Botanical medicine, the art, and science of collecting, preparing, and utilizing plants for healing, is one of the oldest healing methods in human history. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population presently uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary healthcare.
There is a wide range, however, in what is marketed as herbal medicine. The effectiveness of botanical medicine necessarily depends on the quality and vitality of the original plant material and on the care and attention brought to harvesting, processing, and storage. These issues are crucial to the quality of any product we consume; they are especially important when we use remedies as medicine for healing.
As the natural products industry has grown—it was measured to be $5 billion in the United States alone in 2009—compromises have been made along the chain of production that undermine the integrity and efficacy of the medicines produced. Plants might be harvested incorrectly or at the wrong time so that, instead of being vibrant green, the leaves have yellowed and started to die. They might be stored improperly, irradiated with chemicals, or adulterated with similar species that are easier to harvest or more plentiful.
In more extreme examples, harsh solvents such as hexane are used to extract the chemical constituents of the plant. To top it off, it is difficult or impossible to prove the percentages of constituents claimed on labels are actually in medicine or to demonstrate batch-to-batch reliability.
It is possible to find potent efficacious medicine—you just need to know what to look for and where. The more informed we are as consumers, the more we can demand from the manufacturers producing the medicines. In this way, we can help improve the overall quality of botanical remedies available over time.
Here are some basic questions to ask to begin navigating the maze of herbal products:
- If cultivated, were the plants grown organically?
- Were they ethically wildcrafting?
- How do you know there is no adulteration?
- How does a company ensure that there are no heavy metals/pesticide residues in the plant material? (Options include testing, knowing where to harvest plants that haven’t been contaminated, cultivating one’s own using organic methods, etc.)
How were the constituents extracted?
- Even though the plants themselves may be “natural,” some extraction processes involve harsh chemicals and solvents and are not at all natural. It can be particularly difficult to find out information about this—and confusing to try to interpret what companies claim on their websites. Ask a company what processes it uses, or ask herbalists and practitioners you respect to recommend brands.
Social and Ecological Sustainability
- Are those growing and harvesting the medicines receiving a fair wage?
- Are the plants harvested in ways that enhance their long-term viability and health?
- A wealth of information about these issues is available on the web. Some places to start are:
- International Standard for Sustainable Wild Collection of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (ISSC-MAP)
- People and Plants International
- For an introduction to safety and regulatory issues concerning botanical medicines: Center for Spirituality and Healing
Ecological medicine begins with the assumption that human and environmental health are inseparable and that we can’t be well until the planet as well. It follows that nothing used in healing and healthcare—medicines, supplies, the practices used—should cause damage to other species or to the ecosystem.
We’re a long way from reaching that goal, but the fact that more and more people are choosing natural products and alternative practitioners makes it clear that more people do want medicines that are safer and less toxic, that don’t hurt us or the earth.
No one wants an I.V. tube leaching phthalates into their child’s bloodstream. And yet, at the moment when our child needs that I.V. to stay alive or to get better, we’ll take what we can get. At that moment, concerns about the environmental or social impacts of the medicine fall away, and all we want is to end the pain and find the cure.
While it is one thing to look for and demand the most natural and safest medicines and medical practices when we are well, in an emergency or when the situation is more serious, we’re far more likely to take what works and not ask a lot of questions.
So while consumers of medicine, like consumers of food and toys and cosmetics, do play a role in bringing about change, healthcare is also unique. Change must also come from the industry itself, from those working inside the system—doctors, nurses, administrators, clinicians, medicine makers, and suppliers of medical products—so that we as patients don’t have to make choices between healthcare that is toxic and no healthcare at all.
These changes are happening and awareness is growing. We can help by educating ourselves, supporting the organizations and work that are effecting change, and helping to spread the word.
Great websites and books with articles and information about ecological medicine, toxins, research on environmental causes of different illnesses, and efforts to reduce toxins particularly in the health care system are available. Below are a few places to start. Each of these sites will take you to many other individuals and organizations doing important work on human and environmental health. Also, see our resource links page for more resources on environmental health.
- Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Ourselves (The Bioneers Series), ed. Kenny Ausubel. Sierra Club Books. 2004.
- Health Care Without Harm
- The Health/Toxics page on the Environmental Working Group’s site
- Science and Environmental Health Network
Whole Plant Medicine
The belief that whole plants are used to treat whole people is the heart of traditional herbal medicine and so the heart of us as well. This is a key difference between allopathic medicine and most traditional systems around the world. As Larry Dossy says, western medicine is about breaking the body into parts, into organs and tissues, and then finding ways to treat particular diseases and ease certain symptoms by targeting particular cellular pathways with silver-bullet drugs.
Traditional herbal medicine, like almost all traditional medicine systems, instead treats underlying imbalances in the body that are believed to cause disease. Herbalists use medicines made from whole plants that, with their complex mix of chemicals, are believed to be the most effective way of addressing these imbalances.
As Matthew Wood says:
It is very seldom that herbs are strong enough to kill germs. A few of them can, but then they become drugs. Killing germs isn’t how traditional medicine works. It works instead by changing the environment, working to address imbalances in organ systems and tissue states, not targeting a specific bacteria with a single chemical extracted from a plant or synthesized in a lab.
Whole plant medicines have the ability, as Isla Burgess says, to “nudge a person back to wellness. They don’t do it fast, and they don’t do it overnight, but they have an effect on the body that is sustaining and ultimately is healing.”
These differences are not only about chemistry. Traditional herbalism is based on the belief that healing arises in part by finding the right plant, or a combination of plants, for a particular individual. How that happens is partly a matter of the chemical constituents in the plants, but it is also about so much more than that because understanding the wholeness of a plant and how it might work in our bodies is never only about chemistry.
As Rosemary Gladstar says:
There are some constituents that have been well researched and documented, but it doesn’t really explain the whole personality of that plant. You can relate it to an individual. The longer, the deeper, the more in depth you know a person, the more you begin to see these levels of who they are. On first encounter, you may understand that they’re a good mother or an artist or play music, but as you get to know them, as your relationship deepens, your ability to understand all they can do in the world deepens. And it’s much the same with plants. I mean, why would it be different? They’re living beings. Older than we are. Far older.
Many different herbalists write and teach about these ideas. Matthew Wood’s books are a good place to start learning about working with whole plants within a framework of traditional herbal medicine.
Information about environmental toxins can be overwhelming. As Rosemary Gladstar says:
I think it is important to be informed. I don’t want to be an ostrich living on my mountain, digging a hole and putting my head in, but I can only take in so much information; otherwise I start to believe I can’t do anything. That’s what I see. I see so many people who have bought into the fear, forgetting how powerful we are. We’re forgetting that we actually are transformers, that we can change this.”
Herbalists are transformers, working in their communities to create locally based systems of healing using the plants and resources from their area. Herbal medicine, backyard medicine, kitchen medicine, whatever you choose to call it is the basic knowledge everyone once needed about how to care for themselves and their families with the plants, food, herbs, and spices they used daily. This is the kind of care and knowledge we hope to promote.
In emergencies, nothing beats having the ability to use the plants growing out your back door or dried in your spice cupboard to keep those you love well. This is community healthcare resilience at its finest.
Below are some questions to begin conversations about how a sustainable system of healthcare might look in your community. A screening of Numen or a series of film screenings on related topics can help set the context. These questions can help your community build on the awareness raised by these films.
- What locally based sources of medicine already exist in your community?
- How can you strengthen those systems and educate more people about how to use these remedies?
- What are some simple health and wellness tools for improving individual health and therefore decreasing pressure on a community’s existing healthcare system?
- What needs aren’t being met in your community and what can you do to meet them now, while you can plan?
For additional information and resources, go to the Transition United States.
Some questions for leading discussions about what herbalism can offer to the process of creating sustainable medicine in your community:
- What botanical medicines and wild foods grow in your region?
- What are these plants used for?
- How can you make medicine from these plants?
- If you don’t know the answers to these questions, who in your community do?
- Are there CSAs in your community that might include some of these plants in their CSA shares? Can herbalists in your community offer classes through the CSA, instructing members how to use these plants as medicine? Or can you create simple handouts that go out with a weekly CSA newsletter? Feel free to use the handouts we’ve included in our resource guide—just make sure to credit the herbalists who wrote them!
- What about creating an herbal CSA? There are a small but growing number of herbal apothecaries offering medicinal herb shares. Goldthread in Florence, Massachusetts, is one of the first to create a new model of community-supported medicine.
- If one doesn’t already exist in your community, what about creating healing networks where the focus of the practitioners is on preventative health and well-being?