Saturday, December 29, 2012

9 Reasons Why Herbs Might Not Work

I've seen it time and time again. 

A person gets fed up with pharmaceuticals and their side effects. Maybe they are concerned about acetaminophen giving their young child asthma (1) or they see the growing evidence about the risks associated with statins (2) and they say enough is enough! 

From this moment forward they vow to never resort to drugs again and instead try a more natural and holistic approach thus leading them to the world of herbs and herbalism. 

But sometimes their love affair with herbalism is stopped short. The herbs don't work! They tried using horehound for coughing with no relief. They tried meadowsweet for their headache to no avail. They begin to wonder, "Are herbalists a bunch of delusional wood fairies touting the miracles of something that never works?"

 As much as I would love to be considered a wood fairy, I'll have to say no, this is not the case. I've seen herbs work hundreds of times. I've seen them work for serious infections as well as serious chronic diseases. I've seen them work when modern medicine failed. Yes, herbs work! 

BUT, there is a variety of reasons why herbs might not work in a given situation. The following post looks at a few of those reasons and gives tips on how to avoid terminating your herbal crush before it becomes a full blown love affair. 

1. Improper dosing (either too little or too much) 

When buying over the counter drugs like NyQuil or Tylenol, they come in a package that is clearly marked with the dosage instructions. Generally these are very simple instructions. "Adults take 2 tablets, three times daily."

Herbs don't always come with directions. If you buy bulk herbs the dosing instructions are absent entirely. If you buy a tincture or a bottle of capsules the dosage listed on the bottle has most likely been chosen by the FDA's labeling mandates and not by an herbalist.  

I am not going to lie to you. Dosage in the herbal world is confusing. I just finished a 50 minute presentation on dosage for and it could have easily been a three hour presentation on how to learn about dosage for the rest of your life. 

In herbalism dosage varies from person to person, from plant to plant and from preparation to preparation. 

A 15 minute infusion of a tsp of nettle leaf will not extract the same vitamins and minerals as a four hour infusion of an ounce of nettle leaf in a quart of water. 

A few drops of lobelia tincture can promote relaxation. A strong cup of lobelia tea could make you vomit. 

One way I commonly see dosages being flubbed in herbalism is people using small amounts of tonic/adaptogen herbs in tincture, versus the traditional use of large amount of tonic/adaptogen herbs as decoctions or powders. (As always go with what works, but if you aren't getting the results you'd expect after taking 5 drops of ashwanganda tincture twice a day, consider your dose!)

Frequency of dosing can also be an issue. During acute illnesses we generally use slightly smaller amounts but with more frequency. I may take elderberry elixir 1-2 times each hour at the onset of an illness for example. General recommendations are to take herbs 3 times a day, but that won't cut it for acute illness. 

2. Low quality plant material

Herbs often don't come with an expiration date. Quality can also vary significantly and will suffer greatly if the herbs have been improperly harvested or improperly processed. 

Plants decay. They simply go bad. The rate at which they do this varies significantly from plant to plant. If you've just pulled a bag of herbs from your back shelf and had to blow off an inch of dust... well, they are probably not at their prime. 

Powdered herbs that are exposed to light and oxygen lose their potency fast. 

Tinctures and capsules last significantly longer, but again, storage methods and the particular plants can vary widely. 

Our senses can reveal a lot about the quality of herbal material. Does it still look vibrant? Dried plants should retain most of the color of the living plant. If your red clover flowers are brown instead of red/purple, toss 'em. If your chickweed looks like light colored straw instead of vibrant green, too 'em. (By toss 'em, of course I mean compost responsibly.) 

Taste can also be a big indicator. I recently compared two year old cayenne powder with freshly powdered cayenne. That taste experiment didn't take a genius to figure out which one was dramatically more intense. 

Know what your herbs taste like when they are at their best (tinctures, teas, powders, bulk herbs, you name it!). This will serve you a thousand times over! 

To learn more about the taste of herbs you can download my free ebook on the subject by submitting the form on the upper right corner of this page. 

Which one do you think works best? 

3. Using the incorrect preparation 

A tincture is different than a syrup which is different from a tea which is very different from a decoction and on and on and on. Extracting a plant with vinegar or glycerin is dramatically different than using alcohol. This all plays an important role in whether or not a plant will work as well as the dosage! (See my article on What's Chemistry Got to do With It?)

Example: Milky oats tincture is very different than milky oats dried and made into a tea. Or highly resinous herbs being extracted in too low of alcohol percentage. Or highly mucilaginous herbs being extracted in high alcohol percentage. 

4. Ignoring the art of herbalism

I know that I tend to go on and on about the art of herbalism. My goal isn't to drive you nuts, but more that I feel that herbalism, not herbs, are really the keystone of what determines success. 

Using this one herb for that one disease sometimes works. It most often times doesn't, especially for chronic disease. There's no one herb for eczema, or for fibromyalgia or PMS. 

Instead we want to fully assess a person constitutionally, understand the energetics of their symptoms and use herbs to match the herbs to the person. 

Whether you study traditional Western Herbalism, Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine or the countless other herbal modalities out there each of them has a specialized way of approaching illness. Looking up eczema in an article index and then determining burdock will work (which it sometimes does) is not practicing the art of herbalism. This is more the art of index retrieval. 

People are complex, diseases are complex. If a solution seems too simple (particularly for chronic disease), it probably is. 

5. Poor herbal formulation

Often coined kitchen sink herbalism, this method takes every herb known for X disease and tosses it in a formula. This works sometimes. More often, it doesn't. 

I love studying classic Chinese formulas. At first glance they can seem like a random bunch of herbs thrown into a pot, but upon deeper study the brilliance of the formulas is revealed. There are lots of different ways to formulate. Most have merit. It's not about the ONE way, but it is about understanding the methods you choose to use. 

6. Attempting to use herbs like a silver bullet cure

Herbs are most effective with dietary support, proper rest and exercise, spiritual connection, support of community and other modalities such as massage, acupuncture (and many more). 

My mentor KP Khalsa likes to say that natural health is the health of a thousand choices. Otherwise, there is rarely that ONE thing that makes the total difference in a person's health. 

7. Attempting to suppress symptoms rather than get to the root cause 

The famous example of this is attempting to treat skin issues using topical treatment. In general, symptoms that show up on the skin, eczema, acne, psoriasis, hives, etc are all caused by internal imbalances. 

Spreading the latest and greatest cream on eczema, may give some temporary relief (great!) but will most like not solve the underlying issue. 

Another way I see this commonly portrayed is using cathartic laxatives to evacuate the bowels instead of identifying and addressing the cause of the constipation. 

Modern western medicine most often suppresses symptoms rather than cures disease. We are better than that! Make the effort. 

8. Healing takes time

Especially in chronic disease. It is not realistic to expect a complete turn around from chronic disease just days after starting an herbal plan. Working with a mentor can help you have realistic expectations about what it is going to take to see a person fully recover. Over time you develop your own sense of how long it will take. 

I commonly tell people with chronic disease that full recovery may take 6 months and longer. Healing takes time. 

This is how I often visually explain the progression of regaining health after a long illness. 

While I may expect total recovery to happen in many months or even years, I do expect a continual increase in well-being. 

9. There are many avenues of healing

Herbalism is not 100% effective, 100% of the time. No healing modality is. A person's path to wellness is their own and ethical practitioners don't make promises they can't keep. 

Granted an experienced practitioner can expect to help most people, most of the time. The more you practice herbalism, the more effective you'll be, but never expect 100%. 

Some times herbs don't work, because they don't. If herbs never work for you, then I'd re-evaluate points 1-8. 

I'd love to hear from you. What other reasons might there be for herbs not working? 


Tizi said...

A big one for me is understanding and sticking to a protocol you and your herbalist have agreed upon and also modifying as things improve or progress. We would never just see the allopathic doctor once and expect to be taking the same medicine, in both amount or formula for ever, but we expect this from when we do not engage in the process results might not be there! Ultimately for me, it's all about developing a healing relationship with these plant beings and myself!

Rosalee de la ForĂȘt said...

That's a really important one Tizi, thanks for sharing it!

StarDragonfly Herb Company said...

Thank you for this article, Rosalee. I have an herb shop in a small Texas town and several of the topics you covered on why herbs may not work, I have actually had conversations about with customers. Folks are coming around, but so many still want "that quick fix from the doctor." (I do have a lot of customers that trust herbs and know how they work. These folks are a joy to work with!) A lot of folks just won't take the time to sit and really discuss what they really feel like they need or they catch me when I am very busy and cannot give them the quality time they need.

Anonymous said...

You have some excellent points. One thing that I feel us important us to treat herbs ad a technology and not an ideology. When properly used, herbs work, whether you believe in them or not. "True believers", those people who preach never using anything but herbs (even when they clearly aren't working) do tremendous harm to herbal medicine. To that end, it's important to accept that sometimes pharmaceuticals are better for some things than others.

Michelle said...

A few more that I would add:

1) Effects of herbs can be subtle. The direct effect is sometimes hard to measure and while herbs work on the physical level, they also work on the emotional, spiritual, and other levels. So the experience might be that a certain herbal formula was given and taken for a period of time. The person notices some physical changes but is not 100% better. Yet, they begin to naturally modify behaviors, attitudes and lifestyle which leads to even greater health.

2) Belief. Herbs are not a placebo, but I think that the mind and expectations can be powerful.

I'd also like to add a word about topical treatments for skin conditions. I've seen the application of oils, herbs, clays, etc. work quickly and permanently. 60% of what is put on the skin is absorbed and so topical is just another route of administration. I would also argue that if the digestion is impaired, it could be a more effective route. Granted, people with chronic conditions usually do need to use some other medicines, whether herbs internally or lifestyle/dietary changes.

Anonymous said...

Great article, and thank you too, for the reminder on expectations. Herbs can and do work miracles, but we must keep in mind, that especially things that took some time to aquire, will need time to heal. One other reason herbs will not work I ran into is, that someone will not take them. Obvious, but in each case someone made a big deal how what I gave them is just not working, it took a while before they accidently admitted to not using it.. Since then, that's my first question.
Sadly, some people are attached to their ailments and afraid that herbs WILL work, rather then not.
Funny fact

Jodi said...

I have also found that one reason why herbs don't work for some is that they forget, or don't understand, that the body works as a whole. They are more concerned with fixing what's broken, when what's broken may be an observed manifestation of an undiscovered issue within. Whether the issue is physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual. The lack of realization, or non-acceptance, that the emotional, psychological, and spiritual wellness of a person is just as important as the physical can lead to ineffective treatment. Also, ill health in those areas can have physical manifestation as well and unobserved physical disease can manifest in ways a person may not consider, or believe, is connected to their manifested illness. When treating disease, especially with chronic illness, it is essential to balance the whole body, mind, and soul in order to achieve complete health. Many people don't understand, or accept, this premise and, therefor, will find that herbs may not work for them.

Acuumyst Report said...

Very informative. I agree with concept of freshness and quality of herbs. But I also think, too many herbalists want to play "gods" and think they know more then the Nature. I believe and also my experience tell me that the Nature developed a herbal or food remedy for every disease and disorder, known to man, we just have to observe. The concept of creams or tinctures is very foreign and distasteful because it goes against basic scientific and herbal knowledge, the heat kills and sterilizes and the solvent what ever it is made from, does the same.

The Hippocrates 2500 years ago understood that, we should start to learn that now in 21st century.

Acuumyst Report said...

I agree with you about freshness and quality but the concept of heat and solvents goes against the logic. You are just supplying a "dead" concoction. Right from Hollywood witch movie.

I believe very strongly that Nature developed a herbal to treat every disease or disorder, acute or chronic, known to man, we just have to observe. We can blend for synergy effect.

The Hippocrates knew that 2500 years ago, it's time for us to learn again.

Also I strongly believe that Nature made everything simple. If your herbal blend is complicated, it will not work.

Anonymous said...

I believe to have a harmonius life (including being healthy) is a balance of mind, body and spirit. Herbs cover the 'body' part of the equation and the other 2 parts (mind & spirit) must not be ignored because they are all inter-connected. My personally belief is that all diseases start at an energetic level and by the time it reaches the physical level, that is the last level. Eg. Herbs will not be able to cure deep-seeded subconscious fear that manifested into emotional or physical symptoms if the underlying energy blockage is not removed. That is why I work with herbs and energy simultaneously. This is just my 2 cents.

Astaire Roorda said...

Very interesting! I'm currently studying homeopathy, and I see many parallels between the two healing modalities.

Michaela Maestas said...

THANK YOU SO MUCH,,, This is very helpful. Right on target… take the EGO out of being an herbalist, get real, be clear. And it is ok to NOT be " right " all the time, to change , change ideas, , change our minds, , learn new skills, let go… re learn !
Michaela Maestas
Mother Bosque Gardens
Corrales NM 87048