Heal Thyself: Herbal Medicine

I have to admit that up until recently, I’ve been a little down on herbal medicine.  I used to be really into it and then grad school kind of beat it out of me.  Herbs are not well-researched, not well-regulated and not evidenced-based practice.  Yet, because I’m a midwife, people expect me to know every flower, root and weed that might help alleviate their symptoms.  As a compounding factor, I work in an out-of-hospital environment where people come to us because they’re skeptical/afraid of Western medicine.  Most of my patients don’t want to take any pharmaceutical I have to offer, and of course, I always let them know that there are alternatives and give them some resources to look into on their own.  Despite my core belief that patients are never “non-compliant” (thank you, Lewis Mehl-Madrona), I got a little disenchanted with herbal medicine because I sometimes watch my patients put themselves at risk, or let their symptoms get a lot worse because they won’t take a pharmaceutical.  Like, I’m sorry, but if you’re not getting better and now you’ve developed a fever, it’s time to stop worrying about super bugs and your GI flora, and take a freaking antibiotic.  It’s not that I don’t get people’s reluctance to use pharmaceuticals – clearly they’re coming to us because they value a more natural, holistic approach; they view drugs as toxins with nasty side effects, which they often experience because they’re not used to taking pharmaceuticals; Big Pharma is a real thing and a lot of people are morally opposed to it.

So how did I come back around to herbs for medicine?  Well, as previously mentioned, I think I gave myself a stomach ulcer.  No, I did not have it checked out, no, I did not have any tests done, yes I’m probably a stereotypical, self-diagnosing, hypochondriac care provider (for what it’s worth, when I finally did get in to see my PCP, she agreed with my diagnosis when I told her all my symptoms).  What I did have was BURNING stomach pain for four days after taking some Aleve (not to vilify Aleve –  I often recommend it to people who feel ibuprofen isn’t working for them).  Due to lack of regular and consistent sleep, stress, aging and an active physical life style, I’m pretty much in a constant state of inflammation, which led to months of taking ibuprofen almost every night before bed.  As noted above, since the ibuprofen wasn’t really making any noticeable difference in my pain, I decided to switch it up and take Aleve, which led to four days of not being able to sit or eat comfortably.  I took some Tums, which kind of helped; I took some Pepto, which also kind of helped; I tried simethicone in case it was gas, but that did nothing.  At this point, the only thing I had left in the apartment that might help was Alka-seltzer, but that had aspirin in it and I wasn’t about to ingest another NSAID.  That led me to Aviva Romm, who is one of the resources I recommend to patients for alternative treatments.

Aviva Romm is a physician, midwife and herbalist.  She’s also a Yale grad.  I like, and recommend, Aviva because her information IS researched and evidence-based.  She also knows when to call a spade a spade and defer to Western medicine.  I read her blog post about detoxing your medicine cabinet, and leaky gut syndrome (I had 7/11 of the symptoms listed) and decided that I was not going on an elimination diet (too much work), but that I would be drinking apple cider vinegar, adding turmeric to my daily supplements and doubling my probiotics.  These things, plus acupuncture, did make me feel better, which I know could be coincidence, but the important thing is that it got me thinking about herbs as alternatives again.  I was so inspired, that I decided to take the Spices as Natural Medicines for Health Care Professionals seminar through the Institute for Brain Potential.  After a resurgence of the burning stomach pain the next time I took NSAIDs (about a month later), I decided to read up on herbal alternatives for pain and have discovered that ginger is all it’s cracked up to be (1g of ginger is supposed to be as effective as ibuprofen for pain, and so far this has turned out to be true for me).

I have been doing a lot of reading and now frequently have an herbal alternative to offer up to my patients.  I don’t know if they’re trying them, or if they’re working, but I do know that patients seem happy and even excited to hear that they can drink nettle tea instead of taking a Zyrtec (which I totally take because I’m not interested in messing around with what works for my allergies.  Sometimes when they’re really bad, I’ll even add in Nasacort).  Maybe, at the end of the day, patients are opting for Zantac over chewing on celery for heartburn, but at least they feel like their voices have been heard and that they’ve participated in their care, which, for me, is one of the most important aspects of healthcare.

On a personal note, I’ve enrolled in Aviva Romm’s Herbal Medicine for Women Course.  I haven’t started the course yet, but I’m stoked that I decided to do it.  In some ways it feels like I’m returning to my roots – I often got labeled a “dirty hippie” at Yale (not entirely unfounded, except the dirty part), and while part of me embraced this label, another part of me wanted to distance myself from it.  Physician-midwife relationships are not always great, and as a new practitioner, I want to make sure I establish myself as a midwife who understands and follows best-practice guidelines.  After all, that’s why I chose to become a nurse-midwife and get my education at the most elitist institution I could think of – because I am also a biologist and believe in things like the scientific method and evidence-based practice.  But I also know that obstetrics isn’t the most evidence-based discipline because no one really wants to experiment on pregnant women and their unborn babies, so we tell them they can only take Tylenol, Tums and Robitussin during their pregnancy and then wonder why they’re afraid to take anything else we might recommend.  I’m glad to be learning about alternative treatments again.  It feels like an important part of my values to reclaim.  It feels like coming home again.

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