Traditional Herbal medicine makes the assumption that should be obvious to everyone, all men are not created equally. The concept that we are all created equal is a political concept, one that quite often, we mistake as a medical concept. The biomedical model relies on people having basically the same chemistry and therefore one drug is assumed to have the same effect on each and every person. That doesn't always happen so there are exceptions and warnings about side effects.
Herbal medicine was founded under a different set of assumptions. That is that everyone functions differently and that we should assume that what affects one person will likely have a different effect on someone else. Herbal medicine came from food and cooking traditions. One person's delicacy is another persons garbage. Likewise using a "sweet" herb is going to have less effect on modern child who eats large amounts of sugar, compared to a child of the past for whom sugar was a rarity. Traditional herbalists always worked within their culture and saw their patients through the filter of the food and lifestyle of the local culture. As a result I know of several highly regarded Chinese Herbalists who came to practice here in the US so they could see and learn about how to treat patients who have a different culture and thus different dynamics then say a patient in rural China. Chinese cities are becoming more westernized and so the US is a training ground for Chinese herbalists to learn what to expect in the way of future medical problems back in China. A Herbal medical symposium I was at warned that in the conditions discussed, the classical dynamics (and thus the current text books based on those classics) did not hold true here in our culture and with our patients. We always have to prescribe herbs based on what a patient presents in the way of symptoms, not just what has worked in the past.
For the consumer this is important if you are self medicating with herbs. Just because a herb cures headaches in some remote tropical island, does not mean that it will automatically do the same for you here in a fast paced modern city in the dead of winter. Herbal marketing companies continue to sell products based on the chemistry and some historic use. The product that results may or may not be appropriate for you and your situation. Traditional herbal medicine, was often first about changing the diet as a way to affect change. Herbs are often prescribed with special diet instructions, not because the herbs and foods directly interact, but rather to use foods to enhance the change you are trying to create in the patient. Those dietary changes are going to be patient specific.
This sometimes frustrates patients when they come to a herbalist. Often patients have many problems that are all related, but they want to focus on one problem first. For example a patient may have breathing difficulties, but the underlying problem may be an inefficient digestion. Taking herbs to help the breathing is a waste if the herbs are not properly getting through the digestion. So the proper course of treatment is to focus on the digestion first, and then address the breathing. This is the difference between herbal medicine and herbal marketing. Herbal marketing tends to focus on herbs to use like vitamins to help a person over a long time. Traditional herbal formulations were customized to the patients current condition and modified as the symptoms of the patient changed. In this way the patient could be weaned off the herbs to avoid dependency on the herbs. Herbs provide a way to make medicine specific to the patient because all people are different, and medicine should reflect that.
— David Bock
This article was from David's LakeCountryOnline.com column, "The Practical Herbalist"
David Bock, C. Ac., Dipl. OM, FABORM
Wisconsin Certified Acupuncturist
National Board Certification in Oriental Medicine
Fellow American Board Of Oriental Reproductive Medicine
Bock Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
888 Thackeray Trail #206
Oconomowoc, Wisconsin 53066