Herbalist’s practice is a complicated art

It always surprises me that people do not know what an herbalist does. When I tell some people that I am an herbalist, some respond strangely, “Smoke the herb man!”

It always surprises me that people do not know what an herbalist does.

When I tell some people that I am an herbalist, some respond strangely, “Smoke the herb man!”

“Humph, not quite buddy,” I think.

Or there are the jokes about bat wings and cackling. If only I could snap my fingers and make them vanish.

Finally, there are, and these folks are the majority, those that believe one takes an herb for an illness. Such as, “I have a headache, what should I take?”

Take willow (Salix spp.). Aspirin was derived from willow.

Both have a similar chemical make-up and reduce the pain of headache. Willow is without the side-effects of aspirin but not as fast acting.

That is answer is easily found online by anyone. A herbalist, however, will go one step further and seek the cause of the headache.

Today, in Western herbalism, there are two schools of thought on herbal medicine. One school calls themselves phytotherapist.

This school’s main focus is on the interaction between individual chemicals within a plant and the human body.

These herbalists rely heavily on clinical studies and consider science to be the foundation of their practice.

Most phytotherapist roots however still drink deeply from traditional methods of applying herbs for balance.

The other school of herbal medicine are the traditional practitioners. These herbalists quote Aristotle, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Traditional herbalists, although well versed in the clinical significant of the herb’s chemistry, believe that reducing a herb to a single set of chemicals looses the big picture.

They use herbs to balance the body and rely heavy on age old concepts like tone and relax, warm and cool, dry and moist.

In other words, they look at the whole body and the whole plant. The individual using the herbs becomes more significant than the illness.

Traditional herbal medicine roots swell with knowledge pruned from the close observation of the relationship between humans and plants.

There is considerable cross pollination between the two schools of herbal medicine, and it is really a challenge to say one is only a phytotherapist or a traditional herbalist.

Clinical studies on herbal medicine provide herbalists with information never before available. One would be foolish to ignore it.

On the other hand, traditional plant knowledge has been used since time beyond memory to heal the human body. Disregarding the lessons learn from past generation because they do not fit a clinical study is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

This is the long way of saying, herbalist use contemporary and traditional methods of understanding herbs. But how do they apply them? This now is the art of herbal medicine.

The first step is to know who is taking the herbs. It begins with a conversation. The basic premise of the conversation is: who are you and what do you need. Once that becomes clear one moves on to physical exams.

Generally the purpose of the exams is to assess both the health and illness within the individual and determine where to begin when a person has several health challenges. They may even point to the relationship between the different challenges. Herbalists are trained in variety of physical exams.

My training in phytotherapy taught me to take a blood pressure, palpate abdomens, read a urine tests, look in ears, etc. Since graduating from school, I have been able to incorporate more traditional forms of physical assessment including iridology, tongue and pulse analysis. Most herbalists use some of these, if not all, forms of physical evaluation.

Finally, the herbs are offered. These may be individual herbs or formulas created specifically to fit the individual needs. Creating formulas is an art and a science. One looks to both phytotherapy and traditional practice.

Formulation of herbs can become quite complex. The trick is to keep it simple.

After giving instructions on how to take the herbs, with accompanying coaching and encouragement, the herbalist job is done. It is now up to nature to take her course.

Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached at abrah@shaw.ca