Herbal Medicine Formulation

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All about the herbal scientist, and the process of formulation.

My primary college education was earning a BS in Chemistry and another BS in Biology from Northland College, in Ashland WI. Not wanting to participate with the pharmacology model of healthcare, I opted to move to Seattle, WA and study for another BS in Herbal Sciences and continue my independent study as a lifelong student observing nature and measuring results. I have cultivated herbal medicines of many varieties for over 20 years, and perfected many formulations. Some, I share for free, and consultations are very affordable. I am always ready to assist in starting and growing or wildcrafting your own herbal medicines, as well as developing formulations for your home or business.

The Branches and Roots of Herbalism:

Herbal medicine as we know it has three branches if you ask me, and one root. The root is earth medicine, indiginous wisdom passed from mother to child, grandfather to child, grandmother to child. The three branches are clinical herbalism, herbal sciences, and spiritual herbalism. Spiritual herbalism is basically the strong central branch reaching right up out of the root. This is your indiginous teachings and roots medicine, your kitchen witch your alchemist your chef. This is big momma. This is the cultural medicine passed up from the root directly. Then there is clinical herbalism which can be the American Herbalist Guild or other western clinical herbalist practices or TCM, Ayurveda and what we call eastern medicine and requires even more study than just a MD, including having years of clinical rounds with an established doctor or master herbalist. These are your doctors who also practice herbal medicine who may also be indiginous spiritual healers. Then there is the herbal sciences branch which is not clinical in that practitioners are not diagnosing anyone or doing clinical intakes. Herbal sciences is the botany of the plants themselves, the relationships of the plants to their environment, nutritional and medicinal values, identifying quality product, doing quality assurance and control, calculating quantities ratios and proportions, extracting and testing the herbs using analytical chemistry. Herbal science is studying how and why the traditional remedies work and what they work for, and often falls short of understanding without the spiritual component, but clinical herbalism is determining what the patients condition is and knowing how to calculate medicinal dosages based on a patients needs. Although herbal scientists study how each herb will impact the particular body system, known as the herbs’ actions. Herbal scientists like myself are not trained to diagnose. We do make very accurate formulations and using a doctors prescription can create precise formulas and even grow or ethically source the plants required for your formulation; but for anything other than nutritional support and overall fortification you must have a clinical evaluation by a trained clinical doctor. The majority of the herbal formulations I make are at concentrations in the range of 1:10, 1:5 and the herbs in all formulations are completely safe. Part of being an herbal scientist is knowing which herbs have contraindications with pharmaceuticals and how to avoid taking the wrong things together. Herbalists never stop studying.

Who is qualified to be an “Herbalist”

Herbalism is a self-regulated industry and as such it is important to be sure your information is coming from a qualified source. What is a qualified source? The primary qualification for herbal medicine is generational knowledge passed down from an indigenous elder to an apprentice or initiate. There is no substitute for the intellectual property rights of indigenous healers and every effort must be made to protect and honor sacred plants and traditions and give credit to the healers and tribes who shared their knowledge with botanists such as James Duke, an ethnobotanist called the “Father of Botany”. The secondary qualification for herbal medicine is book knowledge gained through an accredited university and through the study of peer reviewed research. This secondary category is further divided into the subcategory of Clinical Herbalist and Laboratory Herbalist. One can meet the primary qualification and not need to be certified as either of the later, or one can have all three. For this website, I want to make it clear that I am a highly trained Laboratory Herbalist who places a great weight on the teachings of Black and Indigenous women healers, recognizing that the entirety of western education and science has biases to face before their system of medicine can be seen as inclusive. Although I have some training in clinical herbalism, I am not a certified clinical herbalist nor a doctor. I make no claims to diagnose, treat nor cure you. What I will do is guide and teach you to support your health and wellbeing from within by growing, formulating, and relating to the ecology around you. For clinical herbalism, please reach out to groups such as The American Herbalist Guild.

How does an herbalist develop a formula?

There are two primary categories of herbal medicine formulations but the process for developing the formula is very similar in both categories. Clinical formulations are those that are designed to treat a specific condition or disease, while the second type are those that are designed to support, nourish, and enhance the quality of health of an individual. On this site, you will only find the second category. Here is the basic process for developing an herbal formula.

Step One: Clinical Intake

This step is important whenever making a formula for any specific individual. When making a formula for yourself this step is about self awareness. One system that I use in formulation is one that I learned from Traditional Chinese Medicine. The clinical intake that I use in formulation asks a lot of questions to determine what is called your Dosha. There are other systems of evaluating a patient including being able to read their pulses (yes there are more than one), and properly evaluate their tongue and eyes. All of these systems are intended to gather information about how the Chi, or energy of the body and systems in the body, is moving. There is no comparison to the knowledge of an experienced TCM practitioner in evaluating everything from your breathing and pulse to your voice and skin texture. I use the very basic introductory intake when developing personal formulas to be certain that what herbs are in your formula do not aggravate or exacerbate imbalances. I also ask about any medications you may be taking to be sure there are no contra-indications in your formula.

Step Two: Primary Actions

The next step in formulation is determining what the primary actions of the formula will be. This step not only takes into account what the desired effect is, but also all of the information gathered from the clinical intake and assessment. Here is a list of potential actions of herbal medicine formulations listed alphabetically:

  • Adaptogen
  • Alterative
  • Anthelmintic
  • Anti-catarrhal
  • Anti-depressive
  • Anti-emetic
  • Anti-hemorrhagic
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Anti-lithic
  • Anti-microbial
  • Anti-parasitic
  • Anti-pyretic
  • Antispasmodic
  • Anodyne
  • Aperient
  • Aromatic
  • Astringent
  • Bitter
  • Cardiac Tonic
  • Carminative
  • Cholagogue
  • Choleretic
  • Demulcent
  • Depurative
  • Diaphoretic
  • Diuretic
  • Emetic
  • Emmenagogue
  • Emollient
  • Expectorant
  • Febrifuge
  • Galactagogue
  • Hepatic
  • Hypnotic
  • Laxative
  • Nervine
  • Rubefaceient
  • Sedative
  • Spasmolytic
  • Stimulant
  • Styptic
  • Thymoleptic
  • Tonic
  • Trophorestorative
  • Vulnerary

Always keep in mind that herbs and spices, plants insects and people are all complex with various actions and energetics. There will never be only one action for any particular plant. You may have two herbs with the exact same primary action, but very different energies or secondary actions or very different directions within the body that cause the two herbs with the same primary action to impact different body systems.

Step Three: Materia Medica

All herbalists study and compile a Materia Medica, which means the “healing materials”. I will advise and coach you to create your own starting from the plants that grow close to where you live, learning one plant at a time thoroughly and compiling your very own Materia Medica. A good Materia Medica will include botanical illustrations and if possible a pressed and dried sample of the plant itself, along with the following categorical information for each plant: Common Name, Family, Latin Name, Original habitat, Range, Text in which it first appeared, Properties, Channels, Key Actions (listed), Key Constituents, Dosage, Contraindications (listed), useful commentary with cited sources, discussion of actions, discussion of toxicity and contraindications, discussion on frequently used combinations and discussions on common formulations, discussions on nomenclature and etiology, alternate names or alternative plants with similar actions, and sometimes specific formulations and dosages are given. Some materia medica have a section on ethical sourcing, quality assurance in sourcing, and even plants that are often mistaken. A Materia Medica is an extensive study and collation of all of the historical and present day knowledge about a particular herb organized into a format that is useful for the practitioner and student of herbal medicine. At this stage in formulation, and in steps four and five, an herbalist will thoroughly consider not only the primary actions desired in the formula, but take into consideration everything about the clinical intake as well as the accumulated knowledge about the primary plant constituents that will be used to generate the desired effect. Knowing the constituents present in the herbs and how those constituents work together or against one another in the body is Pharmacology. Too often western herbalists choose one constituent for one action and use high pressure or alcohol extractions to extract one desired constituent without taking into consideration the wisdom inherent in the plant. For example, glutathione is a hepatoprotectant that denatures in high alcohol content. Some Kava formulations desiring the Kava-Lactones extract and standardize the lactones to a high level, forgetting that in such a formula there will be no glutathione. This could have terrible consequences for someone with a compromised liver.

Using the Materia Medica and the clinical intake, while considering the full range of constituents, an herbalist at this stage in formulation decides what method of preparation is going to be best for attaining the desired action.

Step Four: Synergy and Balance

This portion of formulation is pharmacology and chemistry. Now that you know what your menstrum or solvent is going to be, and what your primary herb (or rarely herbs) in your formula is going to be, the next step is evaluating the full range of energies and actions those herbs will create and creating a synergistic formula that is balanced by using supporting herbs in a lesser concentration. It can be tricky calculating the concentration and ratios of the supporting herbs so that the final product contains the correct constituents needed to create the desired action. This is where cultural knowledge and oral tradition vastly outflanks book knowledge in that tried and tested time proven formulas often work far better than formulas where we standardize one particular constituent and push for one action. I can not stress enough the importance of synergy and balance in herbal formulations.

Step Five: Support and Direction

At this stage the herbalist is going to choose usually one, but sometimes two herbs in small quantities that specifically support another herb in the formula or that act as directing herbs. Using the knowledge in the Materia Medica gained over centuries of botanical discovery, there are particular herbs that are known to direct the actions of a formula towards a specific system in the body.

Step Six: Measure & Observe

Now it is time to see if it all fits into the jar. This is the step where people give up because you can design and develop the perfect formulation only to get to this stage and as you start to make it realize that there is no way to fit all the herbs into the solvent. This is where there is no substitute for laboratory experience. I strongly advise working in metric. The concentration of formulas is written as a ratio of grams (g) of solute (or herbs) per milliliter (mL) and it can often require a double extraction to reach the desired goal for a medicinal formulation. One trick that I use is to keep a running spreadsheet of the herbs that I use most commonly in formulations. This spreadsheet holds information about each herb including the cost per gram from my suppliers, the volume taken up by 10g of herb, the weight in g of one standard volume of the herb, and more. Having a spreadsheet with details on each herb makes it much easier to refine your formulas in the final step.

Step Seven: Refine

In an ideal world, we would only be concerned with health and ecology so refining our formulas would be as simple as streamlining the process with respect to sustainable harvesting and regenerative agriculture and making sure that all materials are able to be ethically sourced. In the world we live in, this step also means making fine tune adjustments for the sake of profit and investment. This is where the herbalist takes off their ecological cleric robe and defers to the person making the financial decisions and maybe chooses an herb other than ginseng or lowers the quantity of turmeric in a formula because of profit margins or reworks a formula to fit into a different size container because it can be sourced cheaper. I ask you to strive in all you do to put the ecology first and to trust that the real wealth comes from sharing and respecting the banks of the rivers. Ultimately it is our relationship to the mother that needs refinement.

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