Opinion: One Woman's Conversion to Medicinal Herbs

Viewpoints to consider: What do healing herbs lose in science, and how do natural home remedies maximize the wide-ranging benefits of herbs?

| May/June 1997

Wholeness in plants and people 

"The scientific basis of medicine is much weaker than most patients or even physicians realize, and this leads to treatment based on uncer­tainty,” former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop wrote in a 1992 editorial about health-care reform.

This weakness is seldom acknowledged by those who control the juggernaut of the medical world. Nor is ­scientific uncertainty accepted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in judging the efficacy of plant medicines. But is scientific validation a prerequisite for those of us who want to use herbs for our health? I’m skeptical. Re­searchers in the laboratory often take a jigsaw approach, reducing a plant to its smallest constituents, then choosing only the most active to investigate. I believe this approach is conceptually flawed.

In my universe, every plant is a symphony. You can’t throw away any notes without the risk of creating a ­cacophony. When only a plant’s most active ingredients are used, some essential notes are lost. Plants may contain buffering agents and synergistic elements that can make the whole plant—or concentrated extracts of its fruits, flowers, leaves, stems, or roots—safer or more powerful than one or two constituents. Echinacea and valerian are examples of plants that work better as whole plants or as plant parts than as active ingredients separated out of the whole.

Using my own herbs for medicine adds harmony to my life. Each fall I make an extract of echinacea roots by steeping them in vodka or other alcohol. Echinacea is an immune booster that keeps colds and flu at bay. I do the same with valerian, a sedative that helps me sleep after a stressful day. I dry chamomile flowers, which smell and taste wonderful, then combine them with dried lemon balm for a snooze tea. I use calendula, comfrey, and chamomile to make a salve that soothes chapped skin. My vivid red homemade St.-John’s-wort oil works great on ­bruises. I add nutrition to salads when I toss in the violet leaves of early spring and purslane later in the season.

These are solutions to minor problems, but they contribute a lot to my health. I’m convinced that my herbs have kept me free of major ­medical problems for years—no small feat as I’m seventy-three. Oh, I’m not self-sufficient: I still buy vitamins and extracts of herbs that I can’t grow, such as ginkgo for my memory and saw ­palmetto for my husband’s prostate. I also suspect that the very act of walking out into fresh air to tend and harvest my own herbs adds to their power to heal. They are more vital, to me, than plant constituents isolated in a laboratory.

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