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Think Strategies, Not Remedies

My first herb book was Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss. I tried many of the remedies he suggested and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. I was a bit confused, primarily because he suggested remedies, but gave me no real understanding of why you used them. The root of my problem was this—if you don’t know what the herb is supposed to be doing, that is, what changes its supposed to be making in the body, how do you tell if its working?

I remember thinking that the answer to my confusion might lie in understanding the meaning of these strange words he listed under the heading properties—words like antispasmodic, carminative, astringent and alterative. I figured that herbs must have some kind of action in the body that I could understand, which would help me figure out why I was using a particular herb for a particular problem.

It turned out I was right. Later, I started to understand herbs from a completely different perspective than the “take this herb for this problem” approach. I started to think in terms of strategies, rather than remedies.

What Strategy Do You Use with a Cough?

Let’s take the example of a cough—a rather common problem. Because I was raised to think along the lines of allopathic symptomatic relief, I considered the cough to be the problem.  Therefore, I expected a remedy for coughs to make the cough stop.

This, however, is not what real healing is all about. A cough is a mechanism the body uses to expel irritants from the lungs. When irritants are present, it triggers an immune reaction that causes excessive mucus production to flush the irritants away. If this mucus isn’t moved efficiently, it gets stuck, which triggers a reflex called a cough, which seeks to loosen the mucus and expel it (along with the irritants it is flushing away).

This understanding triggered a change in perception for me. I stop seeing the cough as the enemy and realized that the cough was actually a good thing. A cough is a sign that your body is trying to do exactly what it’s supposed to do—flush away irritants. So, the cough is not the enemy, the “enemy” (if you want to use that kind of combative language) is the irritants which the cough is working to expel.

This completely changes the way you approach the cough and that’s where strategy comes into play.  The allopathic strategy is to directly counteract a symptom, such as suppressing the cough, bringing down the fever, killing the bacteria, lowering the blood pressure or reducing the level of cholesterol in the blood. When you have this direct symptomatic approach, it’s easy to tell that the remedy is working because you get an immediate and direct change in the symptoms.

Don't Use Allopathic Strategies with Herbs

The problem is, this isn’t necessarily making the body healthier. In fact, its often having exactly the opposite long term effect because it’s interfering with what the body is trying to do to get healthy.  If you approach herbal medicine from an allopathic perspective, you’ll be very disappointed in the results because herbs aren’t very good at suppressing symptoms.  It’s not that herbs can’t be used that way, it’s just that allopathic drugs are better at achieving that goal.

However, if our goal is to restore the body to a healthy state, we must adopt a different strategy. We develop that strategy when we start to ask, “why?”  Why is the body coughing, sneezing, running a fever, raising blood pressure or elevating cholesterol? What we’re looking for is the cause.  We don’t want to treat the effect, we want to eliminate the cause.  Seeking to directly suppress a symptom or force a change in the body without understanding what’s causing it should be left to the realm of medicine.  The person seeking holistic healing shouldn’t start by thinking about remedies, they should start by asking why?

Coming back to the example of the cough, we need to take a look at what’s happening with the cough. If the cough is productive, meaning that mucus is being coughed out of the lungs, then the body is doing exactly what its supposed to do. What we can do to help it is to make sure the person is well hydrated (mucus is mostly water) and that they avoid causing further irritation to the body by eating very simple foods (like fresh juices or broth). 

One can also use herbal remedies that have expectorant and decongestant activity to loosen the mucus and help the body expel it.  This won’t suppress the cough at all. In fact, the person might cough more, temporarily, but you’re working with, not against, what the body is trying to do.  In my experience, this causes the person to get better faster!

If the cough is unproductive (dry, hacking), then the person may be dehydrated. Again, liquids are helpful, but this time herbal remedies that moisten lung tissue would be indicated.  You can tell the remedy is working because the person’s cough would move from unproductive to productive.

Strategies Make All the Difference

Understanding and applying effective strategies is what differentiates a professional herbalist from an amateur herbalist.  Professional herbalists typically understand herbal energetics and hence, think more in terms of what actions they want and less in terms of specific remedies.  This means that they can easily substitute one remedy for another, depending on what’s available, what the client can afford and so forth. When I started thinking about strategies, rather than remedies, was when I started to get more consistent results with herbs and natural healing.

Another wonderful thing about understanding herbal actions and strategies is that you don’t worry so much about dosages.  You take some of the herb and see what happens.  If you’re getting the effect you want, but not enough of it, you simply increase the dose until you get the desired result.  If the client is getting too much of that effect you reduce the dose. So, it becomes less about some arbitrary “dose” and more about taking the right amount to get the effect you are looking for.

The articles on this website are designed to provide strategies and suggest remedies within the framework of those strategies.  The same is true of our new Modern Herbal Medicine book.  It’s not designed to point you directly to specific remedies, but rather to specific strategies.  Then, we suggest possible remedies with the context of those strategies. In fact, that’s one of the things that makes this unique from so many other herb books out there, we try wherever possible to talk about causes of the problem and strategies for overcoming those causes.  We don’t just give you a list of remedies.