By Tracy B. Williams
A person who has digestive problems can expect a needle to the knee at Philip Barlow’s medical practice. Barlow works as an acupuncturist in Boston’s North End.
“This point on the knee runs along the same channel that controls digestion,” Barlow said, gesturing to his knee. “I would put a needle in that point to relax the blockage and get everything flowing properly again. I want to treat and heal, rather than just treat and cover up,” he said.
A conventional doctor might prescribe medicine—most likely a drug that would reduce inflammation—that will only target the pain in that specific area, Barlow said. “Chinese medicine forces you to look deeper…conventional medicine is very, very specialized,” he said.
He pays close attention to individual points on the body, and uses small needles to activate those points. The stimulation of these specific points helps regulate the natural functions of the body. Prescribed medications rarely work correctly, he said, and almost never treat the underlying cause for pain. But the residual effects of over-medication oftentimes remains in the body forever.
In medical school, Barlow and other students had the opportunity to cut open a cadaver of someone who took a great deal prescription medication throughout his lifetime. “His insides were green,” he said. He thinks this is a side effect of the body protecting itself and organs from certain chemicals released in medication.“Our belief is that the body can heal itself if left alone… and I’m a strong believer of that.”
At a healthy 33 years old, Barlow said he has never taken prescription medicine or antibiotics. “I grew up with holistic medicine,” said Barlow. He said his mother would give him herbs or take him to see an acupuncturist whenever he fell ill.
Acupuncture is the key part to traditional Chinese medicine, but another small part of Barlow’s job is herbology. Sometimes he prescribes traditional Chinese herbs and herb mixtures to his patients. Each herb recipe is tailored specifically for that particular patient, he said, ensuring their effectiveness. Barlow said that taking herbs regularly can be a direct alternative to prescription medicine.
While Barlow deals with mostly Chinese and Eastern herbs, other types of herbalists work with Western herbs—including wildflowers and plants grown and gathered locally.
Herbs for Emotional Healing
Ryn Midura and wife Katja Swift are the owners of the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, a school and clinic in Boston. In addition to treating clients, they train students to become community herbalists and clinicians in a nine-month apprenticeship program.
Herbs are a good alternative to some medications, and some drugs don’t do anything, Midura said. “Even the FDA advises many be taken short term,” he said.
Reports from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention state that every day, approximately 44 people die from prescription drug overdoses in the U.S. The amount of painkillers prescribed by doctors has nearly quadrupled since 2000.
Midura said he believes drugs force things to happen within the body, “but it may not be what the body is trying to achieve.” He said, “we have to ask, what is my body trying to accomplish and what can I do more effectively?” There’s always a place for surgeries and some drugs for acute situations, he said. But he does believe antibiotics are over-prescribed.
At the clinic, Midura and Swift advise clients on a range of health problems and chronic illnesses. Herbs are used only as supports, however. “Nothing is going to work on its own without [you] breaking habits,” he said. Oftentimes, people want the heaviest, fastest intervention possible when they fall ill,” said Midura. But he believes chronic illnesses are caused by lifestyle or other things in a person’s direct control.
“I don’t look at anyone’s genetic map as their fate,” he said. “Genes can be turned on and off by stressors and other factors.” At the center Midura and Swift focus on helping people deal with external stressors and make basic lifestyle changes. Much like Barlow, the herbal formulas Midura writes are specific to the person.
Swift has multiple sclerosis, but said she hardly ever sees the symptoms. She gets good sleep, walks regularly, and eats a healthy diet, he said. For other chronic diseases such as diabetes “herbs aren’t a cure if you don’t change diets.”
Sometimes it may take some experimentation to find things that work best for a person. “I’m not doing voodoo, and boom you are healed,” he said. He would rather give people the tools to go out and explore and heal themselves. Despite the trials some clients go through, Midura has seen positive changes in those he has treated.
Midura said that on average, less than one person will die from using herbs a year. The last case he read where someone died from taking herbs was in the 1800s, and the treating herbalist was acquitted.
The Legitimacy of Herbalism
The world of medicine raises questions of credentials and the authenticity of treatments and the herbs themselves. But Midura said there is not much risk with herbalism, so currently, no herbalists need a license to practice. “I like it that way,” said Midura. Some herbalists do want to be licensed, so that their services can get paid by insurance.
Paying by cash seems to work for most clients , Midura said, and if there are problems, “we do a pay what you can system.”
He said he is upfront in telling people his training, and makes it clear he is not a doctor. “I disclose to clients what my training is and the scope of my practice,” he said. Swift was already an herbalist for 12 years before they met. “She taught me first,” he said. “We did a little apprenticeship program in the house.” Midura also did a lot of self-study.
To require a test for licensing would be difficult, said Midura. There are so many different types of herbs, Chinese, Native American, etc., and it would be hard to write a book or one comprehensive exam for all of them. Different herbalists work with different herbs, and their practices and trainings differ. “An herbalist that trained at a college is not better than an herbalist that trained with her grandmother,” he said. “One is not better than the other.”
Herbs in Western Medicine
As a conventional doctor, Dr. Kira Alatar said she cannot recommend alternative treatments in a medical way.
During one summer at the University of Virginia, Alatar took a holistic medicine class as one of her electives. The class required tons of reading, but “I learned a lot,” she said. She learned about massage techniques, auras, therapeutic touch, and herbs.
Although this class was fun for her, Alatar said at medical school she learned the chemistry and science of medicine. “It’s proven it’s worked and it is safe,” she said. But she knows people, especially hypochondriacs, who will be against prescription medication no matter what the drugs are.
Just like a person could have multiple drug sensitivities, a person could have adverse reactions to particular herbs. Alatar said that some vitamins and herbs can have potent effects, and people are often not prepared to deal with those effects. Alatar sees many of these patients complaining of upset stomachs, and the culprit are the same vitamins and herbs they swear by.
With herbs, Alatar said, it is an “enter at your own risk” kind of deal, but she does acknowledge that some herbal treatments have helped the patients who have tried it. If a person who would like to try herbs is currently taking prescription medication as well, Alatar recommends they do research so the herbs will not interact negatively with medications.
As for Midura, Swift, and their practice, “ultimately, I want to bring medicine to underserved communities,” he said. “It would be great to have a community garden where people can harvest their own medicinal foods, and provide food security.”
So much can be done here [Boston], he said. “I can make elixirs and tinctures out of plants that grow out of the cracks in the sidewalk,” he said, but “there is so much blank space in the city, and empty lots can be put to much better use,” he said.