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My View from the Weeds: Herbalism Treats People, Not Conditions

This post was originally published in HWBCO's monthly column, My View from the Weeds, for the Columbus Free Press, November 2019 Issue

Herbalists are often frustrated by not only the system we all live under (that devalues human life, is indifferent to suffering, and only supplies quality care to those that can pay) but also frustrated how that system has slowly indoctrinated us in how we think about “medicine.” The biomedical-pharmaceutical model has convinced us there is a magic bullet for each “diagnosis.” That’s marketing, not good medicine. That is not how herbalism works, either. Herbalism treats people, not conditions. Herbalists hear it all the time, even from some of our beginner students: “What herb is good for depression?” or “What should I use for this eczema?” The implication in these questions is that there is an herb that is a plug-and-play, one-size-fits-all prescription for an umbrella diagnosis. However, folks are asking the wrong questions and don’t even know it. Let’s look at the two questions above about depression and eczema. Both have myriad reasons they manifest in a person but treating them as a universal diagnosis is a recipe for failure or side effects from a one-size-fits-all drug. The causes of depression could be seasonal affective disorder, grief, a gut imbalance, seratonin assimilation issues, living with chronic pain, nutritional deficiencies, or not being outdoors enough, to name a few. Eczema, as a diagnosis, is more than one thing as well. Herbalists see clients with dry patches of itchy rash that bleeds when they scratch it and people with wet weepy blistery style rashes – both of these diagnosed as eczema by a dermatologist. Both of these tend to get treated with steroidal creams, too, which only work while you use them and have disastrous long-term effects. A trained herbalist knows possibly dozens of plants that have medicinal actions (actions are things like “antihistamine” – how a plant chemically works in the body) that could help someone. But to be a decent herbalist, not only does an herbalist need to know medicinal actions, but also have to look at symptoms and how they manifest. What herb would correct a wet weepy rash over a dry itchy one? Herbalists look at a person’s diet, their daily movement, their relationships and support networks, their routine, and their constitution. A constitution is how their body generally tends to work. Are they dry or damp or hot or cold, generally speaking? All of this affects which remedy or tonic should be taken to assist with their condition. An herbalist can determine this in an interview with a few questions and looking at a person’s skin, eyes, tongue, and observing them for a while. This is why herbalism succeeds when the biomedical pharmaceutical model often fails or creates far too many side effects for the user. Herbalists customize formulas to be for a specific person and their current circumstances. Herbalists work to correct imbalances in the moment and help their bodies right themselves. Herbalists do not believe in permanent states of being or lifetime drugs, generally speaking.* An herbal medicine is never one that is taken as a lifelong medicine. Herbalists partner with a client for a short period of their lives, helping them correct an imbalance and putting them on a road to wellness. If you have a condition that requires longer-term case management, a formula will often change over time, because your body is changing with the wellness plan. For example, when we work with a diabetic, our goal is not to replace the chemical that is missing (replacing insulin), like the biomedical model does. An herbalists’ goal would be to get the pancreas working again and doing its job, in concert with the rest of the endocrine system and the rest of the body. There are many reasons why a pancreas may have stopped working, and it may take a while to get it functioning again.) Unlike pharmaceutical manufacturers, herbalists never want a lifelong “patient,” coming to them for “medicine.” So while an herbalist wants to hear your diagnosis as part of an intake – it is part of the puzzle, not the whole picture – they also need to do the intake interview and have you to fill out that long form. An intake form will ask questions that you have never thought may be related to your rash but the answers you give may actually indicate that it is. Only then does an herbalist create a formula for a client. We want to get it right. When you come to see an herbalist as an individual practitioner, this is how we work. But Herbalists Without Borders clinics are different. We are the “urgent care” of herbalism. When you need care for an issue fast, we work quickly to assess what may work for you and determine if we have a remedy on-hand for that issue and how it affects you. If we do not have that remedy, we provide a referral to someone who can help in the long term, someone who has a dedication to affordable care. So herbalists practice two ways of herbalism: the way that helps people restore wellness for the rest of their lives – in a one-on-one setting, creating a unique wellness plan, and the way that treats folks in-the-now, the best we can in the moment – an HWB clinic or the wellness center at Standing Rock are good examples of clinic style care. Both ways have the opportunity to help someone suffering and make a difference in their lives. *Please know herbalists are happy to work with you if you take a drug and you have been told you need to take it forever. There are circumstances where an imbalance is so profound, so extreme, and/or has continued for so long that a lifelong drug may become necessary. A good herbalist works with folks on pharmaceuticals and knows how to support someone doing that. Lily Kunning is Columbus’ community herbalist, offering consultations, formulations, and education. She teaches students wanting to become herbalists, runs the Herbalists Without Borders chapter in central Ohio, and a whole lot more. You can find her at lilykunning.com and the HWB chapter at HWBCO.org.


Appears in Issue:  November 2019 issue

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We are the Central Ohio chapter of the international non-profit, Herbalists Without Borders. We work to make people's medicine (herbalism) and food justice accessible to all. 

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