Good Herbalism: Matching Plants to Your Body
Holistic medicine doesn't attack a disease—it supports a whole person.
I am often asked questions such as, "What is a good herb for sleep?" or "Do you recommend turmeric for joint pain?" The answer to these questions is always the same: "Depends!"
For any ailment or imbalance, there is a slew of herbs that a google search deems helpful. However, each herb possesses unique qualities, and will help different individuals and symptoms. Around the world, traditional medicine has developed excellent methods of matching herbs to individuals. Indian Ayurvedic medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) involve identifying symptom patterns in the body. When an herb's qualities and actions are also understood, we can more effectively match plants to people.
Example 1: Ginger and peach leaf are two digestion aids. However, ginger is warming, drying, and circulation-stimulating. Peach leaf is cooling and moistening. If a pregnant woman with morning sickness is flushed and overheated, giving her ginger is probably a poor choice. However, cooling, soothing peach leaf is specifically indicated for this woman's symptoms, and is commonly used during pregnancy.
Example 2: A thin individual with poor circulation, constipation, dry skin and a racing mind is experiencing vata imbalance, according to Ayurveda. Vata is characterized by patterns of coldness and dryness throughout the body. If an individual simply takes a laxative for constipation, they will ease one symptom, but the imbalance will go unaddressed. However, using warming spices, plenty of healthy oils topically and in foods, and gentle exercise can help "warm and moisten" the body, moving this individual towards balance.
Example 3: An individual is experiencing fatigue yet difficulty sleeping, poor appetite, high levels of stress, and dizziness. They are likely experiencing "Qi deficiency," according to TCM. While they could take a medication to help with dizziness, they would be missing an opportunity to rest and nourish their depleted adrenals, helping to heal the root of the problem. A more effective approach may include abstaining from coffee, turning off electronic devices at 8pm to encourage relaxation, morning meditation, and taking ashwagandha root to replenish the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathoadrenal system (thus helping digestion, sleep imbalance and more).
This fall, I look forward to teaching a 5-week class through Hamburg and Orchard Park Continuing Education programs, entitled “Herbal Medicine for Body Type.” We will borrow from Ayurveda, TCM and traditional western medicine to identify our own body’s tendencies. We will use our senses to determine what an herb’s effects might be in the body. (For example, bitter herbs are cooling digestive stimulants. Sour herbs often tone and tighten tissue). We will discuss a number of herbs in-depth, learning which body types/states they are most appropriate for. All plants discussed can be easily grown or sustainably wild-harvested in western NY. I look forward to learning more alongside students as we discuss this material!
pictured: Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), Gong Garden, Fredonia NY