Humans have used plants as medicines for as long as we have recorded history. Many of the pharmaceuticals that are used today are either direct compounds of plants or somehow derived from them.
Qualified practitioners can be hard to find-it can even be difficult to determine if you have found one once you are working together. Almost all botanical knowledge that we have in the US has been passed down from one herbalist to another. There is some research based knowledge being added to that pool of information now, but let us not forget that the herbalists gathered, refined and maintained this knowledge for centuries before doctors came along. Naturopathic schools vary widely in the amount of education on botanicals that they provide- there is a base of required knowledge, but study beyond the required curriculum is what makes a Naturopath into an expert herbalist. I, personally, studied herbal medicine for 8 years before going to naturopathic school and have continued my studies for the last 15 years of my practice.
Botanical Medicines can be broken into 3 categories- Nutritional Medicine, Moderate Strength Medicine, and Low Dose or Very Strong Medicines, and while I use all 3 categories, I never give a low dose when a nutritional medicine would work.
Nutritional Medicines include things that I hope you are familiar with like kale and spinach, apples and pears, garlic and onions and all of the plants that we eat daily. It also includes things that you might not be eating, but could partake of freely and regularly just like you do your fruits and vegetables like Nettle leaf, Hawthorne berry, Astragalus root, Milky oats, Ginger, Turmeric… and I could go on and on and on. These herbs can be powerful healers and are, for the most part, safe to eat freely. This is not to say that there are never any problems with nutritional medicines- people have allergies, sensitivities and there are drug interactions sometimes- the most common food here is grapefruit which interacts with lots of medicines because it changes your liver’s ability to process them.
Moderate Strength Medicines are the things that most of us think of as botanical medicine. They are stronger than food and have actions that can be powerful allies in healing, but in moderation are fairly safe. These include popular herbs like echinacea, goldenseal, arnica (topically), St. John’s Wort, American Ginseng and thousands of others. These herbs are most appropriately used to treat an ailment of some kind. They are usually used for a specific period of time and then stopped (this is not always true when dealing with chronic illness). These herbs, for the most part, stimulate the body to do something that it is not doing well, or that we want it to do more (an example of this is that most herbal anti virals don’t actually attack viruses, but stimulate the part of our immune system that does). Rarely an herb in this category will take over the function or process in the body for us (Senna actually creates muscle contractions in the colon- causing us to have a bowel movement- it takes over the nervous system of the colon to do this- this is one of the reasons that it can become habit forming).
Low Dose Herbs are herbs that should never be taken without expert guidance. They have what we call a small therapeutic window which means basically that the toxic dose is very close to the helpful dose. Many of these herbs have been used to make pharmaceuticals. Digitalis is a great example of this. Because the plant has varying levels of digoxin in it- which can either prevent or cause a heart attack depending upon dosage, I recommend the prescription be used- where the dose of digoxin is tightly controlled. There are pain relieving herbs that I use 5 or 10 drops to an ounce (these herbs can be used in an ounce of other helpful herbs (often anti-inflammatory herbs in the case of pain) or just in an ounce of water so that a therapeutic dose of a fraction of a drop can be given). Many herbs that are moderate strength externally can be used low dose internally as well- for example, Arnica Montana should be used internally with great care, but can be used topically as an oil or salve fairly liberally.