Why I Don’t Like “Herbal Medicine”

heallocal / Herbal Healing / 23 responses

-Dawn Combs

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

  1. Wonderful article! I was at a place not long ago with high cholesterol. I was on a statin drug to bring it down and had been for awhile with ineffectiveness. I decided to consult a naturopathic doctor and discussed it with my regular doctor. Long story short……with a visit to the naturopathic doctor, I learned what foods I SHOULD be eating as opposed to the foods I WAS eating. Within a couple months of eating whole foods along with taking niacin and a lipotropic capsule from the naturopathic doctor (after years of taking a statin drug), my high cholesterol was totally within normal range. I now enjoy a life with whole foods. Yes….I’m human and eat the occasional doughnut (or some other bad food) but am well on my way to a changed lifestyle. I believe that’s how we should train ourselves……no special “fad diet”, but a way of life with our eating. My regular doctor and naturopathic doctor worked together to help make me a healthier person.
    So yes, I agree, there’s a place and time for both. And in this transition I have learned what my body has been trying to tell me all along. We truly need to listen to our bodies.