By Erin Holden
The world of natural and alternative medicine encompasses many modalities, and for the layperson, the different approaches and schools of thought can be confusing. When I tell people I’m an herbalist, they invariably think I practice homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, aromatherapy, you name it. And while many herbalists are also knowledgeable in these areas, they are very different subjects that each take additional study to practice safely and effectively. In my experience, most people think that herbal medicine and homeopathy are one and the same. Although there are similarities, they’re separate ways to approach natural healing, and I wanted to help people distinguish between the two. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must say that I don’t practice homeopathy and only have a little bit of knowledge on the topic – lectures touching on homeopathy are not uncommon in classes and at herbal conferences I’ve attended, so it’s easy to passively acquire tidbits of a more complex picture.
According to the American Institute of Homeopathy, there are three principles of homeopathy. The first, “let likes cure likes,” means that “a substance taken in small amounts will cure the same symptoms it causes if taken in large amounts.” To illustrate that point, a preparation from the strychnine tree (Strychnos nux-vomica), nux vomica, is used for nausea. The second principle is “the minimum dose.” To maximize effectiveness while decreasing side effects, a full strength medicine (which can be herbal, mineral, or animal) is subjected to a series of dilutions and agitations (called succussions), until the original medicine is no longer detectable. The number of dilutions and succussions are noted on the remedy. For example, a 6X remedy is one part tincture to nine parts alcohol (the X here denoting 10), then succussed six times (National Center for Homeopathy). The third principle, “the single remedy,” dictates that practitioners suggest only one remedy at a time, although some homeopathic preparations contain a combination of remedies. Practitioners take a holistic approach, and match the specific remedy to the overall clinical picture of the client. Homeopathic remedies come in a variety of formulations, from sublingual pellets to liquids and topical ointments. Overall, homeopathy is considered safe for just about everyone, including babies, children, and those who are pregnant and breastfeeding.
Herbal medicine is also a holistic modality, where the practitioner looks at the client’s physical and emotional health, and herbalists also use herbs (obviously!), but that’s about where the similarities end. When selecting remedies, herbalists often choose those that oppose, and therefore balance, what’s going on with the client. For example, if a person runs cold or is feeling slow and sluggish, then warming herbs, like ginger, may be recommended. Many times herbalists make recommendations based on thousands of years of traditional uses, which are being increasingly validated by scientific study. Dosing and formulation are also very different between the two modalities. Herbalists use full strength preparations, often multiple grams of different herbs in formulas developed specifically for the client. I’ve formulated teas for clients that range anywhere from 4g to 15g of herbs per day; it all depends on what symptoms they’re presenting and how they respond to the herbs. Formulas can be teas, powders, tinctures, glycerites, or topical preparations such as salves, poultices, and liniments. Sometimes the type of preparation depends on the active constituents in an herb – some are water soluble and call for a tea, while others are alcohol soluble and are only effective via tincture. Since herbs, as used by herbalists, are not used at the dilutions employed by homeopaths, there’s a potential for side effects and interference with medications, and some herbs are not recommended for babies, children, or pregnant/breastfeeding people. However, since herbalists do take the whole person into account, they can adjust dosing or herb choice to safely and effectively work with these populations and medications.
In the end, the goal of both of these modalities is the same – overall wellness. They are just two different points on a continuum of natural healing.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Erin is the gardener for the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member at large of The Herb Society of America.