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Choosing an Herbalist

Q. I am a 55-year-old woman with normal aging concerns and feel that it would be beneficial to use herbs instead of pharmaceuticals for my few muscular aches and pains, occasional hotflash, low energy and inability to sleep through the night, and gradual weight gain. I read what I can about herbs but feel uncertain about what would be best when I go to the store and am overwhelmed by too much information. I already have a shelf full of herbs and supplements but have forgotten why I bought them in the first place.

A. It is very reasonable for you to consider going to an herbalist because your health concerns fit nicely with the botanical therapies that herbs can offer. You are not alone in your desire to integrate the healing benefits of herbs into your life, nor are you the only one who has tried your darndest to do this for yourself only to be left confused and, as you say, overwhelmed. When you are sick, you think of going to the doctor. When you need or want herbs, consider going to an herbalist. An herbalist is a person knowledgeable in the therapeutic uses of plants. The category includes elders, traditional indigenous healers, naturopaths, curanderas, midwives, or trained clinical herbalists, such as myself. Since all such teaching and information must be learned or handed down, it is important to know what sort of education, background and qualifications in botanical medicine the practitioner has to make sure it suits your needs.

The more complicated the case, the greater the expertise required. Many people could name a few herbs to ease certain conditions. A practitioner offers the opportunity to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms, with a comprehensive approach.

The three main types of herbalism are traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic, from India and Nepal, and western. I chose to be trained as a western herbalist because having been raised in this culture, I was most comfortable with its methods of assessment and also the plants I use, many of which can be found in our own mountain zone. The other two types are very effective and ancient. They use diagnostic techniques such as tongue and pulse analysis to determine the needs of the client. The way the herbs are processed for use in the eastern traditions is fascinating and can be complicated as some need to be cured, soaked in honey, etc.

Some indigenous healers may use only three to 10 herbs for all their healing work. They have such an intimate understanding of the plants and their multiple uses that these few are sufficient. Some herbalists never see live plants and order their herbs already prepared for consumption in capsules, extracts, etc. Others gather or wildcraft the useful herbs in their bioregion to use along with the standard herbs of commerce, as I do.

Once you decide to visit, your herbalist will schedule a consultation. I tell clients to allow 90 minutes for the initial consultation in which we discuss all aspects of health, history, diet, lifestyle and issues pertaining to your concerns. This is probably the most time you will spend at one time with the practitioner; followup check-ins require less time. Once the interview and assessment is complete, the herbalist requires some time to make teas.

"An herbalist cannot diagnose, treat or cure illness." Because herbalists are not doctors, this is the disclaimer that I must make clear to all my clients. So if herbs and herbalists are not government regulated, how does one choose a qualified practitioner? To answer that question for myself, I turned to the American Herbalists Guild which grants professional membership to those who meet their standards. Professional members undergo a rigorous admissions review process to assure they have attained a high level of competency, education and experience. A person can apply for professional membership only after being in practice for at least five years. Members use the designation which stands for "Registered Herbalist, American Herbalists Guild."

For more information, visit the AHG website:

Merry Harrison is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wildcrafter.
For class schedule and to ask questions:

Reprinted with permission: Catalyst Magazine

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*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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