My garden's full of herbs. I love to crush them between my fingers to smell the gorgeous fragrances, revel in the wafts of thyme and rosemary in the air whenever the temperature exceeds 25 C (OK - not often here!), and one of my favourite places to go is the herb farm nearby - it calms me simply to wander round, even if I'm not buying anything. Sometimes I just visit to see if there's a herb I haven't 'got' yet, plant it anywhere, hope for the best, and...usually it thrives, as herbs are generally very forgiving.
I've had a love affair with herbs all my adult life. I went to the Greek island Spetses on the strength of John Fowles' descriptions in 'The Magus' of the wild herbs on the hills. (Interestingly, the Greek island tavernas usually use commercially-dried oregano when the fresh grows wild by the roadside!).
However, my relationship with herbs has changed a little since raw (as do many relationships!). It got distinctly wobbly at first, there was even a short separation, but after a tentative reuniting, and some thrashing out of issues, we reached 'agreement', and now the relationship is different. Just as good, but on a different footing.
I'll tell you how the 'wobbles' started:
A few years ago I was considering studying for a BSc in Herbal Medicine, but got diverted by some 'raw food thing' :-) And, for some months, my passion for raw overlapped with my studies of herbal medicine.
Whilst taking care not to eat food that had been damaged by heat, to preserve nutrients so that everything present in the natural food would still be in correct proportions as it entered my body, there I was attending herbal medicine workshops, where I was being taught how to make 'decoctions', which basically meant boiling the herbs, then simmering for half an hour or so.
On the one hand, I was impressed by statements of the sort made by Anne McIntyre in 'Top Herbal Remedies', which described one of the benefits of using herbal as opposed to conventional medicine as 'using the whole plant'. Anne is critical of scientists who extract components from plants on the basis that they seem to play some beneficial role within the plant, then put them into 'medicines', devoid of the other substances that had surrounded them whilst in the plant, thus making a substance that is not 'the whole plant' and will be toxic to the body, resulting in all sorts of symptoms, described as 'side-effects'.
Well, that made lots of sense to me (and it still does), but, if that's true, I reasoned, then why did herbalists take a natural substance, boil and simmer it, destroying and/or damaging all sorts of things in it, some of which scientists know about, some of which scientists may well not know about, so that the result cannot in any shape or form be called 'the whole plant'?!
The effect of the cooking (based on what we know about the effects of cooking) would likely create toxic by-products, but, at best, would result in a damaged and unnatural substance. And people then put this into their bodies in a belief that it would 'cure'? I put this to the leaders of my workshops and got the impression that they were a bit 'thrown', that is, they weren't used to the question and, as they were on cooked-food diets themselves, had probably never questioned the logic of what they were doing to the plants.
Whether heated and/or processed (eg powdered), or made with 'extracts', many if not most herbal medicines will be far from 'natural' substances.
Little did I know then that I was a Natural Hygienist in the making long before I'd heard of the term Natural Hygiene. As, my puzzles over herbs as used by my teachers were right in line with the NH view of herbal medicine.
NH (and many 'alternative medicine' practitioners) sees acute dis-ease (symptoms) as the manifestation of the body's attempts to heal itself, by eliminating toxins via various orifices - for example, the nose (eg colds), mouth (eg colds, coughs, vomiting), rectum (eg diarrhoea), skin (eg rashes), etc. And, if the body is prevented from eliminating toxins, if symptoms (of healing) are suppressed, toxins will stay in the body, to accumulate and damage organs and tissues, resulting in chronic, severe (and sometimes irreversible) illness.
NH sees herbal medicines as toxic. And, if we introduce a toxic substance into our bodies, there may well be a cessation of symptoms. And that's why all medicines, including herbal medicines, are claimed to 'work', and that's why medicine has had such a hold on human beings for the last few thousand years.
NH explains that symptoms cease because the body's efforts to eliminate existing toxins (manifested in the disease being 'treated') are put on hold while it diverts its energies to cope with the new invader. There may, additionally or alternatively, be new symptoms - for example, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, sweating, increased urination. Those who believe herbal medicines 'cure' call this 'purging', saying that the herb is causing the body to clean itself out. NH says this is simply the body's going to great, often dramatic, efforts, to try to expel the medicine itself.
Any 'cures' are a cessation of symptoms only, giving the illusion of a cure. If the herbal medicine squashes the body's efforts to eliminate, at some point a new set of symptoms will occur elsewhere as the body will seek another outlet for elimination (we know that many herbal preparations result in 'side-effects' just as conventional medicines do) and/or the accumulation of toxins that the body does not manage to eliminate will cause serious problems. The medicines do nothing to tackle the underlying causes of disease, the apparent 'cure', sadly, diverting people from addressing those causes. Human beings in pain are of course attracted to anything that will stop the pain. But all medicine is simply a 'quick-fix', bringing its own problems, setting the sufferer on a downward spiral. Short-term gain at the expense of long-term pain.
(Some of you may be familiar with the 1930 experiments of Kouchakoff in Switzerland, in which it was found that, after eating a cooked meal, white blood cells rushed (leukocytosis) toward the digestive tract, indicating that the body was fighting what it perceived as an unwelcome substance. This did not occur with raw food. Dr Kouchakoff conducted over 300 experiments and found that all the following resulted in leukocytosis: cooked food, pharmaceutical or recreational drugs, nutritional supplements, processed, refined foods, homogenised foods, chemical foods, and...medicinal herbs.)
NH'ist Herbert W Shelton says that, ironically, the herbs thought to have the greatest medicinal qualities will by definition be the most poisonous ones. He states: 'If an herbal substance does not occasion actions of expulsion and resistance when taken into the body or applied to it, it is not vested with any power to cure. If the body ejects the herb by vomiting, diarrhoea, diuresis, or diaphoresis, and this is accompanied by some pain and discomfort, then the herb is regarded as beneficial and it is used to 'work'. If the patient then recovers in spite of the herb taking, full credit for recovery is given to the poisonous plant, and the self-healing power of the body is completely ignored.'
I'd disagree with Shelton that only those herbs that result in dramatic effects are seen as medicinal. Many 'milder' concoctions are said to have medicinal properties.
Here's Natural Hygienist Mike Benton, writing in the Eighies about the effects of peppermint tea (which incidentally needs a fair amount of peppermint to deliver its 'effects', which is why mint teas are usually made with dried or powdered mint):
'Let's take a simple case where an herb appears to do some work. Peppermint, a rather mild herb by most standards, is sometimes used to 'cure' a headache by herbalists. Your head hurts, so you drink a cup of peppermint tea. Your head stops hurting. Did the peppermint work?
Yes and no. Most headaches are caused by swelling of the intracranial blood vessels around the scalp. These blood vessels swell because of toxic matter in the bloodstream and body, and they then press against sensitive nerves. When peppermint is taken, the body recognizes its oils as harmful, circulation is rapidly increased by the body and the heart speeds up. At this point, the body is attempting to eliminate the peppermint toxins as quickly as possible by increasing circulation so elimination can proceed.
The increase in circulation, due to the toxic nature of the peppermint oils, has an effect on the swollen blood vessels in the head. The vessels are dilated so that the circulation can proceed rapidly and the peppermint poison can be eliminated. As a side result, the headache disappears, temporarily.
So is the headache cured, and did the peppermint work? No, the body did all the work. It worked to eliminate a poison, and these efforts also masked the symptom of a toxic body - in this case, the headache.
The cause of the headache - toxicosis - was not removed by the peppermint. The conditions that brought on the toxicosis - poor diet and lifestyle habits - were not improved by the herb. The headache may have disappeared, but the underlying cause remains. This is the case with all herbs - symptoms are depressed by the eliminative actions of the body which are directed toward the herb.'
Natural Hygiene even has something to say about certain plants (whether or not classed as herbs in modern day language) used in their whole, natural form, unheated, topically, such as comfrey or plantain to 'seal' minor wounds. Again, it is that they 'work' only because of their toxicity. If a herb is applied to a cut, yes, it may well 'seal' and stop bleeding, but that is because the body is attempting to protect itself against the toxicity of the herb itself.
When all's said and done, it's worth remembering that, whether we agree with the Natural Hygiene view of herbal medicine or not, an all-raw diet will reduce the need for healing anyway, as it removes many (not all!) of the causes of ill-health from our lifestyles. For example, yes I found chamomile tea very soothing once when I had stomach pains. But, since raw - no stomach pains (OK - bar bad wind once when I ate a watermelon that was 'off'!) When on a cooked diet, I'd found inhaling peppermint suppressed headaches - I assume in the way that peppermint tea 'works' as described by Mike Benton above. But - you've guessed it - no headaches (more than for a few minutes) since raw! (I suspect cutting out tea, coffee and alcohol might have helped though). And, finally, yes, I was very excited once, when on a cooked diet, to find that binding a cut with plantain did stop bleeding very quickly, but have now found, in common with others on 100% raw high-fruit diets, that, at least for minor cuts, the bleeding stops much more quickly than it ever did when cooked! So, no actual need for (short-term) herbal 'remedies' anyway!
So, in line with Natural Hygiene, I do not now advocate the use of herbal medicine any more than I do conventional medicine, which puts me at odds with many in the 'alternative health' world.
I realise that an article that effectively debunks herbal medicine, which has been practised for 'thousands of years' (as has cooking of food, meat-eating, killing each other etc) may not be popular with those who swear by it, but all I can say here is that none of us can be sure we're on the right tracks, but what I've learned seems logical to me.
Herbs and the Essenes
I've often looked to Essene texts for guidance, and the NH line on herbs may conflict with the Essenes, as my sources say the Essenes believed there was 'a herb for every ailment'. However, I'll sidestep that one by saying that, despite hours spent googling this, I've not yet been able to establish exactly how the Essenes used herbs. OK - according to historian Josephus, they 'seeked out medicinal roots for healing'. But, regardless of anything present-day people who call themselves Essene may do, I haven't to date found any evidence to say that the Essenes of two thousand years ago made 'decoctions', that the people who followed the Teacher's advice in the Essene Gospel of Peace to 'cook not', cooked the plants they used for healing.
And it's worth bearing in mind that, thousands of years ago, the word 'herb' was used in a broader sense than today; it was used to describe vegetation in general, rather than one class of (generally aromatic) plants. So it's possible that when the Essenes used the word 'herb' they meant plant foods in general, and were talking about the nutrients in foods that we know can supply our bodies with nutrients that will help our bodies heal. Bu, if you do know of any hard evidence that the Essenes were making potions in the way a modern herbalist might...let me know.
In Part 2 I'll tackle herbs as food/flavourings, and will explain why I do in fact partake of a little sprinkling of oregano on a tomato and cucumber salad, and, how, even for Natural Hygienists who don't use herbal medicine, and choose not to use herbs with food, herbs can still enhance our lives!