Friday January 27th 2012

What Is a Herbalist?

(Please note that references to “herbal medicine” in this article are a historical term rather than meant to imply that the herbalist practices and prescribes medicine.)

Natural remedies can be found everywhere. Information about claims of their effectiveness or lack of effectiveness, potential dangers, and potential benefits can be confusing at best. Many people try herbal remedies without much guidance except for a little advice from a store clerk. Many express concern that the complexities of their health and the medications they are taking keep them from confidently using the products on which they often spend “good money”. A common response from personal physicians asked about herbal alternatives to prescriptions is usually a shrug of the shoulders, reluctance to give advice due to lack of knowledge; or a statement that herbals are unproven, ineffective, or worse.
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The modern physician is seldom trained in herbal remedies. In addition to their academic training in medical school, much of the information they receive on available treatments is provided by pharmaceutical companies. Large sale forces armed with free samples and free lunches, along with a variety of pens, notepads, and free trinkets marked with the company logo, are deployed by big pharma to promote their products. These products are covered by patents. In contrast to this, plants cannot be patented and are readily available in nature for those who know how to recognize and use them. They are also not legally regarded as “medicine” in the US but rather fall under the category of food and dietary supplements. Consequently, they provide no opportunities for big pharma to profit from them.

The origins of the use of botanicals as medicine among those seeking to colonize North America has an interesting history. It is possible that the rumors of the rigorous good health of the indigenous peoples of the Americas led to the origin of the legend of the fountain of youth. In 1513, when Juan Ponce De Leon, a Spanish explorer, landed on Florida he was greeted by the Timacua Indians, who towered in height over the Spaniards and were robust in health and appearance. Somehow, Ponce de Leon credited their health only to the spring from which they drew their water. Later settlers would learn of the more complex reasons. The native peoples had adapted well to the hazards of their environment, treating their wounds and illnesses by using a vast array of plants to assist their health and healing.
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The early colonists in America brought with them knowledge of “simples”, herbal remedies from Europe that were time-honored and backed by thousands of years of use. With them also came early physicians who were trained in “heroic medicine”, a combination of blood letting, drilling holes in the skull, amputation, purging the body with powerful laxatives, and the administration of mercury (which we now recognize as poisonous). The colonist’s relationship with the native people of North American was complicated and often not consistent with official policy and beliefs which regarded the natives legally as less than human. Those befriending their native neighbors often became the beneficiaries of herbal remedies that kept the tribes healthy and remarkably free of disease before exposure to the European germs. Many of the plants used by both the Europeans and the Native Americans were the same and were used for many of the same reasons, creating a bond of commonality between people of otherwise very different cultures. Plants not native to North America, such as plantain, commonly called “white man’s foot” were exchanged for North American plants not found in Europe.

Some settlers sought out training by the traditional native healers to add to the remedies passed on to them by their own European ancestors. Early physicians who had done so touted this to improve their reputations among their patients. This raised the hackles of the schools that trained the physicians of the time in “heroic medicine” and those who regarded the natives as “heathens”. Some scorned the idea that “savages” could produce any method superior to their own, but instead accepted the belief that indigenous people were inferior, uncivilized, and less human than the Europeans who came to colonize and conquer.

The clash between these two systems of medicine, the botanical and the “heroic”, is well documented. It is safe to say that anyone paying attention to the relative gentleness and effectiveness of herbal medicines saw how they favorably contrasted with the extreme measures of heroic medicine. This helped herbals steadily gain favor among the colonists. By 1880, three quarters of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the official catalog of accepted medical treatments, were botanical in nature. By the early 1900′s, heroic medicine hit its decline and America’s love affair with scientific study and the synthesizing of chemical compounds in laboratories took hold. Around 1900, the American Medical Association threatened to run any physician using the herbals or “homeopathy” out of the organization. Herbal medicine was then regarded as unsophisticated and inferior. Even so, the plants remained the basis for most medicines that were isolated and synthesized in the early days of pharmaceuticals.

As is true today, not all people in those times had access to the expensive modern medical care. Fortunately, necessity and tradition continued the passing on of knowledge of the old remedies from generation to generation; usually through the grandmothers and mothers. “Old Wives Tales” often involved remedies that seemed cloaked in mystery but were somehow effective enough to merit passing them on to the next generation. Industrial pharmacology was the norm in the America of the 1920′s to the 1960′s and the herbal remedies that once graced most of the pages of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia were no longer taught as valued treatments in most mainstream medical schools of this country.

In the 1960′s, largely due to the “back to nature” and budding ecology movement spurred on by the restless generation that brought us “antidisestablishmentarianism” (ie: rebellion against the norm of the day) there was a resurgence of interest in all things natural, including herbal remedies and “medicinal teas”. As the status of women also improved with the women’s movement “Old Wives Tales” also got a second look. For the curious, the herbal traditions of other cultures not so quick to discard them provided legitimacy to the idea of using plants once again as an alternative system of healing. Europe, China, India, and others held fast to their ancient traditions and incorporated them into their modern medical forms of treatment. As this knowledge has been resurrected and dusted off, more research on the therapeutic properties of plants has been funded and the “new” old profession of herbalism has begun to adapt and re-emerge.

Today, herbalism remains an unregulated and obscure profession in America; many people who would benefit from the services of an herbalist do not know what is offered and how to seek them out. Why seek out an herbalist when so many articles are available on herbal remedies? There are several things to consider; wise use of your money, time, and access to information that is not readily available to the public, and access to preparations that are not readily available in the marketplace.

The average plant contains many compounds that affect the human body in different ways. For example, one popular plant reduces the pain of arthritis, eases depression, is a powerful anti-viral, boosts the immune system, and helps heal wounds. Another stops nosebleeds but also neutralizes plant, mineral, and insect toxins, and is a great laxative. Yet another helps with menstrual cramps, is a tonic for the liver, reduces blood pressure, is great for the skin, and eases the nerves. There is no herb that only has one potential use. An herbalist who knows your individual needs can present the best option for finding the fewest number of remedies that may work to assist your various needs in the most efficient manner.

There are a growing number of resources that compile the ever growing body of research on the effectiveness and the precautions about specific herbals. The most comprehensive are sites generally accessible through paid membership and used by professionals. The layperson consulting published material may miss out on pertinent discoveries that the herbalist may have access to (this depends on the herbalist). This knowledge is by no means comprehensive because the amount of research being done is not adequate to answer all of the questions but a skilled herbalist will be more likely to recommend the options most likely to be the safest known for you. Even the best herbalist is only as good as the information you give her during an assessment so it is best and safest to be thorough and honest when providing her with your information.

An herbalist cannot legally practice medicine in the US and functions more as a health educator than a practitioner. An herbalist, in addition to educating the client, can also make preparations specific to the needs of the client, such as ointments, tinctures, oils, teas, and freshly encapsulated powdered herbs that are more potent than the packaged and warehoused remedies found on many store shelves. Some herbalists can also teach the client how to grow and prepare their own herbal remedies. This also follows a time-honored tradition of having a household herb garden for the purpose of raising “simples” for household use.

Although the training and background of those identifying themselves as herbalists widely varies, it is wise to select one that has access to data bases on current research if you are wishing to consult one, particularly if your health requires you to take prescription medicines. This knowledge in addition to training in the traditional uses of plants makes for a more qualified herbalist. A number of quality schools in herbal medicine and alternative healing have established themselves in the US in the last several decades and are graduating modern Herbalists. It is also recommended that you locate one with a combination of academic and field training, as there is no substitute for experience. For those without the benefit of an herbalist in their area, some can be located online and are willing to conduct personalized herbal assessments for the inquirer.

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