When people start getting into herbs, they often become very excited about the diversity of plants and their plethora of therapeutic actions, and they begin learning about the health benefits of different substances and most importantly, they begin consuming them. After a short time has passed and the budding herbal gannet has consumed a small truckload of herbs and supplements, a question naturally arises: “Should I take herbs every day…?”
This is a very good question, and has more than one answer depending on a number of different circumstances. For example, people with certain chronic health conditions may find it necessary to take herbs with direct actions on an ongoing, daily basis either as an alternative to conventional medicine or as an adjunct therapy. But generally when people ask this question they are referring to the rise in popularity of adaptogenic or “tonic” herbs, because it’s true that adaptogens are good to take when we are seemingly healthy and free from disease, so that they can support us in reaching and maintaining a dynamic state of balance that can decrease the likelihood of getting sick in the first place.
But all-too-often these herbs are marketed as a type of systemic panacea that are totally safe to take everyday for the rest of your life, and the larger the dose the better! Of course this is an exaggerated distortion of the truth that will have desperate people emptying their bank accounts in the hope of “invincible” health or “immortal” health or whatever bullshit slogan some health guru may have come up with…
The truth is that many adaptogenic herbs can be truly life changing – of course the results are not the same in every case, but people have transformed their physical and mental wellbeing with the support of herbal tonics for thousands of years. On a personal level they have been a primary catalyst in my own healing journey and will continue to be for the rest of my life.
Of course herbal adaptogens work, but traditionally these natural medicines were understood within a cultural framework that incorporated a complex medical system and a more broad-spectrum and often ‘spiritual’ perspective. When we remove that context and replace it with our modern, western, more materialistic perspective, we end up believing that we can simply ‘buy’ our health, and that the more we take of beneficial substances the more benefit we will receive – a notion that is wholly encouraged by many leading health advocates (and supplement company owners).
We all have different constitutions and while some of us may need an intake of dense nutrients and plant constituents for a long time, other people don’t do well with this approach at all and do better with a more diluted, intermittent approach to herbal medication. It is true that many of the great adaptogenic herbs are generally non-toxic with little-to-no side effects when consumed over the long term, and that the effects are cumulative and build momentum over time, but this doesn’t mean we SHOULD take them everyday for the rest of our lives!
It’s important to remember that these substances are very good at driving us towards homeostasis/homeodynamis – a dynamic state of equilibrium within the body & mind. If we have become unstable in one or more areas then adaptogens can certainly help to restore balance. This process may take longer for some people than for others, but ultimately we don’t want to become completely dependent on herbal medicine if we are not treating a chronic disease condition.
An example of this would be a client I worked with a few months ago. He discovered Reishi mushroom a few years back and it had an immediate effect on pacifying the tension and turbulence within his mind. He noticed many amazing health benefits, but primarily it was the increased sense of clarity and the calming effect it had on his mental state that were truly life-changing. He used it every single day and these benefits continued to present themselves until a few months in, when he felt that they had tapered off somewhat and he no longer noticed a positive change when consuming Reishi. Regardless of this observation he continued to use it every day for a couple of years, and if ever he was unable to take it he became tense and anxious, feeling that he may not be ‘protected’ by the immense potency of Reishi…
If we review this story we can see that this person was obviously out of kilter in one or more areas and Reishi would have realigned some of this instability and provided a genuine healing revelation! As Reishi’s adaptogenic nature worked its magic, he began to feel less and less off-centre. The symptoms of imbalance decreased to the point where he no longer noticed the effects of the medicine. This would indicate that this particular cycle of healing had run its course for now. Perhaps this imbalance would return at some point in the future – maybe in a few weeks or months or even years down the line, but this would have definitely been a good time to take a break from Reishi and allow oneself to proceed without any support for a while to see how things go. Unfortunately the psychological dependency that this client had towards Reishi became a source of stress that caused panic and anxiety when he couldn’t take it for a day. Reishi had fulfilled its role as an adaptogen, but had unwittingly become the scapegoat of a new imbalance!
So cycling on and off herbs is a sensible way to proceed as it allows us to experience both time on and off a herb. Plus we should always spend time taking nothing at all. Adaptogens can help us find a greater degree of stability within ourselves, but ultimately they are helping the body to carry out functions it has become inefficient in doing itself. Once these areas have been improved it is important to give the body/mind a chance to perform these tasks itself without any help. If we continue to struggle these herbs are always there to call upon once more.
We should call for help when help is needed but be able to recognise when we are able to take new steps on our own. This is proceeding with wisdom as opposed to following the dogma of profit-driven marketing.
So to conclude – herbal medicine can offer genuine transformation and profound healing and has played an enormous role in my own healing and the way I live my life, but we need to rediscover our innate faculties of insight, awareness & intuition, and to apply wisdom to our work with natural medicines rather than gulping down the empty slogans of a self-serving industry.