WHAT IS HERBAL MEDICINE?
"What is herbal medicine? Are you a Naturopath? Is it safe? Does it actually work?"
These are the questions that commonly arise whenever I tell people that I'm a herbalist. It's not surprising. As western medicine has evolved and changed, we have lost touch with our medical heritage. We have forgotten how to heal ourselves, and the tradition of herbal medicine (in many ways the progenitor of modern medicine) has been forgotten by many. However, this tradition is alive and strong, as it has been for millennia. It offers solutions that can't be found anywhere else, and puts us directly in touch with nature - the very environment that surrounds us. In many cases, the medicine we need grows in our own backyards and gardens.
To begin to answer the question "What is herbal medicine?", we can take a quote from the Ontario Herbalists Association:
"Herbal medicine is a system of healing that uses medicinal plants and natural protocols to prevent or alleviate disease, and to maintain optimal health and well-being. Every culture of every era throughout history has, until recently, depended on plants for healing. Even today, herbal medicine is the primary healing modality for much of the world’s population."
Phytotherapy, taken from the Greek word Phyton (meaning plant) is the oldest form of healthcare in the world. Herbs have been used as food and medicine for as long as humans have been hunting and gathering. However, it is not merely the quaint ancestor of conventional medicine, but a holistic healing modality that combines traditional wisdom with modern scientific research.
Traditional medicine is often referred to as alternative or complimentary, implying that it is secondary to conventional medicine. In fact, wholism and medical orthodoxy have traded positions of priority several times throughout history. The truth is, they have different strengths, and each has a different focus. The term holistic, or "wholistic" to be more accurate, emphasizes the underlying principle of treating all aspects of a person - the whole person. This means that physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social, environmental, and physiological aspects of the individual are all taken into consideration. Herbalists seek to improve the quality of life, in part by offering treatment, but also by teaching patients to care for themselves, creating awareness around what they eat, what they think and how they live. We use safe, gentle, non-invasive therapies that assist the body in doing what it naturally does so well.
Conventional medicine does some things very well. It excels at acute care and the analysis of physical and chemical processes. If one were to have a terrible mountain-climbing accident, it would be prudent to head straight to the emergency room. However, in some situations, the conventional focus can be too narrow. In the case of the unfortunate mountain climber, herbs may be a good adjuvant, but in chronic conditions, or situations where we want to avoid or prevent disease, plant medicine may very well be the best choice for primary care.
We need to remember that we are more than just the sum of our parts. We are more than biochemical pathways responding to stimuli. Body systems interact with one another and one cannot be out of balance without somehow affecting another. If we take this idea to an even higher level of thinking, we must include our emotional and psychological aspects as well. Consider the Mind/Body connection as an example:
There is no physical symptom that does not register a thought and/or an emotional response. Every sensation we experience, whether pleasant or painful causes some kind of reaction in the mind or the feelings. Likewise, thoughts and emotions produce physiological responses. Have you ever watched a frightening movie and felt your pulse quicken during the more intense scenes? Have you ever heard a sad story that has made drops of salty water leak from your eyes? Have you seen pictures of delicious, mouthwatering foods that make your stomach rumble just by thinking about them? These are all reactions that have nothing whatsoever to do with your actual physical experience. They are thoughts and feelings which have become physiological manifestations. We think and the body reacts. We experience emotion and there is a physical response. Another great example is the placebo effect. We have learned that we can get better if we believe we will. On the other hand, if we believe we won't get better, we won't. Behind most physical symptoms, there is something going on underneath.
That is why treating symptoms is not enough. It's like throwing a blanket over a fire. It may cover the smoke and flames temporarily, but there is probably still something smoldering underneath. When we address all elements of a person's life, and give them the fundamental tools to bring themselves back into balance, we can gently empower them and encourage them to thrive.
Herbal Medicine is one of several healthcare options available to you. It is important to understand that you have choices, and that it is your responsibility to make those choices carefully. To quote Master Herbalist Ed Smith:
"It is every (person)'s inherent right to freely choose for themselves whatever type and source of healthcare he or she deems appropriate. However, it must be emphasized that practicing such medical freedom requires the responsibility of acquiring valid health information and skills, having the wisdom to recognize when professional healthcare is needed, and to choose that healthcare wisely."