Herbal Awakening

This story appears in the Summer 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

Health, according to the medical dictionary, is a freedom. A "freedom from physical pain and disease."

But this freedom seemingly comes at a price — a high one. One tacked to insurance companies, corporate industries, and chemicals. It works, for many, but how free can we be in such a system?

In the Land of the Free, the most widely prescribed drugs in the U.S. are not for pain management, cholesterol or hypertension, but for depression. In 2007, over 30 million patients spent 12 billion dollars on antidepressants. In 2010, American doctors wrote over 254 million prescriptions to turn our frowns upside down.

As of last month, I too joined this statistic. It took a mere 30-minute meeting with a thin-lipped psychiatrist to receive a prescription for Citalopram. It took longer to find a space in the clinic’s 12-deck labyrinth of a parking lot.

I hesitated for years in pursuing antidepressants. I told my therapist I’d hate myself every time I swallowed the pill (need I say, “ironic?”). Though I realized I would have to go through the process of weaning myself off the drug dependency, I wanted the instant gratification.

I, like many, chose effectiveness over true healing.

I told my therapist and psychiatrist I would prefer something along the lines of an herbal treatment in conjunction with the pharmaceutical medication (a solution I thought more favorable for the long-term, adverse to the thought of a lifetime tied to prescription drugs). Shrugging, neither of them had any direction or suggestions, but agreed this route seemed appropriate.

Herbal medicinal knowledge dates back to the beginnings of civilization, literally since the Sumerians, continuing across continents and cultures. The Ancient Eygptians possessed the “Ebers Papyrus,” containing information of over 850 plant medicines. The Grecian physician Pedanius Dioscorides wrote “De Materia Medica" around 50 A.D., a compilation of more than 600 plants and ninety minerals. Persia’s Avicenna created “The Canon of Medicine,” a compendium of 800 tested drugs, and gives a de- voted discussion to the healing properties of herbs, including nutmeg, cinnamon, and rosewater. Chaucer even mentioned the healing properties of herbs in “The Canterbury Tales.”

And yet, in spite of this extensive history and tradition, few physicians nowadays are even literate in the field.

Because somewhere down the road, within the past century actually, this ancient knowledge faded fast in the face of an increasingly mechanized culture. As the chemical industry got chugging, the economical potential of non-herbal products proved quite advantageous. Single-ingredient pharmaceutical medicines facilitated patent-publication, which could generate much more money than any herbalist ever dreamed of.

But in the spirit of counter-culture, the herbal tradition resurfaced in the 60s. Ever since, the wisemen and women fluent in the wildcrafting customs not only still exist in some communities, but are on the rise, working to facilitate, legitimize and promote the growth of Herbalism and to reinstate our right to health.

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“I think the recession of the last decade has reawakened America to the need to reclaim control over their health,” states Lorna Mauney-Brodek, a traveling herbalist, currently residing in Atlanta, GA. “I believe in the value of earth-based care, not just for our bodies, but for society as a whole — when people feel good, they do good,” she adds.

Since current insurance programs will not cover herbal remedies, pioneers like Mauney-Brodek find other ways to make herbal treatment and education as accessible as possible. In 2012, Mauney-Brodek established the Herbalista Free Clinic which travels at- will via the HerbBus, a mobile clinic stocked with tinctures, salves and solutions, to provide both first aid and earth-based care to underserved populations, offering herbal education to both patients and the volunteers who crew the bus, too.

Mauney-Brodek regards Herbalism of the traditional do-it-yourself attitude still ripe in many American minds; justifying herbal medicine as something mostly anyone can practice merely by utilizing what’s in their own backyards or even kitchen supplies.

After all, the use of herbs in cooking arose precisely because of their healing properties. Regardless of ailments, the introduction of more herbs into our bodies on a regular basis will work as a preventative measure, improving the strength of our bodily functions to lessen the threat of pain and disease. Take cayenne pepper, or capsicum: traditionally used for overcoming fatigue and restoring stamina and vigor, it is clinically tested to improve circulation and cardiovascular functions. Almost any herb and spice possesses a specific beneficial quality that we disregard simply because we are not aware of it. Medicine may not be food, but we ingest it just the same. Thus requiring the same kind of attention, care and discretion when choosing what we put into our bodies.

Many herbalists like Mauney-Brodek prefer to use as many local ingredients as possible. If a plant thrives in a particular region it is because it has built certain defenses to handle such properties like air, soil quality, climate conditions, etc. “By ingesting those herbs, we can benefit from these defenses and thrive as well,” she asserts. Such a practice reintroduces and reinforces a connection and trust for the local ecology, both human and plant.

However, what makes this practice ideal is precisely what hinders it from mass appeal. Herbalism lacks consistency. The rainfall, the soil, the harvest, the preparation of the herbs themselves will vary from place to place, and person to person, “All of these variables discredit herbs in the face of a system used to standardization,” Mauney-Brodek admits. "But ultimately, people themselves aren't standardized."

Herbal treatment works according to a person-based assessment stemming from the Eastern medical philosophies. Identifying patterns according to individuals, one asks: “What kind of person has this disease?” As opposed to the Western conventional way of asking: “What kind of disease does this person have?” Combining both questions ensures a most holistic approach to assess the patient in providing all that they may need. I was only asked the latter, but I know I am the kind of person that deserves both, all of us do. But until that happens, we can ask the questions ourselves, reclaiming the knowledge of centuries past. We can exercise our right to seek out our neighbors, the plants within our respective environments and begin the path towards true healing.

This summer, if you're feeling a little blue, check out remedies made from the Mimosa tree, or Albizia julibrissin, known as the "collective happiness tree."

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HOW TO IDENTIFY MIMOSA: The tree has very distinctive leaves and flowers. The leaves are bi-pinnate, which means each leaf has been divided several times, so it more resembles a feather or a fern. The flowers are pink and resemble little fairy dusters and grow in clusters.

PARTS USED: FLOWERS & BARK Flowers start blooming in early May and can bloom through July. You can go back and repeatedly harvest the same tree every few days as new flowers are constantly emerging from the flower clusters. I harvest the flower with the stem, and include it in my medicine. To harvest the bark, prune the tree, taking small branches and stripping them. NEVER gird a tree (meaning stripping bark around the trunk, like a belt. That will kill a tree. Give thanks for the medicine.

USES: Nourishes the blood and heart Unites the heart and the mind Resolves depression Indicated for heart induced insomnia (blends well with chamomile) Quiets the spirit Calms the mind Flowers uplift the spirit and bark anchors the spirit Resolves long standing grief