Three years ago I was diagnosed with Lupus SLE, an auto-immune disease where the immune system becomes overactive and starts attacking healthy tissues, resulting in painful muscles, tendons, joints and nerves. I am lucky in that so far it has not attacked any of my organs, but like all Lupus sufferers I have to live with a bone-crushing fatigue which limits my daily life. This means that I have to be very careful about how I manage my limited energy resources; I need enough energy to get the essential things done, while ideally having some energy left over for enjoyable things. Happily, I’ve found that by drawing inspiration from permaculture and gardening, I can minimise these limiting factors and have a good quality of life.
Every gardener knows that in order to grow healthy plants we need to build healthy soils, and in permaculture we use many strategies to do this, including mulching, which adds nutrients while preventing exposed soil from being eroded. Similarly, in order to have a healthy body we need strategies of self care which treat our personal energy stores in the same way that we treat our precious soils.
In order to build our ‘soil’, we need our inputs to outweigh the outputs, a bit like adding a regular mulch. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney Energy is our energy store, and this needs to be well managed, because only from well stocked energy stores, can we have robust health and resilience to stress and disease. Our Kidney Energy contains two elements; fire and water. Our adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys and secrete hormones that manage our metabolism and reactions to stress, and they store our ‘fire’ energy, while our kidneys act as our reservoir of ‘water’ energy which helps to ground and sustain us.
In order to understand this more fully I like to use the analogy of the bank account. The balance of our current account will be determined by the number of deposits received (quality of food, rest and sleep) and debits spent (how much we ‘do’). Our Kidney Energy is comparable to our savings account, and we need to be making regular ‘transfers’ into it. If we are constantly ‘running on empty’ (literally running on adrenalin), we are pinching pennies from our savings account, steadily depleting our energy stores. In order to ‘get out of debt’ we need to be saving this energy, not using it as credit to fund our compulsion to do stuff; we need to ‘mulch’ ourselves.
Stress is rather like soil erosion, depleting our energy stores and making us more prone to illness. Cell biologist Bruce Lipton PhD, discovered that genetically identical cells that are put into different environments behave differently; cells put under stress exhibit disease, yet when they are returned to a stress-free environment they become healthy again. His ground-breaking research showed that it’s a misconception that genetics are responsible for disease, it’s in fact the environment that alters cells. Many recent studies have shown that spending time in a natural environment reduces stress levels and increases health and wellbeing, so if we are able to spend more time in Nature, then this will support our health.
Useful questions for developing ‘self-mulching’ strategies:
What kind of things bring me the most joy in my life?
How can I make sure that I have enough time and energy to do the things that I love and that nourish me?
* How could I give myself regular breaks in a natural environment?
* How could I avoid feeling over stretched in my life?
* Do I have unrealistic expectations about what is achievable?
* How could I say ‘no’ gracefully to unnecessary pressures?
* How do I feel about asking for help?
* Could I learn some stress-reducing tools such as mindfulness meditation or Yoga?
Permaculturists prefer not to dig the soil because there is a very important symbiotic relationship between soil micro-organisms and plants, which is heavily disrupted through digging, depleting the soil further. So instead, we prefer to enhance what is there. In the same way, it’s good to be aware of the habits we have, which might unhelpfully ‘dig’ or ‘mine’ our energy stores.
Stimulants such as tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar, kick the adrenals into action, which tends to mine the ‘credit’ from our savings account, weakening the adrenals further. With my weak constitution, I need to avoid these where possible; I notice I get a ‘high’, followed by a ‘crash’ later, and this is feedback from my exhausted adrenals telling me that I have ‘dug’ too deeply and stolen some of my energy stores. It doesn’t mean that I never eat chocolate cake, I just need to accept that I have to apply self regulation if I do (i.e. carefully pace myself). I need to eat lots of whole foods, as these deliver a slow releasing energy which builds my energy stores, like making regular ‘deposits’ in my savings account.
In our culture, we often go without sleep in order to keep up with our demanding lives, and in the UK we average only six and a half hours’ sleep per night. In a recent study by Dr Michael Mosley, a group of volunteers were tested to see what impact having less sleep would have on their health. The results were startling; they discovered that when the volunteers cut back from seven and a half to six and a half hours’ sleep a night, genes that are associated with processes like inflammation, immune response and response to stress became more active. They also saw increases in the activity of genes associated with diabetes and risk of cancer, but this process reversed completely when the volunteers added an extra hour of sleep. The results clearly show that adequate sleep is a vital part of maintaining our savings account, while having less sleep ‘mines’ our vital energy stores.
Useful questions for developing ‘no-dig’ strategies:
* What is my optimum number of hours sleep per night?
* Which things tend to limit the quality of my sleep?
* Do I notice a 'high' after drinking coffee or tea, or eating sugar and chocolate, followed by a 'crash' later? If so, how might I benefit from a strategy of 'more rest and less stimulation'?
Garden yourself organically
There are times when Lupus becomes acute and life threatening, and this is when pharmaceutical drugs are essential, but in the long term, with less acute cases like mine, I find that drugs tend to heap more stress onto the body as it tries to process the chemicals they contain. Permaculture gardeners prefer to use biological resources rather than applying chemicals to a problem, because they know that restoring a natural balance is the optimal model.
My strategies for managing Lupus naturally:
White willow bark tincture for pain relief
Ginger-root and with manuka honey for an effective anti-inflammatory drink
Anti-inflammatory herb teas daily such as camomile, yarrow and calendula
Maintain hydration with several cups of water (with a little sea salt added) each day
Regular salt baths to ease muscle pain
Balance rest with exercise and keep my energy moving with Chi Gong
Regular acupuncture to help support my organs in their essential functions
Gluten-free anti-inflammatory diet with plenty of fresh organic fruit and veg
Take supplements when there is a proven deficiency that needs addressing
Avoid chemically laden, processed, and GM foods
Companions and guilds
In permaculture we use plant guilds and companions in the garden to build up beneficial relationships between plants, thus increasing plant health and vitality. In the same way it is very important for us to find supportive relationships in our personal lives. The bedrock of my life is the supportive marriage I’m in, along with supportive family and friends. Without these beneficial relationships, the stress would increase my Lupus symptoms and my health would deteriorate.
Useful questions for building healthy ‘guilds’:
Do I feel respected and supported in my life?
Is there anyone in my life who exhausts me or undermines me in any way?
How can I manage my relationships so that those who are closest to me are the most supportive?
Would a counselling service be helpful to support me when making important relationship changes?
Would it be helpful to learn some communication tools such as ‘nonviolent communication’ so that I can express my needs in a way they can be heard?
As our climate changes and our economic and political landscape becomes ever more unstable, it is essential that we are able to become resilient people, flexible to change and able to offer positive solutions. Whether you consider yourself healthy or chronically ill, I hope you will have found some of these strategies helpful in building your own resilience.
The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton PhD
‘How can an extra hour’s sleep change you?’ www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine
The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
Also from Flo: Optimising your health using permaculture design
Letting in the Wild Edges by Glennie KIndred - includes foraging and growing natives and herbal recipes by season to keep you well.
Flo Scott lives in a housing co-op with her husband and teenage twin boys. She is a mum and a housewife, as well as an artist, writer and permaculture designer, and she regularly updates her Facebook page with her blog and posts about permaculture and health. www.permaculturedesigner.co.uk
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