To Treat My Chronic Fatigue, I Ditched Pills for Plants
Once I learned food could be medicine, my meals went from feeling stressful to inspiring—all thanks to some herbal allies.
I was in a bad place. I mean, really bad. Some days I could barely get out of bed. My whole body ached like I had the flu and even the simplest tasks felt daunting. I felt tired, depleted and drained of my lifeforce. My mood swings and depression didn’t help either. It was like my pilot light had been turned off and there was this sense of a dark unknown facing me. I went on this way for months and months without many answers. As a woman in her early twenties, I should have had all the energy in the world, but I didn’t.
My mother was at her wit’s end with my daily phone calls crying and telling her I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I can only imagine how scared she was that her once vibrant daughter was struggling to live. Thankfully, she took me to a naturopath to get some help and a second opinion. I went into the office, a full breakdown on the way, and laid down on the examination table. This particular doctor practiced applied kinesiology, or muscle testing, to diagnose imbalances in the nervous system based on the external response of the muscles, which I had never seen before. Within minutes, he had determined I was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Relieved to have a diagnosis, I was still left feeling like it was just a blanket term for symptoms the medical world couldn’t explain. It felt like something deeper was going on with me.
An Herbal Teacher Came to My Rescue
The treatment he prescribed to me was a laundry list of supplements, mostly extracts from animal organs, to be taken at different times of the day and I was left feeling exhausted just trying to manage when and how to take all of these capsules and pills. Though it’s not known what the cause of CFS is, it’s thought that viruses and psychological stress play a big role. What’s even more interesting is that upon doing more research, I found that it affects women significantly more than men, as well as young adults.
Feeling completely out of control in my life and in my body, I knew something had to change. I couldn’t go on like this, and neither could my friends and family around me. Right around this time I was studying herbalism, the art and practice of using plants for medicine. I had always been intrigued by the natural world, having been taught at an early age about the ecology of Florida, where my family lived for generations. My grandparents would take me on walks as a kid and point out the trees, plants, birds and bugs we’d pass along the way. Their connection to the earth was instilled in me early on, so it was no surprise when I got older I wanted to learn more about plants and medicinal herbs.
My herbal teacher, Emily Ruff, came to my rescue and helped me devise a plan to nourish my body with foods and herbs instead of supplements and pills. She first introduced the idea of food as medicine to me and taught me how to infuse restorative herbs right into my food. Soon, my mealtime went from feeling stressful to inspiring with the help of herbal allies. I’d make things like nettle pesto, packed with vitamins, minerals and kidney support, to slather on my breakfast toast or enjoy as a snack with crackers. Ashwagandha root was another herb I’d mix into peanut butter and honey, which helped to restore my energy, ease my anxiety and offer a restful night’s sleep. I was using fresh tulsi leaves (holy basil), an uplifting adaptogen that supports the body during stressful periods to add extra flavor to everything from pasta and grains to teas and salad dressings.
Eating this way was by no means a new idea. Cultures across the world have been using herbs as medicine in everyday meals for thousands of years. But it has mostly been left out from the Western diet, like much of indigenous culture and history has been.
A Farming Internship Opened My Eyes to Medicinal Plants
After about a month’s time, I actually started feeling better. I had more energy, less anxiety and could function pretty normally throughout the day. I continued to feel more and more like myself, so I decided to deepen my herbal studies and apply for an internship at Herb Pharm, one of the largest producers of herbal tinctures in the country. Located in Southern Oregon, it offers a group apprenticeship program to live, work and study at the farm for three months during the summer season. I jumped at the chance to apply and got in.
From the moment I stepped foot on the farm, I knew it was going to be a transformative experience, and I felt as if something pulled me there. Walking around the property—what was then about 80 acres of cultivated medicinal plants—I couldn’t help but notice how alive everything felt. There were rows and rows of bright orange and yellow calendula flowers, a magenta sea of echinacea blooms and sweet-smelling chamomile swaying in the breeze.
On one of the first evenings of herbal classes, our teacher, herbalist Mark Disharoon, introduced us to a plant spirit medicine practice. Not only were we getting to see firsthand how to grow plants that were used as medicine to treat physical ailments, but we got to see how they also worked on more subtle levels. He had us take a few drops of a tincture, of which he’d only reveal the name after we tasted it and spent time alone outside in a quiet place to sit with that medicine.
Sitting there, wondering what I was supposed to be doing, I felt this warmth in my chest. “That’s interesting,” I thought to myself. Then I noticed this gentle energy pulsing from my heart and a flood of emotion and memories came bubbling up out of nowhere. I let myself just cry and feel the pain that I had been carrying the past year. All of the self-doubt, judgment and sadness came pouring out in a cathartic release. Over the next few minutes, the pain transformed into a feeling of gratitude, love and a sense of connection that I wasn’t alone. It was as if something in me dissipated and, for the first time in a long time, I felt safe enough to let go and surrender to what I had been feeling.
I collected myself and made my way inside to be with the other students and discuss our experiences. One by one, we all went around to describe what we felt and to everyone’s surprise, there was an exact similarity between our encounters. Each person mentioned how they felt a sensation in their heart or chest, how they grieved something and felt a release and that there was a feeling of love that washed over us. It was astonishing to me.
My Chronic Fatigue Has Faded Into the Background of My Life
As we wrapped up, Mark was finally ready to tell us what plant we were working with and it was none other than hawthorn. A plant known for its affinity to the heart and circulatory system, hawthorn has an ancient history of use. On an emotional level, hawthorn has been used to remedy broken hearts, depression and anxiety. “It’s a specific medicine for those who have a difficult time expressing their feelings or who suppress their emotions,” Rosemary Gladstar, one of my favorite herbalists, writes. “Hawthorn helps the heart flower, open, and be healed.”
I felt an immediate connection to hawthorn and realized that Mark gave us this plant as an initiation to “meeting” the other plants on the farm. This introduction to the psycho-spiritual world of plant medicine opened the door for more messages to come through in dreams and waking life—especially when weeding next to the plants. I’d get ideas about what herbs I could be working with on a daily basis for support with my anxiety, depression and energy levels. I’d be shown memories or visions of the emotions I’d held onto playing out in current situations. It was like I was being shown a movie of my life that someone else was narrating.
Since being on the farm and deepening my connection to medicinal herbs, my chronic fatigue has faded into the background of my life. I’ve come to think of that time as an important initiation in getting to know my own limits—trusting my intuition and taking care of myself in a more holistic way that not only allows me to feel more connected to myself, but to have a deeper understanding and empathy for those struggling to find answers and healing. Over time, I’ve learned how to create daily routines and rituals around incorporating these herbs into my food and self-care practices to help me feel nourished and supported rather than stressed and depleted.
Like many who journey down the herbal path, I started to think of these herbs as my friends and companions, helping me see that there is far more to this world than what meets the eye and that healing really is possible. They were teaching me in their own way and in their own language, offering me advice, comfort and a sense of community.
I’m not special by any means; anyone can do this. Try it for yourself. Sit with a plant, even a house plant, in silence for a few minutes. See what arises. In my experience, all that’s required to hear what messages plants have for us is a genuine curiosity and a humbleness to get quiet and listen.