A herbalist is a health practitioner whose primary tool for supporting an individuals health are botanical medicines and foods. There are many lineages of herbal medicine, and Western Herbalists are essentially eclectic in their influences, often bringing together a strong foundation in physiology and Western medicine (both herbal and conventional) with Eastern approaches such as Acupuncture (from China) or Ayurveda (from India). Underlying their diversity herbalists generally have several elements in common: they focus on the individual in the context of their environment (ecological, socio-economic, cultural and interpersonal), they take into account mind, body and spirit, they spend significant time with their clients (my initial consultation lasts two hours), and they use a combination of plants, supplements, and nutritional and lifestyle recommendations to support their clients. Herbalists believe in the healing power of nature and the human capacity for adaptation and the mind-body’s inherent drive towards healing and self-renewal.
Working with a herbalist is a collaborative process and requires self-responsibility, motivation, a willingness to learn and to examine (and change) one’s habitual patterns (behavioral, emotional, mental and interpersonal). Herbal medicine often exemplifies the “person-centered,” and “evidence-based” (in its original and not its restricted sense) approaches to medicine and combines elements of counselling, psychosomatic, psychosocial, lifestyle, functional and evolutionary medicine. These influences may originate from their studies of Western medicine and science or from the very integral medical paradigms of the East. When it comes to diagnosis and assessment herbalists often combine lab data, information about medical diagnoses from conventional practitioners, and in-depth case histories. This is frequently tied together in a more coherent framework using Eastern techniques such as pulse and tongue diagnosis to assess the individuals constitution (a typology seamlessly integrating mind and body). The consultation results in a gestalt of these varied strands of information forming a comprehensive picture of the client and their dilemma. This informs the herbalist in their recommendations and in particular their choice of specific botanical medicines, often in the form of a complex and synergistic formula.Though occasionally using single plants, most herbalists use formulas of 3 to as many as 30 (in formulas from Chinese medicine) plants. These will be taken or applied in the form of tinctures (usually hydroalcoholic extracts), teas, powders, capsules, essential oils, creams and salves.
In addition to this panoply of plants the practitioner-patient will collaborate in developing a strategy for improving nutrition and making key lifestyle changes for addressing poor sleep, energy levels, stress and emotional issues, relational or work concerns and increasing health positive activities (exercise, time in nature, meditation, etc.). An important part of the partnership lies in exploring the inter-dynamics of the clients life, helping them increase self-awareness of patterns of behavior, diet, exercise, sleep, emotions, physical symptoms, and so forth and elucidating problematic components and supporting health positive ones.
In their journey with the client the herbalist often plays many roles and must be adept in changing hats, often spontaneously, throughout the consultation as appropriate. The herbalist’s clients are often motivated by one of two, possibly overlapping, reasons. Some want to take a natural approach to supporting their health before resorting to conventional medicine, and so when a health issue arises they go to a herbalist first. Others are at their wits end, having been shunted like a hot-potato between medical practitioners, both GP’s and specialists. They have tried everything, sometimes suffering for years, often with little to no results. Some have been “given up on” by the establishment, and the herbalist amounts to their last hope. Why and when one approach fails and the other succeeds and their relative strengths and weaknesses is a significant part of this work and where Integral Theory can provide an invaluable contribution.