Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Confessions of a skeptical herbalist

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="200" caption=" Skeletons in the closet"] Skeletons in the closet  Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig,[/caption]In November 2004, I seriously considered getting into politics. Luckily the voice of reason -- my wife -- spoke up, with the true fact that I've not lived nearly a clean enough life. It's not that I have a lot of skeletons in my closet. No, I have an entire basement full of them. I'd have to expose each and every one of them before entering a race, and no one would bother to read a press release that long. So no politics for me.

But in the post-TAM glow, I'm compelled to do more work to forward the cause of skepticism, science and rational thought. And just as with my brief flirtation with politics, there are few things I need to clear up, save someone expose them as evidence (heh) that my skepticism is somehow false.

Lucky for me, I've lived pretty much out loud and online since the early Oughts. So my big reveal shouldn't come as a surprise, since it was well documented.

In 2000, I completed a 18-month intensive study of western herbalism. To be specific, the class was taught by a wonderful practicing herbalist named JoAnn Sanchez, and classes took place at the Southwestern Institute of Healing Arts, or SWIHA for short. And yes, it's primarily a massage school. I have no knowledge of the curriculum of the school outside of JoAnn's classes. And quite frankly, I don't care. JoAnn's credentials in the herbal community -- whatever that may be worth to you -- were and remain impeccable. I learned much from her and the handful of other herbal medicine practitioners she introduced to me and the rest of the class.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Healthy or insane shelf 3"]Healthy or insane shelf 3[/caption]Yes, some of what I learned I'd call bunk. But not all. Herbal medicine isn't like homeopathy, which is 100% bunk. To be more specific, there's nothing in homeopathic "remedies", save water. Nothing. I repeat. Nothing. If you think that's incorrect, I encourage you to do some research. Or wait a few days and keep reading. I'll have more to say on the matter of homeopathy and a grassroots movement I'm a part of.

But back to the non-bunkness of some (and that's an important word) of the claims made in regards to herbal medicine. Many plants -- hell, MOST plants -- have chemical compounds with pharmacological properties. Some of these pharmacological properties do effect the human body. Sometimes the effect is small, sometimes large. Sometimes the effect is good, and sometimes bad. As in dead-bad. Just ask Socrates.

So yes, I studied herbal medicine. And yes, I learned a lot. And even more yes, I still used plant-based medicine at home. I also use medicine my MD prescribes. And I use medicine I can buy over-the-counter at my local pharmacy.

While I wish I could say that all the herbal remedies I used had been adequately -- or even tentatively -- studied; I cannot. I, too, fell for the woo. I, too, fell for the "its been used to treat this for thousands of years" bullshit. On some plants. Guilty as charged. Yet the skeptic inside of me never died. He just got over-shadowed by the latent Believer that hadn't been let out since my brief fascination with UFO-ology in high school. Then I learned about the vastness of space. But I digress...

So yes, I know a lot about plant-based medicine. And yes, I still use plant based medicine. AS an alternative to "conventional" medicine? Some of it, sure. If I'm coming down with a sinus infection, I'll take some tincture of Mahonia repens. That I prepared myself. The antibacterial properties of the alkaloid berberine are well documented. Sure, I could go to the doctor and he could give me a broad-spectrum antibiotic, or maybe culture a sample of my snot and pinpoint the bacteria in question so he could prescribe a more specific antibiotic. But I know what I have (in this case) and know how to treat it (in this case). That's not woo. But if I don't know what I have? I'm calling the doc. And if I know what I have but I don't know how to treat it? I'm hitting the pharmacy. Or the doc.

Am I an expert on plant-based medicine? Probably more so than you. And for a handful of specific conditions I'm likely to deal with from time to time, close enough. But I know my limits. And I'll not be so foolish as to suggest a trip to the herbalist is as good as a trip to the doctor or pharmacy. In some cases, it may be. But unless you know what those cases are, don't risk it. Yes, I used to rail against "allopathic" medicine and the strawman of "big Pharma". Yes, I once questioned a doctor -- very, very briefly -- on his prescribed choice of treatment when my son developed a pretty nasty staph infection in his elbow joint. It took me all of about 5 seconds to realize there existed a vast gulf between what I knew and what the trained medical professional knew. Hence, my kid got the best that allopathic medicine had to offer. And kept his arm. As JoAnne taught us, "If I'm hit by a car, don't take me to an herbalist. Take me to the emergency room!".

Retrospectively, I probably couldn't have made it through the intensive program if I had my skeptical hat on. And maybe that would have been a good thing. But I don't think so. I have a hunger to learn new things. My cursory investigations lead me to conclude there was something to plant-based medicine, and I wanted to learn more. Studying with Joann seemed a good choice then. And it still does now. But don't expect me to rush to the defense of all plant based medicine. Nor should you expect me to lump herbalism in with the quackery of homeopathy. More on that quite soon. But for now, I think I've adequately aired out the biggest skeleton in my skeptical closet.

How about you?


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Evo Terra, Katsushiro. Katsushiro said: RT @evo_terra: Confessions of a skeptical herbalist | [...]

  2. There is nothing wrong with learning new things - especially when you realize how small what we know is.

    I suspect most people who begin this study start with the premise that this is where the majority of medicine came from. And, while my beard and degree make me look like Andrew Weil - his popularity is not based within medicine - it is based on that same belief that if we follow the "root" of things we can prevent and even cure some ailments outside of modern medicine. I could not disagree with his beliefs more- but I'll save that for another time.

    Plant based medicine has two components - plants (and the extracts from them) and medicine. Medicine itself is a highly rigorous discipline, based on years of study of chemistry, physics, biology, and a bit of humanity (often lost). The sinus infection you describe probably isn't a bacterial infection at all, and probably wouldn't be given an antibiotic by a reasonable physician - so one has to begin the thought of the treatment with a diagnosis - and a self-diagnosis at that (whenever I diagnose myself I have a fool for a patient and a doctor). The extract of the plant - however bacteriostatic or bacteriosidal it may be - what is the volume of distribution in the body- what is the known effective range, what is the level at which bacteria become sensitive-- and which of the many bacteria are we talking about? Yes- berberine has some effect against staph- is that what was (if it was bacteria) causing the infection?

    Certainly not saying that allopathic medicine has an answer- but it has a method- a scientific method - for which we can look at treatments and evaluate them. We in medicine know, for example, that Hydrogen peroxide does more harm than good against wound infections- and yet people buy it all the time for their wounds and use it for their home medicines to treat those things. We in medicine know bacteria doesn't grow in honey- but honey is only topical and if you have a tissue infection it won't work. So even "home remedies" that people take as a matter of course can often be harmful.

    Yes, digitalis came from foxglove - and can be found in a number of plants - and in medicine we use it (well, use to) for congestive heart failure - but before growing the foxglove I'd like a cardiologist to evaluate the heart- and probably foxglove wouldn't be the drug of choice.

    You are kind to the plant based types- but I would probably lump herbalism into quackery. A system of learning, a logical system - may have some great things - but that does not make it a science. The bible may have some great health codes (Kosher eating for a time when there were no health codes) and some labor laws (taking a day off work) - but I wouldn't use it for every day living in 2010.

  3. Well said, Terry. And I only keep the Digitalis in the garden for when I need to off people.

  4. I never would have pegged you for a herbalist, however now that you're "out" it makes total sense. Is that weird? It is hard to not get sucked into just taking what people say as fact and not questioning, especially when those things follow your own personal belief system. I try and run my politics that way, and base my show on questioning, being skeptical, and giving other perspectives. Most people live their lives just by reading and watching what helps confirm what they all ready believe. If we were all a little more skeptical, we'd be more aware and smart as a society. Awareness is always the key. Like you said you can be skeptical of something and still do it/use it, but at least you are aware of what you're getting into and that it might all be bullshit. Being a skeptic is being responsible.

    I read a great blog post on Confirmation bias, I think you'd like it:

  5. Thanks, Dani. Well aware of confirmation bias. I've fallen in to the trap many, many times. But I'm growing quicker to recognize it, though it's always hard. Friends help!

  6. Where is the mystery people?? And don't forget that there is a sister to the Scientific Method of understanding -- the Empirical Method. If you have a stuffy nose and know your own medical history, you can take a calculated risk that a given treatment may cure it, regardless of the pharmacology. There is a 'placebo effect' for a reason. The mind has alot to do with your healthy immune system.

    Skepticism should be about curiosity - though I think many so-called skeptics error the opposite direction into cynicism, get sick and die broken hearted. :-))

  7. Gathering empirical evidence is an important step in the scientific process, Ken. And yes, many skeptics do fall into the trap of cynicism. To the point, in fact, that a good percentage of the population assume a synonymous relationship between the two. I'm cynical about many things, but try not to let my skepticism bleed over into that. I don't always do a good job, but I try.


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