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The Language of Herbalism

I was reminded recently that all language is metaphor. We are all just stumbling through this life trying to convey the complexity of the pictures in our minds with vocal expressions. Herbalist are no exception, we use words to convey ideas about the body and the way it communicates with itself and with its surrounding environment. Often times though, especially in herbalism, words don’t adequately convey what we intend.

Herbalists tend to use the language of herbalism that developed in their particular style of herbalism. So when a TCM practitioner says you have weak kidney chi, they might not be talking about the actual kidneys because a mechanistic view of the kidney wasn’t available nor understood in China thousands of years ago when TCM developed. In the same manner a Traditional Western Herbalist might say you have a thyroid issue, when in reality they are talking about what might be better described as an adrenal cortex or HPA/HTA axis issue. The ability to look at the body in smaller and smaller pieces with CT scans, MRI’s, blood work and all the rest of the marvelous inventions of modern medicine has resulted in a language gap. Modern medicine has taken terminology that doctors and herbalists used 200 years ago and given it a much more precise meaning. For instance 200 years ago the term diuretic was used to describe anything with an action on the kidneys whether it increased urine output or not. Now the term diuretic is reserved almost exclusively to substances that increase urine output. This language gap has resulted in many a weird look from medical professionals when talking to Herbalist.

I think Herbalists have two choices, they can continue to use more broad terminology, and understand/accept that their explanations of issues and processes isn’t in the strictest sense accurate, or they can adopt some of the current meanings of terms. Both options have their problems. If we continue to use outdated terms and concepts, it doesn’t mean our treatment efficacy is any less, but our ability to communicate and be taken seriously with medical professionals and some clients will be less. However if we choose to adopt the more narrow interpretation of terms, we better use them correctly, which for most Herbalists means studying up on physiology and pathology. By using the modern understanding of some terms we risk both developing a more mechanistic instead of holistic view and we risk losing some of our herbal heritage.

I think it's possible to integrate science with tradition, in fact I've based my whole practice around doing just that. To do so requires work and the choice will be up to the practitioner.

In upcoming musings I might try to tackle some of the big miscommunications in herbalism but I'll start slow and introduce some of the basic language concepts next week.