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Healthy Herbs: Your Everyday Guide to Medicinal Herbs and Their Use

Healthy Herbs: Your Everyday Guide to Medicinal Herbs and Their Use by Linda Woolven, MH, CAc, and Ted Snider. Markham, Ontario: Fitzhenry and White-side Limited; 2007. Paperback; 245 pages. ISBN-13: 978-155041-329-8. $17.95.

If your bookshelves are like mine—overcrowded—then you are probably careful about which books you allow to stake claim. Healthy Herbs: Your Everyday Guide to Medicinal Herbs and Their Use may seem to lack the necessary prestige with its unpretentious title and presentation, but it’s actually worth the small space it will take up. A handy reference tool, the book provides a snapshot of the eclectic form of herbalism that has developed over the past 4 decades, and it casts a deservedly complimentary glow, from a variety of angles, on the healing quality of herbs.

Healthy Herbs builds from an egalitarian base by blending research conclusions with the impressions of contemporary herb teachers and writers, including the authors’ own experiences. The text includes a large assortment of plants, “…more than one hundred of the most important herbs on the market today.” As they say of their book, “It combines the east and the west, the north and the south, the old and the new.” Most importantly, fulfilling its mission as an “everyday guide,” the book is readable and accessible in its language, size, and price.

Healthy Herbs is a distilled herbal compendium, organized alphabetically by common names. The reader is immersed in the world of using herbs for health with a few introductory pages dedicated to the basic foundations of herbal preparations. There’s a short, basic section on the “howtos” and “wherefores” of making infusions, decoctions, pills, and extracts, including a table that lists 10 herb properties and their therapeutic actions. For example, in this table a demulcent is listed as something that soothes “damaged, irritated or inflamed tissue,” while an astringent “has a contracting or tightening effect on tissue and stops the loss of body fluids like hemorrhages and other secretions.”

The paragraph on standardization lets the reader know that some scientists prefer standardization while some herbalists prefer to use the herb in its natural state. The authors explain that they use both standardized and non-standardized products and, in the compendium, address dosing for both categories. Recommendations for gotu kola (Centella asiatica, Apiaceae), for example, include 6 grams a day of dried gotu kola leaves in pill form or an extract that has been standardized to 40% asiaticoside, 29-30% madecassic acid, and 1-2% madecassoside with a recommended dose of 60-120 mg a day. Dosage recommendations are also included for tinctures, extracts, and tea. Readers will find it refreshing to have clear dosages recommended, though the authors acknowledge that there are difficulties in discussing dosages due to changing information on contraindications and drug interactions.

Authors Linda Woolven and Ted Snider make a clear case for the usefulness and overall safety of herbs and challenge research when they deem it suspect. Their willingness to express a cool-headed, let-the-literature-speak-for-itself manner is something that really endeared me to this book. In fact, I wish their frank interpretations regarding the herb-versus-pharmaceutical contests that have been mounted over the past decade were more prevalent in the book.

For example, St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum, Clusiaceae), a stalwart of herbalists worldwide, is well championed. By walking the reader through the last decade-and-a-half of the boxing matches between St. John’s wort and the expanding categories of new anti-depressive pharmaceuticals, you just may get the sense that some of these matches were rigged. The authors characterize one of the most damning reports with a certain degree of logic: “The reports stated simply that St. John’s wort doesn’t work. But this study (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2002) compared the herb to, not only a placebo, but also to the antidepressant drug Zoloft, also found that the drug didn’t work. Zoloft was included in the study because we know it works. Therefore, if the drug didn’t work it’s because the study didn’t work. So, according to Jerry Cott, who was actually involved in the study’s design, it’s not St. John’s wort that didn’t work, it’s the study that didn’t work.”

The notorious licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Fabaceae) also gets its fair due in the book. The authors dutifully review the warnings of a potential for an increase in blood pressure with the use of licorice but they also explore some of the contradictions and confusing literature citations.

The gist of the conversation reflects the evidence that the whole herb should not be pigeon-holed with highly concentrated extracts. Clearly rooting for the effectiveness of the rhizome, Woolven admits to successfully using licorice, “to heal her own ulcer. It not only healed the ulcer quickly, but it also began to reduce the pain almost immediately.”

These acknowledgments of direct experiences, both of the authors as well as other well-known herbalists, add interest and useful, down-to-earth information. Though not footnoted, the book does an admirable job of crediting some sources of material right in the text. Much emphasis is put on information gathered from a wide assortment of periodicals. These journals, also represented in the text with the abbreviations of their titles and year of publication, are followed by a 7-page section that references the full name of each journal. There’s also a suggested reading list that includes popular titles from current and past decades.

By using the book’s thorough index, it’s possible to look up both conditions and individual herbs by common name or Latin binomial, which adds to its usefulness as a reliable reference book. For example, under the term “colds” in the index, there are 21 herbs listed by their common names, beginning with andrographis (Andrographis paniculata, Acanthaceae) and ending with yarrow (Achillea millefolium, Asteraceae).

However, there is a lean streak to this book that is at once admirable but at the same time may leave some feeling somewhat unsatisfied. For instance, two graphic symbols are used throughout the book:

(1) an apothecary’s mortar and pestle, and
(2) a cross within a box. These graphic symbols are paired with information about dosage and safety, respectively. Unfortunately, definitions for these symbols are not provided in the book, so some readers may wonder about their meaning. There is also a lack of botanical family names as well as limited information about the authors, Woolven and Snider. This is regrettable since their personal experiences with the herbs help to distinguish the book. A broader view of their expertise would lend not only interest but also credibility.

Overall, I believe Healthy Herbs is a good reference book. While recognizing the modern analytical perspective, the book liberally acknowledges the ancient healing magic that our green world so generously provides to all, believers or not.

—Cascade Anderson Geller Herbalist, Portland, OR