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Herbal ComMINTary > JUNE 2009

  Time for a "Locaherbal" Movement

     There has been a lot of press concerning the "Locavore" movement. This is a case of what was old is new again--eating locally to benefit health, cut costs and environmental damage and to slow down, grow/buy prepare and eat whole foods. Just 3 generations ago, this was the norm due to lack of quick transport, lack of grocery stores and lack of variety or trade agreements. Now we are (re)discovering the value of fresh foods to health, we want to pay less and want to have greater control over the quality and safety of what we eat. Many Farmer's Markets now take Food Stamps, so that everyone has access to fresher /local foods. These are all valuable and ultimately, health promoting goals. But, we still do not connect our foods closely to our health and certainly do not consider herbs as foods or the benefits of using local herbs over the more exotic, foreign ones.

     "Let thy foods be thy medicines. Let thy medicines be foods".  Hippocrates was correct in his assessment and in his day, there really was no distinction between between what we dilineate as foods and herbs. We do not generally recognize that most foods have particular health benefits aside from the nutrients thay contain that keep us alive. However, new research into "nutraceuticals" and "functional foods"- the medical benefit of foods, shows us what our ancestors knew--you are what you eat. So we are on the way to understanding the greater role foods play in our health and about how to achieve it, but are woefully separated from the role our natural/herbal medicines play.

     My experience has been that people are more in awe of exotic herbs from other countries, as if NOT being local, a plant is more powerful and useful. The grass is not always greener. There are two issues of great importance here: safety and efficacy.

     Most of our culinary and medicinal herbs are not grown in this country. There are a variety of reasons, but it comes down to the growing culture needs of the plants. The most benficial plants grow in soil and under conditions they like--which also means growing in the wild. Attempting to farm them leads to  a good supply, but often inferior quality. This is something we will have to live with. However, within these problem areas, we also have to contend with different standards of farming /pesticide use and sanitation. As we know from the recent problems with Chinese imports, we also have to contend  with deliberate contamination/substitution/adulteration (with heavy metals and narcotics) as well as  incompetent FDA procedures for controlling imports.

If we are choosing an herbal remedy instead of or in conjunction with standard medical treatment, we need to be sure we are getting the remedy we THINK we are getting and that it is a safe product. With most plant imports, we are also dealing with issues of fumigation and irradiation to control insects. So, in many cases, the herbs we have available to heal us, are inferior in quality when compared to all the potential benefits they should have.

There is also the psychological impact of us thinking that "other" is better. In Asia, American ginseng is highly prized-moreso than their own varieties. Many "sang" hunters in the south, make nice money digging these roots for overseas markets, with Americans not at all interested in it. Conversely, we do covet Asian ginseng. Often, a really cool exotic herb (with a name we can not pronounce) is really the same as one of our own local weeds which we overlook as useless. When buying these types of herbs, research into the Latin name of the plant is essential to make sure you are getting what you want. Safety is important--but is it really what you need to contend with when already feeling ill?

     The USEFULLNESS of a plant to you and your particular illness is equally important. We are each unique, reacting to stress, environmental factors and to life differently. If you have 2-3 colds per year, chances are each one is a bit different--one affecting your sinuses more, another, your lungs. Certain ethnic groups are more prone to certain problems and each of us has to contend with genetic predispostions to illness as well as immunities to others. Our environment also makes certain types of illnesses more prevelant. In my area, sinus infections are practically normal. Can you get the same relief from a Chinese herb that you might from a more local plant?

     While certain areas of the country/world enable certain sorts of illnesses. It also appears that in those same areas, one or more plants grow naturally, that aid in the healing of those illnesses--sort of like a "local intelligence".  For remedies to work best, it seems to me that we can look at out ethnic heritage and where we currently live (for at least 10 years) to find the best plant medicines for our own particular needs. We know that those ethnic groups coming from places where dairy animals were not kept, have a higher incidence of lactose intolerance than those from dairy rich areas. Though no one has studied it, it would seem that the same may be true of plants.

When choosing remedies, take a look at your family background, what herbs were traditionally used there and try to find a product or make one that approximates your own ancestor's usage. If you have lived in  place for 10 years and are acclimated, also look around you, seek out Field Guides  and find the local "weeds" that are used for your current concerns. I have noticed that certain year's weather encourage certain illnesses and that there tend to be more of the type of plants that can aid in recovery growing that year. Sounds very bizzare, especially when we are used to walking into a store to buy pills and herbal products, but this is no different than people having given up control of their food supply in favor of the supermarket produce, to now realizing how much better homegrown tastes and how much better you feel when eating fresh foods--and the savings aren't bad either. Sometimes, what you really need is local--right in your own backyard.


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