Unlike many countries of the world where herbs are used as a primary
method of health care, in the United States, we do not have a detailed traditional
system of herbalism to guide us. Most western herb books written in the
last 100 years do not even mention such important aspects about the use
of herbs as herbal energetics, constitutional indications, pulse and tongue
diagnosis and the qualities of herbs.
For the most part, herbal users and practitioners of western herbalism have
been content to ask questions like: “what is this herb good for?”
“How do I prepare it?” “How long do I take it?” “And
Will it work with other herbs or medicines?” But this is rapidly changing.
I recently did a 2-week speaking tour of the South, including Florida, Georgia
and Tennessee, and these were the questions I heard over and over again.
On this delightful tour, I found many people, having been using herbs for
themselves and for their family and friends for several years, now wanted
a more systematic understanding. They were interested in a more coherent
system to guide them, from which they could answer questions like those
above for themselves, based on varying circumstances.
I often answer questions similar to the ones above, but the problem is that
the best answer is often, “it depends.” Thus, today in my classes,
I like to share some theory and begin a dialogue about a coherent system
of herbalism that can be applied in many daily situations.
This article, then, is a beginning of this discussion, and it should help
stimulate an understanding of how best to take certain herbs, and under
what conditions, taking into account a wide variety of life situations and
This simplified system of Western herbalism is one I call Traditional European
Medicine or TEM. This idea came from the current English name for the ancient
system herbalism in China, Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM–a system
that is currently receiving world-wide attention and many new practitioners
and advocates daily. The reason for this respect and interest is the eloquence
and coherence of the artistic and scientific knowledge that has developed
over a period of 3,000 years or more.
Although on the surface, it would appear that TEM has failed to live up
to its potential, at least as a continuous model of traditional healing,
it is my contention that this is not necessarily so. Over the years, I have
heard much criticism from acupuncturists and other proponents of TCM, saying,
in effect, that western herbalism is based on very simplistic methods of
what each herb is good for–and when this is determined, that herb is recommended
for all people and all situations.
It is true that western herbalism (TEM) at present does not show the sophistication
in many areas as TCM, but there is a very solid foundation and system waiting
to be built upon, as well as a wealth of very detailed laboratory and clinical
work performed in order to understand herbal energetics of another sort–the
chemical constituents and specific actions of the herbs.
In TCM, there is a concept that is sometimes stumbled across in writings,
not a well-known concept, but nevertheless, a valid one for our purposes.
This concept involves looking at the activity of herbs by placing them in
different classes, depending on their strength and primary abilities.
There are 4 major classes of medicinal substances or adjuvant therapies
(such as hydrotherapy and exercise). These include the tonics, the specifics,
the toxics (heroics or forcing herbs) and the cleansers or protectors.
In reality, these 3 categories of herbal actions work in similar ways, but
with a major difference.
By stimulating a process of the body, energy input is provided into the
system so that low tone, weakness, and stagnancy can be removed. The process
of weight-lifting is a good simile–one stimulates blood flow and metabolic
processes by placing them under stress. If done properly (not too fast for
the system), then increased health and functionality of the tissues can
Tonics are very gentle and slow stimulants, and they provide nutrients
that the body can use, such as vitamins, minerals, and many other constituents
llike plant pigments, such as anthocyanins or flavonoids. Large quantities
can be given without harm or overstressing cells, tissues, organs or body
Most importantly, the therapeutic and toxic doses are very far apart–giving
a large margin of safety. For this reason, these herbs are called “superior”
herbs in TCM.
The tonics are remedies that are well-tolerated, do not force the body to
change and have a slow, nourishing and normalizing effect on body systems,
imparting strength and tone. In TEM, these medicines were called “alteratives,”
“roborants” or even “tonics.” The most famous example
in this category is ginseng.
These herbs are moderately active stimulants that must be given in lesser
amounts and for shorter periods before over-stimulation and unwanted side-effects
occur. The therapeutic and toxic doses are closer together than in the tonics,
but there is still a good margin of safety in most cases.
Specifics are remedies that gently move or “adjust” a process
in the body, whether it be hormonal, nervous or in immune function–they
are catalysts or assisting remedies. These generally work by stimulating
a process–one of the best examples here is echinacea, which stimulates
immune cell function and thus confers heightened resistance to pathogenic
influences (infections). The specific remedies are generally used only as
needed, usually for up to 2 or 3 weeks at most. Other common examples of
specific herbs are golden seal, osha, or pau d’arco.
3. Heroics (or “Forcing Herbs”)
These are strong and highly irritating, causing dramatic changes to occur.
They must be used very carefully, because there is not much difference between
a toxic and therapeutic dose.
These herbs are “heroic” remedies that when properly used, are
taken for a very short time to “blast” through congestion or refusal
of the body and its processes to change (stuckness). Examples are digitalis
(foxglove), belladonna (nightshade) and rauvolfia.
4. Protectors and cleansers. These are herbs that remove wastes and pollutants
from the body, without materially (or only minimally) affecting the actual
processes of the body. Examples are ionic substances such as pectin and
soluble and insoluble fibers. Perhaps plant pigments, such as “bio-flavonoids”
that simply accumulate in the tissues near the skin and can help reduce
damage from such agents as ultra-violet light from the sun can be included
in this category.
How much of an herb or herb formula is given is almost as important as its
intrinsic nature. In practice, one will often find that a small amount of
a specific herb or herb combination is tonic, more of it will be
specific, and even more will be toxic. By definition, even large amounts
of a tonic herb or herb formula should not become specific, but eventually
could become so after protracted use.
Systems can be interesting mental exercises, but unless they have a practical
application in day to day situations with real people, they remain just
that–only a mental exercise.
Thus, we must be able to apply the above simple system of classifying herbs
in healing situations.
Probably one of the best examples comes from a class of herbs that are gaining
increased attention today–herbs to strengthen our immune system. Immune
imbalances are increasingly evident among old and young people alike. Because
medical science has largely been at a loss to come up with safe, cost-effective
treatments for ailments such as cancer, AIDS, chronic fatigue syndrome and
candidiasis (yeast infection), many effective natural remedies, are gaining
increasing acceptance among both traditional health practitioners (such
as herbalists and body workers) and the more modern medical establishment.
Immune Herbs–Surface and Deep-acting Herbs
In treating immune-based disorders, we must establish two separate levels
of imbalance–what I call “surface immune” ailments and “deep
Think of our surface immune system as the protecting cells and chemicals
that fight off the “pathogens” (potentially harmful organisms)
and keep them from starting an infection. This includes infections such
as staph infections under the nails, an infected or abcessed tooth, an upper
respiratory tract infection such as a cold, or a chronic, insidious viral
infection with diverse symptoms, such as chronic fatigue syndrome or possible
This is our first line of defense, and it is the job of our macrophages
and other immune fighters which are especially numerous in the mucous membranes,
to engulf and clear these viruses before they can gain a foothold and create
an infection. In TCM this kind of an infection might be called a “surface
ailment,” because the infection is not deeply seated–an infection
of this type may not be indicative of a deeper weakness, whether it be genetic
or one that is created by harmful living habits.
There are many herbs that work to raise the vitality and strength of our
“protective shield” or surface immune system. According to modern
research, they work by stimulating the activity of such immune cells as
the macrophages. These herbs I call “surface immune herbs,” and
they are best taken for short periods of time, such as 10 days on and 3
days off, for up to 3 cycles. In fact, one of the best-known herbs in this
class, echinacea, has interesting clinical work with human volunteers, showing
that the stimulating effect on the immune system’s macrophages lessens after
10 days of taking a full dose, for instance, 1 dropperful of the liquid
3 to 5 times daily.
To summarize, this category of herbs is called specifics, because they are
taken for a specific purpose, to change or regulate a process of the body,
and after that adjustment is made, they are either discontinued or the doseis cut down to a small amount.
What surface immune herbs do, then, is call forth the body’s immune reserves
to the surface, where they can protect us against attack from pathogens,
or help us to get rid of an existing infection.
Now suppose we have a chronic infection, like candida yeast infection. This
condition can be created over time by constant environmental immune stresses
like pesticides and herbicides. It can also be promoted by poor living habits,
such as eating mainly processed foods and overworking. When we take echinacea,
or another “specific” immune herb, we call immune cells that are
created in the bone marrow (where all immune cells first arise) up to the
surface. If we keep calling them up, and yet do not provide them with an
environment from which to flourish and be nurtured, then it is obvious that
we will shortly run out of reserves. When this happens, our immune system
is on the verge of a deeper, more profound weakness or “deficiency.”
This can eventually lead to immune collapse and inevitably, immune ailments
such as chronic fatigue syndrome, which is thought to be a result of viral
infection, candidiasis or even cancer.
According to studies performed in China, Japan and even in this country
at the University of Texas Medical School, there are certain traditional
herbs that can have a very strengthening effect on our “deep immune
system,” by nourishing our very bone-marrow, enabling it to produce
more immune reserves. As I have mentioned, I call these herbs “deep
immune herbs.” The main herbs that fall into this category are,
Because this herbal model is most developed in TCM, all of these herbs are
Chinese herbs, but they are widely available in natural food stores and
herb stores throughout the country–both in bulk form (for making tea) and
in many patent products. These herbs should be taken for long periods, because,
like all tonic herbs, they are more like foods for our immune system. I
have seen people take these herbs effectively for up to several years, where
there is an extreme immune weakness–and I have seen excellent results with
Remember that the bulk herbs can be purchased and made into a tea (1 part
of an equal mixture of the herbs to 10 parts of water, simmered for 45 minutes)
and 1 cup 2 or three times daily. They can also be made into a vegetable
soup by adding your favorite vegetables and 1/4 cup of barley or aduki beans
to the herb base.
To sum up this category, remember that surface herbs are used for light
or acute infections, taken for short periods of time, where no deeply-seated
immune weakness is present. The deep immune herbs are taken for several
weeks up to several years for deeper, more persistent immune deficiency.
Now, what about the last two categories? The “heroic” or forcing
herbs are not as often used in this country among holistic health practitioners.
As an example, in Europe highly diluted snake and spider venom is often
given to patients with immune weakness, to “shock” the immune
system into action. Another herb, rarely used in this country is poke (Phytolacca
americana, which has a profoundly stimulating effect on immune cells,
but also has a toxic potential. These remedies are best administered by
a doctor or health care provider that really knows about these herbs, and
their potential side-effects. They are not generally recommended for self-treatment,
unlike the first two categories. By the way, many of the modern purified
drugs that are prescribed today fall into this last category–and thus,
at least in holistic thinking, should not be used except under extreme conditions,
and then for only as long as absolutely necessary.
The last category, the cleansers and protectors are used by many kinds of
health practitioners for “purifying” the blood and tissues of
the body, helping them to work more efficiently. Examples of this category
include apple or citrus pectin, which is used in Russia to help remove heavy
metals, environmental toxins and radiation from the body, and herbs like
burdock, a desmutagen and liver cleanser which I wrote about in a previous
issue of Let’s Live.
I hope this explanation of a developing system of Traditional European Medicine
or traditional western herbalism will help clarify some of the important
questions that come to mind when considering the what, when and how of herbalism.