What common mistake do people make?
People can get sick and even die from taking herbs. The good news is that herbal medicine can be one of the most amazing things to experience and it can be experienced safely when properly administered. The last thing I want anyone to do is be careless with their health. Please see a medical doctor if you have any health concerns. Keep in mind that none of this information has been approved by the FDA and it is just my opinion as a herbalist and healer.
The most common approach to herbs here in the west is to look at the condition and look at herbs that are known for treating that condition. For example someone with a heart condition may consider taking herbs to improve their health. They do a few google searches and read in multiple articles that garlic is good for the heart. They may even to go a medical doctor to ask about taking garlic capsules. So they decide to order some garlic capsules and give it a try – only to find that it doesn’t work out and they get some unwanted physical and emotional effects too. Here are some other herbs that are commonly known for doing a certain thing, but that just may not be the case:
Ginger and peppermint – helps with IBS
Chamomile – helps with sleep
Green tea – helps with weight loss
Turmeric – helps with inflammation
Reducing the uses of herbs in this way is not only ineffective but it can also be misleading. It gives the reader the idea that since chamomile is a safe herb, as long as there is no allergy then the reader can take it to help with their sleep. It is true, I love turmeric and it truly does help with inflammation, but if you pick up a bottle of turmeric capsules and take them in order to reduce your inflammation you probably will just waste time and money doing so.
Does this sound familiar? Have you tried out an herb or formula or herbs that seems to be working for a lot of people but does not work for you? Here is why.
Every single human being is unique. This means that each person is going to react to herbs differently. Uh oh! Does this mean that herbs are unpredictable and cannot be used because the effects are unknown? No! It does however mean that you have to spend some time getting to know yourself (or even better, letting a professional get to know you) before you start working with herbs.
How does knowing yourself play into taking herbs? Is just some New Age mumbo jumbo? No, of course not! The reason it is important to know yourself before you take herbs is that everyone has a different makeup and these different makeups will respond differently to plants. A persons makeup is often referred to as their constitution, but you could also think of it as a physical personality.
The problem with the common approach to herbs is that people think that herbs work exactly like drugs. People will think that you can choose a herb that is known to help with pain, look up the “side-effects” or warnings, and take the recommended dose, as you would with lets say an analgesic. I will highlight some of the ways that herbs and drugs are not the same.
How are herbs different from drugs?
- Herbs do not have side effects. I said it! If you are having complications from taking an herb, chances are, you are taking it incorrectly, taking the wrong herb, having an allergic reaction, or something similar. I would say 8/10 herbs do not really have side effects, while 2/10 of the herbs we work with may have some, but even then the “side-effects” can usually be eradicated by a skilled herbalist. The 2/10 herbs are usually herbs that the general public does not work with anyway. I could write a whole article on herbs not having side effects.. in fact, I will! To sum it up, when herbs are not used properly then yes maybe you will end up with a headache or nausea. My point is that it is not the herbs causing the side effect, but their misuse. It seriously saddens me the things that I see called side effects of herbal medicine on the internet when in reality a lot of them are signs of an allergic reaction or misuse.
- Many drugs don’t mix well with other drugs, however, a skilled herbalist combining herbs can actually increase the effectiveness and safety of the herb by combining it with others.Herbs in a clinical setting are rarely given in singles. That simply means that herbs are usually given in formulas of at least 3-15 herbs to increase effectiveness and safety. In fact, some herbs usually need to be mixed with other herbs – but this is not information you would find in some simple google search.
- Herbs are not one chemical constituent but rather, an amalgam of chemicals exist within the herbs and they all work together.Saying that only one chemical constituent is the active one is reductionist, dangerous, and ignorant. You cannot think that by removing one part of an herb in order to standardize it will result in better outcomes.
What does this look like with people?
Here is a scenario. Jasmine, Mike, and John go to a party. There are some people at the party that they have not met before and so they try to mingle. First they speak with Jan who is very vivacious and talkative. Jan speaks very loudly and can sometimes get into heated arguments. After speaking with Jan, the group heads over to Candice. Candice is very intellectual and will get into very long discussions about the things she is passionate about. The group finishes mingling and goes home. While discussing the people they met, they realized that they did not all agree on who they liked. Here is why:
Jasmine– A very quiet person who does not like to socialize very much, unless it is with someone who shares the same interests.
Mike – Someone who absolutely loves to party and have fun
John– John enjoys the company of all types of people and is a total social butterly who can hang with any crowd.
Jasmine and John like Candice because she is intellectual and interesting, but Mike is bored to death by her. Jan is fun to John and Mike, but Jasmine does not enjoy their company.
Lets try a scenario with plants!
This group of people tries mint tea, garlic capsules, and astragalus root tea and they all have different reactions.
Jasmine is a cold and dry person. She gets sick often. She is thin and rarely feels hungry. she has dry skin and wears a lot of clothes to stay warm. She disliked the mint tea, loved the astragalus, and liked the effects of the garlic as well. Why is this? The mint tea was too cold for Jasmine, the astragalus root helped build up their immune system and the garlic was very warming.
Mike is a very hot and dry person and John is a cold and damp person. How do you think the herbs affected them?
Keep in mind these are very simple examples that probably would not occur this way but it is just to illustrate a very important point. There is no herb for _________. This means if you are wondering “What is a good herb for eczema?” or “Can I take cinnamon for diabetes?” The answer is that it depends on each individual person. So if you are looking at a herbal reference book and it says that valerian will help you to get to sleep, maybe it will, maybe it won’t. It is not because valerian is a scam or it does not work, but it means that you first have to consider your own constitution and the energetics of the plant. The word energetics refers to the energies of the plant – hot, cold, dry, astringent, damp and much more. So practicing herbal medicine is like being a matchmaker- you have to consider the constitution of a person and match it to the herbs with the right energies. Then you have a perfect couple!
There is no herb for eczema. There is no herb for inflammation. There are herbs, and there are people. Effective herbal medicine is truly about matching the proper herbs to the proper people – and you cannot do that simply by looking at a list of recommended herbs for a condition.
Now I 100% believe that it does help to look at recommended herbs for a condition. But the point of this entire article is that it is not the only step in determining which herbs to take! Looking at recommended herbs for IBS for example may be a step somewhere along the process of finding the proper herbs, but cannot be the only step. The first step to take if you want to take herbs safely and effectively is to find out your constitution and match the herbs to your constitution.
How to find out your constitution
This small post is certainly not going to teach you everything you need to know about finding out your constitution but hopefully this will give you an idea of how it generally works.
Within TCM (traditional Chinese Medicine) there is the Shen, Liver Fire Blazing, Spleen Yin Deficiency..
Within Ayurveda there is Excess Pitta and Ama accumulation..
In Western Herbalism there are depressed or damp tissue states..
This is too much for a beginner, especially if you have no intention of practicing herbal medicine in a clinical way with clients! I have tried to make a simple of understanding herbal constitutions and assessment. Knowing what type of constitution you have is the first step to figuring out which types of herbs are good for you and which ones are not. I believe the simplest way to understand the basics of your constitution would be to focus on:
Hot or Cold
Dry or Damp
Excess or Deficient
I am in general damp/cold/deficient. This means it is good for me to use herbs that are drying, warming, and building (herbs that boost energy, strength, and nutrition). This means something like dandelion root which is a detoxiying and cold herb is generally contraindicated with someone like me, though I could take dandelion if I wanted to if i combined it with the proper herbs (and I do). Lets break down what each of these words and a few ways these qualities may manifest in a physical body:
Dry – dry skin and skin conditions, dry hair, dry stools and possible constipation, a dry tongue and mouth, excessive thirst, malnutrition, reduced function of bodily processes due to lack of water, nervousness, restlessness, and anxiety . Herbs to use for dry people are slippery elm and marshmallow root.
Damp– nausea, lassitude and sluggishness, heavy or stiff joints, oily skin and hair, possibly watery stools, a very moist tongue, edema, bloating, likes to sleep and can have a hard time waking up. Usually calm, patient, and kind people. Examples of herbs to use for damp people are citrus peel and fu ling.
Cold – white coated tongue (usually), feels cold most of the time and has poor circulation, prefers warm drinks and foods, tendency towards diarrhea, low energy and sluggishness, dull aches and pains as opposed to burning or stinging ones, hypoactivity within the body like the metabolism for example, difficulty losing weight, desire to sleep more, tendency towards lower blood pressure. Examples of herbs to use for cold people are ginger and cayenne pepper.
Hot – yellow coated tongue (usually), feels hot most of the time and prefers to stay cool, has a strong preference for cool drinks and foods,tendency towards high blood pressure, tendency towards constipation, may often be thirsty, burning pain as opposed to dull pain, restless and energetic, a desire to eat more (strong appetite). Herbs to use for hot people are rose petals and dandelion leaf.
Deficient – weak, tired, quiet voice, fatigue and low energy, possibly excessively introverted and timid, low appetite and poor digestion, low nutrition, sensitivity to negative or toxic influences such as stress or poor environmental conditions, low immune system, more chronic conditions as opposed to acute. Possible herbs to use for deficient people are licorice root and ginseng.
Excess – robust, action-oriented and aggressive, loud voice, outgoing, has a lot of energy, reddish complexion, more acute conditions as opposed to chronic,. Herbs to use for excess people are milk thistle, dandelion root, and rhubarb.
Again, your personal constitution is much more complex than this but knowing this is a good place to start if you are considering herbs. It is possible to have an illness or person that contains all of these properties at once, but most people have a general constitution that fits into one of these categories for example dry/hot/excess. Lets look at what a dry/hot/excess person would look like and possible herbs for them.
A dry/hot/excess person could have conditions such as GERD, eczema, constipation, irritability, and restlessness. Possible herbs for this person would be dandelion, burdock, rhubarb, gentian root, and a diet including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Finding out about plant constitutions (plant energetics)
I will write another post about learning about plant energetics. For now, just know that just as people have their own constitutions (physical body personalities) plants have something similar as well. Plant energetics does not mean energetics in a nonphysical or psychic way, but energetics refers to the way that the plant affects the system. For example, it is easy to understand that peppermint it cooling and that cayenne pepper is warming.
Tips for working with herbs
There are a few keys to making sure your adventures with herbs are going well.
- Common sense! Go see a medical professional if you need to.
- Get your information from the right places. Clinical herbalists!
- Do not spread around information if you do not know if it is true or not.
- Know yourself (or whoever you are giving herbs to.)
- Get your herbs from reputable sources and be respectful to the environment.
- A lot of doctors do not have the proper training in herbalism to be able to give their patients herbs. If you do go to a medical doctor because you have herbal questions, please see one with the right kind of training/experience. Unfortunately some medical practitioners think that they can prescribe herbals with little to no training in herbal medicine.
Don’t take extremely large doses of herbs because you think more is better. Also, don’t take too little and then get angry at the herbs for not working. Get your doses from a well respected herbal source or a herbal practitioner if possible. In a lot of cases, herbal supplements read ” 2 capsules a day.” This often is not enough herb, my teachers and I will use 5-8 capsules even 3 times a day! Then with other herbs you may need only a single drop of tincture a week. Again, never just guess with doses.
Getting your information from the right place is key. I have lost count of the incorrect and even dangerous sources of information I have found on herbal medicine online. I do believe that herbal medicine should be accessible to everyone and that it should not be complicated or restricted to only certain individuals, but I am also sometimes disappointed by the false information spread out by uneducated people in their efforts to gain popularity online and build a name for themselves. Try to find books written by respected herbalists with actual clinical experience such as Rosemary Gladstar and Paul Bergner. You can check out my list of recommended herbal books and courses over here.
And my greatest tip aside from being safe is to have fun and take your time because building a relationship with the world of plants is one of the most rewarding things you can do on this earth.
None of these statements or products have been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This products and/or statements are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This is for educational purposes only and it is not meant to replace the care or advice of a medical professional in any way.