Updated: Apr 7
I find there are often 2 types of herbalists that I tend to run across: the science-based and the woo-woo. Neither are wrong or right. They just are.
The sciencey herbalist can rattle off which herbs affect the CYP450 enzymes, are TSH antagonists, and can cross the blood brain barrier without looking it up.
The woo-woo herbalist understands the story of the plant. They connect with the energetics and understand how the plant works from a deep, folkloric, spiritual place. They don’t look up dosages- they are intuitive and just know how much to take or give.
Both of these are slight exaggerations, but I know people who fit perfectly into each category.
And, there are some that can navigate both waters beautifully, effortlessly slipping out of the foliage with dirty nails and leaves in the hair, and into the white coat of medical herbalism, typing away at a laptop.
I strive to be both of these people.
The picture I added kind of depicts this, as I had just spent four days getting very woo-woo living in a tent at the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary. A friend jokingly got us lab coats to wear at our last night at camp.
I come from the education- focused side of things. The practical. The cold, studied, factual side. This isn’t me, in reality, but somehow I fall on the side of the sterile, show me the proof, ‘color inside the lines’ herbalist. Perhaps this is only how I approach herbs as a clinician. I definitely don’t practice this way on myself. My personal experience with herbs is really woo- woo, energetic, spiritual, and intuitive. What I would like is to be able to have the skill and grace to blend the two together more naturally.
Why am I so stuck in my sterile, boring, cautious herbal practice that looks and feels an awful lot like the traditional modern approach to medicine?
Because using herbs as medicine works, and I don’t think people are ready to hear that unless someone with a lab coat is saying it.
If I crawl out of the bushes from digging in the dirt with a handful of roots and leaves and tell people, “Hey look what I found! You can use this for getting your liver functioning better! Let me just…brush off the dirt first…and we’ll throw it in some water…” a lot of people new to this herbal medicine stuff are going to turn around and walk away. Or run.
But if I can show them the studies, the numbers, the effectiveness, but more importantly the safety of these herbs, I think people are more likely to hear what I have to say. Maybe even try them!
Is the research out there? A lot of it is. It’s still kind of ‘new,’ this herbal medicine thing, even though it’s the most NOT new thing in the world.
Evidence shows medicinal plants have been used as far back as 60,000 years ago. Every culture on the planet throughout history has used plants as medicine. We would not be here today if we didn’t find a way to use these resources. We even coevolved with these plants, which is why we have receptors our cells which bind to plant phytochemicals when they enter our bodies. We were meant to use the plants that grow around us.
What I always found fascinating in herb school was learning about the folk use of a plant, and then seeing how we now are able to prove the effectiveness of that plant through science and technological advancements. It is SO COOL to see that - yes! They were right! How did they know that!?
It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that the use of herbs for medicine took a sharp decline. Once we were able to isolate the particular phytochemical in the plant that does the thing we want, we were able to extract it, synthesize it, and provide it to people in the form of…what do you think…a pharmaceutical product. And they are POWERFUL.
Is this how plants work in the body? Not so much. That one phytochemical might have been in the bark of the tree, and helped relieve pain, but so were a bunch of other phytochemicals that did other things, like acted as an antiinflammatory or thinned the blood, or relaxed the tissues. (I just made those up, but that’s how it works). However, once you use a pill to relieve that pain instead of the tea from that bark, you’re not getting the potential benefit of the plant medicine anymore. You miss out on a lot of healing that plant could have offered.
Hey man- I’m all for science and helping people get better. But now a lot of us are realizing the side effects from some of these prescriptions are awful, and these companies that have an ungodly amount of money... aren’t being all that honest with us.
Enter: natural medicine. Could this area get adulterated, too? Yup. Already is. But I’ll tell you what- brewing up a cup of mint tea from the mint growing in my yard is still settling my stomach. Don’t need to worry about someone trying to sell me on that idea. Besides, how many commercials are you seeing for Blue Vervain tincture or Mugwort?
I could send you studies showing the effectiveness of herbs. I’ve got a ton to refer to if you were curious, but I didn’t think you’d want to read all that stuff (if you do let me know!). America has not done a great job of utilizing herbal remedies like other countries have. In most other countries herbs are used in conjunction with modern medicine. We’re still a bit behind on that one.
But times are changing.
Again, we’re sick (literally) with much of our healthcare these days. Many people don’t have the trust that they used to for health professionals, who I do believe have their heart in the right place. But I also think it's important for us to be knowledgeable, have choices, and be allowed to make the right choice for our bodies.
The beauty of the pendulum here is that I think we’re being drawn back to the Earth. Seeds are harder to come by nowadays because so many people who never used to grow their own food are doing it. That’s a win in my eyes. Being separated from the Earth has contributed to our dis-ease. Yes, I’m going there.
There are facts about the health benefits of going into nature. The Japanese have mastered this practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Here is a link. There are facts about food health showing many of our crops don’t contain the necessary amount of nutrients we need anymore. Check it out. People are searching for a fix to the problems of feeling like shit. Where do we go when we are sick? We want our mothers. We are, subconsciously, searching for our mother in the Earth, and don’t even realize it.
See? I can get woo- woo.
When I’m not trying to act like the clinical herbalist with a Masters of Science to prove to people that what we do actually works, I’m in the woods being ‘weird’ as my husband and kids probably think. I’m a tree person, myself. Yeah, that’s a little basic, but I can’t help where I’m drawn. We have big trees in our woods. Old growth. Huge, stately tulip poplars and black walnut trees. Grandmother trees, they’re called. I know them each intimately, like a person I see often. I feel calm when I stay near them, and find myself slowing my steps. I approach reverently, without thinking about it. I’ve always liked trees.
When I was around seven years old there was a tree outside my bedroom window. I don’t even know what kind of tree it is. I liked climbing this tree and hanging out up high; it wasn’t comfortable so I grabbed some rope and a piece of 2x4 from my dad’s garage and built myself a little seat up there. I named my tree May, but I couldn’t tell you why. I think May has always been a happy month for me, and the tree was probably blossoming. That’s my first connection with trees.
After learning about how plants and trees communicate through fungi (the mycorrhizal network) I became even more enamored with these beings. They became more alive to me. That respect and appreciation for trees began to transfer to all plants. Their story- the way they grow, their likes and dislikes, the smell and taste and feel of them- all of this has been an integral piece of my spiritual journey with plants. It’s a private thing for me, much like religion, but where the heart and soul of my herbalism reside.
I can’t NOT grow plants. I respect people who are herbalists without the ability to immerse themselves daily in the living plants- I could never do that. Part of my struggle with winter is the lack of (seemingly) life outside around me.
Herbal medicine is not just a physiological experience. It works, but the complexities of what we are doing by incorporating these plants into our bodies, the communion that takes place, is much deeper than ‘take this for that.’
Whether I speak about it with clients or not, using plants as medicine not only aides our bodies in healing, but it reconnects us with our lineage and our roots. One day I would like to feel more confident speaking this way in person, but for now it’s easier to type and hide behind my screen.
The point of this blog was supposed to be: this is how herbal medicine works. Explain the processes in the body. Explain the science and the studies.
Well, maybe I wasn’t supposed to teach that lesson to you after all. Maybe you needed to hear the woo-woo this time. Maybe it hits you the right way and I don’t need to prove to you that herbs work. Maybe I should let the herbs speak for themselves (maybe they just did).