Herbalism. The unique field of study surrounding the use of plants for medicinal purposes. Although the actual scientific study of herbal medicine has seen an explosion of interest over the past couple of years, it has been around much longer than that, with the use of plants for anecdotal purposes dating back thousands of years.
Professionals in the field of medicine often turn a blind eye to herbalism stating that it is just a bunch of hype, witchcraft, and hippie mumbo-jumbo. Yet, herbs are actually just the raw, simplified version of what they are prescribing to their patients on a daily basis. This is by no means suggesting that herbal medicine is simple, however. Scientists have been working for years to research the plant’s chemical constituents, their actions in the body, and how multiple plant combinations have unique applications in the body.
It is estimated that over 40% of the prescription medications on the market today come from plant extracts or are the synthesized version of plant extracts. While drug producers isolate specific plant compounds for their products, herbalists simply use whole parts of the plant. This old-school technique may take longer for the herb to work, but it’s not mixed with other chemicals or synthesized substances that can often cause unnecessary side effects or a whole new illness entirely. It’s believed that the medicinal properties of plants are due to the fact that multiple plant compounds work together in the body to produce the desired effect. When a single compound is extracted and isolated as is the case in conventional medicines, it doesn’t have the same effect in the body as it would in conjunction with the other compounds. So yes, modern medicines may be ‘plant based,’ but they are in no way the same as their true herbal counterparts. There are certain conditions that modern medicines are more suited to deal with however, such as life or death situations, surgical procedures, and the like.
You may think that there is no point to seeing an herbalist when information on herbs is everywhere on the internet these days. “Take ashwagandha for immune support and restorative benefits,” or “Echinacea for cold relief.” However, in America herbs are not yet regulated entirely. The herbal supplements you find in stores might not be of medicinal use. For instance, you hear about taking marshmallow for dry, irritated coughs so you go to the store and pick up a marshmallow supplement made from the stem of the marshmallow plant. What you probably didn’t realize, however, is that what you actually needed for your condition was the root of the plant. This is where an herbalist would have come in handy. Not only for informing you what specific plant part to use, but also dosing guidelines, any complementary herbs that may benefit your condition, and if there would be any interactions you may need to worry about. Herbalists have worked with and have studied the plants for many years and really understand the complexities of using and applying herbs both safely and effectively. Which brings me to the point of this article… Is seeing an herbalist right for you? Just like with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to herbalism:
Advantages of herbalism:
- Lengthy consultations with an herbalist ranging from an hour to 2 hours for an initial visit with 30 minutes to an hour for subsequent visits. Herbalists need to know EVERYTHING about your life including health history, dietary and lifestyle practices, living environment, stressors, and the like.
- Access to numerous resources. Herbalists often work in combination with medical doctors and nutritionists to utilize blood analysis equipment or consult on dietary requirements. Healthcare is best when all professional resources are utilized!
- Reduced risk of side effects. Herbs typically cause fewer side effects than their counterparts. They are often well tolerated by people and depending on the herb, can be safer for long-term utilization.
- Higher success rate with chronic conditions. Certain chronic ailments such as arthritis respond better to herbal treatment than traditional medications. Aside from that, they work to treat and heal the underlying condition instead of simply masking the symptoms.
- Lower cost. There’s something so rudimentary and empowering about using the plants that naturally grow in your environment. It’s not only cheaper, but it’s also abundant. People often think they can’t utilize herbs because they know nothing about plant identification. Well, luckily for you, there are botanists that can help with that! 🙂 Chances are your herbalist will gather your plants for you or know of a good source for you.
- Environmentally ethical. If you get your herbs from an honorable, environmentally conscious company, chances are they were ethically wildcrafted at the peak of freshness. Rule of thumb is not to use wild harvested plants that are on the verge of becoming or already are endangered, such as wild ginseng or echinacea. Your herbalist will be able to guide you to the right sources for your herbs.
- It often takes longer for herbs to affect the body than it would contemporary medicine. Patience is a well-earned virtue!
- Dosing is highly variable based on the herbalist, patient, and strength of the herbal formulation. Often herbalists make their own preparations based on their own experience and anecdotal knowledge. There are no instructions on the “package.” If you are self treating, you run the risk of not taking a high enough dose to be effective, or taking too much and risking your safety. Overdosing with herbs is a very real and serious issue.
- Not useful for every condition. There may be times when you cut your thumb off or break your arm, and in those circumstance, herbs should not be your first thought!! There are situations that require modern medicine and equipment. No one is arguing that! Just remember that there are herbs to help you heal once you’re all fixed up!
- Herb – drug interactions. Some herbs may interact with medications, so understanding their interactions is a must. Chances are, if you are taking an herb for a certain condition at the same time you are taking modern medicines for the same condition, they are interacting. For example, if you are taking medications for vasodilation and then proceed to take hawthorn to treat the same condition, this is a dangerous combination and would not be normally advised!
- Herbalism isn’t regulated in every state. When going to see an herbalist, you are putting your health into their hands. You must make sure they have had the proper training preferably with a master herbalist or naturopathic doctor with a few patients under their belt. Herbalists range from people who study herbalism on their own, people that have taken a few herbalism classes, or those that have attended and graduated from a professional medical school. Use your best judgement when deciding on who to see, but just remember that if they don’t have a medical license, they are not allowed to diagnose conditions or prescribe medications. They can merely discuss your options and recommend herbs that may help relieve conditions. Just keep these things in mind as you are considering your options.
As you can see, using herbs for medicinal purposes has its advantages and disadvantages, as do conventional therapies. Home use of herbs really works great for acute conditions that aren’t of major concern; however, when it comes to chronic conditions that seem to linger or go away with conventional medicines only to return again with a vengeance, seeing an herbalist may be the way to go. Herbalists take the time to listen to you about your condition and really work to develop a treatment that will work for you. They want to see you get healthy in the most natural way possible, and they will love enlightening you about the mystical and powerful ways of plants along the way!