What IS a Clinical Herbalist?

One might assume that we herbalists use herbs- duh! Now, there are herbalists and there are clinical herbalists. A clinical herbalist doesn’t have a specific definition; just like there are many different types of lawyers with varying degrees of skill, education level, and skill set. The distinction between a clinical herbalist and an herbalist might indicate a variance in skill, or it might not. It might be a personal preference. It might be (and I think in most cases is) a descriptive term indicating that an herbalist works in a clinical setting or has an official practice. 

There are many types and models of herbalism: Traditional Chinese Medicine, Traditional Western Herbalism, Ayurvedic, Homeopathic, and Aromatherapeutic Herbalism, just to name a few. Each has its own cultural construct, jargon, and way of interpreting the body and its functions and processes. Now, if you don’t know much about herbalism, the idea of interpreting the body’s functions and processes differently might be new to you. Herbalists don’t differ in our beliefs about basic physiology, but we differ in our philosophies regarding how these processes relate to the body as a whole – mind, body, and spirit.

This freedom of variance is part of our cultural history and what makes us strong today. Different cultures have their own concepts and ideas of how to view the world and the body: how it comes to be unbalanced (sick), and how it heals. That is where different schools of herbalism come in. The school whose language and concepts most closely align with your philosophy of how the body heals is the best modality (mode of healing) for you to choose because you will be able to integrate that concept into your belief structure and will trust it more than other options and thusly allow the herbs to work within that structure.  

I have had people swear to me up and down that “Chinese herbs just work better.” This might be because they loved their practitioner, they have an affinity for Chinese culture and therefore Chinese medicine, they have had amazing results with TCM, or for one of many other possible reasons. The herbs utilized in TCM, Western Herbalism, and Ayurveda often cross over or are in the same botanical families (meaning they often share constituents). In other words, the herbs between modalities are often interchangeable and sometimes even the same exact herb. 

An individual’s preference often has to do with quality of care and application by the practitioner and even the healing modality of the mind. 

If a person who prefers Traditional Chinese Medicine came to see me, they might be disappointed and unimpressed by Western Herbalism and how I assess them, which would change the outcome of their interaction with me. They would be better served to go to a TCM practitioner. If you are someone who prefers TCM, you should check out my friend and colleague Foti Sardelis of Anthos Acupuncture and Herbs in Birmingham, AL.

Now you might be wondering, “How do herbalists talk to one another if their languages differ? How can there be so many types of herbalism and so many different ideas about how the body works?” As it turns out, these modalities share many common threads; they simply refer to them by different words. 

Certifications and Education

I am a clinical herbalist; my background is in biology, and I have seven years of herbal education and training under my belt. From working with traditional Appalachian folk medicine teacher Daryl Patton, to completing a large scale production farm internship with the tincture company Herb Pharm, to self study, personal health crises, and an internship with clinical herbalist Thomas Easley RH (AHG), my journey with herbal medicine has been so rewarding, and such an amazing learning experience. I get to grow with plants and people every day and I am so grateful to be the vehicle for this work. It is truly my life’s purpose and the path that got me here was not a straight one.  

Different people go different routes. You can get certifications from private herb schools, or you can get a graduate degree in herbal studies. These can be comparable in certain situations, but in other situations they are not since it all depends on the quality of instruction. If you are interested in a list of credible sources for herbal education you can visit the American Herbalist Guild.

The American Herbalist Guild grants the distinction of Registered Herbalist (RH) to herbalists who meet their standards after being vetted through case files,  education, and other components of their herbal training or background. 

Although many good herbalists are not registered and are not in the process of being registered, this distinction is nonetheless a good indication of credibility for those who have it. 

Remember, though: no one asked the shaman where he went to school. He lived it, breathed it and everyone in the community trusted in his competence because he embodied his craft.

That being said, don’t just listen to someone spout off a bunch of hooey to you without questioning it. Use discernment. There are plenty of people in this world with questionable motives and an over-blown sense of authority. And don’t forget that just as medical doctors are humans who can be fallible, so too are herbalists – even those with the best of intentions.

You are ultimately your own primary health care provider. Be an advocate for yourself, ask lots of questions, talk to your herbalist and physician often, and do your research. 

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on a day in the life of an herbalist as we continue our series on the many facets of clinical herbalism.

Thank you for reading and sharing!

Cameron