Herbal medicine: what it is, and what it isn’t (or shouldn’t be)

To me, when I talk about what is and isn’t herbal medicine, I’m not talking about imposing standards on other people’s behavior to determine who gets to join the herbalist club, but rather to make it clear what a person can, and should, be able to expect from an herbalist and from the herbs themselves.

After 400-ish years of increasingly reductionist materialism, we have evolved the medical system we currently have, for better or worse. It’s got its benefits. Allopathic/Western/modern medicine is great for certain things. Yet many people are dissatisfied with the kind of treatment modern medicine offers, and are turning to alternative methods, including herbs. So far so ok.

For generations, though, we have been conditioned to believe that normal or proper treatment for a disease is to (1) isolate the symptom(s) and then (2) take a medicine (drug) that suppresses that symptom. Where possible, we prefer to find a medicine that actually addresses the cause of the symptom, but sometimes the immediate cause has it’s own cause–so to speak. For example, say a patient has a respiratory infection. According to modern medicine, the “cause” of the infection is bacteria. Therefore, kill the bacteria, cure the cause of disease. But should we stop there? Shouldn’t we ask how those bacteria managed to proliferate to the point of causing infection? Traditional herbal medicine tells us this could be due to a number of physiological imbalances. If the imbalance is cured, the environment is no longer favorable to the bacteria and they die off on their own–which should be a sign to us that the bacteria were another symptom, not the cause.

Most people, especially those new to the idea of herbal healing, still attempt to isolate their symptom(s) and then find an herb that palliates that symptom. Hey, I’ve done this too. And unfortunately, this is how most herbs are marketed. Need to detox? Take dandelion. Got a prostate problem? Take saw palmetto. People often ask me, “What herb is good for __________?” They want a formula–if x, then y. I always have to tell them, “It depends,” which is understandably frustrating for someone suffering and wanting to heal. I think most often this method results from people honestly doing their best, but forced to diagnose themselves because either they (1) have no health insurance or (2) have been to a doctor and followed the instructions with no improvement. Sometimes, though, this approach is touted as a right and proper synthesis of “natural” medicines and “scientific” knowledge. It appeals because people have been fed a steady mythology about the inferiority of traditional knowledge based on empirical, but subjective, experience. This is what herbal medicine should not be (also it doesn’t work).

You know those medieval “humors” we moderns deride as the epitome of medical backwardness and whimsy? Well it turns out those old school doctors and herbwives were kind of right. They were thinking in terms of balances within the body, and in terms of organ systems and how they interrelate. The fact is that the body does have (what I think of as) axes–of hot-cold, damp-dry, loose-tight–interacting with one another. And this is the awesome thing about herbs–they frequently work on one or more axes in both directions. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to know exactly what needs to be done to cure a disease, as long as you can correctly identify the axis and the organ system where the problem lies. And here’s another cool thing about herbs–often, the symptom that it is definitive in diagnosing the problem is psychological.

That is what herbal medicine should be: It should recognize that we are both body and spirit–to treat one is to treat the other. It should recognize that disease manifests not just as one symptom, but as complexes of symptoms, because organs don’t function in isolation but in interrelation. It should recognize that the body/spirit can heal itself with just a small nudge in the right direction. It should recognize that subjective experience is still experience, and honor the wisdom of our ancestors that has been through the mill, leaving us with pretty reliable methods after centuries of repeated testing. And most of all, it should recognize that plants are not just natural drugs, but teachers too.

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