There are two primary ways to view herbal medicine and diet: Energetics and Chemical-Nutrition. Energetics uses three continuums to describe a food or herb’s affect on the body: Hot – Cold, Wet – Dry and Lax – Tense. These continuums form the foundation of many traditional diets and health care systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda.
The Chemical-Nutrition approach looks at the chemistry of the plant to determine its affect on the body in regards to vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, etc.
Both schools are valid and worthy of study. Neither gives a complete picture of the plant’s potential in isolation and having a general understanding of both greatly increases one’s understanding of health.
The Chemical-Nutrition School
In the West, people tend to view diet and herbal medicine from the culturally familiar Chemical-Nutrition view. Orange juice has Vitamin C, steak has protein, brown rice has complex carbohydrates and the latest fruit juice-extract-supplement has anti-oxidants (or whatever the latest health food industry marketing craze is).
Modern Western medicine is presented in a similar way: a pharmaceutical drug has a specific chemical component that has a specific affect on the body. This usually involves either killing a pathogen or blocking-inhibiting a physiological process.
When people raised in this environment first enter the world of herbal medicine, the tendency is to view herbs from the Chemical-Nutrition perspective since this the familiar world view. Eventually, most herbalists change over to the Energetic approach as it is effective and user friendly in addition to being the original way that herbal medicine developed throughout the world.
Challenges to Studying the Chemical-Nutrition School
The herb community in the United States is currently outside the mainstream culture. Some herbalists readily identify as “counterculture” (Although this can be a vague and misleading term. People who are outside the mainstream can be either extreme Left or Right. They often have little in common other than rejecting the Middle).
Since the Chemical-Nutrition school is considered mainstream, some ‘counterculture’ herbalists reject this view along with the general mainstream culture.
Another challenge is one of understanding. The Energetic view of herbs and food is largely organoleptic (direct experiential learning through the senses). Ginger is understood as being hot by directly tasting and experiencing the heat sensations on the tongue and throughout the body. Plant Walks are full of smells, tastes and tactile interactions. This is an ancient and concrete way of learning and can be grasped by people at a very young age. Most of us, by the time we are four years old, understand what the terms wet and dry mean.
The Chemical-Nutrition approach is more challenging. We often don’t actually see or directly experience the alkaloid molecules and terms such as ion and enzymes are more symbolic and abstract than Hot – Cold. Understanding the meaning of, and difference between the terms alkyl, alkenyl and alkynyl is a different learning experience and often requires university level training.
Why Study Plant Chemistry?
Essentially, herbalists are generalists. We know something about anatomy, physiology, botany, climate, life zones, pathology, medicine making, psychology and cultural influences on individual health; but most of us are not experts in any of these fields. Chemistry is one more field in which we can have a general understanding that makes us well rounded community herbalists. While it is possible to use and benefit from herbs with no understanding of plant chemistry, studying and mastering the fundamentals of this field gives us one more piece of the puzzle.