One of my passions when teaching herbal medicine is to help people use herbs effectively.
It breaks my heart when I see people give up on herbs too easily.
and more people are turning to herbs because there is a growing
disappointment with using pharmaceuticals for chronic illness.
people are getting fed up with taking a pill that never really cures
their illness and gives them awful side effects. Maybe they are
concerned about acetaminophen giving their young child asthma or they see the growing evidence about the risks associated with statins and they say enough is enough!
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.
reach for the closest herb book, try a few remedies and then declare
that 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?”
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… if used correctly!
So let me share a handful of reasons why herbs might not work in a given situation.
1. Improper Dosing
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
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.
In herbalism dosage varies from person to person, from plant to plant and from preparation to preparation.
15-minute infusion of a teaspoon 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.
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 amounts 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 ashwagandha tincture twice
a day, consider your dose!)
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 Plant Material Quality
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.
decay. They simply go bad. The rate at which they do 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.
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, toss ’em. (By toss ’em, of course I mean
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.
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
3. Incorrect Preparations
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?)
- Milky oats tincture is very different than milky oats dried and made
into a tea. (see my full article on oats for more details)
- Highly resinous herbs shouldn’t be extracted in too low of
- Highly mucilaginous herbs shouldn’t be extracted in high
4. Ignoring the Art of Herbalism
The art of herbalism, not herbs alone, is really the keystone of what determines success when using herbs for chronic illness.
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 (for an example of that, read my article on natural pain relief).
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
People are complex, diseases are complex. If a solution seems too simple (particularly for chronic disease), it probably is.
5. Poor Herbal Formulation
Have you seen 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.
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.
I create herbal formulas I have a broad guideline I follow in choosing
the main acting herbs, assisting herbs, and guiding herbs.
6. Attempting to Use Herbs Like a Silver Bullet Cure
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.
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 Getting to the Root Cause
most obvious example of this is attempting to treat skin issues using
only a topical treatment. In general, symptoms that show up on the skin,
eczema, acne, psoriasis, hives, etc are all caused by internal
the latest and greatest cream on eczema may give some temporary relief
(great!) but will most like not solve the underlying issue.
Modern western medicine most often suppresses symptoms rather than cures disease. We are better than that! Make the effort.
8. Healing Takes Time
This is 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
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.