When I hear the word “herbalism”, images of candlelit apothecaries, exquisite antique bottles of tincture, and the age old mortar and pestle come to mind. Even today, this isn’t too far from the mark – a resurgence of the age-old practice is in full swing and the craft has not changed much. Nor should it.
But along with this return to botanicals, there has been a corresponding re-birth of the snake oil salesman who slaps “miracle cure” language on their remedies. You’ve probably seen what I’m talking about. I operate on the principle that good information is a wonderful thing, but exaggeration and hyperbole are worse than no information at all.
When I speak to trusted herbalist friends who are following a deep calling to work with plants and are immune to the allure of material gain, they often speak about the herbs as allies, not magic bullets or cure-alls. They advise that a conscious, healthy lifestyle is by far the most powerful healing agent and that the effects of herbs will most likely not be experienced without it.
My friend and master herbalist David Winston has a great philosophy on how to properly use plants to heal the body. He views herbals as a secondary course of treatment that can work wonders if we have what he calls “our foundation” running properly.
In a recent sit down with him, David shared the following bit of wisdom with me:
“In my mind, anyone who is a competent herbalist doesn’t just use herbs. We look at diet, diet is foundational. We look at sleep, sleep is foundational. We look at exercise, we look at lifestyle. I don’t care how many herbs you take, if you’re not getting enough sleep, if you’re eating a lousy diet, if you’re not getting exercise, if you have an unhealthy lifestyle, you have unhealthy relationships, herbs won’t make up for that. So, we have to deal with the foundational things.”
Each of the foundations that David mentions is equally important, but I want to focus in on one in particular: diet.
When folks see the healing results that our patients experienced in The Sacred Science, the question we often hear is “what were the herbs that he/she was taking?” or “Do these shamans travel? Where can I find them?” But what tends to fall by the wayside is that a baseline component of their treatment was a very particular diet.
Yes, there are thousands of herbs that grow in the South American tropics, but in most indigenous cultures, nutrition is the first layer of the overall healing picture. It can vary from culture to culture, but the indigenous herbalists that we work with prescribe a primarily vegan diet.
And I’m not referring to the American version of vegan that relies on processed fake meats made of seitan and tofu smothered in starchy gravy with pretend cheese melted on top. If the intention is to heal illness, the jungle prescription will most likely include a back-to-the-land diet of locally harvested vegetables, non-gluten grains like quinoa and wild rice, fruits, and an occasional meal of a grilled local fish, called the Bocachico, which is high in nutrition.
If you think that meal plan is tough, get this – they also forbid the use of any spices, including salt.
Why is this? During an Amazonian healing dieta, meals are kept extremely simple so that the more subtle compounds in the prescribed herbal medicines can do their work without interference from outside substances. According to the native healers that we work with, a rich and fatty diet is an obstacle that not only disguises symptoms and interferes with the treatments, but also indulges the patient’s ego creating momentary comfort from the inner truths that need to be unveiled for an individual to heal.
Fun fact: The Sacred Science meal plan might sound impractical to some of us, but remember that a good number of tribes throughout the Americas subsisted on a largely vegetarian diet, occasionally eating small game when available. The popular image of Native Americans as buffalo hunters is a myth that was spread mostly by the Europeans. Until the introduction of the horse by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the buffalo was an impractical and largely unattainable source of food.
Today’s takeaway: Many people, including myself, have their exotic herbal regimen down to a science and get great exercise, but occasionally let their diet slip. Herbs are fascinating, and their mysteries hold a ton of promise for the future of our species. But they sometimes steal the spotlight. The tinctures, the teas, the tonics, and the infusions are important, but if you’re eating the SAD (Standard American Diet), these subtle approaches aren’t going to be effective for you.
The first thing that any trusted herbalist will recommend is that you address your foundations first – sleep, exercise, and of course, diet.
I hope you find today’s piece helpful!
PS: For the advanced herbalists that are reading this: the dieta is not only used to heal illness. In many Amerindian traditions, veteran herbalists (mostly shamans) and their apprentices will follow a 30 to 60 day dieta for the sole purpose of more deeply connecting with a particular herb. The nutritional protocol here is very similar to the one mentioned above, but can actually be more rigid. I have met herbalists who will live on unseasoned brown rice (not even salt!) and water for a 30-day period while they work with various preparations of a single herb. Do not try this without expert guidance!