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Herbal Medicine: The Art of Healing with Plants

My naturopathic doctor is based in Colorado, where I lived for many years. She studied western medicine avidly until one day she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Nothing traditional helped her, and she was on the verge of facing the end—until she decided to try naturopathic medicine. Along with herbs and acupuncture (along with other Chinese medicinal cures), she got rid of her cancer. And now, she’s like the mayor of my hometown. Because of HERBS. They saved her.

Wanna know more about the history behind this seemingly impossible story?

The following is an excerpt from The Herbalist’s Way: The Art and Practice of Healing with Plant Medicines by Nancy and Michael Phillips.


A holistic view of Creation readily encompasses science. Yet today many people equate knowledge almost exclusively to a scientific viewpoint. Integrating empirical observation and spiritual intuition into the sum of what we know widens our view of this marvelously crafted world.

There’s excitement in the air as we come to recognize both the science and the art of herbal medicine. Human wisdom builds continually, though we may not recognize all contributions at all times. A working knowledge of plant constituents and body chemistry provides depth to our understanding of how herbs work. Such information sheds light on the empirical results of centuries of medicinal plant use. Still, we must not lose sight of the fact that the cures and benefits of herbal lore came long before the “proof ” the scientifically based crowd insists is solely relevant. Science can help to clarify the nuances of specific preparations. For example, it is useful to know that the blood-thinning ability of garlic is enhanced when it is macerated in a vegetable oil. Crushing the clove releases the allicin that breaks down into ajoenes and dithiins.1 On a purely inquisitive level, science attempts to understand the physical world in which we live. Herbalists acknowledge that science is a worthy part of our wisdom base, but we do not emphasize its importance above intuitive insight.

Human disagreements often come down to differences of language and faith. Most of us have difficulty seeing beyond our own strongly held beliefs. We can agree readily, however, that our very existence affirms a magnificent Creation best held in awe. A multitude of paths lead to the center of the circle, all of which touch on some elements of universal truth. Certainly a number of these incorporate science—some would even say science stands as its own belief system— but unmarked trails lead beyond our intellectual ken as well. People with varying points of view can begin to talk about these greater mysteries when we find a language able to reach beyond rational insistence. Physicians trained in modern allopathy, human anatomy and physiology, and pharmacology have added more than 40,000 words to their vocabulary. Herbalists don’t necessarily encounter all these terms of modern medicine, but they can certainly share the basic information. The pyloric sphincter will always be the valve-like ring between the stomach and the duodenum, regardless of your belief system. Botanical Latin allows us to reference specific plant species regardless of common names that reflect regional variance. Healers, for the most part, ultimately share the gist of a working vocabulary. The rub lies in how we conceptualize the systems of the body and integrate vital life force with the medicines we each deem applicable.

How we think is much more than a question of language. “Herbs are really suited to broad patterns in the body,” says Matthew Wood, a respected teacher on the herbal circuit. “They don’t necessarily do the specific microscopic things that the scientists are looking for. Herbs often relate to general changes. This is why we can have well-documented herbs that do tremendous things, like St. John’s wort and valerian, and yet scientists still can’t figure out why they work. They aren’t used to thinking the way nature thinks.”

Our understanding of how herbs are used in healing continues to unfold. Today’s herbalists can become divided philosophically between a rational view focused on identifiable phytochemical constituents and an empirical view that embraces varying combinations of folkloric tradition, eclectic medical observation, and plant energetics. Despite our sometimes divisive groping to understand plant alchemy, Western herbalists do share a holistic perspective when it comes to helping people heal. We look at how body systems have been affected by the totality of each person—mind, diet, environment, spirit—and then seek to promote health by addressing the underlying causes of illness. Herbs are used to strengthen the body’s natural functions and to help bring about system balance.

“Folkloric herbalism reaches out and cares for humanity directly from the world of wonder,” says James Green, director of the California School of Herbal Studies. “It is not difficult to understand why folkloric herbalism is ignored, as much as possible, by our Western rational science. Western science simply does not assimilate mystery very well. Its nature must know how; and it must know why. What it can’t prove by its peculiar methods of investigation and manipulation, it tends to impulsively invalidate.”2

Such rational disdain deserves a good look if we are to find mutual respect for each other. If an herb works time and time again, why debunk it? And yet in the eyes of a scientist, a thousand testimonials for a specific herbal preparation are no more evidence than a claim made by only one person. The so-called placebo effect raises hackles as well. It seems that confidence in a therapeutic approach has little validity just because someone gets well.

“Western medicine gave up the placebo effect in trying to quantify everything with double-blind studies,” says David Winston of Herbalist & Alchemist, a manufacturer of highly respected herbal preparations. “It’s not a bad idea to find out what really works and what is the placebo effect. But in trying to do this we decided the whole concept of placebo effect is a negative thing. If somebody comes to me and they are sick, they don’t care why they get better. I don’t care. All we care about is that they get better. It is true that 33 percent of the time if you do nothing, between placebo and self-limiting disease, people improve. In fact, one study shows that people get better because of placebo effect 60 percent of the time. The human mind is incredible.”

Positive experience makes sense to us. Anyone who has had a successful chiropractic adjustment recognizes that manipulations of the spinal column do indeed effect a cure. A chiropractor adjusts bones to thereby adjust muscles and organs, leading to a reorganization of the whole body. And yet conventional medical theory regards chiropractic as so much bunk because its claims have not stood the usual tests of scientific validation. Quite simply, to a classically trained doctor with no particularly compelling treatment to recommend, that pain in your lower back is likely to go away eventually. The chiropractor who gains acceptance by taking time to talk with each patient offers an understandable prognosis, and gives hope. That you feel better after an adjustment is seen as mere coincidence. Effectiveness tied to hope seems to really get the rational blood boiling. This philosophical insistence on proving reality really is real comes with all the economic advantage of a stacked deck. Why go to a chiropractor—or an herbalist for that matter—if all that can be offered is hope?

Western culture at large has come to look upon scientists with the same veneration a traditional society might accord to its priest or shaman. Researchers’ authority or methodology is often not questioned when word comes through the media that an herb proves too good to be true one day and then suspect the next. Many variables enter into everyday life that no therapeutic research can fully assay: Individuals differ in constitutional type, emotional history, and environmental upbringing. How herbs are prepared and administered affects the patient-plant interaction. Isolated constituents in the plant rarely, if ever, have the same action as the whole plant. The energetic qualities of the herb often are not considered. Nuance proves subtle and immeasurable yet it often means everything: The soil that grows the plant, the potent moment of harvest, and the soulful intention in the heart of the harvester do matter. Ulterior motives behind any research can certainly determine desired outcomes. Contradictory results certainly happen.

“When you come right down to it, probably a majority of conventional medicines in our pharmacy today were not put to the standard of double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized clinical trials,” says Robert Rufsvold, M.D., a family practitioner at the New England Center for Integrative Health in Lyme, New Hampshire. “There’s a tradition of empiricism in conventional medicine, too, and it’s not necessarily a wrong one.”

Any medical system is going to be either rational, empirical, or some combination of the two. A totally rational framework seeks an individualized differential diagnosis based upon a theoretical understanding of human physiology. A strictly empirical mind set, on the other hand, categorizes symptoms and diseases, takes note of what treatment has worked historically, and proceeds from there with a course of action. Remedies become a matter of routine based upon observed experience.

All of us can think anew. All of us can honor the teachings that have come before our time and through our own experiences as herbalists. There should be no wedge between people who want to help others feel better. Healers tend toward linear opposition when the broader perspective of an open-minded circle would keep us in better stead. Good medicine is both rational and empirical. An honest science can embrace mystery. Folklore only gets better when we try to understand why it works.

All of us enjoy knowing the facts about our favorite herbs that science can provide. The Cherokee, for instance, used yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) for sore eyes. We now know that eye drops containing 0.2 percent berberine will alleviate conjunctivitis. They used yellowroot as a blood tonic and as a cancer remedy. Berberine has anticancer activity. Native peoples used yellowroot for cramps, hemorrhoids, nerves, sore mouths, and sore throat as well. The bitter berberine and other alkaloids present in this root have spasmolytic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antibiotic, and viricidal properties. The folklore worked long before science isolated and named the chemicals in the herb. Today we know so much more by putting the two together.

Ultimately, the debate over the scientific validity of herbal medicine will come down to who reaps the profits. The domestic herb industry argues for scientific respectability. The status accorded to pharmacological studies of plant constituents comes with a share of an encapsulated market. Any legislation to regulate of the sale of plant medicines will bolster corporate herbalism. Community herbalists and bioregional apothecaries, on the other hand, will continue to uphold tradition and the utterly wonderful availability of the healing plants for each and every one of us.



  1. The ajoenes and dithiins are the strongest known blood-thinning constituents of garlic. Thus macerated oils are considered best for stroke or heart attack patients. Consult with a physician if blood-thinning drugs are already in use. Ajoene, not present in significant amounts in raw garlic or in other garlic preparations, is considered to be a potent blood thinner. See Paul Bergner, The Healing Power of Garlic (Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1996) for a fascinating in-depth look at both the tradition and science of this wonderful bulb.
  2. Michael Tierra, ed., American Herbalism: Essays on Herbs and Herbalism by Members of the American Herbalists Guild (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1992), 38.

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