Encounters with Mexica Medicine: Empacho


These past two days have been a battle. I arrived in Puerto Viejo at the beginning of the week, wide-eyed and ready to get to work, so excited to be there and soaking in as much as I could right off the bat.

Then, of course, one evening I get sick.

The feverish chills, achy, nauseated kind of sick. I kept waking up in the middle of the night from a fitful sleep, sweating bullets but still being impossibly cold. I half-dreamt the horrible scenarios: could it be food poisoning? Could it be a kidney infection? Am I dying? Or worse: would I have to book an early flight home?

I saw Rachel the next morning, who took me into what I like to call her Witchy Nook, a tiny room lined with shelves holding liquor bottles steeping local plants, herbal reference books in Spanish and English, and many little stones and talismans. She took me in here, had me sit on the massage table, and felt the fleshy part between my thumb and forefinger. “Your body is still working on the past 6 meals, at least,” she said. My digestion was really slow, and my large intestine wasn’t functioning very well due to stress. “The good kind of stress,” she said, “You’re finding your path and being exposed to new things, but all your energy is going toward looking forward instead of digesting what is in the present.” Woah. She called it empacho, a catch-all for all kinds of indigestion of both body and mind. As I talked to people, this is a kind of rite of passage for newcomers. You get sick because of the huge change, then you’re over it and go one your merry way. But it still totally sucks.

So she sat me down, and gave me a Mexica sobando on those pressure points between the thumb and forefinger on both of my hands (“This is how your ancestors would have treated you.”). This massage was so painful that it nearly brought me to tears. It made me light-headed and dizzy, and so nauseous that I had to get up to dry-heave into her toilet (there was nothing left at this point) for a few minutes at a time. The whole time I’m sweating and cold and hot and it was pretty much a nightmare.

After this massage was over, she poured me tiny servings of herbal tonics: one to build my blood, one to help me relax, one to create some heat and digestive fire, then topped it all off with some bitters. She gave me a piece of palo santo (great for energetic healing and cleansing) and sent me to rest. I slept all day and night. A fitful, terrible, sweaty and agonizing sleep. Fever is a strange headspace to be in: strange thoughts and dreams come from nowhere in particular, and I woke myself up saying things on a few occasions.

The next morning was infinitely better. I went to the Farmer’s Market and then met Rachel and a few others out for breakfast, where I made my next mistake. You know how when you’re hungover, a huge, greasy meal sounds like it would be heavenly and settle your stomach, but usually it just makes you feel like crap? I’m blaming the foccacia bread on my panini for reigniting my fever after that meal.

The correlation between digestion and overall health astounding, and (like all good things) the more I learn through personal experience, the more intricate and mystical the process seems. Yes, there are enzymes and functions that have been meticulously mapped and plotted, but there are nuances that are completely missed. The gut is often referred to the second brain, a place where not only nutrients get assimilated, but experiences and emotions. They say digestion starts in the mind, which makes it all the more important to be present for your meal. You are nourishing your body and mind with your food, after all!

At the Herbal Convergence, I got into this great conversation with a chef from an ashram. He said that it’s especially important for those in their kitchen staff to be in a sattvic (balanced) and peaceful mindset when they begin to prepare meals for the community. They pray and meditate over the food, infusing it with good juju. Is it any wonder why so many Westerners have chronic digestive issues? Can anyone remember the last time they had a meal without distractions, tasting and savoring their food, focusing their intention on nourishment and the sheer pleasure of that meal? I could go on forever. Anyway:

Today’s herb: Dormilona.

This is what Rachel gave me to relax, soothe my nerves, and come into the present. I love the way this tastes, and it works on me immediately (placebo-effect or not). This is a goodie. In North America, valerian is a good alternative. Fun fact: In Patois, it’s called shy mamaca (not sure if that’s spelled correctly…)

Pharmacology:  sedative, anodyne, antibiotic, antimicrobial, anti-neurasthenic, antispasmodic, diuretic, nervine,

This low spreading herb is native to the neotropics but is now naturalized to many other parts of the world.  Its name in Spanish translates to sleepy head in reference to its habit of folding its leaves at night or when touched.  Various preparations of the leaves and roots promote urination, relieve pain, and have relaxing qualities to promote restful sleep in cases of insomnia for children and adults. Extracts of the plant have been shown in scientific trials to be a moderate diuretic, depress duodenal contractions similar to atropine sulphone, promote regeneration of nerves, and reduce menorrhagia.  Root extracts are reported to be a strong emetic to induce vomiting but also is used to treat asthma. Leaves crushed and applied locally relieves toothache. Ayurveda medicine: the root is bitter, acrid, cooling, aids in wound healing, and used in treatment of biliousness, leprosy, dysentery, vaginal and uterine complaints, inflammations, burning sensation, fatigue, asthma, leucoderma, blood diseases etc. Tea: boil handful of leaves in 1L of water and sip 3-6 cups throughout day. Poultice: boil root to produce a concentrate to make a poultice for toothaches. Powder: Dry leaves in oven, grind in mortar. Sprinkle on food for nervous problems and insomnia. Source: Living Farmacy at Rancho Margot


2 thoughts on “Encounters with Mexica Medicine: Empacho

  1. Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author.I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will often come
    back later on. I want to encourage you continue your great posts, have a
    nice weekend!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s