Herbal medicine is often a controversial topic. For one, many people think herbs are outdated, archaic medicines, far outperformed by their pharmaceutical counterparts. Others are wary of the sourcing of herbal medicines — are they being grown in safe, toxin-free environments? And, finally, many think that herbal medicines work slowly and therefore are less effective.
Having worked as an herbalist for over 10 years, I can attest to the fact that herbs are indeed archaic. Just as archaic as we are. You see, the plants from which herbal medicines are derived came from the same place we came from. And, they evolved right along with us for millions of years. They reflect nature’s evolutionary, creative process as much as we do.
For all but the last 100 years or so, herbs have been our primary medicine. While they may not always have the immediacy and sheer potency of human-invented drugs, they are nonetheless remarkably potent and effective. I’ll illustrate this later with a case history from my clinic.
Their effectiveness is a reflection of the fact that the same healing intelligence that lives in you lives in them. And, in essence, when you take herbs you are infusing yourself with a little slice of nature’s wisdom, to guide and direct the wisdom of your bodymind.
And, there are many safe, well-regulated herbal manufacturers out there. All the herbs we use in clinic are carefully selected to be from reputable companies. None are grown in China, which has unfortunately become highly polluted. Whenever choosing herbs for yourself, make sure you do your research on where they are coming from and whether your herbal supplier is using internationally recognized standards for cultivation and testing each lot for contamination.
OK, here are three reasons why herbal medicines work so well:
1. Herbal medicines impart evolutionary wisdom
Plants have had to endure the same process of evolutionary growth and change as everything else on Earth. They have intelligently found ways to thrive in different climates, soil conditions, and temperatures. Different plants can survive in high or low moisture, altitude, shade, and sun exposure.
In fact, plants have found ways to thrive in every single type of environment. High upon mountaintops, deep in the oceans. Deserts, swamps, lakes, streams, forests, plains. Icy conditions? No problem.
Some are able to live in lakes and oceans and handle extremely large amounts of water efficiently. Others thrive in drier climates and have a special ability to find and conserve water where there is virtually none.
When you are inflamed and your system needs to be cooled, there are herbs that know how to do that because they do it for themselves every day — living in extremely hot environments and keeping themselves “cool”. Same goes for excessive water retention — there are herbs that have the ability to help your body drain that water because they live in extremely wet climates that would over-saturate other types of plants.
One of my favorite examples of this principle is the herb Cordyceps Sinensis, or Chinese Cordyceps. It is a fungus that lives only above altitudes of around 14,000 feet, high up in the Himalayas.
In Chinese Medicine, this herb is legendary as a “Qi Tonic”, or energy booster. And, its primary effect is to strengthen the Lung Qi, the energy of the lungs, to make oxygen usage more efficient. It has been used for centuries to help fatigue, general weakness, and to enhance athletic endurance.
The ability of Cordyceps to survive at high altitude is conveyed to the body as more efficient use of energy, particularly oxygen. It’s as if the plant is “reminding” the cells of how to do this better.
Now the case history… A patient of mine was having lung problems. He’d been to all the top specialists in the medical center, and none of them were able to come up with a clear diagnosis. After CT scans and biopsies, the most they could do was tell him he had inflammation in his lung tissue, and prescribe him steroid breathing treatments — which reduce the inflammation but dramatically reduce the immune function in the lung tissue.
The steroid breathing treatments gave temporary relief, but he was still coughing almost incessantly and having difficulty speaking without discomfort. They were starting to talk about the possibility of shortened life-span and possibly a lung transplant down the line. Things simply weren’t improving.
After one particularly poor lung function test result, this person came to me, referred by one of my family members. He asked me if there was anything I could do that might help. I prescribed Cordyceps, and told him to take 2 capsules in the morning, 2 in the evening, until the entire bottle was finished. He agreed to do so. I made sure to tell him not to give up if he didn’t feel better immediately. At the same time, I told him that he might feel better very quickly, depending on how strong his underlying healing system was.
Within two days, his coughing had stopped almost entirely. One week later, he went back for a repeat lung function test, and the results were NORMAL. There was such a dramatic change, the doctors weren’t sure what to make of it.
He also told me that by that first week his energy was coming back. It was stronger than it had been in many, many months. At work he was making it to the end of his shift with little to no fatigue.
He’s off the steroids and breathing treatments since then. It’s been about 4 years. He continues to take the Cordyceps daily, as it is perfectly safe for long-term use and actually IMPROVES the health of the body as he continues taking it. You’ll be hard pressed to find a drug that does this over the long term.
This case illustrates how herbal medicines literally transfer evolutionary wisdom to the body. His lungs were weak, the Cordyceps strengthened them. His body started to process oxygen more effectively. And, this allowed the tissue to heal properly.
In a sense, the Cordyceps taught his body, or helped his body relearn, a very natural function that had started to falter.
Scientists want complex, microscopic explanations for this. But, sometimes explaining how herbs work is like trying to explain evolution or the big bang. My personal preference is to trust in the wisdom of nature and allow that wisdom to work in the body. I don’t need fancy explanations with complicated chemical names.
2. Herbal medicines speak the native language of our biology
We emerged out of the same world as plants. Their presence in our environment goes back to the very first humans who walked this planet. They have been our constant companions, and have endured the same biological stresses we have.
They come from the same minerals, proteins, fats, and other compounds that make up our organs, tissues, cells, bones, marrow, fluids, and blood.
When we take medicinal plants, skillfully chosen and at proper dosage, our bodies respond with “I know what you are saying to me, I’ll do it.”
The “I know what you are saying to me” reflects the fact that the body naturally understands the language of the plant, what the plant wants to convey, because plant and body have literally “known each other” for millions of years. They are old friends.
The “I’ll do it” means that the herb speaks to the body and instructs the body what to do on its own. The plant doesn’t substitute, it reminds. Herbal healing is a re-learning process for the body, as mentioned above in the Cordyceps example.
When an herbal medicine reduces arthritis, it is not doing so by brute-force suppression, it is doing so by strengthening the body’s “anti-arthritic” systems, it is helping the body make more of its own medicine. It is facilitating the body’s innate healing response.
3. Herbal medicines, prescribed properly, are safe for long-term use and rarely cause serious side-effects
This is where the biggest difference between herbs and drugs comes out. Drugs can be very, very effective, but they are forceful overrides of natural body functions. The sheer force of a drug says to the body, “do this now, whether you like it or not”. The body may, or may not, respond well to the drug because it may, or may not, have the resources to do so. Also, the process of being so forcefully redirected can be very stressful to organs and tissues. This stress is reflected in side effects, whether short-term or long-term.
Herbs, on the other hand, are like a gentle suggestion, a “let’s do this together.” They supply not only the message, but the resources to respond to it, especially when skillfully combined into formulas. The formulas of Chinese Medicine, which have evolved over thousands of years, reflect this wisdom by combining herbal medicines into formulas that supply both corrective and supportive therapy to the body.
In fact, many of the herbs in Chinese medicine are taken as tonics continually for years. They keep tissues strong and vital over time and promote vitality and balance even into old age.
Contrast this with many pharmaceutical drugs which are known to weaken and damage organs and tissues when taken for long periods. Over time, these drug-induced problems require additional drugs to manage. And, this is how many older people end up on 10 even 20 medications.
Herbs are most effective and safe when skillfully prescribed by a trained herbalist. The important thing to emphasize here is that, yes, herbs CAN cause side-effects and can be toxic if used improperly. Even water can kill you if you drink too much too fast.
The wisdom of nature is profound. This immense intelligence is embodied not only within us, but in the plants that have been our faithful companions on this planet for millions of years. The encoded intelligence in these plants speaks to our cells and tissues in a language they understand, and imparts deep evolutionary wisdom to our bodies, helping us to remember how to heal.
Don’t be afraid to try herbal medicine. It’s safe, and it works. I encourage you to seek an experienced herbalist you can trust. When you take the right herbs for the right condition, the results can be nothing short of amazing.
I’ve seen it — and experienced it — over and over. I invite you to try it.