Crystal Honeycutt, a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild, has been practicing as a clinical herbalist and naturopath for 10 years. She also works with health care practitioners such as doctors and therapists to help integrate herbs and healthy lifestyle changes with their patients’ conventional treatments and medications. She is on the faculty at Herbal Medics University where she teaches herbal medicine. And because she sees that there’s a need to create a new healthcare paradigm that fully integrates both clinical holistic medicine and allopathic medicine, she is currently training to be a nurse.
Promoting cooperation between herbal practitioners and other health care providers and integrating herbalism into community health care is a tenet of the Founding Mission of the American Herbalists Guild. As a professional member of the AHG, a Registered Herbalist, I also share this values of theirs.
Many years ago, when I was recovering from serious health problems including lupus, I was one of those patients who was integrating herbalism and holistic therapies with the medications from my doctors, so this topic is very close to my heart. If integrating holistic therapies and medication hadn’t been a possibility for me over twenty years ago, I know I wouldn’t have been able to recover from lupus like I did.
Because Crystal Honeycutt has worked with doctors and therapists and is currently training to become a nurse in order to play a bigger role in integrative medicine, I sat down with her for a little Skype chat this week. She shared with me the reasons she believes doctors, their patients, and the health care system all benefit when clinical and holistic therapies are combined with conventional medicine.
1. “Clinical Herbalism is a bridge that covers the gap between when lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to bring about significant improvement but medications might not be necessary yet.”
Crystal talked about how so often people have symptoms that are impacting their quality of life but aren’t to a disease state yet and don’t have a diagnosis. Preventative therapies and lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to restore their health at this point. These are the types of cases that overwhelm the health care system.
These people are often over-medicated with antibiotics, antidepressants, or pain medications. Conditions like digestive disorders, mild to moderate depression, insomnia, stress-related issues, headaches, mild to moderate pain disorders, mystery illnesses – these can be hard to treat.
Herbs can help because they’re this incredible resource that helps to change biochemistry in a specific way that can help bring balance back to the body. They can help to support the immune’s system’s ability to get rid of infection, can help to repair tissues, can modulate an or down-regulate the immune system function.
Crystal believes this is where clinical herbalism really shines because herbal medicine can come in where we need a better option than what’s available and close that gap. “A clinical herbalist is trained as a high level health care practitioner to be able to engage the client at that level and to be able to assess the need and to create an individualized program that supports whatever the needs of that person are.”
For example, she said kids are being prescribed medication for ADD/ADHD, behavioral issues, depression and anxiety, sensory sensitivities, autism, etc. and there’s a lot of debate about how effective this is. She’s worked with children who then didn’t need medications because she was able to coach the parent on lifestyle changes such as nutrition and food intolerances and to use herbs to help create better balance within the brain and the body.
And what about those mystery illnesses where people have serious symptoms but just don’t fit into a diagnosable disease pattern? “Because clinical herbalists are trained to evaluate the whole body and to look at it as congruent systems, part of the magic of our medicine is being able to assess a person really well and from outside the conventional box. We’re able to recognize illness patterns that make sense within our system of medicine, and because we’re able to engage with those illness patterns, we’re able to apply specific herbs to help bring balance back to those structures and function in the body.”
2. “Clinical herbalists can also be a great resource to health care providers because we can answer their questions about herbs and supplements their patients are already taking.”
Their patients are already taking supplements according to research (1,2,). Americans are self-medicating with herbs and supplements they’re getting from the health food store or online, and this can be challenging to health care providers. We can answer doctors’ questions about what those herbs do, and if they’re safe with their condition.
This is why Crystal says having a relationship with a clinical herbalist would allow doctors whose patients are already utilizing herbs or nutritional products to have someone who can help them with this. She has a good friend who is an OBGYN who calls her frequently to ask about herbs and nutritional supplements her pregnant patients are taking and that she feels having Crystal’s expertise to call on any time she needs is a very valuable resource for her.
3. “Clinical herbalists can also provide information on possible drug-herb interactions and explain what those interactions mean.”
“There are often misunderstandings about what an herb-drug interaction means. A clinical herbalist can assist a physician in being able to better understand what the potential of an herb-drug interaction would be for a client, because a lot of times people assume that means the potential for toxicity when that’s very rarely the case. For most of the herbs that are contraindicated with pharmaceuticals, the real issue is that that herbs are supporting the natural functions of key organs such as the liver.”
A very classic example she pointed to is St. John’s Wort. Most of the time what St. John’s wort is doing is speeding up phase 1 and phase 2 liver detoxification, and so the contraindication comes out of the potential of that medication being metabolized faster than what it was designed to be.(3) So very rarely are we actually concerned about true toxicity issues, but rather in understanding what the herbs are doing to support the physiology of the body. Then it’s possible for the doctor to make some minor adjustments as to how the medication is prescribed so that they can take into consideration how the herb’s working in the body.
4. “When their patients are getting herbs from a clinical herbalist, doctors can have peace of mind regarding the quality of the herbs.”
Quality of natural products is a real issue, especially when it comes to herbs. When there are bad studies or reports about herbs, it almost always involves adulteration of an herbal product. Quality control is incredibly important. Clinical herbalists are trained to evaluate the quality, efficacy, and safety of herbal therapies. We only work with reputable companies whose products meet those criteria.
5. “When combined with medications, herbs can make improvements that might not have otherwise been possible.”
Crystal shared a couple of examples from her clinic. She emphasized that it’s important for health care professionals to know that clinical herbalists always tell people to never quit their medications or even adjust the dosage unless told to do so by their medical doctor. This is one reason why having a good working relationship between the doctor and the clinical herbalist is so helpful.
A woman who was diagnosed with severe depression but wasn’t responding well to anti-depressants. Working with Crystal and her doctor, the lady was able to take St. John’s Wort, and after a few weeks, started responding to the SSRI she had been taking. Crystal said she and the doctor concluded that the St. John’s Wort probably was enhancing serotonin production, and that allowed the SSRI to actually work. Additionally her IBS cleared up entirely soon after which could be because the majority of serotonin is produced in the gut and could have been another benefit of the St. John’s Wort.
A veteran who had high blood pressure in spite of being on three medications. After taking herbs for three weeks, his blood pressure normalized. He was still on the blood pressure medications, but the herbs were the catalyst that allowed the blood pressure medications to finally work. Crystal then began supporting the other issues he had including his diabetes. And with the help of strong anxiolytic herbs, he began to sleep through the night and started to have a quality of life that he hadn’t had in years because these core systems of his body weren’t in total alarm all the time .
Another veteran with multiple health issues that weren’t being treated. She sent him to the doctor to get on medications right away. He had even had a small stroke from high blood pressure, but within three months of working together had regained nerve function where he had had light paralysis around the right side of his mouth and all the numbness and tingling from the stroke had gone away. He had full use of his nervous system again. Crystal said she was utilizing herbs that support the nervous system, and while she can’t say scientifically that those herbs helped to regrow the nerves, he was no longer suffering those symptoms.
6. “Clinical herbalists can provide preventive support for lifestyle changes which can reduce lifestyle-produced diseases.”
This is another area in which clinical herbalists excel according to Crystal. Physicians see many diseases that are lifestyle-related disorders like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Depression and anxiety and other conditions are born out of stress. Whenever doctors can see the fruits of people learning how to eat better, manage their stress, and be able to take natural products that can support their physiology, then they’re more open to taking people off of medications. Sometimes meds are used preventatively such as when blood pressure begins to go up, so a diuretic is prescribed. Many doctors would like to get people off those if they could be confident that the necessary lifestyle changes are being made in order to not be on the medication.
7. “Clinical herbalists empower people to take responsibility for their health and thereby reduce the burden on the healthcare system.”
This is where clinical herbalists can really make an impact on the health care system, by promoting wellness. Crystal believes we as clinical herbalists can empower people to be responsible for their own health instead of giving over the responsibility for our health to pills. “If you’re taking ibuprofen every day, then there’s an issue that’s ongoing in your body. Often times it’s not a serious issue; it’s a lifestyle issue. But if it’s not addressed, it’ll become a serious issue. That span of time when it’s not a serious issue yet but it could turn into a serious issue is really a critical time, and this is that gray area doesn’t get addressed but needs to be in order to create a viable health care system that works for everybody.”
“If we look at universal health care in other countries, they have really dynamic expectations around health and well-being. They emphasize personal responsibility with their health. They have healthy foods accessible, make movement a cultural priority such as walking and riding a bicycle, teach health throughout all the grades of school, and have pro-active, preventative health care strategies. That’s what holistic practitioners are doing. We’re just not given the range and the freedom within the health care system to do that. We’re the ones with the interest and training and ability to intervene in people’s healthcare before they even get to that diseased stage.”
“We emphasize the education, personal responsibility, and the fact that we all can work together and that we are all needed in the system – doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, therapists, herbalists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, reflexologists, reiki healers – we need us all. When we work together, people feel much better served with their health and are capable of taking care of themselves so much better. We would see a huge decrease in the common causes of mortality in this county which are cardiovascular disease, cancers, and diabetes – all lifestyle related diseases.”
Crystal concluded our chat with this advice for everyone who is interested in using herbs for their health: “There’s a difference between using herbs as superfoods to augment your already good health vs. using herbs in a clinical capacity to really affect biochemistry and help to have very specific measured outcomes and goals that you’re looking for.” She recommends that everybody who’s interested in herbs or having herbs as a part of their daily routine make an appointment with a clinical herbalist and get a personalized recommendation.
That way you know that you’re using the herbs in a way that actually helps you receive the benefit that you want from them, using them in the correct dosage range and that they really are the appropriate herbs for your physiology and your needs. It will save you a lot of money and a lot of frustration from not getting what you’re trying to get out of using herbal therapies.
And finally I would like to extend an invitation to all the health care practitioners – doctors, therapists, specialists. Find a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild, a Registered Herbalist, and develop a relationship with them. Call them up when you have patients who are using herbs and you’d like more information about what they’re already doing.
Or refer patients to them who you know could benefit from working with a holistic wellness professional who can empower them to take responsibility for their health and give them natural supplements that will help support a specific change in their body when they’re in that state between just needing preventative lifestyle changes and being in a diseased state. Let’s work together and bring the best of both worlds to the health care system.
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