Herbology and Your Health: Well-Being From the Ground Up

Herbology and Your Health: Well-Being From the Ground Up

We often think of herbs as items that we sprinkle on our food to add depth of flavor, plant in our kitchen gardens, or even the stuff of famous folk songs – parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. However, herbs are part of an ancient tradition of powerful healing tools that spans centuries, religions, and geography. Known as “herbology,” the therapeutic use of plants, herbs, and botany can aid in treating and preventing illness, promote healthy lifestyles, and even help with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

The dictionary definition of herbology is “the art or practice of using herbs and herbal preparations to maintain health and alleviate or cure disease.” Unlike pharmaceuticals which are highly refined and simple one-chemical compounds, herbal medicines consist of living or dried plants and contain hundreds to thousands of interrelated compounds.

As opposed to traditional medicine, which looks to treat a specific illness or ailment, herbology’s goal is to support the individual’s intrinsic health and is also a part of a holistic approach to mind, body, and spirit. Herbology has been part of humanity’s quest for optimum health, from Ayurvedic to Chinese, to Native American, and even modern approaches to medicine.

History of Herbology

To understand herbology, it’s important to take a look at the ancient history surrounding how humans have used the natural world to heal. Human beings began as hunters and gatherers with a diet rich in foraged greens. Historians suggest that paleolithic humans mostly consumed native plants, as evidenced by early written records such as those scribed by the Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago. Also, in approximately 1500 BCE, ancient Egyptians wrote the “Ebers Papyrus,” a scroll considered to be one of their most important medical documents, and one that lists over 850 herbal medicines, many of which are in use today. 

While herbal medical practices are present in most ancient traditions, there are four that stand out as far as their history, as well as their modern applications.  

Ayurvedic Herbology: Ancient and Intact

Considered to be the oldest and most intact approach to herbal medicine in the world, Ayurvedic herbology dates back to the writings of the Rig Veda. Emanating from India, this ancient system, a segment of traditional Ayurvedic medicine, is looked at as the seminal influence on many other ancient systems of medicine including Chinese, Tibetan, Greek, and Egyptian. Called the “mother of all healing systems,” Ayurvedic herbology can be used as a way to understand the healing properties of all herbs, regardless of geographic origin. Ayurvedic herbology is focused on the science of longevity, as it is part of an overall approach to living a long and healthy life. 

With India being one of the largest producers of medicinal plants, herbs, and spices, the most commonly used Ayurvedic herbs and plants include: Shatavari, gulgul, garcinia, licorice, gurmarar, neen, karela, horseradish, musk root, pippali, black pepper, ashwagandha, ginger, and turmeric, all of which are also incorporated into Indian food, which is considered medicinal. 

Ancient Egyptian Healing

As mentioned above, the ancient Egyptians also believed in and practiced the art of herbology. In addition to the Ebers Papyrus, other ancient Egyptian texts include the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which focuses on surgical trauma, as well as the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, dealing with women’s fertility, birth, pregnancy, and contraception. Ancient Egyptian doctors were not only adept at diagnosis, treatment, and surgical procedures, but they were also highly adept at herbal remedies. 

Among the most commonly prescribed plants by ancient Egyptian herbalists include: cannabis, myrrh, frankincense, fennel, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, castor oil, aloe, and perhaps most prominently, garlic. Cloves of garlic have been discovered in Egyptian burial sites such as the tomb of Tutankhamun, and beyond the medicinal applications, onions and garlic were considered to aid physical and respiratory endurance.  

egypt relief sculpture with heiroglyphs

Chinese Herbology and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine has been used for centuries, with the earliest prescriptive literature being traced to Wushi’er Bingfang, or “Recipes for 52 Ailments,” a set of silk documents dating back to between the 11th and 8th centuries BCE. Traditional Chinese Medicine relies heavily on herbs for the treatment of ailments, as well as animal and mineral substances to treat ailments and optimize wellness. Based on established formulations created for overall harmony, Chinese herbal medicine practitioners also individualize each treatment. 

The different kinds of Chinese herbal treatments include “decoctions” or teas known for their strong taste and aroma, syrups, Chinese patent formulas, and liniments using substances such as ginger, licorice, magnolia bud, wolfsbane, poria, cassia, pepper, wormwood, and boneset. 

North American Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Perhaps the richest of herbal medicine practices resides in the world of Native American traditions, from Alaska to Hawaii, the US Southwest, Upper Plains, and throughout Canada. The variety of approaches to Native American herbology reflects the diversity inherent in tribal cultures. Historically, the common ground was that plants and herbs were a staple of ancient indigenous civilizations before Western colonization took hold. For example, in Hawaii, the “pre-Captain Cook” diet, rich in vegetables and designed to promote cardiovascular health with a balanced approach to food. Throughout native cultures, food in all forms has been considered medicine, from the source to the preparation for consumption. 

Plants considered medicinal, or sacred, in Native American cultures include: sage, pennyroyal, hops, willow bark, dogwood, palmetto, cattail, and tobacco. These were also used in rituals and ceremonies.  

Herbology as a Life Path

For those interested in learning about herbology for personal or professional interest, an excellent place to start would be the American Herbalist Guild, established in 1989 as a non-profit educational organization dedicated to herbal medicine and herbal practitioners. From nutritional herbology to herbology studies, one can choose to take a more formalized course of study to become a Registered Herbalist (RH), or one can decide to participate in a more personalized, home study option. Those in medical fields such as naturopathic doctors, chiropractors, nutritionists, nurses, and doctors often study herbology to complement their offerings.  

The career options, whether you choose to study at home or in a program, include: herb farmer, wildcrafting, manufacturing, or ethnobotany, which looks at how different cultures practice herbal medicine. The average herbology training program includes course work in botany, plant identification, pharmacology, anatomy and physiology, biochemistry, nutrition, history, and professional ethics.

The American Herbalist Guild recommends 1600 hours of study with a clinical requirement. The cost of programs can range from $2,500 upwards to $15,000 per year. Unless you are also pursuing a career as a naturopathic doctor, there are currently no federal or state regulations to set up a practice. 

Whether you seek out herbology for your personal health or to help others, you will be stepping into an ancient tradition with a very modern application. All we have to do is look at our natural world to understand the healing and well-being that is available, if we’re willing to learn from the family of plants.

Crush Your Cravings For Good

Crush Your Cravings For Good

If you’re alive, then chances are you’ve craved. Late night cravings are the biggest saboteur I see among my clients. At the end of the day, we are tired, run down, and want that sinfully cold and creamy or obnoxiously loud and crunchy treat. Mid-afternoon snack attacks are also a red-hot danger zone for many of my clients who end up hitting the vending machine at work to make it through the rest of the afternoon and an impossible to-do list. Others suffer from “weekenditis” where they eat to reward themselves for the hard week they just toiled through. Sound familiar?

The child that still lives within each of us whines and begs and it’s often just easier to cave in and indulge in that second glass of wine, ice cream, or several handfuls of tortilla chips. “I have no willpower,” my clients lament. But I disagree. Cravings reside at the three-way intersection between biology, desire and insanity and they surface not because we lack willpower, but because we haven’t planned well in advance or because there are very real needs that are not being met. To truly deconstruct your cravings, I urge you to take a mind-body-spirit approach: educate yourself on the causes of your cravings, address any physiological issues (low blood sugar, cortisol dysregulation, lack of sleep, food intolerances), and look at the emotional root of your trigger foods.

The biggest source of food cravings I see are improper food choices earlier in the day and a build-up of stress that leads to succumbing to temptations in the evening. For starters, evaluate the following areas to nip your cravings in the bud:

  • Look at your diet: are you eating regularly or are you going more than 3 hours between meals or snacks? Having low blood sugar earlier in the day can set you up to compensate by rummaging in the pantry after dinner. Also consider the possibility the foods you are choosing – whether or not they are healthy – may not be the right foods for you.

  • Look for patterns of stressors and rewards. Often we deprive and deny ourselves during the day – both with food choices AND with saying ‘Yes’ to too many people, or by taking on too much. If you give and give and give all day, you are going to want to receive at the end to restore yourself. After all, life is all about that reciprocal dance of giving and receiving, right? Often the cycle is to emotionally shut down in front of the TV or internet and reward oneself with wine or sweets. Where can you adjust your choices during the day so you are not so depleted at the end of it? What can you do (or not do) to increase your joy?

  • If there really WAS a little boy or girl living inside of you, what would s/he need? Is there an alternative to what you are choosing that is healthier and just as satisfying, or even more so? Watch your inner dialogue as well. Always aim to have the same dialogue with yourself that you would want to hear from your best friend.

I’m not one to white-knuckle my way through a massive craving, and I don’t believe you should either. That’s no way to live life. And in my practice, I often work with my clients to deconstruct what their cravings really mean and while that can be a complex process, here’s a breakdown of three of the most popular cravings:

1. Sugar Cravings

Cravings for sweets could be the result of low blood sugar or cortisol (stress hormone) dysregulation as there’s a close relationship between the two. Sugar is the quintessential “yin” food, i.e. expansive food that makes us feel lighter, so after a really stressful day, we turn to a sweet cocktail or chocolate to diffuse the stress and anxiety that has been building up.

But too much yin, sparks cravings for heavier, contractive “yang” foods such as salt, meat and cheese. That is why you wake up the next morning with a hankering for eggs or steak. Do you see how we create this vicious cycle where we ricochet uncontrollably from sweet processed foods to animal food?

Solution: Instead of going for refined/processed sweets, experiment with sweet veggies, such as yams, carrots, beets, corn and onions. Roast some slices or chunks of sweet potatoes rubbed with coconut oil, Himalayan pink crystal salt and cinnamon for a yummy sweet treat sans any refined sugar that will naturally quell your sugar cravings. I often instruct my clients to keep a small jar of organic coconut oil at their desks and to just take a teaspoon or tablespoon straight up before they feel that 3 pm crash coming on as it will provide instant energy. Coconut oil is nature’s richest source of healthy medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which your body sends directly to your liver to use as energy. Numerous studies have shown that MCFAs promote weight loss and helps improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.

Sometimes we crave sweets when we’re lacking sweetness in our lives. At the end of a long day, we’re often just looking for a hug or someone to hear us out, but instead we seek to anesthetize those emotions with food. So, instead of trying to find comfort at the bottom of Ben and Jerrys Cherry Garcia, can you perhaps talk to a sweet friend, smell a sweet flower or relax with the sweet aroma of an essential oil? What can you do to nourish your life and add sweetness from non-food sources?

2. Salt Cravings

Eating too many processed foods or foods grown in our mineral-depleted soil can result in a mineral deficiency that sparks cravings for salty foods. Sometimes people who take a lot of medications or supplements can crave salt to balance out what they are already taking in. Cravings for crunchy foods might stem from the desire to crunch out and not hear something (such as your gossipy co-workers or an irate boss). No wonder so many office vending machines have crunchy salty snack foods.

Solution: Satiate your craving for salt by loading up on sea vegetables like kelp, nori, arame, hijike, and wakame. Simply sprinkle some dulse flakes on your salad or an avocado, and contrary to what you may think it doesn’t taste seaweed-y at all; in fact, you won’t even notice it. You can also add seaweed to your soups and stews or sprinkle it on popcorn (in place of table salt) for a rich salty and mineral flavor. Or try some cultured veggies on top of blue corn chips which offers that crunch in a really nutritious way. You can find cultured veggies already made from Rejuvenative Foods, Farmhouse Kulture or Bubbies at Whole Foods, Sprouts or your local health food store.

3. Alcohol Cravings

Alcoholic beverages can help the body digest heavy fatty foods, hence the classic paring of wine with cheese. But often we crave alcohol, just as we do sugar, to make us feel lighter and less stressed out.

Solution: Try Kombucha, which is a fermented tea drink make with only 0.5% alcohol. Kombucha is packed with B-vitamins and immune boosting probiotics. Also, other fermented foods like sauerkraut, and kimchi can combat cravings for alcohol and help digestion without the hangover. Probiotics not only stop cravings for alcohol and sugar, thereby helping you lose weight but they also serve as anti-depressants by secreting feel-good neurochemicals that make us happy. And a big beauty bonus is that they help with any type of inflammatory skin condition, such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, and make the skin poreless.

Bottom line

Most cravings stem from emotional eating, so remember to differentiate between physical versus emotional hunger and be aware of our culture’s obsession with sugar, reward and holidays.

Oprah offers one of the best definitions of forgiveness I’ve ever come across: “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could’ve been any different.” You can release your past hurt, anger and resentment without condoning what happened and this act of letting go will release you from your habitual pattern of emotional eating and binging. Try it…it’s a game changer!

Now, I’d like to hear from you. What has been your experience with cravings and emotional eating? Do you have a transformational story or are cravings still ruling your life and you’d like to flip that equation, so that you rule your cravings (and not the other way around)?

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