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Professor Jason Hamilton on Medicinal Plants

July 19, 2012

With all the many medicinal plants in our new Permaculture Garden, I thought it would be appropriate to offer some information on herbalism and how to incorporate medicinals into one’s diet. Dr. Jason Hamilton is the chair of the Environmental Studies and Sciences Department at Ithaca College, and is full of knowledge about medicinal plants. Luckily, he is always happy to sit down and share what he knows about medicinals, as he graciously did for me yesterday. In this interview, he addresses how medicinal plants can fit into one’s lifestyle, some of the misunderstandings around herbalism, and where to start with medicinal plants.

How do medicinal plants fit into a healthy lifestyle?

In order to answer that question we have to take a step back and take a look at our entire philosophy of health. What does it mean to be healthy? Is health something you get from taking vitamins, or is health something different?

In our culture people tend to think about health as the absence of disease, and so if you don’t have any disease you’re healthy and if you do have a disease you’re not healthy and you take a pill to drive the disease from your body. That kind of philosophy of health and wellness leads to our model of medicine which is what people call a “Take This For That” model. If you have a condition, you take that drug. If you have this other condition, you take that other drug.

For some sorts of things that model works very effectively, but there’s lots of conditions where that model doesn’t work at all. For example, if you don’t know a pathogen that’s responsible for your illness, or chronic illnesses, or autoimmune illnesses, the “Take This For That” model completely fails.

A different model, which is not a replacement but is complimentary to the “Take This For That” model, is that health is a lot more than just absence, that health is in fact the presence of something. In this model of health, health is something that you support with your lifestyle and your diet, all the time. This model of health being a state that you support, as opposed to the absence of disease, is really where medicinal plants have their best use.

Now, sometimes you’re going to get sick, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you did something wrong, because getting disease organisms just happens. In that case you can also use medicinal herbs. The model is different, though. It’s not the western model where if you have a pathogen in your body, you take something that is poisonous to that pathogen and not poisonous to you. That’s our standard model. Kill the invaders.

In herbalist traditions, you take things that are supporting your own body’s ability to fight off the pathogen. In herbalism we often don’t know what the actual mechanism is. For example, an herb might be described as anti-microbial. In western medicine, anti-microbial means it kills the microbes. In herbalist traditions, anti-microbial means you get over the condition of having a microbe in your body. Does that mean that it actually attacked the microbe directly? Usually not. What it means is that by some mechanisms (that are not magic but also not well understood) it increases your body’s ability to heal itself. That’s really where herbalism has its greatest effect.

“Take This For That” is still possible with herbal medicine. For example, if you cut yourself and you’re bleeding, you want your bleeding to stop. That’s definitely a “Take This For That” scenario. Yarrow, which is a vasoconstrictor (i.e. it shrinks blood vessels) is excellent at slowing blood flow. So you can actually staunch the blood flow from a cut by applying dried yarrow to the wound. Yarrow has been used in Western tradition for thousands of years. If it didn’t work, people wouldn’t use it.

Where do some of the misunderstandings about medicinal plants come from?

A lot of the prejudices about herbal medicines come out of ignorance or incorrect use. People say “I’ve heard this herb is good for X” and they take the herb, and it doesn’t work. That’s not the herb’s fault, maybe you took the wrong herb for your body, or maybe you didn’t use the proper dosage, or maybe you didn’t take it long enough, or maybe you didn’t mix it with the right herbs. This is the equivalent of just walking into a pharmacy and popping pills and complaining that the pills don’t work.

There are some times that the vitality of the body gets so depressed where herbal medicines are not enough. You can get infections where your body’s functions are depressed to the point where you are going to die, and if you need an operation, you need an operation. Herbs won’t unclog your arteries overnight. You’re going to need modern antibiotics to get over it. Embracing herbal medicine doesn’t mean that we’re rejecting modern medical advances, rather that you might avoid getting to the point where you need the medicine in the first place. You also might be able to use herbal medicine in tandem with modern medicine, or to help speed your recovery afterwards. These medicines should be used in concert with each other. One isn’t instead of the other one, they have different strengths and different weaknesses.

How can someone who is new to medicinal plants start thinking about incorporating them into their life and diet?

The best way to think about medicinals is to get away from the “Take This For That” mentality to one that you incorporate herbs into a healthy lifestyle and diet. Most herbs are effective as preventative measures rather than band-aids (yarrow is an exception, obviously). If you think of medicinal plants as like healthy food, as something incorporated into your diet, then you do take it preventatively the same way that you would eat vegetables to prevent illness generally. You eat vegetables because there are good vitamins in them; but there are other things in them besides just vitamins. There’s all kinds of phytochemicals in medicinal plants which are good for you. In the same way that you make a soup and throw in a bay leaf for flavoring, you could throw in medicinal herbs and fish them out after steeping for a while, and now the herb is incorporated right into your food, and it’s just part of your healthy diet. There are lots of herbs that are best used this way, as simply a component of one’s diet.  

You can also start using “over the counter” herbs. The same way that there is “over the counter” medicine in modern medicine, there are “over the counter” herb varieties. There are prescription herbs, too, but using these requires more formal training in herbalism. But there are lots of herbs which are over-the-counter equivalents; you’re not going to hurt yourself with pretty much any dose, they might help you, they might not, like taking an aspirin might help you and might not.  Chamomile, lemonbalm, burdock, dandelion, a lot of these can be quite effective with very little herbalism training.

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