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The Back Story
Having just come home from an extended stay in Australia, and having had several brushes with the health system down under, including an emergency which required hospitalization, I can say definitively from recent personal experience that the sickness care system in the USA is pathetically sub-par.
Our system is trying to make "health care" fit into an efficiency market model where you encapsulate each sickness into a neat little ball and select its treatment from an array of pharmaceuticals. This makes the health organizations happy, as it allows doctors to process many patients at little cost, and it must make the pharmaceutical companies ecstatic, because they're selling a record number of their products and creating new ones every day.
The problem is that the individual is left out of the picture altogether. An individual is a complex system of interlaced conditions, with a unique personality, mindset, and lifestyle, all of which have a profound effect on his/her state of wellness. Western medicine ignores this complexity, and only focuses on a single symptom or group of symptoms that fit the pattern of a known "disease." Once you have a "diagnosis" you can then proceed to the treatment. Problem solved. Next!
The solution: Be well!
Each person is different, and when it comes to medical treatments, one size certainly does not fit all. Plus we have all the problems of un- or underinsured people basically being denied any treatment at all, and even the insured usually have a percentage to pay. On a covered $10,000 operation one usually has to come up with $1000 or more before they'll even talk to you. The only solutions I can recommend are to prevent serious illnesses and conditions, and learn to deal with minor medical issues yourself.
I've thought about illness prevention a lot. It can't be too complicated, because humans don't do complicated very well. It is actually quite simple: try to duplicate the conditions we evolved and were meant for, and that means living an active lifestyle, breathing clean outdoor air, and eating mostly raw vegetarian foods.
Herbs play an important role in a healthy diet/lifestyle. A large number of herbs are valued for their flavor, while others are valued for their effect on the body's systems under certain circumstances. Many common culinary herbs aid in the prevention of disease: for example, turmeric, a spice containing curcumin, often found in curries and Indian recipes, has been believed for many centuries to aid in digestion, be good for skin, and to improve arthritis.
Pooh-pooh-ed for years by Western medicine as superstition, turmeric has recently been shown to be effective for many of these ailments. And then there are the herbs that Western medicine already knows about but doesn't want you to: many common medications (e.g. Digoxin for heart problems) are nothing but concentrated herbal extracts. Ordinarily the foxglove plant from which Digoxin is derived is not one I'd mess with in its natural state but that's because I know that it's nearly impossible to gauge the dosage properly.
I've used many many herbs over the years. I'll mention just a few:
Sweet Basil or Holy Basil is more of a food than an herb, but it is certainly a mood enhancer. Have a nice plate of basil pesto when you're feeling down and you'll feel better afterward.
Black cohosh is the principal ingredient in remifemin, a popular non hormonal menopause supplement. It is also used for female complaints, and in some cases, as an aid to speeding childbirth. You can get the root and make a tea of it and experiment to see if it works for you. In large doses it can cause problems but is generally considered safe.
Echinacea is huge for cold prevention and cure. It is believed that if you take echinacea within hours of being exposed to a cold, that it might kick up your immune system so high the cold will miss you. And even if you come down with the cold, echinacea is supposed to help you get over it faster. People with severe ragweed allergies should not use echinacea, and it is also not good to take it on a daily basis.
Dandelion leaf tea is supposed to help clean digestion. Of course dandelion leaves can be cooked like spinach, and if you have not used too many chemicals on your yard, you'll probably have fine hefty dandelions that are safe to eat.
Nettles are another "herb" that is actually a food. I have made a quiche from nettles. Once you cook them you neutralize the toxin and destroy the hollow spikes on the leaves that deliver it. The dry leaves are also quite a nutritious tea. It's supposed to be good for a whole lot of things.
Senna is a laxative herb that is the principal ingredient in senukot (a commercially available laxative.) Although senna can be abused, and is somewhat of a gut irritant, occasional use of a cup of senna tea can jump start sluggish bowels.
Hot chiles are another food that can be made into a drug. Their hot ingredient (capsaicin) is extracted and used as the basis for a number of pain cremes. Eaten as part of a meal, they help stimulate sweating, which eliminates toxins from the body.
I could go on and on. There are so many herbs that I have messed with.
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Precautions and caveats
Nature is full of potent pharmaceutically active compounds. It pays to know what you are doing and exercise caution when messing around with herbs. You can't assume, "Oh it's herbal, it's safe, it probably doesn't really do anything anyway." The number of powerful and potentially deadly pharmaceuticals derived from plants already proves this to be false.
What fresh herbs can offer that dead processed pharmaceuticals can not, is localization, balance, and living compounds. Let me explain these three a little:
Localization means the herb grows where you live so it is exposed to the same environment that you are. The reasoning goes that plants grown close to where you live will be more effective for you because of this. I don't know whether I totally believe this or not, but it fits my "use local" philosophy for other reasons.
Balance is the idea that the compounds in the natural herb are balanced in a way to minimize side effects caused by the ingredient that otherwise might be refined out. This seems to be true for some herbs, but for others (such as nettles) you definitely want to process out some components because they are toxic or irritants. Why do so many herbs say that they work on so many things? Because they DO! When you ingest an herbal preparation, it is a complex combination of compounds that spread to and affects all parts of your body. Western medicine would call the biggest observed effect the "main" effect, and then call effects that are not always observed 'side effects." Using herbs doesn't have such a concept of side effects, since most of them are either very mild or somewhat positive. The claim is that this is due to the natural balance of the whole plant.
Another school of thought claims that fresh herbs contain enzymes and other living ingredients that processed products can not. Again, not scientifically proven, but what we humans know is that fresh culinary herbs taste so much better than dried.
The advantage to using herbs and herbal products is that no prescription is required, and you can mix and match to suit your own personal circumstances. Some people seem to have an affinity for certain herbs, and others seem not to work for them. If you start experimenting and educate yourself, you will find some herbs or combinations that work for you.
Please be careful, even when fooling around with herbs for external application. I had one disaster when I tried a skin patch test with a tincture of ruta graveolens (rue). I liked the smell and rubbing fresh cut rue had already proved effective as an insect repellent. It is always a good idea to try new things on a small patch of skin before applying to a large area. Anyway my rue patch was fine after 24 hours so I put it all over my legs. After another 24 hours the patch became irritated and red, and all of my legs followed suit in another 24.
With the internet, there is no excuse not to know about herbs. I caution you not to depend on companies that sell herbal supplements, but instead go to resources that teach you to find and process the whole herb yourself. When purchasing herbs that can't be found locally, go for minimally processed from a source that harvests their herbs in a sustainable way. Organically grown is a must for herbs.
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