The Human Body: Machine or Ecosystem?

Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about this concept of vitalism and how vitalism is one of the more traditional models and approaches to not just practicing herbal medicine but a way that we see life, of being able to see that the natural world is intelligent, that it has consciousness, that it has purpose and meaning. 

This is a critically important way of learning to see the world on a big-picture level, because some of the biggest problems we’re facing on the earth at this time are because we don’t have this vitalist perspective of the natural world. We don’t see nature as intelligent, and that has led to the human being separating ourselves from the natural world, which I believe is the root cause of a lot of the major ecological issues that we’re facing and health issues that we’re facing, and it goes on and on and on.

But from a more practical perspective in terms of herbalism, the vitalist view brings us to a very different approach to looking at the body, a different way of understanding our anatomy, our physiology, and ultimately leading to a very different approach in terms of therapeutic application of plants. 

One of the critical elements of a vitalist worldview is seeing that the body is intelligent, that we are as much a part of nature as anything else, and that through following the intelligence of the body, our healing work with the plants is oriented in a way that we’re simply supporting the body and doing what it is naturally trying to do on its own. We’re supporting the body’s innate internal healing mechanisms rather than allopathically or biochemically suppressing symptoms. 

If we were to differentiate a biomedical view of the body versus a vitalist view of the body, we see a primary division in terms of how we understand the underlying functions of our bodies. On the biochemical, biomedical level, we see more of a mechanistic view of the body, that the body is likened to a machine. All of our organs and tissues and systems are like gears that fit together. When they’re operating properly, our body is likened to a well-oiled machine, and when that machine isn’t functioning properly—i.e., we have a disease or a symptom or something is wrong—then we simply need to fix the broken part in the machine, which ultimately has led us to full-on replacing parts of the body through the wonders and discoveries of modern science. I don’t want you to get me wrong: I believe that modern science and the biomedical model has made some incredible advances in medicine. There are a lot of things that they’re able to do that are incredible and amazing and save lives.

But when we have that more mechanistic understanding of the body, it leads to an herbal approach that really doesn’t work that well. If we try to understand how plants influence the body based on a mechanistic understanding, which typically leads to looking at the chemical constituents in the plants, their pharmacological mechanisms of action, their pharmacokinetics—that is, how those constituents are used in the body and how they move through the body—that can be a very limiting way of understanding how plants heal. 

On the other side, when we look at more of a vitalist understanding of the body, we see that the body is likened to a garden or to an ecosystem. It’s what I like to think of as an ecological model of physiology rather than a mechanistic one. In the vitalist traditions of both Western and Eastern, Northern and Southern herbal medicine, the human being is seen as a microcosmic reflection of the macrocosm, of the universe, of nature. In that way, we see that the human body is a mirror image of the underlying forces of nature. This is a powerful way of seeing the body, for we’re able to take the underlying functions and anatomy of our body and relate them to ecosystems. 

Lobelia (Lobelia inflata)

A great example of this is in the way that we understand our organ systems, for example our respiratory system. With that air element, we’re seeing the way we breathe in and breathe out and the way that air element mediates between the external and the internal worlds, and also how when that air element—the lungs and the respiratory system—become imbalanced it takes on a very particular type of ecosystem.

From a mechanistic perspective, if someone has, say, a respiratory tract infection, they’re going to say, “You have this pathogen, this virus, or this bacteria that’s causing this infection, and we need to kill the pathogen and then you’ll be better.” While that’s one certain element of it, if we approach our herbal therapeutics from that perspective, then we’re just going to be looking at herbal antivirals, herbal antibiotics, and just try to kill the bug. But from an ecological perspective, from a vitalist perspective, we want to say, “What was the state of the tissues that made them hospitable to that pathogen?” Rather than just killing the pathogen, we’re actually shifting our orientation to see what it was in the body that made it possible for that pathogen to perpetuate itself within the body.

A lot of people have seen this or experienced this themselves, especially with coughs. The respiratory system is a great example to illustrate this concept of ecological physiology, because we all know the difference between the really wet, gurgly, damp, swampy, boggy kind of cough, where you hear someone coughing and you hear all the phlegm and all the mucus and all the dampness and moisture that’s in there, versus a cough that’s really wheezy and dry and spasmodic and tense and sensitive and irritable. We can think of that in terms of a hot, dry, tense, cough versus a cold and damp cough. This is using more traditional terminology that we get from humoral systems of medicine. Greek medicine, Arabic medicine, and even Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine observe these energetic qualities of hot and cold and damp and dry and tense and relaxed. We can step back and look at it from this bigger perspective and see that as an ecosystem. The way I tend to see into people’s bodies is, “Is their body like a hot dry desert? Or is it like a cold, damp, swampy bog.” And when we’re able to see the ecosystem of the body, it enables us to transfer from plant to person much more readily. 

We can see these ecological properties in the plants as well. A great example of this is with an herb like Angelica. We’ve got a whole bunch of Angelica that we’re growing right now, so this plant has been on my mind lately. Angelica likes to grow in a cold and a damp type of environment. Yet the energetics of Angelica is warming, stimulating to circulation, to menses, to the liver, to digestion. It’s a stimulating kind of plant, warming, and also drying. We see that Angelica grows in the same type of ecosystem in nature that it treats within the body. 

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

So you can start to see this fractal-like pattern, this mirror image in terms of where a remedy grows and then how that remedy is going to treat the specific ecological state of the body. What we’re ultimately referring to is essentially a tissue-state model of the body. We can have a symptom, but there might be different underlying causes of that symptom based on the ecological state of the body. 

Another example I like to use with this is constipation. From a mechanistic model, we say, “Someone’s constipated. They’re not having bowel movements. We need to give them a stimulant laxative in order to stimulate the bowel to have the bowel movement.” But people might be constipated for different reasons. Maybe the mucosal membrane is dried out and isn’t well lubricated—that can lead to constipation. On the opposite end of that, maybe there’s a bunch of damp accumulation and stagnation, and everything’s just sitting there because it’s damp and stagnant. That’s a very different ecological state of the intestinal tract that can lead to the same symptom as constipation, but you’re going to treat it very differently. Someone might have constipation because they’re really nervous and really tense and everything’s constricted, like there’s a kink in the garden hose, so to speak. You’re going to treat that very differently than you would someone who has a dry intestine versus a damp intestine. Someone might have constipation because they’re too cold. They have a low digestive fire and they’re not able to break down their foods in a proper way. Maybe everything isn’t secreting enough digestive enzymes or bile. There’s this depression within the organ systems that’s preventing them from actively breaking the food down. So that can lead to constipation. 

You’re going to treat these tissue states, these different ecological patterns, differently. Someone with the dry bowel is going to respond very well to something like marshmallow root or aloe vera—soothing, moistening type remedies. Whereas someone with dampness is going to respond well to bitters. Whereas someone with tension is going to respond well to antispasmodics. Whereas someone with coldness is going to respond well to warming, carminative type remedies. 

I speak to this because this is a critical element of holistic herbal medicine. Herbal medicine has been practiced successfully all across the world for thousands of years before we had more of this mechanistic, biochemical model of understanding the body. 

I don’t think these models are necessarily in conflict with one another. I think it’s when we orient on only one side of the equation too strongly, and we reject the other, that we become limited. So even the vitalist herbalists can still take into consideration what a biomedical model has to offer. We can understand the causes of certain diseases and symptoms from the scientific understanding. Similarly, the biomedical model can learn a lot from this more vitalist, ecological model of the body. So I don’t see them as conflicting. I see them as working together to create ultimately a more holistic understanding of how our bodies function. 

I wanted to share that with you today because to me, this is a critical element of vitalist herbalism, having this ecosystem understanding of how our organs and our systems and our tissues function so that we can understand the relationship between us as human microcosms of the greater pattern and forces of nature in the macrocosm.

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