Updated: Jan 10
In order to answer to this question, we first need to talk about what an herbalist does and how herbal medicines differ from pharmaceutical drugs.
Herbalists use herbs to address different kinds of conditions, injuries, ailments, and imbalances in the body. What herbalists bring to the table that is often missing in our modern medicine is a determination to find the root cause of the imbalance in the body leading to said condition or dis-ease, which is especially useful when it comes to chronic conditions. They use a big picture approach, viewing the body as a whole and determining where it seems the source of the imbalance lies. They perform a clinical exam and thorough health history and then make personalized recommendations based on what the client is experiencing, their overall bodily constitution, and the sources of the imbalance leading to the condition the client is experiencing.
Herbal medicine is the original medicine, the People's Medicine, with thousands of years of evidence of its effectiveness, being used all the way back to Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine himself, and beyond. It remained the most widely used form of medicine until the late 19th century when the American Medical Association was coming into its own and eventually its board, comprised almost solely of pharmaceutical representatives at the time, began a campaign to discredit and destroy this ancient practice. Perhaps they really thought they were doing the right thing, as there were people selling false remedies and such at the time, but I think the real answer to why this happened is more nuanced than that. This is perhaps a subject for another post entirely, as there is a lot to say about this that is not necessary to say here. Needless to say, some reform was needed, but this reform was used as an opportunity to remove access to holistic and herbal medicines entirely with the added benefit of maximizing profits.
However, the burgeoning pharmaceutical industry was fully aware of the healing medicinal powers of plants. At first, the vast majority of pharmaceutical medications were based on isolated plant constituents, or as the industry referred to them, "purified plant medicines". The US Patent Office used to hold the position that you cannot patent living things. Since patenting plant medicines was not an option, and patents lead to uncontested income, these companies set about isolating what they felt were the most active constituents in many effective plant medicines and then forming patentable pharmaceutical medications based on those constituents alone. This was done in the interest of "purifying" these whole plant medicines, and I think that many scientists doing this work believed they were doing what was best for those needing the medicines those plants provided. In the industry's focus on finding ways to use plants to generating profits, they failed to recognize that there are many other valuable constituents in each plant that were being completely discarded in this isolation process.
These constituents are what help to make plants balanced medicines in the body, and their absence in pharmaceutical medications can often lead to an unbalanced medicine with side effects. In most cases, herbal medicines have fewer and milder side effects than their pharmaceutical counterparts. Not only that, but herbs are often far more affordable and accessible as well.
That all being said, nothing is purely black and white. Pharmaceutical medications certainly have their place and there are some that accomplish things that herbs cannot, and they can do so with precision. The trick is in knowing what you truly need pharmaceutically, what you might be able to heal your body out of taking eventually, and what you just might not need at all. An integrative approach, using the best of both worlds, is the ideal path towards achieving optimal health.
Pharmaceutical drugs can be invaluable in a crisis, such as in a hypertensive crisis where the blood pressure needs to be brought back into a more normal range immediately. Modern medicine typically diagnoses the patient who had the hypertensive crisis with hypertension, and then they are put on a drug to control their blood pressure. often with no end in sight.
Hypertension itself, however, is not really a diagnosis... it is a symptom. It is a signal that there is some other issue in the body which has led to the hypertension. Modern medicine does little to nothing to address this except to tell people to change their diet and exercise more, which does help, but there is so much more that can be done to support such a patient and help them guide their body back into balance. This is where herbal medicines can help to right the ship, so to speak. Addressing chronic conditions takes more time than the quick fix people are accustomed to with pharmaceutical drugs, but this process provides a deeper and more lasting level of healing. As the cause of the hypertension is addressed, eventually the hypertension will diminish.
There is no denying the intelligence of nature. The way plants survive and grow encapsulate eons of knowledge about resiliency and how to deal with certain environmental conditions. There have been studies over recent years that demonstrate how our DNA is in constant communication with the DNA of every living thing around us through emitting and receiving biophotons. When we enter into a relationship with any given plant while using it as a medicine, its DNA and its many constituents communicate this acquired knowledge to our own DNA. In this way, whole plant medicines can help our body to better deal with conditions similar to those that the plant has learned to overcome throughout the ages.
Are Herbs Useful for Both Chronic and Acute Conditions?
Yes! But it depends on what exactly you are experiencing. There are certain acute situations where you just need higher care STAT, like with a stroke, myocardial infarction, or a rattlesnake bite, etc. There are also many acute conditions that can really benefit from the use of herbal medicines, such as acute respiratory infections, sprained ankles, lacerations, and many more.
A great example of how herbs can really make a difference in an acute infection is with an upper respiratory infection, like a sinus infection. You can deliver herbal medicines directly to the affected mucous membranes using a nebulizer or neti pot, as opposed to taking a pill orally and then hoping that the medicine affects those tissues through the bloodstream. Often over the counter pills simply address the symptoms but don't necessarily support the tissues in the process of healing the way that herbal medicines do. Speaking from personal experience with acute and chronic sinus infections, nothing has made as much of a difference in the speed of recovery and healing as delivering herbs to the sinus cavities in these ways.
When it comes to chronic conditions, herbal medicines and practitioners really shine, as they focus on and address the imbalances that led to the chronic conditions in the first place instead of just attempting to manage the symptoms. Our bodies were designed to heal, and herbs have been used to facilitate this process for a very long time. It is important to remember that chronic conditions don't show up overnight, and they wont go away overnight either. It can take some time to see results as the body is brought back into a state of balance.
Why Consult With an Herbalist Anyways?
It is very easy in our modern world of smartphones, tablets and information at the end of our fingertips to fall into the misconception that we can just surf the intarwebs to find all of the answers on our own when it comes to dealing with health issues. This can be possible for some individuals in certain situations, but a trained herbalist's knowledge and experience cannot be undervalued when it comes to your health. There is a lot of incomplete and incorrect information out there when it comes to herbal medicines, and unfortunately that contributes to hesitancy when it comes to the use of herbal medicine.
Herbalists spend years studying these subjects and going through clinical training to be able to hone in on how to deal with certain conditions. They learn how to evaluate each individual's situation in order to determine which herbs will work best for them. What may work for one person may not work for another and could, in some cases, cause more damage depending on the big picture of that individual's situation and status. Our bodies are all so incredibly unique and should be treated as such.
When we are dealing with a health crisis, it can feel overwhelming to try to figure it all out on our own. When overwhelm hits, it is useful to consult with a trained professional who can view the situation with a clear head and as little bias as possible. We work together to determine what will be feasible as far as recommendations go, and that leaves the ultimate agency over the client's health in their own hands.
As with all medicines, certain herbal medicines can have side effects in some people, though as mentioned before they are often more mild. It is good to have a practitioner in your corner to help determine if you are experiencing these adverse reactions and also to determine what herbs will work around any medications you are taking. Some herbs and pharmaceutical pairings can have either heightened or diminished effects when combined as well.
I recommend informing any primary care practitioners that you are working with herbal medicines so that they can monitor your progress as well as your safety. The process of weaning off of certain pharmaceutical medications is one that should be monitored, so collaboration between your herbalist and your physician whenever possible is ideal and truly allows for a deeper experience of healing than only taking pharmaceutical drugs to manage symptoms.
Sourcing of herbal medicines is still of the utmost importance, as it is with any other supplement, to be sure you are getting clean and quality plant material that is correctly labeled. There are enough companies out there with subpar, contaminated, or diluted products that often come without proper dosing instructions that it makes it difficult for consumers to reliably purchase high quality products and use them properly. This is another area where an experienced herbalist can be of use, helping to steer their clients towards reliable and safe medicines. I used to work in an analytical laboratory where we tested supplements for contamination, so I have a good bit more to share around this topic, but I will write about it at a later time.
Ready to Take the Next Step Towards Taking Control of Your Health?
If you are curious about how herbal medicine may be able to help you on your own path towards health and well being, reach out with any questions you might have or to set up a discovery call to determine if it is the right fit for you.
References: I am including this reference mainly for the list of studies it links to around the discussion of biophotons and DNA, which is extensive. It references many of the studies that I found in my own research, and it is an interesting read as well!