Over 80 percent of the world's population relies on herbs in some way for medicinal purposes. People, however, often shy away from herbalism as an option for medical treatment.
Herbalism relies on plants for therapeutic and health benefits. Most medical communities consider herbalism to be an alternative medicine. Plants, however, can be found in most prescription pills in some form or another. As western cultures begin to reevaluate herbalism, it's important to look at what it is an how it can help.
Below, we cover how someone becomes an herbal therapist as well as what an herbal treatment might look like. We also include some tips for the beginning herbal therapist to help you along your herbal journey.
What is an Herbal Therapist?
Plants have been the backbone of medical treatments for thousands of years. An herbal therapist is a person who utilizes herbalism to treat illnesses in the mind, body, and soul.
Contemporary medical treatments often look at illnesses from an individualized, symptom-based standpoint. If someone has a headache, a typical doctor prescribes pills for the headache.
Herbal therapists treat the body more holistically. They believe that, if someone has a headache, something else might be causing it.
An herbal therapist is not always an herbalist. Chiropractors, herbalists, and even some doctors will use plants to supplement their practices. In the United States and Canada, herbalism is largely considered a self-defined career. The term can refer to someone who grows herbs or prescribes their usage to clients.
Usually, the process of becoming an herbalist depends on the avenue that interests you. Growing herbs and plants for therapeutic benefits requires different skills than an herbal therapist.
There is no required training to become an herbalist, though some states do require people to be licensed in order to practice herbal medicine. In general, however, people interested in herbalism will seek out training anyway to further expand and refine their skillsets.
US colleges offer both masters and Ph.D. programs for holistic medicine. These include training in traditional Chinese medicine and other outlets. Some medical schools will even offer herbalism training to bolster the student's knowledge.
The education style you choose depends on which branch of herbalism appeals to you. If you want a career in herbalism you will likely need training, but anyone can grow their own garden of herbs.
Herbal treatments are largely dependent on what the herbalist is trying to help remedy. Often the plants will be consumed through teas, but they can also be applied topically in certain situations.
The part of the plant that you are using is important to consider. While different plants have different usages, certain parts of the plant are more effective than others. Make sure that you are grinding up the right part of the plant before you commit to creating a poultice, tea, or powder.
Echinacea, for instance, is one of the most popular herbal remedies. It's been used for centuries to treat everything from burns to upset stomachs. The entire plant can be used, but most people find the roots to have the strongest benefit.
Today, echinacea is usually mixed into teas to help prevent the common cold along with plants like elderberry.
Another common herbal treatment is Ginkgo biloba, a plant native to China that contains antioxidants that provide several health benefits.
Historically, the seeds and leaves of the plant were used to make tinctures and teas for people struggling with their memory. Most applications today, however, use a concentrated leaf extract to maximize the effects of the plant.
This plant does have a few side effects, so it's not the best herbal treatment to try without consulting a medical professional first.
Famous for its anti-inflammatory capabilities, elderberry has been dubbed a performer's best friend for its ability to help singers stave off colds during performances.
Elderberry is usually sold as a syrup or lozenge to help comfort people who have already fallen sick with a cold or the flu. It can, however, be used while someone is still healthy to help prevent sickness before it starts.
Though human trials are lacking, test-tube studies have revealed that elderberry does contain antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
Ginger is a go-to herbal therapy prescription for people that are suffering from nausea. Typically, ginger is taken as a tea or capsule, but the root can be shaved off and consumed raw in juices, or mixed into gum and chews.
Animal and test-tube studies also showcase the abilities for ginger to improve heart health and cancer, as well as provide some antiviral properties.
The application of common herbal remedies depends on the type of herb being prescribed and what the herbal therapist is trying to treat. While heartburn may best be treated through a tea or lozenge, burns and superficial health issues are often best treated through a topical application of a plant.
Herbalism for Beginners
While herbalism as a profession requires years of training to become an expert in the field, there are many beginning herbalist remedies that someone new to the concept can enjoy.
Many basic plant remedies stem from an ability to recognize a plant and its family. Once you can identify what each plant family is famous for, it's easier to begin connecting what each plant is likely to help with.
Below, we cover some of the basic skills you'll need as an aspiring herbalist.
Be Careful About Your Sources
If you aren't getting your plants from a garden you grew yourself but are instead engaging in a bit of urban foraging, make sure that the plants you are grabbing haven't been sprayed by any pesticides, which are often toxic to humans. Even after washing the plants, pesticides usually linger and can end up causing more harm than good.
How to Apply the Herbal Remedy
Aside from whether a plant should be consumed or applied topically, consider how you want to use the plant. Some versatile plants, like dandelion root, can be steeped in teas or ground and mixed with water to create a poultice that you can wrap around an injured body part.
You'll want to eventually invest in a mortar and pestle to grind up various ingredients, but in the beginning, a knife and bowl should be enough to help separate what you need.
Be aware of which part of the plant you'll be using. Some plants, like dandelion roots, are best used when just applied from the root, while the stem and leaves can have different uses.
Teas and poultices are some of the easiest methods to begin incorporating herbal therapy into your medical treatments. Simply grind up the plant and then either apply it with a bit of water to a wrap or mix it with steeping water to unlock its benefits.
Pair Your Plants
While some plants cause negative side effects if combined, pairing certain plants can actually enhance their effects, like echinacea and elderberry. You can also take other supplementary methods, like a humidifier, to promote healing through multiple avenues.
If you are suffering from clogged sinuses, take some eucalyptus oil and place it in a bowl with boiled water. Place your head over the bowl with a blanket and allow the steaming eucalyptus to open your sinuses.
Other mixtures, like lemon and ginger, can calm your stomach while burning off various other viruses and germs.
Plant a Garden
One of the easiest ways to start your herbalism journey is to create a list of plants that you think would help with basic elements, and just start planting. Depending on where you live, certain plants will do better than others. Planting a garden with plants native to your area also serve benefits, as they can help promote your natural defenses against allergies from local pollinators.
Good inclusions for a beginner's garden are Panax ginseng, Ginkgo biloba, chamomile, lavender, and milk thistle.
Join a Class
If you find that herbalism matches your interests and that you might benefit from greater knowledge of herbal therapy, consider joining a class. Herbal therapy courses are offered that help people who are interested in herbalism as a hobby rather than a career path. While they do not lead to certification, herbalism courses will help you grow your garden and collection of herbs.
If a class isn't right for you, check out your local library and bookstore for books on herbalism. A strong library collection of herbalism books will help create an easy reference guide as you continue your herbalism journey.
Is Herbalism Right for You?
Regardless of your lifestyle, there's a good chance you could enjoy the benefits of herbalism. Meeting licensed herbal therapists and taking classes is a great place to start. Even a casual student, though, can enjoy the benefits of a few teas and tinctures.
People have used plants as medicine for thousands of years. Today, they continue to be a beneficial method of holistic healthcare. Check out our blog for more ways that you can incorporate plants into your natural life.