Industrial Herbalism

The dawn of the 21st century finds health and healthcare in a remarkable dichotomy. On the one hand we have exponential growth in medical technology, cutting edge surgery, new and improved wonder drugs and scientific breakthroughs in medical research every day. On the other hand we are seeing epidemics of new modern-day diseases like diabetes, ADHD, obesity, anxiety disorders, and countless others. We see alarming proportions of the population dependent on anti-depressants, blood thinners, insulin, ad infinitum. There’s a drug for every complaint—do it yourself over-the-counter meds and big gun prescription drugs.

Yet in spite of all these major advances on the medical frontier, more and more people are seeking out alternative medicine in the pursuit of health.  Herbal medicine is enjoying a modern-day renaissance as people are rejecting the onslaught of drug therapies with their questionable results. And rightly so.

While drugs have certainly improved the quality of life and saved many lives when appropriately used, they also have a dark side and an enormous potential for abuse:
Almost all drugs have unwelcome side effects, some subtle, but some so severe that they compound the original problem in a downward spiral. Sometimes drugs are prescribed as an antidote to side effects from other drugs!

  • Drugs are too often prescribed as a quick-fix solution to problems that could more easily and safely be corrected through simple diet and lifestyle changes or nutritional counseling.
  • Drugs have no nutritional value. Vitamins and minerals are the true building blocks of health.
  • Most of today’s chronic ailments are from nutritional deficiencies which drugs are powerless to correct.
  • Drugs can provide comfort from pain and symptom relief, but drugs do not and cannot heal.
  • Drugs are often substitutes for tender loving care (TLC). Drugs can never replace exercise, fresh air, nourishing food, positive attitudes, right relations, love and other keys to healthy living.

As folks get more savvy to these problems and increasingly discouraged by the failings of the healthcare system, the herb market is wide open and flourishing. We see new companies and new herbal products on the shelves each year, even finding their way into mainstream drug stores competing with pharmaceuticals. Some of the larger co-ops and health food stores have specially trained staff to help consumers select appropriate remedies. Alternative health care providers have to be up-to-date and knowledgeable about the latest product lines. Even mainstream doctors are finding it necessary to familiarize themselves with popular herbs and their usage.

It is heartening to see people turning once again to this most ancient tradition of healing, but there is also a downside to the growing herb industry that we need to be aware of. We are beginning to encounter some of the same problems that we see with our industrialized, mechanized health-care system.

For one thing, our herbs are beginning to look more and more like drugs! Most people have absolutely no connection to the plants themselves, the very heart and soul of herbal medicine. There’s a vast difference between seeking out your medicine from the forest and the field and choosing a product from a shelf in a drugstore. Some folks are spraying their lawns with noxious chemicals to rid themselves of dandelions and then turn around and pay 15$ for a bottle of dandelion root extract for their hypoglycemia! In the quest for the simpler wisdom of ancient times, we get inevitably sidetracked by the lure of the marketplace.

Supply and demand fuels the herb industry and we find modern-day herbs mimicking pharmaceuticals to compete on the market. Herbs become another commodity in the economic hustle rather than a common, abundant resource freely available to all. The herb market becomes wrought with many of the same problems we see with profit-driven business practices:

  • Mass production of herbs, not necessarily organic, compromises the quality and value of the herbs. Warehoused herbs suffer a loss of potency in shipping and storage, especially dried, bulk herbs, which compromises their effectiveness and integrity.
  • Mass exploitation of wild herbs puts more and more plants on the threatened and endangered list each year. We see this here in the US with the plight of the Goldenseal, wild Ginseng and native Echinacea. Pop herbs from the rainforest and other exotic places also open the way for exploitation of indigenous peoples and habitats.
  • Environmental and economical costs of shipping and transportation of herbs soar as we seek our medicine from afar rather than in our own bioregions. Many herbal products that are imported long distances grow in reckless abundance all around us. There are almost always local herbs that are just as effective as exotic imports.
  • We lose connection with the growers, harvesters, and producers of herbs and herbal preparations, a vital link in a healthy community. Maintaining this connection ensures high quality and accountability by the suppliers. It also helps to bring the knowledge of herbal medicine back into the hands of the people, rather than relinquishing it to specially trained professionals and profiteers.

With the rising popularity of herbs and natural health care products, we can easily envision that it won’t be long before the drug corporations co-opt the market, driving out small, ‘backwoods’ suppliers and controlling the sales and distribution of herbs with heavy regulations and licensing requirements.

Herbs are no longer plants, but products on the shelves. Most people today have become thoroughly divorced from the land, trained instead to be smart shoppers. Milk comes from a carton, soup comes from a can, herbs come from the co-op. One fad herb after another gets spotlighted as the cure for what ails you, while the deeper, simpler truths about herbal healing are lost in the fray.

Knowledge of the herbs used to be common to all, intricately woven into the daily lives of primitive and land-based cultures, as familiar as the menu at McDonald’s is today.  It was a natural, organic wisdom in times when people lived by the grace and mercy of the land.  Supermarkets and drugstores are a relatively new phenomenon in the history of the world.  Specially trained medicine people were equipped to handle unusual or crisis situations when all else failed, but routine health care was always in the hands of lay people, usually housewives and mothers.

Modern man looks upon old wisdom and knowledge as dead, useless and no longer respected. Modern man depends on the money system and no longer on Mother Earth for food. According to prophecy when this happens Mother Earth will hide her nourishment because of the view that ancient food is poor man’s food. ~Dan Evehema, Hopi Elder

Today our lives have become so compartmentalized that we delegate responsibility for our health to professionals and specialists along with many other basic skills once common to man. People are forced to seek out the experts because they have become so removed from the plants that grow at their very doorstep.

Rose in the nettle patchThe truth is that herbs are not drugs, they are not substitutes for drugs, and they are not meant to be used like drugs. In the beginning the herbs were given to man and animal for food. Wild animals do not take drugs, nor do they need vitamin supplements; they are perfectly sustained by the plant kingdom. Even the carnivorous animals higher up the food chain are eating the wild herbs in the flesh of their prey.

Today we see domesticated animals raised for market production being pumped full of hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs because artificial diets cannot sustain them. Shockingly, the same can be said for the human population.

We need to bring the herbs back to the table, first and foremost!!! When herbs are recognized as food and sustenance, nutritionally superior far and away above anything on the shelf at the local supermarket, then the healing can begin.

Dandelion Greens
Dandelion Greens

The deepest truth about herbs is that they heal by nourishing us, by supplying our bodies with all the nutrients and building blocks of health so that we can be strong, vital, and able to resist and overcome many of the ailments afflicting mankind. The root of nearly all disease is malnutrition, even in first world nations. Herbs heal best by preventing and reversing nutritional deficiencies so the body can restore itself to its natural state of health. Without this foundational understanding of herbs, herbal medicine is a farce and a counterfeit system.

As for first aid needs, you don’t need a laboratory to prepare effective herbal remedies. Any kitchen will do. Harvesting herbs and preparing home medicines for food, first aid and basic comfort needs should be as normal and natural as gardening and cooking dinner. We need to demystify the art of herbal medicine-making and bring it back into the kitchen.

Making healing salves, tinctures, syrups and teas is simple, fun, and fulfilling. You don’t need special equipment or special ingredients for most preparations. A few afternoons spent in the field and in the kitchen can supply a family with basic first aid and home comfort needs for years to come. It’s so easy, even the kids can help!

Sure there are situations and life-threatening illnesses that need special attention outside the home from competent professionals. I am not advocating something radical or dangerous, but simply to put medical technology in its rightful place and use it appropriately. Rather than being totally dependent on it, it should be a resource to use when home treatments are not enough. Any family doctor will tell you that much of what comes into his office could have easily been handled at home.

What are needed most in the realm of modern-day herbalism are teachers! There are books and information about herbs abounding, but there’s a serious shortage of experiential knowledge, apprenticeship opportunities, and hands-on sharing. We need to remind ourselves of the story of the hungry man who was not fed by telling him about fish or selling him a fish, but by teaching him how to fish. This should be the way of the herbalist, the responsibility of everyone who has been gifted with this knowledge.

WildHarvestFor this new renaissance of herbalism to truly have an impact on the health of the people, it needs to be put back into the hands of the common people. The ultimate mission of an herbalist in today’s world should be to restore the broken relationship between the people and the plant kingdom, not to get so caught up in marketing, production, and professionalism that this knowledge remains in the hands of the few.

We stand in the gap between our ancestors and our future generations. Freely we have received, now freely give. We need to recognize the trend of industrialized herbalism for what it is and bring herbalism back to its roots.

“Stand in the ways and see, And ask for the old paths, where the good way is, And walk in it; Then you will find rest for your souls. ~Jeremiah 6:16