The wonderful and wondrous world of botanical medicine appeals to the layperson as much as to the professional health care provider. Botanical medicine has been the trusty companion of humanity since our earliest days. Our ancestors had intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna in their environment both for nourishment and healing. They may have started their study of plant medicine by observing animals around them naturally gravitate toward certain plants to alleviate, for example, digestive ailments or nutrient deficiencies. Plants are potent healers for many different reasons. They are living beings with complex immune systems that help them survive and thrive in often harsh and hostile environments. Some of the phytochemicals they produce also stimulate healing and resilience when ingested by animals, including humans.

The benefits of plant medicines

Many people are attracted to herbs for healing because they consider them a natural medicine, which, to them, implies that they’re safer than pharmaceutical drugs. While that’s generally true, this assumption doesn’t apply across the board. Randomly taking herbs without knowing enough about them may not do much good for your health and could even cause unwanted side-effects.

The plethora of botanical substances ranges from culinary herbs and spices, to medicinal herbs that can be helpful in the short or longer term, all the way to substances that can be quite toxic and should be reserved for professional use. Many of these stronger plant, animal and mineral substances are also the basis of various pharmaceutical drugs that are now manufactured synthetically and used to treat a wide range of diseases. These drugs must undergo rigorous clinical study to be approved as medicines and prescribed by licensed practitioners.

Most medicinal herbs, on the other hand, are available to the public as so-called supplements (certainly a misnomer), some can be grown in your own garden or foraged if not endangered. If you are interested in using herbs for health and healing, I encourage you to learn as much about them as you possibly can, through both reading and experimenting, as well as working with an experienced clinical herbalist. A Chinese medicine doctor or naturopathic practitioner has studied (and continues to study) herbal medicine (including their clinical applications), as well as biomedicine and pharmacology, to understand therapeutic uses and possible interactions with pharmaceutical drugs should you be required to take prescription medications for your health condition.

The potency of botanical medicines depends on several factors: quality of the original plant material, type of extraction method (if applicable), form of administration (such as fresh, dried, cooked, steeped, tinctured, internal vs. external, etc.) and, last but not least, dosage. In fact, proper dosing is paramount if you want to achieve therapeutic results.

Let’s dive in

To get your feet wet, lets start with some herbs and spices you may already stock in your kitchen. Just make sure they haven’t been sitting around for a long time or exposed to the air. Always protect your herbs from mold contamination. A few herbs to try are sweet basil, mint, rosemary, sage, and thyme. These herbs are all easy to grow in your garden (or even in pots) in a temperate climate, with sufficient sun exposure and water. Fresh they all have attractive scents from their aromatic oils and can be used to enhance the flavor (and healthfulness) of your foods. Some can also be enjoyed as a tea by steeping in hot water, especially peppermint.

Favorite spices include garlic, ginger and turmeric. They can be used fresh or cooked to add pungent flavors to your meal, but when you take a closer look (and read more about them) you will find out that they also have a range of powerful health benefits, including antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects as well as support for your cardiovascular and immune systems. Traditional herbalist have been aware of these benefits for a very long time, but even modern research has confirmed many of these effects through laboratory and clinical studies.

How to take your herbs

The herbs and spices mentioned above are all very safe. You can consume them in moderate amounts to your liking, based on how they make you feel and function. Too much fresh garlic or ginger may initially be a bit harsh on your digestion, so ease your way in by starting with a small amount and working your way up to regular use. More is not always better. You need to find out what amount works best for you.

Medicinal herbs to alleviate health conditions such as the common cold, minor stomach upset, sleep issues, or low energy are available in several different prepared forms depending on the herbal tradition in which these herbs are frequently used. In Western naturopathic herbal medicine, tinctures using high-proof alcohol to extract medicinal constituents are widely used, as are powdered herbs in capsules or as tablets. Fresh or dried herbs can also be prepared as an infusion or decoction, similar to culinary herbal teas but generally steeped or simmered much longer.

Chinese medicine

In East Asian herbal medicine, decoctions are the predominant preparation for therapy. Commonly, the doctor will send a specific custom prescription of six to twelve or more herbs to a Chinese pharmacy to be filled. The pharmacist will measure out the individual medicinals according to the doctor’s prescription and package them for daily preparation by the patient. Some pharmacies may even cook the herbs for you and provide you with vacuum packs that you can take according to instruction.

Many classical herbs and formulas are also available as granules from specialized herbal manufacturers. Granules are not the same as powdered herbs. They are actually cooked and the liquid is then dried so that a patient can easily measure out the prescribed amount and reconstitute the herbs into a tea by just adding hot water, similar to instant coffee. Dispensing herbal prescriptions as granules is now a preferred (if not the favorite) method of providing prescription Chinese herbs to patients for several reasons: superior quality control and consistency, easy storage, convenience for the patient and, consequently, much higher compliance and better therapeutic results. In addition, granulated formulas tend to be less expensive than so-called raw herb prescriptions.

Quality and convenience are especially important if you decide to take botanicals for long periods, as might be the case with tonic and longevity herbs such as ashwagandha, eleuthero or ginseng. To get the most out of them, I highly recommend that you seek advice from a professional herbalist who can recommend reputable manufacturers and suggest an appropriate dosage range for your needs.

The energetics and spirit of herbs

Something that pharmaceutical drugs do not offer is a connection to the Earth that botanical medicine can facilitate. Many plants around the world have played (and continue to play) an important role in spiritual practices of traditional cultures and communities. They can also promote an energetic restoration that we’ve often lost in our modern world. Plants deserve our respect, appreciation and care in their own right. Protecting the environment and ecosystems they depend on benefits our own survival as well.

© 2021 Christiane Siebert