Our Herbs Blog
Herbology: The Deeper You Go, The More You Know: May 30, 2018
Guest Blog by Ihor Basko, DVM, CVA
Clients trust that veterinarians who have their own pets and pediatricians who have raised families possess a deeper, heart-based knowledge of animals and children that extends beyond their academic and professional experiences. But what about herbalists with no first-hand knowledge of growing the medicinal plants they prescribe? Is the knowledge of plants gleaned from passive observation, reading, and lectures enough to effectively understand how and why plants can heal? Or is there a way to pursue a deeper connection to the plants we use in daily practice?
Most of us began our studies on medicinal herbs and plants through following an interest in a few plants, researching syndromes treated by plants, reading books or articles, or learning from knowledgeable clients and friends. Later, we may have supplemented our knowledge through classes with local herbalists, veterinary and lay teachers, reading more technical books, attending lectures and workshops, learning from mentors, and sometimes simply through trial and error.
Within our herbalist community, the act of sharing also educates us. We often know something that someone else might not know. The value of sharing on the list-serve, or especially in person when we gather for conferences, is that we can contribute our ideas, experiences, concepts, and formulas, thus learning from each other.
In pursuit of even more knowledge, some of us dive deeper – seeking to understand the molecules and compounds in medicinal plants and how they affect the physiology of the patient through a review of biochemistry, nutritional biochemistry, physiology, phytopharmacology, and phytopharmocokinetics. It takes time and energy, but for those so inclined, this in-depth study of herbal plants is rewarding and fascinating. The deeper we go, the more we know… but there is always further to go. Most of us have no idea how the herbs we use are grown, let alone their personalities! You cannot grasp the “personality” of a plant from studying a capsule, attending a lecture, or reading a textbook. What else can be done?
Herb Walks and Time in Nature
We can become so engrossed in a patient, calculating which herb and how many milligrams to prescribe, and perhaps prescribing herbs as we do drugs in some cases, that we lose touch with the intrinsic nature and personality of the plants themselves. How does the plant grow? Where does it grow and why does it grow there? What diseases are common where it grows, and what other plants growing in its environment can help? Learning this information out in nature, through direct interaction with and observation of the plants, is what can push our usefulness as practitioners to another level.
Not enough of us are taking the time to walk and “bathe” in the forests, fields, jungles, and arroyos where healing plants grow, to discover the full depth of the mysteries they conceal. Wild-crafting herbs, the practice of foraging for useful plants in their natural, wild habitat, documenting them with a camera, noting their environment, climate, type of substrate, etc., provides an important way to learn more intimately about the plants we use. The VBMA, ACVBM, and the AHVMA Council of Elders all offer herb walks annually. Outside of veterinary organizational meetings, many opportunities also exist with professional herbalists and organizations. Take the opportunity to participate, or venture out on your own.
Growing Knowledge by Growing Your Own
Although I have always had vegetable gardens, until recently I have had an “impersonal” relationship with what I grew. By planting medicinal trees, plants, shrubs, roots, and vines - moringa, papaya, Surinam cherry, datura, turmeric, medicinal nightshade (popolo), Syzygium, noni, coconut, passion flower, chayote, magnolia, jasmine, turmeric, ginger, comfrey, plantain, kava kava, gotu kola, hemp, and tropical ginseng - and personally caring for them (with the help of my wife Jane), I have discovered that I can learn a lot more about how these plants grow and thrive, or not. For example, I noticed the taste of the plants changes with the seasons and climate. Does that mean the actives will be different? Probably. Being directly involved with the plants’ growth and welfare has made me think differently as a practitioner, and ask different questions.
When you “grow your own,” whether from seed, sprout, or young starter plant, you become cognizant of the needs of the plant to stay healthy, to thrive, and to bring fruit and/ or beneficial compounds. You become a student of the plants’ nutritional, soil and moisture needs, as well as their vulnerabilities and susceptibilities to disease, weather, and temperature.
Planting herbs in a pot indoors also offers a different experience, because you can interact with them many times during the day. I spend a lot of time in my kitchen where I keep “baby” plants on the windowsill. I am able to watch, observe, tend, water, and nurture them throughout the day. After a few weeks I begin to “feel” the plants responding to my efforts and to my presence. I feel their living presence. Wow. More than just positive feedback for my efforts, I have discovered something else, a deeper contact that is difficult to put in words. It is an experience of engaging with the sacredness of the plants and the intelligence of the natural world, as described by Stephen H. Buhner in many of his wonderful (and highly recommended) books.
Take a step further in your relationship with what you grow by learning to make extracts. Use them, drink them, rub, massage or bathe in them, then do the same with the commercial extracts you have been buying for your patients, and compare the experiences.
Medicinal plants are multi-dimensional “beings” with unique personalities, temperaments, and intelligence. To prescribe them strictly intellectually and academically, as we would a drug to control symptoms, will limit our success in using them on our patients. Does “growing your own” make you a better herbalist? Absolutely. Through “knowing” the personality of the plant as well as its biochemistry, you can appreciate the plant’s contribution to healing and well-being more holistically. Establishing a relationship with medicinal plants by connecting and interacting with them in their natural setting will give you knowledge and experience that will improve how you prescribe herbs.
Reprinted from AHVMA Journal, Volume 50 Spring 2018.
Veterinarians Use Ayurveda Daily: September 29, 2017
Dr. Kris August and I are taking Foundations of Ayurveda at the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. We came into the course with the intention of learning Ayurvedic theory and herbs. The Dean of the program knows that we are veterinary herbalists. She came up to us on the fourth or fifth day of class and asked if we were finding ways to apply the knowledge we are gaining to animals and our veterinary practice. The answer is a resounding yes! Here is some of what we have learned…
There are six philosophical systems in Ayurveda, and they are all focused on ending suffering. Yoga is the branch that covers psychology. Yoga Theory is an eight-limbed path (called Astanga Yoga) that is used to enhance clarity in the mind. The first two limbs are Yama, character building restraints, and Niyama, character building observances. In listening to our lecturer, Kris and I were finding many examples of how we use some of these tenets in our veterinary practices already.
The first Yama is Ahimsa, which literally translates to “no crimes against wisdom” or more simply, non-harming, non-injury, nonviolence. Kris’ analogy was puppy training. As veterinarians, we never recommend housebreaking or other puppy training through negative reinforcement, we want to do no harm and train through positive reinforcement. I always tell clients with teething puppies to replace the object that should not be chewed with one of the dog’s toys.
Ahimsa is not just physical, but also with our words and thoughts. Again, we know praising animals is much more effective than chastising them. We also know that they sense our moods (thoughts). A friend of mine tells a story of how his children would always alert his wife about what kind of mood he was in based on where his horse was in the field when he drove up the driveway. If he was in a bad mood, the horse went to the back of the pasture. However, if he was in a good mood, the horse was at the gate looking for affection and attention. The horse responded to his thoughts. So it is important for us to practice Ahimsa and remind our clients to do so also.
The third Niyama, Tapas, is about doing an uplifting discipline or changing and improving habits. The literal definition is friction, because it is the friction of the old habit rubbing up against the new habit. Kris and I both remarked that we tell our clients to do this all the time. For example, I had a client with an obese poodle that couldn’t walk. I had her start walking the dog in the living room for five minutes three times a day so if the dog needed breaks, it was easier than on the sidewalk. She slowly built up to thirty minutes two-three times a day around the neighborhood and the dog looked and felt much better.
One of our professors is an Ayurvedic doctor, trained at an Indian medical school. She has taught us that Ayurveda is timeless. It explains everything that is relevant in the past, present and future. She has also told us that it is applicable to all life forms, from plants to planets. We certainly are finding it relevant for our clients and patients.