plant allies for resistance
herbal prepping for the future
In early June 2023, much of the northeastern U.S. was engulfed in smoke from wildfires burning in the Canadian province of Quebec. For a brief moment, it dominated the news and social media, but quickly faded from people’s minds. These types of natural disasters are going to continue to happen at increasing rates, and we need to think about these things ahead of time if we want to make it through climate catastrophes as healthfully as possible.
There was a lot of talk about what to do when exposed to smoke like this: wear an N95 mask, use an air purifier, keep the windows closed, don’t go outside… These are all tips that we should be aware of, but they are reactionary. In short, we can’t air purify our way out of this. Instead, I advocate for a proactive and preventative framework that includes partnership with plants.
The reality of the world we live in is that we are exposed to pollutants and toxins, and this is likely to get worse before it gets better (climate optimism!) We need systems change, and it will either come or our environment will get more and more inhospitable. The fires are a jarring reminder, but there are others, too. All plants love carbon dioxide, but poison ivy is a particularly greenhouse gas loving plant. With climate change, it will spread more aggressively, grow larger, and potentially cause more serious rashes. We can already observe that it has become more prevalent and out of control than years prior. I was an outside-loving kid, but in my childhood, poison ivy was a rare encounter, something I dealt with only a few times. Now, I have to be constantly watchful, or I will brush against it on all of the trails I frequent.
The tick population is another example. In my home region and in much of the US, we did not have a long enough hard freeze this past winter to kill off enough ticks. The northeast and Midwest used to experience extremely cold winters. Our winters are becoming increasingly milder. More ticks are surviving, breeding, and venturing out much earlier in the season. Imagine, this increase is happening every year.
This is how the climate crisis comes. It creeps up slowly, and it’s not just about rising seas, pollution, extreme heat, or exhaustion of resources. It’s about little changes like the spread of toxic plants and disease carrying ticks- changes that make the world slowly more dangerous and inhospitable to humans.
We need systems change, and I am optimistic that it will come, because it is the only future. In the meantime, we need to focus on adaptability and building resilience. We can’t air purify our way out of this. What happens if the power goes out? What happens when there’s a mask shortage again? Our best defense is our good health, which will keep us strong and resilient in the face of our exposure to the pollutants and toxins to come. This is where plants will truly be our allies.
Through a nutrition lens, plants provide fiber to feed our gut flora which in turn promotes healthy digestion. Plants provide a plethora of anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants, and many vitamins and minerals that give our bodies the raw ingredients needed to function. Through a traditional herbalism lens, plants have many constituents with various affinities for different body systems. There are plants to support detox (yes, your liver and kidneys do that job, but you can support them with plants). There are plants to support our lungs, and our brains, and our digestion, and so on.
Below, I’ll provide a non-exhaustive list of some plants that want to be your friend and support you, but first, I want to emphasize that you don’t need to go out and buy all of them. You can pick a few and really learn them, and have them with you when you need them. Herbs will support us, but we have to take the minimum necessary steps to support our good health too: herbs will work with us, but they won’t do all the work. This means sleeping enough, moving our bodies, and adequate protein and fiber intake.
If you feel inclined to purchase any of the plants highlighted in this letter, consider purchasing them from Mountain Rose Herbs. *Disclaimer that this is an affiliate link - meaning that if you purchase anything from this link, I earn a commission at no additional cost to you.
Plants to support the lungs:
Mullein leaf brings moistures and a relaxant quality to the lungs, so it’s a great friend to have around when exposed to smoke. Mullein moves moisture from the body to the lungs, so it’s drying to most of the body and moistening to the lungs. if you feel you run damp, this might be welcome, but if you run dry, then consider pairing mullein with some moistening friends like linden, violet, or marshmallow. If you are a regular smoker, you should make friends with mullein - mullein wants to help soothe the dry and unproductive coughs that often accompany chronic smoking. You can consume mullein as a tea, as a tincture, or mix the dry herb directly into whatever you are smoking - this will help get the medicine into the lungs in the most direct way. *note that mullein leaf is covered in tiny hairs which can irritate the throat - if drinking as a tea, be sure to strain it well. Grows wild in the northeast and is easy to find!
Mint family herbs (Lamiaceae family)
Anything aromatic generally has some medicine to offer the lungs. Aromatic compounds are carried in the air, so the molecules are very small, making them easy to absorb. Aromatic scents usually point to gently stimulating and antimicrobial action, and because they are carried on the air, it’s easy to get them right into our lungs through steam.
Traditionally called for to help the respiratory system clear thick, sticky mucous. Unlike mullein, which will bring moisture and relaxation to soothe dry, hacking, unproductive coughs, elecampane does the opposite. Reach for an elecampane to help with phlegmy lungs that can’t seem to clear.
Wild cherry bark
Wild cherry bark has a lot of different plant constituents that work together to soothe the vagus nerve, which results in an antispasmodic effect. It doesn’t suppress a productive cough, but it will help to soothe the spasms of an unproductive cough. Grows wild in the northeast and is easy to find!
Plants to support detox:
Before I go any further, please know that I firmly believe that everyone should eat beans. Just like any other body system, our body’s detox pathways rely on nutrition to provide the ingredients it needs to get the job done. For detox, your body absolutely must have soluble fiber, and no plant has more than beans do.
Mugwort gently stimulates bile production, a key component of detox.
St. Johns Wort
This plant is only for people who aren’t taking any pharmaceuticals. St. John’s Wort is so profoundly stimulating to the liver that it will clear medications faster from your system than they should be. This is a good one to know when there has been a known exposure to toxins or pollution - it will really support your body to detox. St. John’s Wort isn’t doing the detoxing - it’s giving your liver the nudge it might need to do it most throughly.
Very nourishing to the liver. Milk thistle can even help the liver regenerate, which is especially helpful for a liver that is under a lot of strain (exposure to lots of alcohol or a known exposure to toxins). While it sounds powerful and intense, milk thistle is one of the safest plants we know. Always do your own research, but there are no known contraindications or herb-drug interactions with this plant, and is generally appropriate to work with as frequently as you’d like.
Mushrooms in general are excellent, but shiitake and maitake are especially skilled at supporting your immune system. They are an immune modulator, meaning that they stimulate the increase of white blood cell production when needed, but not to the point of overproduction. Some plants can overstimulate and rile up an autoimmune response - like echinacea root. Mushrooms don’t do that. The immune modulating activity can be linked to the beta-glucans: these long chain polysaccharides activate immune activity and immune surveillance. These are excellent to turn to if you have had a draw on immunity - know exposures to illness, sleep deprivation, a period of poor nutrition, etc. Through nourishing the gut flora, they can cut down on spikes in blood sugar. There is research that shows that the more mushrooms you consume, the less likely you are to develop insulin resistance. They have also been observed to lower cholesterol levels in the bloodstream - but they don’t interfere with your ability to produce cholesterol.
They are even cancer-fighting (this isn’t a fringe belief - extracts of these fungi are being administered in healthcare settings). We already know that they support the gut flora and stimulate white blood cell count, which can decrease the life of the tumor. But they also can even help kill the tumor through two mechanisms: they stimulate apoptosis (which is programmed cell death - all cells have a life cycle and they are supposed to die and regenerate). In cancer cells, the clock for the programmed cell death has been stopped. Shiitake and maitake start the clock again. They can also interfere with angiogenesis, which is the growth of new blood vessels to feed into the tumor. Through cutting off angiogenesis to the tumor, they prevent the cancer from receiving nutrients through the blood. Note: you have to cook them for a long time to break down the chitin enough for the benefits to be bioavailable. Mushrooms accumulate what’s in the soil (this is why they can be so helpful with addressing pollution), but it means you should be cautious about where they are sourced. Where they are grown affects their nutrient profile significantly.
All the mineral rich herbs:
Anything mineral rich is very supportive. Minerals give our kidneys the raw materials they need to do their important job of cleaning the blood. They also nourish the nervous system and give our nerve cells the ingredients needed for efficient and calm nerve cell communication. Some of the most common and easily accessible mineral rich herbs are: Nettle, Dandelion, Horsetail, and raspberry leaf.