What is Herbalism?

Part of the Series on Exploring Alternative Medical Care Options.

If you think of herbs as something that you only use in your kitchen and not in your medicine cabinet, then the idea of using them for healing may seem a little “out there.” The fact is though that using plants for healing was the original form of medicine. In fact, many conventional drugs have their origins in plant sources1. So, the idea that herbalism, or the “science of using herbs for promoting health and preventing and treating illness,2” is now considered a form of “alternative” medicine is fairly ironic. 

In order for us all to have a better understanding of what modern herbalism really is, I went to clinical herbalist Katja Swift with the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism. As we continue our series on exploring alternative medical care options, my Q&A and with her sheds light on why this is such a critical field to at least be aware of if not to consider as a possibility for yourself.

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Peppermint Tea & Me: What is herbalism?

Katja Swift: The simplest answer is that herbalism is working with plants to make your body healthy. For some people, it kind of stops there. They may say, ‘Oh, if I drink Marshmallow Tea then my heartburn doesn’t feel so bad, and if I drink chamomile, it helps me sleep at night.” And that’s literally the end. Well that is herbalism. And it’s legitimate. If that’s all you ever did, you’d feel better.

Photo of clinical herbalist Katja Swift
Katja Swift, Clinical Herbalist

But it doesn’t stop there. We have revived the tradition enough now that herbalism in this country is a much more complete system that is completely independent of or parallel to conventional medicine. We have an entire system of assessment and don’t depend on medical diagnoses to determine what’s going on and what an appropriate approach would be. Since the world is dominated by conventional medicine, we can work with a diagnosis, of course. We have to study it, and we have to understand it, but it’s also not required. If somebody came and had not seen a doctor at all and didn’t know what was going on with their body and didn’t have any lab tests or anything else, we can work with that. 

The last part there would be that the comprehensive system of herbalism also includes not just the plants themselves but also the dietary changes, the lifestyle changes and movement. 

PTM: What do lifestyle changes really have to do with herbalism?

KS: While not everybody agrees exactly on diet, everybody is in a very whole foods, get rid of processed food, get rid of sugar place. What we’re trying to do is bring back to baseline or repair the damage that our culture has done to our bodies. If you’re going to stick your hand in bleach for an hour, it’s going to hurt. It’s going to cause irritation. We can put an herb on it, but if you’re immediately going to put your hand back in the bleach, we can only do so much with a plant. So, herbalism is also really recognizing that we need to look at how we resolve those baseline challenges that we as human bodies face living in this very sedentary, productivity-oriented culture. That work really is an essential part of herbalism, even though there might not be plants involved in that part. 

PTM: Do herbalists promote an entirely plant-based diet?

KS: Not at all. In fact, we find that harmful as a long-term lifestyle because we believe that animal protein is critical for humans. That does not mean that we think everybody needs to eat beef. If you’re more comfortable with fish, if you’re more comfortable with chicken or whatever, we’ll work with where a person is. It’s also not like we won’t work with someone who is committed to being vegetarian or vegan. Of course we will. But it’s just very difficult to maintain that in a healthy way long-term. 

We do though promote a lot of plants in the diet. At least 50 percent of your plate should be plants. Frozen is fine because fresh vegetables aren’t necessarily accessible to all people, so frozen vegetables are great. Whatever vegetables you can get on your plant. Just lots of them. 

We do also think that it’s critically important to be conscious of animal welfare and to not take life unnecessarily and to not cause suffering. That’s not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because unhealthy, disrespected animals create food that will hurt humans. If you raise a cow or a fish in a feeding operation, and it’s not able to live its life and eat its normal food and roam around the way that it wants to, that meat is actually not healthy and causes a lot of inflammation in the body. 

PTM: How is herbalism used in alternative or complementary medicine?

KS: That depends a lot on the person seeking help and also on the skill level of the person who is providing care. I work with cancer and terminally ill clients regularly. I also work with clients with very complicated autoimmune conditions, and I work as an integrated member of their care team in many cases. Not everybody feels comfortable doing that kind of work because it can be intimidating to work with medical practitioners. We are also adjunct faculty for the pharmacy schools here in Boston. We’re very comfortable going back and forth between a medical environment and an herbal environment. But a lot of people aren’t, and it isn’t necessary. 

It could also be as simple as a child who gets recurring ear infections, and the doctor keeps giving antibiotics. Since most ear infections aren’t actually bacterial, and that doesn’t necessarily take care of the problem, maybe Mom is looking for something else to try to support that child’s health and deal with those recurring ear infections. Or maybe someone who gets UTIs very frequently recognizes that this has become a pattern that they want to stop. Any of those types of models are completely reasonable and very common. Maybe not every single practitioner works in every single way, but they are common in this country right now I would say. 

PTM: What forms do herbal remedies come in?

KS: About the whole rainbow. My favorite thing to work with actually is tea. Part of the reason that I like working with tea so much is that the time it takes you to make the tea is also part of the medicine. In our culture, a lot of our health problems come because we don’t really have support for downtime or self-care. So, just the act of making a pot of tea is actually pretty radical. If I can get somebody to make tea several times a day, that means that they stopped and thought about their health and thought about their body and thought about the fact that they want to do things to help themselves be stronger and feel better. So, I prefer tea when I can get people to do it, but it’s not always convenient. 

You can also make tinctures which are a little bit stronger or more concentrated because they’re the alcohol extract of an herb. You can put them in your bag because they’re more portable. I also really like elixirs, which is part alcohol, part honey. You blend it together and get a full spectrum extraction from the plant that way. 

In addition, there are salves, and there’s lotions, and you can make lozenges or old-fashioned pills, which are little balls of powdered herbs. You can also put herbs in your food. That’s a completely legitimate way to take your medicine. A good example for that is cinnamon. Cinnamon is a really effective herb for helping to manage blood sugar levels. When you start looking, you realize that the spices that you have in your kitchen, as long as they’re fresh and potent, they’re much more than just a flavor. There’s a lot more going on there. 

PTM: How is each type of herbal remedy used?

KS: They’re not interchangeable. The challenge with herbalism is that you have to get the herb to the problem. This is a little bit less of a challenge with pharmaceutical medicine. We’re very accustomed to pharmaceutical medicine being a pill that you swallow, then it just sort of magically goes to where it’s needed, and herbs don’t necessarily do that. 

So, the big challenge is how do I get the herb to where it needs to be? Not all herbs actually pass through the intestinal lining very well, so turmeric is a great example. We talk about turmeric being an anti-inflammatory herb, and it does have amazing anti-inflammatory properties, but it doesn’t get to the blood stream very well. While it’s not great as a systemic anti-inflammatory, it’s amazing for inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. And so, that’s where we would work with it. 

People are also sometimes familiar with an herb called Goldenseal, and maybe they learn that it’s an herbal antibiotic. The catch is that it doesn’t get into the bloodstream at all. It doesn’t pass through the intestinal lining. So, it’s only an herbal antibiotic if you have a GI bacteria that you need to deal with or if you put it topically on a wound. Otherwise, it’s not getting into your bloodstream. 

I think one of my favorite examples of this is an herbal steam. This is where you get a pot of boiling water and put a towel over your head and breathe in the steam and toss some herbs in there. They’re great because they get that antimicrobial action and also the immune support right into the respiratory tract.

PTM: You’ve touched on some types of conditions that could be effectively managed with herbs, what are some of the others?

KS: There’s nothing that couldn’t be improved with herbalism. The reason that I say that is because everything that people are dealing with, whether it’s a splinter or whether it’s Alzheimer’s, there still a component of we as humans are living outside of what our bodies expect. Our bodies do not expect to sit at desks all day. Our bodies don’t expect to have climate control. That wasn’t part of the deal. Our bodies don’t expect to have sugar so widely available. So, something very simple can become so much more difficult to manage because we all live with this sort of constant elevated baseline inflammatory state. Because of that, I really don’t think there’s anything that can’t be approached herbally. 

Maybe herbalism isn’t going to 100 percent be the answer to everything. If someone needs open heart surgery than they need that. You can’t have an herb instead of open heart surgery. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for herbs there as part of the preparatory and recovery process in terms of making the body stronger to be able to withstand the surgery itself. 

Then of course, it can help make sure that you only have one open heart surgery. We want to say, “Oh, that’s a wakeup call. Let’s make a bunch of changes in your life, so that you’re not going to have to do that again.” I don’t think that herbalism has to be the only answer for a person’s health issues for it to be a legitimate answer. I’m sort of very agnostic about the collection of approaches that anybody takes to finding comfort and better health. I think that every approach that helps you is a good approach.

PTM: What is the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism?

KS: We are a school and a clinic. Right now, everything is online because of COVID. We even run our free clinic online now, and we have online courses. When we started to put our program online, one thing that was important to us was that a lot of people really want to learn herbalism but our culture is so productivity-based. Everybody is working ridiculous hours, and they get home and they’re tired. They grab some food and sit in front of the television and turn on Netflix. We wanted to create an herbal curriculum that was very high quality and that would take somebody from their very beginning place all the way through to clinical herbalism if that was their goal. We wanted to put it online so that it would be just as easy as watching Netflix. 

PTM: What should someone look for if they’re thinking about working with an herbalist?

KS: It’s important to find someone who will match your requirements and will meet you where you are. I also strongly recommend working with a qualified Registered Herbalist.  A Registered Herbalist is a person who has been recognized for their work by the American Herbalists’ Guild, which is a national professional organization. Since herbalists are unlicensed, registration with the national professional organization is the highest and most rigorous recognition that herbalists in the U.S. can attain.

If you don’t have a Registered Herbalist in your area, then be sure to read things that the herbalist you’re considering has published. They should at the very least have material on their website that gives a good idea of their philosophy towards the work, to make sure that it resonates with you. Then of course, when you go to your session, use your critical thinking skills. An herbalist should be explaining to you the “why” behind their suggestions, and you should feel engaged in collaborating on the types of things that will work best in your life. 

Important Note About Insurance and Herbalism

Because herbalists are unlicensed in the United States, insurance does not cover their services. however, registered herbalists are now allowed to take health savings account funds. If paying out of pocket isn’t an option for you or you don’t have a health savings account, Katja says that most herbalists do offer a sliding scale or free clinic time as well. If you can’t find someone who does that in your area, look online. Many, such as the free clinic offered by the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism, will continue to operate online even after concerns over COVID-19 subside. 


Here are some helpful resources offered by the CommonWealth Center for Holistic Herbalism. 

  • The Holistic Herbalism Podcast
  • Family Herbalist program – In this program, you’ll learn how to work with herbs to keep you and your family healthy. Enter the code pepperminttea to get 20% off the cost of the program. 
  • Because of the economic impacts of COVID-19, CommonWealth Herbs is also offering support for people whose income has been impacted and who would like to study herbalism. Contact them at [email protected] for more information.


  1. Vickers, A et al. “Herbal medicine.” The Western journal of medicine vol. 175,2 (2001): 125-8. doi:10.1136/ewjm.175.2.125 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071505/
  2. American Herbalists Guild. https://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/herbal-medicine-fundamentals

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