rad·i·cal: late 14c., in a medieval philosophical sense, from Late Latin radicalis "of or having roots," from Latin radix (genitive radicis) "root" (from PIE root *wrād- "branch, root").
The meaning of radical for many centuries was related to its origins radicalis meaning "root." Thus, until recently, radical referred to the roots of words, the roots of illness, or even square roots. Later, radical was used more figuratively to mean "fundamental" and examples like "radical reform" referred to changing the very root of the system. Now radical is associated with extreme change and deviation from the norm.
Therefore, herbal medicine IS radical. Living in community, growing your own food and eating organically, spending time in nature, going back to our roots, and BEING HUMAN IS RADICAL. We have lived this way for the majority of the human experience and only in the last 100 years have we deviated from this way of living. The more I sit with the plants, the more I realize that radicalism isn’t about extreme change and deviation. It isn’t about progress and cutting edge innovation, but is about going back to what is truly important, truly necessary for us to have a fulfilled human experience on this earth. It is also about going to the root cause of an illness and treating THAT rather than the symptoms.
What does this have to do with my personal health journey and the remembrance of plant medicine? Well, it was a long road to get here. A long, painful, confusing road and the reason I wanted to write a little post about my personal journey into herbalism is to to encourage others who have had a similar experience to find the courage to empower themselves with the information and courage to take their health into their own hands and go back to the roots of health and healing! Take the radical path. It will never lead you astray.
My health journey is a long one and will not fit into one blog post, so I will give you a birdseye view of what I had to go through to get here and why I have been fascinated with the gut-brain connection for many many years now. I also want to talk about this gut-brain connection as a two-way street because my story of being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease is not the typical story I hear. And I have my theory about my own diagnosis. Though it is anecdotal evidence, I believe it is important because if you are like me, you have been frustrated at the lack of information that reflects your lived experience. So here it goes.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2002 at 21 years old after 3 years of tests, weight loss, pain, unknowns and misdiagnosis. I was diagnosed after a surgery that essentially saved my life as I had been in the ICU getting buckets of blood and slowly slipping into the ethers.
This was and had been a traumatic time in my life. A time of great and unexpected change, a time of turmoil and grief, and a time of not knowing who I was or where I was going and a time of unhappiness. However, here comes the paradox and what is usually left out of mainstream discussions about autoimmune diseases. I had grown up eating very healthy home-cooked food my whole life. I didn’t grow up on glyphosate and GMO’s. We had chickens in our backyard from which our eggs came, we went to the market for our food, we picked the chickens that would wind up on our tables, we visited the fish market for our fish and we had a balanced mediterranean diet, which is known as one of the healthiest in the world. I didn’t really know junk food as it didn’t exist where we lived until my early teens when the first Burger King opened its doors.
You often hear that diet is the cause of many diseases and specifically poor diets. But this was not the case for me. I continued to lead a healthy lifestyle throughout my twenties. It wasn’t perfect. I sometimes drank alcohol, ate fast food and partied too hard. But it wasn’t a chronically unhealthy lifestyle by any means. I was also born via natural birth and breast-fed. So for me, this theory is only part of the story of autoimmune disease. What else was going on in my life? I was especially curious because two more surgeries: in 2008 and 2018 (on the exact same day May 21st, 10 years apart) had me ask the question: “why am I not healing?” I was eating healthy, practicing yoga, meditating, and yet, something wasn’t quite right. I also suffered from debilitating migraines, deep exhaustion and much anxiety.
I became really obsessed with the gut microbiome to the extent that I even had my own microbiome tested in 2014. The results from the American Gut Project were so telling! I had to look them up but the first thing I noticed was that there was NO diversity in my gut microbiome. And the two bacteria types that I had A LOT of were associated with Crohn’s Disease and Autism! Go figure! Despite having a healthy organic diet, my gut was overtaken by opportunistic pathogens that any good bacteria just couldn’t flourish no matter how healthy I ate.
That brings me to the gut-brain connection. We have all heard of this connection by now. There are numerous studies that discuss the connection between gut dysbiosis and mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. What I do not find as much in the literature is the brain-gut connection. The effect of trauma on our health and physical bodies. Dr. Gabor Mate discusses how our bodies react to traumatic events in our life and many people with autoimmune diseases or addictions suffer from some form of anxiety as well as trauma in their lives. It seems to me that this connection is a two-way street. Our bodies do not differentiate between the assault in the form of junk food and glyphosate from the form we receive though life’s difficult lessons and trajectories. It seems to me that emotional trauma is just as relevant as physical trauma in the form of food and that to heal, we must take a truly holistic approach to our healing and focus on mind, body and spirituality.
At this point, I knew something was missing from my healing puzzle. And I found it in two things: plants and herbal medicine and therpay to heal the emotional trauma I had experienced and internalized so much so that my “strength” and “resilience” were nothing more than suppressed emotions seeking an outlet. I never talked about my traumas and I never showed my vulnerability because it was painful and because I really believed that time would heal all as they say.
However, old patterns and habits kept showing up to show me that turning away from the trauma would only seek to strengthen it. It was tough to face the dark side of my reality. But I knew it had to be done. I knew that my body was speaking to me in the only way it knew how and that it was time to have that conversation. However, the courage I needed came from the plants and plant healers by my side. They truly spoke to me and showed me the way forward. I began experimenting with plants, speaking to plants, growing plants and they were the antidote I needed all along. When I felt anxious, I would go put my hands in the earth and feel instant relief, when I was queasy I made tea, when I needed a nudge, I reached for a tincture and better yet, I made a tincture from scratch.
The plants showed me it was ok to be vulnerable and that it was ok to ask for help. They taught me that you don’t cure a disease or get rid of a pest without fixing all the conditions needed to thrive. They taught me about community and diversity. They taught me about patience and about healing. They taught me about stillness and reflection, about cycles and slowing down.
Plant medicine is people’s medicine and the point of this rant is to tell you that the most radical thing you can do is to learn about plants, learn from the plants, and learn from the land. There are numerous lessons there. The smallest seed can teach you about life’s biggest mysteries and can show you the potential that is within you too. Empower yourself because in my 20 years in the medical system that spanned Egypt, Canada and the United States, no doctor ever helped me get healthy. They saved my life, that goes without saying and cannot be understated. But they were never my guides through the confusion. They know how to test for the obvious and leave you with more questions than answers.
The power to heal really is within you. You contain everything you need to live this life fully. And for every ailment, there is a plant with an answer and it is usually the one that is growing just outside your door. After you strike up that relationship, treat it as such. You would never just take take take from a friend or partner. After you have received the healing from the plants, be sure to give back in any way you know how. Once you have mastered that, you will have mastered many lessons to get you through this life. I promise you that when you get radical, you will remember how to heal yourself, and you will remember exactly what you need, for it wasn’t that long ago that you had forgotten.