Herbalism: A Science & An Art
When we think of herbalism, we think plant science and herbal action but there is also an art to this ancient practice!
When working with an herbalist or with herbal medicine, the constitutional energetics of the person and the herb should be considered.
I hear a resounding 'huh?!' whenever I mention something like this. And to be honest without my herbalism knowledge, I too would be baffled!
When it comes to herbalism and its practice, it should NOT be a one size fits all approach. It is not just a case of 'taking a herb for that disease' while ignoring the ancestral and traditional knowledge of matching people to plants in order to get the most and best outcome from the treatment. Every approach certainly has its place but the internal terrain of the person, how the disease/ailment manifested and the herbal energetics should be considered when delving into herbals.
...And this is what makes up the art and science of herbalism - let's explore together what this actually means.
Constitution of a person - an unwritten herbal law (of some sorts)
Technically, it is written but it is not a law, per se!
When it comes to the energetics that make up a person, disease and body type - every traditional system of herbalism has some sort of unique and sophisticated framework to help understand this art.
For Ayurveda, there are the 3 "doshas": pitta, vata and kapha; in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), there are the 5 elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water as well as yin and yang; and in Western herbalism (which pulls on ancient Egyptian, African herbalism and Indigenous knowledge - from the countries in which they colonised), we see what is referred to as the 4 primary qualities: hot, cold, moist, dry.
In every system, every person is a mixture of these constitution types to some varying degree, disease can push someone out of balance and pairing the right herbs to the right person's constitution (and disease) can help to bring one back in balance. One thing is for sure, understanding an individuals unique temperament has been going on for thousands of years - don't we just love ancestral teachings?!
Herbal energetics - not just a hippy dippy expression
Now, although plants are living too, the herbal energetics doesn't refer to the spirit of the plant but rather to its influence on the body. When we look at a plant, we want to understand how it affects the body - the herbal action!
A warming/heating herb doesn't necessarily mean that it is hot in temperature but rather it is a relational quality, such that it can: stimulate metabolism, warm digestion, warm the skin, stimulate circulation, accelerate certain effects, strengthen a metabolic process etc. A cooling herb again doesn't refer to its temperature but rather indicates that it may help slow down metabolism, has a calming effect, relieves excessive digestive fire, cools inflammation etc. A similar understanding can apply for moist and dry herbs too.
Herbs can also be paired with each other to help balance out a formulation so that it is not too warming or too drying etc, or to even accentuate the different qualities of each other, so they work synergistically in the body.
Let's bring it together...
This is both an art and a science because it is fusing the technical, pharmacological actions of a plant with the energetic constitution of a person to create a well-balanced, individualised herbal formula.
For example, if we look at a person who may be suffering from arthritis - the hot kind - where joints are red and inflamed. Taking a herb such as cayenne, which is a very heating herb, may very well have a good effect as it can help dry up excess fluid and increase circulation. However, it could also add too much heat to the already hot joints, aggravating the condition further. Now, using cayenne is still permitted in this case, but it may benefit from being balanced with a cooling herb so as to not overheat and exacerbate the condition.
Taking into account the condition and the internal constitution of how the condition manifested in the individual, offers a WHOListic approach to treating a WHOLE person and not just the symptom and the disease.
Herbs are truly wonderful and they supply an individual with the necessary tools and qualities that one needs to help rebalance and correct dysfunction. And with that, the art and science of herbalism seeks to understand an individual's temperament and the different effects of medicinal plants so that it can be used correctly to bring about health and harmony.
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