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The expectations of herbal medicine

Having grown up conventional medicine can be the biggest bane on adjusting to the significantly different way herbal medicine works.

My health philosophy opens by saying that the body is not meant to be sick- each of our bodies has the potential to heal itself and, with proper care, to maintain good health.  In order for this to happen, though, we have to allow it to happen.

Intellectually I know that many of the medicines prescribed by western practitioners short circuit this process.  But, even for me, it can be hard to remember when I, or worse my kids, are sick.

I grew up, as most of us did, using conventional medicine.  When I had a fever I took tylenol.  When I had an infection I took antibiotics.  The problem with this is that they appear effective, and one becomes accustomed to the pattern- feel sick, take a pill, quickly feel better.

You might be wondering, what is wrong with that?  Isn't it good to feel better?  Not exactly.

Let's use a fever as an example.  Something attacks your body- a bacteria, a virus, whatever- and your body's response is to raise it's temperature.  It doesn't do this just to make you uncomfortable.  Bacteria and viruses just happen to thrive at 98 degrees.  Raise the temperature only a few degrees and they aren't quite as comfortable, and the forces in our bodies find it much easier to fight them.

So what if your immune system is at war and that temperature comes back down thanks to a dose of tylenol?  They either stop fighting altogether or have a much harder time.  Furthermore, one of the amazing things about our immune system is that, in a way, it remembers.  Once your body has fought a particular strain of bacteria or virus it either becomes fully immune to the virus or has a much easier time fighting it in the future.  When we treat ourselves using western medicine, we short circuit the system and don't give our body the opportunity to develop these immunities.

You may also be wondering, if our bodies are so amazing, why do we even need herbs?  Well, in a perfect world, we don't... at least not beyond culinary uses.  If our immune system is functioning properly, our liver isn't overloaded with toxins, and our digestive system is doing it's job then we shouldn't need anything at all to maintain good health.  But we don't live in a perfect world.  We are surrounded by malicious forces.  But, unlike those who believe in germ theory (I believe in germs, just not the rest of the theory), I don't believe that bacteria and viruses are these malicious forces.  Instead I believe they are stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, and environmental toxins, among others.  These are forces that break down our immune system and tax the other important systems of the body.  This is when herbal medicine can be greatly beneficial.

Because instead of short circuiting the system, thoughtfully used herbs work with your body to fight infection, increase immunity, and enhance the function of other bodily systems.

Herein lies the "problem" (and it's not a problem with the herbs, it's a problem with our perception of medicine).  Say you have the same fever, but instead of taking tylenol you take an herbal preparation aimed at boosting immunity and fighting infections (say, an echinacea and goldenseal blend).  Nothing is probably going to happen for the first day.  Possibly longer.  The herbs may or may not shorten the duration of the infection (because who knows how long it would have lasted without them...).  But the point is that by taking an herbal preparation instead of tylenol or antibiotics you are allowing your body to do it's work, and the next time your body is exposed to this type of bacteria it will be even more effective at wiping it out.  To be succinct we do not aim to cure the current illness with herbs, we aim to enhance the function of the body so it can cure itself.

Unfortunately too many people can't make this mental adjustment.  They (or their child) get sick, they try a treatment, and it "doesn't work," so they immediately fall back onto the old standbys, not thinking about the long term benefits of letting their body fight the cold/fever.

As I said, this is something I've "known" for a while, but that was at the forefront of my mind recently.  Why?  Well, I was out of town this past weekend, and I came home to a daughter with a bilateral ear infection (my favorite...).  The good- this is the first time she has been sick since... well, so long I can't remember (seriously, for the herbalist class I'm taking we had to do recent health histories of the members of our family, and I couldn't remember the last time she was sick).  It still sucked for her.  But for me, this is the first illness I've dealt with since beginning this course, and simply having a tad more confidence has made treating it so much easier.  Still, ear infections are tricky and painful, and it can be hard to sit back and let it play out.

What about you- what is your perception of herbal remedies if you've tried them, and if you haven't what has stopped you?


Jill of all Trades said...

Found you on the Barn Hop. I definately prefer herbal/homeopathic remedies. But I do still struggle to remember that herbs aren't an instant fix. And I'm still learning. For example, homemade horehound cough drops need a LOT LOT LOT of sweetener to taste as good as commercial ones. Yick!!!

But there are times, I'll admit, when I am just plain miserable and it is so hard to resist the lure of the instant relief from the drugstore.

Finally, there are times when I'm not willing to take an herb just to prove a point. Like when I came home from traveling abroad and felt like I had ninjas slashing my belly. Nope - I scooted right to the ER and bypassed the herbs.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles.

Brandislee said...

I totally agree! I think herbs are great for mild illnesses, and even some of the more serious ones as long as they are monitored closely. But there are some very definite things I would take my kids to the hospital for- fever over 103, the slightest hint of neck pain (I've always been a bit paranoid about meningitis), or digestive upset lasting more than a day or two, or less if it were super painful. I don't completely reject western medicine- I think it is fantastic, when it's warranted. I just think we overuse it to our own detriment.

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