Except for the last century in industrialized society, both humans and animals have almost exclusively relied on plants for their medicine. In fact, it is instructive that, as wild animals are still known to seek plants that are appropriate treatments for whatever illness may be present, rather than also having access to our pharmaceuticals, animals observed in unpolluted wild areas are still free of chronic disease, even when living all the way to their maximum lifespan. Our veterinary and zoo populations, on the other hand, present a very different picture: cancers, heart disease and epilepsy are seen quite commonly among our well-loved pets, who are subject to a highly processed diet as well as synthetic pharmaceuticals by us, their well-intentioned owners and the pet food industry.
Whether we were created or evolved, we have been so intimately connected to plants for all of our existence as a species that we cannot live without them. We connect with plants and exchange with plants down to our very cells and our smallest molecules. That is why they heal us like nothing else can.
Herbal medicine has captured the fascination of the American public. Even our drugstores and supermarkets now sell such herbs as Saw Palmetto, Echinacea, Feverfew, Siberian ginseng and St. John's Wort. For this reason, herbal medicine has also caught the attention of the conventional medical community, who are trying to quickly learn what it is about plants that have healing properties. We can do as laboratory scientists do and describe a plant's parts molecule by molecule. Or we can do as the ancients and describe the plant as a whole and what it can do for us. Both approaches are after the same thing: an understanding of the healing power of plants, and which plants are healing for which conditions.
Three common questions about herbs:
Q1: What about drug interactions?
You may have heard the alarms from conventional medicine about herbs that "interfere" with pharmaceuticals. Indeed there are a number of plants that affect the speed with which the body processes drugs and toxins. This will affect the dose of the drug to be used by the patient. Often this can be a good thing: if the herb slows down the body's metabolism of a given drug, less of the drug may be needed by the patient, which means less toxicity from that drug for the liver.
Q2: Don't some people have problems with herbs?
There are certain herbs that would not work well for certain people. A relaxing herb, such as California poppy, may be too relaxing for a depressed or fatigued patient, for example. Although California Poppy has many beneficial qualities, it would not be the best choice in this case, and there are many other herbs that would be well indicated.
It is one thing to consult a licensed naturopath, with years of classroom and clinical training in medicinal herbs. It is quite another to read an article about a herb, decide that it is for you, and run down to buy it at the nearest health food store. Your naturopathic physician will consider your complete case history before choosing a herb or combination of herbs to help, because some will be much more appropriately suited to you than others. Fortunately, there are hundreds of herbs at the disposal of the naturopath to help an individual patient with his or her individual case presentation. The naturopathic principle "Treat the whole person" applies in every one of our modalities. Thus when using herbs, as well as any other natural therapy, the naturopath considers all of the patient's symptoms and conditions.
Q3: Aren't some herbs dangerous?
A principle of pharmacology is that every substance is beneficial in one dose and toxic in another dose. Even water is lethal causing fatal electrolyte imbalances if you drink too much too fast. Certainly there are poisonous plants and poisonous parts of otherwise benign plants. Not only does our food supply rely primarily on plants, but also plants form the basis of a large portion of pharmaceuticals on the market. Ephedra is a herb that has made headlines each time that someone, fewer than a dozen individuals reported to date, has ingested that herb prior to some traumatic event. What was not reported, unfortunately, is all of those reported cases also involved alcohol and/or high doses of caffeine and/or prescription drugs, which because of their highly refined nature and often high doses, are almost always more toxic to the body than any plant. Again, it is a matter of what we evolved or were created with. Plants have a symbiotic relationship with human digestion after millennia of use. Plants and humans resonate on levels that are still beyond our comprehension, including biochemical and physiological levels, and some would say spiritual as well. Hippocrates said, "Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food." The plant kingdom does play the major role of all foods in this wonderfully beneficial relationship for us. While we are nearly inseparable from plants (although the 21st century techno-person can get some distance away), we do need to respect and learn from plants. An experienced naturopath can help you determine which plants in which amounts are appropriate for you at a given time.