In the first post I introduced the idea of sensory energetics as a way to learn more about an herb’s medicinal effects in the body, using taste as an example. The second post went into more detail about the specific flavors we can taste in Calendula officinalis and what those flavors tell us about the energetic effects in the body. I was going to then have this post be an in-depth plant profile of Calendula (I’ll get to that post eventually…). But I’ve found myself wanting to elaborate more on the idea of sensory-based herbal energetics, since maybe it is a novel idea to many of you.
For those of us brought up with a chemical understanding of the world where we think of certain chemical constituents causing certain effects in the body, this idea of sensory-based herbalism could seem esoteric or even far-fetched. But I’d like to argue that it’s simply another way of describing things.
We could think of the flavors as being caused by chemical constituents: polysaccharides contributing a sweet flavor, certain alkaloids or tannins causing a bitter flavor and so on. Then we could analyze these constituents and their medicinal effects in the body. Many polysaccharides have been shown to enhance nutritive functions in the body. Some help the body strengthen the immune system or replenish exhausted adrenals. This building-up and supplementing action is what we’d traditionally expect from a sweet flavor. Many alkaloids are strongly stimulating and help speed up eliminative processes in the body. Again, similar to what we’d expect from a bitter flavor. This chemical approach is certainly a legitimate way of learning about a plant and it has strongly influenced Western clinical herbalism. Having studied chemistry, pharmacology, and physiology in college, I find all of this fascinating and (to a certain extent) useful. BUT this system definitely has its limitations.
Individual plant constituents often have vastly different effects when isolated and studied than they do when they are used in a whole plant form. There are so many different constituents in a single herb and these interact with each other to buffer and moderate and even enhance the effects of any single medicinal component. It quickly becomes overwhelming to try and isolate all these compounds and then study the practically infinite ways in which they can interact with other compounds. Not to mention, plant compounds are constantly changing throughout the growth and life cycle of the herb. A purely chemical view of plant medicine is inherently limited by the vastly complicated scope of these compounds and their potential interactions in the body.
Also, this way of approaching herbalism tends to put herbal knowledge into the realm of ‘experts’. Most of us don’t have access to labs or the ability to conduct research studies. Many of us have never studied chemistry or medical science. Sure, some of us feel comfortable using elderberry syrup to treat flues since there is plenty of scientific research to support such a use, but we feel lost when faced with a complicated health issue or a plant that hasn’t been adopted into mainstream use. We start to feel like we have to have a degree or x number of years of schooling before we can even begin to understand herbal medicine. Now I’m certainly not discounting education or training. It’s amazing to be able to learn from someone who has years of experience (this is true in any field of knowledge). What I don’t like is the belief that these things are absolutely necessary before we can start learning about herbalism in a deep and meaningful way. Before we can use it effectively ourselves, for our bodies and our family’s bodies.
So instead, we can use sensory-based herbal energetics. Before the advent of chemistry and a chemical world view, this is how we learned about medicine: through our senses. Just as we can describe medicinal actions through chemical components, we can describe medicinal actions through taste, smell, appearance, and close attention to changing effects in our bodies. And the beauty of this system is that it is accessible to everyone. If you like to memorize chemical components and read research studies (like I do), great! It can be a fascinating and useful adjunct. If not, you can still learn about herbs in a deep, meaningful, experiential way simply by learning to pay attention to patterns and sensory information. After all, herbalism has always been a peoples’ medicine, accessible to anyone with a desire to learn.