Herbalists: have you hugged one recently? Whether raising a reverent smile or hackles of suspicion, herbalists invite us into health and harmony. And though there remains a sense of mystique around the secret lives of plants, we also know that many of them are life-giving allies. With written histories more than 5,000 years old, across many traditions and regions of the world, herbal medicine — as both art and science — uses plants to promote health or to prevent or treat illness.
According to the American Herbalists Guild — which includes native healers, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, herbal pharmacists, wild crafters and herbal farmers — “[p]ersons specializing in the therapeutic use of plants may be medical herbalists, traditional herbalists, acupuncturists, midwives, naturopathic physicians, or even one's own grandmother.” Using plants for therapeutic value may be as simple as taking ginger in some form to calm an upset stomach, or it may involve much more detailed analysis of a person’s overall health.
Roughly three-quarters of the world's population rely first and foremost upon some kind of herbal medicine, according to AHG. In offering lower cost and greater accessibility, the plant kingdom may yet serve that “non-herbal” quarter in greater capacity, both through integrative medicine and as a part of everyday health maintenance. Herbalists facilitate relationships between people and plants. And while herbalism certainly exists as a career path worth pursuing, I endorse herbal medicine, too, as a practical way for us to take care of ourselves and to engage with the natural world.
Personally I love graphic representations and historical materials detailing specific plants, as well as modern or contemporary books on herbs. One can find plants in the Bible, or in ancient texts of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and other religious or cultural traditions. Indigenous tribes around the world have living medicine chests, too, and their use of plants may be highly localized, limited to oral tradition and potentially more sensitive to change. Still, I marvel at shamans and people practicing herbal medicine in rain forests, where the herbal actions of biodiversity present many helpful and harmful outcomes.
According to AHG, pharmaceutical drugs derived from plants declined from 85 to 15% over the last three decades. I find that astounding, since pharmaceutical use has risen in the United States, and with it the preponderance of synthesized chemicals. In contrast, the plant-based nature of herbal medicines contains hundreds, even thousands, of interrelated compounds, often with a synergistic effect. I’m not sure what the general trend away from plants in pharmaceuticals represents, but that trend could reverse in global healthcare as geopolitical economies seek to address planetary health, including people, plants and other forms of life.
Demystifying the concept of plant-based medicine may be easier today, due to access to information and civic interest. Using plant-based foods — kitchen and medicinal herbs — enhances the environment, and potentially economic health as well. At the very least, I hope more people will consider herbal medicine as part of whatever health regimen they might be pursuing.
It is not my role to play medical doctor, but it’s clear that many of us experience sustained stress or anxiety. Perhaps an example of applied herbalism is helpful at this point. For those who need herbs for stress and anxiety, consider first removing caffeine, and as much sugar and chemical additives (preservatives, food colorings, etc). Enjoy a variety of pure whole foods: minimally processed and in season and good company. You might also target specific deficiencies like calcium, magnesium or B vitamins. Or perhaps you want to introduce beneficial bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms into your gut. Plenty of water, exercise … you’re almost there.
With as many as the above suggestions in place, expect a better baseline of health and well-being, and delve more into the plants and their healing properties. Did you know that catnip isn’t just for cats? Other gentle nervine tonics and sedatives include ashwaganda, California poppy, chamomile, feverfew, gingko, ginseng (Asian and Siberian), gotu kola, hawthorn, hops, kava, lavender, lemon balm, licorice, nettles, oats, passionflower, rhodiola, St. John’s wort, skullcap, and valerian may help reduce anxiety and panic attacks, and combinations may create a beneficial entourage effect.
Whether you are returning from, leaving for, or longing for a vacation, remember that many plants serve as our herbal allies, and they’re waiting for us to use in measured dosages, with specific steps, and research-based protocols. Responsible application of botanical therapies can be as methodically controlled as a recipe for fresh blueberry pie. Come to think of it, that might be the best seasonal application of botanical therapy at the moment. Seriously, try getting to know one or more of the above plants during July, and see what they can do for you.
Greg Imbur invites you to join him and his family for adventures in the field, and “stories in the land.” Send your observations about the place where you live to firstname.lastname@example.org