August 8, 2011

Healing With Herbs

As I gradually blog my way through various self-sufficiency topics, one that we feel is necessary to our success as homesteaders, is growing our own medicinal herbs. This is one of those subjects however, that is pretty good at sparking controversy. Some absolutely believe in it, some absolutely do not. I daresay almost everyone has tried an herb or two in the hope that it would help.

To make a blanket statement that herbs don't work really doesn't fly these days. There is ample scientific research proving that they do indeed work. For the record, here are a few references documenting that:

So why does so much disbelief and negativity often surround a discussion of herbs as medicine? If research has shown that at least some herbal medicines do indeed work, why aren't they respected as a valid drug alternative by the medical community in general? One problem is that herbs cannot be patented. This is a problem for the pharmaceutical companies and a health care industry which rely on their products for profit. If herbs are a valid medical alternative, they lose profits. It is in their (and their stockholders) best interest to fight natural medicine.

In spite of research data, it's not uncommon for someone to try an herbal remedy yet see no benefit. They give up and assume herbs don't work. Others claim they couldn't live without a particular herb, because it helps them. Why do herbs work for some folks and not for others? Effectiveness, in my opinion, is going to depend upon three things:
  • plant part
  • potency
  • preparation

Part of plant. All plant parts are not medically equal. In spite of that, companies sometimes market whole herbs when only a specific part of the plant actually has medicinal constituents (phytochemicals). Saw palmetto and black cohosh are two I've seen sold in whole herb form. Yet it is the berries of the saw palmetto, and the root of black cohosh that contain the healing constituents. Whole herb formulations may actually contain very little of the medicinal part of the plant.

Potency. The stage at which a plant is harvested in it's growth cycle, effects its potency. Roots, for example, are most potent when they are storing the plant's sap, either in early spring or late fall. Leaves are most potent right before flowers begin to develop. Herbs gathered when their potency is at it's lowest, will not be as effective. In most commercial settings however, it is easier to gather herbs at the growers convenience, rather than when the herb is most potent, especially if the plants aren't maturing at the same rate.

Preparation. How the herb is processed for medicinal use also determines its effectiveness. For example, a tincture is made by extracting the medicinal qualities of a plant with alcohol. The actual strength of the tincture is going to be determined by a couple of things: the ratio of herb to alcohol, and the length of time the herb is allowed to steep. Technically, it would be feasible to pour alcohol through a sieve full of herbs, bottle it and call it a "tincture." Clear or pale colored tinctures are made in such a fashion and consequently have little, if any, healing qualities.

Something becoming increasingly common, is standardization. Standardization puts a numerical value on the amount of the active constituent contained in an herbal preparation. As a consumer, this may help us feel that we're buying a valid product, but the problem is that standardization doesn't acknowledge that the phytochemicals in herbs usually work synergistically, i.e. they work together as components, buffers, etc., to produce a balanced, healing effect.

Pharmaceutical companies on the other hand, want to identify and isolate particular phytochemicals, and if possible, produce them synthetically. They are then able to patent the process and the product, and charge whatever they want because their patent eliminates competition. One reason patented drugs are so expensive, is because the company wants to recoup it's research and development costs, as well as make a profit.

Other considerations

Another problem in using herbal medicines effectively, is proper diagnosis. Stomach pain could be indigestion, ulcers, or cancer. Legally, only a medical doctor can diagnose the problem and prescribe the treatment. This is why most sites and publications that address healing with herbs carry a disclaimer stating that the provided information is for educational purposes only. Yet without a proper diagnosis, it is difficult to choose the proper treatment. This is true not only of herbs, but of pharmaceuticals as well. I'm sure most of us have experienced a trial and error period with prescription drugs to get the right drug, right strength, right combination.

Consider too, that even conventional medicine often treats the symptom rather than the underlying problem. Unfortunately this is often an ineffective way to deal with our health. Growing up, my son had asthma. When he got to high school, we learned about a homeschool football league, and he wanted to play. He had a terrible time with his asthma and every other week we were at the doctor's, trying another asthma prescription. Nothing helped until he did his own research and we eliminated all chemical food additives and artificial ingredients from his diet. Gradually he had less attacks and eventually his asthma disappeared. I weaned him off the steroids and we never looked back. Even though this worked for us, it may not work for another asthmatic because the cause of their asthma may be different.

I'm sure many of you know that the herbal and vitamin industries are under threat of legislative extinction. The package this is being presented to the public as, is "safety," one of those push button phrases like "rights" or "equality" that is utilized to try and sway public opinion, or keep us distracted from the real issues at hand.

On the other hand, we've all heard some vitamin or supplement guy on the radio, pushing his particular product as the only truly effective one on the market. It amazes me how many of these natural health experts always assume good health can only be bought. Then I wonder who in the world wants to sit down with a spoon and a bowlful of vitamins and supplements for breakfast every morning?

Personally, I believe folks should have the freedom to consume what they want. If Citizen Z wants to eat junk food, GMOs, and pop vitamins to make up the difference, so be it. If I don't, then I should have the freedom to make my own choices as to what I consume.

Unfortunately nothing in this world is immune from the consumer/profit mindset, including our right to good health (which in reality is not a right at all, but a product to be purchased, either outright or with tax dollars). For Dan and me, the answer is to grow our own medicinal herbs, but more importantly, to give our bodies what they need to maintain optimal health. I'm talking about real food, living food, natural, as in the way nature grows it, non-synthetic, non-sterile, non-zapped kind of food. Will it mean we'll never have health problems? No, but it will give our bodies a living chance. And I think that's about the best anybody can hope for these days.

 Healing With Herbs © August 2011


Tami said...

Excellent article, Leigh. I admire your dedication and determination to "go herbal". This requires a tremendous amount of time, research and experience. Most people (myself included) would never try to go this route on their own. Popping a pill is easier. Seeking out alternative medical options usually comes after a "loss of faith" in western medicine. Doctors are trained to give a "best guess" diagnosis and are expected to hand over an Rx everytime.

I almost developed an ulcer last year after taking too many nsaids for a migraine. Lots of stomach pain. I was placed on a PPI (omeprazole)a very common, now OTC acid blocker. Took it for 6 months then weaned myself off it as quick as I could because I KNEW that I was creating a dependancy on a drug that was blocking my absorbtion of nutrients (B in particular). I now control my residual "reflux" with dietary changes and an acid reducer, not a blocker. Same thing with my Hx of panic attacks. (None after giving up gluten.) The body is an amazing instrument. Know Thyself.

Jane @ Hard Work Homestead said...

But if we all would take responsibility for our own health, how would the drug companies make a gazillon dollars a year and be able to own most of the world? ;)

dr momi said...

All very well said.

Mama Pea said...

tami and Jane are both correct, in my humble opinion. The body is an amazing instrument and drug companies are not out to heal but rather to make money at the expense of others.

As in so many other common sense aspects of life, we have gotten so far away from knowing our own bodies. Relearning the nearly lost knowledge of healing with herbs and homeopathy takes personal time and research. Both are natural aids to help the body heal itself . . . which it will do if given half a chance.

Excellent, EXCELLENT article, Leigh. Thanks!

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Fantastic post Leigh. This old nurse started her career using things like molasses to cure bedsores. It worked. When I left the field 9 months ago I was involved with "decubitus" treatment that required multiple meds, large amounts of exensive dressings and painful removal of dressings.

They did not work but hospitals and pharmacies made tons of money.

I am using more and more herbal treatments and they are working well but just a little slower. Also becoming ahuge fan of essential oils. They work well and I smell better than ever.

Woolly Bits said...

I think one of the other problems with herbal medicines is that people are so used to the often "instant" effects of commercial drugs, that they don't have the patience to use herbs that usually take a while to work. I wouldn't ban commercial medicines totally for my own use, but I do try to use herbs with most common ailments and only take other stuff, when in desperate need (which so far has only happened once, luckily). using common sense - like with most other things in life, would be useful:)) unfortunately a lot of people seem to have lost theirs (or switched it off?) over the years....

Mr. H. said...

What a terrific post, and to think that until recently, throughout history, these healing herbs were used extensively and now that knowledge has all but disappeared. But yes, the drug companies cannot make much money off of natural cures.

Leigh said...

Thanks Tami. Very astute in your observation about losing faith in western medicine. I have to say that largely true for us (and I used to be a registered nurse!). It's funny, but when I worked in an office as a doctor's nurse, some folks absolutely would not accept an OTC remedy or the fact that there was no prescription to help them. They weren't happy until they had that 'script in hand! In the end, it does seem to boil down to faith.

Jane, too true, too true.

Dr. Momi, thanks!

Mama Pea, when I was in nursing school, that is exactly what they taught us; that the body has a tremendous ability to heal itself. Unfortunately that remained only a textbook fact, because actual medical practice completely ignores it. Unfortunately, the cures are often worse than the disease.

Donna, good example! And the more complicated and ineffective cures get, the more expensive they get. It's true the herbal treatments are usually slower, but without all the side effects, it's definitely worth it.

Bettina, I think that's very true. Actually, I think common sense has been bred out of us. :) Like you, we do occasionally use OTC medications, but they always seem to be a last resort.

Mr H, thanks! It's a shame we've gotten so far from the knowledge of the natural. I think faith in science is immensely overblown, so that the old tied and true herbal remedies are all but forgotten.

Sheila said...

I am wondering if you have any book suggestions. My 11 yr old daughter has become interested in herbs and I was thinking of taking her science this year and spending a great deal of time learning and studying herbs. I have read a couple books at our small library and I liked two of them, but I have yet to find what I am really looking for, so any suggestions would be appreciated.

BTW- I began reading your blog a while ago...don't remember how I found it (maybe through subsistence pattern). Just wanted to let you know that I enjoy reading your posts.

BrokenRoadFarm said...

Bravo!! I have been reading books about herbs lately as well. Kinda overwhelming as there are so many, and a lot of them seem to overlap. But I hope to get an herb garden growing soon.

* Crystal * said...

Great post!

I've never understood how people could easily dismiss herbal remedies as hocus pocus. When used properly, herbal remedies can be the ticket to good health.

I happen to sit right in the middle.... I appreciate modern medicine & the science behind it (despise the corruption & greed of pharmacutical companies though...).

I believe in herbal remedies when used correctly.

For instance, in my area....with no hard freezes to kill off parasites I must stay on top of deworming on my goats. I cannot use herbals, they simply are not able to do the trick. I fecal before & after to know my results. I don't trust blindly. Same thing with chemical dewormers....test before & after to find what works (in my case my chemical wormers aren't even goat wormers as they have been horribly over used creating resistent parasites).

However, by using herbals & proper minerals I can stess parasites, keep their numbers much lower & as a result lessen my dependency & frequency of chemical dewormers (about every 5 months on my adults...not bad for my climate & the fact that I can't rotate pens).

In contrast, when Sabrina freshened with edema, I was told to get her an RX to clear it up (dex if I remember correctly). Instead I chose warm compresses, raspberry leaves, raw honey & vitamin C. Cleared up quite nicely :)

To be honest, my herbal knowledge is the minimal basics, but my mother is my herb When I'm sick, I call momma & she'll brew up some herbal concoction & bring it over. Never fails, if I follow her instructions I'm on the mend fairly quickly :)

Crow said...

Herbs are a wonderful source for body, mind and spirit health. What a great articular on herbs. Your blog is literally a dictionary for me.

Aromatherapy is an amazing tool. The sense of smell can comfort, console, awaken, and calm one's senses. Because I use them so much, just looking at pictures of basil or rosemary now has the similar affects as actually smelling them.

weird but true ;-)

trump said...

I hope to do a post on what the Amish do for natural cures, i find this subject very interesting. Richard from Amish Stories.

Lana from Farm Life Lessons said...

This was extremely interesting. During my senior year in college, I wrote many of my papers on the medicinal properties of herbs. I am so glad you stopped by my blog so I could track you back, I always try to track by those who post...your blog seems very interesting. You have many topics on former posts that I would like to read, so I'll be visiting you!!

Alicia@ eco friendly homemaking said...

This is just an awesome post!! I so believe that the Lord put the herbs here for us and that they can help with so many things without having the awful side effects that so many prescriptions have.Again wonderful post!!

Leigh said...

Shelia, I've been thinking about that because I have a lot of books on herbs. What would be of the best interest to an 11 year old is the question. Someone else might have a better suggestion, but perhaps Penelope Ody's The Complete Medicinal Herbal might be a possibility. Like any herbal, it's still somewhat technical, but it's DK book so there are lots of great photos. A number of foods (cabbage, orange, etc) are included as well. Also a section on how to make herbal remedies like infusions, decoctions, tinctures, syrups. There's a section on making an herbal 1st aid kit too.

BRF, I agree there are an overwhelming number of books on the subject. I keep collecting them and have trouble settling on one I like best. Current favorite is The New Age Herbalist by Richard Mabey (editor).

Crystal, well put. They key is learning the right ones and the right way to use them. Figuring that out is often no easy task. With our animals, I tend to always consult the vet first and follow their advice. Both times Jasmine had problems though, it was the herbs that helped more than the prescription medications. One anthelmintic is raw garlic. Not dried, not powdered, not deodorized. Fresh and raw. It used to work on my cats, but how to get the right dosage into a goat is another question altogether! Something to work on once I can do my own fecals.

Crow, thank you! Aromatherapy is something I really need to research and begin to utilize more. Pretty neat how you can make the healing association with pictures.

Richard, I would love a post on that! It would be very interesting indeed.

Lana, thank you so much for the return visit! I always try to track back as well; I find some of the best blogs that way. How interesting that you wrote college papers on this very topic. I've only explored your blog a little bit so far, but am looking forward to reading more.

Alicia, I couldn't agree with you more. I think we have everything we need for life and good health. I also believe that each region of the world has it's own collection of unique plants for the peoples of that area. Because of that, I don't need to look to Chinese or Ayurvedic herbalism, I just need to learn what grows in my own niche and how to use it.

Agatha said...

Medical Herbalism by David Hoffman would be a good complement to a chemistry text. It might be overwhelming for an 11 yr old to work on by herself, but it would be great if she had someone to guide her through it, or for someone to design a course around.

Healing with the Herbs of life by Leslie Tierra is great for learning how herbalists traditionally classify herbs by whether they are warming, cooling, drying, or moistening. It's a great system for taking the guesswork out of deciding which herbs from any given class (like diuretic,sedative,diaphoretic etc) to use in any given instance.

Tierra also wrote A Kid's Herb Book, For Children of All Ages, which is perfect for an eleven year old :)

Some of my other favorite herb books are The Herbalist's Way by Nancy Phillips, and The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook by James Green.

Hope those are helpful! (they are all books that came as part of the first certificate program I enrolled in. Will really help you get a good foundation of herbs, or take your herbal learning to the next level.)

Jen said...

Do you recommend a good book on this subject? I've been looking for a herb guide for ages and haven't been able to find one that has more than very basic information on a handful of herbs. I grow medicinal herbs but I haven't used them yet.

Leigh said...

Tinner's Rabbits, thanks so much for the recommendations! I hope Shelia is following up on the comments. I have James Green's book in my homestead library, but the others are one's I'd like to take a look at.

Limette, check out the ones recommended in the comments. I'd also personally recommend James Greens The Herbal Medicine Maker's Handbook, also The New Age Herbalist edited by Richard Mabey. Other than that, I'd say scour your public library! Also interlibrary loan for those you're considering buying. There are so many books on herbs out there, it would be good to get a hands on look at some of them.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to chime in with my own experience because sometimes I feel like nobody in my community is receptive to alternative medicine and it frustrates the heck out of me.

I grew up wanting to be a doctor and became, instead, an EMT/ mom. For the first half of my adult life I suffered from asthma (uncontrolled on three meds), exzema, lactose intolerance and various unspecified mental disorders. In addition, I was misdiagnosed 9 out of 13 times and medicated to my detriment - no exaggeration. I got an infection in hospital that kept me bed-ridden for three months.

Several years ago I got fed up and took control of my own health. I gave up processed foods and choose organic whenever possible. I quit all of my medications (check with your doctor first, really), avoid sugar where I can and found an alternative treatment for the recurrent UTIs (D-mannose).

I haven't had an asthma attack in over a year, no skin trouble, no depression, anxiety etc for probably two and a half years, maybe one UTi a year and I have no difficulty whatsoever with any milk product.

If I were bleeding out or experiencing breathing difficulty or chest pain, I would go to the hospital, otherwise, I do much better on my own.

We folks need to trust our bodies' healing power and be willing to "get out of our own way".

Oh, and I am in awe of this blog!!!

Leigh said...

Anonymous, I very much appreciate your comment. My community is similar to yours and I agree, it's frustrating. Your situation sounds very similar to ours. Have you considered taking an herbalism course, like School of Natural Healing?

Anonymous said...

Leigh, thanks for the link. I will definitely look into. I will also keep in mind that there is an online community that can be supportive of alternative approaches and you seem to have found it!

Thank you.


Leigh said...

Jana, you're welcome. You're right about the online community. It's wonderfully supportive and a great place to learn and share. If you don't have a blog, you consider it!