The Lord created medicines out of the earth, and the wise do not reject them. --Book of Sirach 38:4
The Herbal Renaissance
We are witnessing an unprecedented resurgence in natural healing. The search for holistic approaches to enhance health is permeating every aspect of our culture and society. Why is there such an explosive interest in natural medicine? It is certainly not for lack of success from our scientific approach to illness. Major advances in physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and genetics have exponentially expanded our understanding of disease, and we have developed previously unimaginable new ways to diagnose and treat the afflictions of humanity. Within the last fifty years we have eradicated smallpox, minimized the risk of many life-threatening childhood diseases, performed sophisticated brain surgery, and transplanted organs. In view of these obvious successes of our modern medical system, we might imagine that the status of the institutions of medicine would be at an all-time high. And yet we know there is pervasive dissatisfaction and frustration with our health care. How can we explain this paradox?
It is the nature of life to strive continually for more evolutionary solutions to the endless challenges that arise. In this information age, every intelligent person has access to a vast body of facts and opinions on any subject of interest. People facing health concerns no longer depend solely upon their physicians for advice and information on the management of their illness. Whether or not you have a healthcare background, you have unprecedented opportunities to learn about your problem. Through the Internet, books, journals, newsletters, and support groups, more and more people are formulating their own view of their illness and how they want to approach it. Patients are no longer passive and are not inclined to be as patient as they once were. There is a powerful movement of self-empowerment and consumerism in the world today that grew in part out of the sixties mindset of challenging authority. Thalidomide, DES, Fen-Phen, and other highly publicized drug recalls over the past generation have dampened our unbridled enthusiasm for consuming every new pharmaceutical product as the shortest distance between sickness and health. With expanding information on the role of diet, stress, and activity on health and disease, many people are asking these new questions of their health providers: What should I be eating to help my body heal? How can I better manage my stress? Is there a role for nutritional supplements in the treatment of my condition?
Such questions reflect a deeper one, which we hear each day at the Chopra Center for Well Being: What more can I do to be an active partner in my healing process? Unfortunately, most of our medical colleagues are ill-prepared to answer these questions, and often discourage their patients from asking them, directly or indirectly. Consequently, more people are seeking alternative sources of information. The now well-known report of Dr. David Eisenberg showed that more than two in five Americans sought out "unconventional" medical treatment in 1997, while other studies have put the number at closer to one in two.
What needs are being fulfilled by these unorthodox modalities? In our experience at the Chopra Center, most people have not rejected medical care; they simply want to explore other, less toxic alternatives before resorting to a potent drug or procedure; they want to be more than passive receptacles of physician-prescribed drugs; they want to go beyond compliance to active partnership. It is here that herbal medicine can make a contribution to the well-being of individuals and of our community.
According to Ayurveda, India's ancient medical system, human beings are not merely thinking physical machines frozen in time and space. Rather, we are networks of intelligence in a universe of energy and information. The conscious energy field of the universe organizes into forms and phenomena spanning the entire range from galaxies to subatomic particles. Somewhere in between are human beings, with their physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual layers. We are in constant and dynamic exchange with our environment through our breathing, eating, eliminating, perceptions, and interpretations. It is an illusion of our senses that our boundaries end abruptly at the surface of our skin.
Within this framework, health is more than the mere absence of a laboratory abnormality; it is the dynamic integration of environment, body, mind, and spirit. Herbal medicine offers a gentle approach to enhance this integration, particularly when the imbalance has not gone too far. Healing plants allow us to reconnect with our environment, accessing the power of nature as our ancestors have done since antiquity. Herbs can help us normalize disturbed physiological functions including digestion, elimination and sleep. They can help restore weakened immunity, settle a turbulent mind and promote detoxification and rejuvenation. Plants provide us expanded and diverse options to synthesized drugs, but they do not replace the appropriate use of pharmaceuticals.
We wouldn't use a jackhammer to knock a nail into a wall, nor would we expect to remove the nail with a tweezers. There is an appropriate tool for every job, and this is certainly true for medicines. In our earlier days as medical doctors, we would at times prescribe a medication, simply because we did not have any other tools in our toolbox. If we saw someone with annoying migraines, we would prescribe a headache medicine. If we believed that a patient was suffering with mild depression, we would prescribe an antidepressant. Difficulty sleeping? Chronic back pain? Indigestion? We could justify prescribing a pharmacological agent for just about any problem you might have.
When we began seriously and systematically to use holistic approaches, we saw people with conditions in which subtler, natural options were more effective, with fewer side effects, than any medication we could offer.
One of David's first experiences with natural medicine was with a woman with migraine headaches who had not responded to treatment for over a year. Despite a trial of every known headache drug, her discomfort persisted, creating frustration for the patient and her doctors, who received regular calls from the emergency room announcing her arrival. Finally, out of desperation, she was taught a simple meditation technique, instructed to make minor changes in her diet, and she was prescribed an herbal tea made of feverfew. After just a few weeks she related a major improvement in her headache pattern, and within six months no longer required medical care for what had been a lifelong condition. Deepak vividly recalls one of his early cases in which he prescribed herbal aromatherapy for a woman with life-threatening heart irregularities. She was taught to associate the herbal scent with a healing meditation technique and was eventually able to eliminate her need for medication, to the astonishment of her cardiologist. The plural of anecdote is not science, but even doctors can be impressed by their personal experiences. We are increasingly reassured by the growing body of scientific literature demonstrating the measurable benefits of herbal remedies, which we see every day at the Chopra Center.
On the other hand, people sometimes have unrealistic expectations of herbs. Resorting to a blend of wishful thinking and denial, women with abnormal mammograms, smokers with problematic chest X-rays, and overweight people with dangerously elevated blood sugars may go on quests to find the "magical" herb that will cause their physical problem to evaporate, preferably without any other lifestyle change. With these patients, we have learned that compassionate, honest education is the key to enlisting their choice of a course that is realistic and likely to succeed. Herbs can add tremendous value in these circumstances, but they are not a substitute for appropriate medical care.
An herbal medicine can be a powerful ingredient in a holistic health program, but it should not be expected to carry the entire healing responsibility. Herbs can help support, nourish, and balance the physiology, and they can help detoxify and replenish, but although they can play an important role, herbs should not, by themselves, be expected to eradicate metastatic cancer, cure infertility, or reverse an inherited degenerative disease. Our goal in this book is to honor plant- based medicines for their contribution to our health without over- or underestimating their value. With this approach, we believe we will see a greater interest in, and acceptance of, these powerful, ancient healing substances.
The Antidote to Aguish and Alienation
In our growing mastery of the world, we may forget that there is a profound underlying intelligence that expresses itself in nature. Many people living in urban centers spend days, weeks, and months without the opportunity to immerse themselves in a natural environment. Driving through rush-hour traffic to work in an office without access to fresh air alienates us from our environment and ultimately from ourselves. Fast- food meals and commercial entertainment provide few reminders that we ourselves are magnificent expressions of Mother Nature. We believe that deep in our evolutionary soul we long for a sense of connection to our environment. Our resurgent fascination with herbs may nurture that part of our spirit that is calling for a simpler life and a more innocent time when we felt closer to the natural world. Perhaps we are enamored with herbal medicines because it is in our nature to use the plants in our environment to balance and heal us. To this end, we hope The Chopra Center Herbal Handbook provides valuable guidance on your journey to well-being.
*Endnotes have been omitted.