Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Herbs And Planets

This is the kind of post which risks annoying people who think of themselves as sceptics, so before I launch into this, I want to say in defence of the concept that just as nowadays we refer to things as being, for instance, in the Rosaceae, which reminds us that they're likely to contain vitamin C and tannins, or the Ranunculaceae, thereby reminding us that they're probably quite toxic, so back in the day, before Linnæus, people needed another method to help them remember significant features of herbs.  In fact, over the next few days I plan to cover quite a few of the most contentious aspects of herbalism.  I also want to point out that just because this is "out there", it doesn't mean everyone uses it.  It also has cybernetic significance, and as usual I suspect that word is going to make people think of this kind of thing:

(both copyright 1981, BBC - will be removed on request).

Incidentally, that last graphic is less than 2K in size and could easily have been displayed on a BBC Model A or a ZX Spectrum, so the fact it's copyright 1981 is quite appropriate.

Anyway, herbs and planets.  Astrologically, the traditional planets are:  Cynthia (the "Moon"), Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.  Many astrologers nowadays include other planets and there are also the "hypothetical planets" such as Cupido, but leaving those aside, in the seventeenth century when the herbalist Culpeper was around the general idea seems to have been that there were eight like today, just a different eight.  Let's get going:

Associated with Cynthia, here labelled "Moon", are those herbs to do with water or which are cold or lunar in shape.  One example is the banana and another the cucumber, but others are weeping willow and many types of seaweed.  The general association is between the tides and the herb itself, although menstruation and pregnancy are not associated with it.  I'll come to that in a bit.

Next is Mercury:

Mercury is so similar to Cynthia that even astronomers are often unable to tell the difference from photographs of craters on either body.  From a distance it's somewhat easier because Mercury lacks the "seas" found on our companion world.  Mercury is associated with the metal because it darts around the Sun very fast, like quicksilver.  Mercury is an airy world in astrological terms and is therefore associated with plants whose aerial parts are finely divided, or contain a lot of negative space, such as dill:

(Yes I know I've used it before).

Mercurial herbs are also associated with communication and therefore the voice and throat.  Their airiness is also expressed in their fine odours, another example being Valerian:

Valerian also indicates a signatury thing:  herbs of Mercury have an affinity with the nervous system because it too is finely divided and subtle.  The communication thing also links Mercury with Gemini, but that's another blog post.

Next, Venus:

This is of course not what Venus looks like at all.  Earth and Venus are the only major planets with feminine names.  Just to explain this image, this is what Venus would look like if she had water and had been more like Earth, and in fact at some point early in her history, this is what Venus might have looked like.  Venus as she stands is completely covered in cloud and this leads to one of the associations with her herbs.  Only the superficial parts of Venus are visible and the rest is hidden.  This is seen as giving the planet an affinity with herbs which have a superficial action, on the skin for example.  The association with the female reproductive system - "venereal herbs" - is another thing. This is where menstruation and pregnancy come in, and it means that gooseberries and raspberries are venereal herbs.  So is rose, partly due to its association with the skin - it prevents scar tissue - and partly because it has a prominent non-phallic reproductive part, namely its flower.

The next "planet" is the Sun:

Solar herbs include herbs which look like the Sun, so for example:

"Hypericum-perforatum-250605-1" by Michael H. Lemmer - Own work * http://www.naturkamera.de. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hypericum-perforatum-250605-1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hypericum-perforatum-250605-1.jpg

Hypericum perforatum, incidentally, is intensely "signatury" to me.  It has so many associations it's not true.  The Sun doesn't literally have rays in the sense that a sunflower or a marigold has, They tend to be strikingly orange or yellow, and to be bitter or aromatic.  They also have direct associations with the Sun, such as the tendency the above plant has to photosensitise the skin, the tendency of the one above that to follow the Sun and the usefulness of marigold for alleviating sunburn (hint).

Mars, the bringer of war, is the "male" planet and as such is associated with herbs which vigorously defend themselves in various ways such as nettles, thistles and mustard.  These plants have weapons.  Some of them, such as arum lilies:

"Arum maculatum 0 700". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arum_maculatum_0_700.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Arum_maculatum_0_700.jpg

have a frankly phallic appearance, so the idea behind it can be that they look like the male member in the same way as a rose might be considered to look like the female one.

Jupiter is of course the largest planet, and the Solar System has been described as consisting of the Sun and Jupiter with assorted debris:

It is of course bloody massive, like the biggest human internal organ, the liver, which basically does everything except for the few functions performed by other more specialised organs.  The function of the liver in the human body is often to change things which are problematic if they hang around to ones which aren't as problematic.  This frequently involves absorbing toxins and converting them to a form which is less toxic and/or can be booted out of the body.  The planet Jupiter does exactly the same thing for Earth, and here's a photo of him doing it:

Those "bruises" you can see near the pole are a comet hitting Jupiter, which is a big target with a lot of gravitational pull, so it's a useful planet to have around.  It also had the role of pulling rocks, dust and gas around in the early Solar System so that the planets formed roughly where they are, so were it not for Jupiter, Earth wouldn't exist and there might not be any planets capable of supporting "life as we know it".

It's not surprising, therefore, that jovial herbs govern the liver.  An example is dandelion:

"DandelionFlower" by Greg Hume - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DandelionFlower.jpg#mediaviewer/File:DandelionFlower.jpg

Many liver herbs are also yellow, but since the same applies to solar herbs this can be a bit confusing.

Finally, there's Saturn:

Saturn is of course distinguished by its rings and, in terms of early modern astronomy, its position on the edge of the Solar System.  Both of these things can be considered limits.  Saturn can be personified as Old Father Time:

"Lord's weathervane". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lord%27s_weathervane.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lord%27s_weathervane.jpg

Father Time's scythe is of course very like the Grim Reaper's and this is also true of saturnine herbs:  they tend to kill people.  An example of a saturnine herb is the deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna:

Atropa is named after Atropos, one of the three Fates, the one who cuts the thread of life.  In other words, the Greek version of the Grim Reaper.

Saturn also governs herbs which have prominent rings, which obviously includes many trees (which are not botanically speaking herbs).

That's all a fairly sketchy portrait of herbs and the traditional solar planets.  The next entry will be about the star signs, Melothesic Man and iatromathematics.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Sympathy For - Well, Everyone Really

I don't know how common sympathy symptoms and allied phenomena are.  I can remember a friend of mine at primary school hurting his leg while playing football and me feeling the pain a while later.  My mother used to worry about my introspection because I used to watch the blood circulating in my retinas against featureless surfaces, and I can see her point.

I don't think of sympathy symptoms as magical or psychic in nature.  They're more like stigmata - the wounds you get on your hands and feet, or arms and legs, when you think about the Crucifixion.  Those are by no means miraculous.  They're just an emotional response to the idea of the Crucifixion.  I daresay if a Star Trek fan thought about Dax enough in the right way, she might develop a rash on her temples.  Nonetheless, there is the usual temporal oddity that symptoms turn up before you learn what someone's problems are, and I can't explain that except to link it with certain things I don't talk about.  We are of course aware that according to Einstein simultaneity is illusory.

Anyway, leaving that aside, I would also connect it to the experiences of Gilbert's Syndrome and IBS, both of which I have had.  The former is recurrent jaundice, sometimes triggered by emotional stress, and the latter is of course Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  My view of my own IBS is that it symbolically expressed the emotions I pushed down out of my head into my belly, and that my bowels, like those of many other people, expresses emotions in the same way as faces do in most other people.  It also feels like my abdominal region in particular has powerful emotional meaning to me to a greater extent than it does for most other people.  One interesting aspect of my IBS is that it played up when I might expect to feel anxious but I genuinely did not consciously feel anxious at all when it did so.

I'm not being precious about my IBS.  In fact I may have a history of not being precious enough about it, but that's another story.  What it seems to have done for me is to have provided a precedent of some kind for mapping patients' symptoms onto my body.  As I said, sympathy symptoms are not ESP.  They are more like a subconscious imagining of what's going on for the other person and a possible intuition of what their problem might be.  They often involve pain but plenty of other experiences can happen too.  For instance, my bowel habit might change, I might experience shortness of breath or a cough or start burping.  The experience which gives me a clue about what might be going on is that if a patient has her back to me, I feel pains on the same side as her but if she faces me, they're on the opposite side.  This means, for example, that appendicitis could in theory be confused with tubal pregnancy if it were a psychic phenomenon, or for that matter if my intuition were telling me something.  My interpretation of that is that I am reflecting the person with whom I am currently engaged.

Another aspect is the gynaecological one but I've forked the blog now so I'll leave it.

One thing which does concern me quite a lot is the problem of somatisation, and here I'm not using the term dismissively by any means.  My attitude towards my IBS was that I had an irritating bowel habit which meant I had to be near accessible toilets,but I failed spectacularly to medicalise it and there is a tendency in general for me not to medicalise.  If someone does medicalise her experience, she may kind of experience sympathy symptoms with herself.  In other words, they become a kind of feedback loop where they make themselves worse.  When I say they make themselves worse, I mean that literally - demonstrable physiological and even anatomical change for the worse without the will's conscious intervention.  The person's lifestyle may also change in such a way that structural change emerges, and the picture may then become rather confused as the elements of somatisation and problems associated with lifestyle change merge.  Therefore I think it's probably quite healthy for someone in a position such as my own to feel the pain of others and also to be reluctant to medicalise, as it constitutes a safety mechanism.  It doubtless brings its own problems of course.

Sunday, 8 February 2015


I've decided to turn this into two separate blogs because I have a problem.  One of them, which will stay here and have the same address, will carry on being about home ed and herbs.  The other one will be a dumping ground for my gender-based obsessions.  In my own mind, however, both of these belong together to some extent, and I want to look at both of them here before I split it into two.

"Home Education"
Note the inverted commas.

Historically, we've been a home educating family.  I want to deconstruct that before I go any further.  Almost all families home educate.  Children are born to their parents and on the whole learn in that environment to use language, walk, use the above implement and the like, and it's even been said that something like four-fifths of learning occurs in the first two years of life.  This sounds unquantifiable to me, but I have to say it appeals to me that everything that happens after the age of two is just icing on the cake, filling in a few minor details, whatever.  Children in the contemporary West then go to school, but over the course of their childhood time spent in lessons amounts to only 8% of their lives.  That 8% is the major difference between families where the children went to school and us.  Consequently, home education, which needn't take place in the home, is the norm, but also a form of parenting, and of nurturing from the general community, which is, I hope, why we're within our rights to consider ourselves still to be involved.  There's so much to say about what's called home ed that, well, it would fill a blog.  However, I also think it relates to gender in a couple of ways, one personally, one not.

The negative experiences Sarada and I had at school were a factor in our decision to make the children aware of and to facilitate their choice to go to school or not.  When I pursued it, I found myself surrounded by women and found that the fathers tended to take a back seat and were even sceptical about the whole project, although this is a generalisation I feel bad about making because of course there are also plenty of fathers who are actively involved in it too, and even those who aren't might be playing a supportive role in other ways such as in financial terms.  It did however seem odd to me that more of them weren't more involved in the way I and the mothers I knew were.  Hence I found myself in the common position, for me, of doing something which was seen as typically female, but not because it was "female" to my conscious mind, but because it seemed natural and normal.

There is, though, another aspect of this.  I was unable to bear children of course.  Now, I stand by our joint decision to present the children with the possibility of opting for or against school and to change that choice at any time as a positive thing for our offspring, but I also think there was another factor in it which led to me taking a particular fork in the road of my life:

I've mentioned this before but seeing as not many people read this blog I should probably do so again.  I am very reluctant to present home ed as anything other than the norm or something which needs an explanation, as to me it simply seems like a rational choice connected with things like the inefficiency of schooling as a way of delivering the overt curriculum, and in any case school wasn't something we needed to use because of the nature of our paid work.  I'll come back to that, incidentally.  Even so, I have to admit that it probably was a factor in my decision that I had a need to compensate for my inability to become pregnant by involving myself very directly and heavily in the children's upbringing.

The whole project, which has lasted two decades and is I hope still happening,  could rightly be seen as a way to deal with the fact that my own babies grew inside someone else's body, and no matter how passionately I might feel for that person, and overawed at what she was motivated to do out of her love for me, things which I wouldn't dream of detracting from, it was her and not me who bore them and that is a loss. I would also say, though, that the kind of loss it is is not in fact any greater than the kind of loss which crops up in people's lives all the time in other circumstances and that just because someone happens to be female it should not be seen as implying that they have in any way missed out by not having children. Moreover, I fully recognise the potential burden and liability having a fertile set of ovaries can be, or at least I hope I do.  That said, my approach to parenting did have an element of overcompensation to it.

There's a completely separate way in which home ed is relevant to sexual minority and conformity issues. Families whose children don't or can't conform may take their children out of school, sometimes after bullying. Additionally children who have never been to school may not feel the pressure to be in the closet in the first place.  Transition is therefore likely to be easier for home edded children for two reasons. The general ethos of the home ed community is likely to be one of considerable tolerance. This doesn't mean that schools don't try so much as that their starting point is much further than the ideal and the inertia of intolerance is greater there. All of this applies to other aspects of nonconformity as well, not just LGBT issues.

A third aspect of our own lives also touches on the home ed situation. We are money-poor and time rich because both of us pursue stereotypically female and therefore marginalised occupations. Such employment is usually seen as an adjunct to a main income rather than a source of livelihood, and even both added together are insufficient for financial independence.  It's also the case that we are both inclined to parent the children in a similar way, not in terms of similar parenting style - we are in fact very different parents - but in terms of interaction and time spent.

There's probably more than this, but mention of occupation leads me to the second major subject of this blog.


Over the period of my training, nine out of ten students were female.  The same proportion applies to my patients.  Earlier the proportion of female to male was even higher, and I've even heard that at some point in the 1980s the number of male students was in fact zero in the UK, and since at the time the course here was very popular internationally that would seem to apply more widely, at least in the English-speaking rich part of the world.  I don't know why that is, and of course it applies across the board.  I just do what seems normal to me but it gets construed as female.  I'm just guessing here, but there could be some kind of social process here where women tend to approach health issues differently than men.  The stereotype of female nurses and male doctors, however, is seriously outmoded, although as I've said, this is severely marginalised work.  Most people don't even realise herbalists, Western ones that is, are practitioners and those who do often confuse us with homeopaths or traditional Chinese medicine people.

There are all sorts of reasons why I became a herbalist, but the tiresome self-analysis has already reached a peak on this entry, so I won't go there.  I will, however, say that the perception that it was a way of getting hold of oestrogenic and anti-androgenic remedies and using them myself was one of the big motivations for me, and this in fact is another way in which gender issues and herbalism intersect.  There is a particular issue which I'm currently burning to write about regarding publicly funded healthcare and transition, but leaving that aside for now, if you did want to dodge being a drain on taxpayers' resources and still address the problem, you would get a limited amount of mileage from doing it the way I am right now.  There are gardens and fields with various plants growing in them, and also corner shops with various herbs and spices in them, meaning that you can avoid having to go to the NHS to stop yourself from killing yourself, since that's apparently not a good reason to go to them.  More on this later, on the shiny new blog, except to say that one way of dealing with the not being dead problem is to decide that life is a punishment, so then you just hang around being a parasite instead, but there ain't nutin' wrong with being a parasite or there wouldn't be any men, would there?

There is a more difficult issue with reconciling holistic therapy and trans issues, which is the problem of integration with one's body.  However, that's the kind of thing I'll be blogging about over in the other place rather than here.

Anyway, there's all that and more, and there clearly are good reasons for linking both home ed and herbalism with gender stuff, but were I merely to succumb to the urge to blog about whatever on here, it would make it unfocussed, so for now, this blog will be about home ed and herbs and the other blog, which is not yet in existence, will be about gender stuff.  See you here and there, I hope.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Herbs For Breastfeeding

When I was at school, my friend Tanya, who is incidentally the second to last person ever to give me a haircut, claimed that she was a mammal and I wasn't because one day she would breastfeed her babies and I wouldn't.  This thought made quite an impression on me because when you think about it a lot of what defines the different classes of vertebrate is in fact to do with mothers rather than fathers.  However, she turned out to be incorrect, but only very slightly.

Here's a rather wince-inducing picture:

When you're most familiar with what you can see, there's something very disturbing, rightly so, about the idea of these visible parts being cut into, and I can't look at this picture without feeling a physical pain in my chest.  Nonetheless, it's a useful picture because it illustrates where the milk comes from.  The breasts of people whose zygotes only had one X chromosome are often, but not always, unlike this because the ducts are not hollow.

I've spent quite a lot of time contemplating how to help people produce more milk from a herbal perspective.  Clearly it's not the most important aspect of lactation but it is at least something I know a little about.  Personally it seems to be mainly about happening only when it genuinely serves a deeply-felt emotional need which is giving to another person, namely my own child, and it can't be played with or done  "unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly", as it were.  It would happen if it absolutely had to happen to save someone's life in my immediate vicinity, but not otherwise.  When it did happen, I didn't use any herbs or anything else to make it happen.  It just did.  As a result, I have no experience of succeeding in provoking it at first hand with herbs, although I have plenty of experience of succeeding with helping others do so herbally.  Personally I only ever got as far as colostrum.

Anyway, there are really two main types of herbal galactogogues.  One type relies on volatile constituents, particularly β-anethol.  The other doesn't have much in the way of volatiles.  The reason this is important is that the volatiles carry over into the milk itself and tend to sedate the baby, which you may or may not consider a good thing, probably depending on whether you're a parent or not.  To me, it makes sense to give a baby milk which calms the recipient down and smooths the digestive process much of the time, but I've steered clear of those on the whole because presumably it's not a good thing in the long term to have a permanently chilled-out child owing to the fact that they're supposed to interact with the outside world, so you might want to try some of the others. By the way, if you look this stuff up you will as usual find lots of people saying they don't work and of course if you believe all that they probably won't work as well as they will if you just ignore that and get on with it.  I still have very little idea why there is so much out there of this nature which is so clearly at odds with my quantitative and reproducible experience of the efficacy of herbal remedies and the like, but there it is.  I don't know why, but it is so.

The word "anethol" is from the Latin Anethum, which refers to Anethum graveolens, or dill:

which is probably better illustrated like this:

It smells aniseedy, of course, and is an umbellifer - its flowers occur in bunches or "umbels" like the non-umbellifers elder and yarrow.  The umbellifers, which we're supposed to call Apiaceae nowadays, i.e. the celery family - Heaven forfend we actually have a name for a taxon which describes something someone might recognise and relate to, are probably the richest source of culinary herbs and spices after the Lamiaceae, or mint family, but unlike the Lamiaceae, all of which are basically edible, the Apiaceae include quite a few horrendously poisonous and nasty plants such as giant hogweed, hemlock and water dropwort, which moreover are easily confused with very edible members such as parsnips and common hogweed.  In that respect they're like fungi can be, with innocuous and dangerous species often being quite hard to distinguish.

Dill is not necessarily the best galactogogue (milk-stimulating agent) even in that family.  It's part of a cluster of quite similar herbs with similar actions and all containing the aniseedy β-anethol, the others being Carum carvi or caraway, Feoniculum vulgare or fennel, and Pimpinella anisum or anise (as in aniseed).  Each of these does the same kinds of things but to different relative extents.  They are all galactogogue, all anti-spasmodic, all calming and all good for the digestion and reduce flatulence.  They all kill headlice a bit.  Each of them has a particular association for me too.  Incidentally, the "seeds", the strongest parts of the plant in terms of medical action, are all technically fruits rather than seeds.

A long time ago, I was a notorious farter, a situation which only worsened when I went vegan.  My ultimate solution for this was to put caraway seeds in every meal, and it worked admirably, although it also made me smell of aniseed.  I more or less only have others' words for that though since at the time I was anosmic due to B12 deficiency - I had almost no sense of smell although I could smell caraway.

Dill I mainly associate with a pun in Douglas Hofstadter's rather fun 'Goedel, Escher, Bach' and also with a vegan mayonnaise recipe.  Also, my Rural Studies teacher had a dog called Dill for reasons which will be obvious to most people.  On another occasion, having left a jar of dill on the shelf unopened for several years I once opened it and was overwhelmed by a huge waft of anethol.

Fennel is probably the only species in this list which can be used as a vegetable.  It's a major ingredient in the mediaeval recipe Fenkel In Soppes, which I've made a vegan version of, and was an ineradicable "weed" in the back garden of one of my childhood homes.  Finally Pimpinella anisum was the first tincture I ordered, which was for some reason in polyethylene glycol rather than ethanol, and I realise I should know why, and which I never used and is unopened in a cupboard somewhere.

The reason I mention these associations and memories is that that's what smells do.  They bring back memories very vividly because of the evolutionary association between the memory and olfactory parts of the brain.  Therefore many herbs with strong odours will have such associations for people.

A number of other food plants are in this family, notably parsley, parsnip, carrot, celery, celeriac and smallage.  Parsley in particular is a useful medical herb and dietary supplement, being high in vitamin C and iron, a good combination.

I've mentioned a few of the oestrogenic herbs used as galactogogues previously, so I won't cover them again, but all of those fall into the non-volatile category along with the ones I'm about to mention.  These include goat's rue, Galego officinalis, which however has a poor reputation as a galatogogue, and the rather wonderful Urtica dioica and Urtica urens, the common stinging and small stinging nettles respectively.  The small nettle tends to be better at everything than the common one, and the roots also have the rather useful property of reducing the tendency of Sex Hormone Binding Globulin, the plasma protein which carries testosterone, to do that thing, rendering it useful for benign prostate enlargement.  Whenever I make the association between nettles and milk, I think of the pointiness of the hollow stings and their tendency to have liquid come out of their ends.

Then there's the herb which dries milk up, Salvia officinalis.  When we used this, it took less than a day to stop the flow.

Probably should mention one more thing, for mastitis.  If you iron a cabbage leaf and put it next to your breast when it's just cool enough to bear, the mustard oil generated should penetrate the breast and kill off any nasties swimming about in the stagnant milk inside the breast.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Am I "Mad"?

One thing about embracing the concept of mental illness as a category that one falls into is that just as a particular ethnicity is sometimes seen as giving someone permission to use epithets which would be insulting in another's mouth, being mentally ill might be seen as giving one similar licence to say "I'm nuts" or "I'm mad", not in the sense that "you don't have to be mad here but it helps" but in that you don't have to pussyfoot around quite as much.

A couple of years ago when I came out, and more about that in a bit, someone actually voiced what a lot of other people were probably thinking, that I had lost the plot.  OK, that was a bit fast.  Try again.

Sometime a couple of years ago, I outed myself as gender dysphoric, or at least that's how it seems to many people.  Prior to that I don't know how it seemed to people although they seemed to be entirely happy with telling me that I should "grow a pair" for example, so maybe that suggests that they didn't.  Some of the time, to me, it seemed that it was so obvious that I wanted to be outwardly female that it wasn't even worth mentioning, and I think probably some people did see it in this way.  However, it was an assumption that probably reflected my failure to see things from another's perspective and I didn't realise that what to me was a really obvious cohabiting pachyderm really wasn't to some people.  Then again, well, two incidents:

  • Hanging out with an acquaintance in a bar for something like five hours before she even noticed I was wearing a dress because it seemed so normal to her that it just blended into the background, and it wasn't that I just sat there and it was somehow mistaken for a shirt or something - we are talking getting up to go to the bar or the Ladies' several times in plain view.
  • Meeting another acquaintance and enjoying the sudden "aha!" look in his eyes as everything suddenly slotted into place and I made sense to him.  He may as well have smitten his brow with his palm.
Therefore, when I talk about coming out as peed off with being seen as a bloke, I suppose I was really just making it a bit more obvious by ceasing to police my behaviour at all and just deciding to be my version of normal, but in a way it was just a couple of little tweaks.  Nonetheless, people did notice and it seemed to surprise some of them.  Anyway, I digress.

Before I say what I'm about to say, I just want to point out that I am only speaking for myself here, not for anyone else who considers themselves to be, for example, a person of gender X trapped in a body of sex Y, as the cliche has it.  Just for me, not for anyone who might be reading this, although it might strike a chord.  Anyway, there is one area in which I seem to differ with most gender dysphoric people, and in fact that difference was what I initially found the most validating of all, and it was what persuaded me to come out in the first place.

My paradigm shift went like this:  I had previously completely internalised the TERF agenda, so my view was that I needed to attempt to reconcile myself with my maleness and become happy with it, perhaps by adopting androgyny.  I still think that this would work for some people because of the myth of the gender binary.  What happened next is hard to describe, so I'll put it in two ways.  One is that I happened to take oestrogen and found that a number of mental health problems evaporated.  Another narrative is that I nudged myself into a position where I was in fact transitioning, a passenger in a vehicle driven by my subconscious, in which case the alleviation of the mental health problems can be seen in an entirely different light. Certainly very definite physical symptoms such as those of rheumatoid arthritis can be resolved when the big life issue is resolved, so even if these were organic in origin, it doesn't mean that the way they got sorted was an entirely physical process except in the trivial sense that everything might be a physical process.  Even so, it still seems very likely to me that the big issue was in fact organic:  a brain with substantially female structures or functions attempting unsuccessfully to make itself work in a body which was giving it the wrong chemicals.

That, I'm afraid, really would make it fundamentally a mental health problem.  I'm not sure what it is that people who say it isn't one object to.  It may be that they are saying that we're being accused of being delusional.  That in itself isn't a problem though, because delusions often express deep truths, possibly in this case the fact that one's brain structures are substantially different than might be expected from one's external gross anatomy.  What's wrong with that?  So it might be delusional.  What of it?

On the other hand, you can just go the other way and say it's reactive rather than endogenous, that is, yeah I'm well peeved, because everyone including myself sees a bloke when I want them to see me as who I am instead.  Why would that not make me anxious and depressed?  Certainly for a short period of time someone might be OK with that happening, but if it's been happening one's whole life it does become an issue.  That would mean that it's not a mental health issue in itself but it has mental health consequences.  The same is true for a load of other things of course, such as school refusal, which has been classified as a mental disorder when in fact it seems like a perfectly rational reaction to a perfectly rational fear.  The reason it's defined as a mental disorder is that it isn't convenient for a society which segregates adults and children and home and the workplace, and therefore requires childcare so that parents can become wage slaves.  With regard to gender, this would be equivalent to saying that a gender-blind society would be one without gender dysphoria, but I don't think that would be so.  In fact, one of the blessings of a gender-segregated society like this one, with firm gender roles, is that it at least gives you a clue about what's going on when you wonder why people think you're weird for wanting to have babies and breastfeed them like loads of apparently "normal" people do just because of some arbitrary decision based on an assumption about what happened to your Mullerian tubes as a fetus.  In a gender-blind society, it seems to me, you might be left with a permanently nebulous impression that something was wrong, and never find out what it was.

Hence we are left with two ways in which this might be considered a mental health problem.  It could be an endogenous organic mental health problem caused by having a mismatch between brain structure and internal environment.  Or, it could be a perfectly natural reaction to circumstances which are stressful and depressing.

When it comes down to it though, to some extent a mental illness can sometimes either be seen as you not fitting the world, or, and this is vital in some cases, the world not fitting you, and to be honest why would I want to fit the world?  Why should it not be the world that changes?  There clearly is something drastically wrong with it, and most people would agree with that.  This is particularly true if it's impossible to change.

Finally, the observation that I should up my meds is entirely correct.  The only question is what kind of meds should I be upping:  on the one hand, antipsychotics, antidepressants or anxiolytics, or on the other, anti-androgens and oestrogenics?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Getting Rid Of Head Lice

It's up to you.  Either you can scroll to the end and find out how to get rid of 'em or you can put up with my wittering.  I would prefer you to do the former.

Consider the following depressingly useful instrument:

Available from your local chemist of dubious ethical repute, this is of course a nit comb.  Since we are in the home ed community, we are familiar with the insects which make this device helpful:

There are also these:

Now we were autonomous home edders, so the first thing to say is that everything that comes into our experience should at least be considered as an educational resource, and these are no exceptions.  Moreover, they can be used in terms of what I've always thought of as the "vertical curriculum".  A one-dimensional understanding of these would merely involve their biological status, but there's a lot more to them than that.  For instance, there's the following poem:

"Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on."

This is Augustus de Morgan's version of part of the poem by Jonathan Swift:

 "So nat'ralists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller fleas to bite 'em.
And so proceeds Ad infinitum."

I have written about Augustus de Morgan on the althist wiki here but the real Augustus de Morgan you can read about here.  Basically, if you wanted history to continue in a straight line instead of veer off in a weird direction in the late 1970s, the first thing you'd have to do would be to make sure nobody discovered that he was copying pictures out of Euclid's Elements in the 1830s.  That's a way into history from fleas.  It's also a way into mathematics (recursion and infinitesimals, which leads to calculus), philosophy, logic and the Arts & Crafts Movement, and of course computer science.

It also has a grain of truth in it.  Fleas do indeed have their own parasites in the form of mites, those mites will have bacterial pathogens and those bacteria may have viruses.  Going the other way, presumably vampire bats have fleas, so the question is, is there anything a vampire bat feeds on which is parasitic on a larger species?  All of that is grist to the home ed mill.

Looking at the above two pictures, it's notable that the lower one contains a larval form and the upper doesn't.  This is significant because each represents an example of the two big divisions of types of insect, the holometabola and hemimetabola respectively.  The holometabola have maggot or caterpillar larvae which pupate and then hatch out as imagos or adults, and include insects such as flies, butterflies and ants.  The hemimetabola, on the other hand, simply start their lives as smaller versions of the adults, perhaps different in various ways such as lacking wings or living underwater, and just mature without pupating. They include grasshoppers, mayflies and dragonflies, and of course headlice.  Another thing you can get out of having headlice or fleas as a home edder.

Another aspect is that their lifestyles and adaptations are linked to what types of insect they are.  Flea pupae hang around waiting for vibration and then hatch out.  They live longer than lice for that reason partly, and they can also live away from their hosts.  Consequently they have adapted to jumping a long way.  Headlice, on the other hand, spread by contact and can't survive away from the body, and they stick their eggs, nits, onto the hairs of the host.  Needless to say they mature very quickly, in about four days, and reproduce very quickly.

Both fleas and headlice are thin in one direction than the other, making them resistant to being bitten.  However, whereas fleas are compressed laterally, lice are compressed dorsoventrally.  This is not particularly significant so far as I can tell but illustrates both the choice and lack of choice available in evolution.

You can take these animals and stick them under a microscope of course.  We've done this with lice and you can clearly see your blood moving through their digestive systems.

Lice are also useful for tracking the movements of prehistoric human beings because of their mutations and genetic drift.  Another possible avenue of exploration is historical and sociological.  There's the Black Death, the history of plague, history of medicine and attitudes to cleanliness.  For instance, lice were once called something like "the pearls of poverty".  There are also two races of louse, the head louse and the body louse.  Moreover, the words "louse" and "flea" are very ancient and are used to track the evolution of languages as well as humans because they've always been with us.  If the Nostratic hypothesis is to be believed (a language spoken during the last Ice Age which is ancestral to probably most of the languages spoken in the Old World today), their word for "flea" was something like "pürčVGV" (not all the sounds can be determined accurately, hence the capital letters) and the word for "louse" was "t'ajV".  Here we're talking about a language which hasn't been spoken for something like fifteen thousand years, although many people are sceptical about it ever having existed or any words being recoverable from it if it did exist.

Those are some of the jumping off points from fleas in home ed terms then.  Clearly some of those would be pursued, or not pursued by the younger infested members of your household rather than the older ones, but it probably helps to be aware of these possibilities among many others.

How to get rid of them

You may or may not have been able to stand my constant waffle, so here's my advice regarding headlice.  I just want to point out that I strive to be vegan, and in this case this probably means not allowing myself to become a potential habitat for them in the first place, but it can of course be almost impossible.  It's also very difficult to deal with them in dreadlocks, so you have to lose those too, unfortunately, which can be a bit of a disaster.  Been there.  The option of shaving my head completely was within one shampooing at one point in the early 'noughties, but it never happened, thank goodness.  They also literally make you feel lousy because of the immune response to the salivary antigens in the blood, and of course like all living things, headlice excrete - I won't spell that out.

To get rid of headlice, put 2% by volume of tea tree oil in shampoo base and mix thoroughly.  When I make shampoos, I usually put half the base in first, then cover it in a layer of oils, then cover that in the rest of the base before stirring thoroughly with a sturdy plastic fork and pouring through a funnel into a bottle.  I usually start washing my hair with the stuff adhering to the side of the container I mixed it in so it won't go to waste.

You then wash your hair thoroughly at a maximum of three day intervals until they're gone, preferably combing it through each time.  At that point, you will immediately be reinfested by an oblivious carrier, but you know, you've got to try haven't you?

Another option is to mix in tincture of Delphinium officinale or larkspur:

Larkspur is, like Cimicifuga racemosa, which I mentioned previously, in the Ranunculaceae or buttercup family, all of which are quite poisonous, and in this case very much so.  Interestingly, Cimicifuga means "dispeller of bedbugs", so it's not just larkspur which might be useful in this respect.  Even so, I don't think it would be a good idea to use it to get rid of headlice for the very simple reason that if you have headlice, you will have lots of little holes in your scalp with an anticoagulant in them, to which you would then be applying something highly toxic to your body as well as the headlice's, so I don't do it.

Incidentally, the simple recipe of adding tea tree to shampoo base is an adaptation of a much longer recipe with loads more essential oils in it which I've forgotten, but in my experience tea tree works fine.  Sadly, tea tree is not local to Britain, and I usually try to avoid it for that reason (air miles and the like), but exasperation and desperation led me to take rather drastic steps.

So when it comes down to it, yes, headlice and to a lesser extent fleas are nasty but at least if your children are into disgusting stuff, and many are, they're also quite a motivator for learning and also a resource for that reason, and that resource needn't be just about biology.  You can hang all sorts of things on them, and if you're a home educating family it won't be long before you are visited by the good fortune of an infestation.  Lucky you.

Prehistoric Matriarchy?

I am neither an archaeologist nor an anthropologist.  The closest I get to those is, I suppose, in the areas of palaeontology or linguistics, so much of what I say here will be naive.  There's a risk of projecting wishes and fears into the past to support a gloomy or over-rosy view of how things ought to be in the here and now.  I'm also wary about extrapolating from evidence because of a story I once heard (and I may have got this wrong) about a people who used to bury their dead facing the village because they thought it was bad luck to have corpses facing the living.  This sounds counterintuitive until you learn the extra bit of information that they also assumed that every dead body turned 180 degrees in its grave shortly after being buried, so they would end up facing away.  If we only have material evidence to go on we can make big mistakes, and history tends to be written by the winners.

Clearly the West is a patriarchal culture and therefore this history of the human species is written by the winners, i.e. the patriarchy.  Women take their men's names on marriage and monarchs tend to be male, for example.  The masculine tends to be linguistically less marked than the feminine, so for example in English given names tend to have an -a at the end if feminine and no particular ending if masculine, and female versions add an ending to a plain male form, as in "empress" or "lioness".  Hence in this case history is likely to have been written by the apparent winners, i.e. the men, and as Prefab Sprout once obscurely observed, "If you can't find the spot where their time stops/Just ask who built the clocks".  Therefore my mind, formed in patriarchy and programmed by it, may miss the obvious "fact" that palaeolithic societies were all or mostly matriarchal or egalitarian with regard to gender.

One eco-feminist claim wherewith I have much sympathy, however, is the idea that patriarchy goes hand in hand with the development of agriculture and pastoralism, and there is evidence that palaeolithic societies were sexually egalitarian.  Even more recent societies may have been.  For instance, burial customs in Britain used to involve mass burials rather than special tombs set aside for special individuals, then the practices changed a bit under five thousand years ago with people being interred in individual tombs.  Before that, they were also peaceful, allegedly, and had no permanent leaders.  I'm not clear where this impression comes from and am acutely aware that I and others may be projecting wishful thinking onto the past.

In a sense, nobody has a stake in supposing that women, men or neither were on top in prehistoric times because we are creatures of our own time whose thrownness, givens, happen to include our ascribed gender.  Just as we didn't ask to be born, nor did we choose our biological sex or what ended the sentence "It's a..." when we came out.  There is no more reason to identify with someone of our own gender presentation or identity back then than anything else, because the history of our ancestors is the history of us all.  Each of us might happen to consider ourselves to be of a particular gender right now, but that's an accident of birth and society, and each of the features we might identify as distinctive of our gender is contingent, given for example that we have no idea what technological or social change might bring in the future.  In another sense, though, we might consider it important as a way of underpinning the way we see things now.  Clearly patriarchy is to the disadvantage of all of us, meaning that we're living in a society to which we are not ideally adapted, which suggests that the social order may have changed.  Having said that, there have always been hardships and it could be that patriarchy is one of those.  This means, of course, that a new kind of social order needs to be created.

What do I actually think then?  That prior to Neolithic times, there was sexual egalitarianism, not matriarchy or patriarchy.  There are apparently no matriarchal societies known to contemporary Western anthropologists.  This could of course be because they're all extinct.  

Anaptomorphus homunculus (an omomyid)

Everyone alive today is a "modern" person with a family tree going back myriads of millenia to the omomyids (probable human ancestors from the Eocene), and in that sense there may be no traditional societies nowadays.  Before a certain point in time, societies with features completely absent from today's were probably common, and one of those might have been matriarchy or sexual egalitarianism.  It could be argued that the very fact that we still exist as a species suggests that the hazardous feature known as patriarchy didn't exist back then.

Basque road sign
"Mendexa euskara 001" by Joxemai - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mendexa_euskara_001.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Mendexa_euskara_001.jpg

I could fall back on linguistics.  Basque is an ancient language which lacks gender and in fact languages with gender are the exception rather than the rule - offhand I can only think of three families whose languages may have grammatical gender - but that's not very helpful as some ungendered languages are spoken in highly patriarchal societies.  Iroquois customs are largely matriarchal, apparently, where the women have the power to appoint and depose leaders and where inheritance passes through the mother, though to males, although there is no land ownership, but Mohawk, one of the languages spoken among them, does have gender.  So I don't think that gets us anywhere.

I am of course projecting my own wishes and values onto the past here.  As an anarchist, I believe that the so-called natural and best state of humanity is no state, and no hierarchies based on the distribution of scarce or pretended scarce resources, and I tend to look back at the past as positive rather than to the future as progressive.  My metaphor for the passage of time is falling face upwards into the future, which may not be a particularly healthy one.  I do also believe that for humans to thrive we need to be living in a society which is in various significant ways, but not all, substantially similar to the Palaeolithic, although of course the palaeolithic was a very long time and perhaps also very diverse.  Hence all I have to go on really is what I'm projecting onto an imagined ideal past, which I hope will return.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Weeds And Germs

A weed is a plant growing somewhere someone doesn't want it to. Common examples of "weeds" are dandelions and stinging nettles. These two examples are particularly ironic, though there are many others.

"TaraxacumOfficinaleSeed" by Greg Hume - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TaraxacumOfficinaleSeed.JPG#mediaviewer/File:TaraxacumOfficinaleSeed.JPG

Considering dandelion first, Taraxacum officinale is a liver tonic and diuretic, also a source of latex for rubber, high in potassium and provitamin A and various other things. It's notably similar in a appearance to the related Lactuca virosa, lettuce, and under the soil bears a resemblance to Jerusalem artichokes, to which it's also related. I have eaten roast dandelion roots and because of their inulin content they taste similar to artichokes. They also propagate very easily due to the windblown seeds and the fragility of their roots, each of which can produce a new plant when broken.  Some herbalists put dandelion root in every prescription. 

Stinging nettles are even more amazing. They're a good source of iron, lower blood sugar, can be used as a source of calcium, increase the excretion of uric acid, address rheumatoid arthritis, stimulate milk secretion and the roots can be used for prostate trouble. In non-medical terms, they are a persistent green dye and a source of fibre for textiles and paper, being related to Cannabis.  However, the family itself is very small, consisting as it does solely of stinging nettles (not dead nettles, which are labiates) and pellitory.

"Ragwort and caterpillars, Croucheston - geograph.org.uk - 1388879" by Trish Steel. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ragwort_and_caterpillars,_Croucheston_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1388879.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ragwort_and_caterpillars,_Croucheston_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1388879.jpg

There are of course other plants which we have few uses for, notably the close dandelion relatives ragwort and groundsel. These are not only without virtue for us but also cause liver disease in humans and other species.  Ragwort is also much maligned for its allegedly limited ecological role, although it does provide sustenance for cinnabar moth caterpillars.

The concept of germs is similar to that of weeds. They are organisms someone doesn't want to be in a particular place.  Trivially, a bacterium isn't an immediate problem for us if it's not inside the body, except of course that it may be because we're all walking compost heaps which rely on the microbes living inside us and if some of the ones we need are absent, we have a problem. For instance, we might be susceptible to haemorrhages if the bacteria which make vitamin K are not in our digestive systems.  Nonetheless, microorganisms can sometimes be in the wrong place, for instance in the meningitis example given the other day or when the bacteria living in the intestines produce the wrong substances from digested food.  When this happens, they are "germs" in the same sense that a plant is a "weed".  It may also be that primarily disease-associated bacteria, that association being in the human mind rather than the world (wherever that is), have human uses, such as Clostridium botulinum toxin being used to alleviate cerebral palsy.

The question of use and value to human beings is an issue here too.  Just because one species is in a place which another finds inconvenient, such as a ragwort plant and a human, doesn't render it a universal problem.  The reason I bring this up is not to be awkward but to point out that the way we perceive organisms is clearly influenced by our own reactions to them, perhaps as a species.  Zingiberis officinalis or ginger, for example, we perceive as "hot", but in fact spicy plants are merely ones which do things like stimulate human pain receptors or increase local circulation.  They presumably don't do the same thing for, say, an insect which is eating the rhizome or for that matter a mould growing on it.  Nor does this simply apply to taste, but to every aspect of reality.

That leads us to a rather cold, impersonal world which is however kind of vegan in its outlook, since we have no more right to occupy a position than a germ has to kill us or a weed has to grow there, and of course no less.  It's a world in which there are coordinates but no origin, measured in "objective" terms, but also a world in which there is paradoxically no care.  There is another world, and it can be equally vegan.

As I'm sitting here typing, I'm only minimally aware of my glasses making the text in front of me easier to see clearly.  I'm also only minimally aware of the positions of the keys on the keyboard.  I'm more aware that my fingers are cold and that my hair is hanging down over my eyes.  A physical description of what's going on would not take into account those levels of awareness.  Now, suppose the E ky wr to stop working.  I would thn bcom vry awar of that fact, and th ky in qustion would becom an objct of my consciousnss, and possibly also of yours.  It would move from being an assumed functioning part of my world to an obstacle to my communication.  Similarly, the facts that my hair is hanging down and my fingers are cold makes them things I care about.  This is an entirely different world, and in a sense it's a world with a centre - myself - and distance, at least metaphorically.  In a sense, numb hands are further away than hands which feel normal.  There's a sense of reaching for them to make them do what you want.  Things which become problematic obstacles are things you care about.

Ginger as a spice is often in a world I care about, particularly as my favourite smells are ginger and coffee.  If, however, I post a picture like this:

which is the structural formula for shogaol, one of the "spicy" substances in ginger, and of course a representation of a reality which is quite different.  It probably doesn't shout "spicy" at you although it does to me because of that side chain with the oxygen on it.  It also creates an impression of the flavour and odour of ginger in my experience right now.

Applying this to herbalism, herbalism ought to be medicine in the realm of care rather than the realm of the cold and impersonal.  It's about weeding, possibly using the weeds but also respecting them for their meaning and use to other species as well as in their own right.  It's also about veganism of course, to me at least, and as such is about compassion.  The mainstream medicine in this country is not herbal or vegan of course, but often does involve compassion although it's difficult sometimes to show that for practical reasons, often money-related.

Possibly then, the real division in medicine isn't between orthodox and alternative at all, but between caring and not caring, and both can occur in both contexts.  Patients need to matter to the people to whom they come in contact in the same way as herbs and bacteria need to matter to people.  It's also possible that orthodox medication could matter just as much to someone in a particular predicament, because it provides their answer, and this could be a completely orthodox antibiotic or painkiller.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Plant Oestrogens And The Like

I'm not quite as on the ball as you might think on this because in order to get the maximum benefit from the placebo effect of the stuff I'm taking, I try not to look too much into the research around it.  It's very common to find research which appears to show herbal remedies are ineffective.  I can't be sure why this is, but since I have seen thousands of people in my time whom I've treated and whose conditions have then improved by measurable criteria such as blood pressure going down, peak expiratory flow going up, skin lesions shrinking in area and the like, in accordance with the prescribed herbal remedies, there clearly seems to be a discrepancy here and I can only think there's some kind of flaw in the research.  I don't want to go into that now.  Anyway, it might be surprising that my knowledge in this area is rather sketchy compared to others, but it's because of the enormous amount of emotion I have invested in it.  In a previous entry I mentioned that people with a condition may or may not be the best people to treat it or become experts on it, and as far as gynaecological conditions are concerned, well, you don't really get much worse than being born without a female reproductive system and instead developing a fully functional male one with all the consequences that brings.

Anyway, I'm going to try to be objective about this.

Here's a structural formula for the strongest oestrogen produced by the human body and the dominant one secreted by the ovaries between the menarche and the menopause, oestradiol:

This is another oestrogen secreted by the body, oestrone:

As you can see, the only difference is the absence of hydrogen from the pentagonal ring.  It's less active as an oestrogen, and is also carcinogenic and associated with a number of other unpleasant experiences.  The third endogenous oestrogen is oestriol:

This time the difference from oestradiol is the extra hydroxyl (OH) group on the pentagonal ring.  It is closer to oestrone than oestradiol.  The second and third oestrogens are chiefly found during pregnancy.  Oestriol is produced from a hormone made by the fetus and is at the same level in most adults who are not pregnant regardless of what they have between their legs.

Two prefixes often tacked onto the word "oestrogen" are "xeno-" and "phyto-".  Xenoestrogens, "strange oestrogens", are compounds produced by non-biochemical processes which often differ considerably from oestrogens produced by living things, but still influence people the way the kind of oestrogen an ovary might produce can.  Although many xenoestrogens are similar to endogenous human oestrogen, some aren't, such as the phthalates:

(The "R" and the "R'" are shorthand for various other possibilities.)  These are used, for instance, in PVC and pills.  The problem with xenoestrogens is that they are stored in fat and the liver can't easily convert them to substances which can be easily excreted, and they tend to be carcinogenic.  Xenoestrogens have been used in, for instance, anti-barnacle paint and have tended to change the sex of molluscs exposed to them.  Some insecticides are xenoestrogens.

At this point the words "grandmother" and "eggs", or maybe their vegan equivalents, come to mind, but I suppose I should probably say that xenoestrogens have been blamed for things like precocious puberty, falling sperm counts and gynaecological cancers along with all sorts of worrying environmental effects.

Then there are the deliberately oestrogenic substances such as diethylstilbestrol (which is also quite unlike human endogenous oestrogens):

This drug, which is now banned, has been used in various obstetric and gynaecological situations until it was found to cause various unusual effects including this (I was still just about pretending to be a bloke at this point):

Finally there are of course the phytoestrogens.  These are the substances found in plants which have oestrogenic activity.  Unlike the xenoestrogens, these are often very similar to the likes of oestradiol, oestrone and oestriol.  However, when considering a plant, very often what happens is that there are a number of similar substances, or dissimilar substances with similar actions, and a lot of other substances which alter the way those so-called "active ingredients" behave.  There are even plants which seem to have no ingredients at all which have a particular effect but where the whole plant does seem to have such an action.  These are called "negative herbs".

Supposedly the herb par excellence for oestrogenic action is black cohosh, Cimicifuga racemosa:

"Actaea racemosa 002" by H. Zell - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Actaea_racemosa_002.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Actaea_racemosa_002.JPG

This plant is very widely used for gynaecological problems, but now has a rather poor reputation.  It contains a wide variety of active compounds such as formononetin:

However, recent research suggests that it is not oestrogenic but instead coincidentally relieves the symptoms of certain gynaecological conditions.  Being a member of the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup family, all of whose members are significantly poisonous, it's not terribly marvellous.  All it did for me was make me throw up, cause nausea and make me feel poisonedly ill, although in itself that doesn't mean it isn't oestrogenic.

A more promising source of phytoestrogens which are substantially similar to those we secrete chemically is the bean family or Fabaceae.  Many of these are still highly poisonous, such as Laburnum, but many are edible.  The phytoestrogens I use are in fact from this family and include red clover (Trifolium pratense):

"Trifolium pratense 0522" by 池田正樹 (talk)masaki ikeda - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trifolium_pratense_0522.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Trifolium_pratense_0522.jpg

and fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum):

It probably comes as no surprise that soya is in this category.  Red clover has the interesting property of being one of those drugs whose breakdown by the liver is slowed by grapefruit and pomegranate, so its action can be enhanced by drinking those provided you're not taking one of the other drugs which is affected by it.

These include the isoflavone oestrogens, including genistein:

which are sometimes said to reduce male fertility and also the risk of breast cancer.

Broom and licorice, which I unaccountably can't bring myself to spell the British way, are also in the bean family.  Broom is quite poisonous and licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra, raises blood pressure and influences sodium levels, but is in a category referred to as adaptogens, making it rather interesting from the viewpoint of gender issues.  I have my suspicions.  Anyway, before I go into that I want to show you another interesting aspect of these substances:

They're frothy!  In fact, isoflavones and steroidal saponins can even be used as detergents instead of ordinary soap.  They also taste sweet.  In large quantities they can break down red blood corpuscles, although not to the same extent in mammals as in most other vertebrates, and this can in fact be therapeutic as it can ease the flow through capillaries by destroying misshapen corpuscles.

Licorice seems to be quite mildly oestrogenic, although the picture isn't quite that simple.  I'll come back to that.

Another oestrogenic herb is that staple of my childhood, hops, Humulus lupulus:

"Hopfendolde-mit-hopfengarten". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hopfendolde-mit-hopfengarten.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hopfendolde-mit-hopfengarten.jpg

Hops, along with juniper, are to be honest very annoying and I don't use them at all for anything.  These two herbs are unfortunately indicated for conditions which usually coexist with other conditions for which they are contraindicated, i.e. shouldn't be taken, which effectively makes them entirely useless even though their actions are quite powerful.

Hops are related to Cannabis and stinging nettles, Urtica.  They do appear to be oestrogenic, quite strongly so in fact, but they also have a reputation of causing paradoxical anxiety (they are also sedative) and strongly exacerbating depression.  This last aspect makes me wonder though, because I have a strong tendency to depression but when I take hops they don't make me depressed at all, and I'm wondering if they only cause men to be depressed precisely because of the oestrogenic action, or whether they cause people to cry, which is completely different from depression and may even in a sense be its opposite - excretion of negative emotion and catharsis.

Another oestrogenic herb is Calendula officinalis, the French marigold:

"Calendula officinalis bgiu". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Calendula_officinalis_bgiu.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Calendula_officinalis_bgiu.JPG

This exuberant solar wonder, a herb of the Sun, is remarkable in being incredibly useful in a huge number of ways.  Unsurprisingly, it's in the daisy family, the Asteraceae.  It's been said that marigolds are so useful that they actually make you doubt that herbalism is even valid, since it seems too good to be true.  Another unusual aspect of the plant is that unlike most other species of herbs used medicinally, the ornamental variety is in some ways actually more useful than the wild versions because it has two rows of rays ("petals") and the orangeness implies a higher carotenoid (provitamin A) content as with cultivated carrots.

Like licorice, Calendula froths when shaken due to its oestrogenic content, and is another oestrogenic plant.  However, since it's also a liver stimulant, it's not ideal - it would also increase the rate at which steroidal hormones are inactivated and the steroidal saponins in itself are broken down.

The ideal oestrogenic herb would be one which didn't stimulate the liver much.  On that subject, there are a few herbs which would cause breast development but for really very bad reasons.  This is male gynaecomastia:

"Gynecomastia 001" by Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gynecomastia_001.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Gynecomastia_001.jpg

One major cause of gynaecomastia is severe liver damage, which can be caused by very many toxic herbs including black cohosh in big enough doses.  The reason it happens is that the liver loses the ability to break oestrogen down first, before losing the capacity to inactivate testosterone.  Therefore the danger exists of certain plants being seen as oestrogenic when in fact all they are is severely toxic to the liver.

Talk of the liver reminds me of Silybum marianum, milk thistle.

This may or may not be oestrogenic.  However, since it is probably the best of all liver tonics, it's fairly irrelevant because it would cancel itself out.

Then there's Salvia officinalis, one of the sages:

This is also oestrogenic but unlike the others it reduces sweating and breastmilk.  I've used this for myself in a pinch but it is generally quite drying, so it's really a stop gap measure.

There are quite a few others.  A very wide variety of herbs are oestrogenic.

There are also other approaches.  The processes stimulated by oestrogens often involve signals mediated by a group of chemicals called eicosanoids, which are found in fatty acids, so supplementing with the likes of flaxseed oil can also help.

There are also ways of reducing androgen activity, but that's a different subject.

Finally, back to licorice.  Licorice is also adaptogenic, that is, it "makes you healthier" like a lot of other herbs such as Eleutherococcus senticosus and Smilax ornata.  In more detail, they provide raw materials for steroid hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone while making it easier to switch stress responses on and off.  This is where I speculate wildly.  Please remember that I lack the kind of research community I need, so this can never be more than a hunch, although of course believing in it has, as the belief in phytoestrogens has, a possible placebo effect.  This is to generalise beyond the point which I imagine orthodox medicine would sanction, but I suspect that adaptogens can be feminising for M2F gender dysphorics and masculinising for F2M gender dysphorics.

To summarise then: 
  • Black cohosh is probably not oestrogenic at all.
  • Many plants in the bean family are oestrogenic including soya, fenugreek and red clover, but soya is sometimes suspected as a cancer risk and is also quite ecologically harmful.  However, plants in this family seem to be the most clearly and uncomplicatedly oestrogenic.
  • Hops are oestrogenic but would need to be used with caution due to their depressive effect.
  • Calendula is oestrogenic but this may be cancelled out due to the liver tonic effect.  The same applies to milk thistle (which incidentally is in the same family).
  • Sage is oestrogenic but also quite drying taken in large quantities.  I suspect that other plants in the Lamiaceae tend to be oestrogenic too.  These are most of the classic culinary herbs such as rosemary and thyme.
  • Licorice and other adaptogens provide raw materials for reproductive hormones, and just possibly push people further into their underlying gender role.  For ciswomen, this would mean they are reproductive system tonics.  Licorice and some of the others, though, should be used with care because they do things like raise blood pressure.
  • There may be "pseudoestrogenic" herbs which do increase the level of oestrogens but do so by damaging the liver's ability to break them down.  These should be avoided completely.
  • Finally, oestrogen doesn't exist in isolation and the signals which control responses to oestrogen could be improved by use of the usual essential fatty acid sources such as starflower oil, evening primrose oil, flax seed oil and sesame oil.
I realise this is a bit sketchy and vague-sounding, but this is a highly emotionally charged subject to me and I can hardly bear to think about it clearly.  When you're drowning, you clutch at straws and I may have done this here.  Please be nice about this.  I know it's not up to much but I hope you understand why.