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A beginner's guide to herbs and how the heck they promote good health

Lisa Fogarty


Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

What you can expect when visiting an herbalist

It seems like everyone is talking about natural healing solutions these days, including herbal remedies that some say can either replace pharmaceuticals altogether or serve as supplements to support the benefits they deliver. If you're completely unfamiliar with herbs and their abilities and are starting from scratch, I should warn you: This is an extensive field, there's a great deal to learn about and it isn't easy to sum up herbal remedies in a few paragraphs.

But let's try. First of all, what, exactly, are herbal remedies — and are they legit?

"Herbal remedies are commonly used in Asian and other countries worldwide," says Angie Yin, an acupuncturist and oriental medicine practitioner located in Bellevue, Washington. "Clinic-wise, we use herbs to treat a wide variety of ailments, such as upper respiratory infections, seasonal allergy, insomnia, major depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders, postpartum syndrome, fertility issues, menopause and post-menopausal syndromes, and a lot more."

What does an herbalist do exactly?

If you suffer from an ailment and want to try a natural approach, Yin says a typical consultation session at a clinic would result in a diagnosis based on the holistic concepts of four major diagnosis methods and comprehensive analysis of the syndrome collected from the patient. They include: 

1. Inspection of vitality, including complexion and natural skin tones, facial expressions, physique, speech, consciousness, and an overall tongue inspection. "Each vital sign means significantly in the process of differential diagnosis as each one has its own manifestation based on the theories of Traditional Chinese medicine practice," Yin says. "For instance, red tongue body with thick yellow coating indicates excess damp heat in the body, [so] we would consider using herbs that clear heat and drain dampness; whereas purple dots on the tongue indicates blood stasis. Herbs that help to promote blood circulation will be used in this particular case."

2. Auscultation of patient’s voice, rhythm of respiration, cough quality, frequency of sighs, hiccups, belching and sneezing. "For example, cough with a feeble voice indicates deficiency syndrome," Yin says. "Herbs used for this condition will be based on tonic formulas. In addition to that, olfaction of patient’s secretions and excretions is also a factor to consider. Different scents and odors emitted by the patient indicate specific syndrome and potential illness. For instance, fetid mouth odor is usually associated with excess stomach heat. We will choose herbs that clear middle burner heat to use here."

3. Patient inquiry. "[We] inquire about their medical history of current conditions and details of chief complaints," Yin says. "Inquires also include their lifestyles, typical diets, menstrual cycles, qualities of defecation and urination, as well as the accompanying sensation, and so on."

4. Testing a patient's pulse. "This method is to conclude our intake and further support medical information we have collected in the prior three methods," Yin says.

More: 13 awesome garden herbs that double as health supplements

Herbs are most effective and potent when kept in their original forms as raw and unprocessed. But there are many different options when choosing how to take herbal remedies, and all have their own advantages, says Vanessa Nixon Klein, a traditional naturopath and wellness consultant at Herbs of Grace Healing Arts, who has experience in herbalism.

"For those new to herbs, oftentimes capsules are more familiar and convenient," Nixon Klein says. "Teas can be tasty and provide a relaxing ritual to go along with the medicine. Tinctures or extracts are easier than tea for some people but may not be as pleasant tasting. Massage oils are certainly a great method for topical application as well."

So, what kind of herbs are we talking about?

As you can imagine, the roster of herbs prescribed by a specialist is varied. But certain common herbal remedies that can improve your health tend to come up frequently in any discussion about herbal treatments.

"Adding angelica roots, dang shen, red dates and wolfberries into the [hot] drinking water can actually brighten your complexion, boost energy and vision," Yin says. "I call them essentials for women’s wellness and beauty secrets. They can prevent headaches from prolonged study and reading (perfect for students preparing [for] exams). These four herbs are also great to take during the menstrual cycle as they are all blood tonics that can ease cramps and promote blood circulation. Mint leaves are a great choice for those [who] suffer from allergic rhinitis, chronic nasal congestion and sore throat. They are very powerful in terms of opening up your congested passages. Last but not least, honey-coated licorice roots are often used as a mediator to harmonize and coordinate with rest of the herbs in most tonic formulas."

Nixon Klein says some of the most common herbs she uses with clients include culinary herbs such as garlic and ginger, as well as wild, locally harvested herbs such as plantain, dandelion and stinging nettle.

“I often blend garlic, ginger, onion, horseradish and peppers into a combination known as Fire Cider or Master Tonic that is extremely effective at preventing colds and flus as well as lessening the intensity and duration of symptoms,” Nixon Klein says. “Ginger is great for relieving upset stomach. Dandelion is a wonderful herb to assist with a spring cleanse or detox and is nourishing for the liver. Plantain has intense drawing benefits and can pull slivers and infections out of skin wounds. Stinging nettle is often used around this time of year for the relief of allergies and hay fever. These are just a few of their many uses.”

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How do I get on board?

It may seem easy to stock up on herbs at your local produce store and create your own remedies at home — but both experts agree that it's important to do your research first and consider visiting a professional so that you get the most benefit from these treatments.

"The practice of herbal remedies is very versatile and formulas are custom-made and tailored to individuals only, not for everyone in the general public," Yin says. "Besides, you are not supposed to take the same formula endlessly. In other words, you need to have herbs in the formula modified once your symptoms change as the illness progresses. There are many factors involved in determining what herbs to prescribe. It is unwise to make [your] own purchases on any herbal remedies without consulting with a professional."

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