CLEARING THE PIPES
Wellness in the Vessels of the Body
My home and clinic are situated in an old farm house.
Here, we are often dealing with pipe maintenance. From the wood stove pipe to the plumbing to the furnace ducts, I find myself concerned with keeping pipes clear continually throughout the seasons. With this focus, along with my practice as an herbalist, I've come to find ongoing correlations between the maintenance of house pipes and the "pipes" in the body.
The word "pipes" I use here does not refer to pumped up biceps of course, but rather to the body's various passageways that transport nutrients and carry out wastes, meeting many of our essential needs. Vessels such as the wind pipe and bronchial tubes, arteries and veins, intestines and bladder all function as pipes within the body.
Like all pipes, they can get clogged with debris, affecting the movement of material through them, and potentially causing a wide range of problems (and sometimes crises!) from blocked or narrowed passageways.
Depending on the location and severity of a blockage, it could mean high blood pressure, angina, inflammatory bowel disease, constipation, leaky gut, asthma, or bladder infection, among a vast many other health issues.
For this reason, regular maintenance of our own "pipes" is crucial to our health.
With this simple analogy, we can look at some of the common pipe troubles affecting the human body, and explore a few approaches to maintaining and repairing these issues. Here I offer a few suggestions in this regard, using easily accessible foods and some wild herbs that are found locally here in Southeastern Ontario.
Organic Brooms for Our Internal Pipes
Chimneys are generally swept annually. If this is neglected, built up creosote can reduce the efficiency of a wood stove or furnace, and potentially cause a chimney fire. We can find creosote's equivalent in deposits of mucus on the membranes of our own various "pipes". Sticky mucus attracts debris which we've either inhaled, or it comes from food not fully digested. This build-up irritates the linings (mucus membranes) of our respiratory, digestive and circulatory vessels. This leads to inflammation in the vessels, and further increases blockage through the narrowed passageways.
This is why regular sweeping is a most useful task! Luckily, we happen to have a number of foods and herbs that can act as brooms in the vessels of the body.
Fibrous foods like fruits and vegetables are excellent "brooms" which regularly help to "scrape up" and carry wastes out through the intestines. Flax seeds, freshly ground or soaked in water overnight act similarly, cleaning the arterial and intestinal walls while leaving a clean, healthy layer of mucus to protect them. About a tablespoon of flax per day would work well for this. Thyme is one of my favourite herbal "brooms" for the respiratory tract. It can grab onto excess mucus built up on the walls of the bronchial tubes and carry it out of the system, making it an excellent herb for bronchial congestion. A teaspoon of crushed up thyme, dried or fresh, steeped with a lid in hot water for at least 10 minutes can work wonders in a "respiratory sweep". Garlic is a useful cleanser of the blood vessels. Not only does it "sweep out" fat and cholesterol build up, but it also reduces inflammation and kills off offending bacteria. In addition to this, it is a marvelous immune booster. Garlic can be added freely to daily meals.
Flax Seeds can be added to smoothies, sprinkled onto oatmeal or yogurt or blended with salads or grain dishes. They should be either soaked, or freshly ground (they begin to go rancid quickly once they've been ground), and they are best uncooked.
Thyme can clear mucus build-up in the bronchial passages and intestines. It can be used as a culinary spice and added freely to salad dressings. It can also be prepared as a medicinal tea.
Garlic (Alium sativum) can cleanse and disinfect like almost nothing else. It is most effective when sliced and exposed to the air for 10-20 minutes before using, and is most potent when raw or just slightly cooked.
Plungers & Augers as Food & Medicine
When it comes to plumbing, we're all familiar with blocked pipes caused by various stuff like food, hair etc getting washed down the drain. A build up of this stuff, along with congealed oil and soap, mixed with big fluctuations in temperature throughout the year can mean clogging, back flow, or in extreme cases of freezing weather, burst pipes. Plungers and drain augers are needed to push the build-up out before a plumbing crisis occurs. We must also ensure to keep pipes warm on really cold days so that water continues to move through them and doesn't freeze.
While plumbing pipes are maintained using air pressure (plungers), movement (augers) and heat, the same can be said about maintaining our own "plumbing".
Physical movement is one of the best agents in this regard. Movement and exercise increase body temperature and access to oxygen. They also raise metabolism. Increased air and movement act like a plunger in the system, pushing things through at faster rates as metabolism increases. Faster metabolism means nutrients are absorbed faster and wastes are excreted faster, preventing toxic build-up. Jumping or some form of bounce, as well as particular postures of stretching (yoga/pilates etc) encourage this process, and are particularly important in clearing out wastes through the lymphatic and digestive systems, alleviating swollen lymph nodes or constipation.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) is one of our local wild bitter herbs that acts as a digestive stimulant, detoxifying agent and respiratory decongestant. The chopped up roots, fresh or dried can be brewed into a bitter tea or preserved as a tincture.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus spp.) is a warming herb that stimulates circulation throughout all the blood vessels in the body. One teaspoon of dried herb per cup of hot water, covered and steeped 10-15 minutes can be drank daily for this purpose. A handful of rosemary steeped as a tea, and added to bath water can also increase the circulation.
Bitter herbs like the elecampane shown above help to stimulate peristalsis-- the muscular contraction involved in the digestive process. Peristalsis propels material through the intestines and pushes out wastes.
Rosemary brings warmth and stimulation through the circulatory system. It supports the heart's pumping action by helping to move blood throughout the body, and send waste products out of the system.
Mineral Build-Up and Kidney Stones
Here at the farm we are lucky to have clean, delicious well water, full of trace minerals that the body can use. However, as many folks in these parts can attest to, the minerals in the hard water tend to stick to the pipes, creating a hard, crusty build-up that causes blockages.
I compare these mineral build-ups to stones that can form in the body, often in the kidneys, or bladder. Stone formation can cause severe discomfort and serious blockages.
While some people tend to form stones more easily than others, the potential for stones always increases in a chronically dehydrated body. With insufficient water to dissolve and flush out mineral build up, it hardens and remains in place, eventually causing a painful blockage. Water is our primary cleanser and universal solvent. Keeping hydrated is crucial to keeping your pipes clear and preventing stone formation. Avoiding certain oxalate-rich foods will also help to prevent calcium stone formation, but how can we dissolve stones once they are already there?
In the case of plumbing build-up, we might try vinegar and baking soda, or maybe a stronger product like CLR. In herbal medicine, we have other options. Gravel Root, A.K.A Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum/maculatum) is a local, wild plant in our region that will often support safe, remarkably effective stone dissolution, making it an herbalist's "go-to" medicine for kidney and bladder stones. Not only is it a good dissolver, it also has a soothing diuretic action that helps carry out the dissolved matter painlessly. A small handful of chopped up roots can be simmered in water for about 10 minutes to yield a tea that can be taken daily until the stones have dissolved and passed through the urinary tract. Gravel root tincture could also be used but if so, it should be accompanied by plenty of water to help send the debris out through the bladder in a timely manner.
Gravel Root or Joe Pye Weed grows along the banks of fresh water where its roots push their way through the stones, gradually breaking them down into sand, and eventually back into water.
Whether we're looking to dissolve, flush, push or scrape, cleansing the pipes is an inevitable reality of good home and body maintenance and repair. However, it is important to remember that the cleaner the materials passing through the pipes, the cleaner the pipes will be! Eating a clean diet is a topic for another post, but I will mention here simply that being mindful of what we take into our bodies is the first, and arguably the most important step in proper pipe maintenance.