One of the goals of my work is to find ways to educate people about health in really basic, intuitive ways that they’ll never forget. When I’m teaching about how we’re affected by the stuff we put into our bodies, I like to go over what I call the Foods-Herbs-Drugs Spectrum (or the Foods-Supplements-Drugs Spectrum). My own understanding of foods and drugs has been greatly informed by my background as an herbalist. I feel that traditional systems of herbal medicine offer a valuable perspective on the continuum between foods and medicines.
Sophisticated systems of herbal medicine (Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine in particular) define herbs not just by the medicinal actions they possess – such as diuretic or sedative – but on their nature or energetics. Herbs can be understood based on where they fall on multiple spectrums, such as temperature, moisture, and trajectory. It’s what makes herbs much more than just weak natural substitutes for drugs.
For instance, on the temperature spectrum, an herb can be warming, meaning it literally raises body temperature or otherwise tends to do things like speed up function or metabolism, enhance circulation, or induce sweating. Ginger, chili peppers, wasabi and many other plants have this quality, and people usually have an easy time perceiving it. Then there are cooling herbs, which may do things like reduce fever, clear infections, calm irritation, and suppress inflammation. An herb’s “energetic temperature” can range anywhere from very cold to neutral to very hot.
On the moisture spectrum, there are drying herbs which can be useful for things like eliminating phlegm or reducing edema from the legs. Then there are moistening herbs which are employed for lubricating and soothing dry and irritated membranes, or for hydrating the skin, muscles, hair, and other tissues. There are numerous other characteristics to consider – clearing versus fortifying, calming versus stimulating, and so on – all of which make each herb a complex medicine.
When herbs don’t work or cause negative effects, it’s usually because consumers don’t really understand them. Most laypeople choose herbs based on common symptoms they’re known to treat, but without comprehending the energetics of the herbs or the state of their own body/mind – which may not be compatible. A person with “hot” disorders (acne or other red rashes, irritability, high blood pressure, etc.) probably will not do well with hot herbs. An anxious person probably should avoid stimulating herbs. Otherwise, negative effects, or “side effects” are likely to result.
Foods and drugs can be understood as possessing all of these same properties and risks, except that foods are all relatively close to neutral on any given spectrum, and drugs range much father to the extremes. Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other dietary supplements fall mostly within the same range as herbs.
In the diagram above, the left end of the spectrum pertains to substances that are neutral in all characteristics. They have almost no potential for harm, but also almost no potential to fix an imbalance, because they don’t cause much change, and/or the change the cause happens slowly. Rice would be pretty close to the left end of the spectrum.
At the right end of the spectrum are substances that have one or more extreme characteristics. They quickly and drastically change the human body, so they have a high potential to correct an imbalance, but they are so intense in their action that they are inevitably destructive at the same time. A good example would be chemotherapy drugs, many of which work by destroying all cells that are in the process of dividing. This means any tissues that grow or reproduce quickly – from tumors to hair to the lining of the digestive tract – will be affected.
As we move away from the blue (left) end of the spectrum, there is greater potential for both disruption and the correction of imbalance. An important deciding factor is the terrain the substance is introduced to – i.e., your body/mind. As the expression goes, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”
The green bar indicates that foods range from completely benign to potentially mildly disruptive or medicinal. (Of course, this doesn’t count food allergies, which could make any food severely “poisonous.”) The yellow bar indicates that herbs and supplements have a very broad range. They can be almost completely neutral or intensely disruptive/medicinal, in some cases approaching the most powerful drugs. Most are somewhere in the middle. The red bar indicates the range of drugs, which go from the fairly benign (TUMS, for instance – which are almost safe enough to hand out on Halloween) to the blatantly poisonous.
Although substances to the left are limited when there is a need to produce a quick and significant change (such as breaking up a clot that has caused a stroke), they are ideal when the goal is to improve or maintain general health or when a problem doesn’t need to be corrected within minutes. If we utilize foods, herbs, and supplements wisely, they can help us avoid getting to a place of such severe imbalance that drugs are our only option (at which point, they may not be able to adequately correct the situation anyway).
Next time I’ll explain more about how foods, herbs, and drugs work, and how to build an understanding of when to best utilize each. Meanwhile, there’s no time like the present to begin paying more attention to how the various things you consume affect you.
Dr. Peter Borten