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Herbs vs. Allopathy: A Brief PSA

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

I live in two very different worlds. Ten years ago, I started my training as an herbalist and started working in nutrition and food activism. The first education I had in any sort of medicine was as a folk healer. It was a different thing than the medicine I had come to know from my (brilliant) physician father, or practitioners I had seen, or what I knew of medicine from the mainstream. It took a great amount of “unlearning”, so to speak, before I could start using plants as medicine properly. When I first started out, I was guilty of what most newcomers to traditional Western herbalism are guilty of:

“What herb do I use for this?”

Which brings me to my other world – the one I unlearned during my training in plant medicine – the one that I relearned during my time as an RN, an of course now as a nurse practitioner. In allopathic medicine (that’s another word for our modern medical way of thinking), we absolutely use a “take this for that” system. It’s what most of us learn about medicine, whether its from TV ads, doctor visits, pharmaceutical influences, research, the list goes on and on. Take this for that! And that’s the way pills work, and honestly, theres nothing wrong with that. For allopathic medicine, that system works. Through extensive isolation of certain compounds to treat certain symptoms or causes, our culture has made it easy to come up with a “one size fits all” medication for everyone (whether or not it actually works that way).

And like I said, this works for allopathic medicine. It really does. Because that’s the system that makes modern medicine work. It fosters it, holds it – it makes sense for what we want out of our medical system and the treatments that come out of it. So that’s all good.

Whats not all good, is when we try to apply that to the world of folk herbalism.

When we look for “this for that” solutions from plants.

When we try to force traditional Western herbalism into a system it doesn’t fit into.

You see, the allopathic medicine, with its research and evidence based take on health, comes from a place of treatment. We treat disease. We treat symptoms. We do our best to minimize the impact of disease on the person by minimizing the way it shows up on measurable data and in symptomology. And if we can do that, then we have done our job. Herbal medicine focuses on cure. The Western herbal tradition, my herbal tradition, is founded on Vitalism – the idea that we are fueled by a vital force and that disease results from an imbalance in that force, an obstacle to cure. Our job as practitioners is to rebalance the system and remove those obstacles, so the body can heal itself. It’s not a “this for that system”, and its not a “one size fits all” situation: each patient’s constitution is different and therefore different needs, even if the symptoms are the same.

So why do I mention all this. Because (soapbox moment) there are some integrative practitioners out there, trained as allopathic practitioners, who want to use herbs as if they were pills in a pill box. They prescribe an herb for a symptom or for a disease process without considering whether that is the right plant for that individual person and just as importantly, whether that particular formulation is appropriate for the situation. And these folks are well-meaning, usually wanting to use herbs as a substitute for strong pharmaceuticals. But when used in this way, there is no difference between an herb and pharmaceuticals in term of potential harm and misuse. Because not only do herbs not work like this, but they can hurt patients when used incorrectly, just like a medication can.

Here’s some examples of what I mean:

*multiple cold bitters like dandelion and burdock being used to stimulate digestion in someone with liver stagnation and low digestive fire, thereby worsening both conditions

*turmeric being used in place of Ibprofen for inflammation, ignoring that turmeric has similar effects on the gut lining as NSAIDS

*Adaptogens (gingseng, ginkgo, etc.) given to people with “adrenal fatigue” because they are reported to increase energy, with no awareness that this only occurs through the further depletion of energy stores

*Not asking about food, stress, sleep, etc. – herbs don’t work when that stuff is left unaddressed.

This is just a small list with some recent examples. I think its great that more and more doctors want to use plant medicine in their practices, but it needs to be done with awareness and responsibility. Awareness that herbal medicine doesn’t function the same way allopathic medicine does, that you cant just treat symptoms or the disease and you can’t assume one plant will work the same way for everyone. Responsibility that more is not necessarily better, and treating the cause is the only way to offer herbal care. And please stop giving everyone capsules of things from big nutraceutical companies. Support your local herbalists who actually know the proper way to make medicine from plants according to proper traditions.

Medical practitioners interested in using herbs in their practice should seek out training in a given plant medicine tradition from the source, from local herbalists working in their communities. Furthermore, Chinese medicine is not the same as Western herbalism which is not the same is Ayurveda which is not the same a etc…just because you are familiar one doesn’t mean that knowledge carries into the way herbs work in a different tradition.

If you are interested in using herbs in your health care, I would strongly advise that you consult a practitioner who knows the plants, has a relationship with them and does not seek to stop at alleviating symptoms and “undoing” disease. Keep in mind that if you are looking for medicine to work in that way, pills might be a better option than plants. You will be disappointed by a formula if you are looking to use it in place of real, lasting change. Herbal medicine is a very special, very precious practice – its worth it to use it properly.

Anyway, thanks everyone for allowing me to get that off my chest – please please ask any questions, and if you are a practitioner looking for training in the use of plants, I have recommendations for you! Thanks for stopping by!

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