full screen background image
Energetics of New World Herbs
One of the concepts that has sadly gone missing from the world of western herbology, is the idea of "energetics." Instead what has happened, is that the current western medical approach of symptomatic, reductionist mechanics has been applied to herbs. This has led to the result that new world herbs (North American Herbs) in western herbology have become really nothing more than a substitute for over-the-counter or prescription drugs. For example: Have a headache? Take white willow bark because it has been shown to contain salicylic acid which is chemically very similar to the main active ingredient in aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). If (in this example) that's the case, then why bother with white willow bark? It's messy and inconvenient and not really any cheaper than just buying a bottle of aspirin. Sure it works, but I have no idea if it works better or worse than aspirin even for myself - speaking purely scientifically (I have never done even a subjective study of the efficacy difference between these two. If I use aspirin/white willow more than once in 3 years it's probably unusual). So if that's your approach, then why even bother with herbs in the first place?

This is where a big gap occurs in the evolution (or de-evolution) of the study and use of herbs in the USA over the past century. The entire reason that people should want to turn to herbs as medicine, is for the idea of a greater "connection." Connection to awareness about our own bodies (and preventative medicine, health, etc), connection to the earth and the fact that there are plants that specifically have a healing effect on our bodies and connection to the sense that we co-habitate a planet that we actually depend on for food, water, air and health.

The Energetics of Western Herbs - a highly informative 2-volume set

Herbalism in San Antonio, TX
So if you buy into that much of what I'm saying (my own belief system), then can you buy into the fact that just because we cannot (yet) measure the connection that I am talking about does not disprove the existence of this connection? Show me one doctor who can actually explain to me WHY our bodies heal. Not the mechanics (how), but what actually gives our body the consciousness to survive on its own and start repairing a wound whether you want it to or not? You can minimalize it away (the passive-aggressive denial syndrome) with analytical mechanics that don't even possess the language to describe this phenomenon, or you can flap your arms in the air like a fool and proclaim it an act of God (or Gods). Or you can seek to actually understand this "why" with your whole being. With your tools of intuition that are as valid a sensory organ as your eyes and ears you can connect to the force of life that wills this all to happen. You can connect and begin to understand this on your own, if you really want that knowledge.

But back to planet earth (pun intended) now, let me describe what I mean by the energetic vs. the western biochemical approach (to borrow the term from Peter Holmes) to western herbology: As an example, rather than using an antibiotic, the western equivalent herbal approach is to use an herb that has been shown to have constituents that have antibiotic-like effects. Words like "anti-bacterial," "anti-viral," "bacteriostatic," etc. become buzzwords in western herbology that insert some reductionist validity to the use of an herb. To some degree rightfully so, of course. These terms aren't necessarily incorrect, although the definition works a little differently, as I will explain.

I maintain that this entire approach is a mislead perspective that is divergent from the actual nature of life. While there is of course nothing wrong with knowing that a particular constituent of an herb has "anti-bacterial" properties to it, using it in this way is sort of like spearing your food with chopsticks because it's more like how you use a fork rather than using the chopsticks to pick up food the way they were meant to be used. In other words, reductionism is not a bad thing by any means. It is highly valuable, but it doesn't show us anything new. It displays the same mechanics at a more microscopic level, that we know exists a macro (or less micro) view as well. That is, we know this at the macro level already if we look at life as a whole entity to begin with. Admittedly circular logic, but no more so than any other belief system - including the most modern of science. This is a whole different sidebar subject that could go on for a very long, philosophical entry.

So how did western herbology get to this point? It certainly didn't start out this way. There is actually a very thoughtful and interesting structure of energetic western medicine dating back to the Greek culture and a man called Galen. Skipping past an explanation of that system for the sake of space, one of the most inspiring authors and teachers in my search for information about herbs and herbology has been Peter Holmes, who wrote 2 huge volumes: "The Energetics of Western Herbs." In these books he uses the Eastern (Chinese and Indian) and Greek (Galenic) systems (also including western wise woman information and western biochemical analytical information) to set up a methodology to use to understand herbs in this manner. A merging of eastern and western thought as a way to allow the mind to jump from the analytical into the intuitive. So hopefully this rambling rant now makes more sense as to the connections being drawn between an energetic, vitalistic approach to herbology and the concept of our intuition as a pragmatic skill.

Goldenseal Root - Note the yellow color (berberine)

Texas Herbalism School
Bear in mind that in my comparion between the western, biochemical approach to the study of herbs, vs. an energetic approach, I am not saying that the biochemical, analytic approach is wrong, but just that it is incomplete. Additionally I am saying that the tradition of energetics as a pragmatic method (based on observation of what works) is a vital and vitalistic part of the history of herbology that kind of became ransomed out to the western medical community in return for a few dog scraps of legitimacy that the alternative health community is desperately seeking. A few more words about that (legitimacy, alternative health, etc): The entire profit motive of health care "has to" be built upon the premise that 1) People should not take personal responsibility for their own health and 2) There is a lot more money to be made in fixing sick people than preventing them from becoming sick in the first place.
Goldenseal proved itself as a hugely effective medicinal plant during cholera outbreaks in India in the late 60's

Austin Herbalism School
By "has to" I am assuming that the people and organizations running pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies, medical technology companies, hospitals, etc. possess enough business savvy to understand what makes good money and what makes great money. There is very little room in that profit analysis for things that put people in full control of keeping themselves healthy. This means that in the areas of preventative health and minor illness and injury, there is really no legitimacy to be had in any opinions expressed by the western health industrial complex in their judgement of any aspect of herbal medicine since it is obvious that they do not have the individual's personal health in their best interest. So my point to all this is that there's really no need to sell out the concept of energetics just because it can't be broken down into biochemical constituents. The plant constiuents that can be broken down and analyzed in this way serve as a good validation of some(doubtful anywhere close to all) of the effects of an herb on a mechanical, non-synergistic level. This is of course valuable data. However, I maintain that this is a small piece of the big picture.

To move into my point of linking the concepts with an example, let's look at goldenseal. Goldenseal gained attention in the 60's during a huge outbreak of cholera in India, when it far surpassed the effectiveness (with less side effects) than antiobiotics. Explaining this on a biochemical level works somewhat as follows: 1) Goldenseal contains (among other things) at least a few active, biochemical constituents that have anti-microbial properties to them. These are alkaloids known as berberine and hydrastine. 2) Berberine and/or hydrastine are more effective in directly conteracting the Vibrio cholerae bacteria. Explaining this on an energetic level works as follows: Goldenseal clears damp heat while tonifying mucous membranes. Huh? What exactly does this even mean, right? To answer this, let's take advantage of our biochemical knowledge of cholera.

How does that bacteria work to attack us and make us so sick? The cholera bacteria travel to the small intestine where they attack host cells and cause those cells to pump chloride ions into the small intestine, preventing sodium ions from entering our cells, and creating a salt water environment in the small intestine which then osmotically pulls massive amounts of water through the small intestine cells. The small intestine "weeps" as much as 6 liters of fluid and electrolytes per day, which causes massive diarrhea, fluid loss, dehydration and death - without medical attention. The environment at a tissue level is one of inflammation and fluid. This could also be described as a tissue energetic state of "damp heat." The tissue itself needs something that will help restore it or counteract this process. An astringent with tonifying and restorative effects on mucous membranes. So did the goldenseal work because of the anti-bacterial properties of berberine? Probably that helped, but if that was the only reason, then why did it work better than the antibiotics that had been used up to that point? Perhaps it just had a more effective biochemical interaction against the cholera than any antibiotics at the time? Maybe that too, which is itself a very interesting statement about goldenseal.

However, I'm betting there is a lot more of the answer involved in goldenseal's direct involvement with the human state of tissue - particularly mucous membrane. The energetic approach is one of several ways to look at an interaction between the body and plants as both nutrition and medicine. However, the concept that is missing sorely from the western biochemical approach, but is present in the energetic approach, is the inclusion of the full process of healing. The main goal in an energetic approach to herbology is to understand ways to change the environment that is allowing sickness to happen. Change the environment in a way that allows the body to heal itself. This is the same way the planet works.

If you want to get rid of a particular insect in your garden that is harming your plants, you can take the biochemical route and use insecticides. Will this work? Most likely. Along with it, you will also affect hundreds if not thousands of other life forms that create and maintain life on a myriad of spatial and social levels. You will undoubtedly cause numerous other problems right in that tiny little area of your garden, not even to mention the other environmental issues with the chemicals themselves as they travel outside the garden area and into surrounding food and water supply.

A different approach would be to change the factors that allow that harmful insect to thrive. It might be as simple as affecting the micro-climate with the introduction of a "niche apex predator" in the insect world (for example: ladybugs or praying mantis), or in the introduction of other plants or plant materials to affect just this specific insect in this small area, while highly limiting other collateral damage - sort of like using a scalpel for a surgery, vs. a chainsaw. In the energetic approach, there has to take place a highly increased amount of awareness of the human body on many more levels than in the biochemical approach.