Sometimes when I ask people if they’ve tried herbs, they say: “Oh ya I tried that, but didn’t get any results.” And then when I dig a little deeper, I start to put the pieces together and can understand why!
Now, from my perspective, herbs aren’t a magical cure for every ailment and every person. However, if used correctly herbs can be a powerful tool in one’s healing tool kit. Along with dietary and lifestyle shifts and having a team of wonderful practitioners along the way, herbs can make a big difference. I do believe having a herbalist on your health care team is ideal! Seeing your family doctor, medical specialist or naturopathic doctor, along with a massage therapist, chiropractor, acupuncturist, nutritionist, homeopath, energy worker and of course a herbalist is going to get you the best of all worlds and a rounded approach to your healing.
So if you’ve “tried herbs before” and they haven’t worked for you, here are some clues as to why…
Clue #1: The Dose Wasn’t Quite Right…
This may seem obvious, but the amount you take of a herb makes a difference! There can be a wide range in regards to what is considered a “medicinal dose” depending on the herb, however making sure you’re taking an adequate amount of a specific herb is important.
The classic example that comes to mind here is Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia and purpurea)*. This is a herb that when used preventatively to keep illness at bay, you can take a moderate dose (5ml of a tincture daily), but if you’re already sick that dose won’t even touch your illness! So if you’re sticking to 5ml a day once you’re already ill, in my experience, it won’t be effective. In my personal experience with clients, myself and my family (as well as what I was taught by other herbalists), you can at least quadruple the dose for the acute phase of an illness. And the sooner you catch it, the better! If you don’t go hard in the beginning, it likely won’t work in my experience.
There are some very well-known herbalists who work with what’s called “drop dosing.” This is where herbs are prescribed in very small amounts, something like 7 drops a day. Dosing like this is more of an energetic or homeopathic approach to herbal medicine and can be very effective when you’re working with a herbalist with experience in this form of dosing. Herbalists experienced in this form of dosing know how to match the plants to the people they’re working with and therefore understand the indications for each herb and the context in which drop dosing makes sense.
As a general rule of thumb, taking an adequate amount of a herb to reach a medicinal dose can be a big part of whether or not a herb will be effective for you.
Clue #2: The Formula Was Pre-Made And Wasn’t Tailored To Your Body (You Didn’t See A Herbalist!)
Of course I was going to say this, right?! No, but for real, this can make a HUGE difference. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a pre-made product. There are some really great, high-quality products out there and you may get some great results from them!
However, pre-made formulas aren’t carefully crafted to suit your unique health situation. Formulators of a ready-made formula do their best to include herbs that touch on the most common symptoms associated with a certain condition. Menopause formulas will include herbs that address hot flashes, mood changes and sleep disturbance, for example. But what if you don’t have sleep disturbances at all?
With pre-made formulas you end up taking herbs that perhaps you don’t even need, or worse than that the formula doesn’t include a herb that actually DO NEED!
The other downside to pre-made formulas is that it isn’t matched to your specific constitution type, which can greatly impact how effective the formula is.
This is SO IMPORTANT I’ve written a whole other clue on it, so keep reading to check out the clue about Herbal Energetics below!
Clue #3: Consistency and Time Are Needed…
Herbal medicines can take time to take effect. But to be fair, so can some pharmaceuticals! An anti-depressant medication, for example, can take up to 6 weeks to take effect. Whenever I’m working with a client to correct hormone imbalances, for example, I let them know we’re looking at 3-6 months to notice a significant change. It’s important to give the body time to adjust and give the herbs some time to work with the body to give it a new set of instructions.
And of course this isn’t always the case! Some herbs are meant to act quickly to address immediate symptoms, like calming an upset tummy or minimizing painful menstrual cramps. However, for more chronic conditions that have been present for many years, it can take time to correct those imbalances. Just like it took time to create the imbalance, it’ll take some time to correct the imbalance as well!
In this fast paced society, we’re used to quick fixes. We live in a “pop a pill” culture, with short attention spans and the desire for immediate gratification. Poor herbs don’t even stand a chance! It can take some serious reprogramming to slow down enough to practice patience with our herbal medicines. We need to keep in mind things are shifting and changing in the background that we may not be aware of yet.
Herbs can be likened to seeds. Like a seed planted in the soil, there is an invisible process going on underneath the surface… all of those seed nutrients are being transformed into a beautiful tiny little green leaf, but we can’t visibly see the transformation that’s been occurring until it unfurls and pokes itself through the dirt. We all want to see the leaf right away, but that’s not how nature works. There’s a symphony of processes humming along just below the surface and just because we don’t notice huge effects right away, doesn’t mean it isn’t working yet.
Clue #4: Quality Of The Product Was Low
Have you ever bought a package of chamomile tea that almost looks brown? It’s not supposed to! You should be able to see specks of green, yellow and white from those beautiful flowers. The other day I ordered Fennel for my clinic and the seeds were bright green! It was so beautiful! I’m so used to Fennel being kind of dull and brown and I didn’t even realize that Fennel could be on the greener side. Sounds silly, saying it out loud, but it’s the truth!
The quality of a plant really matters, and with time the quality of herbs break down.
The browning of a herb happens when it’s exposed to light and oxygen. Essentially it’s being oxidized, and all those wonderful medicinal constituents we talked about earlier start to dissipate. Essential oils, for example, will break down and evaporate, which is why low quality products don’t smell very much. If you have a fresh batch of an aromatic plant like lavender, lemon balm, spearmint or peppermint, when you open that bag my goodness, it’s a heavenly experience!
When preserved and dried correctly, aromatic plants will keep their oils intact and that’s what we want because they’re medicinal components of the plant! Essential oils have antiseptic properties, as well as calming effects for the nervous system and digestive system. If those oils have evaporated, you can bet that the medicinal action of that product has diminished.
Shopping local for the win! I notice a HUGE difference when I source my dried plants from local farmers compared to companies that source their plant material from ALL OVER THE WORLD.
Typically speaking, the closer to home you can source your plants, the fresher and more vibrant your plant material will be. The farther away the herb comes from, the more likely it’s been exposed to sunlight and air as it switches hands multiple times over multiple continents. When it comes to quality, you want bright, vibrant, fresh-smelling plants, for sure.
Clue #5: The Herbs Weren’t Matched To Your Constitution Type (& The Herbal Energetics Were Off)
You might be wondering: “What the heck are herbal energetics, Bree?!”
Well let me tell you! No, it’s not some hippy dippy reference to the spirit of the plant. (Although, let’s get real, plants are alive and I do believe they each carry their own essence and energy. So call me woo woo if you please! But I digress...).
In fact, the concept of “herbal energetics” is SO important it completely changed the way I practice herbal medicine.
Simply put, herbal energetics is essentially how a plant affects the body- Is it heating or cooling, moistening or drying, stimulating or relaxing? These properties will dictate what imbalances a plant will help to remedy, and ultimately what PERSON it will benefit.
Every single one of us has a unique internal terrain. Some of us are like rainforests- hot and humid. Some of us are like deserts- hot and dry. Some of us are more like winter- cold, dry and brittle. So depending on what your individual constitution type is, different herbs will interact with your system differently than someone else’s.
We all know someone who is always hot. They’re the hot-blooded ones who are in a tank top or shorts in the middle of winter! Now take cayenne… Cayenne is a super hot herb! It’s spicy, it makes your eyes and nose water and stimulates circulation. So if we give cayenne to someone who is always hot, it’s going to throw that person out of balance by heating up their system even more. Instead, to balance out their naturally hot constitution, we want to give them cooling plants. We want to aim to balance someone's constitution type with herbs, not aggravate it.
All traditional systems of medicine including Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ancient Greek Medicine have all developed a unique and sophisticated framework for understanding these energetics and how they dictate the way plants interact with specific people.
In Ayurveda, they have 3 “doshas” or constitution types (pitta, vata, kapha) that all tend towards certain imbalances and require different herbs to keep them in balance.
In TCM, they work with 5 elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) as well as yin (cooling, moistening, building) and yang (fiery, hot, energizing). All of these elements make up a system of understanding how our internal organs and structures are categorized and connected, as well as how external substances (herbs) interact with them once introduced into the system.
Hippocrates in Ancient Greece worked with a system called “ The Four Humors” which divided people into 4 different categories based on fluids in the body and their influence on people’s physiology and personality. The four fluids are black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. Understanding that every individual has a unique internal terrain has been part of medicine for thousands of years!
So why am I telling you all this? Well first off so you understand there is a RICH & SOPHISTICATED tradition that has always gone along with matching herbs to a specific body type, disease and person. And secondly, so you understand that herbal energetics is a KEY part of receiving the benefits of plant medicine.
More recently, “allopathic herbalism” has taken hold which is the model of “take this herb for that disease” and is essentially stripped out of context from the traditional knowledge of matching people to plants to get the best results. This model is more of a one size fits all approach and doesn’t take into account the internal terrain in which the disease has manifested.
Let’s take turmeric as an example- turmeric is a heating and pungent plant. If you “take turmeric for inflammation” it may very well have a positive effect for you if your joints would benefit from drying up fluid associated with swelling and increased circulation. However, if your joints are already hot and red, then perhaps turmeric will add more heat which will aggravate the existing imbalance. To add another layer, it doesn’t mean turmeric needs to be avoided entirely, but at the very least, it would need to be balanced out with other lubricating, cooling herbs to offset the heat.
Honestly, I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough! When I started incorporating these principles into the way I formulate herbal remedies for my clients, it was a game changer. I started getting WAY better results for my clients, because the plants matched the energetics of the person I was giving them to. Seems like a total no-brainer now, but we don’t really employ this kind of medicine in our conventional allopathic model. We give medications for certain DISEASES, without really considering what PERSON we’re giving the medicine to.
The herbalist’s approach of matching the energetics of the plant to the disease AND the person creates a therapeutic protocol that is targeted, specific and individualized, which ultimately creates better healing results.
To wrap this part up, herbal energetics is the art and the science of herbal medicine in action!
And there you have it- the 5 clues as to why herbal medicine may not have worked for you in the past. I hope this was helpful and that in the future this helps you to get the most out of working with herbs!
* Echinacea is an endangered species in the wild, so always make sure your source is organically grown and cultivated, NOT wild-harvested.