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Herbalism – A Simple Way

pestil.Once I was invited to lecture at an herbal conference and the topic of my talk was to be on “Herbs And Alternative Medicine.” I did not give this title to the lecture but gave a lot of thought as to what I might present because I have some specific thoughts on herbalism and on what is termed alternative medicine.

Let me begin this article with some clarification. I believe that the term “alternative” is not an accurate description of Wholistic medicine. Alternative denotes in my mind to be “an either or” and when it comes to medicine this does not fit into this type of thinking. I use the word integrative to best describe Wholistic practices because integration means an acceptance and a working together with different modalities to provide the best possible solutions to a person’s imbalances.

I began my lecture with this clarification and continued to express my opinion that herbs are not an alternative but have been the first medicine. When you look back in time, people on this planet have always relied on plants as their medicines for millions of years. This has been a trial and error period over time that has proven many plants to be effective in treating and preventing disease processes. Many people are seeking herbal remedies because they believe them to be more natural, safer and that they will keep them healthy. This is all true but one thing I see is that people are looking at herbalism the same way they look at conventional medicine, which is heroic in nature. Pharmaceutical drugs, which are based on symptomatic relief don’t usually address underlying causative factors. Without this understanding of what they are doing in their lifestyle that could be a contributing factor in their health many folks are missing the opportunity to realize the full capacity of herbalism. An example is that in the marketing of herbs I see herbs like gingko biloba, the memory herb, black cohosh, the female herb, saw palmetto, the male herb, valerian root, the sleep herb; you get the point –  these herbs are being attributed to specific genders and conditions. This is very simplistic if we look at herbs just for specific lifestyle imbalances and ignore the causes of disease process.

My early training helped me to think of herbs and herbalism as a system that involves an active participation by the person using them. The body heals itself and all healing comes from within has been the premise for me whenever I am lecturing or consulting with an individual. This is the foundation of herbal medicine; looking beyond symptoms and understanding the root cause of the problem. Another important premise is to do no harm.

Diet is an important part of herbalism because as stated by Hipprocrates, “let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” Today our current research into plant-based substances is a growing field. We know plants have healing powers and that they have an affinity to our bodies. Isolated compounds found in plants don’t always perform the way these compounds work when taken in their whole form. In a recent report on St John’s Wort, the researchers concluded that they understood the different aspects of the plant constituents and even went on the postulate how they worked, but the end result that was determined was that the plant worked best when taken in it’s whole form.

Many of you might believe that a standardized herbal product is better than an herbal product in another form, tea, capsule, tincture etc. This is not always the case and since it is a new field I don’t think that research can prove standardized herbal products always more effective. My traditional training has provided me with the basis that the more we disturb a plant substance the more we potentially disrupt its ability to work effectively in our body. This also does not mean that I won’t recommend or use a standardized herbal product. Standardized to what constituents, how much is necessary, does it have side effects becomes a big question.

One thing about standardized herbal products is that they do fit into a clinical model where everything is measured as to specific dosages at a certain potency related to specific conditions. This is good for measuring results but is not always an accurate assessment of an herb’s potential. I consider the empirical evidence about specific herbs to be an important factor when determining how to use a plant for specific purposes. Many of the herbs used today have been used for hundreds to thousands of years. This means that you can use them is the same manner and they can be effective as long as they are of high quality, harvested at the right times, and prepared accordingly.

When studying herbalism there are some specific principals that need to be learned. I will give a brief overview of them. Herbs used to be called simples.

The art of simpling applies and goes as follow:

  • Use local herbs- local herbs grown in the environment that we live in all the time and can be specific to the type of conditions experienced in that region.
  • Use mild herbs-they have a more gentle effect on the system and can be taken freely.
  • Use mild herbs in larger doses- due to this gentleness more might be needed in specific cases.

Of course more complex conditions need to be addressed differently.

There are three main general functions of herbs:

  • Eliminating and detoxifying- ridding the body of toxins.
  • Maintaining- using herbs to counteract symptoms and allowing the body to heal.
  • Building and toning- using herbs to strengthen and tone the body.

There are eight classifications of herbal therapies and numerous properties that an herb can provide. When making an assessment of how to use an herb one must look at the primary, secondary, and tertiary properties. A good authoritative herbal manual will provide this information.

As you can see herbalism is involved and has specific methodologies. I encourage the use of herbs but I also urge one to go beyond the surface and gain a true understanding of how to use them.

A good starter herbal manual would be The Way Of Herbs by Michael Tierra C.A.N.D.

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