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Why Use Herbs

People often ask me why I use herbs as part of my healing repertoire. My flippant, off-hand answer comes out as, “but why not?” My more expansive answer elicits fewer smirks and takes more time to explain.

As long as humans have been a part of the social strata of this Earth, we have used whatever we had around us to heal our community. Even animals have been observed to eat specific plants when they are ill. Herbs have been used by themselves and with other types of healing methods. They are burned, eaten, placed topically, infused and decocted. They can be used to affect the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual being. They can bring forth strong and gentle healing as well as violent death when used inappropriately.

I often find myself in discussions with medical doctors and other suspicious-yet-usually-interested folk about the use of herbs, and inevitably the same questions arise.

Just how is it that I can feel comfortable giving herbs to my patients when there have been few if any studies on the active constituents of the ingredients in the formula? This is a great question that shows people are becoming more active in their health care and have done some precursory research themselves. The first answer is one that uses modern pharmaceutical research as a rebuttal: many pharmaceutical drugs are used in ways that have not been studied, and many of the uses of drugs were discovered as side effects for which researchers still do not understand the distinct method of action. Another answer is that though many herbs have not been put through the obstacle course of modern tests and trials, they have the advantage of hundreds of years of use and study. These clinical anecdotes come from observations using the whole plant and/or formulas, so the exact active constituents are unknown. Often, when an herb is thoroughly tested for efficacy, scientists isolate what they think the active constituent of the herb is and they find that the isolated active ingredient is shown to be weakly active, toxic, or turns out to be totally ineffective. Does this mean the herb is useless as a medicine even though herbalists have used it effectively for hundreds of years? Most likely, the observed effectiveness is due to the combined activity of all the constituents of the plant, active and inactive alike. Herbs are also most effective when prescribed precisely and appropriately.

Because modern pharmaceuticals are so strong, how can I think of using herbs, which are reportedly a weaker medicine and not guaranteed to act? This is a multi-faceted question that contains within it some misconceptions. Drugs are strong, indeed, but often cover up symptoms that are actually a clue to the cause of the patient’s condition. Also, their strength is very narrowly defined, acting only, for example, to kill one type of bacteria or repair one enzymatic process. In principle, herbs are prescribed to build a person’s strength and vitality so their body can regain its own balance. When prescribed for an acute bacterial infection, herbs can multitask by killing the unwanted microbials while preserving the beneficial bacteria and nourishing the body. When prescribed according to each individual constitution, herbs can be a more complete medicine than drugs, and can bring a person back into balance quite easily.

Individualized formulation is indeed a strength associated with herbs. No one person ever presents with quite the same condition and symptoms, so most herbal formulations reflect the minor differences of the patient. This individualized prescribing, along with the specific coordination of herbal constituents combines to produce virtually no side effects which commonly afflict those taking pharmaceuticals. At the same time, this method of prescribing does not fit well into the Western scientific method making it challenging for an herbal practitioner to prove the efficacy of herbs.

When properly utilized, herbs are extremely helpful for both chronic and acute conditions. While the price of drugs keeps rising, and their effectiveness revealed to be questionable, many more people are looking to the value of herbs as a successful healing method.