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Understanding Western Herbal Medicine: Finding Balance

From my perspective, Western Herbal Medicine is the art and the science of using plants and natural changes in your lifestyle to create a better sense of balance in your body, mind, and heart. Rather than conventional medicines which simply work on the physical, herbalism is about finding that state of balance each individual naturally has.

Something that’s problematic in a lot of literature you read about herbal medicine and diet is that they prescribe to this ‘one-size fits all’ mentality. It’s easy to understand how this happens, for example, think of someone who’s had success with a raw food diet, then shares that success story with everyone they know. 

It’s easy to attach meaning to a success story, and to conclude that raw food is the diet that’s going to solve all of your health issues. However this ignores the fact that everyone has a unique state of balance. And for some people, like myself, that would be really detrimental to my health, because it just doesn’t suit my constitution. 

I’ve got what is known in herbalism as a ‘cold and damp’ digestion, so lots of raw, cold, damp food is going to exacerbate that horribly. But someone else who has lots of hydrochloric acid in their system, a fiery constitution and really strong digestion, for them the cooling, calming, moistening effect of a raw food diet will be really beneficial for them. 

 One Size Never Fits All

One of the downsides of the popularity of herbalism is that our interest in herbs hasn’t been matched by our knowledge of herbs. A lot of people think that herbs work in a’one size fits all’ manner. People want a simple answer to a very complex question. For instance, which herb to use for eczema, or which herb to use for brain function. But herbs don’t work that way. 

There isn’t a single ‘eczema herb’ or a ‘brain function herb’ that will work on every. However, in order to promote herbs, and sell them, that’s often the approach taken, which is really problematic because it’s ignoring individual constitutions, their unique lives, bodies, and mental and emotional states. 

Turmeric is a great example, turmeric is suddenly THE antiinflammatory herb. Because its been shown to have antiinflammatory effect in a test tube, everybody should take tumeric all the time. But there isn’t any herb that everybody should have all the time. It just doesn’t exist.

A state of balance is not achieved by ridding the body of ALL inflammation, inflammation is a vital part of our immune function. If we had no inflammation, we would have no immune system. 

You can’t find balance in your own body by simply taking more and more of every single beneficial herb available. That’s simply going to imbalance you in some other way.

It all comes back to having a good relationship to your own body, to recognising the signs of imbalance, to knowing where your body tends to imbalance. Then, you can learn which herbs create a greater sense of balance, you can become friends with them, and learn what works for you. 

The uniqueness of your constitution is really at the heart of herbal medicine. Everyone has their own state of balance, and the art of herbal medicine is to understand that. Reading that person, understanding the essential qualities of plants, and knowing how to match them. The science and all the data is really important to understand, but it has to go hand in hand with personalized care.  

Getting to know your own constitution is all about awareness. Start noting the following and you may begin a pattern in what throws your body off balance. 

  1. After you eat, notice how you feel. If you experience discomfort, lethargy, or any other reaction, note it down.
  2. Look at your sleep patterns, what does your day look like when you have a bad night sleep, did you exercise, did you drink coffee late in the day?
  3. Recognise energy levels going up and down, do you have a natural rhythm to your day, and if your rhythm is broken, what factors were at play.

This can take practice, but over time, by bringing awareness to your bodies’ reactions, you can begin to learn the triggers of imbalance. Then, you can focus on what you personally need to address, and you’ll understand your constitution better, and therefore which herbs will help bring you back into a state of balance. 


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