Honoring the Spiritual Roots of Plant Medicine

Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) is a good remedy for upper respiratory infections. © 2001 stevenfoster.com.

BELLEVUE, WA—As the modern practice of botanical medicine becomes more scientific, it is essential to honor the ancient roots of herbal medicine and safeguard its spiritual dimensions, said Bill Mitchell, ND, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

“You need good medicines to practice good medicine,” said Dr. Mitchell, co-founder of Bastyr University, one of the nation’s four accredited naturopathic medical schools. “Nowadays, there are lots of companies producing high-quality plant medicines made to standards far beyond the so-called “Specific Medicines” of turn-of-the-century practice. And it is a whole lot easier to do our therapeutics and our research.”

The danger is that in focusing on single ingredient markers for standardization, the field will literally lose the forest for the trees, and then lose the trees for the molecules. The psychospiritual and symbolical dimensions of plant medicine are essential to the “meaning” aspect of practice, and this aspect is essential to the therapeutic effect.

“Your patients come to see you not just because they’re sick, but because they’re leading inauthentic lives,” stressed Dr. Mitchell. “Without a connection between self and source, we can’t be healthy.” Botanical medicines, in addition to their specific biochemical effects, can help patients reconnect with the earth.

Bill Mitchell, ND, co-founder of Bastyr University, one of the nation’s four accredited naturopathic medical schools.

“The plants were who figured out how Gaia (the spirit of the Earth) could have a relationship with the sun in a way that supports and engenders life.” In studying ways to use specific plant products to treat specific symptoms, try not to lose sight of this fact. There’s nothing wrong with taking a linear, biochemically-oriented approach to herbal medicine. Just don’t forget the “chloro-fulfillment” aspect of what you’re doing.

Reflecting on the life and work of his friend and mentor, the late Dr. John Bastyr, considered the founder of modern naturopathy, Dr. Mitchell reviewed some of Dr. Bastyr’s favorite botanical remedies. Following are a few highlights from that extensive list.

Anodynes (Pain Relievers)

Dioscorea villosa (wild yam): Though it has received the most attention as a natural alternative to hormone replacement, this herb was one of Dr. Bastyr’s top choices for relieving rheumatic pain. Use 30 drops of Dioscorea tincture, twice daily.

Piscidia erythrina (Jamaican dogwood): A very effective herb for relieving menstrual pain. Use 60 drops of tincture immediately, followed by 2 capsules of the ground plant, every two hours, until the cramps subside. Usually, only 2 or 3 doses are needed, said Dr. Mitchell, adding that this herb also works well for post-herpetic neuralgia.

Antihelminthic (for destroying parasites)

Artemesia annua (wormseed): An excellent herb for Ascaris lumbricoides, and monocellular flagellates. “It is as effective or more effective than Flagyl in killing monocellular flagellates and non-flagellate enteric parasites,” Dr. Mitchell said. Most capsule preparations of artemesia are in the 300–500 mg/capsule range. Two capsules, twice daily for a week usually does the job. “This is for the people whose intestines are never happy despite diet corrections, acidophilus and everything else.”

Carminatives (to dispel intestinal gas)

Foeniculum vulgare (fennel): A spoonful of fennel seeds, crushed and eaten, makes a good carminative. If you prefer the fluid extract form, use 30–60 drops twice daily.

Pimpinella anisum (anise): This benevolent plant has respiratory expectorant properties as well. As a carminative, it is best taken by crushing a teaspoon of the seeds, and making an infusion.

Mentha piperita (peppermint): Peppermint oil quite effectively relaxes intestinal and gastric sphincters, allowing gas to pass through. In capsule form, it works very quickly, though teas are also effective.

Circulatory Tonics

Ginkgo biloba: The apparent memory-enhancing effects of this herb, which were clearly recognized by Dr. Bastyr years before ginkgo became a national fad, are due in large part to its ability to induce endothelial relaxation and enhance cerebral blood flow. Dr. Bastyr recommended 60 drops of botanical extract daily.

Vinca minor (lesser periwinkle): not as well known as ginkgo, but also quite effective for increasing cerebral circulation. Use 10 drops of a good extract, twice daily.

Crocus sativus (saffron): “The best thing for brain circulation that there is,” said Dr. Mitchell, attributing the effect to a water-soluble carotenoid unique to this plant. “Take a gram of the stabiles, put it in a bottle half-full of water, shake it, and then let it sit for a day. After that, fill the bottle with alcohol.” The resulting tincture is excellent for increasing cerebral circulation.


Grindelia squarrosa (gumweed): “This was one of Dr. Bastyr’s favorites. He used a lot of grindelia,” said Dr. Mitchell. For treating upper respiratory infections, it is best used in combination with Glycyrrhiza glabra typica (licorice). Combine equal parts of grindelia 1:1 tincture, and glycyrrhiza, 50% alcohol extract, and give 60 drops of the mixed tinctures, 4 times daily.

Subscribe to Holistic Primary Care