Traditional systems of herbal medicine had a few things in common. They were based in the culture and climate of the area. Northern mountain cultures did not have treatments for heat stroke and hot desert cultures did not have treatments for frostbite. Also the use of herbs as medicine was based on what was available locally or through trade and the preparation was based on local cooking traditions. Herbs that are used for medicine are essentially extreme foods. This concept of using foods as medicine persists into the modern day, chicken soup for a cold, honey for a sore throat, and ginger for stomach problems.
The difference between “folk medicine” and traditional herbal medicine was the level of knowledge of how to apply the remedies that are available. There are many good folk remedies, simple foods and techniques passed down through families. The trained herbalist understands why those remedies work, and how to modify them or make substitutions if various ingredients are not available. Foods may be seen as the tools of the medicine, the professional herbalist understands how to use those tools better.
For the modern consumer, understanding this concept is important when using over the counter herbal supplements. All herbs are essentially extreme foods, for which there is an understanding of how that food fits into a medical and food paradigm. Just like some foods just don’t go well together in a cooking sense, many herbs do not go together well in a medicinal sense. The helpful function of a herbal medicine can be negated by a food that has a counter function. A good herbalist will be able to tell you what types of foods should or should not be used while taking a particular herbal medicine. In some cases a herbalist will recommend eating certain foods with a herbal formula to change the affect of the medicine.
Often patients waste a lot of money buying herbal supplements that counteract each other, or are contrary to their lifestyle and eating habits. Sometimes a herbal medicine is used to counter the affects of a poor eating and lifestyle habit, but that determination needs to be understood when the herbs are prescribed. Herbs used to help adjust a lifestyle would also be decreased when the patient learns to choose foods that are better for their overall well being. The goal is to use food and extreme foods, in the form of herbal medicine, to help a patient change and function better. Ultimately the job of the herbalist is to help patients shift from herbal medicines to lifestyle choices that maintain health.