Monthly Archives: March 2010

Permaculture and Naturopathic Medicine

I have long felt a connection between the earth and naturopathic medicine. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to want to investigate how permaculture principles might influence the practice of naturopathic medicine.  I took a year-long course recently at the Regenerative Design Institute (RDI) in Bolinas, California, one of the premier permaculture centers in the US. This missive includes my thoughts on how the fields of permaculture and naturopathic medicine work similarly.

Global warming shows us that we have a detachment from what we do/put onto and into the earth. We have a similar detachment from our bodies and our healthcare. Many times, people relinquish their power in their own health to their primary care provider. They hand over their wellness whole cloth, to a medical profession that is largely untrained in looking at nourishment of the body, as well as in finding the underlying causes of illness, as naturopathic doctors are.

Most of the world’s problems can be solved in a garden. In the garden we work with water, waste and nourishment – many of the same things that our patients struggle with. Permaculture is a design science rooted in the observation of natural systems. The goal is to design human settlements that have the stability and resiliency of a natural ecosystem. Similarly, two main principles of naturopathic medicine “first, do no harm,” and “find and treat underlying cause of illness or disease” work to produce sustainable health for the people it touches.

Reductionist science sees each component separately. Permaculture recognizes the interconnectedness of humans and nature and all of the aspects that nourish and harm both. Naturopathic physicians recognize the interconnectedness of all of the body’s systems, bringing to light the principle to “treat the whole person.”

One thing that is noted immediately upon arrival at the Regenerative Design Institute is the incredible diversity of bird species. This diversity is indicative of the ability of the ecosystem there to handle stressors. In naturopathic medicine, we welcome diversity in the profession. It serves to make us all stronger, and increases our ability to morph, support and deal with change – to deal with stress on the system (the entire profession of naturopathic medicine.) In order to support this diversity, you may give up one thing in order to have another. But what you get in return will outweigh this sacrifice.

The first principle of permaculture is observation. It is through careful observation that we can truly see what the ecosystem needs. It is similar in human health. It is important for me to spend a lot of time with my patients, to get a very good idea of all of the aspects of their health. If someone comes in with migraines, it is important to not focus only on the head, but also assess digestion, hormones, hydration, nourishment, absorption, etc. In the garden, you can’t jump in with plow and pesticides until you see how it is all working together. Each part of the system affects the other. How can we create balance? First you must observe the whole being in order to become familiar with all of the players in the illness.

I recently purchased a new worm bin (my new favorite topic if anyone has questions or comments!!) and decided to put it closer to the house so that we could put our food scraps in the bin more quickly and easily. My husband was worried about it getting too much sun exposure (bad for a worm bin). I was happy to report to him that I had been watching what happened with the sun on our back deck for the past year. I had also been watching the moonlight, as the full moon will reflect the sun path 6 months hence. So our worm bin will be safe in the corner by our hedge. But I could only come to this by careful observation over a long period of time.

People with illnesses often come to us wanting a quick fix. That can happen occasionally, but the observation of that human system takes time. Similarly, real and true healing (and guidance in that healing) takes time.

Another permaculture principle that I love for its relationship to naturopathic medicine is stacking functions. The goal is to get at least three functions out of any one project. In the case of my worm bin, we are reducing the amount of waste that goes to the landfill, decreasing the number of trash pick-ups we need, and producing some of the finest compost money can buy. All from our food scraps.

In naturopathic medicine, I am always working to stack functions, even before I was aware that it had a groovy name. Women who seek my care for hormonal issues and who also happen to have digestive issues will benefit from a good source of fiber. The fiber prevents re-absorption of the hormones in the GI tract, and also gently corrects digestive function.

Every time we utilize another piece of permaculture in our lives, we are healed too. We connect to as much life force as possible. Work in the garden is so appealing because it is so close to the life force. Helping our patients into the garden will connect them to it as well.

James Stark at RDI speaks about the homeopathic intervention – something that gently and slightly makes a motion that creates a profound effect as it ripples outward. Moving in harmony with natural systems, you can create more food, more water, more beauty, and more health. The homeopathy that I use on my patients helps them heal gently from the inside out. Yet quite profoundly, once the appropriate intervention is chosen.

Lastly, a word of caution on getting rid of weeds. Different types of weeds are clear indicators of what your soil is lacking. Similarly, in our relations with colleagues, patients, friends and even adversaries, the “weeds” can show us what we need to do to improve our own “soil.” So welcome the weeds to help you see what is missing in your own ecosystem.

The healing of ourselves and the healing of the earth is all the same journey.

PCBs Found in Fish Oil

A study was released this week that shows that many of the popular brands of fish oils have high amounts of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds. PCB’s, once widely used in the electricity industry, are very toxic and have been banned from use since 1979. But because they do not break down easily, they persist in our environment. They have been shown to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity.

I have long been educating my patients about fish oils – both the benefits of them as well as the risks of not buying good quality.

Some of the health benefits include helping hormonal issues, heart protection, improving blood pressure, skin problems, arthritis, ADD, depression, and Alzheimer’s. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are very high in fish oils, are a very good anti-inflammatory. It’s one of my favorite supplements, for treating specific conditions, as well as prevention. As a midwife, all of my clients were taking fish oils throughout their pregnancy for the health benefits to the baby, particularly in neurological development.

But I always caution people. There are some supplements that you can get the cheapest thing you can find and it doesn’t matter. Fish oil is not one of them. I have worked closely with several companies so that I can be assured that they are doing all they can to make sure people are not getting harmful substances, such as PCBs, along with their beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Since the fish in our oceans are heavily contaminated with mercury, it is also important to make sure that you are taking a fish oil that doesn’t have that as well. And since omega-3 fatty acids are very fragile, and degrade quickly when exposed to heat or light, it is critical that they not have any products of rancidity. Taking a rancid fish oil would do more harm to the body than any positive health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

So how could you possibly know if your fish oil is safe? The results of the ten brands that were checked for PCBs can be found at But there are hundreds of brands of fish oils. And none of the ones that I most commonly recommend were in the study. But you can still arm yourself with information to make sure that you are not putting yourself at risk. The very best companies send their product to an outside lab for confirmation of its potency and purity. What they get back from this lab is called a “certificate of analysis.” Not all companies will provide this, and none of them actually have to. But the ones who have been conscious from the beginning about selling a high quality product have had it done all along. It is obviously more costly to have this level of testing in place. So you might pay more for their product. But it is absolutely worth it.

Top producers of fish oil capsules also do their own in-house testing of the crude product. A few years ago I had a conversation with one of the quality manufacturers about this, and he mentioned that they have refused large quantities before. He is certain that the fish oil that they refused didn’t just get thrown away. It was sold to a company with lower standards, who likely sells their product for less.

The two brands I trust the most are Nordic Naturals and Vital Nutrients, a professional supplement line. Due to California’s Proposition 65, it sounds like the testing for toxins in products will continue to expand, and I hope that we can all be assured that as we try to improve our health, we are not exposed to further environmental toxins.