Picking up from our last article on becoming an herbalist, we are taking a look at how to become an herbalist through the place where humans and herbs interact
A lot of people who are interested in how to become an herbalist really want to be with and know the plants, but they don’t necessarily want to be as savvy with people. You have to know both to be an herbalist.
Herbalism is where people and plants meet and where people in need of medicines can find what they are looking for from the herbal, mushroom and mineral medicines.
It’s really important to understand anatomy and physiology within those paradigms of Western, Chinese, and Ayurvedic thought that I’ve just been mentioning. You should know how the body is made up from at least one perspective. If it is the modern Western perspective, then you should know the structure and function and inter-relatedness of all known organ-systems, from musculoskeletal to cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, lymphatic, immune, nervous system, endocrine, reproductive, genitourinary, and now add the endocannabinoid system to the list, with more likely to follow. If traditional Western herbalism, then also add humors and temperaments and other principles now disregarded by modern medicine.
If I were to consider anatomy and physiology from the Chinese point of view, then in regard to organ-systems it would include the Chinese Spleen, the Triple Burner and the Chinese version of kidneys, heart, lungs, liver and all the rest, as well as the meridian channels and the underlying vital substances — qi, blood, jing (life essence) and shen (spirit).
How to become an herbalist: Consider food as medicine
Every traditional healing system puts food, diet, and nutrition at the very center of what it takes to be healthy, to get better, and to stay healthy. You are what you eat and you are what you assimilate, so a really good understanding of nutrition is important. This entails what the body’s nutritional needs are and how it is provided by the different food groups, which means it is important to understand the anatomy, physiology and digestive process in all its facets, the nutritional needs of the various organs and your being as a whole, and the ways in which the body uses this nutrition. And no matter what traditions you choose to study and practice, it is vitally important that you honor them by taking the time to understand them within the context of their unique, underlying principles.
I might be putting myself out on a limb here, but modern, conventional Western-based nutrition is kind of backwards and not nearly as good or as clear as the Chinese understanding, the old Western understanding, the Ayurvedic understanding, or most indigenous understanding. I think a big reason for this is that virtually all recognized, licensed fields of health in the US are heavily influenced and coercively pressured by large lobbying groups, thereby muddying things up with various competing agenda that don’t put health as the top — and only — priority.
So, having a really good foundation in nutrition is crucially important, not only in a theoretical sense, but also in a practical sense. Being comfortable in the kitchen and putting theory to practice. Being as much a menu maker in the kitchen as you are a formula maker in the apothecary.
It is also very important not to get pigeon-holed by any one particular “diet” when it comes to helping other people (as for your own personal choices, that is your business), whether it’s Paleo or vegan or Mediterranean or heart healthy. There are more than seven billion people on the planet, and every one of them is unique. There are also large categories of people — based on different criteria — that do better with one diet or another when they’re healthy. Then there are other specialty diets that are important and necessary when a person is manifesting certain imbalances and illnesses. No one diet fits everyone. And if you are acting as a health-care practitioner, then the physical and psychological health of your client should be your only concern. Just like we don’t like institutions and lobbying groups pushing their personal or political agenda on us, so too should we be clear and clean and not push our personal and political agenda on others when addressing their health.
How to become an herbalist: Know the plants
Because the field I am talking about is herbalism, I left the plants for last. Most people initially want to learn about herbalism because they love plants.
Of course, it is important to know the plants, in theory and also in the field. Unless you’re the kind of herbalist whose knowledge of plants is limited to chemical constituents, who is more familiar with plants as pills and liquids in bottles, and who, outside of dandelions and roses, may not even know what most medicinal plants look like, I strongly believe that it is deeply important to honor these oldest of medicinal elders — our plant medicines — by knowing them. Come to love them and the habitats they grow in. Be as passionate about their welfare as you are of the people they are helping. Treat them like the wise and unconditionally compassionate beings that they are. And come to know them in many ways, on people’s terms as well as their own terms. Know your plant families and genera; know how the plants live and behave, how they are used not only as medicine but in all areas. This way you will come to see and understand the patterns and common threads that run through the plant species, genera and families, and you can better understand what medicines you may find if you encounter a plant in the mint or rose family.
Furthermore, know your plants from a Doctrine of Signatures point of view. Understand what the plants are telling us through their own language, i.e. what they communicate through aroma, flavor, color, physical characteristics, the habitats in which they thrive and the company they keep. Physical characteristics that you can see, touch and taste. These are very important skills to know, which will also overflow into the kitchen so that you have a better understanding of what medicines are in the foods that you’re making based on their flavors and energetics.
Learning basic pharmacology — families of chemical constituents that plants make and how they affect the the body, such as mucilaginous polysaccharides, alkaloids, and terpenes — is also very important, and will make you that much more savvy in the apothecary and kitchen.
A summary of skills and understandings for becoming an herbalist
- Know more than one healing modality
- Know more than one health skill beyond herbalism
- Have an understanding of nutrition from at least one tradition
- Have an understanding of anatomy and physiology from at least one tradition
- Have an understanding and a deep appreciation and respect for plants
That’s what I think it takes to be a really good, well-rounded, competent herbalist that people are going to trust and come back to for more help.
Interested in becoming an herbalist?
The first online herbal medicine course from Clearpath School of Herbal Medicine — the Foundations of Western Herbalism, Part 1 — begins with a systematic and comprehensive exploration of human beings and health through the lenses of traditional Western/European and First Nations/Native American healing modalities while also interweaving with contemporary scientific and medical understanding.
Learn more about this online herbalist course here. You can watch an introductory video and take a deeper look at the information you will learn from this course.