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Natural Awakenings Lehigh Valley

Herbal Medicine - Treating People, Not Diseases

May 29, 2020 04:57PM ● By David Winston, RH (AHG)

In the United States we experienced what I call the “Herbal Dark Ages” from the 1930s through the 1970s. This was a time when the use of herbal medicine vanished from mainstream American culture, and the wisdom of our ancestors was lost. Only in a small number of rural and ethnic communities was this knowledge maintained and retained.  

There was a revival of interest in natural foods, organic gardening and alternative healthcare in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This ushered in a renewed enthusiasm for herbal medicine. It has grown exponentially over the last 40 years. The herbal/nutritional supplements industry has boomed. In some ways this is good. I no longer get calls asking “What is this herb Ek-in-ec-ee-a”?  (They meant Echinacea.) But we still have far to go.

While certain medicinal plants have become popular - St John’s wort, turmeric, saw palmetto, black cohosh, maca - herbal medicine has not. Most Americans believe that herbal medicine means taking St. John’s wort instead of Prozac. This is not herbal medicine. It is the allopathic use of herbs. The idea that an herb is good for a disease is patently untrue. How many of us have been told that black cohosh is the menopause herb, or that saw palmetto is the prostate herb, or St John’s wort is the depression herb?  

While this is great for marketing purposes, it’s not accurate and it may lead people to conclude that herbs don’t work. Great herbalists do not treat disease, they treat people. More than 2000 years ago, Hippocrates is believed to have said, “it is more important to know the person who has the disease, than the disease the person has.” I agree. The focus of herbal treatment is to use herbs, diet, lifestyle changes and exercise to enhance our body’s innate ability to heal.  

There are no herbal antibiotics, but there are herbs that enhance our immune function and that can inhibit viral or bacterial replication and virulence.  A parent could give children’s acetaminophen to a child with a cold. That can have adverse effects and prolong the length of illness. They can try elderberry syrup which, in human clinical trials, shortened the duration and severity of cold and flu symptoms. They can also give herbs such as lemon balm, peppermint or chrysanthemum tea, which reduce inflammation, irritability, inhibit viral replication, lower fevers and reduce GI upset.

A budding herbalist would do better to consider what herbs would be useful for this person than to think about what herb is good for arthritis.  In addition to having digestive, circulatory or sleep issues, they may also have arthritis.  In traditional medicine, herbs are virtually never used as single remedies, but as complex formulas. This is the basis of the world’s great systems of traditional medicine (Traditional Chinese Medicine/TCM, Ayurveda from India, Unani-Tibb [Greco-Arabic Medicine], Tibetan Medicine, Kampo from Japan, Siddha [the traditional Tamil medicine], and Jammu from Indonesia). Scientific research over the past 45 years confirms much of the wisdom and efficacy of these ancient practices. Today, herbal or botanical medicine is not just based on traditional practices; it also depends on science and clinical research.

Many people believe there’s a tug of war between western orthodox medicine and  traditional medicine.  Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not either/or. It should be: which practices can be most helpful for me or my family at this time and for this issue? Where western medical practice is strong, herbal medicine tends to be much less effective, and conversely, where herbal practice is most effective is where orthodox medicine tends to offer little. If you have Lyme disease or bacterial meningitis, you need antibiotics. If you need surgery or asthma medication, that’s the best treatment. For many chronic conditions, including migraines, metabolic syndrome, PMS, arthritis, or skin conditions, herbal therapies can offer much more than palliative care.  A great herbalist working with a great physician is a true win-win for any patient.  It’s imperative that we regain our rightful heritage: the intelligent, safe and effective use of herbs as part of our mainstream American culture.

David Winston RH (AHG) is an herbalist and ethnobotanist who studied herbal medicine for 50 years and has been in clinical practice for 43 years.  He’s trained in Chinese, southeastern and western/eclectic herbal traditions.  David is an internationally-known lecturer and author of books on herbal medicine, including the best-selling “Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina and Stress Relief” (2019).  He’s a founding member of the American Herbalist’s Guild and primary instructor for David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies’ 2-year herbalist training program.  This widely-respected course is one of the most comprehensive programs available.  

More information about the upcoming 2020-22 class can be found at

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