herbsHello, T Ching family! I’ve been on hiatus for the past three years, as I was pursuing a natural medicine education. I began the journey with the intention of becoming a naturopathic doctor, but instead I have come out a discerning skeptic. I now have some shiny new health certifications under my belt (including the title of Master Herbalist … woop-dee-doo?), but more importantly I have a new appreciation for scientific rigor.

My education inadvertently opened my eyes to the reality that many natural remedies are pure bunk and quackery, without a single shred of high-quality clinical evidence to back them up. I still respect the basic fundamentals of naturopathy (that the body heals itself, that prevention is more important than cure, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and so), but I became disillusioned and disappointed when I learned that much of the success in the world of alternative health is due strictly to time, coincidence, and, of course, the placebo effect.

I was also put off by the prevalent negativity and downright animosity in the natural medicine community. Clinical phytotherapist David Hoffman addressed this issue perfectly, which I venture to say applies to the alternative field at large: “It is time for herbalists to lose what might be described as our ghetto mentality, a sense of inferiority developed through years of cultural disdain for – and active suppression of – our therapeutic modality. However, this will also entail abandoning our negative, knee-jerk reaction to the ‘system,’ which often takes the reprehensible form of an arrogant condemnation of medical doctors and a delusion of standing on higher moral ground.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Yet even though I’ve strayed from my naturo path (pun intended), I still have respect for the efficacy and potency of teas, spices, and other herbal remedies. Unlike homeopathy, energy medicine, and various other impotent natural remedies, therapeutic herbs actually possess inherent medicinal properties. They are so potent that many are illegal due to their possibly fatal effects. Additionally, 95% of modern painkillers are based on plant-derived opium and aspirin (from poppies and white willow bark), and, in fact, even the word “drug” itself is derived from the Swedish word druug, which means “dried plant.” (As a clarification, medicinal herbs consist of plants, minerals, and even some animal ingredients.)

But what’s interesting about herbs is that their medicinal properties don’t always act in a straightforward one-pill-for-one-ill manner that we see in western medicine. For example, conventional antidepressant drugs act by blocking depression-inducing neurotransmitter signals in the brain, whereas an antidepressant herb works with entire organ systems to bring the whole body back into balance. In the words of medical herbalist Allan Tillotson, “It may even be that the antidepressant effect [of St. Johns Wort] comes from a detoxification effect on the liver.” It’s a whole different ball game.

On the other side of the coin are conventional doctors and medical researchers with firmly antagonistic opinions towards medicinal herbs, referring to them as useless magical therapies. It’s true that some alternative modalities are airy-fairy, but I don’t think a few bad apples should give a bad reputation to the whole orchard. I venture to say that our best bet lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

In their book, Trick or Treatment, Dr. Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh proclaim, “Alternative herbal therapists continue to believe that Mother Nature knows best and that the whole plant provides the best medicine, whereas scientists believe that nature is just a starting point and that the most potent medicines are derived from identifying (and sometimes manipulating) key components of a plant.” I believe it comes down to finding the right balance between the evolutionary wisdom of the natural world, and the technological benefits of scientific progress.

Clinical trials are continuously being performed, but what appears to be true so far is that the world of herbs contains effective remedies for a wide range of ailments. White Willow appears effective for pain, St. John’s Wort for mild-to-moderate depression, and even the modest green leaf of our beloved Camellia sinensis is potent enough to destroy cancer cells in a laboratory setting. In the words of phytochemist and former USDA botanical director Jim Duke, “Eventually science will find a health benefit and value for virtually every component we find in herbs.”

Until then, it’s pretty accurate to say that herbal remedies are, for the most part, safe and fairly effective, as long as they come from a trustworthy brand or a reputable herbal practitioner. (Some imported herbs are artificially adulterated with pharmaceuticals to make them more potent, so it’s important to know the source and be aware of the risk.)

Herbs typically work slower than their conventional drug counterparts, but are often far less expensive and have far fewer side effects, as a result of thousands of years of worldwide use and testing. Humans have evolved alongside these natural plants and minerals for many millennia, so it should come as no surprise that our bodies have adapted to benefit from their use. As with any health therapies, whether conventional or ancient, it is your individual responsibility to be educated of the risks and benefits before trusting or investing in any particular remedy.

Although my natural medicine education unraveled my faith in various alternative modalities, I still fully support traditional herbs. I have a lovely collection of medicinal and culinary herbs, I am learning to grow my own, and I still savor my daily cup of bright green tea. Some herbs can heal the body, some can heal emotions, and then some are there just as a way to ever-so-subtly soothe the soul. And that, more than anything, can be the most powerful medicine of all. I bid good health to you all.