Many people in the West eschew herbs from other countries because they only want to use western herbs. While local herbs are the easiest and most convenient choice, they’re not necessarily the best and even more so, not always possible. Even if you’re an avid gardener who cultivates a large variety of herbs, you still won’t have all you may want, if for no other reason than your local ecosystem limits what’s available to you.
Further, the herbs you need might not even grow in the West (or at least haven’t been discovered or harvested yet). That means most people at some point will have to buy the herbs they need. You probably look for organic herbs, like I do, but not every western herb may be found in organic form. And an herb is not necessarily non-organic just because it’s from another country.
Ultimately, the question all this raises in me is, what makes an herb "western?" Because it‘s native to the West? Grows in the West? Is commercialized and so known to the West? Or was used by old-time western herbalists? And how do we define a "western" herb, especially since our western herbal borders have spread to include adaptogens from eastern Russia, tonics from South America, and resins from the Middle East?
When it comes to sourcing herbs from faraway places, perhaps the problem many people specifically have is around herbs bought from China and India. Most people’s concerns about these herbs revolve around their cleanliness. Certainly pollution is growing in China and India, compounding their past use of adulterants, coloring agents, and heavy metals. And yet, many western herbs are adulterated, too.
Consider that many Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs are actually wildcrafted from high altitudes on mountains, volcanoes, or other remote areas. Further, many Ayurvedic formulas are extensively prepared with prayer and mantra and go through lengthy purification processes. Surely if the concern is purity, such herbs are adequate for western consumption?
Even if "impure" Chinese herbs are used, I’ve still seen them benefit people tremendously. I’ll never forget a patient I once treated in the late 1980s who had Crohn’s disease. She could only eat eight foods and yet she progressed well on irradiated Chinese herbs. This is probably because those herbs’ tonifying properties were stronger than any toxicity or devitalization they might have had. In this case, the disease was worse than the medicine being taken. Even impure herbs are still better to take than drugs loaded with their many side effects.
In the end, I don’t actually think pollution is the full problem behind people choosing to exclude Chinese or Ayurvedic herbs. Many plants from other countries are now readily incorporated into mainstream western use, such as ginseng, albizzia, astragalus, goji berries, reishi, ashwagandha, triphala, eleuthero, rhodiola, myrrh, and suma. These Chinese, Ayurvedic, East Russian, Middle Eastern, and South American herbs have been commercialized and so are now well received. Plus, there are good sources that provide reliable Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs today.
Further, and this may surprise you as it did me, most western herbs in the U.S. actually come from other countries! According to Roy Upton, executive director and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia® and director of Planetary Formulas, probably close to 90% in weight of herbs in the States come from elsewhere. His colleague, Josef Brinckmann, who routinely watches the international plant market, confirms that the overwhelming majority of herbs by volume used in the U.S. are imported form other countries.
Of the "big 10" U.S. sellers – cranberry, saw palmetto, soy, garlic, ginkgo, Echinacea, milk thistle, black cohosh, St. John’s Wort, and ginseng – only cranberry, saw palmetto, echinacea and black cohosh are native North American botanicals, and of these four, black cohosh extract is adulterated with Chinese material and the most widely used echinacea extract, or E. purpurea, is cultivated in Europe. This means that only two of the top selling herbs in the U.S. – cranberry and saw palmetto – are actually sourced from North America!
So what is the real problem behind shunning non-"western" herbs?
Could it be that people think they first need to learn a complicated system before using Chinese or Ayurvedic herbs? If this is the case, it’ s not actually so. One just needs to understand herbal energetics, and frankly, this is true for any herb chosen no matter what part of the world it comes from, East or West. It’s necessary to know an herb’s cooling or heating energy, flavors, direction, properties and actions according to a specific system in order to use it appropriately. This is how herbalism works. Thankfully, there are many books, teachers, and other resources available that easily provide such information.
In truth, many people don’t know that they’re already using Chinese and Ayurvedic herbs. Such herbs are valuable to all systems of herbal medicine. Licorice, mint, ginger, garlic, cardamom, and dandelion are all widely used in China and India along with dozens of other examples, though some are different species. Then there’s the opposite situation where our own unused American ginseng tonic is bought by the Chinese and then sold back to us. The Chinese don’t shun this herb because it doesn’t come from China; rather, they see it as an important plant that is irreplaceable in their pharmacopeia.
Here is a list of herbs now common to Western, Chinese, and Ayurvedic herbalism:
Ginger, garlic, scallions, horny goat weed, asafetida, aloe gel, angelica, barberry, black pepper, calamus, aster, cinnamon, fenugreek, gentian, hibiscus, juniper, gotu kola, mugwort, myrrh, mint, rose, rhubarb, turmeric, valerian, horsetail, kudzu root, black cohosh, self heal, figwort, honeysuckle, isatis, violet, andrographis, anemone, mung beans, sweet Annie, malva, plantain, aduki beans, corn silk, loquat, jack-in-the-pulpit, hawthorn, citrus peel, cattail pollen, agrimony, madder root, galangal, frankincense, motherwort, safflower, ginkgo, albizzia.
When I think about desiring only local herbs, I think of ease, convenience, and knowing what I am getting. I understand such desires. It is still much easier to obtain "western" herbs than Chinese and Ayurvedic plants. Also, Chinese herbs are becoming quite expensive. With the growing free enterprise in China, prices have at least doubled or even quadrupled in some cases, particularly with patent medicines. Other herbs are being illegally hoarded, making them unavailable.
And yet, what if what you need isn’t available locally or as a western herb? Then what do you do?
First, know your sources. Look for Chinese dao di herbs that come from their authentic natural locations in remote mountains or other wild spaces where they’ve been cultivated, harvested, and processed since the Tong Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) with certain techniques to yield superior effects. These herbs have different constituents because of their interaction between a specific natural location and their genetics. Such herbs have an enduring reputation for high quality and excellent treatment effects. They are not polluted and some herb companies specialize in obtaining and selling them. This is like saying the best feta cheese comes from Greece, and the best Gruyere comes from Gruyere, or that Napa wine is better than Nebraska wine.
Along with such geo-specific and geo-authentic plants, it’s also important to purchase herbs from companies that test their products for authenticity, potency, and purity (this should ideally be the practice of all western herb companies) as well as follow GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices, the standards set for safe products).
Next, realize that your health and healing requirements may not fully be met if you only use western herbs. The plants you need may not grow in your local ecosystem or even be available in the West. For example, true tonics are restoratives and adaptogens and most of these come from the eastern mountains of Russia or from South America, China and India. The idea of "tonics" in western herbalism is quite different than that in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines. What Western herbalists believe is tonifying, such as a bitter tonic or blood tonic, is either a detoxifier, a stimulant to organ function, or provides needed minerals.
For example, western blood "tonics" are bitter and cooling in nature, like yellow dock. However, blood itself is warm and moist, the exact opposite of yellow dock’s energies. This means that bitter and cooling yellow dock, although high in iron, actually dries and depletes blood rather than builds it. However, if molasses is combined with yellow dock, a warming and moistening medicinal also high in iron, the herb’s negative effects are neutralized and it then builds blood.
True tonics In Chinese medicine have a different definition and function. By nature, most tonics are sweet in flavor, which builds, slows, and harmonizes (this is a complex and not simple sugary sweet). Such tonics boost, benefit, help and/or repair. This is very different than the bitter flavor, which drains, dries, and makes firm.
Until we identify more tonic herbs in the West, we must continue to obtain them from other countries. This means using some non-western herbs if you are depleted and need to build and strengthen your body and health.
The bottom line in using Western versus Chinese or Ayurvedic herbs, however, is that no herb can really substitute for another. Even the same exact herb grown in different locations has unique properties not found when grown in another area. This is why many Chinese only use dao di herbs since they grow in optimal locations to stimulate the development of specific properties.
The pinch today is that some of the most effective Chinese herbs are no longer allowed or have limited availability to non-practitioners. So what do we use instead?
The writing is on the wall and we are almost being forced into finding western substitutes as best we can for those lost valuable herbs. This need has long intrigued me and finally I am looking at it in depth. Yet, it is a complicated study that involves many factors. These I will begin to address in my next blog!