While there can be no understating the role much of modern medicine has played in helping humans live their best and healthiest lives, the role of plant-based wellness was around long before our modern way of life.

Emily Pacheco, owner of Bellingham-based Em’s Herbals, is a longtime local resident with a lifelong appreciation for plants. The realization that plants could be used medicinally led Pacheco to obtain a bachelor’s degree in botanical medicine, and her passion and knowledge has guided her local business for the last six years.

“Herbs are here to help us,” she says. “They work on a lot of different pathways in the body in a much gentler and supportive way compared to synthetic pharmaceuticals that the body may or may not recognize and react to appropriately.”

Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridium) is a Pacific Northwest native plant, whose roots may be helpful in managing diabetes. Photo courtesy Em’s Herbals

That isn’t to say that modern pharmaceuticals aren’t helpful, as Pacheco doesn’t see the use of herbals and modern, lab-based drugs as an either-or proposition. But, she says, because of the long-term relationship humans have had with plants, the human body has evolved to recognize the benefits and nutrients associated with them.

“We’ve used plants as food and medicine for the entire existence of our species,” she says. “It’s undisputed that they’re helpful for humans. Plants are necessary for us to not only survive, but to thrive.”

Due to lack of access or cost, among other factors, about 60 to 70 percent of the world’s population relies on plant-based medicine as their primary form of medicinal care, Pacheco says.

And even in first-world countries like the United States, where emergency surgeries and medications save countless lives, many of the everyday pharmaceuticals we consume are derived from plant-based components.

For instance, Pacheco notes that willow bark contains salicin, which converts to salicylic acid. This is commonly known as aspirin, the well-known household pain reliever. Aspirin also contains this acid, but in far larger amounts that are synthesized in a lab. So, both are derived from the same compound, but willow bark is thought to be a gentler, more natural form. However, according to a study found in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Phytotherapy Research: “The multi-component active principle of willow bark provides a broader mechanism of action than aspirin and is devoid of serious adverse events. In contrast to synthetic aspirin, willow bark does not damage the gastrointestinal mucosa. An extract dose with 240mg salicin had no major impact on blood clotting.”

Using herbal medicine for health and wellness, Pacheco says, is great as a daily preventative routine that can provide many benefits for your body: helping it adapt to stress, reducing inflammation, balancing electrolytes and providing adequate levels of vitamins and minerals.

“One plant can have hundreds of compounds that can potentially address multiple systems at one time,” she says.

Dog Rose (rosa canina), whose fruit is Rosehips, is a common source of natural bioflavonoids and vitamin C. Photo courtesy Em’s Herbals

As an example, licorice root has multiple uses for an individual. By positively affecting the adrenal glands through cortisol regulation and adrenaline response, the herb can be used to help the body adapt to stress. But it also happens to be an herb with both anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties, in addition to helping remove tarter from teeth.

“Herbs have a multi-faceted effect in the body with just one herb,” she says. “With very few exceptions—and there always are exceptions—herbs are safe. The majority of herbs can be taken safely, and without side effects.”

One of the drawbacks of many Western medications, Pacheco says, is the often-unfortunate cycle they perpetuate upon a person’s inter-connected bodily systems. A single medication may be prescribed to target a single condition and its symptoms, only to have that medication lead to issues requiring subsequent medications.

Pacheco sees herbal medicine as part of nature’s inherent intelligence, and humans as part of that intelligence. Still, despite most herbs being safe, gentle long-term approaches to dealing with a range of potential health issues, it’s still important to be careful.

“There are people out there who might claim themselves as natural healers that have intensive protocols with a lot of potentially toxic herbs for long periods of time,” she says. “Those can potentially do harm to people.”

Attempting to purge one’s self of parasites by ingesting large amounts of wormwood, for example, might get rid of parasites. But wormwood also has neurotoxic components that could cause other health issues.

Just as you wouldn’t carelessly experiment with pharmaceuticals, you shouldn’t be reckless with herbs. Pacheco recommends consulting a trained herbalist to determine the best practices for your personal health.

“Plants are meant to be used to promote health and wellness, in low doses for long periods of time,” she says. “Not in highly-concentrated doses of potent, powerful herbs targeting just one thing.”

For anyone wondering where to start with adapting herbal benefits to your own life, Pacheco recommends starting with basic, common, food-grade plants like chamomile, raspberry leaf, licorice, spearmint or nettles, among others. Try them, taste them, research their benefits, and see how they make you feel, she advises.

While herbal medicine is a huge topic, starting simple is a sure way to safely and carefully figure out how herbs can benefit your health and well-being.

“To use plants in order to help ourselves feel better, be healthier, and live our best lives,” she says, “should be a natural step for everyone.”

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