How Do I Become An Herbalist?

How Do I Become An Herbalist?

People always ask, “How did you become an herbalist?” some say it as if there’s some be-all-end-all course out there for herbalist practice. There are some good ones, but none are truly complete without the practice of herbalism; you must form a relationship with the plants as you learn. What you’re learning is which ones will work in concert with your body chemistry and which ones won’t, and at the same time you’re learning that biologically even though we’re in the same human tribe, our chemistry is very different from one person to the next. That having been said, once you’re a practicing herbalist, every client is going to be a sort of test to see which herbs work very effectively for them and which ones are kind meh… the not so much end of the spectrum. To say this path takes years before you even feel mildly proficient is an understatement. I have days that questions stump me as if I just started on the path.


Circling back to the beginning here, I began by watching and listening to my grandmother, I remember her saying things like, “See the shape of that leaf, how it’s shaped like a lung? Then it’s good for the lungs, see?” She’d talk about the colors being the color of the blood, of the sun, of the water. She was pointing out which colors were effective for those biological processes in the body, such as sun like herbs, heating the body, infusing the body with minerals usually gifted by the sun, or for the blood in processes like thinning or circulation, watery plants as ways to move water in the body or diuretic. It takes decades of using plants and studying them and their effects to become instantly familiar with their usages in the field, I still find myself asking, “What would Grandma say this herb is good for?” So, for years under the aprons of many women in our family and our community I listened, tasted, smelled, felt textures, and learned how to find the medicine the body needs around us in the environment we live in. This is not to say that herbs from elsewhere won’t work and possibly even more effectively, it is to say that they are linked to you in your environment and readily available.


I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Well what if you don’t have a grandmother who knows the uses of the herbs based on shape, color and texture?” Ask around, most of us are happy to share the knowledge, that’s the thing about being an herbalist, a naturalist, a biologist, most of us are elated to find someone who is remotely interested in what we have to say because the world has sadly become so commercial and is driven by the desire to have immediate results, immediate gratification, when what we’re all on about, is sustainable living, the whole mind, whole body approach that ensures a place for the next generations to follow. Many of us teach or hold groups for herbalists to chat amongst themselves or with new students or take people on field trips to study flora and fauna in the wild, there are groups for this all over the world, check your local listings.


It's a hard but very rewarding road, the result being that you can pretty much take care of yourself if you’re stuck somewhere in the wild and get sick or hurt, even if you’re just hungry! Yes, one of the things you are learning is what is edible, if times get tough it’s another tool in your survival toolkit, heck I’ve even learned how to gather water from trees when there’s no water source nearby! You can also kill yourself if you get over excited and start mixing herbs that shouldn’t be mixed, herbs are first medicine. Some medicines are used to kill things in the body, used incorrectly or in wrong combination with other herbs it can harm you making you even more ill that you were, they may even kill you! I’ve learned the hard way for instance, don’t mix Melatonin and St. John’s Wort, they don’t play well with one another, and the result was nervous system issues! I’ve been sick longer than I needed to because I didn’t take the Goldenseal long enough to treat the infection and I didn’t bother to treat the other symptoms! You must think long and hard about your formulary when you’re crafting a group of herbs to treat an illness. What is your main component, what is your catalyst herb, what are your supportive components? Then you must think about weights and measures for dosing and how long it takes to rid the body of infection, as well as how to support the body so that it repairs after the illness. What would that treatment plan look like? It would include nutrition as well! You must rebuild from an illness, the immune system, the gut biome, the muscles and tissues, the fatigue, it requires an all-encompassing treatment plan, because no one wants to be on medicine long term when there’s a way to get back to good health if we nourish and rebuild properly.


I have a system and it’s mostly a simple approach to crafting herbal tonics, tinctures, oils, and salves. I use a formulaic approach that is based on ratios/parts.  Part one, the largest part will be the action herb, this is the herb that will be the most prevalent in the mixture, this is the herb that treats the root of the issue I’m facing. The other herbal parts will be supports herbs like the demulcent herbs to help remove mucous, antispasmodic herbs to stop muscle spasms or spasms in an organ, anti-inflammatory herbs to reduce swelling, those parts will be a good 20 to 40 percent of the mixture and then I’ll choose what’s known as a ‘catalyst’ herb, this one will be 5 to 10 percent of the mixture and it is going to be an herb that helps with blood flow, raises the metabolism and helps the body absorb the medicine more fully.


When you’re thinking in terms of catalysts the first thing that comes to mind is Cayenne; hot, spicy, it raises heat so that it induces sweating and amps up the metabolism, if the person is already hot and sweaty, then I might go with another catalyst herb that is cooling but still boosts the metabolic rate and opens the blood vessels, so I’d likely reach for a mint. I’d also likely reach for a mint for flavor if I had a person who wasn’t amenable to drinking earthy or bitter teas, the mint is going to add flavor and help the mixture be more palatable, however if you really need to use the cayenne to race that mixture through the system, then you can always add flavoring herbs to the mixture, just take care that their actions are complementary rather than counteracting. For instance, if a person is having issues with low blood pressure and fainting, you wouldn’t want to use a blood pressure lowering flower for flavor like Hibiscus, which is often used by the Chinese to lower blood pressure and known colloquially as Bitter Tea.  If a person is dry and hot to the touch, would you want a demulcent or diuretic herb? Trick question, you wouldn’t choose those either. So, when looking for supports herbs to add to a mixture, we must also consider the actions and counteractions of the supports. Let’s not make our learning punitive by adding in a dash of precautionary research. It only takes a few minutes to type into google and research reactions between herbs and pharmaceuticals, make it your best friend when creating teas, tonics, and tinctures. I often type the following: “Herbal interactions with (insert medication here).” Or known interactions with, “Herb and Herb.” 5 minutes can save you hours and days of pain and sickness, not to mention your life.



Always question interactions if you’re using pharmaceuticals with herbs because the end results can be disastrous, interactions and overdosing happen. Herbs are FIRST medicine, they are where once not so long ago, every pharmaceutical got its start, some biological component/action of a plant was chosen, isolated and then synthesized into a drug. In a lab somewhere was a thought; this little chemical here in this wee herb has an action that we can isolate, extract and then synthesize to treat xyz, then it is extracted and enhanced for that one, simple effect, all the supports in that herb that surrounded that little chemical structure are removed, so it is no longer that little herb, it is something different altogether, not something sinister, but something the body doesn’t recognize as natural. Now we have the worry of synthetic chemistry as a method of discovery for new medications…


I find myself wondering if that is the issue with pharmaceuticals altogether, is that why we find ourselves having to take other medications to balance out the damage done by xyz synthesized medicines? Does the body see them as alien invaders and react by sending signals to the surrounding cells and tissues to attack because it senses an invasion in progress, because the synthesized medications have been rendered unrecognizable, since they are no longer natural? Yes, pharmaceuticals are often much stronger at first and therefore seemingly more efficacious, but stronger is not always the best approach. To defeat an enemy one must often destroy an enemy, but there must be a better approach to healing if we are to fit it into our Hippocratic ideal of “First do no harm.” There must be a better, more natural approach and I believe that approach is one of whole mind, body, and spirit, I’m seeing that trend in modern medicine and I for one am elated that this approach is finally finding the light again.

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