Unnatural Healing? The West's Misuse of Traditional Herbal Therapy

Extracting the active ingredients of plants for specific ailments is compromising the integrity of herbal therapy. Learn about the history of healing herbs and how the practice has changed with time.
holistic plant medicine

Extracting the active ingredients of plants for specific ailments is compromising the integrity of herbal therapy. Learn about the history of healing herbs and how the practice has changed with time.

At their roots, Eastern and Western traditions of herbal medicine share a common vision of natural healing. Until the nineteenth century, they even spoke a similar language—the natural language of herbs. An ayurveda herbalist in India and a medicine man in North Dakota could both interpret the medicinal usefulness of a plant, even if they had never seen it before. Of course, the herbs do not speak, but how we relate to herbs, their healing qualities, and their role in our lives reflect not only the culture and language of the user but also larger cultural paradigms regarding nature itself. However, today that language has become misinterpreted in the West. Understanding this true language of herbs can give you a much better perspective of herbal therapy and how it relates to your well-being.

The hidden natural language of herbs and plants is revealed by the healer, usually a traditional herbalist, but there are also mothers, midwives, and many others that played the role of interpreter. The language is not one of words, but of vibration and energy, clues from the plant's surrounding environment, and interaction between the nature of the plant and the nature of an illness.

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The dominance of allopathic medicine in the West, following the industrial era replaced the natural language of herbs with its own language and a new breed of synthetic drugs. By the turn of the century, traditional herbalists who understood the natural language were either jailed, called "quacks" by the American Medical Association, or were bought out by newly emerging pharmaceutical companies who catered to the allopathic viewpoint. Over time this new, synthetic culture projected its own language and techniques onto the use of herbs.

Most Western consumers now view herbs and pharmaceutical medications in the same way: each herb, like a drug, remedying a specific condition—for example, St. John's wort for depression, ginkgo for memory loss, Echinacea for colds, and senna for constipation.

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Phytopharmacology, the study of plant-based drug development, is rapidly exploring nature's biological reserve of plant medicines. Approximately 70 percent of all medical drugs are derived from plants. Yet progress has a price: Our relationship to plant medicines is weakening, and, like a dying language, traditional experience and wisdom are being lost.

For example, the herb kava kava has been in the international news lately for its potential liver toxicity. When used the traditional way, kava causes no harm to the liver. In the South Pacific, where the herb is indigenous, only the root of the plant is used. Profit-based pharmaceutical companies, however, have discovered what they think to be the "active ingredient" of the plant, kavalactones, found both in the root and in higher concentration in the stems of the plant. To maximize profits the stems are being mined for kavalactones for the manufacturing of the highly potentized nutriceutical kava products.

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So why have Pacific islanders only been using the root and not using the stem? Because more is not always better, and may even be toxic. While a small dose of root-sourced kavalactone can serve to reduce stress and anxiety, high concentrations from the stems of the plant can cause a cascade of unwanted side effects. Clearly, the traditional herbalists of the Pacific islands understood the language of kava. And in such plant language lies the wisdom of nature—a wisdom which, if lost, could have a profound impact on our health.

Herb columnist James Bailey practices Ayurveda, Oriental Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and vinyasa yoga.