When you talk to a pharmacist in a drugstore, you can be pretty confident you're dealing with a professional who has taken rigorous courses on the medicines he or she sells. But when you're looking for herbal remedies, the situation's different. The clerk at the counter of a health food store is probably just as willing to give you advice. But many such employees know little about the uses -- and risks -- of the herbs they sell.
An informal WebMD survey of health store clerks found that their training ranged from a 12-week course to none at all. That's typical of those who sell herbs, says Mindy Green, a founder of the American Herbalists Guild.
It's a problem because herbs, if used improperly, can be dangerous or even lethal. And guidance about what and what not to use can be hard to come by. Many labels on herbal products don't even specify the maladies for which they should be used. And commercially manufactured herbs are often sold mixed with other ingredients in concentrations that can vary widely from one product to another -- making it even more difficult to determine the right product for a given ailment.
So where can you get advice you can trust? The closest equivalents to pharmacists in the herb industry are professional herbalists who have spent years studying and using the plant products they prescribe. But while pharmacists and doctors must meet a uniform set of licensing requirements set by a governing board, no such governing body certifies herbalists. This means that checking the credentials of an herbalist may take a little digging, but it's important to do so.
To begin, ask if your herbalist belongs to the American Herbalists Guild. To become members, herbalists must submit three letters of reference from other professional herbalists, a description of their training, and an account of at least four years of experience working with medicinal herbs. (To obtain a list of herbalists accepted as members by the American Herbalists Guild, visit their web site at http://www.healthy.net/herbalists or call them at 435-722-8434.)
But herbalists come from many different traditions (Western, Native American, and traditional Chinese medicine, to name three) which makes it difficult to set criteria. "Any time the guild tries to set some minimum standards for who can call themselves an herbalist, they run into problems," says Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder, Colorado. "There are just too many schools of herbalists."
The various branches of herbal medicine use different certification systems. For example, the National Certification Council for Acupuncturists and Oriental Medicine tests practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine on their knowledge of herbs.
Schooling and Training
If you find an herbalist outside of the guild, be sure to ask her where she went to school, whether the school was accredited, and how long the program lasted. Herbal training programs can vary from a few months to years.
"I would not go to an herbalist who did not have at least a year of schooling or apprenticeship," says Niki Telkes, an herbal-information specialist at the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. You should also find out if your herbalist has taken any continuing education courses to stay up-to-date on the latest research.
Look also for an herbalist with general medical training or who works closely with a physician, suggests Robin Dispasquale, ND, acting chair of the botanical medicine department at Bastyr University. That way the herbalist will know when your problem requires medical attention, and won't simply mask symptoms with herbs when you really need further professional help.
A good herbalist is willing to work with others in the medical field, says Telkes. "If they can't help you in the best way possible, can they find you someone who can?" Beware of herbalists who make disparaging remarks about other healing professions. "It's not about competition; it's about making you well."
Herbalism is about treating a person with a very individualized program, adds Telkes. Because of this, you need to feel extremely comfortable with your herbalist. If you aren't, or if she can't explain what she's doing and what the herbs are for in a way you can understand, find somebody else. "That might take extra effort, but that's how you'll get the best health care."