Thursday, July 18, 2013

What herb is good for _______ disease?

Lady's Mantle with rain drops
I recently published an article about using herbs for uterine fibroids. The intent of my article was not a DIY or how-to sort of article, but was written to give someone an idea about the complexities of how herbalism approaches chronic disease. 

After it was published I became inundated with questions and statements such as the following. 

“I have fibroids. Should I take both Lady’s Mantle and yarrow for my fibroids? Or just one of them?” 

“I took yarrow for fibroids and it didn’t work so I had a hysterectomy. Too bad herbs don’t work.” 

“This article has some information but doesn’t give a step-by-step guide on how to treat your own fibroids.” 

Today, in North America, people often don’t fully understand what herbalism is. Many people still mistakenly believe that herbalism is simply using herbs instead of using drugs. Sometimes I forget this (being so immersed in the herbal world myself) but these questions definitely woke me up! 

This article is another attempt on my part to explain what herbalism is, how it differs from western medicine and why there is no one herb for chronic disease. 

I’ve written another similar article on this topic which you can read here: 9 Reasons Why Herbs Don’t Work. 

Western Medicine Approach

Here is a classic example of how western medicine operates. 

A person has a health problem so they go to see their doctor. The doctor either uses clinical observation or a series of lab tests to determine the name of the illness. The doctor then diagnoses the illness and prescribes the drug that is used to suppress that illness. (I say suppress because western medicine drugs rarely cure disease, instead they suppress symptoms of a disease. There are exceptions of course.) 

A lot of people tend to think that herbalism is choosing to use herbs rather than pharmaceuticals for the disease the doctor has diagnosed. 

This results in the classic question of: I have ________ disease, what herb is good for that? 

If someone is the DIY type and they are diagnosed with eczema, they might pick up an herbal book, check the glossary for “eczema herbs” and attempt to use the herbs listed instead of taking drugs. 

Sometimes this works! 

Sometimes it doesn’t. The more complex the disease, the less likely this will work. 

What is Herbalism? 

Herbalism has been practiced in some form or another for countless hundreds of thousands of years. There is no one way to practice herbalism, instead there are many traditions with their own diagnostic methods and their own materia medica. 

Because the theory and practice of herbalism predates western medicine by thousands of years, it does not have a developed practice around using herbs for western medicine diseases. 

This is my big take home point. 

Herbalism is a system of healing entirely separate from western medicine. It not only uses plants (instead of drugs) but has a completely different diagnostic system. 

(Of course that is changing now as people are working to integrate the two, but this is a very recent phenomenon.) 

Therefore, that classic question: I have ______ disease, what herb is good for that? does not really exist within a traditional herbalist's repertoire. 

Depending on the type of herbalism studied, a person can learn various diagnostic patterns and techniques. Once a person is immersed in that system, a simple western medicine diagnosis of fibroids can be helpful, but is still very limited information! 

Choosing one or two herbs based on that diagnosis is rarely going to produce effective results. 

When to seek out additional help? 

Herbalism is often called the people’s medicine. As it should be! Here in the United States we still have access to commercial herbs and many medicinal plants grow around us. Herbs can be safe, cheap and effective. 

I believe it is a human right to understand how to use herbs for every day ailments. From tummy aches to simple injuries to aches and pains, herbs can also be simple and safe to use. 

However, if you have a complex chronic disease that you would like to use herbs for, then you will probably need additional help from someone who has the training and experience to work with chronic health problems. 

If you want to help people with complex chronic diseases then you will need to seek out advanced clinical training. Simple articles on the internet, even if written by yours truly, are not a good substitute. 

Trying an herb at random for a complex disease, not getting results, and then declaring “herbs don’t work” is not an actual reflection of herbs or herbalism. 

Most clinical herbalists go to years of study and training before they start working in-depth with people and herbs. I myself have over 8 years of herbal education under my belt. I promise you I didn’t spend all that time learning how to look up herbs for diseases in an index! 

When I work with people who have chronic disease I spend hours working with that person. I create an integrated plan that can be implemented over time. Depending on the unique situation, that person may need to change their diet, their lifestyle, adopt a broader range of healing mechanisms (from yoga to massage to fewer work hours, etc) as well as take a continually evolving collection of herbs. 

As you can imagine it's difficult to sum that up in a quick conversation about "what herb is good for that?" 

While there may be herbs that I commonly use for certain western diseases, I never have a cookie-cutter approach. Instead, herbs and other recommendations are chosen for the individual, not the disease. 


We live in a western medicine culture and can easily identify with terms like fibroids or eczema or fibromyalgia. And indeed, when doctors diagnose someone with these diseases it can be a helpful starting point for the herbal practitioner. 

And when I write articles, I use western medicine terms because people can identify with them. If I wrote articles on Natural Solutions for Kidney Yang Deficiency or how to dissolve stagnant phlegm in the lower burner, very few people would actually read them. 

However, herbalists work outside of western medicine. We do not diagnose western medicine diseases nor do we prescribe medicines for western diseases. Some may find this to be a limitation but I do not. When it comes to chronic disease, traditional herbal practices generally outshine western medicine in their ability to actually address the root causes of a problem (rather than simply suppress them). 

As herbalism continues to grow I hope that more people have this greater understanding of the differences between western medicine and herbalism. It’s up to us as herbalists to keep spreading the word!