When is it okay to employ herbal self-care and when should someone seek professional consultation from a qualified, registered herbalist? There is a long and short answer to this question. Let’s explore the former, with a historical lead up to this question.
Herbal Medicine in History
Herbs are our most ancient source of medicine, recorded as far back as at least Hippocrates in c. 370 BC. Healing with plants is a part of every culture; herbal healing traditions are documented around the globe, notably from India, China, Europe and Persia. In other regions such as North and South America, Africa and Polynesia, herbal healing shares the same long history, yet was not as extensively documented.
For the past several centuries in Europe, medicinal plants were a normal part of daily life, both out of necessity and because it was a widespread cultural norm. It was common for homes to have medicinal plants growing alongside the vegetable garden. It was typically the role of the wife and mother to tend to the basic health needs of her family, and herbs were her tools. In some cases, when she was especially good at herbal healing, her care would extend into the community when no other care was available. Within each community there was commonly a herbalist who specialized in more advanced health care and who made it their devotion to tend to the sick as a professional herbalist, equivalent to modern doctors, only using plants and other natural remedies in place of pharmaceutical drugs.
Plant remedies were called upon to cure the range from minor to life threatening situations. Herbal medicines were respected as reliable and effective healing agents. Extensive herbals were written, documenting the clinical use of medicinal plants, handled by specialists in the care of the sick – herbalists. The long standing tradition of herbal healing became an advanced art and science, the most ancient healing profession. It rightfully gained widespread acceptance as the predominant medical system of the day.
During the early 1900’s, the Industrial Age brought the modernization and mechanization of many facets of society, including medicine. Advances in plant research created the pharmaceutical industry and a plethora of drugs were created from plant molecules. Doctors and the general public have since favoured drugs over herbs, and plant medicines gradually faded out of medical fashion.
The 1960’s in America initiated the revival of traditional wisdom; people began to question social norms and to seek alternatives, leaning into time-tested, natural approaches to agriculture, nutrition and healing. The “back to the land” movement brought back organic agriculture and herb gardens, featuring a notable favourite of the time, alongside medicinal and culinary plants. The re-discovery of plant medicines supported the self-reliance values of the day; individuals and families were able to live a nature based lifestyle, supporting their every need on the homestead. The hippies can be credited for bringing herbs back into our modern cultural awareness.
Contemporary Herbal Medicine
With the herbal revival gaining momentum over these past seventy years, people are discovering the many ways to incorporate herbs into their lives. Herbs have a broad appeal due to their accessibility, general safety and reliable historical and modern evidence supporting their use in health. Plus they are beautiful, interesting and have diverse applications beyond medicine.
Herbs are many things to many people – they are a source of medicine, research, health product manufacturing, gardening, spirituality, home-made kitchen remedies, personal self care and crafts. There is a growing “hobby herbalism” movement sweeping North America.
Modern literature is rife with self-help, top ten herb lists for every possible ailment. Popular herbalism tends to treat herbs as drug substitutes, naming single herbs as the remedy for such and such a condition. For instance, ginkgo for memory, St. John’s wort for depression, garlic for high blood pressure, echinacea for colds, ginseng for stamina, turmeric for arthritis, valerian for insomnia and so on. While there may be some accuracy to such claims, it is a shallow dive into herbal medicine.
Plus, these claims and their associated products are promoted largely by the natural health product (NHP) industry, driven by profit. NHPs are treated like over-the-counter drug substitutes, often with overly exaggerated health claims and dosing strategies that are not effective.
It is from here that we can begin to make the first distinctions between herbal self-help and professional herbal care.
When to Seek Care from a Professional Herbalist
Firstly, the above named symptoms require deeper investigation to achieve lasting resolution. Chronic and degenerative diseases have many causative factors, complications and considerations to be made to accurately assess and address the root causes and achieve effective treatment. There are no quick fixes.
Secondly, a herb performs more than one action in the body. Due to their biochemical complexity, herbs will have far reaching reactions which need to be factored into any herb choice e.g. St. John’s wort is well known to alleviate depression, it is also anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, enhances liver metabolism, effective for burns and skin diseases, nerve relaxant, nerve restorative, urinary disorders, lung ailments, IBS, diarrhea and hemorrhage, to name a few. It is contraindicated in some conditions and when taking several drugs.
Thirdly, one size does not fit all. Unlike pharmaceutical drugs which target specific diseases, there are many possible herbs and approaches available, treating the person rather than their disease. Pulling valerian from the shelf for insomnia is far from the bullseye when we consider the many causes of sleeplessness and that there may be a more effective choice. In some cases, valerian can act as a stimulant, and if not prepared properly, may have very little potency.
You would seek a professional herbalist when you have a chronic illness, with or without a diagnosis. Professional herbalists are medically and clinically trained to offer holistic health care.They will address possible drug interactions, safety issues and determine the cause of your illness rather than just treat the symptoms.
An herbal practitioner has extensive knowledge of medicinal plants.She has studied in detail, every aspect of the herbs in her dispensary – their biochemical make-up, actions, uses, preparations, pharmacology, psycho-spiritual uses, safety, drug interactions, contraindications, energetics, and how to combine multiple herbs. Additionally, she has spent time with the plants, often growing, harvesting and processing them herself, guaranteeing their quality and effectiveness.
An herbal practitioner will customize an herbal, dietary and lifestyle protocol for you. There may be the additional expense of a consultation fee, but in the long run your herbal protocol will be more effective, rather than wasting money on herbs that miss the target.
An herbal practitioner may be your primary care provider or may work in tandem with your doctor and other health professionals. Registered herbal practitioners in Nova Scotia are governed by the Herbalist Association of Nova Scotia, which is aligned with the Canadian Council of Herbalist Associations, which established standards of education and practice for herbalists in Canada.
As for herbal self-care, let’s go back to where we left off with the hippies. There is tremendous value in living connected to the foods and herbs we consume. When made a part of our daily routine, herbs improve well being and help to prevent illness. As outlined in my preamble, people have been engaged in herbal self care globally, for centuries.
As a society, we are not trained to preserve our health, instead we are overly reliant on a single medical authority, chemical drugs and quick fixes. Cultivating an interest in our own health and understanding basic body functions gives a strong foundation from which to practice effective self-care. Given our failing medical system, we really have no better option.
In addition to using herbs for prevention, individuals can manage certain acute, self limiting conditions with herbs. For example, cold and flu can be treated with herbs, preventing unnecessary trips to the doctor. Herbs reduce the severity and duration of cold and flu, limiting time lost from work, school and family.
Minor injuries, first aid, and temporary states such as nausea and indigestion can all be handled with herbs. When digestive upset becomes chronic or when someone succumbs to a cold or other infections often, then the herbal practitioner should be consulted for support in resolving the larger pattern of illness that has set in.
I have been in clinical practice for 20 years and can attest to the value of professional herbal support. My deep faith in the power of medicinal plants is proven time and again in my own practice, and backed up by the work of other herbal practitioners, both ancient and modern.
I am also a strong promoter of herbal self-care; in fact, I designed a year-long program just for this purpose – to train individuals in basic health awareness and herbal medicine. My Holistic Herbal Wellness program begins every year in September. Each year, with each new group of herb enthusiasts, I am gratified to witness the self-empowerment that results from the program, and the joy and better health that plant connection brings to people.
Details and enrolment information can be found on the website:
If you would like professional herbal health care, I invite you to visit me in the clinic, or to attend the Bloom student clinic where you will receive care from a registered herbal practitioner along with second year herbal students.