It wasn't long ago that herbs — the leaves, roots, berries and bark of plants — supplied the medicines of the world, gathered throughout history, usually by women, to treat just about anything you can name.
With the coming of aspirin and morphine — both of which came initially from plants — at the start of the 20th century, that all began to change, and we started looking more and more to powerful man-made drugs to treat disease.
But the vast knowledge of herbs was not lost. In fact, more is being learned about herbs everyday, as you can tell by looking at the hundreds of organic herbal tinctures and balms offered in stores such as Ashland Food Co-op, Shop'n Kart, Medford Food Co-op — and even the supplement aisles of grocers such as Food 4 Less in Medford.
In Ashland Food Co-op's wellness section, assistant manager Rosie Dunaway explains that the store's herbal tinctures come from Herb Pharm in Williams.
Tinctures in eyedropper bottles are the most popular form of herbs, co-op workers say. They're mostly priced in the $9-to-$10 range, most come distilled in an alcohol-based solution and most are quite bitter to the taste. Instructions usually call for taking 30 to 40 drops in a glass of water, where you can barely taste it.
Herbs are not silver bullets, like antibiotics, curing conditions in a day or two, cautions medicinal herbalist Eve Campanelli of Ashland. You may take them for weeks or months, giving your body time to adjust to them — and they can become a way of life.
"Herbs have been around since time began. It all used to be common knowledge," says Campanelli. "They gave myrrh to the Christ child. Everyone knew it was valuable for teeth and gum health. Mugwort was great for washing bad energy away. Goldenseal, echinacea and garlic have been the combination to clean mucus membranes and get rid of bacteria so more energy doesn't have to go to fighting germs."
Customers at Ashland Food Co-op thumb through the "Therapeutic Herb Manual," by Ed Smith, founder of Herb Pharm, to find their symptom and the tincture that corresponds to it. Co-op employee Amey Broeker points out her best-sellers:
Our society has become used to the miracle cures offered by many pharmaceuticals, says Broeker. "But nature has her own innate intelligence. Many drugs are based on a single chemical property found in nature. They aren't marketed because you can't patent nature. In the old days, doctors had no pharmaceuticals; they refined folk medicine, which was herbs."
Some herbal tinctures or encapsulated herbs, such as those for boosting the immune system, may work in 24 to 48 hours, says Broeker, while tonics take time "to rebuild and improve the performance of a system so it responds in a balanced fashion."
But is "nature's pharmacy" safe, and is it a good idea to self-prescribe?
Yes, says Campanelli — with the caveat that you should always get to a physician for serious infections, pain or chronic illness. "The biggest blessing in Western medicine are the pain drugs. ... However, we always pay for their speed, especially with antibiotics, which lower immune function and lead to superbugs."
Ashland Naturopath Bonnie Nedrow says she makes herbal formulas or has clients buy them up at the Co-op — with immune boosters and tinctures for the adrenal and thyroid glands being most prescribed.
Because of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, herbs are regulated as food, not as drugs, and stores and manufacturers must eschew claims for healing of ailments, and their products must be accurately labeled for content and dosage. As a result, herbalists will say certain herbs "support" functioning of various systems, avoiding words such as "cure."
Nedrow talks in terms of "thyroid support" from bladderwrack, fucus, holy basil and ashwaganda. These are also "good for" feminine hormone support, the prostate and immune system, she says.
"I get success with herbs. I always combine them by prescribing the right nutrition, exercise and rest," says Nedrow. "Herbs are great for anti-viral. There are no meds for that. People want instant results, but we have to realize you have to be on them for a while."
Medford naturopath Lissa McNiel, who had four years of training in herbal medicine, prescribes tinctures and capsules for patients at her office. She also sends them to Health Food Mart in Medford, Alchemy Botanicals in Ashland and the food co-ops for "loose" herbs that are best used in teas.
As science has gotten more involved in studying herbs, plants are sometimes found to have different actions than originally thought, she says. Cohosh, for example, doesn't have hormonal activity but it works on hot flashes. St. John's Wort is "a wonderful anti-viral and still works on depression." Echinacea doesn't "boost" immunity but reduces inflammation at the onset of a cold, notes McNiel.
Co-op shoppers seem to show great loyalty to the herb section. Samae Chlebowski, pregnant and the wife of a naturopath, says she swears by herbal tinctures, noting that she puts soothing chamomile in her bottles of breast milk for her older child.
"Turmeric every day for immunity, garlic and mullein for ear infections, ginger for nausea in pregnancy, arnica for bruises and traumas," says Chlebowski. "My daughter has gotten so she loves the dirty, earthy flavor of herbs and wants them every morning, straight out of the eyedropper."