Basic Basics – What is Herbal Medicine and What Does an Herbalist Do?

Basic Basics–Philosophies and Traditions of Herbal Medicine

“Demonstrate the unknown in terms of what is called ‘known’ by the audience”
– Ibrahim Khawwas-

What is an herb?

Webster’s Dictionary defines an herb as “any seed plant whose stem withers away to the ground after each season’s growth.” It further defines an herb as “any such plant used in medicine.” However, the use of the word herb in natural healing has broadened to mean any substance from the Plant Kingdom that is used as medicine. Many of the world’s herbal traditions also use a limited number of mineral and animal substances as “herbal medicines.”

What is herbal medicine?

The pioneering European phytotherapist Rudolph Weiss, MD tells us that “herbal medicine, or phytotherapy, is the science of using herbal remedies to treat the sick.” I would add that it is also the art and tradition of using herbal medicines to protect and augment health, and to prolong healthy life.

How long have humans been using herbs?

A long, long time. There is educated speculation that prehistoric humans used herbs for illness by following the example of animals (Cowen, 1990).  German medical scholar Paul Unschuld (1985) tells us that in the Shang Empire, about 16 centuries before the birth of Christ, we find the first written evidence of the Chinese use of herbs for healing. Two of the most important diseases were “curse of an ancestor” and “blow of a demon.” To ward off these ailments, they burned incense, used simple aromatic herbs and, most importantly, performed a ritual offering of roast pig. By the way, I personally experienced both of these diseases at a family gathering about fifteen years ago, and things did calm down after they served the roast pig, perhaps due to mucus formation.

What is an herbalist?

An herbalist is a practitioner and contributor to the field of herbal medicine. Hailing from all parts of the world, herbalists include native healers, shamans, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, nutritionists, pharmacists, growers, collectors, writers and many others.

What does an Herbalist Do?

Seeing an herbalist is very similar to seeing any other type of healthcare practitioner.  In most cases, you make an appointment, go in to see them, and they review your medical history, examine you using the diagnostic methods from their herbal tradition (below), then they prescribe diet, lifestyle changes and herbal medicines or nutrients to help your body return to balance and health.

What are the world’s herbal traditions?

Every society, in all parts of the world, has its own herbal tradition. All have evolved over time. Among these are Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (TAM), European Phytotherapy, Naturopathy, Eclectic Medicine, Native American Medicine, Arabic medicine and African Traditional Medicine, as well as many others. All the well-known major systems became legitimate learned professions at some point in time, producing doctors, theories, medicines, standards of practice, and results. All of these traditions are still evolving.

What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the traditional medicine system of China, developed from its ancient beginnings in Shamanistic medicine. It is the second-largest medical system in the world after Western medicine. Today, TCM doctors go through extensive training in theory and practice, including thousands of classroom hours, in large universities in each of the Chinese provinces, learning herbal therapy and acupuncture. In recent times, schools of TCM and/or acupuncture have been training professionals in the United States. Many states now license acupuncturists, giving them the professional title L.Ac.  Most states require a national certification from The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM) Some acupuncture schools do not teach herbal medicine. TCM doctors trained in China or those who have completed higher levels of training in herbal medicine in the United States often use the additional title OMD or DOM (doctor of oriental medicine).

What is Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine?

Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (TAM), or Ayurveda, is the traditional medical system of India and Nepal. It is the third-largest medical system in the world today. Ayurveda was founded when a group of sages gathered in the Himalayan Mountains before the birth of Christ and broke up into eight committees led by an expert practitioner. Over a three-year period, each committee wrote a voluminous medical textbook. These books were used as the foundation for a group of teaching ashrams (schools). Today, doctors of TAM treat more than 80 percent of the people on the Indian subcontinent. The rich history of Ayurveda has still not been brought intelligibly to the West, although that is changing, and some of the best Ayurvedic herbs are now available. There are a number of schools teaching the West, with quite a bit of diversity in terms of quality of usefullness. though some are very good. Ayurvedic doctors are given the title Vaidya, which is derived from the Sanskrit word for wisdom. Properly trained TAM doctors go through extensive training that can last as long as 12 years.

What is Eclectic Medicine?

Eclectic physician John Uri Lloyd

Eclectic Medicine appeared as an extension of early American herbal medicine traditions, such as Thompsonian medicine in the early 1800’s, and Native American medicine. In 1827, a doctor named Wooster Beach founded an alternative medical society and later opened the first Eclectic school. The Eclectics were doctors with a philosophy of “alignment with nature,” learning from and using concepts from other schools, and opposing the practices of bleeding and purging common among the other doctors of that time. The Eclectic doctors eventually numbered in the thousands, published numerous books and journals, and treated millions of patients over many decades, primarily with herbal medicines. The overwhelmingly rapid growth of the strength of Allopathic Medicine, fueled by the funneling of millions of dollars into their schools by institutions such as the CarnegieandRockefeller foundations, led to their demise in the early 1900s. The knowledge they developed never lost favor in Europe where it is still practiced by professional herbalists, and now has been embraced by Naturopaths and Medical Herbalists in America. Many of the extremely interesting Eclectic writings can be found at herbalist Michael Moore’s massive website.

What is Naturopathic Medicine?

Naturopathic medicine shares historical roots with Eclectic medicine, and today integrates traditional natural therapeutics with modern scientific medical diagnoses and standards of care. Naturopaths complete pre-medical university training, then attend Naturopathic college for four years. They are awarded the title N.D, or doctor of Naturopathic medicine, and are currently licensed in an increasing number of states. The natural therapies used by Naturopaths include botanical medicine, clinical nutrition, homeopathy, acupuncture, traditional oriental medicine, hydrotherapy, and naturopathic manipulative therapy. Today, Naturopaths, along with European and American Medical Herbalists, are among the leaders in carrying forward the traditions of Eclectic Medicine. More info here.

There are also a number of schools that teach the general public in the basic principles of natural medicine and naturopathic medicine and nutrition, such as the Center for Herbal Studies.

What is a Holistic MD? A holistic MD is a licensed physician who has completed standard Western medical training, and then gone on to additional education in the philosophies and methods of natural healing.  The natural therapeutics holistic MD’s study are similar to those of Naturopathic medicine, but they are educated at workshops or through self-study instead of through university attendance. Some of the more advanced holistic doctors have completed fellowships or have gone on to get additional education or degrees in oriental medicine, chiropractic or clinical nutrition.

More info


Qualified Medical Herbalists Medical herbalists are professionals from any of the major traditions who are trained in the diagnosis and prescription of herbal medicines. Currently, there is a shortage of properly trained herbalists in the United States.  You should seek out persons who hold licenses or have had valid training (as described above). Most have learned from a foreign or domestic school or by apprenticeship, but there are also a select few self-taught geniuses. The is an organization now working on linking and listing herbalists from different traditions to help the public identify qualified practitioners. According to their web site, “The American Herbalists Guild (AHG) was founded in 1989 as a non-profit, educational organization to represent the goals and voices of herbalists. It is the only peer-review organization for professional herbalists specializing in the medicinal use of plants.” Herbalists from any tradition with sufficient education and at least four years of clinical experience, and who pass the AHG credentialing process, receive professional status and the title Herbalist, AHG. I have included information on how to find qualified herbalists in the Resource Guide at the end of the book. In my opinion, a qualified herbalist is more than someone who is knowledgeable about plants and diagnostics, as important as these are.  To evoke compliance, he or she must also be able to move beyond barriers of culture, language and emotion to achieve deep emotional, physical and spiritual connections and understanding. To do this, there must be an underlying philosophy and spirituality, a connection to and reverence for Nature. This is the common link shared by herbalists from around the world. It allows them to identify each other. Although this idea is often mentioned in the field of holistic health, it loses something when you try to put it down in writing. You have to feel it yourself. Start by taking a walk alone in the woods. Most of the herbalists I know got started this way. This is one of the experiences that will help lead to your choice of philosophies, and it is your philosophy that will help you find a healer you can trust. This understanding is not limited to doctors or herbalists. You can have it too.

Science Vs Herbal Philosophy

I don’t have much experience with herbs. How concerned should I be about safety?

Knowledge is the best road to safety. Until recently, it was quite difficult for anyone to get accurate information about safety. In 1998 and 1999, a very important book was published which made this information available to consumers and doctors. It is entitled the , sponsored by the (AHPA). It provides safety data for over 600 commonly used and prescribed herbs, with complete up-to-date information regarding international regulatory status, standard dosage, and certain common toxicity concerns. The AHPA web site accurately states “The editors of this book are among the most respected leaders in the herbal products industry. Their experience includes years of clinical practice, manufacturing and industry governance, and significant writing and lecturing about herbs.” Also useful for safety data are the following books: .  On the Internet you can consult the web site of the , Vitamins and Dietary Supplement Center lists information about many botanicals, and also includes information on dosage, safety, and toxicity. I strongly suggest that you make sure the health food store you use or the health practitioners with whom you work have, at the very least, a copy of on their shelves. I have found in my clinical practice that documented safety information is very effective at reassuring patients that they are not in danger when they use herbs appropriately. In addition, I often provide them with information to show their doctors, if they have concerns. We’ll be talking a lot more about safety later.

How can I know if a particular herb will work for me?

It’s best to have a good understanding of your diagnosis or health needs before you start choosing herbs. Once you have determined your particular needs, refer to section two for a description of the herb you are interested in using.  You will find a brief statement titled “WHAT IT DOES.” This will tell you what you can expect the herb to do if your body responds to it. The more you know, the better you will be able to answer this question for yourself. If you are fortunate, you will be one of the millions of people who have found solutions to health problems with over-the-counter herbal products. But don’t be too disappointed if a particular herb doesn’t work for you. There are no guarantees in herbal medicine. Rest assured that there is most likely another herb out there that will help you if you do not abandon your search prematurely.  The more complex the problem the more complex the solution, and in Section Three we will discuss how to combine and use herbs to treat more serious health conditions. This will give you insights about your options, and make it clearer where to find the help you need.

Alan Tillotson, registered herbalist, Wilmington Delaware 19808