Shitty Witch Books and Herbalism
Do Your Research
A while back, I was killing time in an Urban Outfitters when I came upon something that made me more than a little worried (and no, it wasn’t the prices). It was a pair of books I found. They claimed to be witchy books and I thought, “Hey, this will be entertainingly bad.” And the first book was, especially the “Witch Calisthenics,” which basically involved dancing around with a broom.
The second one though contained an herbal medicine section. And oh, it was obviously badly researched. Very sparse entries, no citations or talk about side effects–that last was my real problem. See, the book had an entry on yarrow, a plant which it said made a great sedative tea.
Now, yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is useful for a lot of things: fevers, menstruation, fighting infection, open wounds (it will stop bleeding on a dime); in fact, The Earthwise Herbal Vol II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants by Matthew Wood has two and a half pages on the uses of yarrow. However, a sedative tea is not listed. But cautions about allergies reactions and that it can cause issues during pregnancy is. In fact, as I was told at Magus Books and Herbs where I used to work, yarrow is a traditional abortifacient, meaning it can be used to induce an abortion. Its other common name is Deathflower for a reason. To not have that in a book that was pretty obviously marketed towards premenopausal women who might get pregnant is irresponsible and potentially tragic.
All this is to say, do your research. I know research is a bit of a watchword these days because of the large amounts of fake news out there, but it especially applies to self-medicating. Herbalism is a great route to take to keep yourself healthy, I use it myself, but I was lucky enough to get the some of the basics from the employee herbal program at Magus, taught by the extremely knowledgeable herbalist Liz Johnson. So if you don’t have access to great teachers like her, (Magus does teach classes) here are some things you can do to make sure you’re giving yourself the best treatment. Please note I am not an herbalist or medical professional of any type. This is just what works for me.
- Talk to your local herbalist- I would check out their credentials before you do. Many states don’t require herbalists to have a license, but good practitioners often have degrees and certificates from alternative medicine programs and/or have apprenticed under renowned herbalists like Matthew Wood. If you can’t find one in your area, check your local herbal shop. They usually have contraindications on their products, but if they don’t have an herbalist on staff, make sure you do your own research. Do understand, some states, like Minnesota, preclude staff from “prescribing without a license” so that means a staffer can’t even say something as common knowledge as “Chamomile is calming.” And trust me when I say it’s as frustrating for them as it is for you.
- Know what type of herbalism works for your body– At the store, we used to say “every body is different,” meaning what might work for some bodies might not work for yours. The herbalism I learned was a mix of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), Ayurvedic (Indian), European herbalism, Native American herbalism, along with some modern medical practices as well. All these practices have different ideas about how the body works and what herbs to use. I personally like the style of herbalism I was taught, but that may not work for you.
- Get some good reference texts– A bookworm telling you to buy books? What a shock! I know, I know, the internet is right there and it’s cheap as free, but guess what? It’s often wrong. Even the usual medical sources like WebMD often don’t have much about herbs and their uses. A good herbalism book will last you until the spine breaks and doesn’t even need WiFi, but how do you choose one?
Well, I have some good options in my Reading Things section this month, but here are some things I like to check for in my herbal books. A) It’s by a reputable herbalist or lauded by one (Matthew Wood, Rosemary Gladstar, Penelope Ody etc). B) It cites its sources and has an index. C) Here’s the fun DIY one: pick two herbs you know about, one with a serious contraindication like our friend yarrow the friendly abortifacient and another that’s flat-out toxic like arnica (great for bruises, bad for eating as even WebMD knows). Now pick up your book of choice and see if they mention these important details. This is not a foolproof method as some books will not give much mention to toxic herbs or suggestion them for homeopathic (ie. very very diluted) use, but it’ll help you gauge how thorough the book is.
Herbal medicine has worked really well for me for common colds, minor infections, pain management, and keeping me healthy. I’ve definitely felt better since I started taking herbs. It’s helped me cut out or down on over the counter meds like Advil or Sudafed which can have side effects I don’t like or can take their toll on the body over time. Herbs have side effects and can take a toll as well, but I know I can balance these effects with other herbs or find another herb without said side effects. I find it rather empowering to be able to restore my health on my own.
There is a running argument, usually by people who prefer “modern” medicine or don’t understand “alternative” medicine, that goes along the lines of “Oh sure herbalism/acupuncture/etc is great but the minute you get really sick/injured it’s modern medicine all the way.” To which I say, um yeah, why’s it weird that I want to treat my body naturally, with methods that work for me and are (in some cases) cheaper and less dangerous? And why’s it stupid that if I break my leg, I take it to the people with the X-rays and the plaster casts? Any herbalist worth her salt will send you to a doctor for something she can’t treat, like said broken leg. But that doesn’t mean once the leg is in a cast there aren’t herbs that can help it heal faster.