Herbalism 101– Back to basics medicine

Until the 1950s, herbs were the basis of all pharmaceutical drugs.  But like everything else in our world since then, most of our medicines have now become synthetic.  Today only about 25% of our pharmaceuticals are derived from plants and herbs.  Not necessarily because the synthetic version is better.  It is often because the synthetic version is more profitable for the manufacturer.  It could also be argued that the synthetic version is usually more toxic.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman writes:

In the first pharmacology lecture that I head in medical school, the physician impressed on us that all drugs are toxic and we should never forget this. We were taught that medications work because of their pharmacologic properties—properties that enable the substance to interfere with, block, or stimulate an activity of the body. Drugs typically modify the way the body expresses the signs and symptoms of disease, but in chronic disease states, they do no undo the damage or remove the disease.

Listening to the list of side effects and warnings on most drug commercials makes most sane people wonder who, in their right mind, would put that pill in their mouths in the first place.  But when faced with illness and seemingly no other options, we do.  We all do.  And we pay high prices for them too.

Having said that, I readily admit that not all drugs are bad.  Some are life saving.  I will not suggest otherwise.   If any of my grandchildren gets sick, I’m glad there are antibiotics and doctors and nurses and hospitals to make them well again.   I’m glad there are vaccines and drugs that make lives longer and of better quality.  I’m not anti-Allopathic medicine.  Not even a little.   My only intention with this post–and this series, as it will be–is to reintroduce back-to-basics remedies that disappeared out daily lives, not because they don’t work but because something more convenient replaced them.  It’s become much faster and easier and therefore acceptable to take a puff of an inhaler than to brew a tea that will have the same effect, but should we always choose the inhaler?

I use that example because that’s how I began this day, by brewing of a cup of IMG_2220special tea. Bronchial Brew, Salli, my herbalist, call it. A mixture of nettles, mint, lemongrass, motherwort, mullein leaf, coltsfoot, comfrey leaf, hyssop, and stevia meant to calm my aching lungs. I have asthma and I’m in a flare. The very act of sitting to drink the tea (strained through an unbleached coffee filter for lack of anything else on hand) was relaxing. The tea ingredients are a combination of expectorants, antispasmodics, demulcents (soothing to mucous membranes), and other healing agents and an hour after having a cup I felt pleasantly relaxed with almost no coughing. I felt good enough to go without a hit from my prescription inhaler of steroids–something I’d much rather avoid.  This time it looks like I can avoid it.  Another time I may need to rely on that emergency inhaler or my little nebulizer friend.   But I’m glad to have more tools in my arsenal.  It’s good to have options, and that’s what this series is about.

This afternoon, as I sit here,  I have a carefully measured (to be sure it’s safe) lobelia tincture setting up in my apothecary cabinet as well.  It will be used when I have a more prominent (but still not immediately life-threatening) asthma flare.  Once it’s made and bottled, it’ll be good for many years, so I’m mixing up a good-sized batch.

And I must say that a part of me just likes the looks of it, the apothecary I mean.  I love the rows of gleaming jars of colorful herbs.  I love knowing exactly what I am putting in my body.  I love everything about it.  And I’m here to begin sharing my herbalism journey with you in hopes that I might spark a little of that back-to-basics attitude in your little corner of the world as well.

I feel qualified to know where to begin to introduce Herbalism to you because I, too, am a beginner.   I’ve recently enrolled in an herbal certification class and I’ll be passing on my lessons to you, in the same order that I receive them.  (So I can’t really mess it up.)  They say that the best way to learn and assimilate new information is to prepare to teach it to someone else.   I agree.  But first, a disclaimer:

I am not a doctor or a medical professional.   I am an amateur (read: beginner, newbie, #justgothereanddontknowanything) herbalist who is sharing some of the things I am learning with you here.   Please do not send me emails with descriptions of or, Lord help me, <gasp!> pictures of your rashes or boo boos.  I can’t help you.   I can’t prescribe or recommend anything for you.  You must proceed as is best for you, and as recommended by your healthcare professionals.   Don’t exclude them.  You still need them.   Use your head.  Everything we talk about here is with the intention of being used as complimentary to and not in full replacement of modern day medicine.

I will be giving basic information just as I am learning it.  If you want to learn more at a faster rate, there are many excellent books out there.  Here are some of my early favorites:

The Wholistic Herbal by David Hoffman

The Way of Herbs by Michael Tierra

A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Grieves

and The How to Herb Book by Velma Keith and Mounted Gordon

But of course, the first rule for any beginner herbalist is to become familiar with the cautions associated with the practice.

Here are a few that are commonly accepted and adhered to by experienced herbalist all over the world:

(1) NEVER use a strong herbal remedy at the same time as strong allopathic drugs.  Never.   Choose one as your primary.  Use others to support your primary.  For example, if you are on antibiotics, do not take herbal antibiotics.  Instead take herbs that help ease your symptoms and/ or to help rebuild the flora that will be damaged by antibiotics.   Taking something that does the same thing is a problem.  The two are often not compatible and you could hurt yourself rather than help.

(2) Do not use aluminum or copper pots or utensils to prepare your herbs.  Use glass, stainless steel, ceramic, cast iron, or enamel.

(3) Always research your herbs before use.  Just like modern medicine, there are warnings and cautionary statements for many of them.   For example, Valerian root should never be decocted.  It should always be infused.    How would you know that?  You must research.

(4) Don’t get in over your head.  Go slowly.  Do only what you have learned well.  Leave the rest to those who know better.  It is better to be safe, and a little knowledge goes a long way already without needing to push yourself into uncharted territory.

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