Tradition Meets Science
Years of traditional knowledge about medicinal plants is now supplemented
by research to create a healing systembridging both worlds.
The year is 1709, and you live on a remote farm in a British North American colony. Your stomach is badly unsettled. You could see a physician, but if you are poor (as most people were then) that really isn’t an option. So you visit the local herbalist, a layperson with a special knowledge of plant-based remedies. That person asks about your specific symptoms: Is your stomach acidic, indicating excess heat? Do you have gas when you eat, indicating dryness? Your answers determine the herb you would receive: angelica in the first case, perhaps, and maybe caraway seed in the second.
The year is 2009, and you live a hectic life in a large American metro area. Your stomach has been giving you fits; you try all the over-the-counter stuff before finally visiting a physician, who orders a number of tests. The news is good, sort of: no infection, no inflammation, nothing physically wrong.
You’ve been given a diagnosis of functional dyspepsia, a fancy way of saying indigestion without an identifiable cause. Still in discomfort, you visit an herbalist. That person respects the traditionalist approach in which whole herbs maintain a place of honor. But he or she is also aware of research in which an herbal formula that employs both angelica and caraway, along with seven other herbs, has helped ease functional dyspepsia. What’s more, the herbalist inquires about what else is going on in your life—and makes recommendations on how to reduce your stress levels, which provides a more lasting basis for relief of your touchy stomach.
The system of herbal medicine that took root in Europe combines knowledge traceable back to the ancient world with local practices. This healing tradition made its way to North America with the first European settlers, where it met the rich plant lore of the Native Americans. Almost lost in the 19th century, herbalism underwent a revival 40 years ago. Today, Western herbal practice is learning how to combine its traditional remedies with studies that support the remarkable healing power of plants.
The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Herbalism
The Greek physician Hippocrates was the first person in Europe to take a non-magical approach to healing. Out of his work grew the idea of four bodily humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm—that had to be in equal proportion for good health. Treatment of sickness meant bringing these humors back into balance, and plants played an important role in that process. Humorism was systemized in the second century AD by Galen, a physician born in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey).
In the 15th century another physician, Paracelsus of Switzerland, was “the first one to advocate chemical medicine,” says Phyllis D. Light, RH (AHG) of the Appalachian Center for Herbal Studies in Arab, Alabama. “Doctors began to distance themselves from plant use.” Thus medicine began to divide into two tracks, one more modern and based on chemicals, the other more traditional and based on plants.
It was the folk herbal tradition that was given new life in America thanks to people such as Samuel Thompson, “the first one to say that Native American herbal knowledge was valid and that we should use it,” says Sheila Kingsbury, ND, RH (AHG), chair of the botanical medicine department at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington. And as traditional herbalism began to die away in its lands of origin, “Americans revived it and brought it back to Europe.”
In the US, though, herbal medicine fell out of favor as conventional medicine gained strength, especially with the formation of the American Medical Association in 1847. Kingsbury explains that the AMA, charged with accrediting medical schools, “only accepted schools of what they called standard training through a university approach.” Other healing systems such as eclectic medicine, based on herbs and physical therapy, were pushed into the background. Some modern herbalists see darker motivations. Matthew Wood, RH (AHG) of Sunnyfield Herb Farm in Maple Plain, Minnesota, believes that because the pharmaceutical industry “wanted to make money off of drugs, they pretty much torpedoed herbs in this country in the 1930s.”
Kingsbury says that plant-based medicine lay dormant until the 1960s when a new wave of herbalists rediscovered the old knowledge. According to Kingsbury, people such as John Christopher, Michael Tierra and Rosemary Gladstar “formed schools and taught the naturopaths,” creating an herb revival that continues to this day.
The Art and Science of Plants
Modern Western herbalism reflects its mixed heritage. “These two separate lineages—folk and medical—have been interacting and influencing each other for centuries and this is still continuing today,” says Christopher Hobbs LAc, RH (AHG), cofounder of the American Herbal Guild.
This interaction is reflected in the amount of research being done on herbs and herbal remedies. “In our undergrad program we cover about 250 herbs, and for every single one of them you could find research within the last 20 to 30 years,” says Kingsbury, who adds that Bastyr itself is doing studies on horse chestnut, St. John’s wort and other herbs. As a result of such investigations, “the quality and standards for herbal medicines today is probably higher,” says Hobbs. “We have more knowledge
about active constituents, stability, absorption, pharmaco-dynamics, toxicology.” Light says, “The herb studies are never as big as some of the others, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good,” adding that because herbs can’t be patented like drugs, there isn’t the money to do research involving thousands and thousands of participants.
Herbal research often validates long-held beliefs by casting remedies in a scientific light. For example, hawthorn has been revered for centuries as a superb cardiac herb. Today we know that hawthorn helps the heart muscle work more efficiently in people with heart failure, justifying traditional healers’ use of this remedy (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 1/23/08).
Science has also affected herbal medicine through standardization. This process is designed to ensure consistency of herbal extracts through careful production practices and by including a mininum amount of an herb’s main active ingredient in each dose.
Herbal Practice Today
Herbalists appreciate conventional medicine’s ability to handle medical crises, such as accidents or heart attacks, and its considerable diagnostic powers—think of the difference between having exploratory surgery versus going for an MRI. But herbalists believe their craft can be more helpful for chronic conditions because of its holistic approach. Conventional medicine, separated into specialties, “views people as a collection of little itty-bitty parts,” says Light. “That would be like me looking at a forest and saying we’re only going to look at the oak tree. As natural healthcare practitioners we have to look at the oak tree in relation to all the other trees and to the forest as a whole.” Herbalists also tend to take more time with patients, offering nutrition and other lifestyle recommendations along with herbal remedies.
Herbal and conventional medicines can also be used together; cancer care is a good example. “In oncology, people sometimes have to dial down chemotherapy because of side effects,” says Guido Masé RH (AHG) of the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism in Montpelier, Vermont. “But if you include herbs and nutrition the person remains strong so the conventional treatment can actually do what it’s supposed to do.”
To find an herbal practitioner you can take the time-honored route of asking friends and family or you can visit the American Herbalists Guild at www.americanherbalistsguild.com. Ask about their training: Where and under whom did you study? For how long? (The AHG isn’t an accrediting institution, but it does provide educational guidelines on its website.) “Ask to come in for an interview,” Light suggests. “You have to be comfortable about where they’re coming from. If they’re not open, honest and friendly, go look someplace else.” She adds that you should be prepared to accept responsibility for your own health: “As a client, you have to make the necessary lifestyle changes—the practitioner can’t make them for you.”
Herbal medicine holds a promise that goes beyond its ability to keep individuals healthy. “Herbalism is part of a philosophy of prevention and wellness,” says Masé. “It could take a lot of the burden off of the conventional medical world.”
|Traditional Use||Modern Research||Notes|
|Helps improve eye circulation and has shown some ability to slow cataract formation; helps strengthen capillaries||Contains antioxidant pigments called anthocyanidins|
|Has helped relieve anxiety
and depression in
menopausal women and
may help ease hot flashes; also used for PMS
|Native American herb adopted and widely used by European settlers|
|Painful or absent periods, promoting breast milk flow||Has eased breast pain; also used for irregular menstrual cycles and PMS||Name derives from use by medieval monks to maintain chastity|
|Spring tonic, blood purifier, kidney and liver disorders||Helps ease indigestion and
acts as a diuretic; some
practitioners use it for
|Young leaves made good salad greens; avoid if you are allergic to ragweed|
|To improve infection resistance and for “impurities of the blood,” such as boils||Evidence suggests it can
reduce the incidence of
colds; may also be effective
against some bacterial infections
Several species are used, including E. angustifolia, pallida and purpurea
|Headaches, arthritis, fevers, menstrual problems||Under investigation as a migraine prevention agent; also used for headaches and arthritis||
Avoid if you are allergic to ragweed
(Crataegus laevigata and
|Cardiac tonic, diuretic
(encouraging urine flow)
|Studies support its use in
congestive heart failure
and edema (swelling of
the lower body); promotes better blood flow and helps lower blood pressure
|Best used under the care of a trained practitioner|
|Fever reduction||Helps ease varicose veins and hemorrhoids by strengthening capillary walls||
Often planted as an ornamental tree
|Used since the time of ancient Greece for liver problems||Still used for liver support; may also reduce oxidation of LDL cholesterol, important in heart health||At one time milk thistle was boiled and eaten like artichokes, which are in the same botanical family|
(Urtica dioica and urens)
|Stimulating tonic, asthma remedy||Has eased urination problems related to benign prostate enlargement in studies; modern herbalists still use nettle to ease asthma and allergy symptoms||The plant’s stinging hairs are deactivated by heat; can be cooked as a nutritious potherb|
|Bringing down fevers||Has shown effectiveness against many bacteria and viruses; enhances overall immunity; also promotes healthy blood pressure and sugar levels||
Available in formulations with andrographis, a Chinese herb, and arabinogalactans, a fiber from the larch tree
|Indigestion, gas, bloating||
Relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract; tea still used for indigestion; enterically-coated oil has helped ease irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in studies
|Use of peppermint oil should be supervised by a practitioner|
|Nervous disorders, memory improvement, upset stomach;
used externally to prevent
|Contains substances that help prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, a brain chemical involved in memory, in addition to powerful antioxidants||Used in the ancient world at weddings as a symbol of fidelity|
|Diuretic and sedative; used
for respiratory ailments
|Inhibits the creation of a form of testosterone linked to prostate enlargement||Often used in formulations with other prostate-support herbs, such as pygeum
|St. John’s Wort
|Hysteria and similar disorders; also used for wounds and for lung and bladder complaints||Helps control depressive symptoms; in studies has prevented depression relapse||Avoid excessive sun exposure; in lieu of prescribed antidepressants, should always be under practitioner supervision|
Anxiety, epilepsy, insomnia, pain
|Best used for insomnia if taken over several days||
Valerian has the same effect on cats (at least some of them) as catnip does