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Conscious Gardener Series: Brian Keenan

Next up in our conscious Gardener Series is Brian Keenan, N.D.

Brian is a Maryland Naturopathic Doctor and herbalist! You can watch the full video interview on IGTV here! The complete transcript of the interview is below.


Jules: Hi! How are you?


Brian: Hello! How are you? I'm good; I’m an herbalist, not a tech savvy type. So just trying to figure it out here.


Jules: Me too. Yeah. Last week was my very first time, or second time on Instagram live. so I'm with you there. Everybody, this is Brian Keenan. He is - excuse me - a local naturopathic doctor and herbalist, among other things. And he's here to talk to us about plants, plant medicine, natural medicine, all this good stuff. We’re so excited to have you Brian. So to start us off, do you want to just tell us about what you do as a naturopathic doctor and as an herbalist?


Brian: Yeah, sure. So as a naturopathic doctor, it's like, “what don't I do” is sometimes how I feel. But officially at my practice, Magnolia Natural Medicine as a naturopathic doctor, I function very much as a generalist. So I don't really have a specific patient population that I see - I kind of see anyone with any desire from having a diagnosed condition that is chronic, to they just want to optimize their lives. So they come to me wanting kind of a natural approach, but they want to know the science and the research behind it. They want to know that I know Western medicine. I know their diagnoses. I can read their labs, which I can. So I kind of just bring them in, and I start with Dossari, which is what the word doctor comes from - so if you didn't know, the word doctor means “to teach” in Latin, dossere means to teach - so a lot of what I do is education, which is why I was so excited to be here because I can do some more education. So there's a lot we talk about. There's a lot - each case is different. and you're seen as an individual, whether you have Crohn's disease or something else. I don't look at you as “Crohn's and __.” It's your name. I'm like, “You’re Brian and Brian may have this condition. How can we make Brian be happy? Like, how can we get him better?”


Jules: That's awesome. And how do herbs come into play there?


Brian: Herbs come into play in a lot of ways and we're definitely gonna get into it, but so herbs come into it both from a - I really do utilize them from a body, mind, spirit approach, and I've put them in order of importance. So you might be thinking, hey, like my mind is very, very important. Why is body first? And that is because I'm a doctor. Right? As a doctor, my job is to make sure that you don't get hurt and you get better. Right. So I have to kind of be the lifeguard or I often call myself “the referee” around people who are on a lot of pharmaceuticals and they're desiring to use herbs, or herbs are indicated. So I need to make sure that if I put an herb in your body, it's not going to upset your internal chemistry, it's not going to get involved with any of the pharmaceuticals you might be taking. So that's kind of like what I do is, it's check in on that. And then, the effects that herbs have are - I believe, Brian speaking - body mind and spirit as well. They do. They are little chemical factories. And there are constituents in the plants that we imbibe and they do have effect and it's measurable. Some of that effect does work on the mind. For instance, Passionflower is a really popular herb that's very safe, but it helps to relax people and it acts on the Gabba receptor, which is your relaxation receptor, it tells your brain a little less, a little less. Take it down a notch. And at the same token, Passionflower spiritually is named after The Passion of the Christ and actually has a Christian connotation. So when I'm with Christian patients who perhaps have like a very serious issue, they're not sleeping and they feel devoid of any spiritual faith, they’re like, “I can't go to church cause I don't want to, but I do want to.” And I could hear the story. Then I go, “Passionflower, you're anxious. It'll help your body. It will help your mind.” And there is this tie in with the herb to that person's personal spiritual faith in that specific case. Right now, I have some herbs in here! [coffee cup]


Jules: What is it?


Brian: I have a combo of cinnamon, cardamom, rose and holy basil.


Jules: Oh, that sounds delicious.


Brian: It is this quite good, even for me. It is good. I choose it to settle my mind and spirit because I know I'm not often on camera. So I'm like, “what do I do?” You can already hear I talk fast.


Jules: Haha, yeah, I get that! I could use some of that. I'm also not very comfortable on camera, but here we are doing things that are hard for us! Good steps. So a lot of people in the Western world might not be familiar with the idea of naturopathy and having herbs involved in kind of Western medicine. So to you, in your mind and in your practice, how do Western medicine and naturopathy - tell me if I'm pronouncing that wrong - go together?


Brian: Yeah, I call it naturopathic medicine. You'll see it called naturopathy. Sort of the going line again, for everybody's edification is “I'm a naturopathic doctor that practices naturopathic medicine because I have a doctorate from Bastyr University - my mug from Bastyr - licensed in the state of Maryland to practice naturopathic medicine." I'm just gonna get that out of the way. And how it interfaces with Western medicine is very, very tightly because we're trained as naturopathic doctors in primary health care. So in some states, naturopathic doctors act as primary health care physicians and they see people that can diagnose all the same things as your PCP and they can prescribe pharmaceuticals just like your PCP. So because some states have that as a law that that's legal for them, for instance, Washington state, all naturopathic doctors are trained to that standard. OK. Now, Maryland, I can't use pharmaceuticals. I can't prescribe them. That's just the way the law was written. So where it all comes together for the consumer, for you guys, is when you sit with a licensed naturopathic doctor, you're sitting with someone who knows the conventional Western paradigms and took a board exam about them, twice actually. So that's why I’m bald just if anyone’s curious. But yeah, so that's kind of how we work. I work with a Western paradigm in terms of, if I want to know about, say you're tired and I'm like, “well, oh, maybe she has iron deficiency, you know, she has iron deficiency anemia.” That's a Western diagnosis, and I'm going to look it up in a Western way. So I'm going to get a blood draw, I'm going to look at your iron, and then I'm going to figure out if you have iron deficiency anemia. What I do after that will be a combination of making sure you're getting the appropriate care. In the case of iron deficiency anemia - it's a good example, actually - there's a lot naturopathically we can do with naturopathic medicine to get that iron absorbed and get you feeling better. And so we might employ some natural therapies. In other circumstances, I might come back and say, “This is - not yet - you need to go to a specialist. We need to really get you under control.” And then I'll know how much I can unwind what's there.


Jules: Cool, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It's funny you bring that up, because I think I have iron deficiency. So, we'll have to have an appointment!


Brian: I’m a little psychic sometimes, but also I can ruin that psychic-ness by saying statistically speaking, like, you know, you're a menstruating woman; iron deficiency anemia is very common.


Jules: Yeah, yeah. That makes a lot of sense.


Brian: But I'm a little psychic and I can understand the disease.


Jules: And you have some common sense, right. So tell us a little bit about how you got into becoming a naturopathic doctor and herbalism. Did that - did one come before the other? Were they learned at the same time?


Brian: So it's all, it's a little bit of a long story, but I will try to be brief. My story - I've told this a couple times to patients - it's kind of magical, really, in the way that I came to herbalism and naturopathic medicine. So I was born and raised in Maywood, New Jersey. It's right outside New York City. I was kind of, I'm in that paradigm of apples come from the grocery store kind of thing. And I was raised sort of you rotate pizza, Mexican, Chinese and Burger King and like, that's a well-balanced diet. So that's where I come from. I was actually studying Japanese linguistics in Hawaii when I met an ethnobotanist. I had no idea what ethnobotany was. I'd always loved plants and always kept a garden, I've always been attracted to plants, but I had never done anything other than garden. And I found out that cultures use plants for medicine and spirituality and faith and textiles and all these things. Just from a conversation I had in an arboretum. I was like, there it is. That's that. I love Japanese linguistics, it's very fun to study, but it's like that's who I am. OK. So I had to set about. I knew I wanted an undergraduate degree, and so I decided to go to Bastyr University because they're the only one that offers a Bachelor of Science in herbal science, so it actually started with herbs. And in that world, I got to explore everything about plants from their chemistry to, again, the textiles, the way they work in industry to sustainability and harvesting, and the story and the rich, rich tapestry of interwoven faith plants have in humans and humans have plants. So that was like really, really cool. And that was when I first discovered naturopathic medicine. I’d never heard of it before the naturopathic program at Bastyr. And I initially wanted to be a researcher, I wanted to keep exploring the mysteries of plants. But it kept being kind of brought to me that I should go clinical, you know, a lot of my mentors were like, you have the mind of a naturopathic doctor, you should do clinical. And if you do clinical, you'll be able to do clinical research, so two in one. And I said, okay, let's do it. And from there, I became a naturopathic doctor. I went through that, very grueling education, but I went through it and found out like I got hooked on working with people. You know, I would love to get back in the research arena, but right now I'm quite satisfied helping others.


Jules: That's really great. Very cool. That's so - that's just so interesting - studying Japanese!


Brian: Yup, it was just the only thing I liked as a high schooler and into college, into the associates degree. It was the only thing I found myself enjoying studying. And I was like, let's just do that. And then I went to Hawaii because they have a good program and then everything changed.


Jules: It's so cool how the path unfolds - in mysterious, magical ways. So you were saying that you're from New Jersey and you were raised in this mindset of not very connected to nature, yet you did have a connection to plants from early on. So how do you view our culture’s relationship with plants here in the States?


Brian: It's a little spicy, but it's good. So one thing that I see is that, one, plants are everywhere in everyday life. And two, we love our plants. If you like wine, if you like coffee, if you like tea, you like plants. But there is a disconnect between “that's a living being, that then gave me this idea on the substance that I enjoy.” Because we're so distracted with day to day living, people don't really think about, like, there's a web here. We're all connected and we're all equal. That's a huge thing. It's amazing to see how much that's really growing in our country right now, and perhaps, you know, when you go to the park and you feel better being outside, it could be because you're surrounded by green. Think about it. And so I just see a lot. The number one thing I see is that people don't pay attention, but it's not that they don't like plants. It's just, they’re like whatever, it’s a plant. And for anyone, if you're listening and you litter, please stop. That's all I ask because I clean up trash on every trail that I walk - I bring a separate bag with me for just garbage because I know I'll find a bunch of stuff.


Jules: You're a saint! And, agreed. That would be great if - that would be wonderful. Yeah. Have you heard of the term green blindness?


Brian: No. No I haven't. Tell me about it.


Jules: This might be interesting for you and for our listeners. This is something that I learned about becoming a naturalist. And so, green blindness is something that is really kind of a rampant thing in our culture. And it basically refers to a majority of Americans, probably other countries as well. If you were to look out at a forests, you would just see kind of just one big blur of green. And you're just like, oh, yeah, that's trees. But we have this - vastly - an inability to distinguish, "okay, there is an oak, and there's an ironwood, and there's a maple." And just this kind of green blindness to the point that many people, researchers have found that we kind of ignore the green and I guess just like this kind of backdrop. And it's partially detrimental to our relationship with nature and connecting to the very real individuals. It is a very enormous amount of species that are there.


Brian: One of the things I love doing is giving herbs walks to like, I used to do one with the public library. They have me just kind of walk around, just point at things, because I absolutely see green blindness all the time, now that you named it. And it doesn't take very much to be like that's an oak tree. And like, “what do you remember about oak?” They're like, “oh, we used to all hoard the acorns and like, do this like when you were a kid.” And I'm like, “that's because that oak tree has been here since you were a kid. Like, that's awesome.” And how quickly the green blindness veneer will fall as long as a person, a human, is like “Hey, hold hands with this plant. Call me later,” like, "you’ll be fine." And it is the most rewarding emails I will ever get is when someone's like “you changed how I look at a forest or when I go to the park or I see a bird, because I really I recognize it's not, 'bird flying: ignore.'” Yes. Like that's fair. That's a cardinal, like, nature is here. And it likes attention, I promise. Oh yeah.


Jules: Yeah. It's very, it's enlightening - and it really changes the whole world view when you start paying attention to these things that we're largely taught to ignore.


Brian: And importantly, now with Covid 19, everybody's so isolated. Right? Like you aren't seeing anyone, and it can get very, very lonely. I mean, honestly, I think the number one thing I'm dealing with right now is depression and anxiety. Everybody. We already had it and now it's worse. So, you know, when you realize you are not alone, like you're really not alone, that sunflower in your garden, like, and you have a relationship, that plant therapy can't be ignored and shouldn't be suppressed. Because you realize that nature is your family and you're there, it feels a little woo woo at first, but then eventually you recognize that it’s kind of true and that it's OK to hug a tree if you need a hug and you're alone.


Jules: Could not agree more. That segues me well into the next question I wanted to ask you, which is, so in this pandemic, we're seeing kind of firsthand, maybe for the first time in a lot of people's lives, the importance of local sourcing and kind of self dependency specifically with not only food gardening, but really any kind of gardening and into herbalism too, if you're using plants as medicine. So I wanted to see if you have any experience with community gardening, or herb gardening yourself and if you have any recommendations for our viewers who might be interested in getting into that.


Brian: Yes. So I haven't ever - I've joined community gardens and just taken care of my plot. However, community gardening is so much fun because you get to meet a lot of people and they can kind of point and help you if you're new to gardening. That said, I just really want to give a quick shout out to container gardening. So many plants we can grow in containers right out the front door or you just need a windowsill. You do need light. That's the hard one for some people if they have an apartment that faces in an unfortunate direction. So but that's one of those big things I say is like, get your hands in the dirt. Like, go ahead. There can be no wrong in gardening ,you know, you can't mess up - you just get better and better and better. So that's kind of my tip there. Also, with being more local, something you can look at is where specifically for herbs, teas, you know, whether you want them for medicinal or culinary purposes, you can look at your favorite herb brands and see where they ship out. Where are they located in, for instance, like I love Wise Woman Herbs, this orange one. [referencing bottles behind him] Oh this is Herb Farms. This is Wise Woman Herbs. These both ship out of Oregon, she ships out of North Carolina. So I've been, so I was used to living in Seattle, so I was used to having those Western brands. Now I'm slowly segueing into Eastern Brands. I buy a lot in bulk, so I actually, all of this shipped across the country with me. So when I moved across the country, I was doing the carbon footprint part. But if I wanted to order it to be shipped to me, I would at least try to find where they ship out, which is usually on their website.


Jules: Yeah. Yeah. It's really important. And I love your display that you've got behind you. It’s beautiful.


Brian: I live a good life!


Jules: So could you tell us what is the most common misconception that you get from patients or maybe from other people that you come into contact with in regard to your naturopathic medicine, in regards to naturopathic medicine or herbalism? Any of that.


Brian: Right. Huh. Well, I think one of the things that is the most common is that people are like - especially on the East Coast - so, I do have to say there's a pretty big divide with the East Coast understanding of holistic health and the West Coast people who are a little ahead of us. And to be honest, we can do better. That's what Jimbo and Jules is up to, right? It’s bringing their knowledge here on the East Coast. And with a lot of other herbalists trying to get it to bloom. But one thing people always say is, “Oh, naturopathic medicine. You mean homeopathy.” And I'm like, no, don't mean homeopathy. Now, some naturopathic doctors do employ homeopathy and they learn it, and it is part of our curriculum in school. We do learn it. I've been exposed to it. It isn’t something I use and it doesn't define natural medicine. So since I've been out here on the East Coast, like all I get is like, do you know homeopathy? And if they draw a blank when I say “I’m a naturopathic doctor,” I go, “Oh, do you know homeopathy?” And they go, “Mh, yes! Yeah. That I know.” And I'm like, “OK.” And that's where we begin the conversation.


Jules: So can you enlighten us on the difference between those two? For anyone here, like I couldn't say that I could define the difference.


Brian: OK. Naturopathic medicine comprises all naturopathic modalities as well as the education to be a Western trained clinician through in terms of diagnostics. At the antithesis of that would be Eastern trained acu - that's your acupuncturist, your oriental medicine providers. They have a different diagnostic criteria that they can use. I use the Western one predominantly, and because that's what it's trying to do. Homoeopathy is a therapy that can be employed, that has its roots in the concept of “like treats like” so that sometimes people have heard. Where if you have a bad fever and it's not going down but is not medically emergent and you're safe, then you're not going to go to the doctor because you're not that bad - I always give my safety disclaimers - if you have that, then you take a homeopathic remedy of something that would give you a fever. But it's in such a micro dose that it would never have a chemical effect on the body. It would be impossible. So that's why people say homeopathy is very, very safe. There's an additional aspect of homeopathy that is its own school of thought. It's called constitutional homeopathy. So if you ever hear someone call themselves a constitutional homeopath, what they're saying is that they will look at you as a whole person, and they'll talk to you for like two, two and a half hours about every decision you've ever made and how you are in the world, and who are you today? Who were you when you were a kid? And they will match your picture of yourself that you provide with a remedy that is known to match that picture. I personally don't offer that service.


Jules: Yeah, that's really interesting. Constitutional homeopathy. Well, so do you have any books or podcasts or other resources that you would recommend to anybody who maybe doesn't know much about naturopathic medicine and would like to learn some more?


Brian: Oh yeah. OK. I wrote a note down, because I can't... I'll just go on. OK, you've already seen me rambling. So I think the first one that I really, really recommend to anybody who wants to get into herbalism as a foundation is a book that won't give you a lot of herbal knowledge. It gives you a lot of story. And that book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. There is an audiobook and she's a phenomenal speaker. I highly recommend it. But that book is so quintessential. Now, it’s about her story as a native woman trying to reclaim her heritage as an herbalist, and that's a really important discussion to be had. A lot of our books are written by authors with good intentions, but they've taken from other cultures and made it their own. And right now, huge in the herbal community is undoing the harm that was done there, because like many of us in this country, we've taken for granted the gifts of our POC brothers and sisters, along with, whether it's music you like or fashion you enjoy, you just don't think about how it got here. And oftentimes it's stolen. So that's something I really want to say. It is hard. It's unfortunate. It's not upbeat, but it's true and it needs to be addressed. So that's why I recommend Braiding Sweetgrass. It's going to teach you about the science and magic of plants at the same time. The next one I really, really love is Kyle Christiansen's First Aid for Herbalists, because it's a real quick and dirty way to get your hands in on just how to make preparations and like what you can use for what. And he covers relatively benign and safe conditions, you know, like a bee sting where you're not going to go to the hospital, things like that. My other favorite is anything by Rosemary Gladstar. So Rosemary was my pinnacle of like perfection. And this is gonna be a humble brag, it’s coming in three, two, one: I taught a class with her and it was so amazing and I felt like I didn't contribute anything, but she was very, very amazing to work with. So anything by Rosemary Gladstar. She has a great book on recipes. So how to actually make things. And then the last one I was gonna recommend is Todd Caldecott’s Food as Medicine. He takes an ayurvedic approach and he uses an ayurvedic system. But there's a lot of cross-cultural herbalism that's going on in his book, but it talks about how to eat right and how to use herbs in your food to enhance your own vitality and your health.


Jules: Cool! Wow. Those are awesome. And for anybody who, like, was trying to write that down really fast, this video will be on our IGTV so you can always come back to it. Scroll to this part if you want to come back to those resources, so that's awesome.


Brian: You all are welcome to drop into the DMs and ask me whatever’s on your mind. I'll be all right. I take a little while, but I'll get you that answer.


Jules: We're going a little bit over time here. But I had this question, I really wanted to ask you. How do you think that naturopathic medicine and environmentalism go together?


Brian: They are inextricably linked. They need to be. Now, you said naturopathic medicine, and I really do, right here, we’re going to make a little divergence. Because herbalism, of course, any ethical herbalist is going to be an environmentalist. By definition. Naturopathic medicine is definitely more guilty of using supplements and getting things, big carbon footprints. And because, again, just with anything being manufactured, it puts a dent in the earth. So you really want to talk with your naturopathic doctor and not be afraid to bring up sourcing and that sort of stuff. A lot of times when you see supplements with your naturopathic doctor that are more expensive, part of that is because naturopathic doctors are trained in the supplement industry to go to the best, both for quality assurance as well as for environmental impact. So a lot of times I'll have supplements that you'll be like, “But I can get that at Whole Foods.” And I’m like, right, the one at Whole Foods is by so-and-so. And they won’t tell me where they get it when I call them. Well, like if I call their office and say they walk me through the steps, they won't do it. Whereas the supplement companies that I use, I have literally done and they will tell me. They'll let me know where it came from. And then I can decide, is it too much or too little.


Jules: Yeah, that's important. Yeah. People, call companies, ask them where they source things they should be able to answer. And if they can't, then you know.


Brian: And again, we all do it with our dollars. So, you know, it's cheaper, but sometimes it's really for the planet. It's better for you to ask them questions.


Jules: Absolutely. So just to wrap up here real quick ... just some quick questions about yourself, just for fun. Where are you from? What are your hobbies?


Brian: So I'm from New Jersey. You guys got that already.


Jules: Right, you said that. We’ve been all over the place, it's hard to keep track.


Brian: I have lived a lot of places. But so yes, I say “coffee” and “chocolate” because I'm from New Jersey. That “awh” [accent] will never go away. For fun, I really do play in my kitchen with all of these things and make like vinegar's or infused spirits. You know, for instance, if you take gin and add a couple of these herbs and let it sit for a couple days, you practically have a cocktail without adding any extra syrups or sauces, things like that. So it's very fun. So I play mad scientist. And to get away from herbs for one minute, I'm a pretty solid nerd. So I do love to play video games. I do love to binge watch TV. I spent a long time outside, so I don't feel particularly guilty when I hit the couch. And so I won't lie. I like to game.


Jules: Awesome, And one last question. What is your favorite plant, at least right now, medicinal or otherwise? I know it's an impossible question for everyone who loves plants.


Brian: And for all you watching. This question will transform your life because you will change it every day. So right now, my favorite plant, this second, is probably cardamom, because I'm using it, I'm finding I'm craving it. I'm using it in everything. It has an amazing aroma. And cardamom is really meant to be an herb of celebration and of decadence. And as all of our budgets are tighter, I happen to have some cardamom and it just makes things taste so exquisite and exotic. That is kind of helping keeping me alive because I can't do Ubereats anymore.


Jules: That’s awesome! Cool. Well, thank you so much, Brian. If there's anything else you wanted to add, I know that you're doing some telemedicine right stuff right now. If you wanted to do a quick plug for that, we’d love to have you share.


Brian: Sure. So, for all Maryland residents, I am doing telemedicine appointments. I am also seeing patients in person at Sagelight Wellness. So I'm at Sagelight. However, a lot of my patients have been preferring online interaction because of what's going on. It's very understandable. And so you can check out my website. It's MagnoliaNaturalMedicine.com or you can go over to Sagelight. If you're more familiar with them, because I know a lot of people who follow Jimbo and Jules know that they're over there. So that's another way you can find me. I'm on their website as well.


Jules: Awesome! Cool. Thank you so much for being here, Brian. This was really interesting. Very enlightening. Thank you so much.


Brian: All right. Have a good day, everybody.


Jules: Enjoy the rest of your day. Bye bye.





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