Mini-Medical School #4, August 3, 2013
Herbs for Aging by Michele C. Kennedy
(Summary by Dr. Stephanie Taylor)
Michele gave an authoritative tour de force of plant medicine from both the Chinese and Western Medical Traditions. Michele is a highly skilled herbalist with more than twenty years of teaching experience.
The United States had an official herbal medical tradition in the Eclectic physicians. The name “Eclectic” was created by a physician, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1784-1841). He lived with the Native American peoples and studied their use of plants for healing. Eclectic medical practitioners made use of any reasonably beneficial therapy, especially herbs, and were opposed to the purges and bloodletting of more traditional physicians. The largest Eclectic Medicine School was located in Cincinnati and graduated its last class in 1939. In 1910 the Flexner Report called for medical schools to observe only “evidence based” medical practice, and did not approve the Eclectic Medical Schools which gradually faded under the pressure. Fortunately, the schools transferred their books and manuscripts to the Cincinnati school and its Lloyd Library is now the largest collection of herbal lore from that era.
Michael Moore, one of the most renowned contemporary herbalists, said, when visiting the Lloyd Library, “…there they all were, holding on by the slimmest thread, the writings of a discipline of medicine that survived for a century, was famous (or infamous) for its vast plant material medica, treated the patient and NOT the pathology, a sophisticated model of vitalist healing.”
Those of you familiar with Chinese medicine will note the similarity in vitalist approach. Both traditions emphasize the individuality of the person and treat the root causes of disease rather than the symptoms, which are called “branches” in Chinese medicine.
Michele’s most important take home message was to discriminate between herbs that you take for a short time to treat a specific condition, and herbs that you take over years for deeper strengthening. The former are called Specific herbs, and the latter are Tonic herbs.
Examples of Specific herbs within the immune stimulating class are Echinacea, Goldenseal and Osha. They are taken for a short time to treat an acute event, such as a cold or flu. They become ineffective or dangerous if taken daily over a long period of time.
Examples of Tonic herbs within the immune stimulating class are Reishi and Shitake mushrooms, Astragalus and Foti (He Shou Wu). These are taken for years to support a deeper strengthening and are generally recognized as safe for long term use.
This brings us to the topic of adaptogens. Adaptogens are herbs that help the body adapt to all forms of stress-noise, environmental pollution, radiation, emotional, chemicals, and long hours of work or study. Each culture develops its own adaptogens. They are used to prevent fatigue and in situations of extreme stress, such as mountain climbing. A classic example is Panax Ginseng from Asia. An excellent Panax Ginseng root can be worth thousands of dollars. Because it is a very potent herb, it is not appropriate for everyone, especially if you have high blood pressure. A milder alternative is the American Ginseng. This is so popular in Asia that the wild stands of American Ginseng are threatened with extinction. Over harvesting is a problem for any plant that is harvested for the root, as opposed to the fruit or the leaves. Siberian Ginseng is actually another species, and is a popular and gentle adaptogen. The mushrooms are a fascinating series of adaptogens. Reishi mushroom is a type of wood mushroom, jutting laterally from old logs. Shitaki mushrooms are familiar from Chinese cuisine. There are actually therapeutic restaurants in Asia which blend the therapeutic and culinary traditions to prepare a meal using the herbs appropriate to your medical condition.
When you shop for herbs for medicinal purposes, quality is paramount. Excellent manufacturers use a multi-step process to assure quality. The plant material needs to be identified as the correct herb by DNA “fingerprinting” as well as visual inspection. They need to be tested for potency and for contamination with bacteria, molds and heavy metals. The potency is usually assessed with chromatography, and the percent of a marker molecule is listed on the label. Some herbs that are endangered species should not be wild-crafted, since this further depletes the native stocks. Herbs are available dried, powdered and encapsulated as well as prepared as a tea or a glycerite/ alcohol extract. The extracts are not equivalent to the whole herb, because not all the elements will extract into the liquid. Whether this is a problem depends on your goals for treatment. Extracts are, generally, a more stable preparation. The oil extract of aromatic plants compose the discipline of Aromatherapy. These oils are used primarily by inhalation, but in Europe are also taken internally.
Basic Resources for further study:
HerbalGram-the flagship journal of the American Botanical Society (ABC).
The German Commission E published by ABC at www.herbalgram.org
Essential Oils for Aromatherapy; Original Swiss Aromatics at www.originalswissaromatics.com