I was first introduced to herbalism in college through a friend of mine who lived in the same dorm as I did. Whenever I was sick or going through something she would deliver me little remedies– herb and tea blends, essential oils, and fresh herbs. When I had a cold, she told me to do a facial steam with thyme and the next day my sinuses were totally clear. When I was having trouble sleeping, she made me a nighttime tea blend with herbs that would help me to sleep better. When I wanted to stop my nicotine cravings, she gave me a special herb blend tailored to stop the cravings. I was excited to try something new that could possibly cure my ailments. I’ve never been a fan of taking prescription meds and have always been pretty uneasy about doctors and Western medicine in general. Plus it felt really cool to get medicine that was personalized for me and my conditions.
At that point in my life the closest thing to herbal medicine I ever experienced was from um like the Renaissance Fair. You know… white girls with dreads covered in flowers and stick-on tribal tats that chill in a tent selling you $100 incense… yeahhhhh you know the type. So I was definitely sus about how well this type of medicine would work.
But after using the herbal remedies a few different times, they actually helped! I was shocked.
But how in the world could a simple combination of different herbs and plants help cure my medical issues?
I wanted to do more research about herbs and the medicinal properties that correspond with each. Just like you would research a prescription medication on WebMD, you can find a list of medicinal properties for each individual herb. There were a lot of things I was able to figure out, other things that were tougher to research.
Here’s what you need to know:
Herbalism has a deep history. The longest oral tradition of herbal medicine is from China, but herbalism has been present throughout many cultures– Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman and Native American (to name a few). Traditional African medicine revolves heavily around herbalism and spirituality. Throughout the Middle Ages, herbalism was common practice and with the invention of the printing press, remedies and potions started to become mass-produced. Around the 16th century, Francis Bacon and William Harvey began to focus on medicine by understanding the human anatomy. These new biological discoveries shifted the focus of medicine away from herbalism and towards what we view now as Western medicine developed through “modern science.” Many modern herbalists practice herbal medicine as a way of connecting with their ancestral roots. However, there have also been movements in modern herbalism initiated to decolonize herbalism which as of recently has been appropriated as a high-class cultural phenomena rather than a deep understanding of the traditional practice. This is evident in the capitalization of “herbalist culture”. I can go into this more into depth in another post but basically this is like the white girl with dreads selling you $100 incense ya dig.
It is undeniable that plants have bioactive compounds which make them capable of providing health benefits. This is why plant extracts have been isolated into key ingredients for prescription and topical medicines. However, it can be difficult to isolate these properties by simply ingesting the plant which is why the medicinal effects can vary between person, plant, dosage, etc. Additionally, little research has been done to verify the medicinal properties that plants provide. The website Healthline includes several examples of independent research studies conducted to prove the health benefits of plants. These studies are cited throughout each article and include reputable sources such as the National Cancer Institute, Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and Archives of Dermatology. But many of these trials have been conducted on relatively small study groups or have not been replicated multiple times to ensure their claims.
Herbs work but maybe not in the way you think they do. As we know, bioactive compounds in plants explain why we do get medicinal properties from plants. Ginger has incredible antibacterial properties. Thyme has antiviral properties. Eucalyptus has antiseptic properties. But will eating lots of ginger off your sushi plate cure your flu? Probably not. Will thyme prevent you from getting Covid-19? Also definitely not. Like definitely not. At all. Ever. But what probably will make a difference, is using medicinal plants routinely. It’s not a shocker that drinking water and tea are the best fluids for your body. Drinking at least 8 oz of water a day ensures that your body maintains a healthy balance of fluids, energizes and renews the skin, and helps regulate organ and bowel function. Naturally, drinking tea allows you to maintain hydration while also blending in medicinal herbs. Hot water has plenty of health benefits as well including relieving congestion, digestion issues, and increased circulation. Daily inclusion of water and hot tea with medicinal herbs will boost your immune system and allow for their medicinal properties to work over time. You can think of it like when you start to feel a cold coming on. I usually start drinking lots of hot tea, water, hot soup, easing off of dairy products, and taking vitamins and supplements before the cold can really develop. Including herbal medicines into your daily routine will help to prevent further illnesses from occurring by strengthening your immune, digestive, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems (depending on what herbs you’re using ofc and in what ways).
So here’s the thing– Herbal medicine does work for certain ailments if you take them routinely (orally or topically). Herbal medicine is probably not the only medicine you should take. I know that Lavender will not be as effective for my anxiety as my Lexapro and that Rosemary will not magically “improve my mood and memory” (like Healthline states as a possible health benefit). But I do believe that herbal medicine when taken often or for a specific purpose can improve your overall immune system, digestive system, and mental and physical wellbeing. Taking herbs would probably not have prevented me from being hospitalized. But maybe drinking better fluids, eating better, de-stressing, and including herbal medicine into my daily routine would have helped my body from giving out as it did which ultimately led to my hospitalization.
I think it’s incredibly important to note the psychological effects of herbal medicine as well. When I was younger, I remember going into little antique shops and boutiques and always gravitating towards the stones and crystals. I also was obsessed with mood rings… so um yeah. Take what you will from that. Usually the crystals would have little descriptions next to them explaining their energetic properties or the energies associated with them. This past summer I even bought a beautiful pink salt rock and continue to keep it by my bedside along with my mugwort sage bundle.
Do I think my incredibly wonderful salt rock has energetic properties? Probably not. Do I think my incredibly wonderful salt rock is beautiful and makes me feel happy and energized when I see it? Yes. Yes I do.
I listened to a podcast that included this concept a few weeks ago called The Dream. The podcast describes the secret world of MLM companies and in their first couple episodes they discuss essential oil MLMs ( think doTerra or Young Living). If you don’t know what an MLM is… you can honestly look it up or read the definition I gave from this blog post. But basically the podcast initially dives into this MLM niche because health and medicinal products are so easy to sell to other people. Primarily because the FDA does not have to regulate “health supplements” and second, because people that don’t understand too much about medicine (which is a lot of people) really have no fucking clue what they’re putting into their bodies to begin with. They discuss this idea when mentioning the boom of the vitamin industry. Someone please tell me WTF is in your vitamins because I sure as hell have no idea. This makes selling mass produced essential oils so simple. But I also think the concept of MLMs participating in the capitalization of alternative medicine is so fascinating because it really goes to show that what is deemed to be “healthy” or “medicinal” is completely subjective. The podcasters explain that the distributors of the oils even have an Encyclopedia of Essential Oils that explain the “levels of frequencies that each oil gives out.” Only by balancing your illness’ PH scale with the correct essential oil will “cure your cancer” (yeah...they’ve actually made these claims without the good ole’ FDA checkin in). Okay, okay, you guys I know the wavelength PH stuff is a croc of shit that we would probably expect to see from Gwyneth Paltrow’s incredible GOOP Lab. BUT I also agree that this concept of alternative medicine may be much more complex than that.
Science is just one part of understanding medicine, but there are deep cultural, philosophical, and spiritual ties to medicine as well which are not founded in “Western” science. MLMs are a pretty shitty example of this… since they are using a pyramid scheme in order to literally capitalize their shitty business model. But its connection is a prime example that what constitutes a medicine can be extremely subjective. If I believe that something is healing and helping me… then why couldn’t that be true? One of the podcasters in The Dream doesn’t believe in alternative medicine at all while the other simply believes that alternative medicine can allow for people to seek health benefits in different ways even if they are not necessarily “scientifically proven” (according to Western science hence my quotations). The second podcaster explains that he collects crystals and that while he does not believe they are necessarily therapeutic for his physical health, he believes that by collecting them and learning about their “magical” properties, he feels that his crystal collection is therapeutic and holds significant value in his life. If he believes that the crystals are providing him therapeutic value then who is to say that it isn’t therapeutic or “healthy” for him to have them?
I believe that herbalism has a combination of these two properties. Herbal medicine does have many health benefits that are proven, but using herbal medicine also has psychological benefits. Getting a personalized bag of herbs that were chosen specifically for me from an herbalist that I was familiar with made me feel comfortable, special, and excited to try the blend. Knowing exactly what herbs I was taking and then specific properties that they were supposed to target also felt good to familiarize myself with. I felt great knowing what I was taking and what it was for. So maybe those factors were also key in its effectiveness. With all of my digestive and mental issues related to my high levels of stress (on my mind and body) I have realized more than ever how important the holistic aspect of medicine is. It’s not necessarily what you take but where you get it from and who you get it from that can create a significant difference in your overall outcome.
So despite the constant questioning, skepticism, and research… I decided that this summer I would grow my own small collection of plants and herbs to help start using, collecting, and drying them for medicinal purposes. Like I said, I don’t expect the frickin herbs to make me the most immune and powerful human on the planet… but I can already tell you that I FEEL THE MEDICINAL PROPERTIES FLOWING TO MY BRAIN. Jk lol. Alas only THC can do that... But it feels amazing to water them everyday and see them grow! Right now I have four different herbs growing– Lavender, Lemon Balm, Rosemary, and Basil. I can smell them and touch them and sing to them. I can’t wait to dry some of them in the fall and start using them in teas, herbal blends, balms, and tinctures. I am beginning to incorporate herbs into my everyday life as well as more water and hot tea instead of iced coffee… my favorite. I’ve always had really bad digestion and I am looking forward to seeing if using more medicinal herbs helps to balance out those issues.
Whether it’s the goddamn herbs, prescription drugs, or weekly therapy... I will never know.
What I do know, however, is that every individual must search for their own effective method in ensuring their healthiness and happiness.
But please, don’t get your essential oils from an MLM, I beg of you.
Herbal Medicine for Beginners Book by Katja Swift & Ryn Miruda
The Herbalist's Way by Michael Phillips