Medicine from the Earth
Herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine or earth medicine, is the oldest and most widely used medicine. Herbal medicine is “The People’s Medicine”, safe for people of all ages, and almost all conditions of health. Wise use of herbs can contribute to superior, deep nourishment, giving the body what it needs to repair itself and thrive.
Why is it that herbs can have such remarkable effects, helping us to heal from stuck and entrenched places when other approaches don’t work?
The Short Answer:
We evolved using herbs, and they are something that our bodies understand and respond to in predictable ways. Combined with foods that it knows and loves without the ones it doesn’t —and a reconnection to the circadian rhythms that govern waking and sleep (with all the hormone production that happens on that axis) — herbs can help maintain vitality, or support the body in its recovery from injury or illness.
The Long Answer:
…is multifaceted, and invites us to suspend our preconceptions for a moment, to look at how herbs work.
The dominant cultural story tells us that if you are sick, you treat the symptom and hope it will go away. You “take this drug for that symptom, ailment, etc.”, usually neglecting what gave rise to the problem in the first place. Herbs work in an entirely different manner — actually they affect us in many ways. To understand some of those, it is first important to remember that human beings are not merely just chemical factories, as was once believed.
First, it’s important to know:
1. All living beings, including plants and people, are made of swirling, flowing energies that form many unseen fields in and through us. They include electromagnetic fields, and more subtle energies whose effects are known. Many of these can be be sensed and measured with sensitive scientific instruments such as have been developed by the HeartMath Institute and other biofield researchers. These fields form a real and critical infrastructure within and around us.
2. Your body knows how to heal itself. We are also composed of cells that have an amazing level of intelligence in their ability to process information and react to their environments. They act individually and collectively to keep us healthy, and know how to repair our body when it is damaged by injury or illness.
3. We evolved in a world filled with plants that we have eaten and used as medicines from our earliest days as a species. Our bodies know these plants like old friends. Our cells have a long history of working together with plants that bring them what they need to thrive. If the cells thrive, then the organs thrive — and the body does. They know how the chemical and energetic signals of plants feel as food and as medicine, and how to use them in the processes of life.
Those signals come to us in many ways:
Scent. Our first contact with plants is through breath. We have all experienced the effects of scent on memory or mood. Directly affecting the limbic system and emotional centers of the brain, scent can invoke memories and strong associations. Scent molecules affect our nervous systems, helping to energize or soothe. Aromatic herbs open our emotions and psyches to the energies present; floral scents are stimulating, and pungent; acrid smelling herbs suggest strong medicine.
Taste. Just tasting an herb can have strong and healing effects in the body. For example, the bitter taste triggers a cascade of secretions all along the digestive system, preparing it to digest food. Sour tastes such as in lemonade can cool, and salty tastes tell our bodies minerals are coming.
Temperature. Plants can invoke heat in our bodies, such as when we eat garlic, onion or peppers; or cold, as when we eat cooling fruits or take bitter, cooling herbs. Often the plant does not even have to be swallowed to create this reflex reaction — I have seen a person flush from putting a rosemary leaf in her mouth. The body can sense the property before the herb is even fully ingested.
Humidity. Plants can invoke a reaction of moistening in our bodies, as when we take a slippery, demulcent herb; or have a drying effect when we take an herb with that property. Again, the body can sense the qualities of those herbs before we even swallow them.
Chemical. This is only one way, and not always the strongest way in which herbs help us heal. The most important aspect of the chemical constituents of plants is that they all work together. Each plant contains co-factors, without which the main constituent may not work as well. Modern science has not even scratched the surface of cataloging all the co-factors and secondary metabolites in our plant pharmacy! It is always best to work with the whole plant part (like the whole root, or whole flower), rather than with constituents.
How does all this work together?
As Food! Select herbs to use as food! This is the oldest and most pervasive health giving use of herbs. Ordinary, common, available and wonderful, herbs as food are some of the best ways to restore and build health. Try the mint family: Basil, Lavender, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Lemon Balm, and of course spearmint are good places to start.
Acute conditions such as coughs, sprains or cramps respond beautifully to herbal medicine. Fragrant, cooling herbs relax and soothe at bath time in summer! Warming salves loosen sore muscles and help them heal. Cough syrups loosen phlegm in different ways. Drying herbs can help with runny, allergic sinuses. Aromatic smudges help us to open our hearts and spirits. And of course the constituents play a role, and are unique in each herb.
Chronic conditions such as inflammation also respond very well to herbal medicine, if constant re-injury is eliminated. Once the food or other cause of the inflammation is removed, herbs can help us heal.