“Why I love Trees”:  My Journey of Nature Connection

Today is ‘International Day of Forests’.  It is also the last day of my six month practicum of training with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  Very soon I will be a Certified Guide.  In the last week I’ve been reflecting on this journey and how this all come about.

I think it all starts back in my childhood when I spent most hours outside on the farm in country Victoria.  I have fond memories of the vege garden, looking after animals, bike riding on country roads and driving the tractor for dad.  I didn’t spend much time inside, preferring to generally wander the paddocks amusing myself, kicking field mushrooms or throwing cow pats like discuses. I used to spend hours lying on a big branch in an old gum tree, making up stories in my head about the creatures that lived there.   Nature was my playground.

I’ve always loved playing in trees.

As you do, I left home at 21 thinking there was something better.  I got married young, had a family, bought my first house, travelled overseas and moved to a big city to get a degree and pursue a career.  It was about accumulating lots of stuff.  But Brisbane got crowded and I yearned to get back to a quieter life, so went back to Darwin 11 years ago with my beautiful family in tow.

I was drawn into bushwalking, taking up invitations to hike with friends in Kakadu.  I heard about permaculture and joined a community garden.  I also had the privilege of being out on country with Aboriginal Elders on the Tiwi Islands and an outstation in NE Arnhemland, where I felt, smelt, sensed and heard stories about their human-nature spiritual connection.

Hiking the Jatbula Trail near Katherine in 2017.

I can now appreciate how lucky I was to have been so close to nature as a child, as I find myself coming back around to many of the practices that kept me grounded and healthy.

Over the years while practising social work on the Tiwi Islands, I came to learn about narrative therapy and a groupwork methodology called the Tree of Life.  After sharing these ideas with some of the Tiwi Elders, I came to realise the power of the tree metaphor in helping Aboriginal people tell their problem stories in ways that were non-shaming and safe, as well as strong stories about healing from the ‘storms’ of their lives, working together like a forest.  I discovered that yarning about problems using nature metaphors helps to integrate trauma experiences without retraumatising people.  We used these ways of yarning in counselling, groupwork and family healing bush camps.  I also write a children’s therapeutic book called ‘The Life of Tree’ to help Aboriginal kids open up about their experience of violence in families.

Trees have become important metaphors in my work too.

In 2013, I caught an early diagnosis of thyroid disease and was told I would eventually have to go on medication.  Not accepting this fate, I turned to natural medicine for answers – taking supplements to make up for our mineral-depleted soils, cutting out foods that were contributing to my body’s autoimmune response, quitting my job to de-stress, joining the ‘slow living’ movement, and taking up meditation (although I struggled to make this a daily practice).  By 2016 I had no evidence that Hashimotos disease had ever been part of my life.  Once again, nature had shown me the way.

In the background, I had a growing sense of unease, helplessness and despair at the state of the planet.  I mulled about the future my children would have to deal with and noticed the global trends in increased anxiety, depression and suicide in young people coping with the pressure of modern, domesticated life.  I read about ‘nature deficit disorder’ as a result of children’s technology use and the detrimental affect excessive screen time was having on their development.   Something has to change and quickly.  The earth does not have the luxury of time if we are to repair the damage we’ve done, and at what cost to our own physical and mental health?

Fast forward to April 2017 when I find myself in the wild West of Tasmania.  My girlfriend had to pull out of our planned trip at the last minute because of her mum’s terminal illness.  I’d never travelled on my own before, and I was constantly thinking about my safety out in the wilderness walking alone.  But by the end of my holiday, I had come to enjoy my own company so much, that it took me a while to be around people again.  I was also in awe of the beautiful old growth forests that boasted trees that were more than four hundred years old.  Nature has always been important to my own growth, health and wellbeing.  But this experience took me to a level of nature connection and a sense of freedom, that I’d never experienced before.  I wanted more.  It was shortly after this that I heard about Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) and decided to train as a Guide in September 2017.

Learning how to be on my own in nature in Tasmania’s wild West.

I experienced an amazing week-long intensive immersed in the Yarra Ranges engaging in mindful walks in nature every day.  NFT is inspired by the Japanese practice of Shinrin Yoku or forest bathing.  While learning the skills of helping others slow down using intentional invitations to connect with nature and ignite the senses, I learnt how to slow myself down even more.  Believe me, it is intensive.  Practising mindfulness every day takes discipline and practice when you are the kind of person that always has multiple projects on the go and a mind that never rests.  After a week, I just wanted to run or go for a long hike.  No more slow!  But seriously.  This is the practice that is going to sustain my health and wellbeing long into the future.  And there are a lot of scientific studies coming out now to prove it.  For me, it’s about finding the balance between living and working in the ‘real world’ and engaging with the ‘natural world’.  As Richard Louv says “The more connected to technology we become, the more nature we need to achieve a natural balance.”

Me and my fellow Guides during our training intensive in the Yarra Ranges.

Over the past six months I’ve learnt a lot about myself – about my ‘edges’ and how to dissolve irrational fears; about how to let go of agendas and trust nature will lead the way; what it means to live out your life according to your values and beliefs even when the chips are down; what it feels like to be part of a community of like-minded folk who also care about the planet and each other; the relief of discovering the beauty in humanity; and finding hope again after experiencing the resilience of nature.  I have a long way to go but I’m feeling much more connected to the more-than-human world than ever before.   On one of my recent Nature and Forest Therapy walks someone said ‘I’ve been practising mindfulness meditation for years, but I’ve never experienced anything like this before.’  I know right?  I’ve been there.  And now as an NFT Guide, I get to witness the personal profound insights others gain on my three hour slow wanders in nature.  I’m also buoyed by the possibility of people being inspired to take action against climate change and in their personal daily habits, because of their renewed sense of connection and care for the planet.  NFT has the power to do this too!

Guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk in Nambucca State Forest.

As I come to the end of my practicum I feel incredibly grateful for the support of my mentors, friends and family, the resources that allow me to follow my heart and dreams, and the start I had in life back on the farm that sowed the seeds of nature connection.

Happy ‘International Day of Forests’ to you.  Do your body, mind and spirit a favour.  Get outside, play, explore, skip, make art using nature’s treasures, gaze at water, climb a tree.  Don’t think about it too much.  Follow your instincts.  And when the forest speaks to you….listen.

Is medicine failing you? How I healed myself from subclinical thyroid autoimmune disease (Hashimoto’s) with food and a bit of curious enquiry

thyroidIf you are a woman in your 30’s or 40’s, I have written this story for you. You might have thyroid auto-immune disease and not even know it yet. In October last year, I presented to my doctor with bloating and a low grade sickly feeling in my stomach which had persisted for four weeks. I began to use the sofa to take little cat naps during my lunch break and by three in the afternoon I felt like clocking off work altogether. I was jolted when I got a recall notice from my doctor and she revealed I had a Thyroid Stimulating Hormone levels of 5.63 with a normal range of 0.40-4.00. Consistent with hypothyroidism, the doctor advised it’s too early to medicate and would retest me in a month. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, it would also explain the dry hair, fogginess in my head and increased weight gain round my middle. She did say that “lots of women develop thyroid problems at your age” and tried to reassure me that it was easily treated with thyroxine, a synthetic hormone replacement that I would need to take for the rest of my life. Not content to just accept this fate, I set out to educate myself about the thyroid. A friend loaned me a somewhat controversial book “Take Control of Your Health and Escape the Sickness Industry which opened my eyes to the ways the medical profession used thyroxine to solve the problem of the sluggish thyroid. I was shocked but also took the information with a grain of salt. However, curiosity led me to delve deeper.   I consulted with my naturopath who started me on Metagenics Thyrobalance and iodine supplements to boost my thyroid and correct my gut digestion. She also told me that the normal range for TSH in Australia is higher than in countries like America, meaning that a TSH above 2 should start to ring alarm bells. My naturopath recommended I get a food intolerance test from Dorte Peterson at Coolalinga. It is the best $80 I’ve ever spent on my health. The test revealed my gut could not digest wheat, full cream dairy products, caffeine, white sugar, honey, table salt, tap water (unfiltered), as well as pork, the odd fruit or vegetable and 23 different food additives. It was painstaking as I went into Christmas with a reduced list of foods I could eat. But I‘m proud of the fact I was able to give up things I really loved like coffee. And I was starting to feel much better for it. Dorte then put me onto Sandra Cabot’s book “Your Thyroid Problems Solved”.

My second blood test in November revealed a lower but still abnormal TSH of 4.69 and this time my doctor tested Antithyroglobulin with a result of 175 (normal range <61). I had the early stages of autoimmune thyroid disease, where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland mistaking it for an alien body. With more knowledge about what I was dealing with, I advocated with my doctor to treat it naturally. Although my metabolism was being affected, I could still function reasonably well.   The doctor told me it was only a matter of time before I would have to go on thyroxine.

I started sharing my diagnosis with my friends. It seemed every second person I told said “I’m on thyroxine”. I was alarmed. Why were so many women being struck down with underactive thyroids? There has to be a reason and I wanted to find out what it is so that I can treat the cause.

These are just a few of the things I learnt about the thyroid from Sandra Cabot that seemed to be most relevant to my health.

  • gluten is capable of stimulating the immune system to produce autoantibodies. Research shows that a high proportion of people with autoimmune thyroid disease are gluten intolerant. I believe there are women walking around today that don’t even realise they could be gluten intolerant and potentially in the first stages of this disease, as sometimes there are no digestive symptoms at all. I had already given up wheat about two years ago so now I cut out rye, oats, barley and spelt.
  • Casein, the protein in cow’s milk is known to be irritating to the immune system. It promotes excessive mucus production and histamine release and should be avoided if you have a thyroid condition. This was consistent with the symptoms I would have after drinking milky coffee. It just sat on the bottom of my stomach and didn’t feel right. I started listening to my body and realised this felt like subtle heartburn symptoms. Now I use almond or rice milk.
  • Many people are consuming fluoride in quantities that is known to suppress the production of T3 and T4 hormones in the thyroid gland. Fluoride also inhibits the secretion of TSH by the pituitary gland, thereby affecting the thyroid’s ability to secrete thyroid hormone. Chlorine (widely used in water purification) and bromine (contained in a number of consumer products and used in manufacturing industry) also cause similar effects in the body. I’ve made the switch to filtered water.
  • Several pesticides have the ability to disrupt normal thyroid gland function and even cause thyroid cancer. These include chlorpyrifos, amitrole, pyrethrins and pyrethroids, dioxins, PCB’s, EBDC’s and perchlorate. Luckily, I started eradicating chemicals I used in the home and garden quite a few years ago and I try to eat organic foods wherever I can to reduce exposure to pesticides.
  • A toxic build up of heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead in the body can also have a detrimental effect on the thyroid gland. Ironically, I discovered I had a crack in an amalgam filling in my mouth in February. Some believe that amalgam fillings even when undisturbed slowly leak mercury into the blood stream over time.   Was this a coincidence or catalyst? I decided not to take any chances of further unnecessary exposure and flew to Brisbane in February to have all my amalgam fillings removed. Only a holistic dentist, like Dental Wellness can ensure that you are not exposed to toxic mercury gases when the old amalgam is drilled out of your mouth. Most dentists will try to convince you there is no harm involved in having amalgam fillings removed in the dentist chair. Yes, it’s true that science has not proven a danger, but they said the same thing about asbestos years ago.
  • Adrenal hormone imbalance can often coincide with thyroid disorders. Adrenal exhaustion occurs after prolonged periods of stress. Symptoms that I could relate to included fatigue, feeling most energetic in the evenings, low blood pressure, feeling faint, loss of libido, sensitivity to cold, difficulty concentrating and a foggy brain. The last six months at work had been a particularly difficult time causing physical and emotional stress. I knew it and I was taking action to address it including making a decision at the end of 2013 to step down from my FIFO job.
  • Iodine is essential for the production of thyroid hormones. If you eat seafood three times a week and use iodised sea salt you should consume the required amount of 150 mg a day. A deficiency in selenium can also contribute to the development of autoimmune thyroid disease.   In Australia, the depletion of selenium from our soils, means that it is almost impossible to get an adequate amount of selenium in your diet from our crops.
  • Zinc is essential for a healthy immune system. Zinc deficiency has been shown to cause low levels of T3 and T4 in the bloodstream. I have been zinc deficient for many years and with supplements still struggle to maintain healthy levels. It is very easy to test if you are zinc deficient, with a zinc tally test.

These are only a few of the factors that might contribute to the onset of autoimmune thyroid disease.

A lifestyle and diet change made all the difference to my thyroid.

I was hoping that the changes I’d made to my diet and lifestyle would start to pay off. I was rewarded in February when my TSH returned a normal result. I tried to engage my new male ‘science-is-the-only-thing-that-works’ doctor in a conversation about natural treatments for hypothyroidism, only to feel like I was beating my head against a brick wall. I would prove him wrong. In May I advocated to retest my antibodies. The level had dropped to 79 (almost within normal range). I was ecstatic. My doctor remained unconvinced. ‘Where is Cabott’s evidence?’ he asked. The evidence is in the number of patients Cabbot has assisted. For whatever reason, addressing diet and improving digestive function appears to work.

So if you are in your 30’s or 40’s and you have never had a thyroid function test (TFT), I would urge you to ask your doctor for one, especially if you have the slightest symptoms of feeling tired, have put on weight, feel yourself slowing down and feel foggy in your head. The are many other symptoms too. If your doctor says your TSH, T4 and T3 are normal, and tries to convince you there is nothing wrong, look at the results yourself. If your TSH is above 2, ask for a Antithyroid peroxidase and Antithyroglobulin test. In the early stages of thyroid autoimmune disease, your TFT may still ‘appear’ normal but your antibodies may be raised. This will be the optimal time to prevent and treat the disease.  With a bit of curious persistence and addressing your diet, maybe you can also heal yourself from the onset of serious thyroid disease requiring medical intervention.

UPDATE December 2014:  My last blood test revealed my thyroid auto-antibodies are now back within normal range.  There is now no evidence of thyroid disease.  I feel blessed to have healed myself by taking my health into my own hands!

References:   2006, ‘Your Thyroid Problems Solved’, Dr Sandra Cabot & Margaret Jasinska ND.