The Magic and Wonder of Herbal Medicine
by Mark J Kaylor
Our history of using herbal medicines predates the Internet, medical doctors, libraries and even books. For tens of thousands of years an oral tradition of herbal-based healing, involving an intimate relationship with the world around us and with the plants themselves, has been humankind’s primary source of medicines.
Long predating the much-prized double blind, placebo controlled studies of today; this knowledge grew out of a worldview where humankind and nature were not seen as separate but as interconnected parts of the greater whole. Magic and wonder were legitimate ways of explaining and exploring this world and in discovering which plants were good for what.
So let’s get right to the point, “Are herbs magic?” The answer to this is, “Sort of. Sort of yes. And sort of no.” Herbs and magic have a long history together covering thousands of years, from Asia, throughout the Middle East, through Europe and Africa and onto the Americas. Virtually everywhere people lived, herbal medicine, the wonder of nature and magic coexisted.
It is only natural then, since traditional peoples did not see themselves as set apart from nature, that they would search for, and find, powerful and effective healing allies in the plants around them. This is a view that is so distinctly different than that which allopathic medicine was founded on.
Modern medicine is based upon the principles of domination and control, over the body, nature, the medicines and even disease itself along with a fragmented, mechanistic view of the body. It naturally arises out of this logic then that we can artificially manufacture our medicines. And since we know better than nature, it follows that our physicians then know better than us.
All of this is generally antithetical to traditional herbal medicine, which was founded on interconnectedness, wholeness, respect for nature and the healing processes. In this approach the healer acts more as guide, acknowledging the primacy of the individual’s role in their own healing. This is all fine and dandy claims the allopath but where is the proof.
The herbalist response to this is found in the tens of thousands of years of use with billions of people all over the world. Why have herbs been used so long and by so many if they weren’t effective. Which is better proof for you, the experience of billions over the centuries or a clinical study of a few thousand? Even today, herbal medicine is the primary medicine for up to 80% of the population.
One intriguing observation to support the accuracy of the use of herbal medicine is that more times than not, cultures separated by time and or space quite frequently had very similar explanations for what an herb was good for.
The Wonder of the Ordinary
Many years ago, when I was the herbalist for a leading herbal extract company; I took a tour of a Ginseng farm in upstate NY. As we drove the flatbed truck up the hillside to the fields I excitedly pointed out the Burdock (a favorite herb of mine) that was growing wild all over the farm. This puzzled the farmer who saw these plants as just another difficult weed to get rid of. He had no idea that Burdock is a valued healing herb, and a nutritious food, and that there was a market for this plant as well.
Unfortunately it seems we have a penchant for the exotic and unusual while we frequently overlook valuable healing remedies that are right in our own backyards. Part of the magic of exploring the world of medicinal herbs is in rediscovering the wonder of the plants that grow in our own back yards.
As anybody who has tried planting a grass lawn can attest, the dandelion is a worthy opponent. But did you know that Dandelion has a long history of use as a medicine and nutritious food? It stimulates digestion and the liver, supports the kidneys and is a mild diuretic. Another common foe to the pristine lawn is Plantain, it is a gentle expectorant, and soothing to inflamed membranes and can help stop bleeding of minor cuts. The aforementioned Burdock has a long and storied history as a blood cleanser, can boost immune function, stimulates digestion and the liver, and can work wonders for virtually all skin conditions.
There are also powerful healing partners on the spice rack in most of our kitchens. Rosemary can lift your spirits, improve circulation and wake up a sluggish brain. Thyme is a potent anti-microbial (the Greeks even used it as a fumigant), helps break up chest congestion and makes an excellent gargle. And then there is Turmeric, one of the herbs that make up curry.
The benefits of Turmeric are so extensive that it would take a whole article just to touch on some. A potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, research suggests promise with alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis and much, much more. So you see, wondrous remedies abound, from our kitchens to our backyards; they don’t have to come from halfway around the world.
The Magic of Balance
In traditional Chinese Medicine there is a category of herbs that is known as Superior Medicine. While they may have specific benefits for various disorders and may also help prevent imbalances, their real gift lies with their ability to help make you a better you. These are herbs that are all about balance, strength, integration, longevity, building vitality, assisting in detoxification, protecting the body, building defenses and adapting to stress. Clearly a different mindset than we have in the West; there really is nothing like them in the pharmaceutical world.
These tonic herbs may also display seemingly contradictory actions as the try to bring the body into balance. An example of this is an herb from India known as Ashwaganda that has an energizing action all the while it helps relax and sooth stress, and relieve anxiety and tension. To the Western mind it is not be plausible to have a calming stimulant.
Tonics are not limited to the East though; Hawthorn berry also exhibits these bi-directional qualities, in this case for the heart and cardiovascular system. Other wondrous tonics that are worth exploring are Rhodiola, Ginsengs, Astragalus, and a mushroom that I call the “tonic for the 21st century”, Reishi.
Bringing Back the Magic and Wonder
Slowly we are beginning to re-recognize that, no matter how hard western medicine tries, healing is an art, not a science. Maybe the time has come for us to bring back the wonder, the mystery and the magic of health and healing. Have you ever had an herb garden? If you have, then you are intimately aware of the enchanting place they can be, full of wonder… and healing.
You can also bring it back by creating your own healing “rituals”. Some easy favorites to try when you take your herbs are: being quiet and mindful, using special water or hand made cup to take your herbs in, offering thanks, asking the plant for help or whatever brings meaning and connection for you.
So are herbs really magical? I’ll let you decide for yourself. But for me, after decades of sharing their gifts and messages, I do know they are powerful partners on our path to health and healing. And after all, isn’t anything that helps us heal, wondrous and magical?