Archaeological studies have found evidence that prehistoric mankind practiced a rudimentary form of medicine – a form that highly relied on herbs. Centuries since then, herbs have been a primary source for medicinal compounds and remedies, especially in eastern medicine. To this day, there are still people practicing the ancient art of herbalism. These practitioners are called herbalists.
A herbalist is a type of medical practitioner who specifically uses plants and herbs for the purpose of treating and preventing disease. A professional herbalist can have a wide array of duties including consulting with patients, recommending herbal remedies, keeping updated on herbal research, and much more.
History of Herbalism
Plants have always been one of the main sources of medicinal compounds used in history. In the United States alone, 74% of the top 150 prescription drugs are sourced from plants. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of the global population rely on herbal medicine in one form or another.
As a science, herbalism has very early roots. Archaeological data suggests that paleolithic people were knowledgeable on which plants conferred medical benefits. All this comes from an ancient Neanderthal burial site in northern Iraq that showed traces of pollen from eight different plants – seven of which are considered medicinal in the local area.
Since then, herbalism has been observed to have been practiced in countless different cultures and civilizations. Various ancient medicinal texts from Egypt to Greece all described some formulation of remedies that utilized herbs. These texts recorded herbal remedies that today’s science can support, such as the medical properties of certain plants such as aloe, castor bean, mandrake, cannabis, juniper, and so much more.
Herbalism has also been ingrained in certain schools of medicine such as traditional Chinese medicine and the Indian Ayurveda.
In traditional Chinese medicine, herbalism is emphasized in the Shennong Bencaojing (“The Classic of Herbal Medicine”). Written between 200-250 BC, this pharmacopeia lists 365 different medicinal plants and their uses.
Argued as the oldest system of medicine, the Ayurveda has numerous texts (e.g., Caraka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, Ashtang Hrdayam, Ashtang Samgraha, Sarangadhara Samhita, Madhava Nidanan, Cakradatta, Kashyap Samhita, etc.) that all lists and describes different herbal remedies and formulations.
While herbalism in traditional Chinese medicine and the Ayurveda is heavily intertwined with their own religious philosophies and concepts, Arabic herbal medicine was practiced separately from religion. Adapting from the Hippocratic-Greek medical system, the Arabian herbal medicine was prominent in the Middle Ages. Aside from the traditional way of preparing herbal remedies, herbalism at this point utilized physiochemical techniques developed from alchemy such as evaporation, filtration, distillation, sublimation, and crystallization.
Currently, herbalism is still widely practiced all over the world, particularly in Asia. In places where western medicine is dominant (e.g., United States), herbalism is considered to be alternative medicine.
As herbalism is a practice, herbalists are its practitioners. These are people who are extensively knowledgeable on botany, ethnobotany, human sciences (e.g., anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, etc.), nutrition, pharmacy, and so on. Ultimately, herbalists aim to heal people using different parts of a plant such as the leaves, bark, stems, fruits, flowers, and roots.
There are numerous reasons why a person would go to a herbalist instead of a medical doctor. A 2018 paper published in BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies investigated why people use herbal medicine. The study found that people who opt for herbal medicine are those who are dissatisfied with conventional treatment, had good experiences with herbal medicine, or are simply following family traditions.
A 2016 paper published in the Kastamonu University Journal of Forestry Faculty surveyed local herb firms and customers in Turkey. The customers were asked for their reasons for buying herbs. The study observed the following reasons: food (48.5%), respiratory system disorders (17.2%), digestive system disorders (11.1%), cardiovascular disorders (5.1%), dermatological disorders (5.1%), nervous system disorders (4%), and other health problems (9%).
To become a herbalist, most organizations would recommend proper training. One of the most common routes to become a herbalist is to take a training course. Many universities and colleges offer vocational courses on herbalism.
Organizations and guilds also offer accredited training courses on herbalism. For example, the American Herbalists Guild offers a course that covers human nutrition, herbal nutrition, ethnobotany, edible wild plants, basic herbal and medical terminology, herbal medicine preparation, drug and herbal interaction, cross cultural herbology, and more.
Another recommended route for a person to become a herbalist is to become an apprentice of an established herbalist. By shadowing the herbalist, the apprentice would be able to learn the necessary knowledge for the practice (e.g., identifying herbs, preparing herbal remedies, assessing patients’ needs).
In the United States and other countries, there are no requirements (e.g., license, certification, etc.) to become a professional herbalist. However, one can get registered at their local herbalist organization as a way to demonstrate their core level of knowledge and experience in herbal practice that establishes a standard of competency for themselves and others.
For example, one can become a registered herbalist under the American Herbalists Guild. The standard application requirements by the American Herbalists Guild would include 800 hours of comprehensive training in botanical medicine achieved through formal education, independent study, or both, 400 hours of total clinical experience (including a minimum of 300 hours of direct client contact), 80 individual clients seen within two years, 150 medical herbs as part of their working materia medica, and more.
Another organization would be the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, the leading professional body of herbalists in the UK. Membership for the National Institute of Medical Herbalists requires extensive training (minimum equivalent of three years full-time) in anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, nutrition, and over 500 hours of clinical training.
Once fully trained and registered at their local herbalist association, the herbalist can then proceed to perform their wide variety of duties and responsibilities.
Description and Duties
The primary duty of a herbalist is to provide healing through the use of plants and herbal remedies. This can then be subdivided into several responsibilities such as consulting with patients and assessing symptoms, selecting the appropriate herbal remedy, performing physical examinations, planning and explaining treatment requirements, liaising with and making referrals to specialists or other health care practitioners, providing advice about diet, exercise and lifestyle, and keeping accurate and confidential patient records, keeping up to date with new research and developments in the profession.
Most herbalists are self-employed running their own practice. This means that aside from all the herbalist duties listed above, these herbalists must perform basic entrepreneurial and managerial duties as well. These include bookkeeping, managing herbal stocks, and marketing. Instead of ordering herbs and ingredients from a credible source, some even take it upon themselves to grow their own herbs from their home gardens.
Having undergone extensive herbalist training, herbalists have several job opportunities that are unique to them. Aside from becoming a medical herbalist who consults with clients and dispenses herbal remedies for clients, herbalists can also specialize in selling herbal products specifically. These herbalists can run stores where people can directly purchase herbal remedies.
Herbalists can also run a specialized nursery that caters specifically to medicinal herbs. They can then sell seeds and plants to people or even to other herbalists.
Lastly, herbalists can focus on teaching. As budding herbalists are required to be extensively trained, there will always be a need for herbalist mentors. These mentors can then teach the next generation of herbalists in all aspects of the practice. Herbalists can either teach apprentices through their own practice or teach classes in colleges.
While it may seem like a herbalist has quite a similar set of duties to a clinical physician, it is important for both clients and herbalists to avoid that comparison for legal purposes. It is said that the most common way a herbalist can get sued is by appearing intentionally or unknowingly, to be practicing medicine without a license.
Due to this, it is important for herbalists to avoid certain terminologies when speaking with clients such as diagnose, treat, prevent, and cure. In this manner, herbalists can legally protect themselves by avoiding saying “this plant will cure your disease,” but instead “this plant will promote your healing.”