An old, rediscovered friend passed along a question to me via Twitter.
Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck, proprietors of the sublime and ever-inventive Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington, were friends in the 70s, when we were all immersed in a golden era for wilderness equipment specialists — they, Early Winters, and I, Rivendell Mountain Works. As I recall, our respective businesses closed their doors the same year at the end of the decade. I took some solace in going down with such fine company, but we didn’t have much time to think about it. Life whisked us along on our separate amusement park rides.
Last year, Bill Edwards, another Early Winters principle and friend, reconnected with me and shared Ron and Carrie’s wild tale. He told me Ron was a well-respected citizen of Twitter. I was just getting my feet wet in social media, so I inconspicuously sidled up to Ron in the internet ethers and hung out for a bit. Didn’t take Ron long to recognize me, and here we are.
So yesterday, Ron and some Twitter friends got excited about a news item questioning whether or not wheatgrass juice is gluten-free. Ron deferred to me, and here we begin a very big conversation, far beyond the scope of Twitter. In truth, it’s beyond the scope of this post, but I hope to share enough to at least convey just how big the conversation is. If I accomplish that, a few people may begin to understand how far we’ve strayed from food wisdom in this culture.
As a doctor of Oriental medicine, I’m trained in aspects of food generally unknown to most Americans. Not to brag, just to set the stage.
Western culture perceives and evaluates food and nutrition from a very quantitative perspective. How many calories does it have? Is it protein, fat, or carbohydrate? How many vitamins and minerals does it have? How much salt, transfatty acids? You get the picture — quantities of measure which must be determined by scientists in a lab.
Likewise, we ask questions like, “Is wheatgrass good for me?”
“How about stevia?”
“What about the Paleo diet?”
“Is spelt okay?”
These are questions I hear from clients and others.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it’s my perception that many of Ron’s friends are focused on food’s sensual pleasures — and that’s great! Enjoyment of our food is of critical importance. But I’m here to suggest that we, as westerners, are missing an entire universe of understanding of food. That should interest you.
Oriental medicine doesn’t care too much about quantitative values of food. It evaluates the energetic nature of foods. These are qualities, rather than quantitative measures. Qualities can be observed without the need for an expert in a laboratory. Some of these qualities take a long time to ascertain, but simple awareness is sufficient to begin.
Taste is an obvious one. Temperature (energetic, not thermal) is another. Sometimes these qualities are obvious, as in ginger, but often more subtle, as in, well, wheatgrass. Other energetic aspects of foods include their direction of travel and effect in the body: astringing, expansive, softening, moistening, moving, downward, or upward. The organs and channels a food ‘enters’, and its effect on them. It goes deeper still, but that’s enough to start our discussion. Each of these qualities has profound meaning in terms of what it can do for a particular individual with certain tendencies, with a unique constitution, and a specific condition — not for everyone in the universe. This system of understanding is so thorough, so perceptive, so tailor-fit, and so effective that a sublimely potent form of medicine can be practiced in large degree using food alone.
When I say ‘effective’, let me give that some relevance and scale by saying I mean far more effective and profound than anything drugs or surgery or any of the other nonsense conventional medicine will shove on your plate. Effective.
Perhaps you can imagine the potency of bringing such a knowledge base to a pharmacopeia of medicinal herbs — which is precisely what Oriental medicine offers.
So with this relatively tiny amount of information, let’s go back to the original question, “Does wheatgrass (presumably the juice) contain gluten?” To a doctor of Oriental medicine the question, in isolation, is irrelevant, because the Oriental paradigm is inclusive of and relates to everything. The first question one might ask is, who’s asking, and why are they interested in wheatgrass?
The doctor knows that wheatgrass is energetically very cold. It is also extremely cleansing. One spectrum of food qualities embodies a continuum defined by the opposing, polar opposite qualities of cleansing and tonifying — and all the foods in between. Tonifying means ‘building’, ‘adding to’, ‘strengthening’. Eggs and meat are examples of tonifying foods. They’re an extreme — eat too many tonifying foods, and stagnation is the result, and it’s inevitable manifestation is poor health.
At the opposite end of this spectrum is cleansing, which purges stagnation. Eat too much cleansing food, and you will become weakened, spaced out, and find yourself wasting away with empty strength. This is precious information to a culture which treasures balance and harmony. Balance and harmony, in fact, are the objective of its medicine — not killing off bacteria, not winning the war on cancer. When balance is achieved, illness and pain have no home.
Balance is easier to come by in some cultures, more than others. Here, in the land of extremes, balance and harmony are essentially unknown. The closest familiarity we have with balance is the fleeting moment we go screaming past it on our swing from one extreme to the other. We are utterly fascinated and obsessed with extremes. This is true of all of humanity, of course, but we, as a culture, are especially practiced.
So it’s no wonder that wheatgrass is such a… fascination. It’s extreme stuff. Used intelligently, it’s very valuable. Used without the advantage of wisdom acquired over millennia, it’s asking for trouble. But we really like extremes.
If you’re a big, hefty, red-faced guy with a loud voice, who’s about to be diagnosed with a terminal condition of excess, yeah, wheatgrass juice for a few weeks or months could be very helpful (but not in isolation, and not forever). But how many people of that constitution are out looking for wheatgrass? Most people I see who are drawn to it are skinny, often frail, a little spacey — and it will only make them more so. I don’t care what’s in it, the energetics and what effects it has on our bodies are far more important than its quantitative components.
But that leads us to gluten-sensitivity, which is an even bigger can of worms. We seem to see gluten sensitivity as this bummer inconvenience which exists in isolation. We don’t get the big picture. Gluten-sensitivity is a symptom, not a disease, or just bad luck. And that symptom should be screaming a number of possibilities to those who have it. Like auto-immune disorder. Like a state of health which is so utterly lacking resilience that we are reacting to everything we encounter — including our own bodies. No one is just gluten sensitive and everything else is hunky-dory. And then there are sensitivities that are cross-reactive with gluten — that is, foods which trigger the same reaction as gluten sensitivity and are associated with it. There’s a long list. One of the most common is coffee. And chocolate.
By now, those of you who haven’t zoomed off to read something more to your liking, are probably looking aghast at your computer screen — as well you should. If you’re gluten sensitive, you’ve got significant health issues, some of which could become fatal. But no one gets that. Conventional medicine doesn’t even get it, but that’s no surprise.
My point is, if the things we’re discussing are your experience, they deserve more serious attention than you may be giving them. More importantly, if you truly want help, you’re going to have to look far beyond conventional medicine, or the internet. It’s imperative to find someone who understands these things from the perspective of an ancient, mature, and intelligent system of medicine. It would be advantageous if such a person can integrate this understanding with the cutting edge of truly managing, say, auto-immune disorders. Without that guidance, you’re shooting in the dark. I use the qualifier ancient very deliberately — those are the only systems that embody this level of wisdom. ‘Alternative medicine’ isn’t even a system of medicine, much less ancient.
Simply avoiding gluten is little more than submitting to an annoyance. Yes, it’s necessary to do, but it will not restore your health. It will only ease the pain. For most individuals in this condition — and there are a huge number of you — it’s the blind leading the blind. Please look a little deeper.
One last energetic consideration for the gluten intolerant. In case it’s not yet obvious, gluten is highly addictive — every bit as much as sugar, alcohol, caffeine, or heroin. If you are blessed to be tolerant of gluten, you may have noticed that our less fortunate friends spend an unbelievable amount of time looking for “gluten substitutes”. There aren’t any. Not in terms of things a gluten sensitive individual should be eating.
Here is where principles of the ‘taste’ energetic come into play. Remember the woman asking if it’s okay to use stevia? Same thing. Same answer. No. Not according to Oriental medicine. And not from the perspective of seventeen years of clinical experience. It’s not simple carbohydrates or sugars or calories that are the problem. It’s the sweet taste itself. Remarkably, researchers have recently shown that stevia actually negatively impacts the pancreas — without the presence of simple carbohydrates or calories. Fancy that.
The same is true with gluten. Trying to imitate the gluten fix inevitably exposes us to cross-reactive foods which will keep us in a state of inflammation. As long as that inflammation exists, we cannot heal, we cannot be healthy. Likewise, the longer we are exposed to such substances, the higher the probability that we will develop an autoimmune disorder. It’s a downward spiral. And it can have consequences we definitely don’t want.
Sorry if this is taken as bad news. I’m offering it from a different perspective: the advantage of information that allows one to now do something progressive about their health. We are faced with a wide array of difficult conditions of modern life. The most complete understanding we can attain gives us the best option for negotiating those conditions.
I’m sure this is far more than you intended to read, but in fact, we’ve only scratched the surface.
Thanks for reading.