Here’s the thing about herbs, though- they’re not FOR anything. They’re plants, alive like you and me. And just as you don’t exist for a specific reason, to do or be one certain thing all the time, plants don’t either.
They are quiet and docile, growing and photosynthesizing and doing their thing- until we use them. Then, their chemicals and our chemicals, their energy and our energy, their life and our life mingle and interact and we have alchemy. They change us, and if we chose well they can heal us.
Our culture has come to understand medicine as a “lock and key” system- define the type of lock, the illness, and the right key will open it and release its symptoms. This works fine with acute or emergency care- a cast for a broken bone, an antibiotic for a severe infection, radiation or chemo or surgery (or all three) for cancer.
Oftentimes herbs are great with acute care. Some herbs are so specific in their interactions with us it’s almost like they are just for that purpose. Keep in mind, though, even the most clear-cut person or plant has hidden depths.
Echinacea is a great example of this. This lauded plant helps us fight off illness so well that many people pigeon-hole it as the cold and flu herb. If you examine the plant more carefully, by testing it yourself and reading what wise teachers have said, you’ll learn some surprising details, however.
- Echinacea interacts with us by stimulating the action of our white blood cells, not by stimulating production of them. So if our immune system is worn down or compromised, it can’t help much. It’s easy to see that Echinacea can’t help long-term, because we’ll burn out faster. It’s like pumping air onto a fire without adding more fuel- it burns hotter, but for a shorter time. Nor is it a good preventative remedy, for the same reason.
- Another thing to note is that traditionally, Echinacea was used to treat topical injuries, especially those that are badly infected (its immune-stimulating effects would be very helpful here). Internally we must dose Echinacea very high, meaning take it very often, because its effects are short-lived. Externally, a poultice of the plant directly on a wound would provide continuous care.
- Finally, as herbalist Matthew Wood tells us, Echinacea doesn’t match up with all kinds of ill people. He says, “Echinacea is suited to a high level of exhaustion. Overwork, long hours, and lack of vacation are sometimes a component. Immunity is down and the person gets sick when they get a chance to relax.” (Earthwise Herbal Book 1, p 137). Clearly this indicates much of our society! But not all, and that’s important.
Herbs that help acute conditions quickly often have straightforward energetics and actions, like many of their ‘modern medicine’ counterparts, but still their complexities must be understood to use them effectively. Even a well-known herb like Echinacea can’t be stuffed into a simple “colds and flu” category.
Long-term healing with herbs introduces more layers of those complexities, and require a different understand of health.
Have you tried to achieve “balance” or “happiness” lately? They’re moving targets, aren’t they? So is “health.” It means different things for different people, at different points in their lives.
“Health” isn’t just an absence of disease, since we usually have something going with us. How we manage our changing states of injury and illness and repair and relapse reflects how we each expect our health to be.
Chronic or recurring conditions are deeply rooted. Unlike modern medicine, which is focused on our comfort by easing symptoms, herbal medicine is going to address root causes- and that can be a very lengthy, uncomfortable process.
Consider stress, the bane of our modern society. There is a whole class of herbal remedies called “nervines” that strengthen and support the nervous system, and relieve the burden of stress. But which to choose? It depends on the type of stress, the type of response you have, and the type of person you are.
You may need protection from external influences, or from your own penchant for worry. Your physical nervous system may need rebuilding. You may benefit from warming a cold, tense body, or you may need to cool down a hot head. You may need to ground your energy, or rise above what’s dragging you down. Choosing the right herb or combination can make you stress out even more!
(Here we’re really entering the domain of the trained practitioner. All of us can become a competent Kitchen Herbalist, treating most minor issues at home and becoming confident in our self-care independence. But trial-and-error isn't always the most efficient strategy, especially when dealing with 'big things'.)
This is why there’s no Herb for Stress, not even a Top 5 or Top 15.
There are so many variables, so many considerations that influence how the herbs interact with you. If you don’t believe me, ask 5 people who have tried Valerian (usually “for sleep”) what they thought. Guaranteed, at least one of them will have had a bad reaction- it kept them up and alert all night long. Valerian helps a specific type of person with a certain type of sleep disturbance, and definitely doesn’t help anyone else!
All this to say, herbs aren’t simply for our conditions. They are living entities that interact with us in sometimes unexpected ways. The more we understand both ourselves and the herbs, the better they can keep us healthy, but that is only because of who and what they already are themselves. Get to know them and respect them, and you can be healthy all your days.