An Introduction to Herbal Medicine ft. A Certified Herbalist
Updated: Jun 18, 2018
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As a Holistic Health Coach and Nutritionist, I love to incorporate a variety of healing modalities into my private practice when working with clients. I find that a diverse toolbox of alternative approaches helps to create a unique and meaningful experience for each person based on their bio-individuality. One area of alternative medicine that I love to introduce my clients to is the world of Herbalism. I believe that herbs are natures's most potent medicine that can provide benefit to nearly everyone. However, I tend to avoid making specific recommendations for herbal regimens because I am not trained in herbal medicine.
I myself and countless others around me have seen tremendous benefit to our health, happiness, and resiliency by incorporating herbs into our daily routine. In an effort to make this information more widely available to those looking to improve their quality of life, I wanted to provide an introduction to herbs featuring the expertise of a certified Herbalist so that readers could dip their toes into the world of herbal supplementation. Fortunately, my dear friend who is also a trusted herbal expert agreed to sit down to a cold beer with me at Scottsdale's local Sip Coffee and Beer House where we talked about how to become acquainted with Herbal Medicine so that you can be confident using nature's most potent healing remedies.
image derived from CentreofExcellence.com
Tristan: Thank you so much for sitting down and having a beer with me as we discuss your expertise as a certified Herbalist! Would you mind introducing yourself and some of your passions so my readers can get to know you better?
Laura: Of course! My name is Laura Schmidt and I am a certified Herbalist through the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts. As for my passions, I love rock-climbing and also have a passion for holistic health care for not only myself, but also for the people I love.
I find that this extends into my interest in nutritional supplements and obviously using food as medicine, but also Western Herbalism and physical fitness. I think the combination of these things is really important in living a healthy lifestyle, and I think herbs are a great adjunct to all of that.
Tristan: I love that you have found your own unique way of combining nutrition, physical activity, and Herbalism not only into your own lifestyle, but that you also use this skill set to help those that you love and care for be healthier version of themselves. I’d love to dive into your background in Herbal Medicine, can you talk about where you went to school and received your training in Herbalism?
Laura: Yes, absolutely! I went to the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts and it was a two-year combined Holistic Nutrition and Western Herbalism program.
The nutrition portion was for the first 10 months, and the final 14 months was Western Herbalism based. The Herbalism portion was incredible because we got to be trained by Joanne Sanchez, who is a brilliant Herbalist who is registered with the American Herbalist Guild. The nutrition portion was incredibly foundational in that it really drove home the point that no herb is going to make up for poor nutrition.
Tristan: That sounds like such an amazing program and of course I love that nutrition was the foundation of the education! When you were describing the Herbalism portion of your training you mentioned "Western Herbalism". I was unaware that there were different ways to practice herbal medicine, can you describe the differences?
Laura: Absolutely, I think this is an area that most people are unaware of, so it will be good to describe the differences between Western and Eastern Herbalism. Generally, the differences lie in two main areas: what herbs are used and how they are used. Sometimes these two areas can overlap, but the biggest difference is in the way that the Herbalist will approach herbal therapies.
When someone with a background in Western herbal medicine begins to help another person with herbal therapies as part of their wellness plan, they will go about that in a very different way compared to an Eastern, or Chinese Herbalist. In Chinese Herbalism, the formulas for different herb combinations in a therapy are usually very complex. In Western medicine, it's not uncommon to prescribe a "simple" which is just one herb.
So for example, I have with me a tincture of only Milk Thistle that I can take if I feel my liver isn't functioning properly or if I'm having gallbladder pain.
In Chinese medicine, the smallest formulation you'll ever see if with 2 herbs, but there are some that can have up to 20 different herbs. It's very intricate and it's a different way of looking at how the body works, or how different organs and energy systems work together. Eastern Herbalism is just a very different approach to Western Herbalism, and Western Herbalism is similar to how we study anatomy and nutrition in America where A + B = C.
Tristan: OK, so Western Herbalism addresses a specific symptom or specific organ in the entire system, whereas Chinese medicine uses more of an energetic system's approach. I remember learning about the Traditional Chinese Medicine approach when I interviewed an Acupuncturist a few months ago, and it is VERY different to the approach that Western medicine takes. Given the differences in these approaches, do you feel there are any advantages or disadvantages to the Western Herbalism approach?
Laura: I think an advantage of Western Herbalism is that people are more likely to trust them as safe and effective. There are a lot of herbs that have been studied in the same way that pharmaceuticals are with standardized testing, and I think that appeals to a lot of logically-minded people who want to know the herb they are taking is effective and safe. That’s why I gravitated towards Western Herbalism, I want to see the data, and the studies and know that it's been tested in animal models to be proven safe and effective for me to use.
Tristan: I think that really emphasizes some of the characteristics of American culture. We have grown up and been exposed to a society that relies on the advances of science to prove the reliability and efficacy of a compound, whereas Eastern Herbalism is based on centuries of observation and trial-and-error. However, I don't believe one approach is better than the other and I believe it's more important to think about this in terms of finding an approach that will allow more people to have access to the power of herbal medicine as opposed to proving one philosophy is right and the other wrong.
In my opinion, people in our society need herbs, and I think it's great that there are multiple approaches to herbal medicine so that people can find a practitioner who approaches herbs in a way that is in line with their philosophy of health and how the body works. Given the science-forward focus of Western Herbalism, are there certain herbs that have been heavily researched and scientifically effective for certain conditions?
Laura: Oh of course, there are a ton! For starters, Milk Thistle is considered the "gold- standard" for being hepato-protective, or having liver-protectant properties. So that's why recovering alcoholics will use Milk Thistle.
*Fun fact: I find it also helps with hangovers! Cheers to that!
Eleuthero, which is incorrectly known as Siberian Ginseng, is considered one of the gold-standard adaptogens by athletes because it was tested on Russian athletes at some point in the 21st century for endurance and physical stamina and proven to be highly effective.
Tristan: Given that most people will likely turn to herbs to address specific issues, such as issues with the heart, liver, kidneys, etc. are there specific herbs that are used to treat disorders or issues with specific organs?
Laura: Absolutely! Hawthorne berry is a very important herb in any formula for heart health. Since we are in the heart of winter, a couple of great herbs to keep in mind for colder seasons are Elderberry, which is helpful at any point during a cold. Echinacea is great when you start to feel symptoms of a cold coming on such as fever and headaches; Echinacea boosts the immune system's response. Those are great for standard cold and flu season prevention.
Yarro is great if you already have a fever, as it actually raises the body temperature so that you can break the fever, which is counter-intuitive to the way most cold and flu medications work. Obviously, we have to be careful is someone has too high of a fever, but it can be very useful in helping your body fight infection.
For digestion, there are a bunch of bitter herbs that are useful. If we're talking about improving digestion, Dandelion is great as a bitter that's not overly bitter. Fennel seed is great for stimulating and aiding in digestion. Ginger more so aiding in digestion.
If you have any kind of nervousness or anxiety Skullcap and Lemon Balm are super helpful. St. John's Wort is the "gold standard" for treating depression, especially from exogenous factors such as seasonal depression or a lot of stressful factors in your life.
Tristan: Speaking of St. John's Wort, there has been a ton of controversy around the safety of using it. Can you speak about why this herb is a bit more precarious compared to others?
Laura: St. John's Wort is one of the most talked about herbs that has an interaction with other drugs. This is an important note to make because most herbs won't interact with drugs, but you should never make the assumption that an herb won't interact with a medication. The best thing you can do is research those herbs very thoroughly and look up any contraindications they may have or known interactions with medications.
Second, you never want to take herbs and medications at the same time, and people tend to do that often for convenience. For example, if you are taking herbs in a tea or liquid form you might not think about the interaction between medications and herbs - don't do that. Definitely stagger them.
So based on all of this, St. John's Wort got a really bad wrap because it interacted with Warfarin, HIV-proteases, anticonvulsants, and other drugs. The reason for this is that some herbs affect the way your liver processes medication so it can either speed up or slow down the release of drugs into your bloodstream and can either make the drug more potent or less potent.
Tristan: One thing you recommended is that people research herbs very thoroughly and any contraindications they may have or known interactions with medications. Would you recommend that people see an Herbalist specifically?
Laura: That’s a great question. An Herbalist is never supposed to go against the recommendations of an individual's doctor. With that being said doctors are a bit apprehensive to use herbs in a medical treatment plan because herbs are regulated as nutritional supplements and are not tested and approved FDA safe the same way that pharmaceuticals are. At the end of the day, there are companies that make highly pure and safe herbs that are used as medicine every day, and it's up to the judgment of the individual if they choose to incorporate these therapies into their lifestyle. There are so many resources available to help consumers find quality herbs such as scientific studies on PubMed and books by a registered Herbalist.
Tristan: I think that's a very good piece of advice, and the fact that herbs are not regulated by a larger governing body can make people weary to add herbs into their health regimen. With that being said, are there herbs that are more temperamental or susceptible to being of poor quality that readers should be aware of?
Laura: That's a good question! In my opinion, if you are nervous about the contraindications of a specific herb, then find a different herb that has no contraindications and that performs a similar function in the body. There are so many other great herbs that are known to be safe that I would recommend in place of herbs that interact with medications.
As far as herbs that are considered more temperamental, the two that come to mind are St. John's Wort and Poke Root. St. John’s Wort is one of the most temperamental because it interacts with so many medications. Poke Root is used to assists the lymphatic system, but when taken in high amounts can cause nausea, vomiting, cramping, stomach pain, diarrhea, low blood pressure, and difficulty controlling urination.
Tristan: I think you're right in that there are SO many options for herbs that have similar functions. I love the recommendation that if you are worried about the safety or potential side-effects of using more precarious herbs such as St. John's Wort or Poke Root, then choose a different herb that can produce a similar result. Given that there are so many herbs that can treat the same symptoms, what would you recommend to the "typical American" or someone who is stressed out, doesn't sleep very well, and tired during the day?
Laura: First, I would look at their diet and exercise routine. Then I would look at how much sleep they're getting at night, what they are doing right before they go to sleep, and what they do when they first wake up. Next, I would try to determine the source of their stress. Is stress something they have always had since they were young or is it from work or family. If they have trouble sleeping I would determine if it seem to be a physical symptom such as muscle tension, or are they not sleeping because their brain is running all the time?
If it's more of a physical symptom, Kava Root is great for muscle tension. However, if someone is not sleeping from mental stress, Kava Root will only work to make the person's body relax and not their mind. If a person is not sleeping because of mental stress, Ashwagandha is an amazing herb that exerts a calming effect. Next I would also ask if the person runs hot or cold regarding body temperature, and if they usually consider themselves to be high-energy or low-energy, aside from the fact that they’re stressed out. The latter differentiations do matter as some herbs are considered more warming, and some are considered more cooling. Personalization is definitely important.
Tristan: I completely agree that personalization is important. I think our society is beginning to realize that generalized health care is just not working and we need to transition towards a more holistic and individualized approach. Given your expertise with herbs and the fact that you value individualization, what are some of your favorites herbs for personal use? I can only imagine how much fun it is to have the background you do in herbal medicine and be able to apply it to your own life!
Laura: It is more fun that I’d like to admit! As for my own personal application of herbs, I do get cold extremities so I take Ginko for cold hands and feet to improve circulation. It's also great for memory. Ginko combined with either Eleuthero or Gotu Kola, which is another Adaptogen, is specific to connective tissue health and helpful for energy levels and joint health, which is essential for me as a rock climber.
Turmeric I like in pretty much anything because it helps your liver and is anti-inflammatory. I also like any formula that includes herbs that improve the function of other herbs.
For example, Rosemary and Prickly Ash Bark are in that category in that they improve the function of other herbs they are combined with. A good example of that is with turmeric absorption and how its uptake is reduced unless black pepper is added. So in this case, black pepper is the "driver" for improving the function of turmeric. Milk thistle is one of my new favorites too, for multiple reasons, hangovers being one of them!
Tristan: Plants are so cool. I remember a quote that said, "all you have to do is look around you in your natural environment to find at least one herb that can help you with whatever ailment you are experiencing".
Laura: That is VERY true and also brings up an important component to herbs, which is to know what part of the plant to look for. When people don't know where to start with herbs, not only do you not know what herb to purchase, but you also have to consider if it's of good quality and is the herbal therapy made from the right part of the plant that you're looking to use it for. Generally, you want to look for herbs that are made from the root of the plant, but most formulations will have some of the aerial parts as well such as leaves, flowers, seeds, and stems. This is generally fine, but the majority of the formula should come from the root for most herbs. You also want to pay attention to the way the herb has been sourced and standardized to ensure quality and potency.
Tristan: That’s a really valuable distinction to make, as paying attention to what part of the plant was used in the formulation will really determine the efficacy of the supplement. So moving forward with the topic of finding safe and effective supplements, if someone was looking to incorporate herbs into their repertoire, where would you recommend they start?
Laura: If you're really shooting in the dark, any book on herbs written by an expert is going to feel very overwhelming. Plus, things sound so different on paper, and there's nothing like hearing the tone of someone's voice. In my opinion, if you’re just getting started with herbs it's worth a consult with a Herbalist or a Naturopath that has an extensive background in herbs. You can also go The American Herbalist Guild website, which is the standard in America for registered and credentialed Herbalist. You can look it up by state and go from there.
Tristan: Ok I still have two more questions, are you ok with that?
Laura: Pff, yea I still have half a beer!
Tristan: So I didn't have this written down, but I think it would be helpful for readers. Because there are so many different ways to take herbs, is there a hierarchy in terms of potency or preferred method of taking herbs to provide the greatest benefit to the user?
Laura: That's a great question because some herbs are better taken in the form of an alcohol extract, or a tincture, such as Milk Thistle. If you see “Detox Tea” or milk thistle tea, don't waste your money. The active constituent in milk thistle is very poorly absorbed in water.
There are plenty of herbs that are fine to take in water as with infusions or decoctions. Decoctions are made when you boil an herb and are considered "harsher". This is typically used for roots or tougher material because you need more heat to extract the active components. Where as teas are typically made with leaves or flowers. There's nothing wrong with taking herbs in a tea or decoction, and there are plenty of benefits you can derive from this form. If you're going to make an herbal tea, you can infuse the softer parts such as the flowers and leaves. However, if you're making a tea from a pit or a root then you need to decoct it and boil it for a certain amount of time. For the most part, you still want to look up the best delivery method for each individual herb, and any reliable herbal medicine book will outline that for you.
The most important part of taking herbs is that you have to take it regularly and in amounts (doses) that are considered therapeutic, otherwise it is very unlikely that you will not gain any noticeable benefit. Although I love drinking tea, I'm not sure that it is convenient for someone to drink an herbal tea three times a day as a therapy. That's why I love tinctures and encapsulations, where tinctures are best because you don't have to worry about digestive issues as much. So many people have digestive issues that might impair nutrient absorption or the absorption of an herbal supplement. With tinctures, you put it right under our tongue and take some water and then you don't have to worry as much about the absorption. Plus, the bottles are small and convenient so you can take them with you anywhere, and you can find alcohol-free tinctures if that is a concern for someone.
Tristan: Would tinctures be considered the most potent form of taking an herb?
*image derived from Bon Appetit
Laura: For the most part, I would say yes. There are some herbs that are better in capsule form, but tinctures are usually a pretty good way to go. However, a time that you wouldn't want to use a tincture is if you are sick and you have a sore throat, as it can be very drying and cause more irritation. One exception to taking tinctures would be with Stinging Nettles, which are very good for allergies. In order to get the most medicinal benefit from Stinging Nettles, you would need to order them freeze-dried and then make a tea with it.
Tristan: Tinctures, capsules, and dry herbs are an area that I have always been confused about. That was an extremely valuable differentiation so that you! So far we have covered a lot of topics that speak to the confusion and apprehension with taking herbs. What do you feel is the most misunderstood about either the practice of Herbalism, herbs themselves, or the efficacy of herbal therapy?
Laura: I think the most incorrect thing I hear people say is that herbs don't work. If herbs didn't work then we wouldn't have to worry about herbs getting in the way of pharmaceutical efficacy. Herbs are what modern medicine came from.
Tristan: EXACTLY! I think most people are unaware that most modern drugs are derived from plant-based compounds founds in nature. Pharmaceuticals didn't just poof into existence out of thin air, they are modeled off of a compound from nature.
Laura: Right, humans lived a long time before the advent of pharmaceuticals. Don't get me wrong; we are alive because of modern medicine and if I break a bone you better take me straight to the emergency room!
Adding on, I think the second most misunderstood aspect of herbs is that you can use herbs the way you use prescription drugs, and I don't agree with that. I suppose there are some exceptions such as someone who was on anti-depressants may find they can improve their mood state through exercise, diet, and herbal therapies. My point is that there is no "one herb" that will directly replace a pharmaceutical drug, and it shouldn't. I think that's why doctors are so hesitant when approving someone to take herbal therapies.
Plants are complex beings, if you’ll allow me to say that. We'll never understand every mechanism of action with plant life or their effect inside the body, they're just too complex and we as humans are too complex. Compared to pharmaceutical drugs that act in a unilateral way with a very specific function. That's also why they have a lot of negative side effects. So both of those things have their place, but the point of this is that they are not the same. I think that's where a lot of Naturopaths get it wrong too is that they are inclined to prescribe herbs as they would a drug, and I really disagree with that approach.
Tristan: I really see your point in that herbs are complex living organisms that have their own agenda in terms of propagation, medicinal components, and protective mechanisms. I think your earlier comments about having a strong healthy foundation to your lifestyle is absolutely the first step to take before you introduce powerful medicine such as herbs. With all of this being said, both of us are strong advocates for a healthy lifestyle that involves paying attention to your sleep hygiene, your stress level, eating a healthy diet (whatever that means for YOUR body), and exercising in a way that feels good for you. So after you have all that going for you, where do herbs fit into the equation of improving your health?
*image derived from UCLA.edu
Laura: As much as you do all these great things to benefit your body, we all still have issues that we deal with. Herbs are the perfect little tools to alleviate discomforts and make us feel like we are balanced and fulfilled human beings…so, why not?
Tristan: That's one of the interesting aspects about our culture and its interpretation of health. We expect immediate fixes because that's the way our medical system tends to operate. If you have a toothache, you go to the dentist and get it fixed and you don't have to deal with it anymore. But we can't approach all matters of health by seeking an immediate fix because some issues are multi-dimensional and involve not just the physical, but also the emotional and mental aspects.
Being a human, we naturally deal with times of extreme sadness or extreme stress. Maybe you're not going to sleep because you just had a baby and you need help with energy during the day. These are all normal part of being a human, but we look at it as something that is wrong with us, but there's nothing wrong with you...you're just having a shitty day because that's life. Maybe you don't sleep for a week, maybe you cry for a month straight. That doesn't mean you have to go on medication for it, it's just a part of being human and I think that's where herbs fit into the equation. They're just that little push from nature that you need to re-equilibrate.
Laura: So true, and that matters so much. I myself have periods when I run out of an herb I like and then I start to question if I really needed it in the first place. Then life happens, stress happens, and I re-incorporate herbs back into my daily regimen and I realize exactly how much they really do help. In my opinion, herbs help your everyday go that much smoother, make your interactions better, and help you to not overreact unreasonably to a mildly stressful situation. I think long-term that matters in ways that we just don't fully understand scientifically, and can only be understood on an individual basis.
Tristan: Exactly, and most of the “data” that you are speaking to is subjective and anecdotal based on experiences that happen in your own life. But if herbs could help you to know what "better" feels like, then at least you have a comparison to work towards becoming your new normal. That's a gift in and of itself because now you have the ability to differentiate between what “normal” feels like and what “great” feels like and then you know that life can be just a little bit better. Well my dear, this has been a spectacular conversation and I am selfishly over the moon elated by the information I have learned! Before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to add?
image derived from holisticfamilymedicine.com
Laura: I just want people to try herbs for themselves, as long as they are in good health. Herbs are amazing and not in the ways that you may think, but they can do surprisingly great things for you. Just try to let judgments go of yourself and of other people, if you don't think herbs are going to work I'm not going to argue with you, but I do encourage it.