Herbs can be a great way to help heal, especially when it comes to chronic health conditions that may not be helped that much by Western medicine.
Herbs vs. Western Drugs
Herbs shouldn’t be confused with pharmaceutical drugs. They aren’t a simple pill that you pop to try to whisk away a symptom quickly. Yes, certain herbs can act powerfully and quickly, but their overall action (depending on the dose and the herb) tends to be more gentle and subtle than a Western drug.
When you consider that many Western medicines were first herbs that were distilled down to their active ingredients, this makes sense. The active ingredient in aspirin, for example, was originally discovered in willow bark. (However, in this case, willow bark tea can cause vomiting, so aspirin is actually gentler!)
Herbs include the active ingredients as well as phytochemicals that can also provide nutritional value and other benefits. In fact, this is why the essential oil craze is a little misguided sometimes – essential oils also remove those great phytonutrients!
Western drugs are often just doing one job – the one thing the active ingredient does well – but they aren’t necessarily helping the body otherwise. (Never mind the side effects.)
Herbs, on the other hand, can help reduce symptoms as well as rejuvenate and heal the body (depending on the herb). Many herbs are in fact fruits and vegetables, just not typically the kind you want to eat at dinner. They are like little nutritional powerhouses that you can take to not just get rid of an unwanted illness but to build up the body and make it healthier.
How to Get Started with Herbs
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you get started with herbs:
1) Energetic vs. Modern Western Approaches to Herbalism
You can choose herbs in two main ways: by energetic property or by symptom. Let’s start with the symptom method. Let’s say you suffer from depression, and you don’t want to use pharmaceutical antidepressants. You might take St. John’s Wort instead. (Note: You should not take St. John’s Wort along with Western antidepressants as this could be dangerous.)
Here’s another example. Do you have gas and bloating after you eat? Try fennel. It’s a type of herb called a “carminitive” (which means it reduces gas).
An herbal energetic approach to depression would require an assessment from a system such as TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), Ayurveda, or Unani Tibb. These systems might assess different types of depression stemming from different energetic causes (such as excess Kapha in Ayurveda or liver qi stagnation in TCM). Herbs would then be chosen to mitigate energetic imbalances as opposed to directly tackling the issue or symptom.
Someone with excess Kapha may have too much “cold” and other types of energies such as a “heavy” quality that could lead to fatigue and sluggishness. “Heating” herbs and spices as well as lighter foods (greens, for example) can often help Kapha-types.
These herbs may be single herbs or formulas. Both Ayurveda and TCM have many traditional Ayurvedic formulas. By the way, choosing the right formula or creating one takes as much knowledge and skill as selecting single herbs. It is an art as much as it is a science!
2) Method of Herbal Consumption
Herbs can come in pill or capsule form, but are often consumed in teas, decoctions, and powders mixed with a liquid delivery system (called an anupan in Ayurveda). The anupan (or vehicle) in Ayurveda can be used to send the herb to different tissue systems in the body. Thus, it’s not just the herb itself but how you take it that can impact its effectiveness.
Certain herbs come in tinctures, but not all herbs can be dissolved in alcohol (nor is alcohol OK for some folks) so tinctures aren’t necessarily the best way to take herbs. It really depends on the herb and the person.
Herbs can also be taken with food. Some herbs can be used as spices because many are spices! For example, you can take turmeric by making a curry with it. The aforementioned fennel is also a spice that can be sprinkled on food to improve the taste while reducing gas and bloating.
3) Dosage and Timing
You’ll hear many different arguments on proper dosage and timing of herbs. Generally speaking, herbal dosages are much higher than that for Western drugs in pill form because herbs include the plant parts of the herb and not just the active ingredients. So, you might only take 25 milligrams of a medicine and upwards of 3-6 grams or even more of an herb. The method of preparation also impacts herbal dosage – you’ll need more grams for a decoction than if you take the powder straight with an anupan.
Many folks will say that you should be seeing effects from an herb within two weeks, but it really depends on what the herb is and why you are taking it. Some herbs that are adaptogens (that help with long-term stress) may not give an immediate effect but have long-term benefits.
Ashwaganda is one such herb that also helps with anxiety. You will not feel an instant relief of anxiety with ashwaganda as with some other herbs, but it works great over a long period of time. Many people take ashwaganda indefinitely as a daily part of their routine (this is traditional in many parts of India, especially for young men).
4) Cautionary Notes on Herbs
Most herbs on the market are safe, but some have side effects. St. John’s Wort in particular can interfere with many Western medicines, including antidepressants and blood thinners. Some herbs may be counterindicated for your specific situation. Pregnancy is always a time to be careful with consumption of herbs (consult with an expert!). Do some research online to learn about the herbs you are taking, but don’t overly panic about possible side effects.
It’s not a bad idea to start an herb at a low dosage and increase it slowly to make sure you can tolerate it OK.
Once in a while a traditional herb may actually be toxic at high doses. Just because something is a plant, it doesn’t mean it’s good for you! Chitrak is an Ayurvedic herb that actually comes from a poisonous root. This is one of those herbs to be very careful with.
When in doubt, skip the herb or consult with a qualified herbalist.
Choosing the Right Herbs
It might be tempting to go online and ask people in an online forum or group what herbs you should take, but if you have anything serious going on, you should always consult with a qualified herbal practitioner if possible. This would include a registered herbalist, any Ayurvedic Practitioner or Doctor, TCM Doctor (Doctor of Oriental Medicine), or acupuncturist with training in herbalism.
The right practitioner will assess your case and provide a combination of herbs and herbal formulas that will fit your particular needs. With the advent of online video conferencing, you can see your practitioner virtually if necessary. This is especially helpful for people who live in areas without easy access to alternative health practitioners.
If you want to prescribe herbs for yourself (and this can be challenging even for practitioners!), get as much training as you can. You might consider taking some online herbalism courses and read as many books as possible so you can make informed decisions for yourself and your family.
Finally, do mention to your doctor if you are going to take herbs, though they aren’t likely to know much about it.