"The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them."
"if people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicine they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as the souls who live under tyranny".
-- Thomas Jefferson
Schools of Thought
Galen found that there where 3 schools of thought within herbalism. Here I have added two more and will explain them below. This is paramount to understanding which type of herbal process you can best identify with and understand. They are as follows:
Rational or Systematic Herbalism
This group works within a system to guide their principals for healing. This system is usually made up of an energetic language that may sound confusing to the average person just hearing it for the first time but provides a way for an herbalist to assign a name to a problem that will make sense when explained to the client. It also provides a way for them to classify treatments that make sense. Once you understand the language it makes perfect sense.
For example; An herbalist can not even diagnose an infection because this is a medical disease. However, they can tell you that you have localized damp heat stagnation. Localized means it is contained within a certain area, damp refers to the excess of fluids that should not be there, heat refers to redness and feeling warm to the touch, and stagnation refers to the fluids that are fixed in the location and not moving freely. The course of treatment might sound like this; resolve toxins, clear heat and drain dampness. Just the same they may have herbs which are labeled in categories such as cooling herbs, draining herbs, moving herbs or drying herbs.
A good example of this type of herbalism is Traditional Chinese Medicine or TCM. They are known for their formula writing which could contain anywhere from a 2 herb combination or as much as a complex 30+ herb formula. Most however range from 2-12 herbs. Here the "doctrine of opposites" is used. Heat treats cool, dry treats damp, etc.
The down side is when you get an herbalist who doesn't take the time to explain what the lingo means and you end up walking away with even more confusion than you walked in with. For example; in TCM theory the kidneys are like the batteries of the body. So you may be told that you have kidney deficiency if you feel tired and run down a lot. The herbalist does not explain to you that the term "kidney" is figurative and not literal so now you think that there is something wrong with your kidneys and you start stressing over it and trying to rationalize that you urinate just fine.
Methodist or Heroic Herbalism
This type of herbalist will feel that the basis of all harmony is based on a singular idea (such as cleansing the colon). That doesn't mean that is all they suggest but it is the basis for their healing advice. There are many different types of these practices around and it is a popular form of herbalism in the west often included together with the fourth school which I describe later.
Some of these include principles such as:
There are many different types of these programs in the US. As a matter of fact you will often hear about these programs in the media from weight loss "gurus" or from celebrities endorsing the latest craze. Sometimes these methods are very logical and sometimes they miss the point entirely. For example, if you consistently eat food that is processed and genetically altered and you have a stomach disturbance then a colon cleanse might not be a bad idea along with a change in diet. But if you eat healthy and natural foods then a colon cleanse could end up weakening your body and you could open up the door for disease. On the other hand, in the US we have fluoride added to our city water and much of our bottled water, a practice that has been discontinued in many other countries due to its health problems. It has been shown to lower the activity of the pineal gland in the brain, cause bowel problems, displace the iodine out of the thyroid etc. So a methodist thought may be to only drink distilled or reverse osmosis water and nothing else. This is not a bad idea and I currently drink distilled water when ever possible, but it isn't always practical. Should you bring your own water to other people's homes, restaurants etc.?
This group is best summarized as rule followers. "You must stick to the rules or you will become toxic and sick". The problem is that when the rules are too hard to follow then you get the exact opposite reaction from people. "I'm going to die anyway so I might as well enjoy myself". If you want to see this exact principal in action then look at yourself, your neighbor, or family member. I'll bet you know someone who has tried a diet or two and couldn't follow the rules so they just gave up. We want people to do the best they can and feel empowered doing it, not feel bad that they can't maintain an ideal.
Empirical, Folk, or Simple Herbalism
Has your grandparent ever told you to make ginger tea when you are sick? Or have a cup of chamomile tea if you couldn't fall asleep? To this day, whenever my friend gets sick, he rubs menthol on his feet and covers them with socks just before he goes to bed. Many times this is the method of the "in family" herbalist. This herbalist is known as the "simpler" or "empiric". Mostly using just one herb at a time to correct an imbalance. They are also known to use some energetic language but most rely on experience and history of use. This is the basis for folk medicine found in cultures across the world.
I want to start by pointing out the biggest disadvantage of this type of herbalism, although many things work great, the older generations didn't always know why their remedies worked. Whether it is because the knowledge was kept private, not fully preserved before someone passed, or they just don't know. This means that if the exact herb isn't available they don't know what to substitute it with or how to get around the missing ingredient. For example, sometimes a particular alkaloid or tannin is producing the desired effect but the plant you usually use is not available. If you had this knowledge then you could find another herb with this constituent and get along with it until you found the original plant again. However, it is also important to note that most of these herbalists only used herbs which were in abundance in their surrounding area so the chance that an herb was unavailible would likely not be a factor and if it was then it would only be for a season or so.
This type of herbalism often has cultural beliefs and rituals attached to it. To some this makes it richer while it can become a barrier for others. For this reason make sure that if you seek this type of counsel that you can accept what you are being told. Some of these groups talk to plants while others thank God for what they are given.
Some simplers, use the "law of similars" or the "doctrine of signatures" to treat conditions. The "law of similars" states that "like treats like" which refers to an herb which causes particular symptoms in large doses will cure those same symptoms in extremely small doses. This has the result of a vaccine without the same principles. You see the founder of this law, Samuel Hahnemann, M.D, thought that when someone was sick then they should take an herb that would normally produce those same symptoms in a healthy person. This would make the body react and dispel the original disease and all symptoms would stop with the halting of the treatment. Let me give you a clearer picture of this confusing subject. When slicing an onion your eyes water and your nose will run from the vapors so a simpler may prescribe red onion when someone has hay fever which brings on the same symptoms and get a good result.
Now lets look at the "doctrine of signatures". This is a doctrine where the herb tells the herbalist what it does based on it's characteristics. Unfortunately you almost need to understand what it does before this makes sense. For example; arrow root can be used as a poultice or as a compress on cuts to help heal it better. So an herb that resembles something that cuts you (an arrow) can help to heal wounds. Just the same calandine (which is considered moderately toxic) has yellow sap so some herbalists use it to help treat bile conditions which it has been known to do quite well. There is no real scientific approach here to speak of but most of this information is based on what has worked in the past.
Unfortunately the scientific community as a whole considers empiric herbalism as "fairy tale nonsense", but it is only because they can not explain why it works. If they can not explain it or there is no "scientific" research backing the claim then they have a hard time believing it could be true. This is a horrible oversight as with my personal experience this has been the most effective form of herbalism I have found to date. Just because something doesn't make sense to us doesn't mean we should dismiss it.
Reductionist, Medical, or Scientific Herbalism
The reductionist must know why. They look at chemicals and constituents of plants and try to isolate the "active" compounds from the inert compounds. This causes a large problem but also helps us to prove that herbs have the ability to heal.
Plants could have between 100 - 300 plant chemicals but with our current ability scientists may only be able to identify 10 - 30. If we can't identify something then how do we know how it effects the over all outcome? Plant compounds are synergistic or antagonistic for a reason and removing any of them could cause an adverse or undesired result.
Many times herbalists from this school of thought consider themselves "modern medical herbalists". This is to say - they use your western diagnosed condition and show, through the use of studies and research, that an herb or a compound in it has been proven to be effective for that condition. Many of these herbalists have helped the general public greatly in both education and awareness.
On the flip side, companies do not fund studies without expecting to make a profit on the results. Many of these studies end in commercials and special reports which, although informative, only push a single idea without looking at the actual way the herb is treated. For example, the Chinese herb Dang Gui or Chinese angelica root has been promoted as a womans herb for PMS. While it may help with cramping it is because it is used to "move the blood", and in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory when there is blockage of the blood there is pain. As a result of this publicity many other people who could have benefited from this herb will not even consider this for themselves because it is a "woman's" herb.
In my personal opinion, the reductionist is trying to do something good by bringing credibility to this often scoffed at practice of herbal remedies, but with two undesirable results. First, with that recognition comes regulation and all of a sudden the natural medicine of the people can be taken away. When that happens you will need permission to become healthy just like with western medicine. Second, most people trust "experts". So if an "expert" says that something will have an expected effect then most people don't question what else it will do or if it even does what they say. This can seriously limit how people view the plants that grow right in their own backyard and puts the authority of health back into someone else's hands.
Whatever type of method you prefer a good herbalist should try to explain what is happening and educate you. They should not talk to you from a position of authority but as a partnership to educate and empower you so you know how to take care of yourself. You are ultimately responsible for your own health not them, and you should know as much as you can about how your body functions.
I personally use a mixture of all these types of processes to determine the best possible solution.
This may sound like there is no set order to what I am doing but there is. I try to work in a very organized structure being careful not to limit my options and I do this for 2 very important reasons:
#1- All of these schools of thought have strong points and weak points. They have all worked very well for the people in the past who have utilized them and taken the time to really understand them.
#2- I owe it to the people that I help to learn and study every area that I can which can improve their life and then pass that knowledge on to them in a manner that they can grasp no matter their level of experience with the subject.
Remember it is balance that we need in our lives not extremism.