Herbalism is the oldest medicinal practice, used by animals a long time before modern humans started to roam the globe.
At first glance, it would then appear that when it comes to plants, Herbalists know it all, have it all and they have nothing to learn from anyone, but on the contrary could teach many a great lesson.
And yet….as a multiple modalities practitioner, using both Homeopathy and Herbalism, to single out only those two, I have often looked at my herbal indications as learned at the College of Phytotherapy with the late Hein Zeylstra and asked myself how to select the appropriate one, or mix just a few ones, unless I decide to mix a number of them, with the theoretical idea of synergy and create what I have come to label a “kitchensinkum prescription” where one mixes everything and the kitchen sink, throw it at the patient and hopes for the best.
Nowadays, my herbal prescriptions are in fact not only based on the herbal tradition, or on the phytopharmacology, or on the clinical indications of “this for that” (although those are still important elements in the choice of herbs) but on the results of a repertorisation based on homeopathic principles; this repertorisation needs carefully selected details, called modalities, concomitants and keynotes and leads to a more precise and simpler herbal prescription.
Let me explain, first with some notions of homeopathic practice for those not familiar with them, then with a few examples.
Homeopathy was created 200 years ago by Samuel Hahnemann using the pharmacopoeia of his time, which included mainly herbs as well as toxic metals and salts. He “rediscovered” the old Hippocratic and Paracelsian principle of Similarity where substances that can cause symptoms or a disease can also remove and cure them. At first, he used the regular tinctures of herbalists with concrete results. This immediately lays to rest the objections of those who claim that “there is nothing in the highly diluted homeopathic preparations that can work”! Practicing homeopathy with “conventional” tinctures is done every day by many prescribers. The need for diluted doses came up when the indicated remedy was toxic and dangerous to ingest….but this is another story for another day.
The homeopathic indications, although originally based upon traditional uses, rely on “provings”, where we administer the substance to a healthy person and see what symptoms it can cause; when they appear in a patient, they signal the need for that remedy. Those symptoms, ranging from mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual to the nitty-gritty of every single organ and system are listed in the Materia Medica and can be found relatively easily using Repertories, which are in fact nothing else but detailed indexes of symptoms and signs with their associated remedies. The precise selection of a remedy relies on modalities, like aggravating or ameliorating factors, times of the day, position, motion or rest, temperature, weather and season, etc… It also relies on concomitants, which are phenomena that happen simultaneously with the main complaint even though there might not be any obvious physiological link (e.g. sneezing attacks every time diarrhoea occurs). Keynotes are symptoms and signs that seem to be extremely specific for some remedies (e.g. Arnica when there is a trauma with bruising), which does not preclude the use of other remedies that have the same presentation albeit to a lesser degree and not as well known; the keynotes have led to the creation of “recipes”, this for that prescriptions that often do work but totally lack the individual specificity homeopaths are looking for. To that we add some generalities and behavioural traits specific to each patient, and that is how a homeopath prescribes.
Modern herbalists do not seem to have any problem with those notions: for example, Julia Greaves and Matthew Wood include indications from the world of flower remedies and homeopathy, as well as TCM and Ayurvedic medicine in a style that makes the reader see those indications as evident, obvious, without any possible discussion or exclusion. Why would a modern wholistic herbalist, who uses both the traditional indications, a personal relationship with each plant when he or she has that ability (I totally lack it!) and the modern phytopharmacological discoveries that can explain many of the mechanisms of action and indications of herbs, want to bother with Homeopathic Materia Medicas and approaches that many take a malignant pleasure to rubbish?
Setting aside the questions of dynamisation, succussion, potentisation, high dilution that are different issues, mostly resolved through the study of water physics, let us use a few examples.
Euphrasia Officinalis is used by both homeopaths and herbalists, apparently with the same indications, for the same problems.
We find this in Potter’s Cyclopedia:
“Culpeper writes: “If the herb was but as much used as it is neglected, it would half spoil the spectacle makers’ trade; and a man would think, that reason should teach people to prefer the preservation of their natural before artificial spectacles; which that they may be instructed how to do, take the virtues of Eyebright as follows: The juice or distilled water of the Eyebright taken inwardly in white wine or broth or dropped into the eyes for divers days together, helps all infirmities of the eyes that cause dimness of sight. Parkinson reports that Arnoldus de Villa nova in his Book on wines “much commendeth the wine made with Eyebright put into it when it is new made and before it worke ( Which because we cannot make in our land, I could wish that the Eyebright might be tuned up with our strong beere in the same manner….) to helpe the dimnesse of sight and saith that the use thereof restored old men’s sight to read small letters without spectacles that could hardly read great ones with their spectacles before…. ”
Bartram writes about the indications being conjunctivitis, red eye, poor visual acuity due to eyestrain or diabetes, itching and stinging of the eye, corneal opacity, blepharitis, watery catarrh, hay fever, chronic sneezing, inflamed nasal mucosa, sore throat, as prevention of eye problems during measles, adding that it strengthens memory and improves circulation of the brain. Memory and brain are not indications usually taught for Euphrasia.
Mrs Grieve also focuses on eye and vision problems, although she quotes Gerard as indicating it for poor memory.
Closer to our time, Mills and Bone in Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy indicate and antimicrobial activity through aucubin, which is also hepatoprotective and seems to have antitumour activity as well as being antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and helping with the regeneration of nerve tissue (link to the memory indications!); therefore they extrapolate the traditional use for essentially eye problems and nasal discharge to antibacterial and liver treatment. Matthew Wood does not add anything.
In the USDA formulary, some of the components of Euphrasia are listed as antitoxic for the liver, anti-inflammatory and antimutagenic.
Euphrasia was proved, meaning tested on healthy humans, by Hahnemann, Muller and Kleinert; the enhanced uses and indications have been reported by many practitioners and are now part of a wide Homeopathic Materia Medica. I will only quote a few salient notions, leaving the rest for you to discover.
In relation to the ocular discharge, one of the specific keynotes of Euphrasia is that it deals with acrid lachrymation with irritation of the lower eyelid and the cheek, while the nasal discharge, if present is bland; this important keynote differentiates it from Allium Cepa, in which the nasal discharge is acrid with consequent upper lip irritation but the tears are bland and do not irritate the skin, allowing for specificity in the choice of a remedy. Pain in the liver is reported with the interesting finding of pain in the liver associated with eye complaints, which can be read the other way around, eye problems associated with liver symptoms; we do also know that in TCM, the Eyes are the opening of the Liver and that conjunctivitis and other inflammatory conditions represent an ascending Fire of the Liver. This commonality among different methodologies is interesting for the Herbalist: should you have a patient whose main complaint is centred around the liver, but also presents with ocular inflammation, even though he might not speak about it unless specifically asked, Euphrasia should be considered if not as the sole remedy, at least the major one if you use mixes of multiple herbs. Or if the patient complains about chronic eye problem and upon interrogation admits for example having chronic hepatitis. It becomes even more interesting when you read that Euphrasia is indicated homeopathically (but nowhere in herbal texts) in cases of haemorrhoids that are large, swollen, painful, stitching, smarting, burning, feeling sore and bruised, aggravated at night and by movement. Haemorrhoids are often linked to liver dysfunction, through the intermediary of the portal venous system, but how often have we been taught in Herbal classes to use Euphrasia in those cases? There are plenty of other herbs dealing with haemorrhoids, but if your patient complains at the same time of haemorrhoids and conjunctivitis, with pain in the liver area whenever the eye inflammation worsens, you have now a very peculiar picture pointing towards a very specific single remedy.
Speaking about liver remedies, let’s have a quick look at Chelidonium: it is a very specific liver herbal. But it also has, in Homeopathy, pain in the eyes, burning, lancinating, neuralgic, without the inflammatory, infectious discharge characteristic of Euphrasia, although there is some mucous discharge; other classical liver remedies like Taraxacum, Sylibum Marianum, Cynara Scolymus, do not have any eye symptoms in any of their provings.
Do you see what I am aiming at?
Western Herbalism, and also TCM, Ayurveda and others, are steeped both in Traditional practice and in modern Phytopharmacology.
Tradition is respected by many as a sacrosanct methodology that we should follow without questioning; it was good and worked for our ancestors, why have the hubris to believe we can make it better? Yet, if we follow Hildgarde von Bingen’s recommendations in her “Physica”, we would lose precious remedies like Arnica and Chelidonium. Knowledge and experience have evolved and keep changing; we should be able to keep up with it without the stigma of treason attached to it.
Phytopharmacology bears the stigma of being infeodated to strict chemical practice and strict pharmaceutical approach without any room for energetic indications, synergy between components and indeed yet unexplained traditional use. It is seen as the poorly understood application of Cartesianism, dividing everything in its smallest active components, forgetting that the totality is bigger than the sum of the components. Nevertheless, phytopharmacology has clearly demonstrated and explained many pathways and modes of action of traditional indications and opened to door to finding other applications that quite often were already used by other civilisations unbeknownst to us.
Both approaches are not mutually exclusive and should be used concomitantly. As should the knowledge imparted by other methodologies, like Homeopathy. The provings we go through explore all the facets of a substance, as partially shown by the examples given. Did you know that there are Mind rubrics for Euphrasia and Chelidonium as for most of our remedies? With very few exceptions, all remedies have an influence of almost all systems, and this should not come as a surprise to the wholistic healer: everything is connected; no living being is made out of separate components that can be replaced by others “off the shelves”.
Many traditional herbalists suggest we should not just read and study the Materia Medicas, but get to know our plants on a “personal” level. Look at them, sit with them, meditate on them, touch them, taste them and use the information all those approaches provide. I have tried, many times, I failed miserable. I am convinced that quite a number of other herbalists have experienced the same but do not dare share it. Yet, when I read those experiences, or when I read Julia Greaves’ explanations of the Doctrine of Signature, I read a form of “meditative proving” (which is also a controversial method of homeopathic proving) that correlates strongly if not totally, but with less details, with the information gathered by the regular homeopathic provings. And it makes sense! The findings seem so obvious! I often ask myself “how could I not see it?”…but I cannot…
When I study a remedy before prescribing it, I go through all the possible information I can gather about it, wherever it has been used. If I prescribe it as “Homeopathy” I will still look it up in the Flower Remedies, in Herbs and Phytopharmacology, in TCM, in Ayurveda and often find correlations with my patient that serve to confirm that my prescription is correct.
I suggest Herbalists do the same when researching a herb: use also the homeopathic materia medicas and widen your knowledge of the plant. I am not trying to “convert” anyone into becoming a Homeopath. Despite the ill-informed, arrogant criticism of higher dilutions and potentisation by some pretentious pompous practitioners of all horizons who live with the delusion they are Nature’s gift to humanity, this technique of preparation and use of remedies works perfectly well, as demonstrated by the thousands of worldwide practitioners who use it and the millions of patients cured; this is totally besides the point I am trying to make. The homeopathic Materia Medicas contain a wealth of information that was never discovered through empirical practice and will never come from chemical analysis. Those books contain detailed knowledge about the effects of substances on human (and animal) physiology at all levels, and their ability to cure or relieve.
Why not use it? Why neglect a precious tool?
Julia Graves: the Language of Plants; a guide to the Doctrine of Signatures.
Matthew Wood: Herbalism
The Earthwise Herbal
The book of Herbal Wisdom
Frans Vermeulen: Plants
Concordant Materia Medica
Synoptic Reference volumes 1 & 2
Author: Dr. Joe Rozencwajg, NMD.
New Plymouth 11.1.2016
Herbalism is the oldest medicinal practice, used by animals a long time before modern humans started to roam the globe.