My Favorite Herb Books II - and the Problem of Scientific Herbalism

admin September 28th, 2010

In the first part of this essay, two posts down, Commenter Brandie asks what I think is a really good question:

You say the using of herbs is well-covered territory, but I’d actually love some recommendations on that. All the books I’ve read contradict each other and list totally different plants for specific ailments, and much of it is vague and seems less than scientific. In my own experience, the effectiveness of the few herbal remedies I’ve tried hasn’t been all that convincing. I’d love to see some simple, straightforward information “for the rest of us” about using medicinal plants that require minimal processing (i.e. no expensive equipment) and are actually effective for specific medical needs.

I started to answer her question in comments, and then realized it actually deserves its own post.  Unfortunately, what I don’t have is a really good answer for Brandie about what kinds of herb books might be most useful to her. And the reason for that is that I think a lot of this has to do with personal taste.

Brandie is looking for books that are science-based and specific, and I have some real sympathy with this desire.  As we all know, by day I’m a science writer and a farmer (ie, hands on science).  When I first started investigating herbalism, I came to it with a “I don’t want me no unscientific bullshit” attitude.  I was fairly hostile to what I saw as a ”new-agey, unscientific” quality in many herb books myself.  But the more I read, the more I began to understand the complexities of wanting to apply scientific knowledge to herbalism.  It isn’t that it is a bad idea - it is that in many cases, the science we have isn’t very good.  In others, what is being examined isn’t the same as what herbalists are actually doing.  In still other cases, there isn’t any science, except for the ethnobotanical knowledge that has emerged over centuries or millenia of use - there simply hasn’t been any real investigation.

All of this makes finding good and “scientific” herbal knowledge challenging.  Some herbs are well investigate, some aren’t.  When they are well investigated, they tend to be investigated for one or two purposes - and herbalists may have other traditional uses that haven’t been explored.  Sometimes herbalists may be passionate advocates for treatments that actually don’t stand up to scrutiny - and that’s true of allopathic medicine as well, as we all know.  In some cases, as in the discovery of liver damage from Pyrrolizidine alkaloids in plants like Comfrey, Wild Ginger and Coltsfoot, only good scientific analysis over populations could actually reveal the dangers of long term, extensive use of these herbs.  In other cases, research that is narrow, weak or involves the extraction of a single plant constituent to evaluate the merits of a whole plant is used to discredit things unfairly.  And there’s really no good way to know which is which without a lot of reading and investigation - it is neither true that research reveals nothing useful about herbs nor is it true that you can read the headlines about herbs and know what you need to know.

The other issue is that reasonable people can reasonably disagree.  One herbalist or doctor might counsel complete avoidance of PA plants - another might feel that their merits justify limited, short term use.  This is also a consideration in allopathic medicine - and indeed many of the “toxic” herbs we are talking about have far fewer toxic reactions to their credit than many of the medicines you keep in your medicine cabinet - Tylenol has done in more livers than PAs ever will. At the same time, avoiding things that will hurt your liver seems like a good idea to me - but then I don’t have a condition that is only helped by a PA-rich plant.  And for that matter, I’m not sure it is such a good idea for me to take tylenol - and yet that decision is left up to us.

To make things more complex not every study uses plants in the same way - and some don’t use plants at all.  For example, it is common for science to identify one or two chemicals in a plant as the “active constitutents” and sometimes that’s true. In fact, that’s how a vast number of synthetic drugs were derived.  But it is also true that most plants have dozens or hundreds of constituents, and it isn’t always clear that a reductionist approach can get the same results a more complex worldview can.  For example, there’s a reason we don’t take spinach capsules - we eat spinach. If we could reduce our nutrition to its basic constituents and get better results by popping a pill, we would have done so - but we can’t.

What’s active in the constituents of a plant changes a lot too, and we don’t know very much about how soil, temperature, water levels and season change most herbs - that research is barely begun.  We know, for example that the primary “active constituent” if you want to call it that, of peppermint changes several times - it is one thing before flowering, another thing at flowering and still another after it.  We know that comfrey has lots of PA’s in its root all the time, and that it had varying concentrations of them in the leaves at different seasons - a lot in the spring, not so much in the fall.  So you can harvest the comfrey plant several times during the season, use the first couple of batches as mulch, and then feel more comfortable using it, if you think it is warranted.  Or maybe you’ll never feel comfortable about that.

If your experience with herbal remedies consists mostly in purchasing such remedies at a drug store or natural food store, that can lead to a lot of poor success.  Consider spinach as an analogy again.  We know it is good for you - but do you think that spinach dried at fairly high heat and then powdered and kept on a shelf for a year is going to do as well as the fresh stuff from the farmer’s market?  But that’s exactly how many supplement manufacturers treat the herbs in question. 

It might be easy to look at elements of constitutional medicines, like Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurvedic medicine, and see them as woo.  Allopathic medicine recognizes that the same treatments don’t work for everyone - that one person’s diabetes or heart disease can be controlled by one medicine while it fails miserably for another person’s - but they rarely attempt seriously to figure out why that is, or group people who respond together.  Indeed, modern medicine has only in the last two decades even begun to recognize how men and women respond differently to conditions and treatments.  I haven’t the faintest idea how effective TCM or Ayurvedic medicine are - but I think the project of constitutional analysis isn’t necessarily nonsense - and that it would be an interesting process to apply in allopathic medicine.

This is a long subject, and a complicated one, and I’m not going to do it full justice here.  What I want to point out is that the reason there’s no one best “science based” approach here is that different people evaluate things differently.  Different people have different tolerance for ambiguity, or for different technique. I think it is important to recognize that empiricism has a real hold in allopathic medicine as well - and that ethnobotany and empirical experimentation also have scientific merit.  That doesn’t mean they are everything, or that I’m opposed to controlled and double-blind studies, but I do think it is important to recognize that not everyone who takes the ethnobotanical approach seriously is crazy.  I admit, I have a low tolerance for some stuff - I find I turn off when someone like Matthew Wood, who comes from the intuitive, ethnobotanical end of the spectrum starts talking about healing energies - that’s just not a language I respond to. At the same time, I don’t dismiss everything Wood has gleaned from his long practice as an herbalist, and I try to recognize that some of this is me.

All of which is a very long way of saying that just as there is no one or two gardening books that I can  tell you have what you need, there isn’t a single approach to studying herbalism that I can recommend.  Different people have different approaches and different tolerances, and I think realistically the only way to get a decent understanding of herbalism is to read a lot of books and do a lot of learning about plants and how they work.  Different people will have to take different risks into account.

 But Brandie wants a book list, and I swear I’m going to give it to you.

First, a very basic book I like a lot - Joyce Wardwell’s _The Herbal Home Remedy Book_.  She focuses on basic, simple remedies using 25 plants that are generally extremely safe.  It isn’t possible to do any harm to yourself with alfalfa or burdock root or plantain unless you work hard at it, and offers a nice, “soft” way of getting into herbs. She’s very balanced - she’s very clear on the merits of allopathic medicine as well, and her whole approach is, I think, very good.

For someone who is most comfortable with a hard-science approach to herbalism, I think Steven Foster’s _Herbal Renaissance_.  Foster has a lot of good information here - I think he is sometimes unnecessarily conservative or dismissive in his relationship to some herbs, that conservativism will probably endear him to some people.  His scientific knowledge is excellent, and while he’s a little dry sometimes, I like his writing.  I find his books extremely useful, set against herbals that sometimes elide issues and risks.

James Green’s _The Herbal Medicine-Maker’s Handbook_ is,  I think, a wonderful guide to making remedies, and he offers both equipment intensive and non-intensive alternatives.  It is not an herbal - that is, it isn’t a book that covers the merits and risks of individual herbs, but it does cover Brandie’s desire to know what books will help her learn to make remedies.

For an actual herbal, I really, really like Penelope Ody’s _The Complete Medicinal Herbal_ - while I own a number of herbals, this is my favorite. 

For recipes for remedies, I think Rosemary Gladstar’s and Susun Weed’s books are very good - they tend towards the more intuitive, but they also do something that I think many herbalists don’t - they offer up recipes and combinations of herbs freely and openly. 

If you can afford it, or can get it through a library the hefty and highly technical _The Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy_ by Mills and Bone is a very well done and highly technical - in a good way - analysis of the connections between allopathic and herbal medcine.

These books, I think, will get you started. From there, however, I think you will find you want to study more and more, and that’s as it should be.  Once you get beyond “peppermint for indigestion, valerian for sleeplessness” the complexities of this are worth consideration - and that’s as it should be. 

I should add, I’m not an herbal practitioner, and I don’t know if I ever will be one. I have considerable experience using herbs with my family, I’m a passionate researcher when I’m interested in anything, and I’m fascinated by plants in general, and their uses, but I think of myself primarily as an herb grower and plant expert, rather than an expert on how plants work on human bodies.  I have a lot of medical experience - my years as a paramedic and medical assistant mean that I’d probably like to gain the skill set of clinical herbalism, but so far, I haven’t had time, with the exception of one short class.  Others may have different recommendations, and you might want to take them more seriously than you take mine.



5 Responses to “My Favorite Herb Books II - and the Problem of Scientific Herbalism”

  1. Lise says:

    Thanks for these excellent book lists. I’ve added quite a few of them to my wish list!

  2. Brandie says:

    Thank you Sharon!

  3. Navigating an herbal self-education « says:

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  4. lInda says:

    I agree that a person can’t go wrong with either Gladstar or Weed’s books and the James Greens book as well. Michael Moores site is loaded with online information as well.

    Another great author is Micheal Tierra. I haven’t read any of Leslie Tierras books yet but they do come recommended. The Tierras are much more into the East/West approach and formulas at which they excel. This system is a bit more complex but that is where I started out as a newbie myself with the book, The Way of Herbs.

  5. Maya says:

    Thank you for such a well written post about the difficulties in understanding effectiveness of herbal remedies. Far too few people really understand the complexities and variabilities and such.

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