(specific remedies for particular ailments are listed at the end)
Modern medicine has developed a reputation for being an invasive and overly procedural standard of care. Whether this reputation is deserved or not is a matter of personal debate. Pharmaceutical drugs, the mainstay of doctor’s offices across America, are known both anecdotally and statistically for their high incidence of sometimes serious side-effects. So it may come as no surprise that according to a 2015 National Health Statistics report, nearly one in three people living within the United States now look beyond the closed doors of these doctor’s offices for answers to their health concerns.
Allison Pappas is the supplement and herbs buyer for Newport Natural Market, an employee of the company for nearly ten years, and she’s watched as their business has steadily grown. “Many more people are interested in using herbal remedies,” she says, swiftly lining glass bottles with foreign sounding names up on a shelf, one behind the other. “People are kind of frustrated with doctors. They’re saying, ‘He just wants to give me pills. He just wants to put me on this, that, and the other thing.’”
It isn’t just Newport Natural Market seeing an increase in business. Kathy Castellano, who has worked at Hardwick Co-op for twenty-five years says she’s seen the same. “I don’t think it’s looked upon like it’s witchy or whatever people labeled it as anymore,” she says and then pauses for a moment of quiet reflection. She continues, somewhat incredulous at her memory of a time gone by, “That was crazy.”
In fact, within the United States, complementary and alternative medicine is now a booming business worth upwards of $34 billion. As is the case, however, with any industry able to tap into consumer interest, the alternative medicine market can be just as focused on profit and business as it is on healing. And without the oversight of any one singular agency, there can be no guarantee that the information found online, on a popular television show, or heard from a friend is going to be accurate.
With the possibility for misinformation so present, and with so many people interested in learning more about how to integrate some of these holistic choices into their lives, Heather Irvine is ready to help answer some of the questions people have about getting started. As the herbalism professor at both Johnson State College (JSC) and at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism (VCIH) in Montpelier, as well as the owner of her own company, Giving Tree Botanicals, which features individual medicinal preparations of up to 300 plants, Heather is uniquely suited for the job of advising beginners.
Watching her navigate the classroom, office, and even a farmer’s market, it is easy to see why Heather’s once small company has grown to levels that seem to surprise and almost embarrass her; why her classes are in demand at JSC; and why folks chat her up as long as they can, trying to extract as many answers as possible. More than just her features are open, it isn’t only her smile that is warm; Heather’s every gesture seems to indicate that she is willing to stop a minute and listen.
“I see myself as an information giver, an educator,” says Heather. “Someone who can know the full context of the herbs in the marketplace and help steer people or inform them when they’re happening upon a different article every week.”
Herbalism, most simply put, is the practice of using all the parts of a plant – roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits – for healing and wellness. There are many ways this can be accomplished, some far more accessible than others. The easiest and most readily available for an individual just starting out would be a choice of tincture or capsule.
“I like tinctures,” Heather says, referring to the liquid extract form of an herb in which the original plant matter has been soaked for some amount of weeks in an alcohol base to extract the medicinal constituents and then strained. “It’s a better way of capturing and preserving the plant in a way that is true to its fresh form and more potent. I also think it’s more convenient, they’re easy to carry.”
When discussing tinctures and dosing information Heather chuckles, something she does easily and often, and volunteers the answer to a question she’s asked about a lot, “In most cases I don’t think you’re neutralizing or canceling the benefits of the tincture by adding it to tea, juice, honey, or syrup.” It’s good information to have because for some people the taste of a tincture can be enough of a barrier to stop them from trying it. Soaking a plant, or parts of, in an alcohol base for several weeks does not create the best of flavors. While some are milder than others, there are some remedies so shudder-inducing and downright throat numbing, a juice cover-up might be the only way to go.
Tinctures are most commonly sold in one ounce bottles and the caps have a conveniently attached dropper. Dosage information is generally found on the bottle but Heather says the industry standard, set at 30 drops for simplicity’s sake, is generally pretty moderate and may need to be higher or lower depending upon a person’s particular sensitivity. If within an hour or so the desired effect isn’t achieved, Heather advises it is safe to repeat the dose or to try another herb for symptom relief.
Given the booming business complementary and alternative medicine has become, it is not surprising that there are a lot of brands available selling tinctures. It is important to be aware, however, that there are no current regulation standards for this market, so knowing which brands are reputable and trustworthy is essential. The likelihood of buying something dangerous is relatively low; the likelihood of buying something so poorly made as to be pointless, however? That’s a little higher. Some of the easier to find companies that Heather recommends include HerbPharm and Gaia Herbs. Both of these were founded by herbalists and both companies tend to use fresh herbs as the base for their tinctures, which is something to look out for when possible.
While she prefers tinctures, Heather confirms that capsules have their place as well. “A lot of people like capsules because it feels more consistent to them in a way,” she acknowledges. And while they can also be a convenient method of herb ingestion without the alcohol or the unpleasant taste of a tincture, she does worry a person “might not be getting a therapeutic dose in that small capsule.” After all, most herbs taken in this form are simply dried, powdered, and then encapsulated. However, Gaia Herbs does offer liquid capsules that, according to Heather, are more concentrated in the medicinal constituents of the plant.
Perhaps it just the overall sense of comfort she exudes, but Heather has a way of making herbalism sound a whole lot less complicated than one might think. And, in fact, she does think “herbalism is more approachable than most people perceive it.” However, she’s also careful to point out that different people can respond differently to different herbs, just like any other medicine. And, while there are very few herbs that have proven side effects or that present true dangers, there are some, like St. John’s Wort and Kava for example, that shouldn’t be used in combination with certain pharmaceutical medications. Additionally, individuals with clinically diagnosed anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders may want to consult with an herbalist before adding an herb to their existing program of care.
“When in doubt try to get your information from an honest to goodness herbalist,” is Heather’s advice for those who still have questions. “There are a lot of herbalists who are eager to be seeing more clients and can be approachable from a cost standpoint. So if you’re feeling unsure or uneasy, go for some counsel and guidance and ideas.”
KEEP READING FOR SPECIFIC HERBAL REMEDIES ABLE TO TREAT SLEEPLESSNESS, ANXIETY, AND DEPRESSION!
The following information is provided courtesy of Heather Irvine (pictured), clinical herbalist, and professor at JSC and VCIH. Heather began her study of herbalism at Northeast School of Botanical Medicine. In addition to teaching, Heather is an experienced clinician, remedy maker, and the owner of Giving Tree Botanicals in Montpelier, Vermont. She has been studying, teaching, and practicing herbalism since 2002.