Mirror, Mirror…

…on the wall,
Which herbal ally shall I call?

I’m hosting a class this Saturday on how to self-assess according to constitutional indicators, energetic patterns and imbalances, and environmental and social factors.

“What does all that mean?”

Well, I’ve learned that many folks have experiences that lead them to believe that herbs don’t really work that well (if at all). As a person who continually sees (and experiences) amazing results in those who are willing to infuse a little herbalism into everyday living, I can’t help but ask the question, “what is going wrong for those folks?”

I’ve been studying herbs for more than 25 years now and during those years I’ve heard all kinds of misconceptions about herbs, their effectiveness, and how they do and don’t work. There are many ways to have disappointing results with herbs. 

When I first started studying herbs I would get a new book and excitedly look up every condition that I was interested in. I developed a quite lengthy catalog of herbal uses in my brain. They were indexed according to illnesses and symptoms and sometimes I would include herbal actions or properties, but really it was easiest to list herbs for a thing… such as, herbs for headaches, herbs for stomaches, herbs for diabetes, herbs for sciatica, herbs for… and so on.

Later I learned that cataloguing herbal uses is great, but not very helpful when dealing with an actual person. Now when someone says “what herbs are good for ________?” My answer is, “Well, it depends.” Because it depends on a lot of things. That list of herbs isn’t very helpful if I don’t know how each herb works. Say a person has a recurring headaches. I can make a long list of herbs for headaches. But if I’m not considering the person’s constitution and energetic patterns, diet, lifestyle, etc. they are likely to have little improvement or the headaches might even worsen. 


As an example, I had a client who was having several headaches a week for 12 years and nothing helped. I asked what happened 12 years ago and was told that was the year of a new job and marriage. Diet and exercise were pretty good, so I turned to the standard herb for headaches, feverfew. The tincture took the edge off the headaches, but it didn’t resolve them. Was the root of the problem in the workplace, perhaps an occupational exposure, or maybe a difficult boss? Or perhaps it was in the marriage? Hm…

Here are some other ways that herbs might not work:

Herbs are contraindicated for the person’s constitution. In Western Folk Herbalism, there are three major body types. Imagine the three bears. Thick, Middle, and Thin. I love this depiction because it also shows two aspects of constitution that we know as the apple (father bear) and the pear( mother bear). For example, thin, pale bears who take herbs to detox are draining themselves and possibly worsening their symptoms. Pear bears are more likely to have congestion in their lower belly and hips, while apple bears are more likely to have congestion in their chest and upper belly. Each bear needs different herbs to balance their particular bodies.

Herbs are matched to symptoms, diseases, diagnoses, or other conditions. It is more effective to match herbs to a person. Herbs should primarily be considered according to how they work, their properties and actions, instead of whether they have been used for a particular condition, diagnosis, disease, or symptom. Not to say that the historical and current uses aren’t relevant. For instance, it may help to know that an herb is used for something like arthritis, but if the person has dry, creaky joints many of the bitter blood purifiers used for arthritis may actually make this person feel worse.

Lake Erie

Herbs energetically or environmentally worsen a problem. Energetics in herbs refers to temperature and humidity. Say I lived in Arizona and gave a person with a dry pattern some drying herbs. That person probably won’t take those herbs for more than a day or two. Here on the edge of the Great Lake of Erie, high humidity contributes to dampness in the body. We breathe heavy water-laden air on most summer days. So if we eat too many damp foods and herbs during summer we will easily put on weight, much of it water weight.

Expectations of the herbs are inappropriate. Some folks think they should use a particular herb for the rest of their lives because drugs are often prescribed as a lifetime change. Some herbs should only be used short term. Other herbs should be part of our daily living to be most effective. These herbs are the kind that you find in traditional cuisines, sushi comes with ginger and wasabi, Mediterranean foods come with basil, oregano, and rosemary.  How do you know whether an herb should be used long-term or short-term? Do a lot of research or ask a competent herbalist.

Herbs are used to replace a drug. This is another aspect of having inappropriate expectations with herbs, and can be really dangerous for many reasons. The drug may be necessary to extend a person’s life or maintain a bodily function. The drug may also have the potential to interact with herbs (or even certain foods). The drug may be have significant side-effects. Sometimes people successfully get off drugs, but usually they made significant dietary and lifestyle changes along with using herbs. Do a lot of research, ask your doctor, and ask a competent herbalist before mixing drugs and herbs. Herbal safety is a field of its own considering the range of results in which we can subtly worsen energetic patterns to potential interactions with drugs and supplements. Drugs are very powerful and can lead to powerful interactions on their own – in fact there are many more adverse drug reactions reported annually than there are adverse supplement reactions (which are usually related to diet and performance supplements not herbs). More on herb safety in the future.

Herbs are expected to work the same way as a constituent of the herb. For example, a person might use willow bark instead of aspirin and have different results. Willow bark tea is a much more complex remedy because it contains lots of chemicals with different effects. This complex interaction of chemicals is simply not going to have the same effect as aspirin, which is a single chemical with a much more direct and potent effect.

Herbs are used to stop a problem, but the cause of the problem persists. Herbs work best if they are matched to constitutional and energetic needs and then combined with a healthy diet (including enough water), adequate physical and mental activity, social support, and so on. Taking a pill (herbal or otherwise) isn’t going to stop the effects of eating a food allergen or a taking NSAIDs or aspirin long-term or not exercising, and so on. The herb may suppress side effects or mitigate symptoms, but suppression may deepen the problem.

So back to this Saturday, bring a mirror (or a friend) so that you can learn to look for constitutional indicators and energetic patterns. The class is called Herbs for YOU: Tools for Self-Assessment. Sign up here or contact me if you don’t wish to pay online.

If you can’t make it to this class but want to learn more, contact me about organizing a class in your area, signing up for an upcoming online version of the class, or a personal consultation (online or in-person). Group consultations also available.

Inside a pop-up herb tent I set up for classes.