Herbalism: How to use it to treat illness and improve health
The ancient practice of herbalism is picking up steam as an effective—and modernized—treatment for anything from insomnia to chronic pain.
·October 23rd, 2021
Herbalism is one of the oldest medical systems in the world, and remains practiced by cultures around the world today.
Herbalists can advise on how to use naturally occurring botanicals to treat underlying causes of illness and improve aspects of your lifestyle and health.
Mutliple schools of herbalism are prominent today, including ayurveda, Chinese and other Eastern herbalism, and Western herbalism, such as that practiced by Native tribes.
A session with an herbal practitioner often includes a general health and lifestyle consultation followed by the creation of a personalized treatment plan.
Herbalism is one of the oldest traditional medicine systems in the world, practiced by nearly every ancient society. In the modern world, herbalists use botanicals—plants, flowers, and roots—to treat medical issues. These botanicals contain active compounds called phytochemicals which support the functions of the body.
Our own Western system of medicine has roots in the practice: aspirin was originally derived from willow tree bark, for example. Many modern medicines—nearly a quarter—still contain active compounds derived from medicinal plants.
While traditional Western medicine focuses on treating symptoms of an illness, herbalism takes a more integrative approach, searching for the underlying cause of an illness. The practice takes into account many aspects of a person’s life—emotional health, sleep, and general lifestyle—to improve overall health.
Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine are two of the oldest whole-body healing systems in the world, and herbalism is central to both practices. Ayurveda—which translates to “science of life” in Sanskrit—originated in India and is centered around balancing the body’s systems.
Practitioners work to cleanse the body through holistic treatment, including prescribing herbal supplements. Herbalism also has deep roots in traditional Chinese medicine. The practice is based on the idea that the body’s energy, called Qi, flows uninterrupted throughout the body. When this steady flow is blocked, disease presents itself.
The modernized practice of herbal medicine is now gaining momentum in the Western world as well. According to data collected by the CDC, nearly 50% of Americans take herbal and dietary supplements. Many already practice herbalism inadvertently—drinking echinacea tea to boost immunity, or green tea to provide energy are examples of everyday usage of herbs.
What kind of ailments can herbalism help with?
Many patients seek out herbalists to help with lifestyle issues like stress and anxiety. The practice can also be helpful with many systems of the body— among them the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Chronic conditions like migraines have also been shown to improve with the administration of the herb feverfew. In a study conducted at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, many herbs were found to be likely effective treatments: St John’s Wort for depression, garlic for high cholesterol and chronic pain, and kava kava for anxiety.
The administration of herbs in conjunction with ayurvedic practices has also been shown to be effective at treating inflammation and arthritis.
What does a typical herbalist session look like?
A session with generally starts with a consultation to find the root cause of an ailment. The practitioner will talk through the goals, general health history and lifestyle of the patient, paying attention to bodily processes like digestion and sleep. Then, the herbalist will put together a personalized plan.
The herbalist will create a combination of medicinal herbs—in the form of teas, capsules, or ointments—designed to alleviate symptoms and remedy the underlying causes of illness.
A session with an Ayurvedic practitioner is similar: the practitioner takes a detailed history of the patient’s health, and observes different functions of the patient’s body like pulse, skin color and bone structure and consults with the patient about his or her lifestyle.
The practitioner will then, based on this information, diagnose the person as one of three “humors,” or types: vata, kapha or pitta. After making a diagnosis, a specific diet and herbal supplements are prescribed in an effort to balance the energy within a patient’s body.
A practitioner of Chinese herbal medicine will conduct a similar consultation, with a general health history taken and an examination of radial pulses. The patient will then be given a customized prescription of herbs—these can be in the form of teas, capsules or as a liquid herbal extract.
Many patients who work with Chinese Herbal medicine also work with an acupuncturist, as the two systems are made to work together. Acupuncturists insert needles along the body’s meridians—or energy channels—in order to balance the flow of energy.
It’s important to check with your doctor before starting to take any herbal products or dietary supplement, as some may interact with medications you’re already taking. Your primary care provider can also direct you to a licensed professional herbalist near you.
If you’re interested in exploring herbalism or other alternative medicines, the right provider can help you build a personalized plan to support your wellbeing. Connect with a credentialed expert who serves your area here.