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What Are the Core Principles of Herbalism?

Written by Meghan Rhodes MCPP MAPA

Herbalism has four core principles:

1 - Nature

2 - The root cause

3 - Balance

4 - Individualised

Let's have a look at each of the core principles of herbalism in turn to get a solid foundation of the basics.

1 - Nature

There’s a brilliant book I highly recommend everyone read by author Michael Pollan called ‘In Defence of Food’. In it, he says, ‘Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.’ I would expand on that saying don’t ingest or apply to the skin anything incapable of rotting. What we’re both pointing out is we as humans are not designed to process chemicals.

That is because we are not just 'part' of nature, we ARE nature.

Everything works as an interdependent ecosystem. Therefore, it makes sense to work in exchange with nature to support our health.

I was once at a herbal medicine conference and attended a session where the teaching herbalist told us the story of trees. When something happens to a tree - it loses a branch in the wind, it gets infected, and so on - it heals itself - it produces resins, for example, which are antimicrobial and protect and heal the wound while the tree regenerates. Inherent in that tree, as in all of nature, is the impetus to heal. And yet, we are also nature. So what, then - the question was posed - is preventing any of us from allowing ourselves to heal? It’s a point that’s always stuck with me and which reminds me of our nature, no matter how separate we may sometimes feel or act.

flowers scattered on the roots of a tree

Another important point when we look at nature as a core principle of herbal medicine is that we use the whole plant.

In this way, everything is kept in context.

You wouldn’t take the hand off a great artist and expect the hand alone to create great art - it is connected to the rest of the artist’s muscles and nerves to be able to move, to the artist’s brain, vision, and inspiration to know what to create and together have the skill to bring it to life.

The same goes for plants and herbal medicine.

Diuretic drugs are often prescribed with synthetic potassium supplements because the effect they have in encouraging increased urinary flow is that they deplete the body of potassium - a crucial mineral for our bodies (particularly our cardiovascular and urinary systems) to work. And yet dandelion is a brilliant diuretic found pretty much everywhere AND it is naturally rich in potassium. Nature has already created the perfect package when used in the context of the whole plant. So why reinvent the wheel?

Many common drugs today are processed, standardised extracts and/or isolated and synthetically reproduced compounds, but our bodies are not made to process chemicals. Moreover, these ‘active compounds’ are taken out of context, which can often make them harmful. The side effects of aspirin, for example, include deterioration of the gut lining; however, the side effects of meadowsweet, the precursor of aspirin, are none (unless you’re sensitive to salicylates).

Finally, when we hold nature as a core principle of our practice, we must of course respect the ecosystems.

We are not the only creatures benefitting from the medicinal properties of plants. All animals self-medicate with herbs. In fact, observing animal usage of herbs to self-medicate was part of the process of us understanding of their medicinal properties in the early days of human history.

A note on this topic about sourcing herbs - Prioritise organic. Use local herbs as much as possible, and source sustainably always. Chamomile, for example, is mass-produced for the tea market in monoculture farming. As a result, it's sadly one of the most heavily sprayed herbs (with pesticides), so do take care.

2 - The Root Cause

The second core principle of herbalism is getting to the root cause.

In order to do this, we must first remember symptoms are the body sending us messages something is out of balance. They are not the ‘illness’, itself, so silencing those messages is not a solution.

Let me give you an analogy - if you put the television on mute, the show is still playing.

Say you start watching a show, then put the tv on mute and walk out of the room to do something else. You come back a while later and look at the screen again, and you have no idea what's going on.

This is what's happening in the body when we silence the messages it’s giving us - the imbalance is still there and the disease is still evolving and progressing. And if we continue to numb ourselves with symptom suppressing drugs, we will end up unable to hear - let alone understand - the messages our bodies send us, and ultimately end up very unwell with a much more difficult journey back to balance and significantly more disease in the meantime.

Next, in order to get to the root cause, we must be students of time.

Disease manifests in different ways in different people.

That's why with herbal medicine, we turn back the clock and work through the timeline to understand both the root cause, as well as how things progressed to their current state, so we can address the imbalance completely, rather than looking at one set of symptoms or one label/diagnosis in isolation.

Finally, concentrate on life, not labels.

Focus on what’s happening in the body, as well as what’s happening in the world around you, rather than fixating on a specific label or diagnosis. It can be easy to feel boxed in and eventually start feeling defined by a diagnosis or label.

However, you are a whole, complex, unique person. Your body is not every body. Your feelings and experiences are not one size fits all. Why should what you use to support your health be?

In the course I offer on the fundamentals of herbalism, you don’t just get to learn your herbs, you also get to learn about yourself - how to be a detective in your own body and in those of your family - to be able to identify what’s at the root of whatever comes up so you can use your herbs to support health effectively.

3 - Balance

Our next core principle of herbal medicine is balance - and we support this by using opposites.

This is a really straightforward principle in herbal medicine.

When you experience dis-ease, the body is not at ease - it is out of balance.

Imagine an old set of scales - with lots of weights on one side, things are clearly out of balance. Weights must be placed on the opposite side to restore balance.

brass scales on a wooden table with herbs

For example, imagine you have chronic headaches. Putting them on mute with daily aspirins or ibuprofens doesn’t stop them from coming back - it doesn’t restore balance. Remember, the headache is the body sending you a message something is out of balance, not the root issue.

So - what’s going on your body? What’s stacked on the scales?

You are likely to have inflammation, which is excess heat building up in the body. What else is going on? You may have high levels of stress and anxiety, which may be impacting your digestive system - pain, cramping, haven’t had a good bowel movement in a few days and usually have to strain - all of this is blocking what your body needs to send down and out and is sending it upwards instead - towards your head, creating headaches that won’t go away )and an uncomfortable gut on top of that).

So how do we bring in balance? What do we add to the opposite side of the scale?

We add cooling herbs to the opposite side of the scale to help bring down the excess heat generated by the inflammation. We add relaxing herbs to soothe the stress and anxiety (as well as look at ways to address the source of these in your life). We add wind and cramp releasing herbs to encourage the gut to loosen its stress-grip on vital nutrients your body craves. We add herbs that gently support easy and complete bowel movements to address the blockage.

The messages the body was sending were ones of the energy being trapped, sending it upwards, and building up heat being unable to release what it needed. The herbs to use to restore balance will guide everything down and out, cooling the excess heat generated along the way. (And this could all actually be just one herb!) And of course, you'll want to look at the source of that stress and anxiety in your life and address it.

Ultimately, what we’re using herbs to facilitate within the body is the best possible environment to heal and restore itself and come back into balance.

4 - Individualised

Our final core principle of herbal medicine is that it is individualised.

Did you know in the eyes of pharmaceuticals we are all healthy white men in our 20s? Yes, drugs and their dosage are largely based on averages of white, healthy males in their 20s.

What does this mean in real life? Let’s consider an elder woman, for example. Her liver metabolism of a pharmaceutical drug is very different to that of a man in his 20s (let alone an average of a group of them!). This means she’s set up to be overloaded with drugs that take more time to process through her body than the bodies of the people the drug tests were run on to determine dosages, etc., so the likelihood of her experiencing side effects is greater and her experience of those side effects is likely to be more acute.

From herbal medicine’s perspective, taking an individualised approach means:

Your use of herbs will change.

Over time, across seasons, depending on what you need in that moment, depending on what you no longer need - it’s a dance, it’s a conversation, it’s an interaction. And it’s all down to where you are as an individual.

It also means you have to engage with the herbs.

We’re not just swapping a drug for a herb. Back to that headache we looked at - You could take meadowsweet or willow bark to 'get rid' of a headache, because they’re the predecessors of aspirin, but why do you have a headache? What support do you need beyond ‘stopping’ the pain?

Again, if you use herbs just like over the counter drugs to put a symptom on mute, the show is still playing on the television.

Have you got a headache because you’re stressed? Then how can you support yourself with herbs (and other things!) to address the stress? Have you got a headache because you’re really bunged up and haven’t had a good bowel movement in a while? Or is it because your cycle is coming round and you always get headaches right before your period? Each of these scenarios (remember - root causes and balance) have different herbs that will be able to provide support for what you need in that moment.

An aspirin, however, is just an aspirin - with a standard dosage (based on the body of a healthy white man in his 20s), as well as with its own bundle of side effects.

It’s also an always evolving process of learning - as you deepen your knowledge of each herb, you get to know each one better, much like how a new acquaintance becomes a friend becomes a lifelong companion. Each time we discuss the properties of a herb in my workshops, each time we smell it/taste it/feel it, each time we make a new remedy with it, we get to know it better. This makes the herbs easier to use in your daily life.

Finally, we always consider that you have a unique constitution.

These are given different terms depending on the tradition you’re working with, but they all refer to the same point - your normal, your being in balance is different from anyone else.

You might be wondering, then, how can you possibly get your head around what to do for whom and when if everyone is different?

In my courses, I introduce you to the key concepts of constitutions - much like being given a set of puzzle pieces - and then I guide you in how to put them together. They may fit in different sequences, but they’ll always add up to a complete picture of the person you’re supporting with herbs - whether that’s yourself or a loved one.

All together, with the core principles of herbal medicine, you’re working with a solid foundation of knowledge of yourself, knowledge of your herbs, and knowledge of your remedies, in order to support your health effectively at each twist and turn on the path of life.


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