The Acyclovir versus lemon balm debate: Cold sores vanquished

Our local doctor and I didn't get off to an easy start. He said he'd seen far too many "enthusiasts" who thought they could do without medicine and "just use herbs." He was besieged by middle-class mothers balking at immunizations.

And then there was the fact that I was about the strangest parent he'd met--legally blind, a foreigner and with two adopted kids of a background he considered at best "suspicious." He told me at one of our first meetings that I was the kind of person who would get reported to child protective services at the slightest provocation. But the only other local pediatrician had already thrown us out on even flimsier grounds, so I stuck it out.

But eight  years on, after many bumps and jolts we now have an exemplary relationship in which, if I need help, I call and he trusts my descriptions of symptoms over the phone, asks me to bring a child in or helps come up with a home solution. We brainstorm herbal medicines together when we can and I trust his recommendations when we have to use potentially harmful antibiotics.

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Tristan Ferne of Flickr.com

This past spring there was a major outbreak of chicken pox in the local school. Czech doctors are not as quick to vaccinate against the disease as those in the US are now, claiming that the vaccine is low on effectiveness and high on unintended consequences. So, I set about researching chicken pox symptoms and discovered that one of my favorite herbs--lemon balm--can help to mitigate the symptoms.

When I was sure that my children had been exposed to chicken pox by paying sympathy visits to the sick, I started giving them lemon balm syrup in hopes that they would not have to suffer with too many blisters. And then my kids were the only ones in their classes who didn't get chicken pox.

The next time I talked to the doctor, I thought back on our first meetings and had to smile. He leaned eagerly across the desk, swapping information about medical trials with lemon balm. He was as curious as I was. 

Did we actually fight off chicken pox with lemon balm syrup? Given the research, it seems at least possible. But there are plenty of other possibilities. The children may already be immune one way or another. And sometimes you just get lucky--or unlucky if you actually wanted your children to get chicken pox over with in cool weather.

I told the doc how I have used lemon balm salve to deal with herpes cold sores for years and found that it is just as effective as the antiviral drug Acyclovir.

"I've concluded that it is actually more effective," he said. "And Acyclovir has so many side effects. If you know how to use lemon balm correctly, that's superior."

Lemon balm was long thought to be a very mild herb, used as an anti-anxiety tea. But then a German medical trial in 1999 showed that a cream made with dried lemon balm extract could significantly improve cold-sore symptoms and increase blister-free intervals.

Dried extract may be more easily quantified, stored and sold commercially, but it is far less effective than fresh and otherwise minimally processed plants. I have found that lemon balm salve made with fresh leaves and olive oil doesn't just improve cold-sore symptoms, it can essentially vanquish them, driving the herpes virus into a decade or more retreat. After suffering from many cold sores in my twenties, I haven't had a full blown one in ten years and only even had the mild beginnings of a sore, when I neglected to use lemon balm salve at the first sign of a potential flare up. 

Over the past two decades new research has confirmed and expanded upon the original studies, showing lemon balm to be an exceptionally powerful antiviral medicine. When even my conservative local doctor, who didn't used to like "herbal frippery," sings its praises and denigrates Acyclovir, I'd say the jury is in. 

For a salve recipe that can be used to make lemon balm salve for cold sores and chicken pox blisters click here.

For a more detailed discussion of lemon balm's herpes-fighting capabilities click here.

For more lemon balm recipes (including delicious popsicles) and uses in treating strep throat, anxiety and insomnia click here.

The healing draft - A poem on home herbalist medicine

I have trusted my life to doctors and surgeons and I have trusted my life to dusty herbalist tomes along and my own brain. I've done each in its time and with a lot of forethought. 

I have written these experiences about reclaiming my own health and I've debated in minute detail with proponents of the "medical model" approach. 

My family depends on our herb bed for 90 percent of our medicine and health care. We're lucky to have built up a good perennial supply and the skills to use it. We're also lucky to avoid most chronic illnesses requiring medications with unpredictable interactions.

Still we've seen time and time again that herbs grown and used at home are far superior in action to pills and drugs bought from the pharmacy. We are as careful about the pharmacy as we are about the herbs (and we have a good friend who is a pharmacist to advise us when we do go that route). 

Even with this experience, the drumbeat of advertising and skepticism about herbal medicines is so constant that we have the same discussion every year--just me and my husband as well as with our extended family. We've seen herbs work again and again. And yet there is a resistance to believing that something so simple could be so powerful or that if it is so powerful that it could ever be used safely. 

After a recent skiing trip--during which my husband was too apathetic to put herbal salve on his sore muscles or take echinacea tincture to stave off an encroaching cough, while I breezed through both with the help of these simple medicines--I am tired of the endless argument. I am tired of citing studies and debating with a behemoth industry with my relatives as surrogates. 

This is the season of inspiration and intuition, the days just before Imbolc, and so instead of another detailed treatise, I put it into a poem:

Every day an anecdote,
Sickness, headache, injury or pain
Washed away as if through clear water.
You've got two wore legs-
One rubbed with salve,
The other left to rest and ache.
One is new again in the morning,
one is stiff and swollen.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

It means nothing, they say.
A child crying in pain,
Blisters raised on the skin.
A six-year-old sister goes to pick the leaves,
to brew the tea, to place the cool cloth
against the flaming skin.
And the child smiles,
the blisters disappear
in ten minutes by the phone clock.
But it is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

How many times must you see it?
I ask my brother, my friend, my doctor, my dear one
How many times makes a study?
How many people sick with a lasting cough,
How many who drink the garden draft,
who get up and tend those who took pills instead?
How many times before you understand
that medicine is not in an ad?
It isn't Big Pharma or Big Natura.
It is in the hands, the care, the knowledge.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind. 

The questions fall heavy and predictable
like the drum beats of a campaign.
What if you make a mistake?
What if it doesn't help? 
What about the things you cannot fix or cure?
What about all the studies with freeze-dried herbs?
Who are you to say?
You have no double blind or placebo.
You have only whispers
gathered over a thousand years.
You have only the bright faces of your family.
You have only this little plot of growing things.
You have only your own health taken back.
It is not a study.
It isn't clinical and you are not blind.

This is my wish to all in this season--health, healing and inspiration. May your home be snug and your well of strength brim full.

4 herbs to soothe side effects of drugs and chemo: Home medicine cycle 39

I rarely visit my local doctor. I treat myself, my family and sometimes my friends primarily with simple herbs that I grow myself. I’ve successfully dealt with a lot of cuts, bruises, sprains, rashes, allergies, ear aches, stomach trouble, strep throat, anxiety. depression, parasites, viral infections, chronic coughs, flu, fungal infections, nerve and muscle cramps, immunological problems, ADHD, chronic eczema and more. 

But there a few things I can’t handle. First on that list is surgery. When it comes to surgery I have to put on a paper nightie and surrender all control to the medical establishment. And that is definitely not my favorite thing.

Creative Commons image by Jacqueline of flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Jacqueline of flickr.com

This past month I had to undergo high-risk eye surgeries on each eye with a two-week break in between. I was born with a congenital eye condition and I’ve always been legally blind. Now at 40, it finally caught up with me and it was a choice between losing what vision I have or undergoing surgery. The surgeon admitted my case was very difficult and he felt like he was setting out to “discover the North Pole.” 

This meant that there was no room for experimentation or error. For the first time, my herbalist knowledge seemed completely useless.

From experiences when I was younger, I already knew I don’t react well to anesthesia but the surgeon said it would be necessary. In fact, the first surgery entailed about an hour and a half of anesthesia, much longer than I’ve ever undergone before. It took me about two hours more to even become fully awake again. And then I was sorry I was. 

My operated eye barely hurt at all, but I was sick to my stomach and all around miserable from the toxins in the anesthesia for five days. Even ten days after the surgery, I still wobbly and easily tired, as if I was recovering from a serious illness. 

During the first two days all I could really stomach was salt crackers and ginger tea. In my groggy state, I was not very good at treating my own discomfort, but I did manage to remember and ask for ginger. The ginger helped and soon I could eat a bit, if I first drank a cup of very strong ginger tea.

When my brain started working again, I remembered my herbalist research and specifically some studies that mentioned that ginger is used to reduce nausea and mitigate the effects of toxins in chemotherapy, surgery and radiation treatments. I wondered if ginger could help with the toxins in the anesthesia and topical antibiotics I was dealing with. However, the results of the research appeared to indicate that high doses of ginger right BEFORE toxic exposure may have much greater beneficial effects than merely consuming ginger after the fact.

So, for three days before my second surgery, I consumed about eight ounces of fresh ginger per day in tea and food. And after that second surgery, the grogginess of the anesthesia was gone within an hour. I barely felt nauseated at all. I continued to drink ginger tea and be gentle to my stomach. But my energy and strength returned much more quickly, resulting in a recovery less than half as long as the first.

The surgeries were successful. My world-class surgeon Petr Novak did an excellent job in a complex situation. My family and friends provided much needed physical and emotional support. In all this, And I learned a bit about how herbs can help work together with modern medicine, rather than separate from it.

Detoxifying herbs

I have read a lot about detox treatments and natural medicinals for those undergoing chemotherapy or taking pharmaceuticals with potentially harmful side effects. Many posts and books on the subject list less than organic compounds and almost all push certain products and brand names. Some list things like colloidal silver, which while possibly a useful natural antibiotic is still a heavy metal and more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution in this case. These are red flags for me. My approach to home medicine is based on the use of simple herbs that can be grown or found near your home. 

Creative Commons image by Alex Graves

Creative Commons image by Alex Graves

While these herbs are not without risks and I carefully note warnings or potential problems in my posts, they are herbs that have been used medicinally for thousands of years and have been proved in the ultimate test of time across many different cultures. They are also herbs that I have tried myself or seen in action.

While I encourage all herbalists, whether professionals or home herbalists, to keep up on the ongoing research on herbal medicinals, there is nothing like personal experience to give a deep understanding of what an herb can do. Before I used large doses of ginger to protect myself from a known reaction to pharmaceutical toxins, I had read the optimistic-sounding research but I had little understanding of how it would actually work. 

I have four herbs to list that I use for detox and protection from toxins. These are all considered low-risk herbs which are consumed by many people as foods. Certainly, each individual is different and you should exercise caution with any herbal medicine and consult with your doctor, particularly if you take any regular medications. However, these herbs are among those that are usually safe and protective in action. Unlike many herbs and other detox treatments, these four can often be consumed by pregnant women and those with fragile health.

Ginger

Ginger acts in the body as a gentle stimulant and protector. It protects the integrity of cells and helps to flush out toxins, particularly many of those connected with pharmaceuticals.

Several studies have shown that women who underwent chemotherapy for the treatment of breast cancer used ginger aromatherapy effectively to curb resulting nausea. In other chemotherapy studies ginger extracts have been found to significantly reduce post-chemo nausea. Many herbalists say holding a piece of ginger in your mouth while undergoing chemotherapy markedly reduces nausea.

Another study has found similarly beneficial effects for patients experiencing nausea after surgery involving anesthesia. Radiation therapies also entail similar cell damage and exposure to toxins. Several studies have shown treatment with ginger extracts before exposure to radiation helped reduce the risks to animals (including severe radiation sickness and death) of the exposure. 

My own experience bears out these results. And even more exciting to me is the fact that I was able to achieve these results without having to depend on a processed ginger extract or essential oil. I was able to eat pleasant ginger curry and drink three or four cups of strong ginger tea per day (brewed by grating fresh ginger into hot water and letting it steep without boiling). The use of ginger as a simple was sufficient to significantly improve my recovery after my second surgery. 

Ginger has a vast array of other medicinal uses beyond detoxification and protection. Further studies and recipes for everything from coughs and migraines to cancer and Alzheimer's can be found in my home medicine post on ginger here

Red Clover

Red clover is a humble, almost ubiquitous plant with some surprising properties. Some studies claim it fights breast. prostate and skin cancer. Other research shows its effectiveness in mitigating the side effects of chemotherapy as well as toxic inflammation associated with cardiovascular disease. It has also been used for women's health during menopause.

My only personal experience with red clover is in preventative skin care. I am at an age where it is a good idea to monitor one’s skin for strange new moles or bumps that grow instead of going away. Some years ago, I had such a mystery bump on my leg and I was considering going in for testing. 

But then I read about the efficacy of fresh red clover in preventing skin cancer. I thought I’d just try it out while I waited for my dermatology appointment. But when I mashed up a fresh red clover bloom and stuck it on the bump with a band aid, the effect was dramatic. This bump which had grown and itched and bugged me for months despite all the other herbal sales I tried, subsided and nearly disappeared within three days. And it stayed gone. I occasionally put another red clover bloom on it for prevention, but it has never troubled me since, though it has returned to the normal-sized mole it used to be. 

I can’t generalize from such a one-off personal experience. I definitely suggest you take any suspicious moles and bumps to be tested. Skin cancer is nothing to play around with. The red clover treatment also works far better in the summer when red clover is fresh and in bloom, but it’s something to keep in mind.

Nettle

Nettles are often considered a noxious weed and a mere annoyance. However, they have some powerful beneficial effects and are delicious steamed and seasoned with butter and lemon.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Stinging nettles lose their sting when cooked, steeped or dried. The chemical compounds which cause a localized allergic reaction in many but not all people (the sting) break down when exposed to heat or UV rays. What is left is beneficial in many ways and strongly anti-allergenic.

I use nettles in my home primarily as anti-allergy medicine, often with dramatic results. See my post on nettles and allergy rashes here.

But there are other uses for nettles. Many herbalists use them for spring detox protocols. The usual recommendation is a cup or two of nettle tea every day for three weeks, no longer. This will flush an amazing amount of heavy metals from the body and often leave the patient feeling significantly more energetic.

However, there is an important warning to go along with this. The compounds in the nettles that help to rid the body of toxins make no distinction about iron. Iron is a heavy metal and toxic in larger amounts. Nettles flush it out. If you do have too much iron in your body, this could be helpful. But some people have an iron deficiency, leading to anemia.

The only time I have tried a nettle detox, it exacerbated my preexisting anemia and I was chronically tired and had to take iron supplements for weeks afterward. I don’t recommend longer nettle detoxes for anyone who struggles with anemia. I would recommend it if you are concerned that you may have been exposed short-term to toxic heavy metals and want to ensure that they don’t accumulate in your body. 

The action of nettle tea and nettle greens used as food to flush put heavy metals is well documented and unquestionable. It’s just a good idea to take it seriously and exercise caution. They are delicious but they are also real medicine.

Dandelion

Dandelion has been considered a "detoxifying" or "tonic" herb for centuries. Many herbalists recommend a "spring tonic" which consists of drinking dandelion root tea (sometimes combined with nettle leaves or burdock root) for a couple of weeks in the spring to cleanse the body of the chemical residues of winter smog and mold. This can be very helpful and result in a burst of energy.

The chemical reactions that make this tonic work, lead to even more startling uses. 

A study has found that dandelion and other herbs protect DNA against damaging toxins. Dandelion is particularly valuable in protecting the liver from toxins, including alcohol poisoning. This is why dandelion is used in drug and alcohol detox and rehabilitation.

Dandelion root has also been found to combat the formation of cancerous tumors in mice and to assist in the treatment of prostate and breast cancer. Even more exciting is a study that shows dandelion to be potent in treating chemo-resistant melanoma, one of the most dangerous cancers for younger people. It may also protect against chemically induced lung injuries.

In short, science is just beginning to make use of the wonderful ability of dandelion root to mitigate the harmful effects of the toxins that have proliferated in our modern environment. How fortunate that dandelions are as prolific as the dangers.

Dandelion also acts as an anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory agent. It can help in the treatment and prevention of a list of digestive problems including intestinal infections and chemical-induced pancreatitis. Further details about dandelions can be found in my home medicine post on the herb here.

The Connection: Spirituality and Herbal Medicine

I once entered into a formal discussion with an emergency-room doctor on the topic of the risks and effectiveness of synthetic pharmaceuticals versus homemade herbal medicines. 

At the outset, he would only engage in the discussion if I agreed to one condition. I could not use any argument that was based in spirituality, ethics or ecological concern. It all had to be science, based on promoting human health. I am confident of the science behind herbal medicines and interested in seeing more high-quality clinical trials with fresh herbs, so I agreed.

Brigid, Christian Saint and Celtic Goddess of Healing - Creative Commons image by  Cosette Paneque

Brigid, Christian Saint and Celtic Goddess of Healing - Creative Commons image by Cosette Paneque

Unfortunately, the discussion broke down anyway but the talk was very helpful and informative to me while it lasted. In the end, it was matters of belief that got in the way, but it was about trust in the intentions of pharmaceutical companies rather than about my spiritual or environmental beliefs. 

The doctor showed me that often a company will conduct seven or eight clinical trials to prove a drug is safe and effective, but only publish the one study that was favorable to their drug. To him, this meant the drugs had scientific backing but companies also have a profit motive, so  it's better to look at more than one study. To me, it was proof of the utter corruption of the scientific method and it discredited the entire industry and the concept of clinical trials as the definitive measure of safe and effective medicine. 

I, on the other hand, presented the documented findings of generations of herbalists as a source of information about medicinal properties, asserting that clinical trials (when done without corruption) are better but long-term, geographically diverse and corroborated records from practice are also admissible as evidence, if large institutions haven't gotten around to studying a particular  herb or don't use fresh herbs in their studies. And all evidence must be questioned and examined. The doctor rejected this and insisted that the only information worth any consideration comes from clinical trials. 

Those are the types of issues that stand in the way of understanding between doctors and herbalists. And yet I still believe there is much to be gained from the exchange of ideas across such a divide. In fact, that doctor unintentionally taught me something far outside his field of expertise. That is how much spirituality, ethics and my connection to the earth is part of my experimentation with herbs. The experience of completely isolating myself from those considerations for a time, gave me a deeper understanding of that connection.

Yes, I can document the health benefits and safety of herbal medicines based on clinical trials and herbalist records. At least with the more popular and widely studied herbal medicines I can. One can approach herbs from a purely logic-based perspective and still get great value. 

But if you aren’t involved in a thought experiment or a theoretical debate, it is better to look at the whole picture. Here is the other side.

What does spirituality have to do with herbs?

Healing used to be the province of druids, priests and abbots, inexorably linked to spirituality because A. there was no health insurance or any reliable way for healers to get paid, so medicine was done as part of the ethical practice of those who believed in good deeds for spiritual fulfillment; B. spiritual people were the most educated and had better records on medicinals than anyone else; C. religious institutions that became less spiritual and more political and profit-oriented quickly realized that offering healing was a great way to attract people who were desperate and earn their loyalty, and D. medicine often doesn’t work and lack of success could be blamed on fate or the will of God. 
 
But despite the corruption of the spiritual connection to healing, there is a core of real spirit. In the far distant past, the connection of people to the earth and to spirit was inseparable and people learned about herbal medicine in the same way that they learned about the movements of the planets in the sky or the growth of trees or the flowing of rivers. The uses of herbs for healing were part of the earth and the earth was the core of original spirituality. 

Herb altar - Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

Herb altar - Creative Commons image by Latisha of Flickr.com

To this day, some of the best records on using herbs as medicines come from ancient spiritual scholars. While religious institutions may have less than selfless motives for opening hospitals, most of the individual healers who kept records in such places over the centuries had an authentic interest in healing, as evidenced by their words and conscientious notations when they knew that it would primarily be future generations who would thank them, rather than their contemporaries. 

When I study herbs and seek their healing potential, I can feel a direct connection to the gardeners of Christian monasteries, Native American healers, African shamans, Chinese monks, Celtic Druids and all the others who have passed down their bits of knowledge, corroborating one another’s findings across time and distance, often working in great difficulty but recording their findings in obscurity, so that we can now benefit from that accumulated knowledge. 

And in the end, it is difficult to quantify, study and logically define, but even those who argue for a science-only approach will admit that a person gains health benefits from simply experiencing nature. Studies show that people have better health outcomes if they can see a natural scene from a window or if they sit in a garden, than when they are in entirely built environments. No one knows why. Science can document the result, but not the means...yet. 

So, when proponents of the science-only approach insist that the fact that something comes directly from the earth must be disregarded as a beneficial factor, I am confused. We may not be able to prove why a connection to the earth helps health. But we know that it does. The part we don’t understand is the place where many of us fill in spirituality. I believe that the earth is alive and that plants have soul and active energy. 

Yes, I even believe that plants are meant to aid in healing, not just that they do so by the sheer chance of a molecular lottery. And this is anathema to the vehement atheist. 

“Who ‘intends’ such a thing?” they demand. “Do you have to believe in God to be healed? Are you arguing that praying helps?”

Herb garden.jpg

That would be "Gods" in my case, but no, I don’t think that you must believe in anything. However, studies have been done showing that even distant, anonymous prayer does aid in healing IF patients are also given high quality health care. Statistically at least. Those for whom someone unknown and far away prays do better in high risk surgeries. And it doesn't appear to matter what Gods those in prayer address or if they address any God at all or simply sent their healing wishes directly to the sick person. 

While spiritual connection does appear to help, we are still stuck with the old adage that the universe helps those who help themselves. And that is where herbs come in. We don't know whether some divine being infused herbs with specific healing tendencies or the herbs themselves attain self-expression through healing or herbal healing is part of the interdependent pattern of the universe. But we do know the results. Herbs often contain compounds that are precisely designed for healing. And some herbalists observe that plants near human habitations change their chemical composition depending on the sicknesses affecting the nearby population.

You can choose to use herbs without thought for the deeper levels of reality. You can choose to base your herbalism only on scientific studies. But you can also choose to give thanks for the gifts of healing given by plants and take spiritual inspiration from them. It is a choice.

Healing where the whole is greater than the parts: Home Medicine Cycle 31

When speaking and writing about herbs, I often encounter argumentative people who promote pharmaceuticals as inherently "safer" and "better" because they can be more strictly controlled from a chemical standpoint than herbs and other naturally occurring medicines. And these discussions can quickly devolve into a contest of citing studies on which specific remedy is better or safer, if the pharmaceutical proponents set the rules of debate.

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

Creative Commons Image by  Aotaro of Flickr. com

I wish I had all the answers to settle the controversy, but I don't. There aren't as many studies about herbs as there are about pharmaceuticals because herbs are more difficult to patent and more complex to process. The profit margin will never be as high with herbal medicines as it is with synthetic and isolated chemicals. And so they aren't as widely studied in big laboratories with the resources for lengthy medical trials with large test and control groups. This fact alone leads many to dismiss herbal medicines out of hand. If it hasn't been through that expensive process of established medicine it is seen as worthless and potentially dangerous.

But let's look at this for a moment, most of these medical trials take six weeks. Only a few go on for a few years and almost none watch patients over a life-time. Very few of these pharmaceutical studies look at the overall effect of a mix of pharmaceuticals on the body over time. And yet there are clearly effects, beyond the side effects of a certain drug. The use of synthesized, isolated chemical compounds as medicine (i.e. pharmaceuticals) increases the acidity of the body and causes a variety of long-term and systemic problems. When medical people complain that herbs have not been studied enough to be "safe," I worry that the long-term and cumulative effects on the immune system and delicate biochemical balance of the body of the many synthetic pharmaceuticals we consume today are not known either.

Herbs haven't been studied by many modern studies but what has been done almost always confirms the observations of generations of herbalists concerning the particular use of an herb. Some of herbalist records are more meticulous than others, but over many centuries and a wide variety of sources, patterns emerge that are usually confirmed when they are put to a modern medical trial. The peer criticism of other herbalists has generally been enough to root out insubstantial claims about an herb. 

As a result, we know that yarrow has anti-inflammatory and anti-septic effects both from studies and from the battlefields of history. But more importantly, we know from the combined experience of many herbalists that taking moderate doses of medicinal herbs over a lifetime, strengthens the body rather than weakening it. We know that some herbs can cause liver damage if taken too often and too much. We know that others can become ineffective if the body builds up a resistance to their effects. And we know which herbs are safe to consume regularly as food, partly because they have been consumed as food for thousands of years without ill effects.

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

Creative Commons image by Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia

I certainly don't want to spread a myth that herbs are inherently safe because they are "natural." Herbs have to be treated with the same respect we treat any medicine. And it is worth remembering that any time we tamper with the balance of the body, we are likely to do more than just what was intended. That is true with pharmaceuticals and with herbs. There is some evidence that herbs sometimes carry compounds that act to compensate for the wider systemic effects of their medicinal compounds, thus mitigating some of the unintended effects. But this can't be counted on to simply fix everything. It is only a hopeful sign that should be suited further. Some of the effects of herbs may be helpful in one context but harmful in another. For example, sage tincture can be used to deal with low-blood pressure attacks and thus modulate blood pressure. It doesn't necessarily raise blood pressure on a continuum as a simple synthesized chemical might, but It could be adverse for peope with high blood pressure to take a lot of sage in a concentrated form.

My journey in learning about herbs and taking back my health over six years, when I had become very sick and vulnerable to infection due to a lot of pharmaceutical use during several rounds of in vitro fertilization, taught me many things about herbs. But the most important thing it showed me was the importance of the residual and cumulative effects of medicines.  None of the pharmaceuticals I consumed had labels warning of adverse effects on immune function and yet their cumulative effect was that I had wide-spread fungal infections and a simple cold would lay me out as hard as the flu. I was sick more days than I was well for two years.

But here's the crucial bit. I didn't take any specific herbs to "fix" my immune system either.

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

Creative Commons image by Bogdan of Wikipedia

At that time, I didn't dream that herbal medicine could really help with the severity of my problems. I simply hoped that if I stopped taking pharmaceuticals, the problems would recede. I took herbs for simple things--for cold and flu symptoms that I had constantly, for cuts and scrapes and for fungal infections. And I saw that unlike the pharmaceuticals I had previously tried to fight these problems with, the herbs helped while I experienced very  few negative side effects. And instead of getting sick with something else after using them, I gradually got better over all. Over three years my immune response improved and I was sick less and less often.

At first, I thought this was simply because I had stopped taking harmful pharmaceuticals, and I am sure that helped. I noticed that if I broke down and took an Ibuprofen for a headache, I would get infections quickly in the next day or two and I would have a rebound headache two days (almost to the hour) after taking the pill. But I also noticed some of the opposite general effects when I took herbs. Not only did elder flower help with congestion as I'd hoped, I also felt stronger after taking doses of herbs and was unlikely to get sick soon afterward. If I simply suffered through an illness (as I did sometimes in the days before I had seen enough proof of the efficacy of herbs), I was much more likely to have a relapse than if I used herbs to help with the symptoms. Even though those herbs were not supposed to "cure me" or "fix" my immune system, they helped to support general health as well as deal with specific symptoms.

I never took just one herb in isolation for weeks at a time. I never overdosed on any particular "miracle" herb. Those who get overexcited about inflated claims concerning the curative powers of a specific herb sometimes end up with liver damage or other health problems. Herbs can be abused, and if they are, they won't promote overall health very well. But the moderate, well-considered and diverse consumption of medicinal herbs has wide-ranging benefits beyond just the specific condition or symptoms the herbs were taken to aleviate.

I believe this is why we find many families who use herbs as their primary medicines, who are very rarely sick. Those who use them consistently believe strongly in the abilities of herbs to benefit our health, even though there may not be a modern medical trial showing that these specific  herbs can be used in ways found to be effective by herbalists. We observe in short that the whole is greater than the parts when it comes to health. And herbal medicinals, used thoughtfully and moderately, have an overall beneficial effect on health.

That concept is unlikely to be studied in a large medical trial, even though it could be logistically. Even the part of the pharmaceutical and dietary-supplement indudstries that sell herbal remedies will not be very interested. Because the only way to reliably reap these overall benefits from herbs is to grow and make your own medicines, to make your medicine as local, fresh and individually designed as possible. While a skilled, professional herbalist may be able to provide this kind of medicine to local patients, that won't make for large-scale corporate profits.  And in many cases, health is best achieved by simply homecrafting herbal medicinals and consulting with doctors and professionals in an intelligent way. No one has found a great way to profit from the quiet, perennial craft of the home herbalist and no large, expensive trials will be funded to prove the efficacy of such a grassroots method.

Instead the individual has to rely partly on observations of what works for you as an individual--employing caution, common sense, herbalist experience and the advice of medical professionals to steer a balanced road. Eight years after I was brought to my knees by the combined effects of many pharmaceuticals, I am now as healthy as I have ever been. My children who were expected to have poor immune response and constant infections from having spent time in orphanages before being adopted are now the ones at school who are "never sick." 

We treat those things that do inconvenience us with things we grow in our own backyard. There is no one thing I did to cause this result. Instead it's a case of the whole being greater than the parts. It has come from an overall lifestyle to promote health and the careful use of herbal medicinals.  Please feel free to comment and add your own experiences on the topic of promoting general health.