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Integrating Herbalism into Our Healthcare System

alternativeWorking as a clinical herbalist and holistic educator for over 30 years, my perspective with the integration of herbal medicine into the mainstream has many concerns. I was trained as a classical herbalist first with teachers like Jethro Kloss, Dr. John Christopher, Ma Grieves, Michael Tierra, David Hoffman, David Winston, and currently I am studying the work of the turn-of-century eclectic physicians. I began learning about an energetic model of how to use food and herbs to bring about balance in the body. Traditional healing systems around the world such as Ayurveda, TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), Native American, and others have taught me to work with the innate healing power of the body, to assess imbalances, and to work in harmony with all the aspects of body, mind, and soul to restore balance.

I am glad that we are seeing a change in how we look at health care. People are tired of the same old system that does not deliver positive results. Many are seeking therapies that are less invasive and damaging to the body. Adverse drug reactions (being the sixth leading cause of death in the US alone), currently estimated at close to 200,000, are an indication that we need to incorporate a preventive side to medicine. Looking at the statistics from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), the number of deaths due to herbs is very small to none. With the development of phytopharmeceutical basically in the form of standardized herbal extracts, the reporting of adverse reactions is increasing. Most side effects are allergic reactions and minor discomfort, but not death. I believe that standardized preparations have their place; but if we think of them in the same manner as a drug medication, we are missing an important part of the healing process.

I think it is time to question our methods and motivations when we look at the new millennia and our current health care system.

Research is driven by profit dollars not the reality of finding cures. This is particularly evident with current nutritional and herbal approaches that show promise by working with the total body, but these approaches are being overlooked. One area I am talking about is in cancer research. We are not winning the war, folks, and I know from the many workshops I have attended over the last two years that a new idea is emerging about how to treat cancer. That will be a topic of another article I am working on.

Over the last 20 years the herbal marketplace has seen a huge growth. In the early 1970s it was a $400,000 industry. In the 1990s it is now an industry to the tune of over $5 billion in the US, and that is on the increase. The awareness of the quote “designer herbs” has helped people to know about plant-based products, but there is a lack of true understanding of how to use them. Ginkgo Biloba is not just the memory herb; nor is St. John’s Wort just the depression herb, Saw Palmetto the male herb, and Black Cohosh the women’s herb. Herbalism goes much deeper than treating symptoms alone. One concern is that people approach the use of herbs like the way they think of drugs – looking for the quick fix. Herbalism is a system where protocols are developed based on individual circumstances.

Recently I was invited to speak to a group of doctors at our local hospital. They wanted a program on “alternative medicine.” I prefer the working model called “integrative medicine” and was pleasantly surprised to find a curious and receptive audience. My presentation was centered around integrating conventional medicine with holistic modalities. We need to build bridges instead of widening gaps that already exist. Because so many people are using holistic therapies, many physicians are seeing results in their patients without understanding why. Because of lack of training in this particular field, how these modalities can be incorporated needs to be looked into. The major concern that was voiced to me from the doctors at this lecture was inadequate studies and research with the use of botanicals. There is a wealth of good practical, clinical, and cutting edge information available, not always from our country or funded by pharmaceutical interests. You have to know where to find it.

It is encouraging to me to see the field of natural medicine growing. More research, the initiation of clinical trials, and universities teaching classes are all indicators that change is happening. I always speak about self-responsibility when it comes to our health. Each of us has to support our beliefs and help bridge the gaps so that we can have a health care system we can live with.

In this new millennium it is important to be active, voice our concerns, and stand up for our rights. There is a lot of hope for the future.

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