Something I hear an awful lot of, in my work as a herbalist for humans as well as other species, is the simple lament that “herbs don’t work”. Sometimes expressed with chagrin, other times with dismissal, it’s a familiar refrain to me and for many of my herbal colleagues as well. The jist of the story is, someone wanted to try a herbal formula, for their dog – perhaps after reading a hyped-up soundbite on Facebook, or at the urging of a friend who swears by it, or even at the recommendation of a holistic vet…but after trying the herb (or formula) for a while, they concluded that it did no good, the dog was not helped, (and they may or may not have objective support for this) and then that’s the end of the herbal experiment.
Conclusion is often not that this particular herb didn’t work, but that herbs, all of them, are poor substitutes for modern medicine. Of course, this is disappointing for me, as a herbalist – and honestly, it’s just not accurate at all. Herbal medicine is very powerful, but there are some guidelines for working with herbs that are not often passed along in the popular press. My goal in this post is to cover some foundational aspects of working with herbs (for simple issues, it’s important to work with a professional for more serious cases).
Here’s what I see when I evaluate a “herbs don’t work” scenario.
- Problem Number One: limiting selection to a few popular herbs. In the majority of cases I see, the individual used one herb, or perhaps a couple, but selected from the popular “Herbs of Commerce” and followed some sort of preparation/dosing from an article not written by a herbalist. The first mistake is thinking that turmeric, devil’s claw, milk thistle and slippery elm are the entirety of the plant world, and once you have tried any of them and not seen results, you’re stuck. While all the popular herbs are wonderful medicines, and I use them all daily, they’re by no means the entirety of the herbalist’s repertoire (Materia Medica). Peppermint, Marshmallow root and Slippery elm can all be useful for gastric upset, but then again they may not be what an individual case calls for. Licorice, Goldenseal, Fennel, Plantain, Calendula, Meadowsweet, Cinnamon, Wild Yam and Chamomile (to name a few) may all be better choices for a given individual.
Popular and lovely, Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is an aromatic carminative, wonderful for a wide range of digestive issues, but shouldn’t be used with GERD (reflux) and should be avoided in combination with several antacids, with cyclosporine or with diabetics.
2. Incorrect dosing: very simply, when I hear about a herbal “failure” in many cases, the dosing was just inadequate. Sometimes this can simply mean that a herb which should be administered several times throughout the day in smaller doses, was given all in one shot – sometimes the owner just halved the dose (because there is much more fear about herbs, especially Herbs of Commerce, than is reasonable). But one issue I see with the “herbal failure” scenario, is simply not taking enough.
3. Duration of trial: another very simple and easily rectified problem – when the herb is not given an adequate trial, stopped too soon. Some herbs are fast-acting, think of mallow root on a sore inflamed stomach – others, think of trophorestoratives like Milky Oats or adaptogens like Eleuthero, need several weeks to show their full effect. How long a herb is given depends on the herb, and the condition/tissue state addressed. When in doubt, don’t trust an Internet resource, talk to a herbalist.It’s our job to know each plant thoroughly and how much, how long to take them for.
4. Method of preparation: There’s a few beliefs out there about how to give herbs and many are not accurate. Can a dog have alcohol-based tincture? (The answer is yes, but- you guessed it – depends on the dog and how long the herb will be given for). Are standardized extracts always better? (no, they usually are not, but if you do use them it’s wise to use the whole herb as well, so give curcumin AND turmeric; if you have to choose, use the turmeric, the whole powdered herb). Is glycerite a viable way to give herbs? How long do I infuse the herb? Should I decoct, or just infuse in hot water? Should I even use hot water, would cool be better? There are some guidelines to preparation, that greatly influence how much of a specific constituent is extracted, and thus how effective the herb will be. Takeaway message; be sure how to prepare a herb before giving it. Improper preparation can diminish the active ingredients you want to provide, even damage them to the point of rendering the herbal medicine useless.
5. Great expectations – this is a common problem and one, again, that the sensationalist-sites do much to promote. Many people develop the expectation that all they need to do, to “cure” anything from a cold sore to a case of IBD, is find that “Super-Herb” and take it religiously, like a drug – and voila! All better. Herbs can be amazingly effective in first-aid scenarios, and they do help alleviate many simple symptoms, tension headaches, a bout of colitis, a sore throat. Many herbalists start off using plants in this way and develop the interest that leads us to study them more deeply. There’s nothing wrong with the simple herbal remedy, far from it! But – with more serious conditions, the expectation that just adding Milk thistle will “cure” the dog’s liver disease, is erroneous. In cases of illness, herbs work best in formulation, and alongside dietary changes, and any emotional issues must be addressed – herbs, even the best formulation put together by the most skilled practitioner, will work optimally in a well nourished body (human or canine) alongside a calm and restful state of mind. When we expect to just pop a dropperful of hawthorn instead of medication, with no other changes and think that a heart condition will just go away, we place unrealistic expectations on the herb. If however, we utilize hawthorn with any number of other cardiac herbs, with nervines, and add dietary changes, meditation and gentle exercise, we have a holistic formula for much better health.
Hawthorn (Crataegus spp) is a marvelous cardiovascular tonic, useful in active disease but I like to add some to the diet as a dog ages, before any signs of disease appear. Hawthorn may potentiate certain, heart medications – meaning that less is required an this in turn reduces the potential toxicity of these drugs. That said – use only under the supervision of a herbalist if your dog is taking medication for heart disease.
In summary – let me assure you that herbs do “work” – but there are some guidelines to follow, to ensure you achieve the result you are seeking.
- Make sure you are using the right herb or formula, understanding that not every one or every dog is the same, even though their condition might be. There’s much more to herbalism than the Herbs of Commerce, too.
- Make sure you are preparing, and dosing, accurately.
- Don’t expect a single herb or formula to compensate for poor diet, lack of exercise, or to “cure” an advanced condition. As with any lifestyle change, sooner is better and prevention is key.
- Give the herb time to work, once you have the dose and preparation right.
Now here is a Newfoundland puppy to start your week off with a smile.