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Herbs 101

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I first started to study herbal medicine in 1975 when I was 20 years old.

I first started to study herbal medicine in 1975 when I was 20 years old. My travels had taken me to the island of Kaui in Hawaii where I met Dr John Christopher, a medical herbalist. He was a gentle, grandfatherly figure with the countenance of a true healer. He had developed many types of herbal combination capsules, tinctures, suppositories and teas. I had a history of chronic swollen glands and sore throats, which went away within six weeks of following his simple herbal treatment.

In the 25 years since then, there has been a shift in the consumer preference for single standardized herbs from the herbal combination therapy to which I was initially introduced.

Selecting Your Herbal Style

Modern pharmacists, health food stores and even some medical doctors recommend the "pharmaceutical" strategy of giving single herbs in a purified, standardized extract. However, for the best results, anyone using herbal medicines should learn to use both these strategies: single standardized herbs when there is a specific need, and compounded herbal formulas when personalized effects in a particular organ are desired.

For example, if I decided to use herbal medicine to help my sore throat today, I would probably end up taking a tablet of standardized extract of echinacea instead of the compounded formulas recommended by Dr Christopher. Compounding herbs by selecting two or more herbs at the same time is a time-honoured system in all the great herbal traditions of India, China and the West. Plants are combined to enhance individual constituents. There is usually a primary herb in a formula and other herbs are there to assist or direct the primary herb in its action.

Selecting a Formula

When selecting a compounded herbal formula, identify the organ that needs to be treated and select a formula that has a good reputation. Usually a "weak" organ requires several actions at once, which is more than a single herb can provide. You'll find that many "organ formulas" have applications for a wide number of problems in the designated organ. For example, a kidney formula is not only good for bladder infections, but is also used for stones, urinary frequency and kidney weakness.

Herbs have different "personalities." Each herb one has a specific temperament that allows a particular action to be produced. Ideally, your herbal practitioner should know enough about the different qualities of herbs so that when a formula is selected, it can be adapted slightly to fit your needs.

Selecting Single Herbs

Some herbs are outstanding in a specific medical application. These herbs usually have a great general affinity for a certain organ: milk thistle for the liver, cretagus for the heart, saw palmetto for the prostate, ginkgo for the arteries, goldenseal for the mucous membranes, ginseng for the adrenal glands, dandelion for the gall bladder and hypericum for the nervous system. When selecting an organ-specific herb, use the recommended dose for two to three months before re-evaluating. If the optimum effect has not been realized, try using the compounded herbal method.

Some plants have a stronger action on an organ than others. For example, when heart action needs to be enhanced, convallaria can be used. If a strong stimulus isn't needed, cretagus can be used. The selection of the single herb, like a drug treatment, should be according to the strength of the stimulus required.

Dosing Methods

A herb may be given in the amount sufficient to act in a drug-like way. The use of cascara to loosen the bowels is an example of treating the body until there is a visible reaction. However, if a patient with constipation was taking cascara for constipation that was actually due to the underlying problem of hypothyroidism, this strategy would be harming rather than healing. This is why modern drug therapy can cause so many problems.

Herbs can also be prescribed until there is a slight change in the system. One might take a diuretic herb like dandelion leaves only until the flow of urine is back to normal. This method tends to be gentler, and use is discontinued when the desired effect is achieved. The goal is to have the patient's own body become stimulated to produce a renewed regulation.

Herbal medicines can also be prescribed in low doses. Minute doses of herbs are given so that there is no chance of toxicity. Small children and the elderly respond very well to extremely low doses of some herbal medicines.

Use Many Forms of Herbal Application

Enjoy experimenting with the world of herbal therapy. Try herbs in different forms. Use creams, tinctures, oils, baths, steam inhalation, liniments and plasters. Each method has a special application. As an example, comfrey root for sprains can be best treated when the comfrey is not taken internally. I have found that a plaster of fresh comfrey root over a damaged joint, left overnight every day for 10 days (changing the plaster daily using new comfrey root), is a powerful method to treat arthritis and joint trauma. Use all methods and all the herbs that are available to you and enjoy the freedom to heal and treat yourself.

Herb Therapy

Some single herbs are particularly effective for treating a specific organ. Other herbs work better in a combination formula, depending on what kind of effect you desire. Dosing methods also vary. If you're interested in herbal medicine, familiarize yourself with the different styles of therapy.

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