When I first began practicing as an herbalist, I resented the standard disclaimer we are all taught to put on our intake forms and our websites -- "These products and services are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any medical condition."
I felt like these words diminished the importance and power of the work I was doing. And it seemed somehow dishonest given that many of my first clients were people who were eschewing the medical system altogether, people for whom I was the primary health care practitioner.
But the deeper I have gone into this work, the more I have realized that my work has nothing to do with diagnosing or treating medical conditions -- though occasionally the protocols I've recommended have probably helped to cure them.
You see, contemporary medical science and practice for the most part, views the human body as a collection of parts. Diseases and injuries are identified by their symptoms and surgical and pharmaceutical strategies are developed to correct these particular symptoms by manipulating particular chemical and mechanical functions in particular organs and systems.
This approach works remarkably well to reverse symptoms in acute situations -- resuscitating someone who has had a heart attack or stopping an aggressive blood infection. We can do these things with herbs too, but medical procedures have a higher success rate here.
But the longer a condition persists and the longer a treatment is continued, the less predictable the outcome will be, and the more unintended consequences begin to develop. Steroid inhalers do a great job of opening the airways of an asthmatic in the short term, but over time lead to problems with the adrenals that contribute to the underlying autoimmune condition.
Some herbalists would suggest that the problem is that pharmaceutical drugs are too biochemically crude and that herbs can work better for chronic conditions because the plants that pharmaceutical drugs are derived from often contain chemicals that counteract side effects of the isolated compounds used in those drugs. And this is certainly true to a point. Many then take the next step and say that herbs can be used to replace pharmaceuticals in the treatment of chronic medical conditions and that we need to identify which herbs can most reliable be used to treat which diseases using which chemical pathways. And then find ways to standardize their cultivation, processing, and use.
This is where I take a sharp turn in another direction.
Because to me medical conditions are nothing but taxonomic descriptions of particular states of particular organs or systems in particular moments.
And they are meaningful only when the primary focus is on addressing the immediate symptoms.
But just as the laws of physics change when operating on different scales of space and time, so too medicine's description of the workings of the body and the actions of certain medicines in the body tends to break down when you change the frame of reference.
The body turns out to be more than the sum of its parts -- it is a living, self-organizing system. And changing a particular aspect of the operation of that system can have a host of seemingly unpredictable consequences to those who apply strictly mechanical and biochemical models to a dynamic system with a complex logic of its own.
I align myself most strongly with the rural New England Root Doctors of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who, working with insights gleaned from European folk medicine and what knowledge they could gather of Indigenous traditions, worked to treat the person, not the disease, attempting to understand and work with what the body was trying to do to heal itself and bring itself back into balance.
Their philosophy was best articulated by some of the heirs of their tradition, the great Physiomedicalist physicians of the middle and later nineteenth century. Dr. William Cook wrote in 1869 that ""The living body is held in life and action by a living force" and healing is best promoted by supporting the actions of that force. His contemporary, Dr. T.J. Lyle said that "in the art of curing disease we can but influence to contract and relax with varied degrees of rapidity and energy in imitation of nature's way of using these structures in health."
In doing so, its necessary to find the imbalance -- the obstacle to cure -- that is preventing the body from healing itself, and remove it through an equal and opposite corrective action. Lyle wrote:
"In the work of restoration the attempt must be to restore to some extent the opposite condition of that abnormally existing. If the parts are congested apply heat and relieve the circulation. If the body is emaciated give proper food and sustain digestion. If there be too much relaxation, stimulate to the relief of such abnormal relaxation. If there be too much rigidity, relax to the relief of that rigidity."
The simplest ways to do this involve meeting the body's unmet needs for sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition.
But sometimes its necessary to bring in outside agents to effect change by warming or cooling, moistening or drying, stimulating or relaxing, in accordance with what the body itself is trying to do. This is at the core of my work.
Because plants have bodies remarkably similar to ours, they are constantly developing strategies for dealing with stresses remarkably similar to those experienced by our bodies. Like our bodies, theirs are trying to obtain or maintain balance. So plants that live in wet areas develop strategies for dealing with excess moisture. Plants that live in hot, dry conditions develop strategies for cooling and moistening their tissues.
And like us plants are more than the sum of their parts. In the laboratory it may be possible to identify particular compounds that produce particular results in particular conditions, but these are not the whole of the plants' medicine.
Plants operate as deep teachers to our bodies, helping us learn new strategies for correcting imbalances.
My work as an herbalist is the work of connecting people with plants that can help them find physical, emotional, and spiritual balance.
Any resemblance to work intended to diagnose or treat medical conditions is purely incidental.