Herbalism popped up on my radar a few months back, when I was considering visiting a chiropractor or acupuncturist to address some ongoing health-related issues. I’m all for eating, drinking, and working my way toward my own personal definition of wellness, but until recently I hadn’t considered herbal medicine as an approach to managing chronic headaches, allergies, or reproductive health issues. If you’ve ever found yourself in Whole Foods feeling completely overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar herbs and supplements you could stock up on, or if you’ve wondered what it’s like to take tinctures or use herbal teas medicinally, here’s my tell-all, plus a Q+A with Zoe Kissam of Traditional Medicinals—whose products you’ll enjoy even more once you know how they’re made and who they’re supporting.
How Herbalism Found Me
Last fall I reconnected with Charis Boke, a Cornell PhD candidate I met eight years ago at Cornell’s Intensive Nepali Language Program. I was immediately enamored with Boke. Her Nepali was awe inspiring; she was well read, well traveled, and well spoken (in the this-is-social-justice-in-action kind of way); and she taught me how to pour a beer. Boke’s research interests have changed since we last saw each other. She studies and writes about herbalism and self-identifies as “a scholar–practitioner, an environmental and medical anthropologist who takes plant medicine and its practitioners seriously and practices herbalism herself.” In addition to her research and teaching—and leading student groups in the Himalayas—she was willing to talk herbalism with me when we reconnected.
Why Herbalism Piqued My Interest
We covered a lot of ground during our Skype session, from herbal teas and infusions to fermented foods and digestive aids. The way Boke speaks about plants and food on the level of metaphor—Roses are beautiful, but they have thorns. They have boundaries, right?—is exciting. I also appreciated the judgment-free space she created, which wound up carrying over into my initial consultation with Kristine Brown, an American Herbalists Guild registered herbalist who practices over the river on the Illinois side of the Saint Louis metro area, where I live. Like Boke, Brown was completely unperturbed by my self-disclosure of not-so-fun female health issues and having participated in intense group therapy sessions in 2017. (We’re talking everything from anger- and shame-release techniques involving boxing gloves and punching bags to practicing guided meditation.) Meeting with Brown, I got to see how and where an herbalist works, which wound up being an important part of my introduction to herbal medicine. She welcomed me into her study—the front room of a saged-out farmhouse piled high with books and adorned with eclectic artwork and animal bones—and we settled in for a most interesting (and thorough) intake visit.
Interested in seeing a registered herbalist? Here are my recommendations based on my initial consultation.
Dear Curious, meet the American Herbalists Guild.
Boke told me in our Skype session that she recommended I see an herbalist in person, given the extent of my health concerns. She pointed me to the American Herbalists Guild (AHG), a non-profit organization that “promotes clinical herbalism as a viable profession rooted in ethics, competency, diversity, and freedom of practice” and “supports access to herbal medicine for all and advocates excellence in herbal education.” Poking around the Herbalists Guild site took the edge off my concern that herbalism might just be the kind of woo-woo that deserves the cynic’s raised eyebrow. It should be noted that in many states, anyone can call themselves an herbalist as an extension of their free speech, but becoming a registered herbalist (or RH) through the AHG involves years of study, casework, and mentorship. It was through the Guild’s site that I found Brown, who runs Luna Farm, Luna Herb Co., and Herbal Roots Zine (meaning she is a farmer, writer, and educator in addition to being a practicing herbalist). Brown has trained under Leslie Alexander, PhD, a registered herbalist with a background in laboratory science and environmental epidemiology (all of which sounds decidedly less woo than my background in the humanities). Long story short: If you’re ready to graduate from curious about herbalism to consulting with an herbalist, visit the AHG’s list of practitioners.
Set aside some time to complete the intake paperwork.
After scheduling my initial appointment, I printed out Brown’s 15 pages of intake paperwork, which included information about her relationship with the American Herbalists Guild and dozens of questions about my family history, physical health, childhood, dietary habits, the state of my emotions and feelings, and my impetus for seeking out an herbal consultation. One Saturday afternoon I curled up with my lapdesk and a trusty pen and got to work. I answered the questions as honestly as possible and was impressed by how effortlessly they guided my thoughts on my experience of health. I was able to really get a sense of how herbal medicine approaches the mind–body connection, which prepared me for a raw and real discussion. I suggest giving yourself a chunk of alone time to complete your herbalist’s paperwork because it will require concentration and a great deal of self-honesty about your relationships (both with your body and the other people in your life). For me, it was akin to a journaling experience—not something you want to be doing over breakfast with your SO, while paying bills, or when you’re responsible for supervising kiddos’ playtime.
Invest in a snazzy calendar or notebook.
Or prepare to get cozy with Google Calendar or a favorite diet-tracking app. I’ve always shied away from this exercise because it seems so nitpicky, but Brown’s intake paperwork featured a lot of questions about diet, and I wish I’d started tracking my eats prior to scheduling my first appointment. If you’re considering seeing an herbalist but haven’t set something up yet, start logging your snacks and meals today; it’ll make the intake paperwork and initial consultation that much easier. If you’re off to see an herbalist tomorrow, know that they will likely encourage you to log your diet in addition to whatever herbal teas and other herbal supplements you wind up incorporating into your self-care routine.
Forget palm reading: Prepare to have your tongue read.
Yes, you read that right. One of the ways an herbalist might evaluate your overall health is by having a good look at your tongue—and diagramming it. “Stick out your tongue” is something most of us have heard since the days of pediatricians with popsicle sticks, but when it came time for my tongue reading (which I was expecting after reviewing Brown’s consultations page), I realized I shouldn’t have sipped mint tea during the drive from the office to her place. I wanted to have fresh breath for the appointment but wound up muddling things a bit. Herbal medicine emphasizes emotional well-being just as much as it does the use of herbal remedies for physical ailments.
Herbal medicine emphasizes emotional well-being just as much as it does the use of herbal remedies for physical ailments.
It’s not the therapist’s couch, but…
Get ready to answer some questions you haven’t been asked by your GP and to explore some unexpected ideas. I was surprised by many of Brown’s questions and my own responses, and I learned that herbal medicine emphasizes emotional well-being just as much as it does the use of herbal remedies for physical ailments. Going into your initial consultation, you can take heart in the American Herbalists Guild code of ethics, which features a confidentiality statement: “Personal information gathered in the herbalist/client relationship will be held in strict confidence by the AHG member unless specifically allowed by the client.” Brown’s paperwork went so far as to reference HIPAA privacy regulations, so between that and the professionalism and open mindedness she exuded, I felt comfortable telling her anything I would share with a doctor or even a shrink. And ultimately my openness with her led to creative and insightful recommendations that went far beyond herbal supplementation.
Know that herbalism isn’t either/or.
While herbalism might seem super crunchy or “far out,” herbalists aren’t anti-MD or against allopathic medicine. According to a peer-reviewed study that included 479 naturopaths and Western herbalists, 99 percent consider documented, traditional evidence to be essential or important. The study’s conclusion: “Naturopaths and [Western herbal medicine] practitioners accept the importance of scientific evidence whilst maintaining the importance and use of traditional evidence.” Anecdotally, during my initial visit, Brown discussed how helpful it can be to have the results from recent bloodwork, and her intake paperwork makes it clear that she’s supportive of clients having an MD in addition to working with an herbalist. Also, I did not turn to herbalism for a diagnosis. I see herbalism as a new way to approach my body that allows me to move from asking “What’s wrong with me?” to “What more can I know about myself?”
I see herbalism as a new way to approach my body that allows me to move from asking “What’s wrong with me?” to “What more can I know about myself?”
Starting the Herbal Regimen
Herbal medicine isn’t a quick fix. I would love to say I’m less hustle and more flow, but I tend toward a third descriptor: the less-sexy antsy. It takes time for an herbalist to put their recommended protocol together, but I’m used to a world where I can swerve through the pharmacy’s drive-through and have a prescription in my hands 30 minutes after leaving the doctor’s office. When I received Brown’s recommendations via email—six days after we met—I felt like a long-distance lover pining for an emotionally charged airport reunion. It was go time! Or not…because incorporating herbal medicine into your routine is predicated on having herbs, which in many cases means ordering them, waiting for them, and preparing them (sometimes overnight or throughout the day), all of which makes herbalism just as much ritual as it is remedy. In between receiving my protocol from Brown and getting the herbs to put the plans into action, I had plenty of time to think about her recommendations, which fell into four categories: herbal, supplement, dietary, and lifestyle. I’ll share the basics to give you a taste, but note that dosage information is omitted since it will differ significantly depending on a person’s needs, symptoms, size, and sensitivities.
Also known as tinctures (such a cool word, right?) extracts are essentially herbs in alcohol or another solvent that are dispensed from a little dropper bottle. Brown recommended a vitex, aka chasteberry, tincture for rebalancing my never-sure-how-it’s-feeling female reproductive system, and she suggested New England aster drops for addressing my allergies and asthma. While there’s plenty of research on the use of vitex for female reproductive health (it’s formally approved for the treatment of PMS in Germany), New England aster is a more obscure treatment that’s being revived by herbalists including Brown and jim mcdonald, who both have wonderful articles on their experiences with the strong, flowering plant. I purchased my herbal tinctures directly from Brown, who makes them herself, and they’re the first thing I got my hands on because they were available locally. I picked them up one morning before work and excitedly hauled them into the office. Brown told me some people squirt tinctures directly into their mouths, and I’m a fan of sour, bitter, and bold flavors. So seated comfortably in a bathroom stall thinking Go hard or go home, I leaned my head back and took the dropperful of vitex straight—no chaser. It was potent, but not unbearable. Next up was the New England aster tincture, and whoa mama, I don’t recommend that. My eyes were watering, my throat burned, and I was worried that my co-workers would think I’d had a two-martini breakfast. I learned then and there to dilute my herbal tinctures in a splash of water or the end of a cup of herbal tea. In addition to diluting tinctures, I also recommend keeping dropper bottles of them easily accessible wherever you’ll be taking them to cut down on the hauling back and forth. For example, I take them first thing in the morning, after lunch, and before bed, so I have dropper bottles of both herbal tinctures at home and on my desk at the office, which has made following the regimen significantly less stressful.
I wouldn’t call myself Tincture Girl (though following the regimen has gotten easier), so I was pretty excited to see if the infusions were more my jam. What’s an infusion? Think an overnight or all-day tea. Instead of steeping a bag or infuser of loose leaf for a few minutes before sipping, you let larger quantities of dry ingredients—for example, a cup of dry herbs in four cups of water—soak while you sleep. In the morning, you have an herbal infusion you can drink throughout the day. Brown recommended I rotate infusions of linden, milky oat tops, and nettle: one infusion a day each day of the week. According to her protocol, “Milky oats is nourishing to the nervous system; nettle is full of vitamins and minerals, gives energy, and can decrease allergic reaction to various types of allergies over time; linden is another nervine and also supportive of the heart, both physically and emotionally, and increases circulation,” all of which sounded excellent, especially considering I have a cold constitution (think perpetually chilly hands and feet). I went from pouring myself a cup to panicking that I wasn’t going to be able to follow the infusion regimen.
I went from pouring myself a cup to panicking that I wasn’t going to be able to follow the infusion regimen.
I was diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency years ago and take a vitamin D supplement daily. Brown recommended I stay on that and add a magnesium supplement, which she said helps with vitamin D absorption. Although she noted that powdered magnesium, which you’d mix with water and drink, is the most bioavailable form, I asked her to recommend a capsule. Between the tinctures and infusions, I wasn’t excited about adding one more liquid (that wasn’t coffee or LaCroix) to my routine.
Bone broth, cinnamon, and lentils were among Brown’s dietary suggestions, though I was pleased to get her overall stamp of approval on my flexitarian approach to eating. I’ve definitely noticed that I’m drinking more water and fewer sugary beverages since incorporating the herbal infusions into my everyday, and I do put cinnamon in my overnight oats regularly since receiving the protocol. At this point, bone broth is still on my to-try list, and I see myself continuing to turn to various curries for the boost of turmeric associated with the lentil dish Brown recommended for weekday lunches.
I’m not a cold-weather person, and I’m not going to lie: The dreary winter months meant many nights on the couch with Carrie, Mr. Big, and the ladies of Sex and the City. During my intake visit, I told Brown I take a walk to the grocery store or around a park or my neighborhood about once a week, but that may have been fudging a bit. Her recommendation: more time outdoors for the sake of my mental health. “Start by doubling what you do now. Instead of one walk a week around the block or in the park, try twice a week. Even a walk around the block at lunchtime is good. Make a point to seek out natural environments during the walk: Focus on birdsongs, plants emerging, flowers blooming, trees leafing out. Gradually work on increasing this until you are walking four to five times a week.”
This recommendation was the clincher. After hearing about my home life and routines that mean I’m out of the house a lot while my husband works from home, she suggested I “work out a schedule for alone time in the house” while my husband is gone, “so you have time to just be with yourself.” As a married person who struggles with codependent tendencies, this was a tall order, but it wound up leading to a fruitful conversation and more of what I need. (Not sure where to start when it comes to prioritizing self-love and alone time when you’re in a relationship? Check out these tips.)
Concerned about cost? Here’s what you can expect to invest in herbal products and consultations.
According to a University of Minnesota Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing resource, initial herbal consultation fees range from $30 to $60, and a monthly supply of herbs can cost between $30 and $60. These numbers echo the investment I’ve made so far, and unlike chiropractic care and acupuncture, which are sometimes covered by insurance, consulting with an herbalist and purchasing bulk herbs and extracts based on their recommendations likely involves an out-of-pocket expense. That said, the American Herbalists Guild’s code of ethics espouses humanitarian service, stating that members should not make monetary compensation their primary consideration. In addition to individual consultations, many herbalists offer more affordable group workshops that might put herbalism within reach regardless of your current financial situation.
Unsure about diving head first into working with an herbalist? How about a nice cup of (herbal) tea instead?
While following an herbalist’s recommendations has been an interesting and high-impact experience for me (nice to meet you, noticeably gentler monthly cycles and fewer headache days), when Boke and I first chatted herbs, she pointed out that many people incorporate herbalism into their daily routine without even knowing it. If you’ve ever sipped on a lemony brew when you’ve had a sore throat or peppermint tea for an upset stomach, you’ve treated yourself to a mugful of herbal medicine. As my exploration of herbalism unfolded, I reached out to Traditional Medicinals—the most popular seller of wellness teas in the States and an American Herbalists Guild member institution—and was treated to a Q+A with Zoe Kissam, Traditional Medicinals herbalist and marketing manager of innovation. Despite there being many barriers to herbalism and other complementary approaches to health, Kissam points out that “tea is a really accessible and unintimidating way of introducing people to herbs.” I also appreciate and want to note that:
- Regardless of your locale, odds are you can find quality herbal teas at your go-to grocery store.
- If cost is a barrier, herbal teas may be more accessible than supplements, tinctures, and infusions. They require a modest initial investment—typically less than $10 for a box or tin of about 20 servings.
- While items that have “a Supplement Facts label [are] considered a supplement and [are] not eligible for SNAP purchase,” some herbal teas, including certain Traditional Medicinals products, can be purchased using SNAP/food stamps.
- You can take teas on the go. By throwing a few bags of your favorite herbal teas in your purse, diaper bag, or coat pocket, you can enjoy an impromptu tea time whenever you have a moment for yourself and access to hot water.
Herbal Tea Q+A
Kissam is a Sonoma County, California, native who first started incorporating herbs into her wellness routine as a teenager. She worked at a health food store, grew her understanding of what it meant to live a holistic lifestyle, and went on to earn her certification in herbalism and her clinical certification. As of 2018, she’s worked at Traditional Medicinals for 11 years (and counting). Publisher’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
HealthyWay: Who were you educated under and what traditions inform your approach to herbs?
Kissam: I studied at the California School of Herbal Studies, which focuses on Western herbal medicine but touches on a myriad of traditional herbal medicine practices like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda and even Native American herbal medicine.
What is Traditional Medicinals’ process for determining its herbal tea blends?
New products come to our innovation team in a number of ways. Our herbalists consider the need state or benefit that the tea should provide and then look at traditional formulations or modern phytotherapy that will support the best and most rational herbal formula to meet those needs. All formulas are reviewed through our [research and development] team for safety, as well as through our supply chain to make sure we can find enough high-quality herbs to meet demand.
What are Traditional Medicinals’ most popular blends and why?
Smooth Move is our best-selling laxative tea for occasional constipation. It is loved by tea drinkers and non-tea drinkers alike because of both its reliability and its gentle action in the way it works. Throat Coat is one of our original formulas, featuring soothing slippery elm, licorice, and marshmallow root promote throat health. Turmeric With Meadowsweet and Ginger is one of our new kids on the block but is quickly becoming a top seller because of its unique combination of well-known turmeric and herbalist-loved meadowsweet and ginger. This tea is an herbal trifecta of ancient wisdom and soothing relief that promotes healthy digestion and supports a healthy response to inflammation associated with exercise.
What different types of professionals does Traditional Medicinals have on staff, and what is it like working with these different people—and learning from them—to make and market herbal products?
Traditional Medicinals employs over 180 people that support our mission-driven different company in so many ways. We have eight herbal experts that span the company from [research and development] and marketing to quality control. Collectively, they have over 100 years of combined experience during which they have authored more than 25 books, led a wide variety of industry groups and panels, and helped a vast number of people improve their health and wellness with plant medicine. But we have a belief that the plants call people to work in this company, and all 180 of those employees are herb nerds in some way or another. It is this group of impassioned people that truly believe in serving our mission that embraces sustainability, ingredient purity, and social and environmental activism.
Why do you think people are comfortable with teas, and what role do you see Traditional Medicinals playing in making herbal medicine accessible?
Well tea itself, referring to the Camellia sinensis plant which produces green and black tea, is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. For me, it’s a personal connection—my mom drank a cup of tea every night after dinner and my grandmother and her friends always served tea with dessert. Many people have rituals around drinking a cup of hot tea and may not even think about it. Many associate herbal tea with relaxation, which is an obvious reason why some of our teas for tension and stress are so popular and why chamomile tea itself, for all brands, is the number one selling herbal tea in the health and natural foods channel. Tea, as a form, is warm, comforting, and inviting. The fact that it can also have a benefit is icing on the cake. This is why we believe tea is a really accessible and unintimidating way of introducing people to herbs.
Are your teas as potent as tinctures or infusions?
All of our teas are formulated to provide benefits and support the claims we make. There are some herbs that are more beneficial in capsule or tincture form because they are not water soluble. However, all of our blends use herbs that are quite appropriate in tea—digestive teas getting right where they need to go, Throat Coat tea coating the throat as it is consumed, and so on. Anyone drinking these teas should feel very confident that they are getting an appropriate dose of the herbs that we blend with.
What types of teas, if any, do you recommend for pregnancy, anxiety, and depression, and why?
For pregnancy, depending on the stage of pregnancy you are in, there are many herbs that can be supportive.
- Ginger can help with morning sickness.
- Raspberry leaf can help in the second trimester and beyond to tone the uterus and get the body prepared for labor.
For occasional anxiety we have several formulas that are great to take, and honestly just sitting down and slowing down and having a cup of tea can be really helpful.
- Our Chamomile With Lavender tea settles your nervous system and relaxes your digestive system, [so it’s] especially good when stressed or tense.
- Our Stress Ease Cinnamon tea features a favorite herb of herbalists, skullcap, which relieves stress and irritability and promotes relaxation, plus it’s really tasty! I love drinking it in the late afternoon on a hectic day or right before my cycle starts and I’m feeling a little, let’s say, “edgy”?
Do you have any recommended regimens for regular consumption or drinking during an illness, PMS, or menstruation?
Our teas support various functions of the body and aid in conditions like occasional constipation, getting a good night’s sleep, or heart health. We have over 60 that are supportive for digestion, relaxation, seasonal care, women’s health, et cetera. For PMS and menstruation we have a range of teas that can offer support during different phases of a woman’s life.
- Healthy Cycle is a blend of herbs that can help regulate the menstrual cycle and can even help with cramping.
- Weightless tea is helpful for water retention.
- Raspberry Leaf tea also helps support regular menstrual cycles.
- Stress Ease Cinnamon can help support irritability and promote relaxation and can be really helpful during PMS.
Is it safe to combine Traditional Medicinals’ teas with other medications? Are there any specific teas that should be approached with caution?
Everyone should check with their doctor or healthcare practitioner before using herbs in combination with other medications. All of our teas include cautions and warnings on the box that are different depending on the products and should be referenced.
Are there any teas women should avoid while pregnant or breastfeeding?
Because every pregnancy is different, always check with your healthcare practitioner prior to using herbs while pregnant or breastfeeding. We find that some moms commonly enjoy the following teas during pregnancy or breastfeeding. For use of other teas during these times, please speak with your healthcare practitioner. Pregnancy: Ginger tea, Pregnancy tea, Raspberry Leaf tea, Lemon Balm tea Nursing: Mother’s Milk, Mother’s Milk Shatavari
Are all your teas organic? How does Traditional Medicinals decide where to source ingredients from?
95 percent of our teas are organic. We source our organic and high-quality herbs from the environments where they can be grown at a medicinal grade. This helps to ensure that the active constituents are in the right amounts so that you get a consistent benefit from our teas, cup after cup.
Traditional Medicinals is making a Throat Coat “Just for Kids.” How does it differ from Throat Coat, and do you recommend any other teas for children?
Just for Kids Cold Care is formulated specifically for children featuring lower doses of herbs and a [sweetener-free, 100 percent herbal] taste kids enjoy. Currently this item is only available for purchase online, via Amazon or other retailers. For other teas, always read the side panel. Teas not suitable for children will indicate they are for adults only and may list age restrictions.
Any tips for preparing and enjoying herbal teas?
First, check the back of your Traditional Medicinals tea box and read the instructions to see if there are any unique suggestions, such as adding milk or sugar. Each of our teas will also have a suggested steeping time, which depends greatly on the herbs inside. These practices often improve the taste of the tea and effectiveness of the herbs. Boil water and pour into your teacup with the tea bag placed inside. Cover your teacup and allow the herbs to steep. After a few minutes, it’s not just water that is acting on the herbs. The water itself changes as the herbs infuse into it. Depending on what compounds are first released, the water can become a mild acid or base, which in turn affects the release of other compounds in the herbs. The act of covering your tea ensures warmth, a full extraction, and that the essential oils of the herbs, which are very beneficial, stay in your cup. This is why the recommended steeping times on our tea boxes range from five to 15 minutes for full potency.
I’ve been poking around Plant Power Journal and noticed that Traditional Medicinals has a number of other outreach and educational efforts.
Traditional Medicinals is committed to social development projects funded in sourcing communities—and women and girls are some of the greatest beneficiaries. One of Traditional Medicinals’ programs is the Revive Project, which focuses on water security interventions in the senna-growing villages of Rajasthan, India. In 2009, Traditional Medicinals, Traditional Medicinals Foundation, and WomenServe launched the project in the Thar Desert, one of the driest places on earth, where temperatures can reach as high as 122° F. Women and girls must walk miles for hours each day in search of water for their families, crops, and livestock. In an effort to overcome these challenges, the Revive Project’s initiatives have so far benefitted six communities with around 12,000 villagers. The project has desilted and expanded six large community ponds, dug and rebuilt 145 agricultural rainwater catchment systems, and constructed 510 taankas (underground rainwater catchments) for families in need. These taankas provide year-round water security, eliminating the need for women and girls to walk thousands of miles each year and providing them with the opportunity to attend school and trainings, engage in income-generating activities, and become empowered village leaders.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
While tea is an accessible and familiar way to introduce people to the power of plants, sometimes people need something more portable. That is why we are very excited to debut our new line of products for new moms and moms-to-be that are convenient, on-the-go versions of our well-loved teas: Morning Ease Lemon Ginger Lozenges, Mommy to Be Raspberry Leaf Chews, Mother’s Milk Chocolate, Fruit, and Nut Bars, and Mother’s Milk Lemon Chews. Want to learn more about Clue, the app I’ve used to keep track of my cycles, energy, and activity since implementing Brown’s recommendations? Check out “6 Femtech Apps That Are Changing How Women Handle Their Health.” Interested in adaptogens? Read up on reishi, ginseng, ashwagandha, and where to get high-quality herbs here.