I am beyond delighted to share this post from my sister, who has a background in permaculture, horticulture, and herbalism. Joy opened my eyes to traditional herbalism, and I invited her to share how herbalism can profoundly shift our mindset about healing.
Do you have questions about herbalism and plant healing? Leave them in the comments so Joy can answer them in future posts. After reading this, you’ll be as eager as I am for her to share more of her wisdom here.
What is traditional herbalism?
Imagine a medicine that could connect you with yourself, your environment, and your family traditions. A medicine that you can create yourself, costs quite little, and may be more effective than expensive pharmaceuticals. Incredibly, this already exists as the abundant tradition of herbal medicine.
The tradition of herbal medicine differs remarkably from conventional medicine. However, our culture often use herbal medicine in a conventional, not traditional, paradigm. For instance, your introduction to herbal medicine is likely taking an herbal supplement pill from a chain store, hoping to cure a symptom more naturally. This approach to herbs obstructs the immense transforming properties that lie within a traditional herbal path.
An informed, respectful use of traditional herbal medicine can transform the relationships you have with yourself, your environment, and your viewpoint on plants.
Let’s take a look at the three primary distinctions between the traditions of herbalism and modern medicine’s prescribed conventions. These three distinctions are: herbalism’s long tradition, its self-reliance, and its integration of the whole mind, body, and environment.
1. The Test of Tradition
Humans evolved with plants and have been using plants medicinally since records exist. An herb is any part of a plant that humans use for medicinal purposes. Herbal medicine still thrives in many parts of our earth; between 70 to 95% of the people in less industrialized nations still rely on herbal medicine (source).
In contrast, conventional drugs are mostly synthesized in laboratories, and have only existed within the last couple centuries; many drugs are new to the market and are only tested for a mere 6-11 years after being developed (source). Many of these new drugs cause adverse side effects and deaths. Every year, over 300,000 people in U.S. and European hospitals die from prescriptions drugs (source).
A short, controlled laboratory test is not comparable to testing drugs that are in and of their natural environment, as herbs are. Herbs overall have less adverse effects and deaths. One of the reasons for this is that families and local communities have tested the safe use of herbs for hundreds, and even thousands, of years.
Another conscientious part of this tradition is how to harvest or grow herbs sustainably. An interdependent respect grew between communities and the plants they depend on. This led to wisdom in how to ensure the health of an environment, that ensures the health of plants, and thus the health of people who depend on the plants.
In contrast, today’s prescribed medications are thoughtlessly disposed of, mostly through our waterways and soils, and make it through the food chain. This devastates wildlife, and breeds antibiotic resistance in bacteria (source, source).
There are as many traditions of herbalism as there are cultures in the world, since every historical culture used herbalism. You can find which tradition is from your culture, or a culture that speaks to you. Some of the most well-known traditions are Western (stemming from Europe), Chinese, and Ayurvedic herbalism.
However, indigenous peoples from every area, including perhaps your local land base, have their own traditions. Even your own family might have their own remedies recorded. Herbs differ in that the medicine can be a local, a family, or historical tradition in a manner in which industrial pharmaceuticals are not.
Now it is harder to find this traditional information; herbal knowledge has floundered the past couple centuries, and now there is a lot of ignorance surrounding herbs. Many myths, scams and poor-quality herbs abound. This makes it imperative and valuable to seek out and preserve true and tested traditional information.
2. Self-reliance Instead of Industry
Herbs also offer the possibility to move away from industry and take the creation and price of your medicine back into your own hands. Herbal medicine, once held as sacred in many cultures, now is typically not even regulated as a drug. The United States considers herbal medicines a food supplement and so it falls under freer regulation.
This is a disguised blessing. In the United States, for instance, you are legally allowed to make your own herbal drugs, and you do not need a prescription. In the U.S., many parks also allow foraging and wild-crafting. If you are able, growing or wild-crafting your own herbs allows an even greater connection to your medicine; you now have your own control over the quality and source of your medicine.
Your own herbal medicine can be as cheap as whatever supplies you need to create your medicine and grow the plant. Even high quality, bought herbal medicine might be a mere fifteen dollars a month, compared to hundreds a month for a prescription. Herbal alternatives to most popular prescriptions occur, often growing in your local parks.
Another form of self-reliance herbs offer is being able to rely simply on your own research, and trusted herbalists. You do not need to go through a complex web of insurance, politics, and economics. Because of these freedoms, herbs are often used by non-profits, and lower income or marginalized people. Here are a few examples of community clinics that use herbs: Healing Clinic Collective, Third Root, and Dandelion Seed Collective.
3. Systems Relationship vs. Symptom Disembodiment
The paradigm of conventional medicine treats diseases, not communities and whole people. Doctors talk to you in a disembodied language and prescribe drugs to alleviate individual symptoms.
You may have walked away from a doctor or pharmacy feeling like you had no say in what medicine you are taking. You may have felt like you were a disease, not a person, and not a part of a community.
Traditions of herbalism instead treat an embodied, individual person along with their community. If you visit a competent traditional herbalist, they will not immediately prescribe an herb. In fact, they will take into account every aspect of your life, what forms or kinds of herbs you are drawn to, lifestyle changes, and the sustainability and quality of the sourced herbs themselves.
Conventional doctors usually do not take into account that a single drug or medicine could be chosen to nourish someone’s mind, body and spirit. Yet this is common in traditional herbalism.
A tincture of a single plant can, at the same time, help you emotionally, nourish you as a tonic, and treat a specific symptom. That is because a whole plant has many different constituents in it. Often a constituent counteracts or pacifies the stronger or negative effects of another active constituent.
Additionally, herbal medicines typically have less adverse side effects, and more positive ones- such as improved digestion. These advantages are because traditional herbalism uses a holistic, systems approach.
The usual modern medication is created by taking a single constituent out of its natural environment, and out of a community context. In contrast, when an entire complex plant is used, its natural constituents work together in a complex synergistic web. This leads to a wise balance in a single medicine, and less extreme side effects on both bodies and the wider environment.
How herbs can support mind, body and spirit
Herbal medicine is also unsurpassed in its ability to combine mind, emotions, and body for holistic healing, in a single medicine. I want to share a personal example of the holistic integration that herbs innately offer.
I grew up around, but not really noticing, a seaside plant called Grindelia, or Gumweed. When I was taught by an herbalist about the herbal properties of Grindelia, I went to my childhood home, walked to the beach and spent some time getting to know the plant.
I noticed that the properties reflected its main medicinal purpose: to clear passageways such as lungs and sinuses, acting as an expectorant. The plant itself is covered in a sticky, visible white resin. This mimics how this herb works: Grindelia sticks to sticky mucus and breaks it up.
After my observations, I made a tincture of the whole fresh plant. When I take the tincture, I receive the chemical effects of instant clearing, and easier breathing. However, I also gained a spiritual, and mental component that I believe helped me even more. In being able to visualize the plant, I also visualized my own healing. In being able to imagine the environment of the plant — the expansive ocean, the fresh clearing, salt-suffused air — I suddenly felt like I could let go, breath clearer.
The plant encouraged me to also go visit the ocean’s clearing air and relaxing views and find healing in the environment. I found that I used this plant spiritually and psychologically to let go and move forward from emotional burdens, and sticky thoughts, that were impairing my health.
All three aspects-the physical plant and its seaside home — the expectorant chemical reactions — the associated emotions and visualization- integrated inseparably to let me let go, and feel clear and rejuvenated.
Traditional herbalism isn’t merely popping capsules of an herb to treat symptoms. It’s a new mindset of healing, one that relies on a relationship between person, plant and environment. For that reason, I believe traditional herbalism holds the promise to bring significant and much-needed healing to our bodies and our ecosystem.
About Joy Geertsen
Joy Geertsen has spent her life wandering state parks, gardening, and spending as much time as possible connecting with nature. This led her to become certified in permaculture design, complete an herbal wildcrafting apprenticeship, and get a degree in environmental horticulture. Her specific interest is finding healing with nature, and she continues to learn as much as she can about herbalism and alternative relationships with our environment.
What is your experience with herbal healing and traditional herbalism?