Terms of the Trade: Herbal Energetics
Defining Herbal Energetics
Herbal energetics are generally defined as a framework of understandings of how to best match herbs to the individual and/or situation. Spectrums (such as cool/warm) and properties (such as astringent) are associated with herbs based on our observation of their effect on the body. For example, when we choose the moistening, mucilaginous root of Althaea to treat a dry, hacking cough where there is a burning pain in the chest, we’re using basic herbal energetics.
This approach allows us to narrow down the potentially overwhelming number of herbs listed for coughs, to the most appropriate in any given situation for a specific person. So, rather than playing a hit or miss “this herb for that problem” game, we are able to act with more specificity, accuracy and efficacy. Individuated therapy, by its very nature, tends to result in the most effective treatment and herbal energetics can give us the insight necessary to do that.
Many of us are most familiar with herbal energetics in the context of Traditional Chinese Medicine or Ayurveda, but the Western world (and thus Traditional Western Herbalism) also has a rich – if not entirely intact – body of knowledge concerning herbal energetics. And no wonder, considering how elemental and even primal energetics actually are.
While the origins of herbal energetics are rooted in sensorial experience (especially taste) and physical observation, it is common for herbal energetics to be associated with complicated theories and unsubstantiated (meaning that they don’t prove out in real life) ideas. And certainly there is an actual basis for this perception when we look at much of the extraneous and complex hyperbole surrounding the subject. In truth, the basis of energetics is primarily common “sense”: herbal energetics are really just shorthand for describing what the plants communicate to us through our senses.
Plants are extraordinarily complex organisms that we humans have evolved alongside, and our interactions with them are both extensive and longstanding. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are designed to experience plants in such a way that gives us insight into how they might help or harm us. Refining our senses and becoming familiar with what particular tastes, sensations and smells are most likely to mean are foundational and invaluable tools for any herbalist.
While often referred to as theory, I consider herbal energetics to be highly practical in that even a basic understanding of their use can result in a more direct relationship with the plants and give better clinical, real life results. They are also practical in the sense that they provide a link between scientific understanding (the pharmacology of primary plant constituents) and actual practice (herbal actions and their application). Simply by tasting, smelling, feeling and otherwise using our senses to explore a plant we can know how the plant will likely act in the human body and with a basic understanding of pharmacology/phytochemistry, we can even understand why. Herbalist and botanist Christopher Hobbs gives a brief example of this:
“Generally, hot herbs have constituents that make them stimulating to the blood circulation (resin-containing plants such as ginger) or increase metabolic activity (alkaloid-containing plants such as black tea). Cold herbs have antiinflammatory compounds such as sesquiterpenes (feverfew) or alkaloid-containing antibacterial and antiinflammatory herbs (golden seal).”
While it’s not truly necessary to know the details of how plants work on human physiology in order to work with them as an effective herbalist, this simple link does allow us to better understand the amazing realms of possibility inherent to botanical medicine. It’s also helpful in allowing us to realize that science, specifically biomedicine, and traditional herbalism can overlap and interlink in a way that allows us to become better herbalists and have a deeper understanding of both person and plant.
“I used to be a research scientist in plant physiology, and while I did the research, I became fascinated by the unity I was seeing throughout biology… The challenge for science is to use this integrative approach within modern medicine… The usually conservative, resistant, backward field – sorry to say this – has been medicine. Medicine tends to follow the rules laid down hundreds of years ago… What we have now is where the integrative ideas of modern physics, the integrative ideas of modern ecology, and the integrative ideas of Qi theory, or in Western terms vitalistic theory, are now slowly entering modern medicine so that it begins to take in these philosophies.”
- Jeremy Ross (Research Scientist, Acupuncturist, Medical Herbalist)
To me, herbal energetics are all about recognizing the the wisdom of our bodies and our ancient relationship with plants as medicines as well as food, poison and beyond, in a way that allows us to have a greater understanding of how to help each other through hands on experience – through tasting the plant, understanding what it does organoleptically, with our sensorial bodies – and then directly applying that knowledge. This isn’t just head knowledge, it’s whole body knowledge that results in an ever more whole and effective approach to healing and herbalism.