Tuesday, October 11, 2005

On Herbs

Plants are the original chemists and alchemists of our planet, synthesizing out of water, air, earth and sunlight thousands upon thousands of bioactive chemicals. Many of these chemicals are used in the plants’ own self-repair, self-defense, and health maintenance. Since individual plants exist not in a vacuum but in complex communities including other plants and animals, their various antimicrobial, anti-cancer, immune system strengthening, and other therapeutic compounds benefit all the members of their community. Until quite recently, human beings were also part of that community, and they also benefited from the wide range of nutrients and medicinal compounds that they encountered in the wild plants that they foraged. Fortunately, the healing properties of plants were remembered and passed on. This body of knowledge is what has come to be called herbal medicine.

Unfortunately, with the rise of agriculture and modern monoculture, modern humans eat an appallingly small selection of foods (and those that we eat have often had their healthiest phytochemicals bred out of them in favor of blandness, uniformity, and long shelf life). The result is that we don’t get the same range of beneficial substances from the foods that we eat. And, generally speaking, we are less healthy than our ancestors (we may live longer, but that is primarily due to advances in sanitation rather than to changes in diet).

I suggest that rather than run to the nearest herb store to buy herbs with which to supplement your diet, head into the woods and gather stinging nettles, edible mushrooms, miner’s lettuce, or other locally-growing herbs to cook at home. The experience of foraging in the wild will itself be a healthy and deeply satisfying activity, with the health benefits of wild foods an added bonus. If you are unsure about what plants to pick, check with your local natural foods store – most cities have an herbalist or two who lead herb walks in the local woods or hills.

In addition to incorporating herbs in your diet, I suggest that you consider making herbal medicine your primary healthcare modality. Many of our most common health complaints, including colds and flu, menstrual problems, and digestive disorders, are not very effectively addressed by conventional medicine. Herbs often help, with fewer side effects than pharmaceuticals. The truth is that many of us run to the doctor far too quickly and far too often, and end up using medications that cause unpleasant side effects, pollute the environment, and often don’t work. By using herbal preparations for your healthcare needs, you increase your own innate vitality and immunity, and do your small part towards decreasing the growing environmental impact of excreted pharmaceuticals on the biosphere.

Using herbs is one way to wake ourselves up out of the hypnosis of modern living. Head for the woods! Eat wild plants! Taste all the flavors! Your senses will come alive, and your organs, your blood, your entire being will remember what it was like to be an integral part of the living environment as we once were not too long ago.

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