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Choosing Between Modern Or Herbal Medicine: Does It Need To Be All Or Nothing?

“Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food’’ - Hippocrates

Herbalism is a fascinating field of study—it’s both a science and an art—which takes a lifetime to master. Our oldest form of healing on earth is the use of plants as medicine. And, before we could take a white pill to relieve our symptoms, we relied on therapeutic extracts, infusions, tinctures, poultices, and various other plant-delivery mechanisms to heal our bodies. The last peak of herbal medicine was in the late nineteenth century, after which the ability to isolate and synthesize previously inert chemical compounds set the stage for modern pharmacology. Since then, herbal therapy has taken a backseat to its flashier counterpart which promises faster results. However, many report herbalism’s recent comeback. And, it’s not hard to join the ride if you have the curiosity and a few ingredients…

What do you stand for?

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Like many others, I find myself conflicted between the two modalities of healing. I believe in preventative medicine—a diet of wholesome food, regular exercise, and natural remedies when possible. I love the idea of a ‘’homemade medicine cabinet’’ and have a genuine curiosity about growing and harvesting healing plants. My home (which, ironically, I share with a doctor) is stocked with flax seeds, essential oils, and fresh turmeric. I read the books. I brew the teas. And I avoid taking a Tylenol when I can hydrate, rest, and yoga my way back into health. However, in times of intense lower back pain, I gladly accept 75mg of Diclofenac Sodium or 25mg of Dexketoprofen to relieve the inflammation. I cannot deny the benefits of those little hexagonal pills, because they allow me to work pain-free and pay my rent. I’m a city girl, not a shaman. And I can’t tell you the difference between Echinacea flowers and daisies. But in swallowing this shortcut, am I any less of a proponent for holistic health? If we believe in one thing and do another, are we not hypocrites?

Not necessarily. Among the health-food community we see many people taking an extremist, all-or-nothing attitude towards a certain practice. One’s stance on sugar, meat, gluten, dairy, vaccinations, or the pharmaceutical industry at large has become an opportunity for self definition. We cultivate our identities and find our #tribe via the enemy we collectively abhor: animal protein, flu shots, etc. (I encourage you to watch JP Sears’ parody: ‘‘How to Become Gluten Intolerant’’). You can see this throughout social media, where people self-select their most important feature—the first words in their profile—as a dietary or lifestyle choice. But there is a dangerous side effect to this mindset.

All or nothing? 

Idolizing a belief and, in turn, the level of dedication or purity of its followers, runs the risk of developing a disordered relationship to the subject of resistance. Avoiding the “bad thing” can stand in between a person and their human relationships, enjoyment of life’s moments, ability to travel flexibly, and warp one’s sense of success. Should one “give in” and “cave” to the evil thing, the good intention is poisoned by feelings of inadequacy and failure. How long have you dwelt on a health choice before? Was the stress of dwelling less than or greater than the act itself?

The all-or-nothing mindset, when applied to the debate of herbal medicine versus modern medicine, is actually detrimental to health! No good doctor will recommend a prescription drug for every ache and pain, nor will they discount the importance of a healthy diet as prevention. Likewise, no good herbalist or homeopathic practitioner will avoid recommending medical attention if their client showcases certain symptoms. Sadly, our culture of clickbait, memes, and shock-factor has discounted the Middle Way. Contextual, case-by-case decision making is a lot less sexy than 100% fill-in-the-blank. And yet, the path of moderation—sometimes yes, sometimes no—is the healthiest approach to healthcare.

We ought to quit trying to be all one way or another for the sake of personal branding or group beliefs. To affirm our belief in one thing does not mean we need to discount the benefits of another. There are times when prescription medicine could be the best thing for us, and other times (hopefully most of the time) when herbal remedies will serve us just as well. Both are okay. And I’ll be the first to say that I’m no less of a health-enthusiast for embracing the twenty-first century.

The best medicine

Before diving into brewing our own remedies, let us remember that food is, first and foremost, our best medicine. Prunes and squash are natural laxatives, parsley and celery are diuretics, ginger and pepper are stimulants, and chamomile tea is a light sedative, among thousands of other examples. Again, whole foods aren’t as exciting as a ‘‘21 Day Juice Fast!’’ or even herbal lotions and potions, but a good diet will keep away the need for extremes in the first place.

When it does comes time to do a little healing, herbal therapy is an hands-on way to manage symptoms. For the average health enthusiast like myself, it’s an empowering way to steer clear of unnecessary doctor’s office visits. It attunes me to ecological stewardship on topics like soil quality, organic ingredients versus adulteration, overharvest, etc. At the very least, building a pantry of herbs, roots, and spices is just fun! Listed below are the top thirty medicinal herbs as designated by the California School of Herbal Studies (CSHS). Below that are six more that James Green adds in his work, The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook. If you’re curious, I encourage you to read literature on the subject and start a little collection of relevant herbs.

Top thirty herbs

The California School of Herbal Studies chose these thirty species as their ‘‘central core of tonic and therapeutic plants.’’ The selection, as a starting base, is said to ‘‘supply an herbalist with pretty much any and all the herbal actions and uplifting virtues required to provide good healthcare in a home and community.’’

*Signifies overharvest

  • Blackberry (Rubus villosus)
  • *Black Cohosh (Cimifuga racemosa)
  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
  • Cayenne (Capsicum annuum)
  • Chamomile, German (Matricaria recutita)
  • Cleavers (Galium aperine)
  • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
  • Crampbark (Viburnum opulus)
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
  • *Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Elder (Sambucus nigra)
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
  • Ginger (Zingiber offininale)
  • *Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
  • Gumweed (Grindelia spp.)
  • Hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacanthus)
  • Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
  • Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
  • Mullein (Verbascum spp.)
  • Nettle (Urtica spp.)
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
  • *Pipsissewa (Chimaphilla umbellata)
  • Plantain (Plantago lanceolata or P. major)
  • St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
  • Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.)
  • Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
  • Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus)
  • Willow (Salix alba)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus)

James Green’s additions:

  • Burdock (Arctium lappa)
  • Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
  • Oat (wild: Avena fatua, cultivated: Avena sativa)
  • Saw Palmetto (Serenoa serrulata)
  • Siberian Ginseng (Eleuthrococcus senticosus)
  • Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

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