Evolution of an Herbal Remedy

Ingrid Naiman

In trying to determine where to start this part of the site, I reflected on my own introduction to herbal medicine. Unlike many, this came rather late in life, in Hawaii, about 30 years ago. My mother and I both wrote for the local newspaper. She had a column on Hawaiiana and we used to take turns editing for each other. She was close friends with several kahunas and used to take their stories and weave them into articles. One of these was about popolo berries. Solanum nigrum berry juice was used in a number of remedies, but my mother had focused on its use in the eyes. Some days later, she had a complaint, and I pointed to the popolo growing in front of the house; and she said, "Darling, the articles are for entertainment."

My mother had absolutely no intention of applying her "lessons" to herself, but she was a good writer. My own interest in herbs did not exactly take off like a rocket. However, it became a permanent part of my life's path by 1980 when I began to interface the energetics—air, fire, water, and earth—of herbs with astrology and to evolve the basis of what was to become kitchen doctor, now a web site.

By that time, I was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The herbs were now in jars, all dried and put away, far from the living plants I had learned to appreciate in Hawaii. Being in a totally new climatic zone, I didn't have a clue what the herbs looked like when they were living. For someone who had been listening to Auntie Margaret (Machado) in Kealakekua tell stories of her petitions to plant spirits, the desiccated desert herbs in jars seemed like victims of some disaster. I was very fond Auntie Margaret, but she taught me that we go to the forest and explain our problem to the plants to see if any plant wanted to volunteer to help. For instance, she said, if her niece was having a baby and she wanted the delivery to be easy, she wanted a plant that would increase her elasticity so the baby and mother would have a gentle experience. If no plant offered itself as medicine, she kept walking until there was a willing volunteer.

You can imagine that I was stymied when I first saw shelf after shelf of dried herbs in jars. At first, I just didn't understand how they got into the jars—what kind of terrible accident had happened? Little by little, I adjusted to the realities of my new life, and with the benefit of my rising understanding of energetics, I started to see food and spices as well as herbs as medicine. I realized that one could stimulate metabolism to lose weight or reduce congestion; one could pacify wind to relieve allergies and environmental sensitivities. It was becoming endlessly fascinating for me, and I love the potential of the astral chemistry that was integrating into my psyche.

However, I now became a predator. I would buy herbs in stores, without any reference to their previous life history and how they got into the stores. I began to discover hair raising facts about irradiation of spices that made me frantic with concern for health as well as the efficacy of traditional medicine. For instance, black pepper is considered to be tridoshic. This means that it is good for all the imbalances: vata, pitta, and kapha. However, the press I was reading suggested it was irritating and that it resulted in gall bladder problems and perhaps some other conditions. I wondered if the loss of vitality and essential oils transformed a hugely medicinal seasoning into something to avoid.

As my own attention focused more and more on the medicine, I came appreciate the distinctions between fresh and dried as well as natural and adulterated. I also came to respect and admire those who are at the other end of the process of creating herbal medicine, not to mention how my love for Nature has increased steadily over the three decades I have now been working in this field.

To make my position clear, I am a medical astrologer and philosopher, but where herbal medicine is concerned, you can best understand my role as the formulator. I take what is known about the health and what is known about herbs and try to create a match: something that relieves symptoms and hopefully also something that addresses underlying causes so that the disease can be better managed. The psyche of the formulator is something like that of a psychologist, physiologist, and chemist rolled together. Important as formulation is, it is only one part of the whole.

After publishing my book on botanical cancer treatments, I became acutely aware of the need to guarantee an adequate supply of plant material. I also learned a lot about how different people source their plants and how they operate laboratories. It is endlessly interesting, but it is also an environmental nightmare, and this is why I started this web site.

I am part of the problem so I want to be part of the solution. It is my moral obligation to face what I have done to plant world and do my part to heal it, in short to do as much for the plants as for the patients with whom I have been so deeply involved for so many years.

Plant medicine begins with a seed, a tiny bundle of potential concentrated in one speck with a myriad of future possibilities, including that of being poisoned by herbicides, acidic air or water, or epidemics that ravage crops. The life of a plant can be brief or very long: it can be like lettuce or cilantro or perhaps as incredible as that of a redwood.

Like people, plants need water and sunshine; but they use what is given to them differently. Many plants perform invaluable services. They convert solar energy to food—all of our nutrients are really concentrated sunlight. They provide medicine, building materials and paper, feasts for the eyes and perfumes for our pleasure. Each plant species is unique and each individual plant within the species in unique as is each flower and leaf on every plant.

The pharmacology of plants is also extremely complex. Not only is there variation from specie to specie but also variation according to geographic realm, sunlight, angle of the sunlight, soil, water, companion plants, age of the plant, and time of year harvested. Then, each plant contains a complex number of constituents—acids, alkaloids, saponins, etc.—in tremendously varying proportions, as different, I have opt explained as one Mozart symphony to another. By this, I mean you make music out of a combination of notes, not many to chose from actually, but you arrange these notes in various sequences, you give more or less time to each note, and then you impose a rhythm on the notes. Then, you assign various members of the orchestra different roles with respect to the symphony.

Unlike people, plants receive their information directly from the sun. They do not have to read books to learn nor go to therapists to find out who they are. They know because they are "tuned in" and reverent. Plants are the original sun worshippers; but their value to us is in how they convert light energy into chemicals that can be used as food and nutrition. I believe that, over and above photosynthesis and the facilitation of human respiration, plants step down Cosmic Light and pass along inspiration and love in addition to nutrients.

Making an herbal medicine is a lot like performing a work of music. You choose your herbs the way you would interview musicians. They audition: you like some; you reject others. Then, you have to get the musicians to work together. The end result is a masterpiece, but just as I might write down a simple formula and publish it in a book, every single person who makes that formula is going to make it differently. Not only are they will there be variation, but there will be substitution.

Let's say the original symphony was scored for harp, but you cannot find a harpist so you give the harp part to a flute. It may be all right, not quite the same, but acceptable. Likewise, one may not have barberry so one uses Oregon grape root. Most herbalists would be satisfied with this substitution, but it must be clear that standardization is not what most herbalists wish to see. We need to look at herbal medicines as somewhere in between food and medicines. Just as we can put different veggies in our stir fry dishes, we can allow for variation not only in the ingredients of an herbal formula, but in the potency, not just from lab-to-lab but batch-to-batch in the same lab. This is Nature at Her best, and it is entirely acceptable that herbal medicines have this variation.

This does not, however, mean that "anything goes." It surely does not. Recently, I was put into a situation in which I had to move some of production to another lab because the owner of the lab with which I had been working for years was ill. Not only was this a major undertaking, but many issues came into focus.

Each lab has different equipment so the processing methods vary. Of course, they source from different growers or wildcrafters in different parts of the country; but they also use different extraction techniques, allow different amounts of time for extraction, have different pressing and filtering equipment, and so on and so forth.

In the course of the upheaval, there were moments of overwhelm and moments of riotous laughter. I thought of the plant spirits in Hawaii, the rows of dried herbs in Santa Fe and Chinatown, the capsules and tablets in bottles, the teas, the syrups, and the herbs extracted in vinegar, lemon juice, wine, glycerin, and alcohol—and not just "any alcohol" but certified organic 190 proof grain alcohol or vodka or gin or rum.

Obviously, one can only touch the tip of the iceberg in an introductory essay such as this, but what is important is that Nature is the world's largest medicine chest. Of course, plants provide food for many species of insects, birds, and animals besides people, but they also provide the clues to balance and health that are critical to the survival of the entire ecosystem.
Photo credit: Christen Rosamilia



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Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2003, 2006, 2014