Herbal Medicine: Treating People, Not Diseases
By David Winston
From the 1930s through the 1970s in the United States, we experienced what I call the “Herbal Dark Ages.” This is a time when the use of herbal medicine vanished from mainstream American culture and the wisdom of our ancestors was lost. Only in a small number of rural and ethnic communities was this knowledge maintained and retained.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a revival of interest in natural foods, organic gardening, and alternative health care helped usher in a renewed enthusiasm for Herbal Medicine. This has grown exponentially over the last 40 years, and the herb/nutritional supplements industry has boomed.
In some ways this is good. I no longer get calls asking “What is this herb Ek-in-ec-ee-a?” (they meant Echincaea). But in other ways, we still have far to go. While certain medicinal plants have become popular, such as St. John’s wort, Turmeric, Saw Palmetto, Black Cohosh, and Maca,, herbal medicine has not. Most Americans believe that herbal medicine is taking St. John’s wort instead of Prozac. This is not Herbal Medicine; it is the allopathic use of herbs.The idea that an herb is good for a disease is patently untrue.
How many of us have been told that Black Cohosh is the menopause herb, or that Saw Palmetto is the prostate herb, or St John’s wort the depression herb? While this is great for marketing purposes, it is not accurate, and, in many cases, will lead people to conclude that herbs don’t work. The fact is great Herbalists do not treat disease; we treat people.
More than 2,000 years ago, Hippocrates is believed to have said “It is more important to know the person who has the disease, than the disease the person has.” He was correct–the focus of herbal treatment is to use herbs, diet, lifestyle changes, exercise, etc. to enhance our bodies innate ability to heal itself. There are no herbal antibiotics, but there are herbs that enhance our immune function and can inhibit viral or bacterial replication and virulence.
So a parent could give a child with a cold children’s acetaminophen (which can have adverse effects and actually prolong the length of illness) or try an Elderberry syrup– which in human clinical trials has been shown to shorten the duration and severity of cold and flu symptoms–along with gentle herbs such as Lemon Balm, Peppermint, or Chrysanthemum tea, which reduce inflammation, irritability, inhibit viral replication, lower fevers, and reduce GI upset.
Perhaps the most difficult idea I have to get across to any budding herbalist is to stop thinking about what herb is good for arthritis and start thinking about what herbs (in traditional medicine herbs are virtually never used as single remedies, but in complex formulas) would be useful for this person, who in addition to having digestive issues, circulatory issues or sleep issues, may also have arthritis. The ability to treat the person rather than the disease is based on understanding herbal energetics and differential diagnosis.
These practices are found in all the world’s great systems of traditional medicine (Traditional Chinese Medicine/TCM, Ayurveda from India, Unani-Tib (Greco-Arabic Medicine), Tibetan Medicine, Kampo from Japan, Siddha the traditional Tamil medicine, Jammu from Indonesia) and scientific research over the past 40 years has confirmed much of the wisdom and efficacy of these ancient practices.
Today, herbal or botanical medicine is not just based on traditional practices; it also depends on science and clinical research. Many people believe that there is a tug of war between western orthodox medicine and various forms of traditional medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It is not either/or; it should be which practices can be most helpful for me or my family at this time and for this issue? Where western medical practice is strong, herbal medicine tends to be much less effective, and, conversely, where herbal practice is most effective is where orthodox medicine tends to have little to offer.
If you have Lyme disease or bacterial meningitis, you need antibiotics. If you need surgery or asthma medication, that is the best treatment. On the other hand, for many chronic conditions including migraines, metabolic syndrome, PMS, arthritis, or skin conditions, herbal therapies can offer much more than palliative care.
In my opinion, a great herbalist working with a great physician is a true win-win for any patient, and it is imperative that we regain our rightful heritage, the intelligent, safe and effective use of herbs as part of mainstream American culture.
David Winston, RH (AHG), an herbalist and ethnobotanist with 40 years’ training in Cherokee, Chinese and Western herbal traditions, is the founder/director of the Herbal Therapeutics Research Library and dean of David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies. David is a founding member of the American Herbalist Guild.