What is Herbalism

Plants and herbs are an easily accessible type of medicine used to promote health, as well as prevent and treat illness...


Introducing Herbalism
by Michele Collins, RH, EWCH, MPH

Mimosa Flower 

What is herbalism?

Plants, be they the whole plant, the bark, the root, the flower or leaf, or even an extract of a plant constituent, are a type of medicine that is used to promote health, as well as prevent and treat illness. Part of the beauty and magic of plants is that they are easily accessible and have been used by people from around the world as an important healing modality. Much of the world’s population still relies today on the use of plants as medicine.


To answer the question “what is herbalism”, you should know that Herbal medicine is, in and of itself, a way to stimulate and restore the body’s natural healing capacity through the use of plants. Although acute symptoms can be resolved quickly and effectively using herbs, the typical goal is not to alleviate a specific symptom, but to stimulate the body’s natural healing capacity to address the root or underlying cause of the health issue. Herbs are used to restore and maintain three important bodily functions: digestion and assimilation, sleep, and elimination. When the body is performing these three functions with ease, it is better able to prevent disease and illness and to repair and heal any damage that has already occurred.


Herbal Tradition for Applying Herbal Medicine
Ideally, herbalists are trained not only in the unique characteristics and uses of individual herbs, but also in a holistic system or framework for understanding how physical and emotional issues affect overall well-being and disrupt balance in the body and spirit (i.e. Western herbal traditions, folk traditions, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Native American traditions, etc.). It is this framework that guides an herbalist’s selection of which herbs to use and how to formulate them, as well as provides guidance on why or why not the herbs are working, and how to make the proper adjustments to fine tune the herbal formulation.


The principles above generally define herbology as it has been passed down traditionally from one generation to the next, through a wide range of different cultures.


There is a wide range of traditions in which herbalists are trained, which is why a precise herbology definition can often be contested. The subject includes everything from a Western biomedical model to traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Herbal medicine is a very important component of traditional healing systems, like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, and each has a lot of unique wisdom about plants and their uses. These systems emphasize preventive health, as well as the imagery of nature to understand not only what is happening within the body but how to heal it. These systems offer a framework individuals can use to better understand the things that can disturb their physical, emotional, and spiritual balance, as well as different strategies (like meditation, exercise, and food) for nurturing and maintaining health.


Another distinctive facet of many of these traditional herbal healing systems is the understanding of the energetic healing quality of the herb or food. Every herb has a distinctive flavor, such as sweet, salty, or bitter, with corresponding healing property, as well as effect on the body, such as a cooling, warming, drying or dampening effect. The energetic quality and flavor of an herb are two of the many different qualities of an herb that are considered when determining which herbs to use for which conditions. These systems typically apply herbs to counterbalance a condition in the body. An over simplified example is in a case of excess heat in the body (such as a high fever, rapid pulse, and red/flushed face) one would use herbs with cooling properties, such as marshmallow root (as opposed to herbs with warming or stimulating properties like cinnamon bark or dried ginger).


Uses of Herbs



To help you better understand the herbology definition and the effect herbology can have on your health, here are some instances of herbal medicine’s uses:


Herbs are a unique preventive medicine in that they are used by people everyday when they spice and season their food. Culinary herbs (like ginger, basil, thyme, oregano) aid digestion and assimilation and tend to help your body navigate seasonal changes. Think of pumpkin pie that is eaten at Thanksgiving, with ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon all warming and stimulating spices that help aid digestion and assimilation and are especially beneficial in the colder months approaching winter. Medicinally herbs can be used very creatively, as teas, alcohol extracts, syrups, topical liniments, or as food (i.e. stir frying shitake mushrooms or adding in astragalus root to a stew or soup) depending on the herb and how it is best extracted, the health condition, and the constitution of the individual.



Herbs are effective for not only prevention, but for acute health issues, as well as chronic health problems. For acute and minor health issues, like colds, flu, allergies, sinus issues, and physical injury, herbs and herbal formulas can be used both externally and internally in these situations both to resolve the underlying cause and to speed recovery. Herbs are also very effective for chronic diseases and health issues such as chronic fatigue, PMS and concerns associated with menopause, insomnia, headaches, allergies, anemia, and arthritis to mention a few. Because of the holistic context for practicing herbal medicine, herbs often simultaneously and effectively help seemingly unconnected symptoms or issues. Once chronic illnesses or life stresses have (or are in the process) of depleting the body, herbs offer an extremely effective and gentle way of building and maintaining energy, strength, and stamina.


To further define herbology, it is worth mentioning how herbalists, through their work with plants, take on many different roles: from wildcrafter to gardener or farmer, medicine maker, lay herbalist, and even clinical herbalist. The common thread connecting herbalists is their commitment to, respect for, and deep love of medicinal plants. There are many people who use their knowledge and skills with herbs to help themselves, family, and friends. While others use their skills in a clinical setting to help the wider public navigate the language of the plant world. So, what is herbology? It can be considered a very diverse and comprehensive discipline that centers on plants and their varied and numerous health benefits. 


The American Herbalists Guild (AHG) is a nonprofit organization formed in 1989 to represent the voices of practitioners who use herbs medicinally. The AHG is the only organization in the United States to offer a formal peer review process to assess the skill level of clinical herbalists. Those herbalists accepted are awarded the title of registered herbalist (RH). 



 About the Author


Michele Collins, RH (AHG), EWCH, MPH, is a clinical herbalist with a private practice in Winston Salem, North Carolina.  She is a practitioner of Chinese Medicine and uses Chinese, Ayurvedic, and western herbs and formulas in her practice.  For home information, see her website at  www.michelecollinsherbalist.com







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