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All medicine is in the earth.
Nature does not err; she is still the only one to teach us what is right. Men who no longer listen to the voice of Nature become the victims of a thousand different diseases and miseries.
Adolf Just, 1903, 4
It makes absolute sense as a human being is a part of Nature and comes to balance through natural biorhythms.… Pharmaceuticals use synthetic drugs and most of the time cause side effects. Mud therapy is non-toxic. It provides a highly effective treatment for a number of common conditions with inflammatory and dystrophic etiologies.
K. B. Kotenko, 2008
When we walk upon Mother Earth gently, we try to be conscious of her bounty and delicate balance, of the remarkable information, consciousness, organization, and energy in her essence; and all of this is, at once, complex and profoundly aesthetic. Sometimes, though, we are not so gentle and not as aware or respectful as we should be of her ancient healing gifts, even those just below our feet. There is simple, unconsolidated earth or soil, for example, with all its horizons of mineral and organic matter—the magic medium for land plants upon which humans, animals, birds, and insects all depend. Whether we study Mother Earth's skin by detailing in our scientific journals the phosphate-sugar backbone and minutely organized organic bases of DNA or the mathematically elegant structure of the benthic community of microorganisms in our attempts to understand these marvelous mysteries, it behooves us to reacquaint ourselves with the medical richness of that simple earth. Along the way, we might be tempted to take shelter in theories about the 16S rRNA permutations of scientists cooking up their Urey-Miller biological soups, but then we risk missing the healing power of precious gifts like common moor mud or peloids. Whether we consider peloids for pain treatment, gynecology, topical skin treatment, mobility improvement, sports injuries, detoxification, or immunity boost, they are one of our newest, oldest medical marvels.
The variety and ubiquity of Mother Earth are abundant. Whatever the earth profile we are walking upon, from humus or organic materials, topsoil itself, or all the way down to bedrock, the soil, the earth, establishes life, whether by processing recycled nutrients or by acting as a living filter to clean precious water. Its nurturing and grounding imprint are vital to life on our planet. There are various types and layers of soil, infinitely variegated by water, temperature, air, and the large impact of relief. Whether we are contemplating the complexities of minerals, organic matter, or water, or seeking to understand the elements of ecosystems, the earth's treasures, and among them, "earth" or soil itself, are timeless and primary.
Living plants that shout out the abundance of the life urge on our planet are rooted in the earth. These plants themselves and what is beneath their splendid greenery are an enormous repository of ancient healing wisdom, yearning to be rediscovered. "Earth cure," in this regard, is a term popularized in the late 19th century to describe the different therapeutic applications of various types of earth or soil. Today we speak more specifically of "peloids," understanding these remarkable materials from the earth to include organic and inorganic compounds. Petr provides a succinct etymology for the word. He writes: "Peloid is a term derived from the Greek word pelos – mud, and peloids are the mud-like materials employed in medicine for therapeutic purposes" (Petr et al, 2012, 94). The word "peloid" was actually first suggested by Dr. S. Judd Lewis and adopted by the International Society of Medical Hydrology and Climatology (ISMH) as a designation to cover all forms of external applications of clay, sand, fango, parafango (paraffin wax and mud), peat, and related materials from the earth (ISMH, 1949).
Paracelsus and Adolf Just
The use of earth as a therapeutic compound has a long and vibrant history that has been largely lost in North America. Half a millennium ago, Paracelsus (1494-1541), famous for his contributions to alchemy and medicine, used peloids in the treatment of jaundice, disorders of the digestive tract, and speeding up convalescence after surgery (Paul, 1970, 19). He wrote a treatise on surgery, Der grossen Wundartzney (The Great Surgery Book),and was impressed by the great healing power of the peat peloids common in Austria where he lived.
Peloids encompass the often neglected earth element of Nature which includes organic and inorganic compounds obtained from the earth's surface or excavated from its depths. Long before the inception of the ISMH and systematic study of the medical utility of peloids that arise in muddy carbonate-rich sediments, naturopathic doctors and their predecessors were on the case. In our era, ISMH medical professionals, including naturopathic physicians, globally study organic, therapy-grade, moor mud (sometimes called "balneo-peat"). Their interest is in the healing properties of this fascinating organic substance. The growing literature about peloids analyzes, among its other characteristics, the organic residue of herbs, mosses, and grasses. The literature of this field speaks to not only the presence of, but also the medical applications of, organic plant enzymes, bio-minerals, trace elements, amino acids, plant hormones, fatty acids, and vitamins. The prolific and growing literature considers the high humic acid content of so-called "moor mud," its anti-inflammatory capabilities, its natural astringent properties, its detoxification uses, its value in addressing hormonal imbalances because of its rich sourcing of phyto-hormones, its post-surgery recovery use, its sports medicine applications, and many other uses.
These earth elements have been valued as important healing agents for centuries, as Paracelsus' work indicates. More recently, natural medicine healers, such as naturarst Adolf Just, turned their attention to "earth cure." Just's 1896 book, Return to Nature, for example, left an indelible imprint upon the theory and practice of the emerging naturopathic movement in America in the early twentieth century. Just's work helped shape the naturopathic armamentarium for decades. He embraced Nature and earth cure as essential to the healing process. Long before contemporary Stephen Sinatra's "earthing movement," Just had understood the importance of respecting Mother Gaia's healing vibrations, counselling his patients to keep connected directly to the earth. His endorsement of earth cure occupied three chapters in his book and was both instrumental and indispensable for the early naturopaths as they systematically assembled their healing paradigm. This foundational work had its genesis in Europe and persists to the present era in the presence of peloid baths, wraps, compresses, and drinking cure in spa centers all over Europe. Just extolled earth's virtues: "The successes achieved by this wonderful remedy, earth, in curing diseases in such an easy and agreeable manner are of such a nature as to call out the greatest enthusiasm and applause in behalf of earth applications" (Just, 1903, 128).
The confidence that Just placed in earth cure came from his own personal experiences. As a young man, he became very sick, describing his condition as "draining the cup of suffering to the dregs" (Just, 1903, 1). Having exhausted the efforts of the old-school physicians, he turned to the natural healers, who prescribed barefoot walking as well as "Kneipp douches, Kuhne [fiction hip] baths, packs, steam baths, massage, vegetarian diet, etc" (Just, 1903, 2). He got some relief but wanted to attain even higher health outcomes and standards for himself. He turned to the Grande Dame herself, Mother Nature, deepening and broadening his observations. His investigations coalesced into the conclusion that all forms of life were connected and that the grand macrocosm of living beings was, by elegant, meticulous design and destiny, "a creature of Nature indeed, free from disease" (Just, 1903, 4).
An important part of his work was observing animals in their natural elements. For Just, their instinct and habits were consistently telling, ranging from their nutrition habits through to instinctive techniques for addressing wounds and other ailments, details of which he set out in his globally popular Return to Nature. Just concluded that the earth's creatures and Mother Earth herself could teach us much about healing. However, he understood the wrinkle in this grand design that human kind, in particular, needed to be continuously attentive to the laws of Nature and not violate them in their busy lifestyles, which incrementally departed from Mother Earth's laws and balance. The violations of the laws of Nature were intensely visible in Just's society, the extraordinary new applications of technology and enterprise having seared and scarred Europe significantly by the beginning of the twentieth century. In our own time, these environmental challenges persist as do the habits of industrial society, ranging from the cumulative effects of sedentary work and leisure habits such as of sitting for prolonged periods in front of a screen in stuffy offices or watching TV, to overeating a diet of nutritionally diluted processed and fast foods, to the growing paucity of clean air and water, to the din and calamity of concrete, speed, and artificial environments, both physical and sensory. All of these rhythms and details of contemporary life propel entire societies toward high chronicity and environmental degradation. Natural medicine healers, such as Just and many before and after him, iterated loudly that it is only when we stop attending to the voices, design, and rhythms of Nature that dysfunction and disease become possible and pervasive.
Just established a health retreat center called the "Jungborn." People from across Europe and beyond came by the thousands to restore their health, using the "earth cure" treatments that Just devised. Sleeping directly on the ground, for example, was quite popular. He exalted this practice: "Whoever has not himself tried it and convinced himself of it, can have no conception of how refreshing, vitalizing, and strengthening the effect of the earth is on the human organism at night during rest" (Just, 1903, 87-88). Referenced earlier, the contemporary work of Stephen Sinatra has re-introduced the concept of "earthing for earthlings." Sinatra states, "direct contact with the earth feeds the body … and [restores] balance to the body's multiple bioelectrical systems and reduces inflammation" (Ober, Sinatra, Zucker, 2010, p. i).
Just's work a century earlier brought earth as a healing modality to the forefront. His fearless use of "earth bandages" and "earth compresses" was another highlight at the Jungborn. With total confidence, Just used earth on wounds, boils, ulcer, stings, animal bites, blood poisoning, all skin diseases, cancer, lupus, tetter (eczema, ringworm), dandruff, eruptions, leprosy, and broken bones (Just, 1903, 119-121). In fact, skin ailments of every description were treated with earth, accompanied by the complete certitude of the doctors and the patients themselves of achieving the desired results. Earth compresses, for example, were most effective in alleviating headaches, lung troubles, gout, and rheumatism (Just, 1903, 126). Having been influenced by the work of the ISMH and my readings of Just and others, I have had many occasions to use peloids (earth) on open cuts and wounds with stunning results. Lacerations and deep wounds heal quickly and often with minimal or no scarring or keloid presentation. Adolf Just recognized that the fear of bacilli would deter many from using earth bandages and compresses. Those who flocked to his Jungborn, though, and who experienced his and his colleagues' confidence and previous successes accepted the treatments enthusiastically and experienced in due course excellent, documented results.
Seven decades later, Wolfgang Paul wrote one of the few books available on peloids in North America, entitled Healing Earth: Moor (1970). His focus was on the medicinal moor or peat peloids of Neydharting, Austria. Paul dispels the structural and ingrained concerns that we have of "dirt as dirty." He recounts the work of Dr. Nissle, a prominent bacteriologist and hygienist who conducted research during WWI on the factors protecting soldiers against infectious diseases. Nissle experimented with peat and bacillus anthracis and discovered that peat did not destroy the rods of anthrax but rather provided an environment for the culture to flourish. Dismayed by the results, Nissle pursued his experiment further and injected mice with lethal doses of the peat-cultured anthrax. "The mice did not die … For the [peat] moor mud made the bacilli nonpathogenic, ineffective and harmless (sterile) and apparently removed their danger" (Paul, 1970, 67).
Even though the medical professions, especially in North America, have in our era virtually abandoned the works of Just and Paracelsus on earth therapies, in other parts of the globe peloids have the attention of science and medicine to verify their applications and restore health to the body with this simple apothecary from Nature. In North America, our familiarity with peat is mostly limited to our use of it to amend soil as we strive to create the right soil blend for our gardens. Peat or sphagnum peat moss is fibrous, dry, and has the capacity to retain moisture in our gardens. Most likely, the bag of peat purchased for your garden came from Canada. Peat lands comprise a total of three percent of global land area, of which 90% are found in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Canada has the largest peat lands amounting 1,114,000 km2 and uses only 15% of it for agriculture. This colossal area yields 50 million tons of peat annually; however, only 800,000 tons are excavated for agricultural use (IPS, 2008).
While in Canada there is an industry to excavate peat lands for the purpose of agricultural peat moss, there is no industry to make available medicinal peat largely because there is no such developed market in North America. There is a huge difference between peat used for agriculture and that used medicinally. The "von Post Scale" has been established to determine the degree of decomposition of dry peat samples by examining the plant residues. Agricultural peat is fibrous with recognizable plant structures while medicinal peat is completely decomposed and, when squeezed in the hand, appears as a paste that easily slides through the fingers (Pamasyuk et al, 1990).
40,000 Years of Biodegradation and Transformation
The constituents of peat peloids can be grasped much more easily if one were to go to a swamp or bog and observe the hundreds of different plant species within this unique ecosystem. I have visited several medicinal peat bogs in the Czech Republic and in Hungary. These places are extraordinary herbal apothecaries. What dances before your eyes are every imaginable herbal plant. No matter where you look, there is a botanical peloid treasure. As a case in point, Paul compiled a list of plants found in the Neydharting moor lands that total over 300 medicinal plants.
Three hundred plants may not seem impressive to us at first glance; however, the nature of bogs and peat lands is that their formation may span centuries and most often millennia. In the bog lands in Czech Republic, the age of the peat can be over 40,000 years. Contemporary flora in the region of a particular bog are one thing, and the geological changes that will have occurred in that same area in four hundred centuries are another, inferring a rich history of botanical species. For example, there are almost a thousand bryophyte (moss) species alone in the Czech Republic. It is intriguing to imagine what botanical and geological transitions and transformations could possibly have happened in that time period. Plants grow, blossom, form seeds, and succumb to winter's cold and snow. The following year the seeds sprout and the same cycle ensues. After many thousands of years of this ecological rhythm, the constituents found in those precious herbal plants biodegrade with the aid of indispensable soil bacteria and microorganisms forming medicinal peat which traditional healers considered a panacea of elixirs with significant healing properties. The literature indicates that tiny burrowing benthic and other soil organisms contribute to soil structural development and to the synthesis of various plant nutrients through the mediation of various biogeochemical cycles (Tate, 1985). Without the presence of water and the benthic community, including meiobenthos and microbenthos microorganisms, the production of peat peloids would be nearly impossible. We may experience the appearance of algae and microbial colonies in their sediment and dirt environments as unattractive, perhaps not realizing that they represent by their filter and deposit feeding habits the chief factor in the development of medicinal properties of peat (Bergel, 1). Thousands of years are required to make a complex wetland ecosystem such as a peat bog. Certain conditions are essential: acidic and stagnant water, poor soils, and a habitat of distinct plants. Peat formation occurs in semi-anaerobic conditions with a stable water table and abundance of vegetation, both plants and algae in the presence of microorganisms.
Peloids used for therapeutic purposes come in different formats. Based upon how they are formed, there are four types of peloids: silt, sapropel, peat, and sopochny (clay) (Pamasyuk, 1990). It is very useful in considering the potential of peloids as an exciting, "renewed" frontier to review several Russian studies. The literature studied by my colleagues indicates that the composition of peat is indeed complex and that there are great variations among peat types dependent upon their place of origin, the plants of origin, and a wide spectrum of environmental factors (Beer, et al., 2003). Medicinal peloids are classified into organic (peat and sapropel), consisting of more than 10% of decomposed organic substances and plant remains, and inorganic (sulfide silt, volcanic, and clay) with less than 10% of organic compounds and a higher mineral content. Peloids with a higher organic content, such as peat and sapropel (fresh water and silt), have different properties than the class of inorganic peloids classed as mud, clay, sulfide silt, sopochny (volcanic and clay), and sand (Dilke et al, 2007).
Peat, having a high organic content, must be stored in a moist state to be biologically and therapeutically active. Once peat dries, it is impossible to re-hydrate making it inert with no medicinal properties. Peloids with a high mineral content, such as clay, mud and sand, can be dried and still retain their therapeutic activity.
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