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How the Practice of Herbs and Botanicals Can Enhance Integrative Medicine by Sarah Poulin

How can acupuncturists successfully bring the practice of herbal medicine and the use of botanicals into the growing field of integrative medicine?

In order to successfully make the practice of herbal medicine and the use of botanicals an essential part of integrative medicine, we as acupuncturists and practitioners of Oriental medicine must be willing to act as advocates for and educators of the history, effectiveness, and safety of these medicinals. The impetus for this integration must come from our field, as we are the practitioners who best understand the innumerable benefits of this medicine. We must reach out to other health care professionals and to our patients with confidence and passion for this time-tested and highly effective medicine. 

As practitioners hoping to incorporate herbs into the field of integrative medicine, we must find the language to express our medical theories and treatment principles both to other health care practitioners and to our patients. In expressing the theories of herbal medicine to integrative medical practitioners, we must strike a balance of using familiar medical terminology without undermining the unique values of our medicine. For example, in the case of Ma Huang Tang, we can explain that the formula uses ephedra along with other herbs to promote diaphoresis to expedite healing as well as to reduce wheezing from bronchoconstriction. We must then further explain that in Oriental medicine, Ma Huang Tang treats a pathogen of wind and cold by pushing out the disease through the skin. In combining terms that are familiar to medical professionals along with an elementary introduction to our beliefs, we make formulas sound less strange and intimidating. In communicating the tenets of herbal medicine to our patients, we must introduce the basic philosophies of our medicine in order to explain why herbal formulas will work. This requires a delicate balance between informing the patient of the essential concepts of Oriental medicine without including the minutiae of our medical theory. By simply introducing the patient to the eight principles (yin and yang, heat and cold, interior and exterior, and excess and deficiency) almost any concept in Oriental medicine can be quickly and easily explained. While incorporating herbs into integrative medicine may require some extra work on our part, we should embrace this as an opportunity to help introduce our way of thinking to a wider audience, thereby reducing stigma to herbal medicine and helping countless patients achieve better health.

With herbal medicine as a part of integrative health care, the questions of safety surrounding drug-herb interactions must be addressed. While the potential for drug-herb interactions cannot be ignored, practitioners should not shy away from using herbal medicines with patients taking pharmaceutical drugs. The fears surrounding drug-herb interactions are largely theoretical; there is little concrete research that actually shows harm from taking pharmaceutical drugs and herbs at the same time (Sperber & Flaws, 2007, p. 23). We must offer educational opportunities to fellow health care professionals and to our potential clients in order to make them aware of the realities of drug-herb interactions. By leading seminars for current medical and nursing students, teaching continuing education classes for licensed professionals, and participating in integrative networking groups, we can make our medicine more accessible to other health care workers. Offering open forums to the community can allow patients to allay their concerns as well as to become aware of the many benefits of integrative medicine. By having confidence in the safety of herbal medicine and by sharing our knowledge of herbology with others, we can demystify our practice while simultaneously fostering a more inclusive system of medicine.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we must communicate the rich history of herbal medicine and botanicals to others. Oriental herbology has been in practice for millennia and has evolved to address every conceivable human ill. The codification of herbal tradition beginning with the Divine Husbandman’s Classic of the Materia Medica in the Han dynasty (25-220 CE) reflects a remarkable lineage to which our current medicine owes much (Bensky, Clavery, Stoger, & Gamble, 2004, p. xiv). It is extraordinary to think that our current herbal practice has been created, discussed, and modified over thousands of years by untold numbers of skilled practitioners. By reassuring those uneducated in the history of herbal medicine that the practice has stood the test of time, we can inspire confidence that our medicine can only enrich any current medical setting.

            It falls to us as practitioners of Oriental medicine to engage others in a discussion about herb therapies. As confident advocates for the safety and effectiveness of herbal medicine, practitioners have a unique opportunity to shape the direction of modern medicine. We must be willing to initiate and maintain open lines of communication with health care professionals and the general public about ways in which herbal medicine can benefit not only our patients but also the future of medicine in this country.


Reference List

Bensky, D., Clavery, S., Stoger, E., & Gamble, A. (2004). Chinese herbal medicine                                    material medica (3rd ed.). Seattle, WA: Eastland Press.

Sperber, G. & Flaws, B. (2007). Integrated pharmacology: Combining modern pharmacology      with Chinese medicine. Boulder, CO: Blue Poppy Press.