Written by Meghan Rhodes MCPP MAPA
What is herbalism? It is the use of whole plants to support our health through their inherently medicinal properties. It is the original medicine used by all of nature - not just humans, and so has thousands of years of field testing and knowledge for safe and effective use. Herbalism is based on a few core principles: engaging with nature using whole plant remedies, getting to the root cause of whatever’s going on instead of just silencing symptoms, restoring balance in the body using opposites (e.g. cooling herbs for hot, inflammatory conditions), and individualised care that matches herbs to each unique person and their needs in that particular moment. Let's have a look at each of the four core principles of herbalism to get a solid foundation of the basics.
1. What is herbalism? Herbalism is nature.
In herbalism (also known as herbal medicine), we work with the whole plant, rather than an isolated compound or a synthetically recreated extract. In this way, everything is kept in context. This is important because we as humans are not designed to process chemicals. We are not just 'part' of nature, we ARE nature, and within nature, everything works as an interdependent ecosystem. Therefore, it makes sense to work in exchange with nature to support our health. So when we ask the question, ‘What is herbalism?’, we can say without a doubt it is fundamentally about being active and engaged with all of nature.
2. What is herbalism? Getting to 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. Once we’re listening to these messages, we can turn back the clock and work through the timeline to understand both the root cause of poor health, 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. Ultimately, when we ask, ‘What is herbalism?’, we’re concentrating on life, not labels, focusing on what’s happening in the body, as well as what’s happening in the world around you.
3. What is herbalism? Finding, maintaining and restoring balance
Balance is a really straightforward principle in herbal medicine - and we support this in herbalism by using opposites. 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. So if there’s too much heat in the body (think inflammation, overheating, etc.), we’ll work with cooling herbs. If there’s stagnation in the body, we’ll bring in herbs to get things moving and circulating again. If there’s dryness, we’ll look to moistening herbs. If there’s too much tension, we’ll bring in herbs to relax and open the body. 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. What is herbalism? It’s individualised medicine.
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 - we’re asking why so we can bring in the most appropriate support. Finally, in herbal medicine, 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 - some people are prone to phlegmy chest infections, others to hot, fiery conditions, others to dry skin and brittle hair. What is herbalism? It’s the ability to create a custom herbal remedy for every person and occasion, rather than popping a one size fits all pill.
When we consider the question, ‘What is herbalism?’, we can distil the answer to four core principles: nature, the root cause, balance and the ability to individualise medicine. 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.
If you’re keen to start learning herbalism and integrate it into your way of life and you’re here in the UK, you’re very welcome to take the next step on your journey learning herbal medicine with me. I offer day-long herbalism workshops and pop-up herbalism workshops, as well as my intensive herbalism course - Awaken Herbal Wisdom - which spans all four seasons and gets herbalism both deep into your bones and your daily life. So head to my events page to see what’s coming up or learn more about my herbal medicine course here.
Enjoy the journey!