Many different types of natural medicine use herbs as part of their practice. In the United States, herbal medicine generally refers to a system of medicine that uses European or North American plants. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) uses plants native to China or Asia, while Ayurvedic herbal medicine uses plants native to India. Modern herbalists often use plants from many different regions of the world, and they do not restrict their practice only to those plants classified as an herb (a seed plant whose stem withers away annually). Instead, in medicine, an herb can be a root, a piece of tree bark, a mushroom, or anything else, which grows naturally and falls into the plant kingdom.
Prepared from a variety of plant materials – leaves, stems, roots, bark and other parts of the plant contain many biologically active ingredients. Phytopharmaceutical literally means “plant medicine” and has become a popular term for some types of herbal medicine, especially those practices that treat the herb or the herbal extract as a drug. There is literally no culture, ancient or modern, that did not use plants as part of their medical system. Many herbalists are working today to recover information that we’ve lost since the invention of synthetic drugs.
In the United States, herbal remedies are not regulated and come in unpredictable strengths; the amount of active ingredients varies greatly, depending on whether more than one species of the herb is used and how and when the herb is gathered and prepared. Become some herbs can be toxic and carcinogenic, all herbs should be used under the guidance of a trained and professional healthcare practitioner.
In the United States, an herbalist is a self-defined professional. There is no national or state system of licensure or certification for herbalists. Professional groups may grant certification to members that have reached a certain level of training as an herbalist. Some herbalists concentrate on growing or wildcrafting (picking) herbs. Others manufacture herbal products. Still others teach or counsel people about the use of herbs as medicine. One branch of anthropology, called ethnobotany, studies the use of plants in other cultures, particularly their use as medicine. Ethnobotanists, who receive their training through the standard university system, have classified a number of medicinal herbs. Their work helps preserve the traditional folk medicine of indigenous people around the world.
Legally, in the United States, the practice of medicine is restricted to those professionals who have a license. Practice is generally defined as both diagnosis and prescription, with a focus on the treatment of disease (the laws vary from state to state). There are no restrictions, however, on teaching people how to take better care of themselves. Most herbalists define themselves as teachers, healers or counselors rather than as medical practitioners. Several natural medicine professions are licensed and do use herbal medicine as part of their practice. So herbalists who want to practice medicine generally choose to do so under the license of another profession such as acupuncturist or naturopathic doctor.
In the United Kingdom, there is a legal recognition of herbalists as members of the medical profession dating back to the reign of Henry VIII. A number of herbalists that have gone through British training or its equivalent will use this designation. There’s talk among the professional organizations about establishing a “medical herbalist” license in the United States, but it does not exist at this time.
In general, the “practice of medicine” is regulated according to the state’s licensing laws. The “scope” of the license dictates how you can use herbal medicine. For example, a licensed midwife may be allowed to use herbs in her practice, but only as they relate to a woman’s health, pregnancy or childbirth. Herbalists generally fall under the state regulations governing a small business owner rather than under the laws concerned with the practice of medicine. If an herbalist is growing herbs for other people’s use, or manufacturing a product from raw herbs, regulations pertaining to the safe production of foods or food supplements may apply. Some states do restrict the sale of certain herbs considered potentially harmful, such as ephedra (ma huang). Professional organizations such as the American Herbal Products Association help members conform with these types of regulation.
Eligibility Requirements to Begin School
Many herbalists start their training by taking correspondence courses and then going onto more “one-on-one” training with other professionals. There’s a wide variety of correspondence courses offered, and very few have any eligibility requirements. Independent teachers offer a more “hands on” approach to learning herbal medicine through apprenticeships, field trips, and weekend classes. You can find them by contacting one of the professional associations or by checking your local resources such as an herb shop or health food store. Some courses address herbal medicine in the same manner as a drug therapy (how much to prescribe and when); others teach botany, fieldwork, and the actual preparation of raw herbs.
Some workshops and retreats are structured as continuing education for practitioners. If you belong to a health profession that requires continuing education, check with your organization to see if they are offering or sanctioning any herbal classes. Acupuncture schools, chiropractic colleges, and naturopathic colleges often give summer classes or special workshops focusing on a particular branch of herbal medicine. Sometimes you have to be a currently enrolled student or a member of the profession to attend, but others are open to outside students. There are even a few medical colleges in the United States that offer herbal classes for their students as an elective.
The American Herbalists Guild (AHG) offers a professional membership. The list of professional members is available through their web site. The AHG grants a professional membership following a peer-review by the admissions committee. Applicants must submit a personal and professional biography outlining their experience and training, have at least three to four years experience in herbal medicine, provide three letters of reference from other professional herbalists, complete an AHG questionnaire, and pay an application fee. Licensed practitioners are granted membership upon submitting proof of their training and license as well as a short personal and professional biography and curriculum vitae.
Many highly respected herbalists in this country have no professional certification or licensing. Their reputations come through the quality of their work — whether as teachers, manufacturers of products, or writers. This is a profession where the ability to carve your own niche can be the most important factor in professional success.