As the refreshing cool temperatures inspire evening walks and oyster roasts, fall also ushers in the start of cold and flu season. While many will slip into a state of germ-phobic hand sanitizing, there are others taking a more proactive approach to their health and wellness. In Charleston, this involves the practice of herbal medicine. Patricia Harpell, herbalist and founder of the S.C. Herbal Society, has managed to rally more than 400 people in Charleston interested in herbs since 2011. Harpell's extensive knowledge, training, and vibrant personality make her one of the leaders in the local herbal community. Her healthy respect for modern medicine and an active desire to help integrate ancient herbal knowledge with mainstream medical practices led her to create an Herbal Apprentice Program.
Offered at her James Island residence, the apprenticeship schools future herbalists on the systems of the body, the properties of herbs, and a holistic method for utilizing herbs to heal and treat the body, and Harpell has been seeing many nurses and doctors in her class. "I think we are actually on the cusp of creating true health care," she says. "If people will just take the time to learn from each other and to teach each other."
In the last few years, mainstream medicine has been embracing herbal practices, including the MUSC Porcher Memorial Medicinal Herb Garden installed in October of 2012.
Only a few generations ago, the majority of Americans relied on their diet and natural-based medicine to heal their bodies. So when did we step out of the forest and into the laboratory?
The integration of technology into the development of drugs has played a major role in how patients are currently treated. Interestingly, high numbers of the synthetic drugs used in medicine are extracted from and modeled after plant-based extracts. Scientists often isolate targeted chemicals found in natural sources to create mainstream drugs, such as salicylic acid, found in the willow bark that was used to develop aspirin. Such advances have resulted in untold numbers of medical miracles and lives saved. Yet every advertisement quickly lists a drug's many negative side effects, which can spur individuals, including those in the medical community, to seek more gentle alternatives to synthetic medications.
Herbal medicine developed over centuries, passed on through generations, and more recently is being researched using modern technology. Herbalism often uses many of those similar properties in plants being extracted for synthetic reproduction, but instead integrates the entire plant in combination with other herbs, foods, and lifestyle choices. Some forms of herbal medicine are as simple as honey and lemon or as common as mint. Herbal remedies can also be just as powerful and as dangerous as their synthetic counterparts if not taken with the same amount of care and guidance.
On the first day of Harpell's class, my fellow apprentices and I made up quite a breakfast club of future herbalistas. We consisted of a retired botanist, herbalist, acupuncturist/psychotherapist, a doctor (Ed.D), a mother-to-be, and myself, a gardener and local food advocate. All female, we ranged in age from 30 to 60, with an assortment of experience with herbs. Our motivations for taking the course varied, but our common bond was the desire to understand herbs: their uses, how to grow them, and what they could do for our bodies.
For Dr. Francine Margolius the lure of the apprenticeship was a combination of professional and personal curiosity. In her practice, she was finding an increasing number of patients casually taking herbs, often unaware of their interactions with medications. She was concerned these herbs were being taken haphazardly, potentially a very dangerous practice. At the same time, the positive aspects of herbal remedies held her attention, especially how some of the natural-based remedies might help her ailing husband when modern medicine could not.
For both Karyla Gaines (The Acupuncture Clinic of Charleston) and Dana Giggey Pappas (Living Natural Medicine), the apprenticeship was a hands-on way to advance existing knowledge of herbs in their practices. On more personal journeys, Vanessa Ryan and Vivian Whorley sought herbal knowledge to improve their health and the health of family and friends.
Almost 10 years ago, Ryan suffered a severe auto-immune disease and was frustrated as doctors treated only the symptoms. "When I went to the doctor they told me they would just treat it with steroids, and that did not make any sense to me." Through herbal practitioners, books, and websites, Ryan began healing herself. Whorley, also frustrated by the lack of support from doctors, began looking for ways to take control of her own health. "I wanted to improve my health. I am getting older. The doctors just say that my problems are from just getting old. That is not an excuse. I want to feel better."
Similarly, my choice to enroll in the course was personal. Frustrated with doctors throwing pills at symptoms, never questioning root causes, placating my concerns with vague answers, I soon became my own health advocate. According to Harpell this is a trend across the globe, "I believe what is happening is that people are taking responsibility for their own health." As a gardener, life-long student, and do-it-yourself individual, for me, herbal medicine was a natural step toward regaining control of my health.
With clear goals and a strong leader to guide us, the class began a journey that became much more than a lesson in plants. Over the course of six months of weekend classes, the group gathered at Harpell's home to pour over intense lecture notes, hike outdoors to identify herbs, and gather in the kitchen to prepare remedies. Step by step, each apprentice had hands-on experience creating recipes, teas, tinctures, salves, lotions, and more. There were case studies, reading assignments, and one-on-one practice. Many of the lessons became very personal, as individuals shared stories of first hand experience, often resulting in either laughter or tears.
The knowledge gained went beyond using calendula to heal skin and garlic to fight infection. While the morning might start with breathing techniques, by the afternoon we would find ourselves creating safe household cleaning products. Although hard to overcome, we learned to move past the need to buy a "product" and realized that it is often easier, safer, and more affordable to use simple herbal remedies at home. We discovered the gulf between modern and alternative medicine is often hard to span but there are valuable tools on both sides. During the course it also became clear that a majority of individuals suffer from illness caused by lifestyle, behavior, and diet as opposed to disease or physiological issue. Perhaps most importantly, we all had to recognize that people only truly heal if they both want to and believe they can.
The apprenticeship gave us the confidence to use herbs and share some of the basic healing properties with friends, families, and in some cases patients. "It is lovely to have the knowledge of our great-grandmothers resurrected and brought back to be common knowledge," says Pappas.
During the six months of meeting, the group experienced loss, illness, and even new life, forging a bond that extended beyond the length of the course.
"The class gives a sense of community," says Vanessa. "A lot of times when you are talking about herbal medicine, you feel like you are on your island and people are looking at you like you have two heads. So you can lose a bit of confidence. This class bolsters confidence in the power of herbs."
At the end, I realized how much our bodies intuitively know. We just need to tune in to what it's trying to tell us. From sun-up to sundown we are eating, drinking, and using products that could be hurting our health, and it's about time we regained control. If you need a little help hearing what you're body is saying, there's an entire community of herbalists ready to empower you, share their knowledge, and bring you into their family.
Interested in herbal medicine? The next session is starting in January 2014 and Harpell will be holding an open house on Mon. Nov. 4. If you want to learn more about the apprenticeship program email Pat Harpell, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit scherbalsociety.com.