Herbs for a Modern Life


Written by Mike Gill

Here in the US, herbs are a novelty.  Most of us tend to respect them up to a point, thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if they really did do those things people say?”  To the rest of the world, they are medicine.  Specifically, they are the first thing used for most ailments, while pharmaceuticals are used only when things have gone so wrong that there is no other option.  What gives?  Why the difference here?

This will be a two-part article, covering some herbs which are helpful for almost everybody.  Before we get to specifics on those herbs, part one will be about Americans and herbs in general.

When Americans spurn herbs, they do so in favor of pharmaceuticals and over the counter medications.  For most of us, this is how we were raised.  This is how we view medicine, and when we decide to try “alternative medicine” we expect it to behave similarly to our medications.  This bias is understandable, as there are few examples in our recent history of what alternative medicine actually is.  This creates misunderstanding, because herbs simply don’t work in the same way that western medications do.  This leads to the belief that herbs don’t work at all, or at least that they don’t work well enough to be a viable option.  When used incorrectly (as they usually are), this is true; they won’t work.  This becomes tricky because due to our bizarre and unique laws here, following the instructions on the bottles of any nutritional supplement will usually lead to incorrect use.

One obvious difference between herbs and western medications work is their composition.  Medications are generally a specific chemical, or a blend of a small number of chemicals.  This creates a very specific effect in a very specific place.  It also allows that effect to be noticeable with a small dose.  Herbs, on the other hand, are products of nature and are composed of many different chemicals.  Each chemical may have a specific effect, but getting the same amount of that effect from herbs requires a much larger dose.  Instead, herbs tend to create a subtler, broader effect on the body.  While their local effect will usually be smaller, the overall effect can be profound, when adequate amounts are taken.  For the same local effect with herbs that a person would expect from western medications, a much larger dose must be taken.  That larger dose will not only affect that one locality, it will affect many other systems as well (as all of the other chemicals in that herb also have effects).  When properly administered, this allows treatment of both symptoms and root cause.  For most herbs though, proper administration will not happen.   Let’s take ashwaganda as an example.  It can be used to treat anxiety, infertility and immune system problems, all of which can be backed by numerous scientific studies (in India).  The dose used in most of those studies is 5 grams.  This equates to 10 very large capsules (expensive), half a bottle of tincture (even more expensive) or a TBSP of powder (tastes unpleasant).  Most Americans simply will not take this dose, even if directed to do so. They are too used to one tiny ambien knocking them on their butt, and they expect (even if it is only subconsciously) that herbs should behave similarly.

Another huge obstacle with herbal medicine here in America is how the laws governing them are written.  Herbs fall under the heading of supplements and are bound to those laws.  Supplement companies are self-policing with regards to their ingredients and their methods of preparation.  As long as buyers don’t get sick, the FDA has no jurisdiction and no right to prosecute.   This creates a situation where companies have a strong incentive to put cheaper, inert ingredients into their products.   With this in mind, it isn’t a stretch to see how herbal products would be seen as ineffective.  After all, how would it affect people’s opinion of aspirin if manufacturers routinely filled their capsules with rice powder, then marked the package as aspirin?  Fortunately, there are quality companies out there.  Many sell only to professionals, avoiding the retail stores completely.  This can make it difficult for an ordinary person to find a quality product.

Another problematic section of the law holds that supplements may not make any medical claims, they are only allowed to present themselves for daily use in supporting healthy functions.  This seems reasonable, in that most herbs function well as preventative medicine.  In practice, it leads to doses that are too low for any real effect.   Let’s use ashwaganda as an example again.  If 5 grams is a standard dose for people with medical issues, what is the dose for a healthy person?  My experience suggests 1-2 grams as a good starting point for people showing mild symptoms.  At this dose, the effects of the herb should be so mild that the user would hardly know they were there, which is exactly what you want when finding the right dose for a healthy person.   Even this dose must be lowered, if the dose is to be absolutely safe for everybody (inclulding those with sensitivities, those on medications, and those with ailments that wouldn’t be helped by ashwaganda), which is the way the laws are structured.  Again, small wonder that most people walk away from self-prescribed herbs thinking that they don’t really work.  How would it affect people’s opinion of aspirin if they took one-tenth of a pill, while expecting the full effect?

Herbs, like any other form of medicine must be used properly if they are to be effective.  If the sought after result is medicinal, that means consulting a professional, at least when starting a program.  Beyond that, it should be understood that herbs have different method and different effect than medications; asking herbs to behave as pharmaceuticals without the side effects is unreasonable.  In general, the proper effect for an herbal treatment is for it to be subtle enough to not be directly felt.  Again using ashwaganda as an example, if it is given to treat anxiety the proper dose would be something that a person wouldn’t notice in their day to day life.  Ideally, they would look back on things a month after starting the treatment and notice that they had felt considerably less anxious over that period.  At no point should a person feel other than who they are (which differs from pharmaceuticals, which often try to “fix” the person, and very often make them feel and behave in very different ways); herbs should feel like a part of you, not apart from you.

Image courtesy of lemonade at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Michael Gill is a natural health expert, certified in holistic nutrition and massage.  He has a practice in downtown Portland, and has a black belt in Poekoelan Tjiminde Tulen.