An Introduction to Herbalism
If it is the greatest and highest that you seek, the plant can direct you. Strive to become through your will what, without will, it is.
Honoring the Widows of Our Ancestors
In every culture throughout the world you will find a great body of folklore concerning the indigenous plants of that region and the wise women who used them. For thousands of years women collected plants from meadows and woodlands and used them to create healing medicines. They gathered herbs by the waning and waxing of the moon, artfully created preparations, and developed herbal formulas. Through an intuitive communication with the plants, women learned the healing powers of these green allies. Their wisdom developed over countless years as remedies were tried, proven, and passed on. The best of these remedies were added to the lore, and the wisdom was transferred from mother to daughter, from wise woman to apprentice for countless generations. This is the legacy we have inherited. Healers, wise women, simplers -- these women were the center and source of medicine and healing for their communities. They understood the cycles of the seasons, the ebb and flow of the universe, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the natural rhythms of their bodies.
Herbalism, rooted in the earth and honored as a woman's healing art, survived the natural catastrophes of time. It wasn't until the fourteenth century; when a wave of witch-hunts began in Europe, that herbalism encountered its first great obstacle. The quiet influence of the wise women -- their inner power and their healing skills -- began to be feared by the largely patriarchal Roman Catholic Church, and for the next three hundred years women were burned at the stake and tortured to death simply for being healers. Just being a woman during these times was dangerous; using herbs was a sure invitation to be persecuted. Thousands of women were killed in Europe during the height of the witch-hunts.
In spite of recurrent waves of repression, herbalism flourished right up until the dawning of the twentieth century, when it encountered its second great challenge. With the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of technology, a new tradition of medicine emerged, and herbalism's popularity began to wane. Through the influence of Newton and Descartes, Western culture entered a period wherein people believed they could understand and control nature by dissecting and quantifying it. The science of medicine was going to replace the art of healing. In the space of a century, allopathic or modern, Western technological medicine established itself as the number-one medical system in the Western world. Though it offered a remarkable technological and "heroic," or emergency-oriented, medicine, its monopoly on health care posed a serious problem: no one system of medicine could answer the needs of all people or every health situation. As a result, in spite of the technology and resources offered by allopathic medicine, we gradually became less healthy and -- not unrelatedly -- more disconnected from our feminine sources of healing.
For almost a century, the practice of herbalism, viewed as antiquated and outdated by the scientific community, became illegal in the United States. Women forgot the art of gathering plants and making their own medicines. Saddest of all, women lost both the knowledge and the initiative to heal themselves. We became totally dependent on doctors and doctors' "orders." No longer in touch with our own healing power, we came to rely on external sources for answers to our deeply personal health problems. A particularly insidious aspect of this situation was the way we began to downgrade and disregard our own intuitive powers. My grandmother used to tell me "tools not used are tools abused" -- all too often, they also became "tools we lose." Out of neglect, we began to forget the inherent gifts of the Wise Woman, a tradition of healing that relies on the remarkable feminine powers of intuition, ancient wisdom, and herbal knowledge.
But the wheels of change are turning again. Dissatisfaction with Western medicine, coupled with a herbal renaissance in America, is reawakening the healing instincts that have lain dormant for so long. Women are rediscovering their relationship with medicinal plants and the satisfactions of healing.
Many women begin their herbal studies unsuspectingly in the safety of their gardens. They plant their herb gardens simply because gardens are enchanting and beautiful, full of life and spirit. Then something inexplicable begins to happen. As the women quietly weed, water, and work within the garden, the plants seem to instruct, teach, and guide them. Often, in spite of themselves, women develop a strong curiosity about the healing energies of the plants they're growing and, before they know it, they are reading medicinal herb books, signing up for classes, and treating their families with simple remedies when all they thought they wanted to do was grow some tasty culinaries.
For other women the path to discovering herbs is through their own illnesses. Though allopathic medicine offers an exceptional crisis- and emergency-oriented medicine, it does not offer women with recurring feminine health problems long-term solutions or remedies. Nor does Western medicine address the cause of these imbalances. Frequently problems treated with allopathic chemical drugs recur soon after the effects of the drugs wear off. Women are discovering that herbs offer a sane, safe, and effective alternative and/or complement to allopathic medication.
Some women simply seem to "remember" something deep within them -- their age-old herbal legacy. They first remembered it as children, playing in the fields. For long periods, perhaps, they forgot what they knew, but it was there nonetheless, ready to be rekindled by a special memory or circumstance. Because the knowledge of plants is an old knowledge and easily accessible, some women simply "remember" how to find it buried in the fertile soil of their hearts.
Herbalism is definitely flourishing today. Women are once more growing, gathering, and making their medicines. They are again cultivating their ancient healing traditions. Going back into the closets of our grandmothers to see what jewels of wisdom rest there, we are unearthing our heritage. Working with herbs, digging in the earth, making herbal preparations, and using them for health and healing is the best way possible to reestablish our connection to our Wise Woman tradition.
I had the good fortune to grow up with a woman who never forgot that tradition. My grandmother Mary was born in Armenia and came to this country during the Turkish invasion of her country. She and my grandfather escaped the death march and the almost complete annihilation of the Armenian people. She always credited the plants and her belief in God with saving her, and she passed her beliefs on to her children and grandchildren. We were instructed at an early age which plants were good for food and which for illnesses. Her teachings were without fuss, strong and powerful like herself. The lore she taught me in the garden of my childhood has stayed with me throughout my life.
A magical, intangible process, healing is an art, not a science. The same treatment regimen used on different patients for the same illness can sometimes cure, sometimes have no effect, and sometimes exacerbate a problem. If we are to heal the many levels of imbalance in the female world today we must make some overall changes in our attitudes and beliefs. We must first and foremost remember and accept that for countless generations we carried the wisdom and the magic of healing within ourselves. And we must find a way to reconnect with that ancient place of wisdom and power.
Working with herbs is one of the steps toward discovering that place of wisdom and reclaiming our tradition as wise women and healers. The plants do teach us. They take us to the heart and soul of Mother Earth. They offer a system of healing that is gentle, imbued with "soft power," and attuned to the feminine spirit. To relearn this tradition takes a certain commitment, but it is a wonderful, joyful process that often leads one into the fields and gardens of our gentlest memories. As herbalism resurges in the hearts of women, it is my hope that this book may serve as a guide to the healing way of herbs, providing not only remedies and recipes for women's health, but also opening the door that leads women to the ancient art and legacy of herbalism.
Herbalism and Western Medicine
Having been a practicing herbalist for over twenty years in an extremely diverse and colorful community; I've had an excellent opportunity to witness both alternative and orthodox systems of healing and their effects on our health. Though herbal medicine is the system closest to my heart, I do not ignore or exclude other systems of medicine. Diet, exercise, shamanic healing, visualizations, allopathic medicine, acupuncture; all of these practices and many others have an intrinsic place in the organic wholeness of medicine. This book focuses primarily on herbs and dietary suggestions, not because I do not believe in the validity of other systems of medicine but because herbalism is the system of healing I know best. I believe in it, I know it deep in my heart, and I love to share it with others.
Allopathic medicine and herbalism are frequently seen as the antithesis of one another, and people assume that they are incompatible. On the contrary, the two systems of medicine can work very effectively together and do, in fact, complement one another. Representative of the female and male energies, both are needed for harmonious balance. And both have much to learn from one another. Unfortunately, there is a schism between these two systems of medicine. Herbalism is viewed as antiquated, old-fashioned, and ineffective. Allopathic medicine is viewed as mechanical and impersonal, treating symptoms rather than causes. One is right brain; the other left brain.
Working in concert, allopathic medicine and herbalism can enhance our possibilities for well-being. Though some of the most powerful herbs (these are indicated in herb books) should not be used with allopathic drugs, most herbs do not interfere with the action of chemical drugs and can be used to augment allopathic treatments. While chemical drugs are actively killing bacteria and viruses, herbal medicines build and restore the system. Chemical drugs generally have a specific agenda, while herbs, through a complex biochemical process, take the whole person into consideration and replenish the body on a cellular level. Herbs, when taken correctly, do not upset the body's innate sense of harmony, so there are little or no side effects. Using herbal therapy with chemical drugs often helps eliminate or lessen the side effects of drug therapies.
About 3000 years ago Asclepius of Thessaly, one of the great minds of ancient medicine, gave the following sequence for the use of therapeutic agents: "First the word. Then the plant. Lastly the knife." Several hundred years later, Dr. Rudolf Weiss, a highly respected medical herbalist from Germany and author of Herbal Medicine, expanded on Asclepius's theme by adding radiation and chemotherapy to the armamentarium of healing techniques: "First the word. Then the plant. Next the major synthetic chemotherapeutic agents. And finally the knife." What both of these wise physicians advised was a sequence of medical intervention beginning with least invasive substance and progressing only if necessary to the most invasive. Counseling first, then herbs. If neither of these work, then hospitals, doctors, and surgery should be considered.
Applying the sage words of these two physicians as guidelines, it becomes easier to determine when herbs may be most appropriate as a first-choice medicine.
* As preventive medicine, herbs are inimitable. They build and strengthen the body's natural immunity and defense mechanisms. They nourish the deep inner ecology of our systems on a cellular level. Our bodies are comfortable with herbs, recognize them, and efficiently utilize them.
* Herbs support our life force. They are effective when used over an extended period of time to strengthen the immune system. They may also be used to quickly perk up the immune system when it is under attack by cold and flu viruses. Herbs are also powerful "adaptogens," increasing the body's ability to adapt to the ever-changing environment and increasing stresses of life.
* Most nonemergency medical situations also respond well to herbalism. Simple everyday problems such as bruises, swellings, sprains, cuts, wounds, colds, fevers, burns, and so forth are easily treated with herbs. If your grandma would have treated it at home, chances are that you can too. Herbs can also be an effective first-aid treatment for emergency situations when medical help is unavailable or is on its way.
* For treating serious illnesses such as AIDS, cancer, and autoimmune disorders, herbs serve as excellent secondary therapeutic agents. They provide necessary fundamental support for the body while it is undergoing more radical forms of treatment that may sap its life energy. Herbs and allopathic medicine can and do work compatibly in these critical situations, complementing and enhancing each other's effects.
* Herbs are a first-choice medicine for many women's health problems. For years I have talked to women who, tired of rounds of antibiotics and orthodox treatments, have tried alternative health remedies. They would use simple herbal remedies, often unaware that women had been using these remedies for centuries, and were amazed by the results. I think herbs act in a particularly impressive way on women's health because there's a natural affinity between women and the plant world. Plants spring from the heart of the earth; they are nourished by the seasons and whims of Mother Nature. Beautiful, strong, and powerful, herbs are in sympathy with women's spirit. They provide a deep source of nourishment and vitality to the female organs and have an innate ability to heal imbalances that have lodged in those deep, moist places of our female being. Herbs can also be used to support and nourish the female system when a woman chooses to use allopathic medicine. While allopathic medicine provides symptomatic relief, herbs often provide the impetus for lasting change. They seem to heal on a cellular level.
Herbs in the Test Tube
As herbs regain a place of recognition and honor in the healing community, they are also encountering skepticism and attack in the scientific community. Western science attempts to analyze herbs in the same deductive way it evaluates synthetic drugs. Technicians extract the chemicals in herbs and analyze them as single, separate components. These chemicals are frequently used in the horribly inhumane animal experimentation that still wracks our medical world in the name of "healing."
Much misinformation has been collected about herbs in this manner. Two classic examples of this laboratory technique, which time and again produces results at odds with centuries of empirical proof, are the recent tests conducted on sassafras and comfrey.
Sassafras, long valued as a "blood purifier" and "liver herb," is an important ingredient of many old-fashioned root-beer drinks. It contains safrole, a very potent plant chemical that is largely insoluble in water (in other words, you can't extract it when making tea). When safrole was isolated from the herb and injected in extremely high doses into laboratory animals, it produced carcinogenic cells. Based on this information, sassafras was banned from use in all soft drinks. (Synthetic chemicals are now used instead.) It is interesting that the southern United States, where sassafras grows naturally and has been enjoyed as a beverage tea and a blood cleanser for generations, has the lowest rate of cancer in our country. It is even more interesting to note that there is not one recorded case of sassafras poisoning or of sassafras-related cancer.
The comfrey controversy is another case in point. For centuries comfrey has been valued throughout the world as a food and medicine. Rich in mucilage, allantoin (a cell proliferant), and vitamins and minerals, it's been recommended for treating stomach disorders, mending bones, and healing the lungs. Never in history has there been any question of comfrey's safety and efficacy as a healing plant.
Recently, pyrrolizidine alkaloids have been identified and isolated in the young leaves and roots of comfrey. When injected into laboratory rats in ridiculously high doses, these alkaloids have produced carcinogenic cells and liver toxicity (hepatic veno-occlusive disease). But Richard De Sylva states, in the Canadian Journal of Herbalism, "The original research [on the presence of pyrrolizidine alkaloids in comfrey] was seriously flawed. The laboratory rats that developed tumors on the liver were only six weeks old. At this age, quite a number of substances would be inappropriate for them to ingest. As well, the total amount of comfrey ingested formed 30-50 percent of their basic diet. This could be compared to human consumption of several platefuls of comfrey daily. This daily regimen did eventually cause tumors to grow on their liven and proved only one of the standing laws of science: that every substance or chemical is a poison if we consume enough of it." Or as Paracelsus said several years ago, "All things are poison and nothing is without poison. It is the dosage that makes a thing poisonous or not." Because of these laboratory findings, an attempt was made to locate cases of individuals who used comfrey and later developed liver toxicity. Of the thousands of people who use comfrey worldwide, only three somewhat questionable cases have been identified, none of which conclusively point to comfrey as the culprit.
The small amounts of pyrrolizide alkaloids found in comfrey are balanced by the abundance of allantoin, a cell proliferant, calcium salts, and mucilage it contains. All these components are very nutritious to the cells and serve to counteract the cell inhibiting action of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Though there is no concrete evidence of its toxicity after centuries of recorded use, comfrey has been banned in Canada and is awaiting its verdict in the United States. (For further information on comfrey, see its listing in the Materia Medica in Part VII of this book.)
It would be naive to believe all plants are safe to use. They absolutely are not. Some are incredibly potent and are not recommended for use by the unskilled or inexperienced healer. Some are so toxic they shouldn't be used at all. But these plants have been identified as such for centuries by herbalists. Such information has been handed down to us as part of our herbal tradition. What laboratory science has primarily proven is how accurate the intuitive wisdom of the ages has been. Scientists are now able to isolate certain chemicals from the herbs and turn them into "wonder drugs," using them for the same illnesses as have herbalists for countless generations.
Alchemy and magic are integral parts of herbalism and healing. It is essential to recall when reading these test results that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. As more and more tests are conducted on herbs and their chemicals are isolated, it is important to be open-minded about the results -- open-minded to the fact that science can be just as fallible as it can be infallible. If a plant has been found safe and effective for a thousand years of human use, it may be wise to question the validity and applicability of the scientific tests now being used. There is generally some unidentified magic in the plant in the form of another chemical or an innate natural wisdom that allows the medicine, when taken as a whole, to function in a safe and beneficial manner.
Copyright © 1993 by Rosemary Gladstar