It is no longer very hard to find many forms of alternative medicine in the most progressive cities of America. There are some small towns where you will easily find a dozen acupuncturists within a few blocks of each other; spaced evenly between the massage therapists, yoga studios and a few apothecaries. One apothecary may have bulk herbs and the other may have a cozy atmosphere and gift items such as bath salts and home-made incense. In the beginning, this trend was rather charming and offered a lot of options for those of us who are seeking to heal our bodies and minds in alternative ways.
We were sick of the excessive pills and willy-nilly use of antibiotics, sick of the doctors who didn’t look us in the face. We wanted a kind woman with comfy clothes to feel our pulse and tell us what tea we should drink to help our headaches. We wanted the massage therapist to work some magic and cure our sciatica; we wanted the kind gentleman at the herbal shop to whip up a tincture that could get rid of that nasty poison ivy rash. But somewhere along the way, we realized that we could go to our local CVS and get St. John’s Wort supplements or beeswax lip balm. Finally, the main stream was beginning to get it, right?
On one hand, this shift is an amazing opportunity to experience many forms of alternative healing. It is fabulous to be able to choose between seven acupuncturists and exhilarating to have a different yoga class to attend every night of the week. It’s as easy to find a bottle of Goldenseal supplements as it is to find a bottle of aspirin. But where did these alternative medicines come from, and how do they work?
It is a question that is no longer asked by many people who use these supplements daily. They may not know what St. John’s Wort looks like, but they know it helps with seasonal depression and comes in easy-to-swallow pill form. They aren’t sure where to find Goldenseal, but they are pretty sure that they should take it with Echinacea as soon as they feel sick, or once they are already sick, and what’s the difference? The problem is that this mentality is turning herbalism and alternative medicine into the very thing we hated about Western medicine to begin with.
It has to do with roots; it has to do with experience. If you are feeling depressed and grouchy, you could indeed take the bottle of St. John’s Wort out of your cabinet and pop a few pills. Or, you could take a walk to the woods. You could find a trail that was made by deer, and you could feel the earth under your feet as you walked. You could then close your eyes, feeling the shadiness of the trees around you, smelling the soft mud and ferns. You would realize that you had to find a clearing; some sunshine, in order to find the plant you wanted. You would walk up a hill, moving closer to a sunny patch that you feel is ahead. Then you would come across those nearly fluorescent yellow flowers beaming up out of the ground. You would pick one and smell it, smooshing it in your fingers and marveling at how the yellow turns so quickly into a blood-red. You would gather some and put them in a jar that you brought along, making sure to leave many flowers on the plant. When you got home, you could make a tea, or soak them in some alcohol to make a tincture. You might even put some into olive oil, as long as it hadn’t rained in the last three days; because in that case the oil would most likely go rancid from the water left on the flowers. You would know these things.
In either case, you would be ingesting the hypericin; which is the constituent of St. John’s that scientists have found to be so useful. However, when you pull it out of your cabinet, you are missing out on several key things that you would have experienced had you walked to the woods. If you went and found this plant on your own, you would be getting fresh air. You would be feeling the joy of finding a plant you were looking for. You would feel it on your hands, which would also cause you to absorb some of the constituents. You would be getting exercise, and you would, most importantly, see the plant in real life and consuming the entire thing rather than an extract of what some scientists have been looking at in a focused way.
Herbal medicine has a history that would be impossible to pin down completely, no matter how hard you tried. Because plants differ from region to region and country to country, there is no telling where certain bits of information and uses of specific plants originated. They are like folk songs, or grandma’s recipes. However, one thing is fairly certain. When people used to use plants, they found them in the woods around them. If they went to an herbalist, the herbalist had found them and made the medicine by hand. Human error and human energy came into play in a way that they just cannot when you are buying mass-produced supplements from a corporate grocery store. You didn’t see the St. John’s that went into those pills; and neither did any human, potentially.
All this being said; there is definitely an advantage to buying your herbs in the form of supplements at the store. For one thing, you are mostly sure that you at least have the right plant. To the untrained eye, St. John’s can look an awful lot like Goldenrod or Dandelion. Furthermore, not everyone lives within walking distance of a St. John’s patch, and it is not always middle to late summer.
However, nothing is stopping you from learning about the plants that grow where you live. If you begin to learn about these things, even in a very basic way, you will see that your relationship to the herbal medicines you take changes drastically. All you need to do is be sure that you are finding the right plant, which can be the hardest part at first. If you work with an herbalist, you can check with them. Once you do this one time, for fun, you will see that there is a lot that goes into making herbal medicine ; and this is part of the healing process in many cases.
If you can learn about even one plant, such as Dandelion or Yarrow, you will see that you can look at the bottles of pills differently. Suddenly each one is not filled with a magic cure; it is filled with a ground-up and extracted plant. A plant that you could have found yourself, possibly in your own back yard. This is an important thing to acknowledge, as it can prevent you from starting to use herbalism as just another type of western medicine.
These herbs are not there to give anyone a quick fix, or to allow them to live a life full of toxicity and ignore their problems. They are there to be used, found, and respected. If you can bring yourself to take part in the experiences that using herbs allows you, such as walking in the woods and looking at many plants in order to find the ones that are going to help you, then you are going to be one of the few who has not simply substituted their mass-produced ibuprofen for mass-produced Feverfew and kept a straight face.