Throughout history we have turned daily to the plant world for food and medicine, and found there also beauty, solace, and transcendence.
In whatever form we use herbs, I believe one of their greatest values to us in the 21st century is to nourish and restore the order and harmony of our own individual rhythms – physical, emotional, cognitive and creative, and to root us in the larger cycles of the seasons and the lifespan. Energy level, mood, quality of rest, stamina, resilience in the face of chronic stress all respond to this restorative nourishment.
We can use herbs as teas, with their lovely ritual and calming element, as extracts that we can toss in a backpack or briefcase to accommodate a busy day, or as powders thrown into a smoothie or mixed up with nut butter and coconut into Bliss Balls. There are other gifts in raising and harvesting our own, or sustainably wildcrafting them and making our own products.
TRADITION AND SCIENCE MEET IN 21ST CENTURY HERBALISM, OFFERING US A POTENT, SAFE, AFFORDABLE AND SUSTAINABLE MEANS TO CARE FOR, RESTORE, AND MAINTAIN OUR HEALTH.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WESTERN HERBALISM
In my restorative herbal practice, I draw on the Western Herbal tradition, which followed a historical path from ancient Greek, Roman, and Arabic medicine through Western Europe, and on to Colonial America, itself enriched by Native American use and the medical practices of southern slaves linked to their West and Central African cultures.
THE VITALIST TRADITION IN WHICH I PRACTICE IS ROOTED IN VIS MEDICATRIX NATURAE – THE HEALING POWER OF NATURE.
Naturopath James Sensenig has described this power as the “tendency in nature towards organization, order and purpose,” a view supported by contemporary knowledge of complex, self-organizing systems.
Hippocrates himself viewed illness in the context of this healing power, as a way that the body repairs disturbances of balance.
Until World War II, “conventional” medicine was virtually synonymous with herbal medicine. With the disruption of trade routes, the rise of emergency medicine out of the modern battlefield, antibiotics and then manufactured pharmaceuticals of all kinds replaced herbal medicines in medical practice, though regional herbal traditions continued in household and folk use.
NOW HERBS HAVE RE-EMERGED AS A MEANS OF SELF-CARE, AS WELL AS A FOCUS OF RESEARCH INTO THEIR POTENTIAL TO ADDRESS SIGNIFICANT PUBLIC HEALTH CHALLENGES OF OUR TIME: DIABETES, AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE, CANCER, ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANT BACTERIA, THREATS OF PANDEMIC
I am particularly attentive to how traditional uses, dosing, and preparation translate into support for our current understanding of healthy physiological function. Alongside this, I look to the growing body of herbal research, which is held to the same rigorous standards as other 21st century science.
How herbs work
The carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that plants produce for their own structures, growth and reproduction furnish us with food.
The nutrients that plants make for their own internal communication (neurologic function) and for protection (immune function), furnish us with subtle, nuanced, chemically complex and synergistic medicines.
Some of these phytonutrients have affinities for certain kinds of tissues in the body, and can be selected to nourish, soothe, tone and repair those particular tissues. Others interact with hormones, immune cells, and neurotransmitters to foster balanced communication between cells.
Selected, blended, and dosed to match an individual’s needs, herbs can gently re-establish healthy function across daily, seasonal, and lifespan cycles.
Some herbs are quite gentle and food-like, and can be used in moderately large doses and over long periods of time to enhance vital energies and functions. Somewhat stronger herbs can be used to relieve symptoms (though not by suppressing them), and nudge function back towards the optimal. These herbs are used in moderate to small doses over days or months. The strongest herbs are used very selectively in low doses over a brief span of time when function or structure is highly compromised, or when brief and wise provocation may move the body in the direction of health.
How herbal medicines differ from pharmaceuticals
The human body is accustomed to the complexity of plant chemistry. We did co-evolve with the plants, after all! This is the main reason that the body responds so readily to them, and with so few difficulties. Chemically pure substances like pharmaceuticals are not found in nature. The body is not accustomed to them, hence the long lists of side-effects and common adverse reactions.
Herbs are sold as dietary supplements in the U.S. marketplace. As such, they are regulated (along with vitamin, mineral, and micronutrient supplements) in commerce under DSHEA, the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act of 1994. These supplements cannot make label claims to treat any disease, but only to improve certain functions, which may or may not be scientifically linked to improved disease outcomes.
Since 2010 the Federal Drug Administration has also regulated for Good Manufacturing Practices to ensure proper identity, purity, strength, composition, and overall quality of products. These regulations apply to all stages of the manufacturing, packaging, labeling, quality control, record-keeping, storing, and distribution.
Herbalists are neither certified nor licensed in the U.S.
Consumer safety, consumer savvy
- Get to know one plant at a time, starting with common garden or culinary herbs you are drawn to.
- Follow dosing instructions: more is NOT better.
- Be sensible, not paranoid.
- Tell your healthcare professionals about any herbal use.
- Take herbs and prescription medications at least one hour apart.
- Avoid herbs in 1st trimester of pregnancy; use with caution and professional guidance in 2nd and 3rd trimesters and during lactation.
- Stop all herbs one week prior to surgery.
- Use herbs only with professional guidance if you are taking a blood thinner such as warfarin, or any Rx where a small variation in the blood level of the drug can destabilize your condition or bring about an acute reaction.
- Stay away from: over-the-counter herbal stimulants formulated – and hyped – for weight loss, sports and sexual performance (e.g. Ephedra, Cola, Yohimbine)