While the popularity of herbalism is increasing, it is still not commonplace in our western society. This is why so many of us don’t know how to safely begin incorporating new herbs and herbal supplements into our routines. Herbalists are often asked for advice on what herbs are the best for specific maladies or what are the best uses for each herb. Unfortunately, these questions do not always have clear answers—as with most wellness-related strategies, one size rarely fits all.
Why We Can’t Offer Medical Advice
Distributors of herbal offerings aren’t able to provide medical advice or dosage information for the treatment of specific health issues. Both the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and FTC (Federal Trade Commission) prohibit them from doing so, but even without such regulations, they would refrain from prescribing medicinal herbal treatments because they believe it would be an irresponsible practice. Herbal medicine is more than using a particular herb for a particular issue. Rather, it’s about viewing a person holistically, or as a whole, rather than focusing solely on addressing a symptom. There are many botanicals that have similar herbal actions, but certain choices may be better (or more poorly) suited for a specific person based on their medical history, age, and other physiological considerations. There are also contraindications for some herbs that have to be taken into consideration. Does an herb interfere with a prescription? Should two particular herbs not be used at the same time? These are important questions to ask, and gathering the information required to effectively answer them requires a relationship with the individual that is beyond the scope of a botanical ingredients company.
In the words of Hippocrates, "It is far more important to know what person the dis-ease has, than what dis-ease the person has." While we are not in the business of curing or treating disease, this quote really represents how important it is to look at the whole picture, and coming from the “father of medicine,” it has always been an excellent principle to keep in mind for myself and others in the herbal community.
While we aren’t able to offer medical advice, we can suggest some tools to help get your personal research off to a confident start. Here are some different types of practitioners you may wish to consider, along with some resources to help you find a qualified herbalism ally in your area.
What is an Herbalist?
While the word herbalist can be used to describe anyone who uses herbs to promote wellness goals, this term can also refer to a type of practitioner who helps others in a more clinical setting, and my intention here is to focus upon the latter. This type of herbalist collaborates with a client (and sometimes also with other healthcare providers) to develop an herbal protocol to assist a person in realizing a desired outcome.
Herbalism has been practiced all over the world, with the knowledge of plants being passed on through generations. Because this has been the case, herbalism has been difficult to regulate. Many feel that if herbalism were fully regulated, much of its cultural richness and traditional knowledge would be lost. As such, there remains no official governing board that oversees herbalism as a whole.
While this lack of formal regulation may raise concerns for some, there are groups and organizations within the herbal wellness community that promote high, specific standards designed to uphold professionalism and safety within clinical herbalism. The American Herbalist Guild (AHG) has long been a well-respected pillar of the herbal industry due to its strict protocols for accepting herbalists as registered Guild members. In order to become an AHG accredited herbalist, an applicant is required to have completed at least two years of botanical medicine study and two years of clinical experience. They must also demonstrate a deep knowledge of at least 150 plants, including how to use them and their contraindications. For more information about their acceptance process, I encourage you to visit their resource-filled website.
One thing to keep in mind is that an herbalist cannot make medical diagnoses without a medical degree. Their strength lies in their ability to help educate and guide their clients towards certain botanicals, but they may not act in the capacity of a medical doctor.
HOW TO FIND A REGISTERED HERBALIST IN YOUR AREA
The AHG has a wonderful search function on its website that can help you find herbalists in your area. You can search by state and then do some further research to find the best fit for you.
What is a Naturopathic Doctor (ND)?
Naturopathic doctors (NDs) can help bridge the gap between modern Western medicine and the use of traditional plant-based methods. Since they are certified medical doctors, they are able to diagnose and prescribe treatments to patients. The philosophy behind naturopathy is that the body has the ability to heal itself and that an ND's role is to facilitate that process in a non-invasive and holistic way.
While some medical insurance companies do cover naturopathic doctors, many still do not. This is one of the most significant barriers that may limit a person’s ability to access this option. However, keep in mind that some ND practices offer sliding scale pricing based on a potential client's resources, so don't let the fear of affordability deter you from exploring this option—just be willing to be open about what you can afford before booking an appointment. Also, utilizing your medical insurance by doing the blood work, labs, and any tests through them and then taking the results to an ND will save you some money as well.
HOW TO FIND A NATUROPATHIC DOCTOR IN YOUR AREA
Naturopaths tend to be a little easier to find on the internet than other types of herbal practitioners, since their accreditation is a little more standardized. I’ve found that Naturopathic.org is a great place to search for an ND in your area. They also offer a list of each practitioner’s specialty, so you can help narrow down your search even further.
Herbalism & Medical Doctors (MDs)
While most conventionally trained doctors in the United States do not study herbs extensively enough to promote their use within their practice, there are still some that know enough about them to suggest how plants may be incorporated into a wellness protocol.
If you do choose to see a medical doctor (MD), finding one that is also knowledgeable and interested in alternative and natural therapies may be a good way to get the best of both worlds. If you are already working with a clinical herbalist, they may be able to recommend an herbalism-friendly MD, and local herbalism programs may also be able to offer leads to botanically inclined members of the mainstream medical community.
Self-Study Herbalism: When & How to Use It
While this isn’t a recommended approach for chronic discomforts or for those who have a complicated medical history, it is possible to do some self-study for more minor maladies and typical life discomforts. Keeping an herbal library informed by a wide range of teachers and approaches helps to offer a well-rounded knowledge base when you are in need of a little botanical boost.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that natural wellness is a journey, and there are many roads and guides that may lead you there. We encourage you to explore all of the routes and destinations along the way to see what is best for you. Keep listening to your body, and remember that there are generations of plant knowledge that exist in the world, waiting just for you!