Why Is Herbal Medicine So Ripe For Grift?

Practising plant-based medicine is a deeply human experience. Our ancestors developed knowledge through experimentation, and handed down results of this continued experimentation through generations. People developed deep relationships with the plants and fungi around them, and became proficient in utilising them for food, fibres, and medicine.

Medicine isn’t something that’s okay to be wrong about.

The best-case scenario with being wrong while practising plant-based medicine is that nothing happens, but the worst-case scenario can lead to headaches, nausea, liver damage, kidney failure, and death. Even for plants that are known to be safe, someone may have an allergic reaction that could land them in the hospital. Practising plant-based medicine should be done with immense caution and care for self, others, and the plants themselves. Starting this practice is not easy, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Misinformation about using plants as medicine can be disastrous. Most of us don’t have access to that kind of generational knowledge, nor have the luxury of living in areas that allow for us to go out on our own and develop relationships with plants and fungi as smaller parts of their larger biomes. In an effort to regain this knowledge, many of us turn to the internet for information. The internet is simultaneously a great tool and a horrible machine when it comes to finding information about plant-based medicine. A lot of articles written about medicinal plants lack care and credibility. There are no repercussions for folks who write articles making bold statements about the medical potentials of plants; we see the article linked above discussing the medicinal benefits of foxglove with little mention of how it can be more toxic to some folks than others. It can build up in your body, causing symptoms of toxicity, and it interacts with other compounds including common ones like quinine which is found in tonic water.

Nothing in nature is truly defenceless. Plants develop various defence mechanisms to stave off illness and predation. Some of these compounds contribute to what makes them medicinal, while other compounds are what make them harmful to us. There are ways of processing plants and fungi that can change them from being harmful to medicinal. A lot of common foods we eat contain harmful compounds that are removed when cooked. Kidney beans are an excellent example of a toxic food commonly found in kitchens. Kidney beans contain a compound called lectin which is a toxin that is removed when the beans are cooked. Some compounds are fat-soluble, meaning your body absorbs them better when they are processed with some type of oil. The majority of people are lacking ancestral wisdom, which is tens of thousands of years of trial and error, and/or the specific botanical, chemical, and physiological knowledge as a necessary background to understand how plants work with the body. It’s important to have at least one, if not both, of these understandings for a competent practice of medicine.

Supplements aren’t always the answer.

Foraging then processing wild plants and fungi may seem full of risks to some, which may lead folks to consider using store-bought supplements instead. Unfortunately, this may not be the best option either. Supplements in the United States are “generally recognized as safe,” and thus don’t need to be subjected to regulation the same way medications are. Without this regulation, supplement companies can include extra ingredients alongside the ones listed, and sell supplements that don’t even contain the ingredients claimed on the label. Furthermore, supplement producers aren’t concerned with the ethics of over-harvesting, which could potentially disrupt entire ecosystems, and even lead to extinction.

Plant-based medicine should be treated as a discipline.

Learning how to use plants and fungi as medicine is not an easy practice to embark upon. The majority of energy used in this discipline will be spent filtering out bullshit because, unfortunately, the wellness movement has made lying to people extremely lucrative. As someone who has paid for courses from Cornell University and beyond to learn about plant-based medicine, I can confidently say that there are no quick classes available that will offer a good understanding to go out in the world with enough competence to use plants safely. Many of the courses I encounter have made up for lack of research about plants by injecting superstition. More often than not this is mediocre white people performing indigenous wisdom and knowledge, and selling that information to folks who know even less than they do. This is grotesquely immoral.

The wilderness can be a nurturing mother; she offers us so much, asking only that we care for her in return. I learned the word “rematriate” this past year, and it has inspired me to pursue and to give a holistic medical understanding of the wild things that are around me from both a scientific and traditional perspective. The majority of us have lost the medical understanding of plants that our ancestors had. Rematriating the knowledge of plant-based medicine is how we begin the process of handing down this wisdom again. I don’t believe knowledge around medicinal and edible wild things should be kept behind a paywall. This knowledge should be offered to those with enough care to practise ethically and keep the wisdom continuing on. Rematriating hasn’t been easy for me, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on books, countless hours combing through scientific studies, weeks in the field gathering, and days in the kitchen processing, only to find myself in awe with how little I truly know about what’s around me.

This has been a labour of love for me, and I want to offer what I have learned to you in hopes that this wisdom will be cared for and the ethical practices around utilising medicinal plants and fungi will be passed on to others who care.

Vanessa White lives in the middle of nowhere in Northern Ontario, Canada, and is currently in the woods with no service.

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