Working with an Herbalist

Working with an herbalist may be a very different health care experience compared to working with other practitioners, especially medical doctors.  Herbalists tend to work within the framework of holism.  Herbalists aren’t so quick to reduce the body into microscopic and isolated parts.  They tend to look at the interconnectedness of the body and mind and how individual body systems interrelate and influence each other.  Herbalists see a disorder as the result of imbalances in the body and rather than treat only the symptoms they might dig a little deeper to attempt to discover the underlying cause of the illness.  Many of us usually may not connect a rash on the exterior of the body to the function of the gut but from the herbalist’s view the rash could be caused or aggravated by a digestive system that is out of balance.  Headaches can be the result of a myriad of issues and while taking an antidote may quell the headache temporarily the headache may return if the underlying cause has not been addressed.  To effectively utilize holism in general and specifically with herbalism the client and the practitioner must try to see the bigger picture when it comes to wellness or illness regarding the body.  Many times diet and lifestyle issues will be examined. 

 In our society we customarily seek out a medical practitioner, usually a medical doctor, to diagnose our ailments.  In anticipation of a forth coming prescription, clients most often work on the diagnosed health issues within the framework of the diagnosing modality.  However, when the prescribed treatments do not resonate with the client or when the issues remain unresolved or seemingly resolved but later returns clients will often seek treatment for their aliments outside of the diagnosing modality.   When the diagnosing modality is MD medicine the idea of a client seeking out an herbalist rather than sticking with or selecting another MD is horrific to most MDs.  Here in lies the seed of the concept of “alternative” medicine.  Since most people utilize MD medicine as primary care and when that system fails, as it often does, to resolve the ailments and the client seeks healthcare from especially more natural modalities it is perceived that the client is then seeking “alternative” medicine.  Natural, holistic and especially herbal medicine is “alternative” because it is a modality that is profoundly different from the dominant medical paradigm, MD medicine.  The idea of “alternative” medicine to this herbalist is appalling.  In this case the very word alternative connotes second choice by default or a less-than choice.   As a consumer of healthcare it is absolutely acceptable for anyone to select any viable system of medicine as a primary system.   Nevertheless, rarely do herbalists serve as primary care practitioners.  Herbalists never have hospital privileges unless they posses licensure in an additional modality and herbalists are rarely available for emergency situations.

 Herbalists work differently from medical doctors in several ways especially because they rarely make a diagnosis and because they utilize unfamiliar traditions and medicines.   While allopathic or MD medicine is the primary medical modality of our western world, it is important to note that it is not the only medical modality of the global world.  And, more importantly the practice of botanical medicine predates MD medicine by thousands of years.  For all of time people across the globe have used plants as medicine. Botanical medicine has had its place in every traditional system of medicine that has ever been, and it continues as an individual modality today.  It need not be a case of alternatives nor either-or mentalities, rather and more appropriately, it is a case of complements and an integration of strategies, methods and medicines that work together to achieve wellness.

 Rarely does a client seek out the help of an herbalist, or any other practitioner, while in a state of wellness.  We are socialized to take medicine when we are ill, not when we are well.  So, for the most part when people decide to work with an herbalist they usually have a determined or particular health issue that they desire to work on with herbs and that is just fine.  Herbs are routinely used to affect an acute or chronic health issue however, when herbs are applied regularly with the intention of maintaining wellness the goal is to prevent illness from occurring altogether.  This is somewhat of shift from the mindset of the dominant health care paradigm, and can be a challenging model to get accustomed to. 

 There are a few common ways to ingest herbs.  The herbalist may make suggestions for teas, tinctures or capsules as well as for various topical applications depending upon the condition.  Utilizing tea may be the first and prevailing approach.  The use of medicinal teas sets up an opportunity for the client to actively participate in one’s day-to-day health care.  Making medicinal tea keeps one in touch with a more simplistic approach to maintaining wellness.  It is totally approachable, anyone can make tea. The client may need to make lifestyle accommodations in order to get into the routine of preparing teas on a regular basis however it is truly a medicine making process for all.  

 In the case when a client does not have the ability to make tea or when the recommended herbs are less than palatable the next option is to utilize tinctures or capsules.   A tincture is an aqueous solution that contains the medicinal value of herbs in concentration.  Most often tinctures are made with alcohol.  One teaspoon of an alcohol based tincture is roughly the equivalent to one cup of tea.   Tinctures can be quite handy when, as mentioned previously, the herbs are too displeasing to ingest in tea [this is an extremely frequent situation] or when the recommended quantity of herbs exceed any possibility of ingestion through teas.  The utilization of tinctures are especially ideal when the client is on the go and finds it more convenient to carry with them a small bottle of tincture rather than a quart or two of tea each day.  While people commonly lug around cumbersome water bottles they could just as easily carry herbal tea around instead of water.  Again, this is a case of lifestyle accommodations for the purpose of ingesting one’s herbal medicines.

 When tea and tincture are not appropriate for a particular situation the herbalist can create herbal capsules for the client.   The client may have to ingest six or more rather large pills daily which can be a deterrent to client compliance, and seems to smack of pharmaceutical herbalism rather than holistic folk herbalism.  However, this may be the appropriate delivery mechanism for a particular herb, issue or client.

 No matter which delivery system is utilized, and only three primary ingestion methods were discussed so far, we didn’t even begin to cover topical or inhalation applications, the main thing to remember is to find the delivery system that is best suited for the client.  This will take open lines of communication on the parts of both the herbalist and the client.

 Regardless of which delivery system is utilized, the timing and duration of the herbal regimen will fluctuate depending upon the individual.   For herbs used in a tonic way be patient, it may take months to see and feel significant changes.  For herbs used in acute manner, hopefully a fairly quick response time will be seen.  In either case, it may be appropriate to alter, evolve or tweak the formulations.  Unlike patent medications particularly pharmaceuticals, there may be more than one or two herbs of varying nature that can achieve the desired effect.  It takes an experienced practitioner to apply herbal diversity to a situation and an open minded and flexible client with willingness to set the foundation for a successful partnership. 

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