Have you ever talked with someone who thought that herbs didn’t work because they did little for them despite all their commercial hype? Or have you ever taken (or given) an herb and you (or the person) not only didn’t improve but got worse? The reason for these experiences may actually be simple – the energy of the herb was not matched to that of the person or the condition experienced and so it wasn’t effective.
The energy of herbs is extremely important to consider when choosing herbs. Some herbs are cooling, others warming; some are drying, others moistening. Some drain while others build. As well, people have energetic constitutions, too. Some folks have coldness, or heat; others dryness or dampness. Some have an excess state (too much of something – think about how you feel after eating too big of a meal for example). Other people are weak, deficient, or depleted.
Thus, which herb you choose depends not only on its own energies but also that of the person taking the herb. If the person has a condition of coldness, for instance, they need herbs with a heating energy. If they are dry, they need moistening herbs. And if they’re weak, they need herbs that build strength, immunity, or blood. If herbs are not energetically matched to the person in this way, either they’ll have no results or else problems can arise.
For example, when I mention the herb, turmeric, what first comes to mind? That it’s great for pain? Perhaps, but it actually might make you dizzy instead. How about black cohosh? Think it’s mainly great for menopause? Think again. It may help some women but others might experience no benefit at all. And how about feverfew? Use it for headaches? It might work, but it only treats one type of headache. Since there are as many as five or more causes for headaches, each requires a different herbal energy and feverfew may not match that.
To be even more specific, if you give a building herb, such as ginseng, to someone who has stagnation with symptoms of burping, belching, mood swings, nausea, pent-up emotions, headache in the temples, or is easily angered or irritated, it would just make them feel worse. That would be like adding more cars to rush hour traffic. On the other hand, if someone is weak, tired, or perhaps even anemic, you wouldn’t want to give them elimination therapies as those would only weaken them further.
I learned the importance of the energy of herbs very early when I first started using herbs. Like many beginner herbalists, I began with the typical allopathic approach, that is, “this herb is good for that condition.” Then one day I got a very bad flu. A friend told me garlic is good for flu, so I took garlic. I got much worse. I was curious why and soon learned that my flu was a condition of heat (high fever, sweating, feeling hot) and garlic itself is a heating herb. Taking garlic meant I only got hotter and my symptoms intensified
Let’s take turmeric again as another example since it’s such a popular herb today. Because it’s the best anti-inflammatory available to forestall heart and brain problems and to treat pain, many people consume it regularly. While that helps some folks, others actually have reactions they don't even realize occurred because of the turmeric. I have seen many such cases over the years.
This is because turmeric is warming and drying in energy. That means it’s perfect for folks who have pain and swelling from heat and dampness such as heavy, swollen joints, yellowish and smelly diarrhea, urinary tract infections with pain and even bleeding, herpes, or yellow leukorrhea for example. But those who have dryness, anemia, or Blood Deficiency with such symptoms as dry cough, stools, skin, mouth or nails, dizziness, blurry vision, night sweats or heat flushes, can get worse since the cooling, drying turmeric only depletes these substances more. If taken for extended periods or overdosed, it can lead to insomnia, burning in the hands and feet, hypertension, or heart palpitations, for starters. [Note: Turmeric tuber (yu jin) is cooling while turmeric rhizome (jiang huang) is heating. Both promote the flow of Qi and Blood, but the rhizome treats painful obstruction (arthritic conditions) while the tuber does not. Both herbs relieve gall bladder jaundice, but the tuber is stronger than the rhizome. Turmeric found in the grocery store is probably the rhizome.]
Each herb has specific energies that determine its true use. Start observing the energy of herbs and the conditions they treat rather than using one herb for a specific condition. Giving herbs allopathically regardless of the energy of the herb or the person taking it is what causes others to believe that herbs don't work. Even worse, it gives herbs a bad rap. Learn to use herbs energetically and you’ll more efficiently and effectively experience the wonder of herbs and their healing powers.
Lesley Tierra is teaching a 4-hour intensive on herbal energetics Oct 5, 2017 before the AHG Symposium held at the Oregon Garden Resort (in Silverton, outside of Portland, Oregon). Come learn about the differences between cooling, warming, moistening, drying, eliminating, and building herbs, their flavors and directions, and how all of these affect a person’s body and the disease experienced. This class is valuable regardless of your herbal training or background and may be applied to all herbal approaches.
Introduction from Lesley: If anyone should know how to study efficiently it is Kristi Shapla, who as a mother, teacher, product formulator and producer, and wife is also a doctoral student. She has figured out techniques to help acquire effective study skills so you not only retain information better but also cut your study time down.
As well, she addresses important self care while pursuing intense or long-term studies. Studying long term, or even excess reading in general, consumes Spleen Qi and Heart Blood. To address this Chinese practitioners and scholars take herbs to nourish Spleen Qi and Heart Blood.
Kristi addresses this below, but as well the traditional formula typically used by scholars in China is Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan(Ginseng and Zizyphus Formula), sometimes today called “the Students Formula.” As well, some practitioners eat a handful of longan berries (pinyin, botanical name, “dragon eyes”) after studying or at the end of a long clinic day to replenish Heart Blood. Kristi has other wonderful suggestions for self-care.
We are finding that there are a lot of similarities in how people approach their lessons. Reading and highlighting are common, and are the least effective strategies for short term or long term retention (1). This is because it is a passive method. You aren’t engaging on a meaningful level. If this is your typical study protocol, try this method alone, and take the quizzes at the end of the lessons. Then try the next lesson with the strategies detailed below and compare not only your outcome, but the amount of time spent. Your goal here is to be able to answer the questions without flipping through the lesson.
Research is also showing that the very popular “learning styles” method is not a valid means of retention either. If you aren’t familiar, this is a method that requires that you take a test to see which particular kind of learner you are, and then you proceed with your studies according to that style. Psychologists gave subjects these quizzes, then set up random learning style experiences, and then gave them a learning experience that catered to the “style” that they tested for. They were unable to show any improvement between random and tested styles of learning (2).
Before I even get into effective learning strategies, I want to discuss some self care tips for those embarking on a path of endless learning. This is, after all, an herb course! In terms of Chinese Medicine, overthinking, overstudying, and sitting for extended periods of time is harmful for the Spleen. So let’s look at how we can be kind to our Spleens:
Diet: The Spleen, in Chinese medicine, involves digestion: turning food into Qi and Blood. And to do this, it needs warmth and dryness. Eating cold, dampening foods will only further the stress we are putting on our Spleens. I like to have homemade chai simmering on the stove while I study, getting a fresh cup during study breaks. Here is a great recipe from an East West graduate (and one of my dearest friends), Melanie St. Ours. Sweeten lightly with honey if you must, but don’t go for the instant chai teas at the grocery, unless they don’t have any added sugar. And of course, if you avoid caffeine, They are usually sweeter than soda, and while a little sweet flavor directs to and tonifies the Spleen, too much sweetness harms the Spleen! Puerh tea is another nice warm beverage that has digestion-improving qualities.
For a study snack, I like to make a small bowl of goji berries and walnuts at hand. Don’t walnuts look like brains? This is called Doctrine of Signatures, where the properties of herbs can sometimes be evident in how they look. And goji berries are a Chinese medicine to tonify yin and Blood, and brighten the eyes. Often poor memory is linked with Blood Deficiency.
As far as foods go, limit sweets, cold beverages, and processed foods. And be sure to get plenty of daily exercise, even if it is a short walk outside before and after study sessions.
For a more thorough discussion on the Spleen, see Lesley Tierra’s blog post.
The main idea here is to not create hurdles for yourself. Start with small goals, like 10-20 minutes/day. Usually when I sit down for ten minutes, I decided to sit for ten more. But maintain achievable goals. Create an objective for the month, for the week, and for each study session. For monthly goals, you might want to finish one lesson each month. Then just get your planner and schedule your study sessions. Break that lesson down into smaller, weekly objectives, and voila! you have a manageable system in place. For each session, it can be something as simple as, “I want to really focus on the properties of shatavari.” Or, “I want to review 5 flashcards”. The idea is to never sit down to study without an objective.
If you are really trying to get organized, I suggest a bullet planner (3) or an app like Todoist (4) to help keep you on track with your goals.
I know it is obvious, but I am going to say it anyway. Get rid of distractions! Lose the laptop if at all possible, hide your phone, tell the kids or roommates that you are only to be disturbed for emergencies. Or better yet, arrange for a daily sitter or go somewhere without distraction. If this proves too difficult, and the timing is never right, just study in 10 minute bursts. Above all else, keep reasonable goals! And since our sense of smell is so closely linked to memory (5), I light the same type of incense every time I study to cue my brain that it is time to focus.
Research shows that keeping your study sessions limited to 20-30 minutes is ideal for retention. If you are lucky enough to have more time, take a 10 minute break and then have another 20-30 minute session. This is known as the Pomodoro technique. There are apps that can help you with the timing, but I use a kitchen timer since I don’t want the distraction of a device near me.
This is the title of a book written by Peter C. Brown (6). In it, he compiles the latest research in making your study time both efficient and successful. Two of his strategies are self testing and memory retrieval. The idea here is that you would read a page or two, stop, and retrieve from your memory as best you can what you just read. The learning happens with this attempt at retrieval, and you will get better at it over time. Write down what you can remember, then go to the lesson and fill in what you left out in outline form. Another key concept of this book is to space these retrievals out. Try and recall the material the next day, but then wait a week before you revisit it. And then in two weeks. As you work, also continue to review past material and integrate with the new material to see how it fits together.
If this sounds like a lot of work, there are some shortcuts! But even without the shortcuts, this type of learning is a lot more efficient than reading and highlighting and not retaining any of it. One shortcut I couldn’t live without is an App called Anki (7). This is a flashcard app that is set to the perfect algorithm for memory retention. What this means is, it will show you a card in perfect intervals to set it in long term memory. Then you have these flashcards at your disposal when you have a few minutes to review. The key about using flashcards is to have one fact and one question, not a long list of information. It should be a quick process to get through a stack. The best thing about Anki is, you can share these stacks with classmates, and there are a ton of stacks available for free. It would be fantastic to have an East West Materia Medica flashcard swap on our student forum!
Aside from flashcards, I have several different techniques I employ here. And by the way, the more different strategies you use, the more you will retain the information in a meaningful way. Flashcards are great for simple questions and answers, but learning the materia medica requires a lot of different facts for one plant. This is where the memory palace comes in. A memory palace, sometimes called Method of Loci, is a mnemonic memory strategy, where you use visualizations and spatial memory to effortlessly recall complex information. This method was developed in ancient Greece, first written about by Cicero. You create these images or scenarios in your mind, and they are proven to build long term memory like nothing else can (8). Did you know there are memory competitions? People are given a long list of numbers or facts to remember, and they are able to recite them back in perfect order. Well, the memory palace is their secret! What you do is construct a different setting for each type of herb. You could be at a racetrack for blood moving herbs. The cool energy herbs have blue jockeys and the warm energy herbs have red jockeys. The horse itself will represent what the herbs treat. Below, I will create a memory palace for myrrh, a blood moving herb.
Myrrh, or Mo yao is a bitter herb, so the jockey will have a ‘bitter beer face’. It is neutral in temperature, so the jockey will be purple (red and blue combined). It generates flesh on chronic wounds and treats abdominal masses, and so the horse will be old and slow to heal, with abdominal masses and pain.
See number 8 on the resource list for more details about how to construct memory palaces.
Also, there is a set of flashcards that build memory palaces for each herb, called HerbZoo (9), but they only contain Chinese herbs and I think creating your own is where the learning happens.
The ancient Chinese way of memorizing the materia medica is through song. Physicians memorized and sang these songs daily to keep them memorized. My Classical Texts teacher, Sabine Wilms, has translated some of these songs from the Golden Cabinet (10). A few herbalists are creating modern songs as well (11), go to the Listen tab for a sample song. And of course, you can create your own songs!
Not into music? Why not create an album of collages, one collage for each herb? It would be beautiful to have, and this type of creative expressions is very healing for your Liver. Whatever you enjoy doing as expression, whether it is poetry, dance, art, or sculpture, can all be applied to learning herbs. If you don’t have this type of creative outlet, this is a perfect opportunity to get started. Being creative with your learning internalizes the big picture stuff.
One last aspect of learning herbs is to get to know them in real life. Botanical gardens, woodland hikes, and local plant walks are all opportunities to introduce yourself. There are also plenty of resources where you can buy plants and seeds and grow them yourself if you have the space (12). If you need some help getting acquainted with plant identification, this course comes with Botany in a Day (13). There is also a free online course, with a suggested donation if you have it (14).
And of course, using the plants as food and medicine is the very best way to make them a part of you!
If you say you have no time, you won’t. If you are determined, it will be a priority.
If you say you are too old to learn, you are. But research suggests that after some practice to get back into learning, you are just as able as anyone. And being a lifelong learner prevents age-related memory loss.
Kristi Shapla is an East West Certified Herbalist, a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild, and is currently a graduate student of Oriental Medicine at NUNM in Portland, OR. Check out her book on brewing herbal beers: Brew Your Medicine
In my previous blog on treating H. pylori-induced stomach inflammation with herbs, I touch briefly on a fundamental difference between conventional and complementary medicine: namely, that conventional medicine prefers to identify an isolated pathogen or discrete named diagnosis which it aims to treat singularly; whereas complementary or traditional medicine relies on signs and symptoms, within the unique individual and their personal conformation, and how these elements fit into a time-tested model of healing.
Being an herbalist means learning to think like a herbalist, which apart from a special knowledge of the therapeutic properties of plants also means to not overly focus on the symptoms of a disease but also the particular unique physiological ‘terrain’ from which the disease and its symptoms arise. With Chinese medicine, this means treating ‘root (cause) and branch (symptom) based on principles of yin and yang. In Ayurveda, it means differentiating the individual’s underlying prakriti (doshic or humoral imbalance) from the vikruti (doshic disease imbalance).
There are several layers of healing. One is to disguise the symptom, another is to deal with the microbiological cause of the symptoms. Still another is to treat the “cause of the cause” which is the imbalances in the body that predispose one to develop such things as infections (like H. pylori overgrowth). Still another cause beyond these physical ones are the psycho-spiritual reasons one develops a disease.
Relief or “cure” can be achieved at any of these levels. The first treatment principle should be to relieve the symptoms, which is the most superficial level of healing; second, treat the “cause of the cause” being the most physiologically beneficial level overall: and then attention must be paid to the third, psycho-spiritual level, which is the most profound.
Only masking the symptoms, which is the usual approach in Western medicine such as when antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs such as cortisone are given, is fraught with possibly damaging side effects. This is why many people seek the herbalist or acupuncturist for the second and third levels of healing. Every healer has some facility to work on each of these levels but the herbalist and acupuncturist uniquely specialize on second “cause-of-cause” level.
The third, psycho-spiritual level may either be all encompassing or may provide other levels of relief beyond the physical.
Addressing all three of these levels, with respect to the individual patient’s particular physiology, history of illness and mental or emotional disposition, is the definition of “wholistic” healing to which most herbalists and traditional practitioners aspire. It is an approach which, in my opinion, is most likely to bring about the sort of transformation that leads to deep and lasting healing.
East West Free Clinic herbalists Maureen Flash, Erin Massengale, Michael McEvoy, Beverly Jennings.
I have always had the desire to be of service to the poor and indigent in our community, but was never quite sure how to incorporate that into my life, given all my other commitments as both an herbalist, acupuncturist, author, teacher, formulator, gardener, and musician. I was afraid of beginning something that I might not be willing, or able, to follow through with. Then, at the American Herbalists Guild annual herbal symposium, I met some friends and colleagues who I respect; 7Song and Lorna Mauney-Brodek of www.herbalista.org, who inspired me to try to create such an offering with my students in our local community.
In July 2014, Lesley and I began providing free monthly herb classes for local East West students. Most of these students were at the foundation or intermediate level when we started. We began with an in-depth study of pulse diagnosis, then tongue diagnosis, the 10 questions, TCM theory, and other important facets of Planetary Herbalism. By design, these classes were to prepare them for practice in a free clinic where they would not only serve the health needs of the poor and underprivileged in our community, but also gain valuable clinical skills and experience – a win-win situation for sure.
The result is the East West Herbal Free Clinic, headed up by myself and Lesley as teachers and mentors, made up of a number of inspired and great local East West Herb Students living in near proximity. So far, with two Saturday morning sessions under our belts, a group of 10 or 12 of us saw 26 patients within a two-and-a-half-hour time period. We are quickly learning how to work together as a choir of herbalist-healers. So far it seems that everyone who came to work with us on a one-on-one basis received the healing that was possible and that they were ready for.
I’m very proud of each and every one of my local Santa Cruz herb students and colleagues, and I want to honor, mention and introduce them to you each by name as founders of this noble collective endeavor. We are:
My wife, Lesley Tierra, without whom I don’t think I would be able to have done even half of what we’ve accomplished together; professional AHG members and East West School of Planetary Herbology graduates Beverly Jennings and Linda Vaughan; and foundation student Dee Lewis, who stepped up to reorganize the California Greater Bay Area chapter of the American Herbalists Guild. The team of students currently attending the classes and clinic also include Michael McEvoy, Maureen Flash, Kathryn Grant, Erin Massengale, Larry Nakanashi, Michelle Schurig, Evan Small, and Shelley Swapp.
We have quickly bonded together. If there is a need, such as filling gelatin capsules with Triphala powder the night before, we all soon learn that it’s already done or in process. The same occurs when we are working together in a relatively small space with patients at the homeless center; individuals just step up and do whatever is needed.
We operate together in a spirit of respect, friendly camaraderie and gratitude for each other as we learn to accept and appreciate who we each really are. Our dynamic bears out my experience that the best part of being an herbalist, for me, has always been to hang out and be with other herbalists. Herbalists come in all sorts of unique styles, political and religious persuasions. Bridges of mutual respect can transcend any differences, and these people can be brother and sister herbalists. As my fellow herbalist sister Rosemary Gladstar has said repeatedly, ‘It is the plants that unite us all.’
On a Wing and a Prayer: The Clinic is Launched
I set Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015, as our “ready or not” launch of the East West Herbal Free Clinic at the Homeless Services Center in Santa Cruz, hopefully establishing a model that will be duplicated by hundreds of enrolled students and graduates scattered throughout the United States and some foreign countries.
To seed our free clinic pharmacy, I gathered expired herbal patents that I had accumulated from years of over-purchasing products for my clinic – little did I know how useful these would prove to be. These products were perfectly good and potent, but carried an expiration date based on legal requirements. Shelley Swapp tirelessly encapsulated over a thousand capsules of several powdered herbal mixtures and simples I provided. I gave a ‘lead sheet’ describing briefly the uses and indications of each herbal product to Maureen Flash, who, after a whirlwind evening of sorting and categorizing with Beverly Jennings and Dee Lewis, carefully took on the job of researching and listing indications for added and current products, cataloguing and organizing them all into portable plastic boxes so thoughtfully and generously donated by Beverly, so that we could easily transport them back and forth from the homeless center.
How miraculous it seems that all the crucial details worked themselves out!
When January 31 arrived, I was up at 4 a.m. worrying about how the whole thing would go, wondering if I was about to throw a group of lambs into the lion’s den. With only five Saturday classes I gave as preparation, was it reasonable to expect that we could we pull this off? Would these students be ready to actually start seeing clients – especially people with such tremendous physical, mental and spiritual health handicaps? Could we really help people who barely have shelter and food to feel better? I wondered how responsive our clients would be to such care.
All those feelings dissipated within the first hour as I breathed a sigh of relief and quietly said to myself, “Thank God, it’s happening and it really seems to be working.” Within the first five minutes, one problem was solved – there was no lack of clients who signed up to work one-on-one with members of our team.
We started out with one or two of us walking out onto the homeless center grounds to introduce ourselves. We offered to sit and listen to their health complaints, and assist with herbal, dietary, bodywork and other healing therapies. These were given free of charge, as well as free homemade bowls of delicious soup and warm tea. People responded positively.
As an aside, it is appalling to see the number of meds that many of these people have been given. Considering that alone, it is a wonder that any of them could ever get well! However, it is also amazing that despite this, even the simplest, most common herbs and healing can make such a difference for some at least.
We held our second East West Herbal Free Clinic on February 28 and, despite the rain, everything went even more smoothly. It feels like we might have hit our stride. Everyone showed up on time, with food, tea, freshly capsuled organic herbal powders, an organized pharmacy of donated patent herbal formulas, tinctures and salves. Since I’m looking to use pre-made herbal formulas and herbal combinations with the broadest application, I brought tinctures of Swedish bitters, which I made for the center. Swedish bitters seemed to me to be a good contribution, along with Triphala, and capsules of dandelion, burdock, turmeric and ginger. These kinds of ready-made formulas with broad applicability work really well in such a setting.
Dee got a kick out of my referring to what we we’re doing as ‘guerilla herbalists,’ because, like a small squadron of revolutionaries, we are try to move in, get set up as quickly as possible, do our fun work and then, just as quickly, tear it all down and leave the place as if we were never there.
The Gifts of Giving
I discovered my calling as an herbalist and healer while living in a commune called Black Bear in the remote mountains of Northern California. This was an amazing collective, including a group of students learning and practicing acupuncture and herbs. It was then that I learned two important lessons: that we learn best while doing, and that it is in giving responsibly that we receive.
Even after only two Saturday mornings at the free clinic, we’re definitely gaining a greater perspective on life and healing, and a respect for the power and benefit for what we have to offer to relieve even some of the misery and suffering of our community brethren. It may be a cliché, but I’m sure we experience true benefit and gratitude as we come face to face with individuals who for various reasons are less fortunate than ourselves. It is gratifying to experience how we make these people ‘almost’ happy, given their pitiable circumstances, with our gifts of healing presence, herbs and food.
I hope to set to rest the all too familiar complaint of students that “there are no patients.” The ‘Way of Herbs’ is first and foremost a spiritual calling before it should ever be considered as a profession. If you are looking for patients, do as the great 16th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper did: take to the streets.
We are presently expanding our pharmacy, making tinctures and other preparations, all projects I require students who enroll in the course to do within the first 12 lessons. Soon we will have a pharmacy housing about 60 herbs and formulas. It is the student’s job to learn about each of these herbs as much on their own as possible. Then they will acquire the skill of composing custom blends for each patient while drawing on an assortment of foundational products and formulas such as Triphala, guggul and Swedish bitters.
I told our team that as we get more organized, and grow individually, we could look to the future to setting ourselves up in other venues such as farmer’s markets and fairs during the warmer seasons, and perhaps have weekly clinics where we all don’t need to be present at every session.
Thanks to the opportunity for practice presented by the free clinic, before they know it, by darn, my students will be full-fledged herbalists in no time at all. After all, as herbalists and healers, we are only ever reconnecting with our ancestral roots – ‘remembering’ as it were, ancient ways of healing and care that I believe exist within our own DNA code and that of the plants we work with.
Find the joy in herbal healing!
Are you interested in starting an herbal free clinic in your community? We are happy to share whatever we learn as we pioneer this worthy project. I also suggest you look into the work of Lorna Mauney-Brodek, herbalist 7Song at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine and the Occupy Medical Clinic in Eugene, Oregon.