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  • Stephanie Phillips

Why herbal medicine is so much more than replacing a pill with a plant

When people find out I am a clinical herbalist I often get asked the same sequence of questions.

1) What do you mean by herbalist?

Clinical herbalists use plants instead of pharmaceuticals to help the body heal itself. Each treatment plan incorporates herbal remedies, dietary adjustments and lifestyle coaching. We treat the person not the dis-ease. Rather than just placating a symptom we try to treat the root cause by uncovering the factors that have contributed to the condition.

2) Does it work?

On a sarcastic day, I respond by asking if they are familiar with cocaine, marijuana, and coffee and ask them if those plants have an effect on them. I then reel off some facts that 60% of all commercial drugs are derived from plants including aspirin which come from the bark of the willow tree. Then if they push all of my buttons, I tell them that 60% of pharmaceuticals are recalled within the first 10 years and that the TV infomercials aren’t lying when they list the endless terrifying “side effects” of drugs which can include anything from liver failure to suicidal tendencies. Most shockingly, doctors are often prescribing drugs that they don’t have any first hand experience with themselves. Unlike herbalists who often come to use hundreds of plants throughout their training.

I’m not proud of myself when I get defensive about herbal medicine because I actually don’t believe in pitting one medical system against the other when both have their value. It is ridiculous for me to paint doctors as manipulative drug pushers. There are plenty of people who ask for pills — band-aid solutions that allow them to plough on and take zero responsibility for their lifestyle choices. Sometimes simply because they are under too much pressure and they fear that if they pause, or risk a more gentle approach, they might completely fall apart.

When I am feeling more patient, I talk about the rich history of plant medicine and how we have coexisted with it for hundreds of thousands of years. The plants were on the planet long before us and in many ways they are our ancestors. Humanity has survived thanks to herbal medicine and the generous bounty of the earth which has amply provided for all of our ailments. Many plants have been intensely researched and have measurable bio-chemical effects on the body (St John’s Wort, Echinacea, Ginseng, Garlic, Foxglove just to name some mainstream ones). Hence, why so many pharma companies desperately try to isolate what they deem to be the active ingredient in the plants so that they can artificially reproduce its effects.

3) What kind of stuff can you help with?

Everything. I mean don’t call me first if you have a serious accident, but otherwise I can help with everything from acute conditions like colds to chronic issues like asthma, high blood pressure, PMS, infertility, acne, IBS, insomnia, depression, anxiety, etc… This said, herbalists are not legally allowed to make claims about curing, treating, or healing anything, lest we be taken too seriously.

But, getting back to the point of this article, seeking out the help of a herbalist is not merely replacing a pill for a plant. Illness and pain are the only languages your body has to tell you something is out of balance in your life and that you need to stop and pay attention. Depression and anxiety are no different. They are here to shake us out of complacency. To stop us putting up with relationships, jobs, situations and lives that don’t make our hearts sing. To truly get better, lessons need to be learned, changes need to be made.

Our body and mind are deeply intertwined. You cannot heal either without considering both. We are constantly exposed to allergens and microbes and yet we are not constantly ill. We get sick or injured in specific ways at specific times in our lives. Our emotions can cause us stomach upsets, grief can leave us vulnerable to respiratory infections and we can be more susceptible to allergies when our personal boundaries need strengthening.

If your body is talking and you don’t listen, it will have to talk louder until it is screaming. When we choose to placate symptoms instead of treating the root cause, we run the risk of driving the problem deeper into our body, creating the chronic dis-regulation of our hormones, digestion and nervous system.

So when I work with people, part of the healing process is helping them to pay attention to what their body and heart is telling them so they can create a life they love and want to be healthy for. But I couldn’t do the soul coaching on my own. The plants have a way of soothing the deepest of malaises. They coach us through heartache and indecision. They gently help us feel less rudderless, less lost. They draw us closer to our true nature so we can draw the map to our own health and happiness.

4) But does it really work?

Some cases are complicated, deep rooted and take a while to unravel. But many of my clients experience profound and enduring benefits way beyond the clearing up of a condition. They often report back that their headaches are gone or they are now pregnant. But, on top of that they often tell me they are happier, calmer, have found a new man, or have landed their dream job.

The best way to become a convert to herbal medicine is simply to try it for yourself. You will feel the difference. The most cynical people around me have been cured of colds, depression, acid reflux and debilitating migraines with plants and never questioned their powers again.

5) What can I expect from a consultation?

Our first session is a long chat that covers many things from your current complaint to your medical history, your sleeping habits, your eating habits, your bowel habits and even what brings you joy. I supplement this with Chinese tongue and pulse diagnosis to help identify which internal systems are struggling or over-compensating. You will leave with a herbal formula in the form of a tea or tincture as well as very practical nutritional advice and a comprehensive roadmap back to health and happiness. Depending on the complaint, we then schedule check-ins so we can adjust the treatment plan as appropriate.

But even if you don’t want to walk this path yet, when symptoms do show up, greet them with kindness not irritation. Know that they are your body’s way of telling you it’s time to slow down and invest some time into self care.

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