What is Herbalism?


For me, herbalism is everything. It affects everything I do. The way I walk in the world; the way I relate to people. I can be walking streets in an inner city, and I’ll be identifying the weeds growing out of the cracks in the pavement. Weeding the garden is complicated. A weed is an unwanted plant. Well, there are so few unwanted plants in my mind, how do I choose what goes into the kitchen or medicine cabinet or feeds the chickens or is returned to the earth in the compost? It’s satisfying to walk through forests, fields, even deserts and recognize the plants. It’s even more satisfying to know how to use them. And quite exhilarating to find plants I’ve never met before and wonder what magic they hold.

Simply put, herbalism is the use of plants to nourish and heal. There are endless ways to do this. You might already know that every herbalist does things differently depending on their training, education, and how they relate to plants.

Why is it that traditional approaches persist despite scientific advances?
The best answer I can come up with is that they are satisfying. Herbalism is about nourishment and healing on individual and community levels. Plants affect body, mind, and spirit. Herbs enhance cooking; increasing the diversity of diet. Herbalism empowers people to learn about the plants in their backyards. It gets people out into nature and sometimes gets their hands dirty. And we know that both of these things improve physical and mental health by exposing us to clean air, beauty, and beneficial bacteria. For those who have forgotten, herbalism reminds us of our deep connection to our ancestors and their ways of living.

To define herbalism first, consider at least three general perspectives on medicine and healing: traditional/folk, heroic, and scientific. Herbalism stretches across all three perspectives. As more people turn to natural therapies, the medical model is finding ways to incorporate herbs, energy therapies, and healing touch. Many herbalists and traditional healers throughout the world use heroic approaches, such as cupping, fasting and purging. And, interestingly, some of those same people are reading scientific journals that take a reductionist approach to herbs, breaking them down into active parts. Please take these generalizations as a loose guide rather than concrete definitions.


Three Major Perspectives on Medicine and Healing


Traditional/Folk Heroic Scientific
Approach Holistic (considers individual, social environmental, etc.) Heroic means “one that endangers life” – body is inherently impure; disease is caused by impurities Mechanical (when disease or dysfunction occurs a chemical or part is inserted or removed from the body)
Focus Maintaining wellness, disease prevention, restoring balance Removing impurities Treating diagnosis or disease
Assessment Techniques


Listening to understand relationship between individual, elements, tissue states, taste, color, directions, emotions, energetics Disease is categorized by the Four Humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) Reductionist – seeks diagnosis based on symptoms, lab tests, scans; seeks the active principle in a medicine, often plant-based to isolate it
Therapies Whole foods and herbs; clean air and water; anything that heals is medicine; burning (incense, smudge); heat/cold (sauna, compresses) Toxic chemicals (mercury, sulfur, etc.), bloodletting, leaches, blistering, cupping, fasting, purging Surgery, pharmaceuticals, but increasingly moving toward an integrative model
Effects Often gentle and nourishing Immediate and harsh Often dramatic requiring recovery and/or containing side effects

Traditional Herbalism or Folk Medicine
The acceptance that humans are utterly dependent on plants for air/food/shelter is at the heart of traditional or folk healing. The use of plants to heal the body mind and spirit is common to all cultures. The plant traditions of past and present indigenous peoples are as unique and as numerous as the tribes themselves. Many herbalists in the U.S. practice Traditional Western Herbalism, which has several influences depending on the herbalists’ culture, background, and education:

  1. Healing traditions adapted and mimicked by European settlers (Celtic and Greco-Roman included)
  2. Plant uses settlers learned from Native Americans
  3. Healing traditions adapted by African slaves
  4. Integration of approaches from other continents (most common are Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Ayurveda (includes yoga, diet, and other wellness regimens)
  5. Direct experience with plants and other healing traditions

Traditional healing focuses on maintaining balance in the body, mind, and spirit as a person goes through life. Imbalances are associated with the elements, social environment, directions, phases of life, colors, taste, and more. And often, the tradition heals by using therapies that counter the imbalance. For example, a person who is craving sweets would be given bitters. A person who has a runny nose might use a remedy that dries up excess fluids. The emphasis is on the individual, rather than the disease.

Clinical Herbalism
Clinical herbalists offer the service of helping people understand their needs and matching plants to those needs. They might consider the elements, a person’s social and physical environment, exercise, diet, or they might use lab tests and diagnoses. Many herbalists do not diagnose or treat disease; they focus on restoring balance and nourishing the body, mind, and spirit. Some clinical herbalists and naturopathic doctors take a medical approach. All good herbalists check for drug/supplement interactions, allergies, and contraindications. If you are looking for an herbalist it is important to learn about their education, experience, and philosophy about healing and medicine. A clinical herbalist should have annual continuing education to ensure that they are staying up to date with the latest scientific findings and experiences from other herbalists. Although there are many good clinical herbalists out there who are not members of the American Herbalist Guild, it is a place to start. Find a registered herbalist through the American Herbalists Guild: americanherbalistsguild.com

Commercial Herbalism
Herbal formulations are based on body systems or therapeutic effects (such as a detox supplement), not individual needs. Many products are made from exotic plants from faraway places. Some supplements are similar to pharmaceuticals in that plant chemicals have been isolated to increase potency. Other supplements may include herbs but also have other chemicals in them. Sometimes supplements include illegal ingredients, adulterants, or fillers. Negative interactions are most common with weight loss and performance supplements. The Food and Drug Administration classifies herbs as supplements but doesn’t regulate the industry. Companies can’t make claims about the benefits of supplements so descriptions on bottles are often vague. Consumers are expected to educate themselves and are vulnerable to companies with low standards or poor practices. To report a bad interaction, go to: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/default.htm

Community Herbalism
Community herbalists strive to engage the community through projects and education. They often make classes and consultations available at no or low-cost according to income. Community herbalists often recognize the relationship between income and health and get involved with free clinics, community gardens, and other projects to improve access to healthy food and herbs.