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Furthering Your Knowledge about Herbal Medicine

Furthering Your Knowledge…
Guidelines for the safe use of herbs

When used in the correct manner, both herbs and pharmaceutical medicine play a valid role in the treatment of ill health. Acknowledging the validity of both paradigms will result in better quality care for the client.

Tips for beginning to use herbs

  • If you are not familiar with plant medicine, then enter into this realm by selecting just one herb to study and get to know the personality of that plant like a close friend; if possible observe the environment in which it grows, become familiar with its expected effects on the body and try using the herb as a tea, familiarizing your self with its unique subtle personality and strengths.
  • With an herbalist’s eye, have a look in your kitchen spice cupboard…are there any herbs waiting to be tasted and experienced? Select a couple and learn about their medicinal properties. If the herbs in your kitchen have been stored for over a year, it is likely that the medicinal potency will be reduced.
  • Choose to use herbs for non-emergency situations, such as indigestion, sleep support and relaxation and continue to expand your knowledge and personal experience with each plant. Humans tend to learn by experience and being creatures of habit, we often reach for what is most familiar; begin incorporating herbal choices into your daily living, thus these plants may be more likely to be used in acute situations.
  • If feeling ambitious, do some research and create a simple herbal first aid kit to use in your home.
  • Familiarize yourself with the philosophy of herbal medicine and the interconnectedness of plant and human life.
  • Read about the body systems and general function of each system (the digestive system, respiratory system, reproductive and urinary system). Herbal medicine can address dis-ease in each body system.
  • When using tinctures, follow the instructions provided on the label, do not assume that a higher dosage is better, unless recommended by a professional herbalist.
  • Select a couple key reference books; see below for some recommendations.

How to choose quality dry herbs

When purchasing herbs in dried form, note the color and fragrance of the plant. Ideally the plant colour should be brightly coloured, retaining its original hues and not appear faded or dull. While not all herbs are fragrantly appealing, the scent of the herb should remain distinct and strong smelling.

Tea Tasting: Most teas probably will not taste delicious, however they should have a characteristically potent, strong taste.

A client has more information available to assess quality and potency of an herb when purchasing in bulk rather than already packaged into tea bags. It is impossible to know how long a packaged tea has been on the shelf, thus the potency of the tea is largely unknown and many commercial tea bags are bleached. When purchasing a bulk tea, one can assess quality and potency by the above suggestions and also has a choice of strength and dosage.

Storing Herbs

Store dry herbs in glass containers, with tightly fitting lids and keep away from heat and direct sunlight. Remember to label the container including the common and Latin name of the plant and the date of bottling. It is very easy to forget how long a tea has been sitting on the shelf. Generally herbal teas should be consumed within one year to guarantee freshness and optimal potency.

Tinctures should be stored away from heat and direct sunlight in an airtight container. The shelf life of a tincture is at least 3 years.

Where to go for valid information…

There are many well-trained health care practitioners, each with a different specialty. So it is important to remember… would you visit a plumber if your house was experiencing electrical problems? Both experts are trained in the field of home repairs, however one professional can provide more accurate information in the area which you are seeking information; the same reasoning applies to the field of herbal medicine. If questions arise about plant medicine, seek answers from a professional trained extensively in botanical medicine and do not hesitate to inquire about the scope of training and the length of schooling in the field.

Reference Books

In the last decade there has been a flock of publications on botanical medicine entering the market, this has made herbal information far more accessible to the general public; unfortunately not all the information entering the public domain is authentic nor is all information accurate.

Some helpful criteria for choosing a good reference book

Who is writing the book? Is the author a practicing herbalist with clinical experience or a researcher, scientist or general writer, reporting on, citing research or extrapolating information from other publications? While scientific facts and studies are important to further our understanding on plant medicine, it is important that knowledge is being shared in the correct context. For example, when studies are conducted on plants through in vitro and in vivo studies and even when conducted on animals; the study results will likely vary drastically when compared to the medicinal use in a clinic environment. If this information is not fully communicated by the writer and not fully understood by a reader then it may impact and slant the understanding the reader will have on the safety and relevancy of botanicals for medicinal use. Information on herbal medicine provided by a practicing herbalist will be more applicable and relevant for human use, plus a practicing clinician can pass on precious insightful knowledge gained from personal experience and case histories.

Does the writer include information on the philosophy of herbal medicine? Learning about plant medicine in the correct context helps the reader understand how plant medicine works in the body. Herbalists of all traditions embrace the concept of the connectedness between mind, body and spirit and believe in supporting optimal body function while assisting the body to heal itself.

Credibility: Does the author cite reference sources? Has the reference book been peer reviewed? Who has published the book? –commercial publishers generally conduct vigorous review processes for accuracy and checking the factual information.

Compile more than one reference book; find at least 2 or 3 books you can use to cross-reference. It is common to discover conflicting information on botanicals, thus do more reading, if necessary, consult a practitioner and ultimately use your own personal experience as your truth.

There are many levels of information depending upon your familiarity with plants and medicine. Some books are user friendly and tailored to beginners; other publications contain more clinical information and medical terminology most useful for a clinician or advanced reader. Some of my personal favourites include:

Introductory books:

  • The New Age Herbalist by Richard Mabey
  • Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal by David Hoffman
  • Herbal Healing for Women by Rosemary Gladstar
  • Susan Weeds’ Wise Women Herbal, numerous introductory books on herbal medicine
  • Encyclopedia of Natural Healing for Children and Infants by Mary Bove
  • Alchemy of Herbs by Rosalee de la Floret
  • Spice Apothecary by Bevin Clare
  • The Good Living Guide to Natural and Herbal Medicine by Katolen Yardley

Moderate level and professional reference books:

  • Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Thomas Bartram
  • Herbal Medicine Healing and Cancer by Donald Yance
  • Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy by Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
  • Herbal Medicine by Rudolf Fritz Weiss
  • Herbal Remedies for Women by Amanda McQuade Crawford
  • Women, Hormones and the Menstrual Cycle by Ruth Trickey