counselling, botanical medicine, homeopathy, traditional Asian medicine, physical medicine and pharmacology. Although some might argue that we are Jills of all trades and masters of none, naturopathic doctors are uniquely skilled in integrating evidence-informed strategies from different healing models to meet the needs of their patients. Similarly, UUism values its rich religious pluralism, drawing from many sources of wisdom, including (but not limited to) Judeo-Christian teachings, Humanist philosophy, Pagan spirituality, and Buddhist principles. A variety of sources allows the individual to explore their own faith. Just as I could visit the offices of colleagues and witness unique meldings of healing approaches, UU services are a harmonious blend of meditation, prayer, music, and readings from a tremendous range of origins.
UUism holds dearly the "inherent worth and dignity of every person," and, "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations." This is reflected in naturopathic medicine through the importance of treating the indiviual. These spiritual and professional guideposts come into play in the clinic as I do my best to honour the unique experience of the patient in front of me, their preferences and their values (a critical aspect of evidence-informed practice). I strive to approach medicine as a collaboration with my patient, creating space for them to identify and express how I best can help them, and what is feasible for them. This also invokes the UU principle of honouring the democratic process. Naturopathic medicine emphasizes the importance of seeking and addressing the root cause of disease. In a similar way, UUism emphasizes a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning". Both models highlight the importance of keeping an open, compassionate mind, being curious, and going more deeply than what may initially meet the eye.
Naturopathic medicine shares many of its values with other healing professions - do no harm, prevent disease, provide education - although each may be uniquely enabled or limited in their capacity to fully enact them. In my opinion, the confidence in the "body's inherent wisdom to heal itself" - the vis medicatrix naturae - is what really defines naturopathic doctors. Many of us take that beyond the individual to the wider world; our oath speaks to preserving "the health of our planet for ourselves and future generations." We are a species that evolved as the rest of the earth evolved - alongside, and not superior to others. In order to be truly healthy, we need our environment to more closely reflect that which our genome expects - that with which it evolved. Naturopathic medicine emphasizes the importance of a healthy lifestyle; I spend much of my clinical time providing education around lifestyle factors that can both correct and prevent health concerns which often mirror principles of environmentalism. UUism holds dear "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." I suppose a difference here is that in naturopathic medicine, the patient, the human, is the driving force, while in UUism, the web itself is the motivation. They certainly dovetail one another, and equally contribute to my personal efforts to walk gently on the Earth.
After the service this morning, I was pondering whether I already held certain values, which led to a resonance with both naturopathic medicine and UUism when I discovered them; or whether my engagement with each helped to shape my current values (I also came to naturopathic medicine first, which likely lay the foundation to my connection with the principles of UUism). Ultimately, it doesn't matter tremendously ... I came to each with a framework that made their values appealing, and my active engagement in both has allowed my personal philosophy to evolve in all facets of my life.
It's very common for me to be asked about both naturopathic medicine and UUism (although usually not in the same conversation) . As Shawn reflected this morning, while I can trip through an attempt at an explanation (which usually comes down to referencing principles), the best demonstration of both is truly the actions I take in the world, and the values I choose to manifest in my life and practice.
(As an aside, a number of years after I came to UUism, I stumbled across the "Belief-O-Matic" quiz ... in case I needed any confirmation of what I already knew, I was a 100% match with Unitarian-Universalism).
This was a thing in our household for a few years ... managed to avoid antibiotics and Tylenol for every one. For those of you with littles ... some tips on managing ear infections (second page here). Written with the marvelous Laura McLeod!
Who doesn't like Grease, that sexist but still catchy movie about a girl compromising her integrity to get the guy (who doesn't have to stop being a parody of masculinity)?! Here: bet you can't avoid singing along! I hope you'll keep singing through to September 28 when you will join me in raising money for the Evergreen Centre!
I have been fortunate for the last two years to volunteer at Evergreen Centre for street youth in downtown Toronto. My work with these young people exposes me to experiences that are so far from my own, and yet demonstrates how universal are the themes of humanity. I have been grateful for all I have learned from the youth that attend Evergreen, and grateful that I can be present for them.
The organization is planning a move to a newly renovated building on Spadina Avenue. Unfortunately, during the work on the 90-year-old building, significant structural issues were discovered, which have placed the project at risk. The center needs to raise $720,000 in order to avoid disruption of services. Evergreen provides warm meals, and access to medical care, employment and housing support services and more. My experience with the organization has demonstrated to me how critical these services are to the youth who receive them.
So please come join me on September 28 to sing along to Grease! And raise some money for Evergreen! Enormous thanks to the Davisville branch of Meridian Credit Union and Patrick Rocca for their generous support of this event!
While paddling out of Algonquin Park today (what a blessing that beautiful territory is), I was thinking about the value of preventative care. This is definitely not a novel analogy, and please forgive me if you've heard it before, but I thought it worthy of reconsideration, particularly as we spy fall on the horizon (sorry!).
We take our cars and bikes in for preventative care. Even if it's a simple oil change or chain cleaning, it's an opportunity for the mechanic to give it a good once over ... making sure the brakes are working, advising us on routine maintenance, etc. Certainly if we hear a funny noise, we'll take it in to get it checked out - sometimes choosing to live with the problem if it's not severe, other times investing in doing something to make the vehicle run better. And sometimes the mechanic might have some advice on how to avoid that problem in the future.
Many of us use our dentists in a similar way ... the semi-annual cleaning and check-up keeps us accountable (do you notice an increased frequency of flossing immediately before and after dentist appointments? I do!), and catches problems before they become bigger. Perhaps we need to adjust our brushing technique, or maybe a different toothpaste would work better. Or perhaps a little filling is called for instead of a huge root canal if we let it go.
Naturopathic care can serve the same purpose. Although most of my clients come to see me when there's a problem - and I'm always happy to support people's pursuit of healing from a concern, whether acute, recurring or chronic - preventative maintenance helps to keep concerns from emerging or exploding. Like seeing the dentist, or taking your car or bike in for a tune-up, investing in a seasonal or semi-annual hour with a naturopathic doctor can keep good habits on track. By reviewing the "pillars of health" - diet, exercise and sleep habits, and sources of stress (and strategies of managing it effectively) - and setting individualized goals, you are more able to commit to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Going through a "review of systems" - a head-to-toe overview of your body's functions ... much like a mechanic's once over of your car or bicycle - can bring attention to niggling little things that may be more easily addressed when not full-blown. An adjustment of supplements or herbs based on shifting seasons and individual susceptibility keeps you from rotely taking the same thing for months and months - never a good idea.
My job is not only to keep you from being sick, but to help you to optimize your health so you can live as full and rich a life as possible. Preventative visits allow me the opportunity to support you in this goal ... one of my favourite aspects of my work! Seasonal transitions are a great time for these ... I look forward to seeing you and your family in the clinic!
lYesterday was the first really summer-like day of the year ... and while my family and I reveled in the warmth and the sun, it prompted discussions of sunscreens. My kids were asking questions about the chemicals in the sunscreens, exploring the risks of the gunk vs. the risks of sun damage - they are the children of a naturopathic doctor afterall ... they know to inquire about such things! So here are some thoughts and resources:
Sun exposure is clearly linked to the risk of skin cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in Canada. While all types of skin cancer are treatable, they can also be aggressive and deadly. Malignant melanoma is one of the most aggressive types of cancer. Here is more info on melanoma; bottom line: talk to your doctor if you have any new skin spots. The earlier skin cancer is identified, the better the prognosis.
Sun exposure is also beneficial for a couple of reasons. Vitamin D is made in the body in response to sun exposure. Canadians are notoriously deficient in vitamin D due to lack of sun exposure during long stretches of shorter, colder days. This is possibly complicated by active efforts to reduce sun exposure, since efforts to reduce UV exposure may contribute to vitamin D deficiencies (though this is controversial); however, some studies have demonstrated that Canadians are spending more time in the sun, not less, and not necessarily with a corresponding increase in sunscreen use. Ironically, vitamin D deficiency itself is a risk factor for malignant melanoma; it has thus been suggested that inadequate exposure to the sun may also be a risk factor for skin cancer. It's hard to elucidate exactly what the ideal amount of exposure might be, since individuals have unique susceptibilities to both sun damage and vitamin D deficiency based on pigmentation, age, latitude and genetic variations. Vitamin D needs can also be met through food and supplementation.
Sunlight is also important for regulation of both mood and circadian rhythms. This may not require direct exposure of the skin to UV radiation, although some studies have acknowledged the presence of a circadian clock in the skin, a fascinating mechanism by which organisms (including humans) may regulate behaviour and immune function. This neat study convincingly shows that an indoor lifestyle disrupts our natural circadian pathways, with implications on cognitive function and mental health; more exposure to natural (vs. artificial) light may be a more appropriate approach to circadian regulation.
Acknowledging that some sun exposure has benefit, the connection of excessive exposure - particularly the kind that results in burns - with skin cancer should prompt caution. Kids are particularly vulnerable, so caregivers should both be vigilant about protecting them AND setting a good example of safe sun practices themselves (not cool to wrestle sunscreen on your child if you're not wearing it too!). There are a variety of excellent ways to minimize the risk of skin damage from UV radiation, including avoiding midday sun, covering up with long sleeves, hats, sunglasses and umbrellas, and wearing sunscreen!
But what about those chemicals?? The Canadian Cancer Society argues that chemicals in sunscreens are safe, and they very well may be. But perhaps there are some options that are better than others? A quick guide of things to consider:
- Oxybenzone: this is a common active ingredient in sunscreens; the concern with this one is allergy or immunosensitivity; best to avoid if an alternative is available
- Octinoxate: another common UV-filter with concern of toxicity; this one more concerning for its potential hormone disruption
- Fragrance: while not specific to sunscreens, fragrance is a catch-all term for any artificial scent added to personal care products; because there is no requirement to be more precise in labeling, a consumer has no way of knowing if the chemicals used are safe or not; best to always avoid
Mineral sunscreens work differently than chemical ones. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on the surface of the skin and reflect radiation off, rather than being absorbed the way chemical filters are. It means that sunscreens containing these ingredients are thick and white, and not always appreciated by the wearer, to which my kids can attest! One option is to look for sunscreens that contain a blend of chemical and mineral ingredients, and that do not use oxybenzone or octinoxate. The Environmental Working Group has a very comprehensive review of options if you're looking for more guidance!
Be careful too of SPF claims - regardless of how high your SPF is, if you're using sunscreen, apply a lot and apply often ... there is some suggestion that folks who wear sunscreen may actually be at a higher risk of skin cancer ... not because the sunscreen causes cancer, but because it is applied incorrectly and causes a false sense of security (resulting in more time spent in the sun inadequately protected).
One more thing to ponder ... UV exposure causes skin cancer by damaging the genetic material of skin cells. This occurs in part due to the generation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species. Our cells have mechanisms to neutralize these free radicals before they cause irreparable damage, particularly when we provide the right ingredients for these mechanisms in the form of nutritional antioxidants! A diet rich in antioxidants, including brightly coloured fruits and veggies, abundant herbs and spices, and flavonoid-rich green tea - even dark chocolate! - may protect our skin from damage due to UV radiation (along with other lifestyle-induced cancer promoters). So in addition to moderate sun exposure and thoughtful selection and use of sunscreens, here is even more rationale for eating a great diet!
Have fun in the sun!
It's been a long spring ... but what an opportunity for self care! I've written a series of posts about building a detox plan that works for you ... reducing the sources of chemicals, the importance of creating a strong nutritional foundation, and herbs that help your body process waste. The last piece requires a bit of contortion ... of both the mind and body.
Detoxification and elimination pathways work best when we are relaxed. Under stress, our bodies prioritize more "vital" functions required for running from or fighting threats - even if those modern threats are more like deadlines or mortgage payments. In order to encourage detoxification, it is important to take a pause from the hectic pace of many of our lives, even for a moment or two. This can look like 15 minutes of yoga in the morning (check out https://www.doyogawithme.com/ for an amazing collection of videos), ten seconds of focused breathing each hour (set a timer!), or taking a lunch-time or after-dinner walk. Switching to "rest and digest" mode during meals and snacks (ie. not eating on the fly, taking a moment to express gratitude for the food, being mindful of the experience of eating) will help promote not only good digestion, but also better detoxification ... it's all part of the same system!
Waste products are eliminated from our body through a variety of steps. Fluid from between cells is picked up by the lymphatic system and ultimately returned to the blood stream. Blood is filtered predominantly by the liver and kidneys, where waste products are processed and sent to the organs of elimination - primarily the bladder and the colon. We also eliminate through sweat, lungs, saliva, tears, even menstrual fluid. Anything we can do to encourage the movement of lymph, the circulation of blood, and the healthy functioning of all the organs of elimination, the better! Here are some options ... during a focused detox, it's a good idea to do at least one of these every day:
1. Dry Skin Brushing: Purchase a natural fiber brush or loofah sponge. Each morning after rising brush your entire skin surface very lightly with the brush/sponge. Making small circles, and moving always towards the heart, try to cover as much of your body as you can, including the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands, your neck and belly. Have a loved one do your back! The entire exercise should take no more than one minute. The goal is less to exfoliate, and more to stimulate the movement of the lymphatic fluids and blood.
2. Alternating Showers: Generally shower in slightly warm water, as opposed to hot, in order to decrease dehydration due to open pores. At the end of your shower, however, increase the water temperature so that it is hot, but bearable for 3 minutes. Finish your shower at a temperature that is as cold as possible, but bearable for 1 minute. During the hot and cold phases, direct the stream of water at the middle of your back. You can repeat the alternation ... but always end with cold!
3. Home Constitutional Hydrotherapy: Take a hot bath (you can include Epsom salts). After exiting the bath, wrap your entire torso in a sheet soaked in cold water → it should be as cold as you can stand it, and wrung out so it is not dripping. Go to bed under warm blankets; stay well wrapped up until you are warm.
4. Saunas: Sit in a sauna for 15 minutes, or as long as it takes to develop a fluid sweat. Take a cold plunge bath or brief shower, then re-enter the sauna. Do up to four cycles, always finishing with cold. Make sure to consume plenty of water throughout.
5. Castor Oil Packs: Fold an old towel or shirt so that it covers the liver area (between the soft belly and chest area on the right side of the ribcage). Soak the pack in castor oil so that it is well saturated but not dripping. Apply the pack to the area and cover with a heat source (you may want to place a layer of plastic between the pack and the heat source). Leave in place for 30-60 minutes. Ideally, leave any remaining oil on the skin to be absorbed, or you can make a paste from baking soda and water to clean the area. The pack need not be washed; store in a glass or plastic container for the next use; simply ensure saturation before reapplying. * castor oil stains; make sure you protect your clothing, linens and upholstery
Even outside of a structured "detox" plan, any or all of these strategies, when practiced regularly, can support your waste removal mechanisms, helping to keep your body lighter, more efficient, and energized. Enjoy!
I found this in my draft pile, so it's a bit less timely than it might have been (I'm often behind the times) ... however, the principle holds:
There's been a recent uproar about the Netflix show (and book), "13 Reasons Why." It is the story of Hannah, a highschool student who commits suicide after she records 13 audio tapes - each one devoted to an individual who contributed to her decision to die. There is a lot of debate in the media about whether this is a healthy show for adolescents to consume. Talk of "glorifying" suicide, and concerns about copycats abound. Other articles celebrate its merits, while acknowledging its flaws.
I see this show as a brilliant opportunity. There is plenty of evidence to tell us that a lot of good comes from parents curating and actively co-viewing what their kids are watching. My 13-year-old son invited me to watch with him. While I didn't see every episode, what I did see prompted some terrific conversations about mental health, bullying, sexual assault, communication and who to ask for help. We chose to not watch the graphic suicide scene, but did discuss the implications of Hannah's decision. We chatted about the role that friends have to look out for their friends, and when to turn to a trusted adult for help. I asked my son if any of his friends seemed depressed, or were engaging in self-harm.
The important piece here is that media is neither good nor bad in isolation. It is consumed in the context of relationships and other messages youth are getting from the world around them. I have spent many years fostering a relationship with my son in which he is willing to open up to me and ask for help when he needs it. We have identified other adults he can turn to if he doesn't want to talk to me.
This show, like others, could be potentially harmful/confusing/triggering for a young person who is watching it alone and struggling to make sense of it for themselves. The buzz around it is an excellent opportunity for parents and guardians to connect with their kids and tease open the lines of communication.
When building a spring detox support program, it's important to start by reducing sources of chemicals, and optimizing your diet. Layering in herbs that are supportive of detoxification can take your plan to the next level.
While it's not helpful to think of our bodies as unclean, many traditions have honoured the value of "blood-cleansing" herbs for routine health maintenance, as well as treatment of conditions associated with "toxicity" (think skin conditions like eczema, or inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis). Whether from Ayurvedic, Chinese, or Western botanical tradition, these medicines tend to be bitter or pungent in flavour, cooling and invigorating in nature. Pharmacologically they support the actions of the liver, kidneys, colon and lymphatic tissues, precisely the organs primarily responsible for the critical functions of detoxification and elimination.
Three of my favourite blood-cleansing herbs are burdock, dandelion and stinging nettles. Let me tell you why!
Arctium lappa (burdock) - this is the giant thistle plant with the beautiful purple flowers which become the stubborn burrs that are so fun to pull off of kids' sweaters and dogs' coats; the root of this plant supports lymphatic circulation, and is a gentle diuretic (encourages filtration of blood by the kidneys).
Arctium lappa (burdock, thistle)
Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) - this is such an incredibly useful (and happy!) plant; the root of the common dandelion encourages optimal liver function, while the leaves support the kidneys; other parts of the dandelion are useful as well, including for both wine and wish-making ... and how smart they are to stay closed when it's cloudy and open in the sunlight! Malign no more!
Taraxacum officinale (common dandelion)
Urtica dioca (stinging nettles) - among other redeeming qualities, stinging nettle leaves are mineral-rich and diuretic, gently supporting kidney function and tonifying the body overall; nettle leaf tea is anti-histaminic, and exceptionally helpful to reduce symptoms of spring allergies. Just be careful harvesting them!
Urtica dioca (stinging nettles)
Notice a theme? These are all local North American plants that are typically seen as troublesome weeds. Amazing how our perspective shifts when we consider their value! They were all used by First Nations people, whose practices greatly influenced the evolution of herbal medicine in colonial North America. The preparation of herbs for medicinal use requires some practice and awareness of sustainability principles, but harvesting your own burdock, dandelion and nettles is certainly a viable option, and a good reason to not spray them! In the meantime, preparations of these plants are available at most herbal dispensaries and natural health product stores.
A combination of these three herbs is very supportive of a routine spring detox plan. Make a strong tea with equal parts of each plant, aiming for 3 cups per day (warm or cold) for the duration of the plan, and beyond if you like! Roots are best prepared as a decoction, while aerial portions of plants are best made as infusions, so getting the most from this formula requires a two step process:
1. Place 1 Tbsp each of prepared dried burdock and dandelion root in a pot with 1 litre of water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Bring mixture to a boil again and pour the entire contents into a glass pitcher containing 1 Tbsp each of prepared dried nettles and dandelion leaf. Let steep until the tea is at your desired temperature. (I prefer my teas cold, so I let this steep until cool, then poor the tea through a mesh strainer into my water bottle and drink over the course of a day.)
In addition to teas, herbs can be delivered as capsules or tablets (often combined with nutrients that are also supportive of detoxification processes), or as alcohol-based extractions (tinctures or solid extracts). All three of these herbs can even be eaten as food! There are pros and cons to each method, related to price, convenience, tolerance to flavour, and the method that is best at getting the most value from the plant. I can help you navigate what form/brand/method might be best suited to your goals, and advise whether there are other plants that might be a better fit for you! Let's chat!