Americans spend more on pharmaceutical drugs than consumers in any other country, but right alongside prescription medications are a growing number of herbs – promoted by a school in Charlottesville.
In the garden of an old house near downtown Charlottesville, Kat Maier cultivates over a hundred rare medicinal plants.
“We have golden seal, ginseng, bloodroot and all the endangered plants growing in Charlottesville – in our front yard, and the whole idea is to teach people how to do this,” she says.
Shelves in her basement are lined with an equal number of jars and bottles, with more common herbs like plantain.
“It’s in everybody’s yard, and plantain is an incredible medicine for pulling out toxins," Maier says. "You put it on a bee sting, or I’ve put it on copperhead snake bites. You use it internally as well for IBS. Here’s Self-Heal – prunella vulgaris is the botanical name.”
Maier shows me powders, capsules and tinctures. "Tinctures are herbs steeped in a variety of different alcohols or vinegar if people are sensitive or in recovery from alcohol," Maier explains. "The alcohol will extract the medicinal constituents, and then they’re preserved much longer.”
She claims these plants can have a powerful impact on health, but she adds they must be taken properly.
“Just because it’s natural does not mean it’s safe.”
The Food and Drug Administration does test nutritional supplements to make sure they’re free of contaminants and contain what the label says they contain. Supplements can’t claim to treat or cure medical conditions, but Maier says U.S. government regulations for supplements are not as strict as for food or pharmaceuticals.
“In Europe you need a prescription now, and it’s a lot harder to get the herbal medicines. but here if we don’t make a claim, then we’re safe. When you begin making claims, that’s what invites the FDA – as it should.”
There is, she says, good data from China to support the use of many medicinal plants.
“They have 5,000 years of tradition of plant remedies, so they do not question the efficacy. They do not question the safety. You go into a hospital, and the prescriptions are soups of herbs for the gal bladder, and that’s right alongside the surgery.”
Maier does not dismiss pharmaceutical drugs, and she encourages consumers to study up on plant remedies before trying them. Her school offers a three-year program for those who are serious about caring for patients with medicinal plants, a six-week introduction, a nine-month series of weekend courses and this month a four-hour class on winter allies to be taken during cold and flu season.
“It’s really deepening the immune system and how to boost lungs especially, because I’ve seen this flu this year really wreak havoc and hang around for a long time.”
Next month Sacred Plant Traditions will also offer two more programs on navigating depression and maintaining good cardiovascular health.