By Anne Salazar
Herbal Medicine is the art and science of working with medicinal plants to bring about healing in the body.
Medicinal plants can be used to both support and maintain wellness, as well as to heal from an acute or chronic illness or health issue. Herbal medicine can be as simple as drinking herbal tea to cure a stomach ache, or as complex as a custom formula taken over a long period to address hormonal dysfunction. At Remedy, our specialty is using herbal medicine in the context of the modern medical system. This might mean as an alternative to medications or in conjunction with pharmaceuticals; as a way to wean or balance someone who otherwise requires medications.
Plants and Pharmaceuticals
On a purely physical level, plants contain a myriad of chemical compounds that work synergistically with one another. When we consume plants, we absorb these various constituents, and they have different effects on the body. We describe these effects as ‘herbal actions’, some of which are even used in the pharmaceutical industry today, and some of which are still exclusive to herbs. This biochemical model for working with medicinal herbs is extremely valuable and is actually how many pharmaceuticals are made. A plant will exert a specific effect on the body, and researchers will then try to isolate what chemical compound elicited that physiological response. Once they do, a synthetic version of this compound is manufactured and sold as a pharmaceutical drug. A well-known example is aspirin. Willow bark was used as a traditional herbal medicine for pain and fever for more than 3500 years, unknown to the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians who made use of it, the active agent within willow bark was salicin, which would later form the basis of the discovery of aspirin.
Herbalists around the world will tell you that herbal medicine is more than this simple chemical model. You may have heard of the entourage effect (synergistic effect), which contrasts isolationism which was described above in the aspirin example. Modern medicine values the isolation of one unique medicinal compound while many herbalists find value in the synergism that is found between all of the medicinal components found in a plant. While isolation of a medicinal compound allows for more concentrated effects if often comes with the opportunity to create more imbalance. These imbalances could be viewed as the ‘side effects’ of strong isolated pharmaceutical compounds. In addition to synergism, you of course have the entire concept of energetics and intention. Interacting with the plants themselves, whether while foraging or growing them in your garden, is an enriching experience and many an herbalist will attribute the positive healing aspects of plants to this practice. We encourage you to pick one or two herbs and dig in yourself!
Cultural and Geographical Context
For many of us here in the states, herbal medicine is a foreign concept - but this is unique as the majority of the world’s population still relies upon herbal medicine as their primary form of healthcare. It is crucial to consider this as it highlights the level of privilege we experience here - where we have access to both vitality-promoting herbal medicine as well as modern life-saving medicine.
Herbal medicine has a long-standing history in every culture across the globe. If you do a little research, you will find that your own culture does too! It can be deeply enriching to learn what herbs your ancestors used. Herbalism has developed many different traditions and lineages, that originally were based upon which plants grew where people lived.
The three schools or lineages of herbal medicine that you are most likely to hear about are Western, Ayurvedic, and Chinese herbalism. Each of these traditions has valuable practices, systems, and theories on which they are based - and they all have many different subsets. Western herbalism is the most common here in the states, and it varies widely based upon who is practicing and where they studied throughout their career.
A great local example of an herb used in Western Herbalism is that of the use of California Poppy (our state flower no less!). When consumed, the aerial parts (leaves, flowers, stems, seeds) of this plant act as both an analgesic and a sedative. The term analgesic refers to its ability to relieve pain, while the term sedative refers to its ability to calm the nervous system and promote sleepiness.Interested in learning more? At Remedy we have Ayurvedic, TCM and Western herbal products available, however, we specialize more in Western Herbalism and our herbalists mostly incorporate western herbs when making custom blends as part of our private herbalist consultations. Come in and chat with us or book a private consultation with one of our herbalists today. Remember we offer both in-person and online consultations.