Rosalee de la Foret was always interested in herbal therapy. Then, a terrifying and fatal diagnosis gave her no option but to explore herbalism more deeply. Herbs were what ultimately brought her back to health, and she devoted the rest of her life’s work to herbal medicine, becoming a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and working as an herbal clinician for 6 years before focusing on education. She is the author of Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal and co-author of Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Craft Your Own Herbal Medicine. Read on to learn de la Foret’s incredible health journey, how herbal therapy works, why herbs for digestion are so effective, the difference between antimicrobial herbs and antibiotics, and much more.
The Health Crisis that Led to a Career in Herbalism
When she was around 10 years old, she was on a guided nature hike. She remembers vividly the guide pointing out a plant and explaining it was used for tea, then telling them to take off a little bit and taste it. “I remember that just blew my mind,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe it, which is kind of a sign of how disconnected I was from nature at that age. But just the idea that you could walk along a trail and take a plant and eat it or use it for tea, I just thought it was so cool.”
This spark of interest became a more full-blown passion for holistic health as de la Foret grew older. By the time she got her driver’s license, she was so into natural health that her first thought was, “Now I can drive myself to the health food store!”
Then when de la Foret was in her twenties, a personal health crisis added further fuel to her passion for natural medicine, specifically herbal therapy. Out of nowhere, she began experiencing a bizarre set of symptoms: severe joint pain, a high fever at night that would disappear during the daytime, fatigue that kept her in bed for weeks at a time. Eventually, she became so sick that she was hospitalized, and the doctors diagnosed her with a rare autoimmune disorder called Still’s disease.
“I did not have a good prognosis,” de la Foret remembers. The doctors prescribed her Prednisone, but told her that the steroids wouldn’t work in time to undo the damage. She would have declining quality of life for the remainder of her years, with a life expectancy of about 40. “That was it,” she says. “They literally gave me a brochure and it was like, good luck.”
While this, of course, was a traumatic experience, de la Foret looks back at this treatment with a touch of gratitude, since it’s what led her further toward herbalism. “Western medicine just shut the door in my face,” she says. “So I pretty immediately pivoted and started seeing all sorts of holistic practitioners, acupuncture, herbalists, naturopaths.”
With the guidance of various integrative practitioners, de la Foret changed her diet and began incorporating lots of Chinese herbs. Within six months, her symptoms had completely disappeared. “That was really a paradigm shift,” she says. While Western medicine had handed her steroids and told her that the rest of her life would be unpleasant and short, the integrative practitioners she saw were genuinely invested in treating her holistically, addressing root cause issues, and getting her better.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, supposedly this alternative health is quackery and not for serious issues,’ but that definitely changed my mind about that,” she says. “It completely changed my whole life. I knew that I wanted to sink further into that for my own learning and be able to help others as well.” After she recovered, she went on to complete eight years of clinical training for herbs, become a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild, and author two books on herbal medicine (also known as herbalism or herbal therapy).
What Exactly Is Herbalism? Defining Herbal Therapy
One of the main misconceptions around herbalism that de la Foret sees is the idea that if you have a specific ailment, you can take a specific herb to fix it. While this would be nice, she explains that it’s actually not like that at all. “With herbal medicine, it’s a whole system of healing,” she says. “It’s not simply about saying, ‘Oh, I’m currently taking this pharmaceutical drug. I don’t want to take it anymore, so I’m going to take herbs,’ and then substitute one for the other. That’s using herbs, but that’s not using herbal medicine.” What people don’t understand, she explains, is that there’s a deeper system and approach involved in herbal therapy, rather than the “taking this for that” pharmaceutical model many of us are accustomed to.
That pharmaceutical mindset also leads to what de la Foret describes as Western medicine’s “reductionist” attitude toward herbal medicine, in which conventional doctors focus solely on the bioavailable constituents in each herb. This approach, she says, misses the broader benefits of herbal therapy. “In herbalism, we know that it’s not just these individual constituents within an herb that are valuable, but really the whole herb and the whole experience around that herb too.”
So what are those herbs, and what is the experience around them? While gardeners or botanists may have a relatively circumscribed definition of herbs — herbaceous plants that die each year — de la Foret explains that herbalists take a broader view. Anything that can be described as a natural medicinal substance would go under the umbrella of “herb,” from cinnamon bark to medicinal mushrooms to garlic, as well as special preparations of herbs (more on that below!).
In terms of finding and using herbal therapy, de la Foret explains that many powerful herbs are readily accessible to most people. “Some of the best herbal medicine is actually found in the produce section of a supermarket,” she says, pointing to ginger, garlic, and mint as examples of powerful medicinal herbs. Another great place to find herbal medicine is health food stores, in which you’ll find herbs in various different forms, and of course you can also get herbs directly from an herbalist.
Whether you get your herbs from a grocery store, a health food store, or somewhere else, there are many different forms in which to take them: teas, capsules, tinctures, topical balms, salves, and more. De la Foret says that there’s not necessarily any form that’s more or less effective than any other form, but rather that “all of them have their time and place.” She explains that the form in which you take an herb will depend on the type of herb, the health issue you’re looking to address, and the dosage of the herb. For instance, if somebody had a sore throat, de la Foret would give them herbs in the form of a tea or throat spray, which would directly coat the throat. If somebody needed to take massive doses of herbs, she would opt for a tea over a tincture or capsule, as it’s easier to get larger quantities of herbs into tea form.
Those with some experience in herbal therapy may be able to go to the store to buy and prepare their own herbs, but de la Foret recommends that those who are just getting started see a professional. There are some herbal quick-fixes that anyone can access (like, say, ginger for nausea), but for most other issues, it’s usually necessary to work with an herbalist to come up with the best herbal therapy approach. “Working with a practitioner is going to be your best first step, because they can help you figure out what herbs are right for you,” she says. “We’re looking at people and thinking about what might be the best herbs for them, and helping them with all those things: how do you formulate those herbs? How much do you take for how long? All of those things are really necessary to get results with herbs.”
Why Herbs for Digestion Are So Effective
One of the areas where de la Foret sees the power of herbal therapy most conspicuously is with digestive issues. For example, herbs can be incredibly effective at treating things like heartburn, GERD, or ulcers, conditions that are generally treated with side-effect-laden PPIs. PPIs, she explains, are prescribed to get rid of excessive hydrochloric acid in the gut. They’re effective at getting rid of the hydrochloric acid and managing symptoms, but they don’t treat any root causes and can be detrimental to your digestion and overall health in the long-run.
An herbalist would take a completely different approach, looking not to suppress symptoms but to actually heal the issue at hand. “Let’s say someone comes to me with an ulcer,” she says. “I might use vulnerary herbs, which are healing to tissues and help stimulate the healing of wounds generally, because an ulcer is basically a digestive wound.” She explains that various herbs can be effective at soothing digestive tissue, bringing immediate pain relief, while also stimulating tissues to regrow and heal. “You’re just working with herbs as a way of stimulating your body’s own natural healing to help take care of that wound,” she says.
You can use herbs for digestion on a more general level, too. Many herbs can help strengthen and tone the digestive system (in addition to eating a healthy diet, of course). For example, bitters — a classification of herbs with a bitter taste — can stimulate various different actions in the digestive system, challenging your digestive system and propelling things along. “If you just ate white potatoes day in and day out, that would be hard on your digestive system. You’re just eating this one starchy substance all the time, and you wouldn’t be challenging your digestive system in any way,” de la Foret says. “With bitters, as soon as you have a bitter flavor on your tongue, you start to salivate, which creates a whole cascade of digestive events.” Your saliva begins breaking down carbohydrates, which creates a healthy amount of hydrochloric acid in your stomach, and you release pancreatic enzymes, which stimulates the release of fat-digesting bile.
Herbs can also help address tissue states, meaning it can heal lax or swollen tissues in the digestive system. Just as a fit body is tight and toned, you want your digestive tissues to be tight and toned in order to function optimally. Many herbs can help achieve that goal, which also prevents digestive infections by making it more difficult for bacteria to adhere to cell walls. When herbalists use herbs for digestion, de la Foret explains, the focus is not only on healing the issue, but on creating a better environment so that the digestive system is more resilient and can prevent future issues from arising.
The Power and Benefits of Antimicrobial Herbs
Another area where herbal medicine shines is as a replacement for antibiotics. Antimicrobial herbs offer a very effective substitute for antibiotics, without the hefty side effects. Herbs can act in place of antibiotics in a variety of ways, whether it’s by making it more difficult for bacteria to adhere to cell walls, as we mentioned above, preventing biofilm production, or specific antimicrobial herbs that act directly to kill bacteria or reduce its effectiveness. And unlike antibiotics, herbs aren’t going to enter a person’s body and clumsily kill every microbe in there. “They don’t kill everything, they’re not systemic in nature,” de la Foret says. Rather, they’re natural substances that work with your body, leaving the good bacteria in your microbiome intact.
What’s more, antimicrobial herbs can actually be more effective than antibiotics. De la Foret explains that antibiotics have one mechanism for entering and killing bacteria, and that bacteria are constantly evolving to avoid that simplistic mechanism, leading to antibiotic resistance. “With plants, they’re so complex and work in so many different ways that it’s not as easy,” she says. “There’s no one door that the bacteria can shut to keep out herbs. Herbs have all these different mechanisms for acting against them.”
As an example of an antimicrobial herb, she points to berberine-containing plants, which have a clever method for clearing out antibiotic-resistant cells. These cells, she says, have a pump in them that immediately sends out any antibiotic that enters, leaving the bacteria unharmed. Berberine-containing herbs, meanwhile, go into the cell and break the pump, allowing them to kill the harmful bacteria.
De la Foret says that there are many ways that antimicrobial herbs can work in place of antibiotics, but that they need to be thought of differently. “It’s not just as simple as taking an antibiotic pill once a day, but luckily it doesn’t also have the negative consequences of wiping out all of your bacteria,” she says.
The WellBe Takeaway on Herbal Therapy
Whether you call it herbalism, herbal medicine, or herbal therapy, there’s no doubt that the world of using herbs for your health is fascinating and full of possibilities. Here’s what to know about how you can use herbal medicine:
- Herbal medicine is a holistic approach to health, rather than a simple replacement for pharmaceuticals. Using herbal medicine requires a broader understanding of the whole system of herbs and your body.
- In herbal medicine, any natural substance with medicinal properties is considered an herb. Herbs can be taken in various different forms, including capsules, tinctures, ointments, teas, and more. The form you take will depend on several factors, including the herbs itself, the issue you’re addressing, and the dosage.
- Many powerful healing herbs can be found in the produce section of the grocery store, while others can be found at health food stores. However, those who are new to herbal therapy should seek out a registered herbalist to determine the right herbal protocol for them.
- Herbs for digestion are particularly effective. Herbs can be an effective replacement for PPIs to treat issues like acid reflux and GERD. Herbs can work to heal wounds in the gut, tone and tighten gut tissue, and challenge your digestive system to keep it functioning optimally.
- Antimicrobial herbs can act as effectively, if not more, than antibiotics, with none of the side effects. Herbs act in more complex ways than antibiotics, so harmful bacteria can’t become resistant to them. Using herbs in place of antibiotics also prevents you from wiping out the good bacteria in your gut.
Have you ever used herbal medicine or worked with an herbalist? Share your experience in the comments below!
Watch our full interview with Rosalee de la Foret to learn what she sees as the main difference between herbal medicine and pharmaceuticals, why healing through herbal medicine isn’t just about “the things that we swallow,” how to actually access healing herbs to use at home, how to know that you’re getting high-quality herbs, the best natural antiviral herbs, what herbs might be most effective against Covid-19, how to find an herbalist near you, and more.
- Salehi M, Karegar-Borzi H, Karimi M, Rahimi R. Medicinal Plants for Management of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease: A Review of Animal and Human Studies. J Altern Complement Med. 2017 Feb;23(2):82-95.
- Bi, Wei-Ping et al. “Efficacy and safety of herbal medicines in treating gastric ulcer: a review.” World journal of gastroenterology vol. 20,45 (2014): 17020-8.
- McMullen, Michael K et al. “Bitters: Time for a New Paradigm.” Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM vol. 2015 (2015): 670504.
- Khameneh, Bahman et al. “Review on plant antimicrobials: a mechanistic viewpoint.” Antimicrobial resistance and infection control vol. 8 118. 16 Jul. 2019.
The information contained in this article comes from our interview with Rosalee de la Foret, RH, a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the education director for LearningHerbs, an online resource for herbal medicine. She has been an herbal teacher for over 15 years, has taught over 10,000 students in her online courses, and is the author of two best-selling books, Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients into Foods and Remedies That Heal and Wild Remedies: How to Forage Healing Foods and Cyouraft Your Own Herbal Medicine. You can read more about Rosalee de la Foret here.