Catch a cold every other month? Take Nyquil. Suffer from panic attacks? Try Paxil. Wake up at night with acid reflux? Take this purple pill. If 10 people show up at a medical center with the same symptoms, the doctor gives them all the same medication. Problem solved.
In western medicine, we tend to think of illness in terms of pathogenic entities. Cures are targeted to a pathogenic outsider that has burrowed its way into our otherwise healthy selves. And in western medicine, we tend to dismiss the possible health benefits of herbal remedies.
So what exactly is herbalism? Read on.
The Pharma and Herbal Cure-All
Many people think of plants and herbs the same way. They simply substitute an herb for the pharma product panacea:
- Have a cold? Use Echinacea instead of Nyquil.
- Suffer from anxiety? Try Tulsi instead of Paxil.
- Have acid reflux? Take Plum flower instead of the purple pill.
But that’s not what herbalism is about. Herbalism is a holistic, integrative approach to health. It uses plant-based materials as support for an overall healthy lifestyle. The problem with the pathogenic entity approach is that it externalizes health concerns. That miracle pill cure doesn’t always get at the right causes — or the root causes.
So … Don’t Take Pharmacological or Herbal Remedies?
Not so fast. If you catch a cold and you’re trying to hold down a job, you might need Nyquil (or Echinacea) to help you get some sleep and some symptom relief. But if you’re catching a cold every other month, it’s definitely helpful to take Nyquil (or Echinacea). However, it’s also wise to try to pinpoint what’s happening. Why are you catching so many colds? What’s really going on beneath the surface?
True practitioners of integrated medicine believe it’s more important to examine the specific problems each individual is experiencing and search for a root cause. What’s your diet like? Are you getting good nutrition? How’s your sleep, digestion, and stress level?
If you truly want to heal, what’s needed is a comprehensive, personalized therapeutic system based not simply on the suspected pathogen but also on your complete body function. Recent studies have shown that pursuing health – optimizing body function – might be a viable alternative to focusing on the sickness when dealing with chronic and seemingly intractable conditions.
Herbalism Is an Integrated Approach to Optimal Health
Anyone in search of a cure for a chronic illness would do well to consult a medical professional who values an integrated approach to wellbeing. Such an approach would take into account food input, autophagy, stress reduction, sleep quality, exercise, inflammation reduction, and body systems’ optimization. Pharmacological or herbal supplements may be recommended in some instances and not in others.
Thinking about the person and their entire wellbeing allows the integrative practitioner to bring a suite of tools to the table. The practitioner can work to improve lifestyle issues such as sleep, diet, and exercise.
The practitioner can also turn to plant-based health to help optimize body systems. Adaptogens like Phyllanthus niruri and Ocimum sanctum often help modulate immune response. (Adaptogens are natural substances that can help the body adapt to stress.) Gastrointestinal function can be optimized with herbs like Terminalia chebula that support a healthy microbiome, a healthy intestinal lining, and good intestinal motility. The central nervous system can be supported with plants that enhance neuroplasticity or neurogenesis.
So what is herbalism? Well, in each case described above, the plant is supporting a body function rather than attempting to serve as a miracle cure for a disease. Rather than acting separately from body systems, it acts in concert with them. That’s herbalism in a nutshell – a holistic, integrative approach to health.