Problem-solving 101 for the aspiring herb enthusiast

Why are herbalists so annoying? Why do we insist on knowing the underlying causes of your issue before we recommend a solution? Why do so many of us rail against the dreaded list of “X is good for Y”? It is a matter of using our problem solving ability. When one is solving a math problem it helps–a lot–to know the variables, right? When making life decisions one is well served by listing pros and cons, right? Well it is so in the world of herbalism too. 

Because herbalism at its best is ` the solving of a puzzle, it’s like a treasure hunt, every time it’s a little quest. Herbalists can act like bridges between the world of plants and the world of people–and sometimes other animals–we are journalists, we are detectives, we are anthropologists. We are like scuba divers inspecting shipwrecks, always asking hey, what is under the surface here? We are kicking the tires of that used car you are selling, people, turning over your rocks to see what lurks beneath. 

And a good herbalist is a co-creator. We are co-creating a solution with you, the “client” and with the plant world too. It is mostly observation and critical thinking plus a little duct tape and a tiny dose of natural magic. 

In the spirit of this herbal journalism we ask who, what, when, where and why? We look at your skin, we look at how you sit and stand, we ask what you ate for breakfast not to drive you nuts but to build a picture of your overall health situation. We need to know if we need to refer you to other care providers. We need to check out your bad attitude. We might even want to know if you’re pooping OK! 

So why is it so important to ask WHY? Let me give you an example. Mr. R asks “What’s good for foot pain?” Do you answer “comfrey salve”? Do you answer “homeopathic Ghost pipe”? Or, let’s say you ask what is the cause. Maybe there is a thorn in your shoe! Maybe your shoe doesn’t fit? Maybe it is caused by diabetes! I suggest we rule out such things first. Then, we must know-is it chronic or acute. Absolutely basic information. Coughs, nausea, back pain, it is vital to know if your issue has been going on for years or if it came up yesterday. Can we treat an underlying cause? It is the definition of insane to give herbs for a pain caused by an external factor which can be addressed, thus eliminating the problem. 

Is the problem associated with an illness, an injury, a change in lifestyle? For example, I would treat the nausea of pregnancy differently than the nausea of  post-Thanksgiving-dinner. And quite key to us is “What else are you taking?” Are you using other herbal or pharmaceutical products? Are you using vitamins? Are you using drugs of any type? It’s not about judging, friends. But if you are using a daily painkiller we will take that into account.

Sometimes a problem can be addressed by looking at hydration, or a lack of good oils in the diet, or observing poor movement patterns. Think about it: would you prefer someone sell you a product for your knee pain or point out your poor squat mechanics? Would you prefer someone sell you some “fat-melting ass oil” or help you find the right exercise program for your life stage? Would you prefer someone sell you herbs for your chronic gas or help you discover a long-standing milk allergy? We can work like a team, or we can work like evil capitalist pigdogs.

We also may wish to know your energetic patterns. Do you run hot or cold? Systems approach, baby! If you are prone to hot shooting pains in the stomach we will avoid crazy-heating tinctures, you know? Concepts like stagnation, excitation and tonic underly our decision making.

To be clear, I believe in herbs. I love herbs, and I don’t think it is always an either-or situation. We can use herbal medicines AND exercise AND hydration AND footbaths AND practical footwear. But I don’t want to throw herbs at a vitamin D deficiency. I don’t want to give insomnia herbs when a heavy curtain could do the job. I envision limitless capacity for preventive care, self-care and community-based care and  an educated population who can take care of most non-emergency healthcare issues at home.I envision YOU skeptically asking ME why too! And I envision good questions and the good answers that can come from that. Dialogue can be a beautiful thing, and nothing brings about great dialogue like an “annoying” herbalist asking the hard questions, pushing your buttons and, like a big chunk of sticky pine resin, drawing out the narrative of your health and turning it into something which works, which meets your needs both short and long term, both above and below, and for both people and plants.


8 thoughts on “Problem-solving 101 for the aspiring herb enthusiast

  1. Thanks so much for your funny and informational article! As an herbalist, I see a lot of clients and you are so right on! Elaine Sheff,

  2. Fabulous! I’m sharing your article with everyone I know. I might even make it required reading pre-consultation.

  3. I’m with Jim, love “fat-melting ass oil”. Is there a “regular” ass-oil too?

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