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Why I Don’t Like “Herbal Medicine”

heallocal / Herbal Healing / 21 responses

If you’ve been reading anything from me for the past several years, it may surprise you to hear that I do not recommend herbal medicine for everyone. This is something that I am particularly passionate about so I ask that you bear with this long post and hear me out.

I have always been a person to whom language matters. “Herbal medicine” is a term that has come to represent just about any kind of application of herbs to health, when in reality it has a pretty specific definition. It’s not for everyone to practice at home! Herbal medicine is practiced by experienced herbal practitioners or very dedicated lay persons. It involves extensive knowledge of body systems and herbal application and nuances in disease approach.

“But Dawn, you’ve always said that herbal health should be available to everyone!” Yes, but let us focus on the word “medicine” to understand my problem here. As we don’t (or shouldn’t) seek “medicine” for a cold, bruise or a headache we don’t need “herbal medicine” to deal with daily health naturally.

I think our societal confusion began when we accepted the notion of “over-the-counter” medication. By the mid-19th century, Americans had come to a consensus that we needed to go to the doctor to discuss a more serious ailment, but what about the day-to-day aches and pains? If Western Medicine could help us with diabetes, then shouldn’t it also help us with a common headache? YES! Over-the-counter gave us the ability to medicalize daily aches and pains giving us access to medicine that didn’t require an experienced practitioner to dispense.

The boundaries of health thus became blurred in such a way that our shared consciousness is dominated by the idea that health and medicine are inextricably intertwined. If we truly value the scientific method, we must admit that this theory is not testing well. The more we tie our health to medicine, the sicker we become.

What’s The Difference?
Everyone should have the knowledge of how to maintain health with the help of the plants that grow right outside their back door or in their neighborhood. They should know how to add these plants to their food, apply them to bruises and burns and tincture them for headaches. But that is NOT HERBAL MEDICINE! It’s simple common sense and a shared cultural heritage that we must value in order to access. It’s the product of a relationship that we are supposed to have with the land and plants where we live.

  • We do not need advanced education or a strong understanding of physiology to apply it.
  • We do not need to feel a spiritual connection to Gaia or call ourselves an “herbalist”. There is no one way or correct way to express this heritage.
  • We do not need “over-the-counter” permission to wield these simple solutions.

The more we doubt ourselves and our abilities to apply common sense at home without the need of medical intervention, the more our laws reflect the need to control every aspect of the body. If we cannot be trusted to know that our headache is due to too much sun and a lack of sleep and requires only a simple herbal tea and rest rather than an MRI, how can be be trusted to make our own reproductive or end-of-life decisions?

Is Western Medicine Evil?
NO! Western medicine, or just plain “medicine”, is necessary sometimes. It is appropriately called medicine because it should be used when we are sick beyond the ordinary or broken.

  • Practitioners of medicine should be respected for the education and experience they have accumulated and conversely they should respect our ability to make decisions for our bodies.
  • They should be afforded the luxury of being wrong, or of not knowing all the answers.
  • They should also be given the time needed to focus on those that are truly sick beyond the ordinary or broken instead of needing to wade through those of us who fill their waiting rooms with common illnesses that should be cared for with our own knowledge and skill.

Is “Herbal Medicine” Ever Appropriate?
YES! Herbal medicine exists and I firmly believe it should be practiced, but it is for those times when someone is sick beyond the ordinary. It, like Western Medicine, should be the exception and not the rule if we’re doing this whole thing correctly.

  • It should be practiced by someone who is willing to do the work, to do the research, to go deeper into their understanding of their own body or the body of others.
  • It often should be practiced in concert with Western Medicine.
  • It can most certainly be practiced by a lay person on themselves, but that person must be willing to do the work!
  • It is not appropriate for anyone who is just looking for an herb or an herbal pill to “take” to make their disease go away. This is not a condemnation of you if you are such a person. Not everyone is interested in going that deep into health issues and that’s ok, but we must know our limits.

The use of plants in dealing with those who are sick beyond the ordinary takes an advanced skill that not everyone has. The average person cannot just read in a blog that a certain herb is good for blood sugar maintenance and take that for a disease cure. That is not how herbs work and the idea that we can “take this for that” is precisely what creates some of the distrust between the medical professional and the professional herbalist. When the body gets into a diseased state, it is never that simple.

What’s The Solution?
In a traditional model of home health care everyone knows the basics of day-to-day self-care. we’ll call this the “routine-care-and-maintenance-of-the-household-human”. This good care is intended to head off the need for medicine, and of course if you get sick beyond the ordinary or you are broken there is always access to someone who is more skilled.

Unfortunately, we have become disconnected from the land, ourselves, our community, our food and the knowledge of how to use all of these things to bring about health. The average adult who realizes this situation and begins to study herbalism often sees through the lens of a medicalized society. It is difficult to see the nuance between daily health maintenance and “herbal medicine”, because our cultural consciousness is structured around the idea that medicine is how we stay healthy.

My argument is similar to the one I often see in the realm organic farming. It seems laughable that we have to call it “organic” when we should just call it “farming”. It is simply good common sense that our ancestors knew about the relation between the land and those who worked it and expected to be fed. Maintaining daily health is not “herbal medicine”. It is just good common sense that should have been passed down from parent to child on “routine-care-and-maintenance-of-the-household-human”. It is only a very special skill now because our ancestral heritage has become so very foreign to us.

So please don’t call what I do everyday for my family “herbal medicine”. It makes me bristle to my marrow. I have simply reclaimed some of the knowledge my ancestors knew about their relationship with the plants in my backyard. These plants grace our table on a daily basis to nourish us, supporting our daily health in a bid to avoid medicine. Yes, in full disclosure, I am someone who has gone deeper in my knowledge of the herbs and feel comfortable dealing with sickness that goes beyond the ordinary. I have balanced my own body in the face of medical diagnosis, but it was HARD WORK, dedication, change and a deft hand at using the right herbs at the right times. I did not simply “take” an herb as medicine, or use something better than what Western Medicine had to offer, and make it all better.

When I need “herbal medicine” or “Western Medicine”, there has been a breakdown in the natural vitality of my body’s systems or those of my family and I am happy for the access to both. Shouldn’t we all strive to avoid “medicine”? Not because it is evil, or it means some sort of failure on our part, but because we are spending our energy being healthy.

Please let me know your thoughts! I am passionate about my ideas, but I am very interested in dialogue.

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21 comment on “Why I Don’t Like “Herbal Medicine”

  1. Thank you, Dawn. I appreciate the way in which you have broken down these ideas into common sense, bit sized portions. I have so appreciated herbal medicine and western medicine at various times in my life, and I agree that when we maintain our bodies in a practical, common sense manner it knows how to keep us in health. I also believe part of that common sense approach is keeping us healthy of mind and spirit as well. Some of those areas can be greatly buoyed by the labor of maintaining our homes, land, bodies, etc as well.

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Marcia. Clearly I believe in the plants, but they don’t do it alone. When we begin to change our mind about what “health” means, uncoupling it from the notion of medicine… then we must also educate on the importance of a holistic approach to said health- body movement, spiritual connection, emotional balance is part of this. Also part of a holistic approach is realizing that we are but one part of the wheel. If we don’t invest in the health of the soil, the water, our community, etc. we will never be truly healthy within ourselves. Thanks so much for continuing the conversation!!!

  2. Hello Dawn
    and thank you for expressing what many people are so unsure about. Health should never be about titles and positions. It just is and yes, so much knowledge from our ancestors is being lost by us not applying that knowledge or passing it on. There is lots of good and valuable information to be remembered. I am always working towards passing
    it forward and my grandmother would be happy to see and hear that all of her teachings will continue. I enjoy your detailed explanations and comparisons and most of all I agree with your statement that staying healthy with natural food and herbs is HARD WORK. Unfortunately some of my friends, although they are convinced of the positive results will not bother exploring healthier choices because it means changing their habits or investing a bit of extra time and patience. Like you I have come to understand that working on staying healthy is not everyone’s priority. I sure will share your blog with many of my friends. Keep them coming.

  3. Hi Dawn! Interesting read. It did come as a bit of surprise coming from you. You have been and are a big advocate of the herbal health approach. I am trying to wrap my head around your message in this article. So let me try to restate some of what you said….
    Are you saying that people have come to use herbs in a similar way as Western medicine, in particular, over-the-counter medicines to treat themselves without adequate understanding of anatomy, physiology or pathology, nor understanding of the herbs themselves? They then get themselves in sicker state.
    You distinguish the use of the word “medicine” as something for diseased or broken state of a person. There is Western medicine and Herbal medicine. Both require extensive study in their field with dedication and humility to serve another human being. There is a place for both types of medicine. And I add, there are other modalities which are also appropriate for different situations.

    So, to understand your point, what has become prevalent is the cookie cutter approach to health, in both Western medicine and Herbal medicine. If you have XYZ symptoms, you take ABC pharmaceuticals or MNO herbs and disregard what you have done to get yourself in that situation in the first place. The emphasis on the ancient wisdom to health is the care of the body and soul as an on-going endeavor by all so you minimize or avoid situations requiring “medicine”. For that, we are conscious of what we eat, we exercise our bodies, we choose what we allow ourselves to occupy our minds with, and we listen to our emotional messages we get from our deep selves, among others.

    And there is the current situation of our lost knowledge of how to take care of ourselves that we are trying to bring back to our awareness.

    I think it is this last point that is causing confusion. This seems to me an ‘aha’ moment during the growing process of awakening our innate wisdom.

    So, I hope I got some of your points…….if not, I’d better reread it again and I will have to ask you for clarification.

    My earlier mention of surprise stems from this confusion that we as a society are trying to remember and relearn the ancient knowledge of how to take care of ourselves. I might be giving us too much credit. I have heard of “Medicine Man” and Medicine Women” in history stories, so I am guessing that there have always been some people who had better healing knowledge than others, whether using herbs, body work, or mental-spiritual work, etc. That means common people were not all capable of keeping themselves healthy all the time. So, to ask us to do so now seems a bit unrealistic.
    In trying to learn how to take care of our bodies (and souls), I, like others, have reached out to whomever is teaching. When we are thirsty for this knowledge, we are also more so than not, are in a state where we need the healing we are seeking to learn. Let me give my example:
    Many years ago, I was thirsty for knowledge and use of herbs to get my body in balance. The Western medicine didn’t give me hardly any options. It seemed like what I was experiencing was too early to be detected by their methods, yet I felt out of energy and struggling. So, when I found Rosemary’s course, I jumped on it. However, in order to get a grasp of how the herbs are used, I felt I needed to have a good anatomy and physiology background, as well as pathology, and even Chinese medicine. While going through the course, I felt stuck between two thoughts: “this is people’s medicine and everyone should know it”, which implied easily understandable, (Why I even thought that, I don’t know…) and “this is very deep and will require a lifetime of empirical study of herbs”, and how can I possibly get it in one year……
    I can listen to Rosemary and feel transported to a place where anything herbal was possible. And, Dawn, you are such an incredible advocate of herbalism that it didn’t take much to take a stand of “stay away from Western Medicine as much as you can.” I didn’t need your or Rosemary’s help to have that view point for I have my own experiences. But, at the same time, Dawn, you also stated there is a place for Western Medicine as well. Figuring out on the fringe, trying to find health and balance for myself without the support of a professional embodying the ideal marriage of Western Medicine, Herbal Medicine and everything in between, I didn’t find the time to be sensitive to terminologies.
    Terminologies have different meanings to everyone, by the nature of our understandings and experiences. So, “herbal medicine”, can mean treating serious illness with a careful regimen of herbs and other modalities, to applying poultices to a poisonous snake bite, to taking a nervine to get some sleep after a stressful day. Our children’s pediatrician once said, “food is medicine”. If a substance has a positive effect on the body, is it medicine? If it has a damaging effect, is it poison? Then what about toxicity is in the dosage? Chamomile taught me not to underestimate the power of gentle medicine. I am leaning on the belief that all foods and herbs are medicine. By having that respect, it made me look at the vegetables or meat that I eat in a totally different light from years ago when food was nothing more than “does it taste good?”
    This is just a dialogue….. In reality, I do forget sometimes what food is to me and reach for what satisfies my cravings at the moment. And sometimes I find myself too tired to prepare what I feel my body needs. My choices in cravings have modified over the years, but, self-balancing is a life-long endeavor.