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The Energetics of Western Herbs.
Revised 2nd Edition by Peter Holmes. Boulder, CO. Snow Lotus Press. 1993. 419 pp. $39.95. ISBN#0-9623477-3-6.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a very effective and widely practiced medical system. It has spread from its place of origin, China, to everyday usage throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia. Chinese medicine has been successful not only due to its low cost and empirical successes, but because it is a "system of medicine." A medical system is defined by clear, logical beliefs and practices that give the practitioner insights into the patient, his or her illness, and the materia medica needed to effect positive change. In highly developed practices such as TCM, differential diagnostics, a large and varied pharmacopoeia, and an understanding of energetics (human and therapeutic) are the tools which produce consistent success.

In comparison, Western herbal medicine has no clearly defined system at all. Lacking the aforementioned tools (differential diagnosis and energetics), Western herbal practice has largely been empirical, with the focus on treating the disease and not on the individual patient. This educated guesswork has its successes, but it is much more difficult to accurately understand the underlying disharmony and to devise a treatment protocol.

This inadequacy in Western herbal practice has been widely noted and various books have attempted to address this problem (e.g., Lad & Frawley, The Yoga of Herbs; Tierra, Planetary Herbology; Mills, Out of the Earth). By far the most extensive undertaking of this type is by Peter Holmes, The Energetics of Western Herbs. The author has attempted to create a synthesis of TCM, Greek medicine (the last Western medical system that utilized energetics), native American herbal traditions, and modern herbal knowledge.

Upon first glance throughout these attractively produced volumes, one comes away with a feeling of having found a valuable addition to the herbal library. Upon close inspection, however, a number of major problems become apparent that unfortunately lessen the usefulness and value of this book.

While similar on the surface, the energetic concepts the author attempts to meld together are actually quite different. Attempts to merge TCM and Ayurveda have failed precisely because the underlying paradigms and cultural belief systems are far more different than the veneer of similarity suggests.

The following paragraph illustrates this combination of divergent data, along with mistakes of therapeutics, biochemistry, and history:

"With its content of saponins, resins, and essential oil, Blue Cohosh Root has an additional, double-cutting detoxicant edge particularly suited to Blue and Grey-Green Iris Constitutions. Its diaphoretic action was important to Native Americans for the Sweat Lodge!(1) The root's antidyscratic diuretic action balances fluids as a whole. Both acute and chronic conditions of wind/damp/cold obstruction with static or migratory pain are thereby relieved as no matter what their origin. Being estrogenic, Blue Cohosh will relieve joint pains due to a lack of this hormone, especially in the extremities."(2)

Errors previously mentioned by reviewers of the 1st edition also persist. Holmes' book is directed toward the acupuncture/TCM community who have little or no experience with Western herbs. With this in mind, correct dosages, especially of potentially toxic herbs, are essential. The recommended dosage of Mayapple rhizome (Podophyllum peltatum L., Berberidaceae) of 10-25 gtt. (drops) is dangerously high.(3) Arnica (Arnica montana L., Asteraceae), at 1-40 gtt., is problematic due to its highly variable, often idiosyncratic reactions from patient to patient.(4) Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majus L., Liliaceae) is usually prescribed at a dosage range of 5-20 gtt.(5) Holmes recommends 10-50 gtt. twice daily.

In addition to these potentially dangerous errors, the author also discusses analogues between Western and Chinese herbs, Theoretically, these comparisons may seem sound, but in practice they are not valid. Western asparagus (Asparagus officinalis L., Liliaceae) is not similar to Chinese asparagus (A. cochinchinensis (Lour.) Merr., Liliaceae) in its taste, energetics, or its medicinal activity. Potentially toxic squills (Drimia maritima (L.) Stearn, Liliaceae) have little in common to the soothing, yin, nourishing Mai Men Dong (Ophiopogon japonicus (L.f.) Ker Gawl., Liliaceae) or Lily Bulb (Lilium brownii F. R. Br. ex Miellez, Liliaceae). While squills contain moistening mucilage, it is considered to be an irritating expectorant and can cause inflammation of the bronchial and gastric mucosa.

Other problems, such as disagreements as to the energetic classification of Western herbs, are more in the nature of a scholarly dispute. It has taken the Chinese thousands of years to fully classify their materia medica and occasional arguments as to energetics of certain herbs still arise. I believe this to be the crux of the problem with this book; the creation of such a hybrid system of Herbal Medicine and the energetic classification of the Western materia medica are massive projects and are projects better suited to dozens, if not hundreds, of practitioners and researchers coordinating their efforts.

Holmes deserves credit for his attempt. A great deal of time, effort, and research have gone into these volumes. Perhaps the 3rd edition will include the missing piece: i.e., a collaborative effort bringing together the necessary experience, research, and knowledge to truly create a Western Energetic System of Herbal Medicine.

(1.) Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides (L.) Michx., Berberidaceae) was not used in "sweat lodge" ceremonies.

(2.) Blue Cohosh is not estrogenic, nor does it relieve pain due to a "lack of this hormone."

(3.) The usual dosage for Mayapple is 1/10 - 10gtt.

(4.) The usual dosage for Arnica is 1 - 10 gtt.

(5.) Kuts-Cheraux, A. W. Naturae Medicine and Naturpathic Dispensatory, 1953.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By David Winston