Book Review: The Invisible Rainbow

Nine years ago, I lived on a homestead in the piedmont of North Carolina. The folks who established the place had installed WiFi a few years previously, and one of them commented that the butterfly occupation on the property had significantly decreased since doing so. This observation really struck me, and I expected to hear more about this in the coming years from biologists, news reporters, etc. Since that time, connection to the cyber world has grown exponentially in our society, and is valued by many on the same level as clean water; it is now seen as a human right. As we become more intertwined with and dependent on such technologies, I hear less and less questioning their effects on the natural world (of which we are a part).

This summer I came across a book called The Invisible Rainbow; A History of Electricity and Life, by Arthur Firstenberg, published in 2017, updated in 2020. In short, it shares that human-harnessed electricity has been a death-dealing force in our world for 220 years. While reading it, I often found myself staring off into space, digesting the material and contemplating the widespread implications if this was indeed true. Since finishing it, I am seeing the world a bit differently, and so I thought I’d take some time here to recap and extrapolate upon its’ contents. I should note that I am finding it difficult to know how to best summarize this book because it is so full of information. Each page contains records from probably five or more sources (in fact, the “notes” section makes up nearly a third of the printed book). So while I am pulling out some stories that were striking to me personally, there are many aspects of this book that I will fail to mention in this review. If this piques your interest, you’ll just have to read it.

The book is what is says: a history book. It begins when humans first started using electricity in the 1740s; sharing accounts of early physicians and scientists who experimented with electrical currents as medicine. Early reports consistently observed that people responded on a wide spectrum to electricity, from very sensitive to not being able to conduct electrical currents at all (pg 32). Therefore, results of this therapy were not easily predicted or replicated. Electrotherapy was used for all sorts of ailments, and there are some amazing reports of deaf patients restoring their hearing (pg 18)! There were also reports of headaches, dizziness, seizures, heart palpitations, chest pain, and more. Beyond the patients, many of the practitioners exposing themselves regularly to electrical currents began to experience severe and debilitating symptoms from this collective experiment. Some concluded that electricity was dangerous and should be left alone, while others saw great opportunities to bulldoze ahead, progressing into the unknown and simultaneously making a name for themselves.

At the end of the 18thcentury, there was a major debate about the nature of electricity. Some thought that electricity was an element of life, an essential part of all beings and ecosystems, while others thought that “animal electricity” did not exist. This latter view, held by Alessandro Volta, won out and led to harnessing electricity on an industrial scale without considering its’ effects on biology (pg 45). Later on, many physicists proved that electricity was indeed a natural part of biology, but by then the foundation had already been laid and the road to hell was paved and well-traveled upon. Systematic electrification of Europe began with the magnetic telegraph along rail lines in 1839, and America wasn’t far behind. By 1875, there were already 30,000 miles of submarine cables barreling through the oceans, and 700,000 miles of wire covered the earth. It happened fast!

NYC in 1888

Firstenberg lays out various landmarks of widespread electrification: in 1889, power line harmonic radiation began; in 1918, radio waves commenced; in the 1950s, radars were in use; in 1968, satellites inhabited space; in December 1996, cell phones were under many Christmas trees. Alongside these landmarks, he analyzes physician records of illnesses and deaths. He focuses a lot on the health of those working with or near electricity, sharing that many experienced a variety of symptoms post electrical exposure, often diagnosed as “neurasthenia” in those early days (pg 51). Symptoms of this disease included anxiety, irritability, heart palpitations, arrhythmias, chest pain, shortness of breath, asthma, tremors, diarrhea, nausea, weakness, exhaustion, rheumatic pains, and more. With the influence of Sigmund Freud, the diagnosis of neurasthenia fell to the wayside, and “anxiety neurosis” (which could be treated with pills like Xanax, Prozac, and Zoloft) was the new label (pg 63). This classified these experiences as a mental disease, and ended the search for a physical cause; thus removing any suspicion that electricity could be affecting health.

There are three diseases permeating the modern world that Firstenberg gives much attention to: heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. He presents an interesting case that electrical pollution a primary factor in all of these diseases. I personally found the diabetes chapter to be the most surprising (having been well-versed in the simple too-much-sugar-too-little-activity theory). Firstenberg goes on to illuminate that these diseases have to do with how electricity affects basic metabolism. Apparently, in the presence of electromagnetic fields, mitochondria (the power plant of our cells) becomes less active, slowing the metabolism of glucose, fats, and protein. Firstenberg writes that this leads to excess fat and glucose accumulating in the blood, ushering in a myriad of problems. He elucidates upon this slow metabolism, introducing molecules called porphyrins, which supposedly interface with the body’s use of oxygen (pg 136). This was a new biology lesson for me, and I feel inadequate to elaborate more on it. He writes, “Electricity, like rain on a campfire, dampens the flames of combustion in living cells”(pg 236). It is telling that Thomas Edison, immersed in electricity from a young age, developed diabetes (a rare disease at the time) at age 35 (pg 200).

There is perhaps no connection more obvious than that of electromagnetic radiation and cancer. And yet, Firstenberg writes at length about the inaccuracy of statistics. It seems that honest data on brain tumors has been nearly impossible to come by since the advent of the cell phone. While independent scientists report a tripling to quintupling of brain cancer, industry scientists report no increase, or even a decrease; assuring consumers that the microwave they hold to their head is completely safe (pg 254). 

I have no difficulty wrapping my mind around chronic illnesses being fueled by electrical exposure. But this book also presented a lot of evidence that there have been many acute illnesses related to those landmark events mentioned three paragraphs ago, when the electrification of the earth was taken up a notch. In 1889, when the electrical era began, there was also a four year influenza pandemic that killed at least one million people. In 1918, the well-known Spanish flu occurred. In 1957, there was the “Asian” flu , and in 1968, the “Hong Kong” flu occurred. There is further discussion in the book about influenza being a primarily electrical disease, historically making an appearance during increased atmospheric electricity (pg 81). This is definitely a paradigm shift that questions current understandings of influenza contagion. Beyond the flu, Firstenberg suggests that electrical exposure, especially when systematically increased, acutely stresses the body and can be damaging to those who are “electrically sensitive” or already suffer from compromised health. Firstenberg includes charts from the CDC showing mortality rates for nine US cities during the weeks that digital cell service began, and it is alarming; some showing a 70-80% increase in mortality within the very week this electrical pollution started there! (pg 369) 

It is not until the near-end of the book that Firstenberg shares his personal experience of being “electrically sensitive” and hearing electricity. He writes that there is no place on earth where he can fully escape the symptoms, which, to put it mildly, sound just awful. There are other accounts of folks dealing with electrical sensitivity, and the reality is that there are probably many more who’ve never been able to identify the cause of their pain. He brings to light the problem of putting the label “electrical sensitivity” on this condition: it’s not that they are the only ones affected, everyone is. He likens it to diagnosing someone with “cyanide sensitivity” (pg 368).

And this brings me to the chapter that was the most disturbing to me: how electrical pollution affects life beyond humans. Firstenberg shares the observations of many scientists, including one 15 year old student in Queens, NY: Alexander Chan. For a science fair project, Chan “exposed fruit fly larvae daily to a loudspeaker, a computer monitor, and a cell phone, and observed their development. The flies that were exposed to the cell phone failed to develop wings” (pg 337). Electrical pollution is implicated in the demise of so many species. In 1998, Motorola launched 66 satellites to provide cell service from space for the first time. Immediately following, for a two week period, pigeon races all over ended with up to 90% of the birds going missing. Since birds (and others) have an instinctual direction sense guided by the natural resonant frequencies of the sky, how can we not expect electromagnetic fields to disrupt their ability to travel? Beyond lost birds, those nesting near cell towers have significantly decreased reproductive success and behavioral changes. Bee colonies dying near radio transmission towers have been well documented. In 2002, the US National Park Service “issued a report warning wildlife biologists that radio tracking devices could radically alter the very behaviors they are using devices to study, and that not only the physical dimensions of the devices, but the radio waves they emit could be detrimental to the animals’ health” (pg 333). This report came out 18 years ago, and the use of radio tracking for the sake of education has only increased! And then there are the plants, which are also affected in a serious way. Firstenberg shares some simple experiments that clearly communicate this point. After reading this chapter, I’ve thought a lot about how other critters, like my dog, might experience my devices. Can she hear the WiFi? Does she feel my phone searching for service?

There is a hopeful aspect of this book: when the source of electricity is removed, it seems that the ill-effects reverse quite quickly, and health can be restored. Firstenberg shares a story of an apartment building that housed cell phone antennas on the roof. Many residents were suffering from similar symptoms. Five months after the antennas were removed, the health of the residents had improved drastically (pg 392).

At this very time in history, we are living through one of those landmark moments, like the ones mentioned above, except this landmark moment is on steroids. Humans are yet again increasing the electrification of our world to a level not yet experienced. This is happening through a few events. One is the rollout of 5G, which looks like smaller cell towers being established on every block or so. These are boxes that sit atop telephone poles, and “they expose the population to tens or hundreds of times more radiation than the tall towers they are replacing” and will accommodate the development of more “smart” devices (pg 386). No need for humans to be smart anymore! On top of this change, there are also numerous companies competing to establish earth-wide WiFi through the presence of an unprecedented number of satellites in low orbit. This initiative is being led by rich boy Elon Musk (whom I really wish would just move to Mars already, and leave Earth alone!). At this moment, he has launched over 600 of his approved 12,000 satellites. Launches will take place every few weeks, with an end goal of 42,000. As I attempt a brief investigation into this situation, it appears the primary critique is that this will affect the astronomers’ views into space, with no mention of how this will alter the health of the natural world. I worry about the bird migration this fall. Yet again, we see a$$hole entrepreneurs progressing into the unknown, making a name for themselves, and annihilating life in the process.

But I digress…There is no shortage of folks currently questioning the impact of screen time on our mental wellness; especially as jobs, school, shopping, and friendships shift to solely online interactions. This research project takes that sentiment much farther, putting our mental state in the context of the physical health of our environment. Overall, this book moved me, challenged me, and influenced my feelings about daily life. And I say this as a person who lives off the grid, does not participate in social media, and lays awake at night wondering what to do when her flip phone will no longer be compatible with cell service. This book could be accused of siloing; that is, focusing so intently on one isolated issue that it fails to account for anything outside of that lens. While reading, I occasionally thought that there could be more mention of chemical and industrial pollution over the last few centuries, which increased right alongside the systematic electrification. But I guess the point is that electricity IS pollution, and most people don’t see it that way…so perhaps the intent focus is quite purposeful.

A few weeks ago, I spent a night camping just a half mile up the mountain from the cabin where I live. I noticed that the insect chorus was nearly double the volume it is at my home. Why would there be more insects in this particular area? I was along the same creek, in a cleared area similar to the cabin’s spot, and both places had springs rolling down the mountain into the creek. In fact the cabin area even has a small pond, which I would assume to draw more insect activity. The major difference that came to mind was that the cabin area has two sources of WiFi beaming out from it many hours per day. Of course I can’t prove this, and even if I spent years recording the appropriate observations to make a solid conclusion, what good would it do? We are beyond the point of pulling back from these technologies in the functioning of civilization. In fact, to participate within modernity, there is some amount of sticking one’s head in the sand that must take place to get through the days. (The irony of using this internet platform to write about the dangers of technology is not lost on me.)

Some part of me was looking for practical suggestions from this book. “Live in [these areas] to avoid electrical pollution”, “Instead of WiFi, plug into an ethernet cable”, “Use a headset when talking on your cell phone”, “Buy this gadget to protect yourself”…but this book is not one of self-help. It paints a picture of inescapable detriment for human and ecological health. Tech is just not compatible with life. It will not solve our problems, it is the problem.

Some further reading that treads these same waters, and dives deep into ecopsychology, can be found by Chellis Glenndinning, an American writer who has lived in Bolivia for awhile now. Her book My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization is one I reread every few years. She also has a book called When Technology Wounds.

Poison Ivy Pondering

Two years ago, my family spent a summer sleeping in an old tobacco barn, with an outdoor kitchen setup under a tarp. We moved into this cozy space at the beginning of April. After about a week of enjoying our kitchen, we began noticing little vines popping up out of the ground EVERYWHERE. Much to my dismay, it was Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. Poison Ivy is in the Anacardiaceae family, which also includes cashew, pistachio, mango, and sumac.

…Now, early on in my plant learning days, I was taught that it is rude to name a plant as “poison”. Would you want to be referred to as “The Bringer of Harm”? (One friend read this and said, “Yes, I absolutely want to be named The Bringer of Harm!”) As I understand it, these thoughtful incites stem from the late Frank Cook*, who was a teacher of some of my teachers. He proposed the name Sister Ivy, which is what many folks call it today. I think it’s a nice sentiment, but my partner also brings up the practical reality, “Well, it’s called ‘poison’ to let people know not to touch it. If you introduce a plant as Sister Ivy, it makes you want to set up camp there!” Both perspectives appreciated and noted! I’ve taken to affectionately calling this plant P.Ivy (Pie-vee)…

Because our kitchen was on the only flat spot available, we took on the job of pulling out the roots. I dedicated some gloves specifically for the job, marked them with cool “P.Ivy Pull” knuckle tats, wore long sleeves and pants, and took on the job for one afternoon. I hauled all the roots about 100 ft up the road and dumped them, with apologies to that immediate area. To my surprise, two years later, there is no sign of it taking off at that spot (perhaps because it was full shade?). In more recent P.Ivy pulls, I’ve taken to burning it, while being careful to not inhale any of the smoke. It is highly preferable to pull P.Ivy in the early spring when the leaves are small and red. At this time, it is easier to handle, as opposed to when the leaves are bigger. (Many agriculture departments warn to never remove P.Ivy by hand or burn it, because they don’t want people to get hurt. But, I trust that you have a brain and you can be cautious and logical. It’s nice to not use toxic chemicals, the real poisons agricultural departments could probably focus on…)

The old saying, “Leaves of three; leave it be” is all about P.Ivy. (But don’t forget the other half of this saying, “Leaves of three; might be a berry!” referring to beloved blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, etc.). P.Ivy grows as a vine, that might appear as a bush, or even a tree if it’s climbed high enough. The two lower leaves often resemble a mitten. The center leaf is more extended, while the lower two leaves connect directly to the stem. The leaves often have quite the shine to them, often with reddish hues. The vine is hairy (so is Virginia Creeper). It can take many forms, so rather than writing every identification variable here, have someone introduce you to it. It’s definitely worth knowing!

P.Ivy presents as a fierce defender of wild spaces. It thrives on the edges of disturbed areas that have been cleared for human activity, as if to say, “STOP! Go no farther!” It covers the topsoil, offering security as it recovers from destruction. I often see it’s fat furry vine climbing up the biggest trees in a space; protecting the elders, I assume. Botanical descriptions write that it chooses the big trees for their solid support, so perhaps I am anthropomorphizing? But I am not the only one who sees P.Ivy as an aggressive guardian…

In 1966, DC Comics introduced the Batman supervillian Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley or, better known as, Poison Ivy. She is a Gotham City botanist and biochemist, as well as a victim of scientific experimentation, who is passionate about environmentalism and ecological extinction. She exudes plant tactics and toxins in her endeavors to protect endangered species, and has a strong preference for plants over humans. I think she’s pretty rad.

But back to the plant…Beyond protecting undomesticated spaces from the human nuisance, P.Ivy’s white berries are an important food source among big and small birds, raccoons, muskrats, as well as white-tailed deer (domesticated goats and pigs will also eat it). The seeds are designed to be eaten; they sprout after digestion softens the seed coat, and birds might disperse them along the edges of the next homestead. The berries are rich in fat and last long into the winter; perfect for sustaining the migrating birds in the fall and resident birds through the cold months.

Some folks say that only humans react to P.Ivy, however, I have found this rash on my puppy’s belly after she’s been in a P.Ivy patch: looks a lot like a reaction to me! Since puppyhood, she has grown more fur on her abdomen and doesn’t seem to react. So perhaps it is our bare skin that makes us particularly vulnerable.

I experience pretty extensive rashes about three days after I contact the plant, covering significant portions of my body for 3-4 weeks. It’s annoying, and since I work as a massage therapist, I feel a lot of pressure to not get a rash, assuming my clients prefer to avoid my oozy dermatitis. Thus remedies for the rash have become an in-depth personal experiment of mine, starting back 10 years ago when I first began experiencing outbreaks.

P.Ivy contains an irritating substance called urushiol, which causes the allergic reaction. Urushiol is an oily mixture of organic compounds in the sap of the plant, found in all parts, above ground and underground. The urushiol binds with the proteins in the fatty cells beneath your epidermis. This oil remains potent for a long time after it has left the plant. For example, if you touch the plant with gloves, and then touch those gloves three months later, there’s a good chance you will react. Be mindful of this with firewood! And your furry friends who run indiscriminately through the woods! Skin is often not initially sensitive to urushiol, but apparently sensitivity builds up with exposure. This may explain why I never had a rash until I was in my early 20s. As a kid, I surely came in contact with it, spending many of my days playing on the edges of a young, disturbed forest. Though I was spared in my youth, children can indeed react. And it is possible to have a systemic allergic reaction, at any age. These photos show the 3 week progression of one of my rashes. (Google “poison ivy rash” if you really want to cringe.)

Preventing a P.Ivy Rash:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially with this rash! I have four things to propose as an act of preventing a P.Ivy rash:

1. Awareness. It may seem simple, but watching my steps and avoiding P.Ivy really is the best way to not get a rash. In our culture, we are often not used to watching where we step. For much of my life, I bulldozed through the day with my head in the clouds. But when my love affair with plants began, I suddenly found myself acutely aware of every footfall.

2. Wash with soap ASAP! If you’ve been exposed, scrub the affected area for at least 30 seconds. Hot water might help, though urushiol has been shown to withstand heat over 300 degrees C, so maybe it doesn’t matter? Apparently 50% of the urushiol absorbs into the skin within 10 minutes! So don’t dilly-dally.

Probably the most thorough soap available for P.Ivy exposure is called Tecnu Poison Ivy & Oak Scrub. It’s an exfoliant soap specific for removing urushiol. It’s also a little pricey. Dawn soap and it’s generic equivalents also work well. These are gnarly degreasers and thus theoretically remove the urushiol oil. If I’m exposed, I typically use Dawn to wash myself, the dog, or a tool that may have come in contact with P.Ivy. Or I might use other “Poison Ivy specific soaps” that include…

3. Jewelweed. This luscious, water-loving plant is often found growing very close to P.Ivy. Where it grows, it is prolific. It’s gooey juices, when applied before or immediately after contact with P.Ivy prevent a rash from forming. The late James Duke wrote, “I treat my students to a dramatic little demonstration: I find [poison ivy] and apply its juice to the sensitive undersides of both my wrists. A minute or two later, I wipe one wrist with a ball of crushed jewelweed leaves and stems. Three days later, the wrist that I didn’t treat with jewelweed shows the typical itchy, blistery poison-plant rash. The wrist rubbed with jewelweed invariably shows much less of a rash, and sometimes none at all.”** Now that is commitment to the educational process! James Duke also notes that Dr. Robert Rosen isolated an active ingredient in Jewelweed that binds to the same molecular sites on the skin as urushiol, though I don’t have more info on this “active constituent”.

Whenever I am out and about, and suspect I may have contacted P.Ivy, I roll and squish Jewelweed leaves in between my hands and rub the abundant juice all over my body. Some people say they also get helpful results using Jewelweed on an active rash, but it has never worked for me once the rash is apparent. As a preventative though, I am confident in it’s ability. It may not completely prevent the rash, but it will significantly limit the size of the rash. Many P.Ivy soaps commercially available include Jewelweed as a primary ingredient. I have made extracts with alcohol and water, but I strongly feel the fresh plant juice works best. This could be frozen in ice cubes for the winter months.

4. Eating P.Ivy. Please read thoroughly before you go out and eat a handful of those shiny leaves! When I first began reacting to P.Ivy, I knew some folks who ate the leaves in spring to reduce allergic reactions. One friend would go out and pull P.Ivy bare-handed after these trials, swearing by it’s success. At the time, I was too scared to try. However, after becoming a massage therapist, I’m desperate to avoid the rashes, which were increasingly consuming my life each summer. So I tried it, had amazing results, and have now completed my third spring of eating P.Ivy. I know 6 other people who’ve done this with no hiccups, but I have also heard vague stories of a “friend of a friends of a friend” ending up in the hospital from doing this. Because there is certainly some risk involved, I let those I live with know what I am doing, just in case it goes badly and I need help. That said, here’s how I go about it…

In early spring, I consume an “encapsulated” small tip of a young leaf once per day, for 15 days. As I understand it, the urushiol doesn’t stand a chance against stomach acid, so I am most concerned about contact before it reaches the stomach. To avoid contact, I wrap the leaf tip in a bit of bread (mushy wonder bread works well for this purpose), and then I swallow this lump whole. I repeat this for 15 days and call it good for the year. For me, this approach works really well and has been an absolute GAME CHANGER! Since doing this, I have not had the large rashes I was accustomed to. I still occasionally get little dots here or there, but nothing like I had previously experienced. (However, I am still not confident enough to perform a bare-handed P.Ivy pull!)

It is possible that the immunity gained from this 15 day process will last longer than a year. In fact, before I began my P.Ivy consumption this spring, I did get a teenny-tiny rash on my leg that only lasted about 3 days. So it’s possible I could cease the once a year process and the results would last from previous years. But I haven’t tried because I don’t want to risk ending up with large rashes again.

Please, please note: there are safety concerns here, use this info at your own risk!

[An alternative to eating P.Ivy is to drink milk from a goat that eats P.Ivy. This obviously requires knowing the goat whose milk you are drinking, and following it around to see if it is eating P.Ivy. I have heard of it working well, and not really working at all. Probably depends on how much P.Ivy is being consumed.]

I use all of these precautions regularly: I eat P.Ivy in the spring and I am pretty darn aware of which plants I am stepping on as I walk through life. If come in contact with P.Ivy, I immediately scrub with soap and water, followed by schmooshing Jewelweed all over the area. Because of these precautions, I now coexist more peacefully with this nosy neighbor.

External Treatments for P.Ivy Rash:

Keep in mind: for severe rashes, you can take Diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Corticosteriods can also be used topically and internally in extreme cases. For less severe, but still annoying, versions of P.Ivy rashes, many soothing remedies exist. Because the rash is hot and moist, we are primarily looking for things that drying and cooling. But mostly we are just looking for things that WORK!

It is worth emphasizing: Itching makes things worse (but it feels so good!!)! It’s hard to resist, and that’s why these anti-itch remedies are helpful…

1. Calamine lotion is probably the most well-known, for good reason, and can be found in any old store. It dries out the rash.

2. Clay is very similar to Calamine in it’s action. It is drying and pulling. You can get fancy and mix the clay with some anti-inflammatory tea for added medicine. Chickweed or Cleavers tea can be a nice anti-itch addition to the clay, or you can mix the clay with Witch Hazel extract. If you apply a loose bandage over the clay, this will slow the drying time, and thus lengthen the pulling time.

3. Yellow Dock leaves. Roll the fresh leaves between your hands to extract the juice, then apply to the rash. Yellow Dock leaf is astringent and anti-itch. It grows prolifically in many areas. In my experience, it brings relief for an hour or so…not the most impressive remedy, but helpful if you are out and about with nothing else.

4. P.Ivy Liniment. Tinctures make for effective P.Ivy liniments because alcohol is drying (any kind of alcohol: grain, cane, rubbing alcohol, etc). I wouldn’t want to use oil/salve on an oozy rash. All the herbs listed below could be used as single tinctures on the rash, but here is a formula that I make specifically for P.Ivy. The results typically last a few hours for me. I have received a lot of positive feedback on this blend:

  • 2 parts Licorice root tincture
  • 1 part Peach leaf tincture
  • 1 part Sassafras root tincture (*Note that this leaves a red hue on your skin)
  • Menthol (1/8 tsp per 4 oz liniment, the menthol crystals dissolve nicely into the liniment)

5. Really hot water. So I know this goes against our goal of finding something drying and cooling, but it feels so darn good and reduces the itching for hours! I will use water that is practically boiling, put it on a washcloth and hold on the rash for as long as I can stand it (about 30 seconds or so). Perhaps I am just burning the proteins in the fatty cells of my epidermis, and thereby countering urushiol’s action? I have no idea. The itching usually does start up again a few hours later, but the relief lasts a very notable amount of time. I have heard that in the long run, using heat is irritating and counters the healing progression. But since the relief is so satisfyingly immediate and long-lasting, I can’t resist.

Internal Treatments for P.Ivy Rash:

P.Ivy rashes appear as an oozy “damp-heat”. There are many herbs to address this, with either a tea or tincture. Here are some herbs that can be used alone or in formula:

1. Licorice root (Glycorrhiza glabra)- a strong anti-inflammatory and a potent anti-itch remedy. It clears heat and eliminates toxins like, in this case, urushiol. It is comparative to corticosteriods, because it actually decreases the clearance of cortisol from the body and contains other anti-inflammatory mechanisms. Because of these things, Licorice is a serious contraindication for many folks. Do your research (beyond this blog) and definitely avoid using it with any cardiac meds, diuretics, and many other pharmaceuticals. For the purpose of P.Ivy rashes, I use high doses of Licorice, which should only be taken short term (by everyone, not just those with contraindications). I learned this effective P.Ivy remedy when I apprenticed with Juliet Blankespor*** and was suffering from rash after rash. If this medicine is contraindicated, please know that using licorice topically is very safe, and helps a whole lot.

2. Japanese Honeysuckle flowers (Lonicera japonica)- used for “fire toxicity”, a term which could well define a P.Ivy rash. These flowers are a strong medicine for clearing heat and eliminating toxins. The vine is often flowering during my rash season, so it is convenient to throw them in my tea. This herb should only be used short term.

3. Elder flower (Sambucas canadensis)- a premier diaphoretic, often used in viral infections to help break a fever and bring about sweating. And while it may cause this effect, it is actually a cooling herb. For rashes, it can be used to “course the exterior” or push the rash out. It opens pores and dries dampness. Another flower commonly in season during prime P.Ivy rash time! This herb should only be used short term.

4. Cleavers herb (Galium aparine)- a cooling herb that drains dampness. It is a gentle anti-inflammatory and anti-itch aid. I use the plant in the spring and early summer, when I find it growing abundantly in the woods.

5. Burdock (Arctium lappa)- a cooling medicine to clear heat and transform damp. A supportive alterative/tonic as the body heals. I use the root (though I want to note that the seeds are probably more appropriate for this rash. Like Elder flower, the seeds are a cooling diaphoretic that help to push out rashes. This is fairly new info to me, so I haven’t had the chance to personally experiment with it).

These herbs could be used alone or as a formula. If I have a bothersome rash, I will make a daily quart of tea with something akin to:

  • 2 Tbsp dried Licorice root (decoct)
  • 2 Tbsp dried Burdock root (decoct)
  • a small handful of fresh Cleavers herb (infuse)
  • a small handful of fresh Honeysuckle flowers (infuse)

Again, this would be a short term formulas, used for only a week or two. All of these herbs could also be used in a tincture.

It is possible to find great relief from just applying the topicals listed above, but it is the internal herbs that really put a dent in the rash’s lifespan.

(For instructions on making herbal infusions, decoctions, and tinctures for liniment, refer to Issue #4)

If the rash doesn’t clear up, considering seeking out an acupuncturist. Or seek them out from the start! Chinese medicine can be incredibly effective for P.Ivy rashes.

Common Questions about P.Ivy:

Is this the same plant as Poison Oak?

Yes and no…Poison oak is in the same genus, Toxicodendron diversilobum or T. pubescens. The leaves also grow in threes, but typically have more of an oak leaf shape. As I understand it, T. diversilobum is common in much of western North America and T. pubescens grows mostly in southeastern North America, along with T. radicans. All of these Toxicodendron species contain urushiol oils, however the chemistry of those oils might be slightly different. Poison Ivy and Poison Oak are common names which can be used differently in different areas. The treatments spoken about here should work well for all of the above.

Is P.Ivy rash contagious?

No. If someone with a rash shakes another person’s hand, that will not spread the rash. However, if P.Ivy oils are on that person’s hand, then it is possible to spread the oils and cause a rash. That is not considered contagion, but just a transfer of the irritant in question.

Can the rash spread across my body?

We’re gonna call this answer a “No, BUT…”

The rash occurs where the body came into contact with the plant oils. Now, it may seem like the rash is spreading because it starts in one area, and then slowly creeps to other parts, but rashes can develop more slowly on different parts of the body, or there could be continued exposure by unknowingly touching clothing, tools, pets, or furniture with the oils present. So, if you have a rash on your wrist, and you have washed the area thoroughly, then you touch your leg, it is not possible to spread the rash in this way. However, if your arm came into heavy contact with P.Ivy, and you were unaware and go about touching other parts of your body, it is possible to spread the oils. The oozing from the rash does NOT spread the outbreak. It is only contact with the plant oils that cause a rash where the skin contacted the urushiol.

What should I do if P.Ivy oils get on my clothes?

Take them off and separate them from other clothes. Wash them and then hang in sun. The urushiol oils are very stable and last a long time, but it has shown to degrade in the sun’s UV rays.

*Frank Cook, http://www.plantsandhealers.org/about-frank-cook/

**James Duke, The Green Pharmacy, 1997

***Juliet Blankespor, https://chestnutherbs.com

Books on the Longleaf Pine

It is difficult to imagine what the world looked like a few hundred years ago, before the forests became grazing and farm land, before interstates sliced through those fields sprouting with subdivisions, and before there was always a McDonald’s just around the corner. Longleaf, Far As The Eye Can See, by Bill Finch, Beth Maynor Young, Rhett Johnson, and John C Hall (published way back in 2012), helps us to glimpse the beauty that existed in the southeastern so-called United States. The book tells the story of the Longleaf pine forests that once covered an estimated ninety million acres, from Florida over to Texas, and as far north as Maryland. Now those forests have been reduced to less than 3 million acres, and only a fraction of that can be described as healthy and whole. Along with the decline of the Longleaf pine, we also see decreased populations and endangerment of certain wildflowers, insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals that depend on the Longleaf forests as their home. Why the decline? As the book describes, a prominent characteristic of Longleaf is it’s dependence on fire. This species of pine evolved in such a way that it depends on a good wildfire every 5-10 years or so. With the increase in human habitation, wildfires have been suppressed. Fire suppression, along with the turpentine industry and the clearing of forests for lumber, agriculture, and development, has taken its toll on the Longleaf forests.

The book not only describes the forest, but it also shows this habitat through gorgeous and alluring photographs that help me to imagine what much of the southeast looked like not so long ago. At first glance, Longleaf forests don’t stand out. The trees aren’t giant like Redwoods (though the old-growth Longleafs were much larger than today’s) and the canopy is monotonous because it is largely just dancing pine branches. But while the tree diversity is lacking, the Longleaf spreads a canopy that allows in copious amounts of sunlight to create a beautiful meadow on the ground; full of wildflowers, blueberries, butterflies, grasses, and even the fascinating insectivorous plants. There are over a thousand plants that thrive in the Longleaf forest that can be found no where else on the planet. Because of this diversity, there is not one Longleaf forest, but many. If you only looked up while walking through the Longleaf pines, you would notice very little difference after covering miles upon miles. But if you look down at the forest floor, you would notice distinct changes every few hundred feet. It is thought to be the most diverse forest in North America. Longleaf, Far As The Eye Can See creates a sense of attachment to this habitat that is quickly being pushed out of existence.

All that said, I didn’t resonate with the primary solution the book laid out. The authors give examples of wealthy folks buying thousands of acres to restore Longleaf forests and reinstate the market for Longleaf timber. While it is good that people, rich or poor, are growing Longleaf, I feel the solutions they lift up are out of reach for the majority of people and only solidifies the way of life that brought about the decimation of wilderness in the first place. If we really value the health of our habitats, our entire orientation towards nature needs to change, and preferably soon.

Another book, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest, by Lawrence S Earley in 2004, provides a more thorough history of Longleaf. The book is divided into four parts; including Longleaf ecology, exploitation, forest management, and ecosystem restoration. Though it doesn’t contain the inviting photography of the previous book, it does include some remarkable old-growth photos from yesteryear (one of which I have copied and placed on my desk so that I can look at it daily).

I was struck by a quote shared in this book: in 1902, Florida governor William Jennings addressed a meeting of the Turpentine Operators’ Association,

“In looking over the State as I saw it first, I recall mile upon mile of lofty pine stretching away on all sides, standing like lofty brown columns, supporting arches of living green, through which the breezes, as they passed, made sweet music; but now as I traverse the same country, I see great areas of scrubby pines, jack oaks, and a little wire-grass. The cathedral arches have gone, nature’s organ is silent, and the colonnades, with their everchanging vistas are no more. The hand of desecration rests heavily on the bosom of the earth, blackened stumps alone pathetically tell of the monarchs that once made the land beautiful and valuable, and I am told that the ancient order of turpentine men wrought all this desolation…In the track of the naval stores and lumber men there are only blackened stumps to pitifully tell the story of the past, of a beautiful land left a ruin [by] ruthless, wasteful extravagance.” (pg140)

And just think, this was said way before there were McDonalds’ around every corner…Overall, I would recommend these books to anyone living in, or visiting, the southeastern US.

Elimination Diets & Disordered Eating

Cover of Zine 7 - Elimination DietsElimination diets are a helpful diagnostic tool for identifying food allergies and intolerances. I recommend them fairly often to clients for various health issues. To streamline the process of explaining an elimination diet, I have written a how-to zine which can be found in my educational resources, Issue #7. In the writing of this, I interviewed a number of friends who’ve gone through the process to hear about their outcomes. It was a common theme to hear about elimination diets leading to and/or triggering disordered eating, or full-blown eating disorders. So I wanted to highlight the connection in this blogpost.

My friend Audra Locicero, of Beautyberry Apothecary, shared her own experience, from which we can learn a lot…

Beginning in my early 20s, I started to experience a variety of health issues that felt oddly out of place for my age. These included a lyme disease infection, gut dysbiosis, and chronic inflammation, and manifested as fatigue, depression, anxiety, digestive issues, brain fog, headaches, and joint and muscle pain. Determined to live a life less encumbered by pain and illness, I decided to adopt a variety of healing diets as a way to address the source and the symptoms I was experiencing. My knowledge of herbs and nutrition and my general worldview, as well as the guidance from various health practitioners at the time, led me to look to food as both a root cause of imbalance and a source of healing.

The specifics of the way I ate transformed over time, but almost always included the elimination of gluten, processed sugar, and alcohol. I took those three ingredients out of my diet entirely for about four years. I also experimented a great deal with the GAPS diet*, abiding by it for long stretches of time intermittently. This included the addition of bone broth daily (which overall I think was very nourishing and am still fond of today). For some time, this way of eating felt really good – I felt that I was in control of a major factor in what was keeping me unwell. Overtime however, in an attempt to assuage the symptoms that were ever-increasingly plaguing me, digestive upset in particular, I began to eliminate more and more things from my diet, eventually removing all grains, dairy, fruit, starchy vegetables, legumes, raw vegetables, nuts, and certain fats. I was left with bone broth, and cooked meat and vegetables. I ate in this way for about four months before I crashed and burned, and eventually saw the light. This was a really dark time. All I could think about was the foods I was not allowed to eat, all day, everyday. I avoided things I previously loved like sharing meals with family and friends and going out to eat. I lost a ton of weight and my period, too. All the while, my digestion, the very thing I was eating to support, was suffering more and more.

Somehow, in a stroke of enlightenment, or more likely a deep survival instinct, I was able to see my situation for what it was: an eating disorder. I almost immediately began to eat whatever I wanted and all of my symptoms improved. I gained all my weight back and more, my menstrual cycle regulated, and my digestion improved, too. I often joke that I turned cheesy pasta into 20% of my body mass in 3 months (the weight I lost and then gained back), a glorious feat! It was an incredible turn of events and I’m so grateful my body eventually had the wisdom to override my mind and seek what was best for me. Orthorexia, or an obsession with “healthy” eating, is not officially recognized as an eating disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the international authoritative handbook for health care professionals on the diagnosis of mental health disorders, but it’s my best guess that it will be in the near future. My presentation and experience read orthorexia to the T, which was both shocking and empowering.

In sharing my story with friends and family, I’ve learned that so many people deal with this type of disordered eating, women especially. What I know now about myself (and the disorder, too) is that I don’t have the mental constitution to eat in such a rigorously restrictive way for such a long stretch of time. While I don’t have an official OCD diagnosis, I know that I’m someone who deals with obsessive thought patterns, anxiety, and perfectionism, and have for as long as I can remember. While some people may be able to maintain an elimination diet for a lifetime even, I believe that great care must be taken before suggesting such a diet to people with a known history of OCD, eating disorder, or anxiety, as it has the potential to do more harm than good. I do not wish to entirely discredit the practice of eating a prescribed healing diet, dabbling in elimination diets, etc, as I think they can have great value for many people; there is no one size fits all approach to healing. I simply hope that through experiences like mine we can become more well-informed, compassionate citizens of the world. This is the responsibility of health professionals especially – herbalists, in my case, but doctors, acupuncturists, and nutritionists, too.

So, what happened to the original symptoms I was hoping to address with these diets many years ago? Some have fallen away, some remain, and some new ones have taken their place. Now, three years later, I eat whatever I want, mostly. I limit gluten and processed sugar for the most part, and don’t have much interest in alcohol, but overall I am so much less restrictive. In some ways, I feel like I withstood the most rigorous elimination diet of all time, and came out the other end with real information about what is good for my body (for example: dairy and gluten-free grains are no issue; gluten and sugar make me feel inflamed in large, continuous doses). Unfortunately, even limiting certain things to a few times a week is still a slippery slope for me mentally, as I imagine is the case in most eating disorders. At this point, I still have to be very cautious about the way I frame the value of various foods in my mind (say, labeling something as healthy or unhealthy) and I can’t meddle in any prescribed diets. I stick to these boundaries as an act of kindness to my mental health. For now, it is a line I still cannot cross, but I hope that it eases in time. If I chose to eat something, regardless of what it may be, I have to trust that it’s nourishing me.

Through these personal experiences I’ve learned a lot. Being an herbalist, folks sometimes ask me for advice on what they should eat. These days I often say: eat whole foods, in variety; just about everything is ok in moderation; and please, eat with your loved ones, for health AND for joy.”

Thank you Audra, for sharing your experience.

*GAPS diet: “Gut and Psychology Syndrome”, by Natasha Campbell-McBride, 2010

2020 Menstrual-Moon Calendar

At the beginning of every year, I bust out my calendar, alongside a ruler, paper, and pen, and I draw another calendar for charting my menstrual cycle along with the moon cycle. Here is my 2020 version:

How to use:

The calendar is on a 28 day cycle, which is why some days of the month overlap. Upon the first day of your cycle (the day your begin bleeding), circle that day and draw a line to cover all the days you bleed.

If you know when you ovulate, circle that day in a different color.  Some people feel ovulatory pain or bleeding, but if not, this can be determined with further charting of fertility signs.

The comment section can be personalized to your own needs.  I use it to keep track of PMS symptoms like cramps, acne, mood shifts, etc.  I create columns of these symptoms and mark the presence of the symptom with an X. A larger X indicates severe symptoms, while a smaller x indicates mild symptoms.

I find it helpful to put all of this down on paper so I can notice patterns over time. At the end of the year, I compare this calendar with years past.  I also get a kick out of comparing my cycle to the moon’s; a mysterious connection indeed!

Feel free to use this calendar and format as you see fit…