TBT: Why Herbs Aren’t Green Drugs and Why Plant Energies Matter

Originally posted on Thursday, February 25th, 2010

One thing I have generally noticed on this path of herbalism and plant medicine is that many people want to transfer the characteristics of pharmaceutical drugs to herbs, making herbs green drugs. In the Wise Woman Tradition, herbs aren’t drugs, though there are other traditions treat them that way. Herbs are much more complex and also much more helpful.

Why aren’t herbs drugs? Pharmaceutical drugs have one active ingredient and generally one approved use, though this is not always the case. Tylenol’s active ingredient is acetaminophen; penicillin’s is penicillin. You take Tylenol for “pain relief” and you take penicillin to thwart a bacterial infection. Penicillin doesn’t have a secondary action - it only kills bacteria, it doesn’t also, say, promote sleep or a sense of wellbeing. The pill you take consists of the active ingredient and a bunch of binders and fillers, there’s no secondary constituents that promote or heighten the effect of the primary constituent or soften its effect on the liver. To do that, you may have to take another drug but then you may run into drug interactions. Drugs don’t mediate. High blood pressure medication only takes blood pressure down; it does nothing to normalize blood pressure.

Herbs on the other hand, are extremely complex chemically. Their active constituents may run into the hundreds. Individual constituents within herbs work synergistically (they work together). You may take an herb that contains compounds not so friendly to a specific organ but has other compounds to strengthen that organ, hence no damage to that organ.

Herbs have constituents that work together to make them wonderful remedies for specific situations. Lemon Balm is an excellent example. Lemon balm is a carminative, meaning it helps with digestive troubles. It is especially useful for the nervous stomach where the person’s stomach is in a knot. Lemon balm has constituents that bring on calm as well as ones that help to relax muscles (antispasmodics), making it a great help to those with a clenched, nervous stomach. It’s also helpful just for nervous tension as well.

Herbs are also fantastic mediators or normalizers. The actions within the body act to bring the body back into balance. If your blood pressure is too high or too low, the traditional herb used to treat that condition is the same: Hawthorn. Hawthorn promotes the wellbeing of the circulatory system and the heart, bringing that system back to into normal functioning. Tonic herbs like Hawthorn do not have side effects (other than better health). Because tonic herbs don’t stimulate, just gently nudge the system back into balance, there’s not harsh after effects and no burn out because there’s no forcing or overproduction in the system that’s being treated.

A trained or experienced herbalist also knows the energies of the herbs and their relative strengths. Some herbs love kids and are very gentle. Some herbs I only use for adults or for certain situations. There are many antiviral herbs to choose from, for instance, and I choose an herb for a specific situation based upon my knowledge of the herb and the person I’m working with. For viruses, especially cold or flu viruses, I often choose lemon balm or elder for kids. There are many other antivirals - St. John’s Wort, Hyssop, just to name a few - but SJW is just too strong for a cold (why use a cannon when a slingshot will do) or too strong for the person I’m working with. Hyssop is great for adults but most kids won’t drink it as a tea or take it as a syrup. Lemon balm has antiviral properties and works as a light fever reducer plus its taste is usually well received. Elderberry made into a syrup has different antiviral properties and can be used preventatively. Elderflower is the traditional European remedy for colds. The main difference between elder and lemon balm is their energy. Lemon balm is more cooling, elder is heating. I like to treat a “hot” cold with lemon balm and a “chilly” cold with elderflower to warm up the system. In addition, an agitated child with a “hot” cold definitely benefits from lemon balm’s calming and relaxing properties - it brings the child back into balance. Likewise, a chilled, tired child is brought back into balance with the warming energy of elderflower tea. And, no, the temperature of the tea doesn’t necessarily matter.

What kind of energy does a pharmaceutical have? Hold one in your hand, see how it feels. Dead? Sterile? Do you feel any desire to bring forces together for your own healing?

The herbalist’s relationship with the plant is also important. Paracelsus said that lemon balm is the only herb one ever needs. He obviously had a really good relationship with lemon balm! My personal herbal allies include calendula, comfrey and St. John’s Wort. I’ve had very good results using calendula even when it’s not the “best herb for the job”. My relationship and respect for the plant comes through in the medicine I make. In turn, the plant allows me to use its full healing potential.

How does one determine plant energies? A good herbal is one way as well as working with herbs in on a hands-on way. When handling the plants or dried plant materials the energy will still come through. Never underestimate your own senses, including the knowing of your heart. In times past when people spent a lot of time in their gardens, plant energies would have been apparent as well as learned at the knee of a relative. Plants knowledge was often taught that way and because there was no break in the transmission of knowledge most women grew up knowing which plant to use in which situation. Intuition (your heart knowing) becomes important when dealing with the plant world. In this way, learning the herbs also works to open up one’s heart to the whole world and its interconnectedness.

When you take an herbal remedy, it brings together the energy of the herbalist, the plant and the Earth. As Barbara Tedlock says in The Woman in the Shaman’s Body “Herbalists insist that in order to choose the proper medicine for any situation, a healer must ‘come to know the plants as living beings’.” (p. 137). Healing comes from the interplay that exists between the spirit world, the herbalist and her energy, the energy of the plants and the energy of the person being healed. Now there’s something no pharmaceutical can do!

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