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Tansy (from http://gardenology.org)

Tansy (from http://gardenology.org)

On the first day of my Women as Healers class in January 2013 an older student appeared shocked (and slightly scornful) because I did not recognize the name of someone she called “a renowned woman herbalist and healer.” I replied that there are so many women herbalists and healers with a large internet presence that there was no way that I could be familiar with them all. The student insisted that this woman was one of the best and knew enormous amounts of information about herbal remedies and tonics; she would forward the link to me so that I could judge for myself. A couple of days later I followed the link she sent and wandered through the delights of the website. In many ways it was impressive indeed: gorgeous photographs, empowering feminist phrases, and a nice piece on how to recognize early minor stroke signs. There was, however, a glaring red flag that appeared on the first page I perused. Namely, the healer waxed eloquent about the efficacy of “St. Joan’s wort” (known to most people as St. John’s wort or Hypericum perforatum) as a tonic and cure for the winter blues. She did not, however, note any counterindications or caveats in her recommendation.

Now St. John’s wort is a pervasive–and in some areas invasive–species, and so has found its way into the pharmacopoeia of many cultures, most often as a mood regulator or herbal anti-depressant. However–and this is extremely important–it is also known by many peoples as a uterine stimulant, that is, a substance that induces uterine contractions or brings on the menses. Consequently, if the reason why a person is depressed is because she cannot conceive, St. John’s wort is emphatically not a good thing to take. Moreover, the estrogenic properties of St. John’s wort can interfere with the action of modern contraceptives and even certain psychotropics. Yet this in many ways informative website (and countless others of the same ilk) says little or nothing about the possible side effects and dangers of the herbs it recommends.

In my teaching as well as in my research for Sex and Herbs and Birth Control, I have encountered a distressingly large number of similar examples. Some herbalists tout Queen Anne’s lace as a diet drink, though many women from Appalachia to Rajasthan know it as a contraceptive. Some commentators recommend spearmint or pennyroyal or catmint tea as a digestive aid, yet say nothing about the emmenagogic (menses-inducing) properties of many members of the mint family. Tansy (pictured above) is mentioned as an herbal insecticide or natural dyeing agent. But the use of the herb as an abortifacient is passed over in silence, as is the fact that tansy oil–as well as the oils of pennyroyal, juniper/savin, sage, and parsley/apiol, among others–can be lethal if injested.

Part of the problem is that in the U.S., allopathic medical professionals spent much of the 19th and early 20th centuries assiduously distancing themselves from older healing specialties such as herbalism and midwifery. Thus, on the one hand, herbalists rarely have sufficient scientific knowledge of the preparations they recommend to issue adequate warnings. On the other hand, allopathic physicians in the U.S. rarely know enough about naturopathic remedies to give useful advice about side effects of herbs or their possible interactions with other drugs their patients might be taking. An additional problem is that herbal preparations are classified as supplements and are not subject to Food and Drug Administration regulation, so scientific studies of herb-pharmaceutical interactions are pretty much non-existent.

The difficulties caused by this lack of regulation and the ignorance of both herbalists and allopaths in the U.S. do not necessarily arise in other countries. Cubans, for example, in part because of the continued economic embargo by the U.S., have needed to cultivate local herbal alternatives to expensive imported drugs. Modern pharmaceuticals and herbal remedies are combined in Cuban medical practice. Family doctors on the island are expected to be familiar with a whole range of substances they can recommend to their patients, and are thus more likely to be able to give the warnings that I have found conspicuously absent on herbal websites in the U.S.