There are many reasons people turn to herbs for wellness support. Some simply prefer a more natural approach to what they put in their body, while others are being told by their doctors that they need medication (all of which have horrible side effects) for certain health conditions and want to see if they can make herbs work first.
The herbal industry is a powerful one indeed and growing exponentially. Americans are spending tens of billions of dollars on natural supplements each year. The Journal of the American Medical Association (J.A.M.A.) released an issued devoted entirely to the studies of herbs and alternative remedies. Among the fascinating findings was that Americans today make more visits to nontraditional practitioners, many of which claim expertise in herbs along with other natural therapies. And they spend almost as much out of pocket on alternative medicine (most of which are expensive pills). I’m going to assume these alternative practitioners are prescribing herbal remedies with good intentions, but where does their knowledge of herbs come from? Their text books? Industry influence? Or from true herbal experts that have actually formed a relationship with each herb and their connection to humans?
I have a question for you…which provides you more nutritional value – a packaged processed food or a whole food? Duh! You know the correct answer. So, which do you think provides more healing constituents – a processed plant that is powdered and plunked into a capsule OR a whole herb prepared with love and respect by YOU? Moreover, do you think it would be wise to combine Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft in one massive dosage? More is better right? I’m guessing you would not consider this. Yet, many of the herbal remedies sold to us by practitioners and health food stores contain multiple herbs in one pill. With my knowledge, in my opinion, we are being sold to by a greedy industry with marketing ploys that play upon the American notion of more, more, more! And, many of the herbs being packaged can actually have side effects.
So, let’s get some clarity here. The following are guidelines set forth by Susan Weed. First, it is wise to know that herbs fall into four basic categories: Nourishing, Tonifying, Stimulating and Potentially Poisonous. Second, you need to make sure you have the right herb and that it is grown and harvested properly. If you are gong to grow them yourself, I highly recommend you study with an expert such as Susan Weed. Or, if you prefer to purchase, make sure you have a reputable source such as Mountain Rose Herbs.
Working with “simples” (one herb at a time) is the best way to work with herbs. It ensures optimal safety and allows you to understand how each herb works with your body. My only exception is peppermint. I often add peppermint to my infusions to enhance flavor. According to Susan Weed, “The more herbs there are in a formula, the more likelihood there is of unwanted side-effects. Understandably, the public seeks combinations, hoping to get more for less. And many mistakenly believe that herbs must be used together to be effective (probably because potentially poisonous herbs are often combined with protective herbs to mitigate the damage they cause). But combining herbs with the same properties, such as goldenseal and echinacea, is counter-productive and more likely to cause trouble than a simple. A simple tincture of echinacea is more effective than any combination and much safer.”
”Different people have different reactions to substances, whether drugs, foods, or herbs” cautions Susan. “When herbs are mixed together in a formula and someone taking it has distressing side effects, there is no way to determine which herb is the cause. With simples, it’s easy to tell which herb is doing what. If there’s an adverse reaction, other herbs with similar properties can be tried. Limiting the number of herbs used in any one day (to no more than four) offers added protection.”
So let’s break down the different categories of herbs, and what common ones fit into what category. We will start with Nourishing herbs as they are the safest of all herbs and side effects are rare. They are often used as foods and can be taken every day for any length of time. According to Ms. Weed, nourishing herbs provide high levels of proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, carotenes, and essential fatty acids.
Nourishing herbs work best as food or in infusions like my favorite, Stinging Nettle infusion.
Tonifying herbs have a cumulative effect on the body and are slow acting. Side effects can occur but are typically short-term. Tonifying herbs are best used in small quantities for extended periods of time, but not indefinitely like the nourishing herbs. The bitterness of an herb is an indication of its strength and demands respect. Therefore, the more bitter a tonic, the less you need. Mother Nature is so clever. Likewise, bland tonics can be used more freely.
Tonifying herbs build the strength in specific areas of the body like an organ or the immune system. Examples of tonifying herbs are: barberry bark, burdock root/seeds, chaste tree, crone(mug)wort, dandelion root, echinacea, elecampane, fennel, garlic, ginkgo, ginseng, ground ivy, hawthorn berries, horsetail, lady’s mantle, lemon balm, milk thistle seeds, motherwort, mullein, pau d’arco, raspberry leaves, schisandra berries, St. Joan’s wort, turmeric root, usnea, wild yam, and yellow dock. Tonifying herbs often work best in tincture form. You can add a few drops in water or take straight, depending on the taste.
The next category of herb is Sedating and Stimulating herbs which can cause a variety of swift reactions, some of which may be unwanted as some parts of the body might “stress” in order to help other parts. I once took an entire dropper full of valerian root. I misread the directions, which stated only a few drops – YIKES! Yes I slept incredibly well but was in a daze until noon the next day. These are herbs to be respected and well understood.
Here is what Susan Weed has to say about these powerful allies; “Strong sedatives and stimulants, whether herbs or drugs, push us outside our normal ranges of activity and may cause strong side effects. If we rely on them and then try to function without them, we wind up more agitated (or depressed) than before we began. Habitual use of strong sedatives and stimulants-whether opium, rhubarb root, cayenne, or coffee-leads to loss of tone, impairment of functioning, and even physical dependency. The stronger the herb, the more moderate the dose needs to be, and the shorter the duration of its use.”
Herbs that tonify and nourish while sedating/stimulating are much easier on the body and can be used more freely, as they do not cause dependency. Sedating/stimulating herbs that also tonify or nourish are boneset, catnip, citrus peel, cleavers, ginger, hops, lavender, marjoram, motherwort, oatstraw, passion flower, peppermint, rosemary, sage, skullcap.
Strongly sedating/stimulating herbs include: angelica, black pepper, blessed thistle root, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coffee, licorice, opium poppy, osha root, shepherd’s purse, sweet woodruff, turkey rhubarb root, uva ursu leaves, valerian root, wild lettuce sap, willow bark, and wintergreen leaves.
Lastly I want to give a brief mention to some potentially poisonous herbs. Some may surprise you. Again, we must remember that each herb is going to have a different relationship with each individual. I seriously recommend extreme wisdom when venturing into the realm of potentially poisonous herbs. It would probably be best to work with an extremely wise and experienced herbalist before using. Susan Weed happens to have a wonderful website with lots of resources along with a chat forum that her students frequent to answer questions.
Potential poisonous herbs are strong, potent medicines that are taken in small amounts and only for as long as needed. Side effects are common. Examples of potentially poisonous herbs are: belladonna, blood-root, celandine, chaparral, foxglove, goldenseal, henbane, iris root, Jimson weed, lobelia, May apple (American mandrake), mistletoe, poke root, poison hemlock, stillingia root, turkey corn root, wild cucumber root.
I have personally worked with several herbs discussed in the various categories, and always one at a time. My favorite nourishing herb is Stinging Nettle. I’ve also worked with Raspberry leaves, Red Clover blossoms, Peppermint, Chaste Tree Berry, Shepard’s Purse, Dandelion, and Valerian Root. In fact they are all a part of my herbal pantry. The results have been incredible, but it is also combined with the right diet for me along with daily exercise, limited toxin exposure and fostering a positive mind set. Herbs are not magic bullets and don’t work in and of themselves necessarily, they are allies upon our wellness path.
It was a health crisis that caused me to turn to herbal wisdom. I do not have health insurance, could not afford conventional medicine at the time, and even if I could, I don’t think I would have taken that route. The physical healing following my pregnancy loss was intense. I bled for a month straight and became horrifically anemic, weak and depleted. The Shepard’s purse finally got the bleeding to stop. The Nettle nourished me with iron and all the vitamins my body needed. The Red Raspberry leaf helped to heal and tone my uterus back to normal. My hormones were out of whack prior to getting pregnant, and they needed further balancing afterwards. The Chaste Tree Berry helped with that and I took it for a full year. The Red Clover blossoms are absolutely delicious and have a phytoestrogenic effect which helped bring further balance, but I only drank the infusion for a very brief time. Dandelion is a great liver ally. The liver is responsible for breaking down and processing all excess hormones for elimination, so supporting it is important. But that too only needed a short time. I use Valerian root on the rare occasion that I cannot sleep. That was a far more common occurrence when my hormones where out of whack, but now that they are in harmony, sleep is not usually an issue. And of course, I add peppermint to all my infusions because it tastes good. I’ve also smoked it on occasion as it is a great healing ally for the lungs…and no it doesn’t get you high.
With all this incredible wisdom I know you are empowered and supported to work with herbs as nature intended. And here is the best news of all…when we simply buy the whole herb in bulk to make infusions, or even as a tincture, it is so affordable. You could even grow and harvest your own favorite allies. As Susan Weed says “Herbal medicine is people’s medicine. Herbal medicine is the primary medicine of most people on this planet, right now. It’s not something old and dusty. It’s not a bunch of doctors and chemists figuring out how to use herbs like drugs. Herbal medicine is a 3-year-old picking plantain and putting it on a skinned knee or an insect bite. Herbal medicine is the medicine of women and children. It is the medicine of the earth. It’s medicine that’s free. It’s not something that must be studied before it can help you. Start with one plant. Approach herbal medicine directly, hands on, in the back yard with your children.”
In Rhythm & Harmony,