Alternative methods: Herbs provide holistic approach to healing
This country’s health care debate is one not likely to end any time soon. But people on both the political left and right seem focused on access strictly to modern medicine, rather than alternative approaches to health care.
But what if you’re the type who would rather avoid popping a pill to deal with an issue? Some say that’s where herbalism comes in.
Herbalism is defined as the use of plants for medicinal purposes, and the practice is gaining popularity in a culture saturated with pharmaceutical and surgical solutions. Some criticize herbalism as ineffective, but practitioners adamantly defend and stand behind the healing power of herbs.
“Plants have very specific properties that nothing else has,” said William Siff, co-owner of Goldthread Herbs. “They’re … highly nutritious and give our bodies various minerals, trace elements and antioxidants that are very unique and very necessary for the optimum functioning of the body.”
Siff opened Goldthread Apothecary in 2003 and two years later, started an organic herb farm in Conway as a way to localize the supply chain of the herbs he sold to the public. He sold the farm last year and now operates out of Florence, while also maintaining a space in the Franklin County Community Development Corporation in Greenfield to brew his specialty elixirs.
He described his eight elixirs as a line of concentrated herbal teas, each crafted with a certain benefit in mind.
“Those elixirs are an outgrowth of 10 years of having an apothecary in Northampton and the herb farm in Conway,” he says. “When people would come into the apothecary with a specific issue, I would have on hand a variety of different teas available and each one of these teas was designed for general improvement of specific health-related issues that are pretty common.
“They got really popular and people would come and buy them by the pound. So, naturally, we said, ‘Well, if only we could bottle it,’” he said. “So we did.”
Siff said his products are in many Whole Foods Markets in New England and he hopes to soon enter the New York market. He says focusing on bottling his elixirs gave him the chance to get them to a wider audience beyond the Pioneer Valley. He says there is not a lot of herbal representation in the beverage world.
“So what we have is basically the opportunity to define a new category,” he said.
There is another example of an herbal pharmacy in the area. Around the corner and down the hall on the second floor of 158 Main St. in Greenfield, a simple sandwich board on the sidewalk outside is the only way to know you’ve found Blue Dragon Apothecary.
Retail and Program Manager Emma Donnelly says people suffering from various ailments walk through the apothecary’s doors. She said employees talk with clients and figure out who best to refer them to.
“We believe that herbal medicine is powerful and can be used to bring holistic balance. Essentially, it’s looking at the whole body, the whole picture, the health history,” she said, sitting on the couch in the apothecary’s front room. “We don’t want to be just throwing herbs at one problem, because we know that illness takes a long time to manifest, so there’s usually deeper issues going on.
“We’re here because we’re adamant that herbal medicine should be available to all kinds of people,” she said. “Everyone should be able to afford herbal medicine and know how to use it. That’s our goal.”
The multi-room, 2,160-square-foot space is lined with the tools of the holistic trade and emits an earthy scent. Donnelly said Blue Dragon does a lot of mail orders and special tea blends, which are now sold at Dobra Tea in Northampton.
But some professionals in the world of modern medicine say people should use caution before experimenting with herbs to try to fix a problem. Herbal medicine can be popular among cancer patients feeling miserable due to radiation and chemotherapy treatments, but Naomi J. Bolognani, oncology nurse manager at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, says she never recommends herbalism to cancer patients.
“We do not recommend herbalism, as there is no scientific evidence to support benefits. Often, certain herbal therapies may potentially interfere with the effects of chemotherapy,” she said. “Some cause changes in bleeding times, interfere with the effects of traditional therapy, and may worsen side effects in some cases.”
Bolognani said if people are interested in herbal medicine, they should wait until their treatment is completed. However, community herbalism Jade Alicandro Mace, who works at Blue Dragon Apothecary, insists herbalism is a complete form of health care that can be employed to maintain peak health and gently correct imbalances as they arise. Mace also owns Milk & Honey Herbs in Shutesbury.
“Herbalism is a form of health care that is accessible to everyone, which is why I love leading herb walks and teaching classes, so folks can learn how to identify the plants and make their own herbal preparations,” she said. “When practiced in this way, herbalism can be very economical. Many useful plants can be easily cultivated and many can be found growing wild in our area as well, and may be enjoyed as wild edibles and fall into the ‘food as medicine’ category.”
She stresses it is important to consult with a professional herbalist if you’re using herbs in conjunction with pharmaceuticals.
She says herbalism combines well with massage, acupuncture, yoga and other alternative practices. She says she has a lot of clients dealing with anxiety and stress, inflammation, digestive issues, reproductive issues and autoimmune disorders.
“Herbalism works to help correct problems at their root in the body. Because of this, it can often take time, but the effects are usually long-lasting,” she said.