By JiJi Russell
Visiting herbalist Geo Derick at her rural Clarke County apothecary transports me to the fascination of my childhood, when I spent many open-ended afternoons walking the deep woods discovering tiny flowers, plants, and stones that I suspected had special powers. Derick, a clinical herbalist and organic gardener, believes in that specialness, and brings it right down to earth. She combines a vast knowledge of clinical science with a seemingly keen intuition to do what she does best: “cultivating life.”
Trained to work with the medical community to serve clients’ health goals, Derick has worked with everyone from cancer patients to toddlers with allergies, using a wide variety of customized herb-based therapies. She trained at Tai Sophia Institute, which recently achieved University status, and is now known as Maryland University of Integrative Health. Indeed, the goal of “integration” pervades Derick’s work.
“A basic premise in integrative health is that the symptoms we experience are important signals telling us that something is out of balance or under siege. Paying attention to the symptoms and learning from them—rather than suppressing them—are key points of holistic healing,” Derick said.
She believes that herbal medicines, the core of her practice, help our bodies find a natural balance. One key difference between herbal medicine and pharmaceutical drugs, according to Derick, is that the former is comprised of a whole plant with dozens to hundreds of active, synergistic ingredients, while the latter are comprised of a single constituent or synthetic molecule.
Said Derick: “Herbal medicines will attach to the same receptor sites as a pharmaceutical drug, but will ‘let go’ after a few hours and engage in hundreds of biological reactions before our bodies are done with them. Their side effects are basically nourishing, as they support structural components and functions, as well.”
What is it that renders one little plant so potent? According to Derick, the plant’s own biological need to survive. “The plants have been protecting themselves from predators, bacteria, viruses, and fungi for billions of years. The chemicals that they produce for self-preservation also serve to protect the animals and humans who ingest them,” she said.
Derick does have several favorite go-to herbs, but she cautions that one herb does not fit all. She recommends custom formulas for people with health situations that are chronic or not responding to a particular herbal product that generally is found over the counter.
“People often ask me which herbs they should use for a particular issue, such as chronic migraines or high blood pressure. Have you ever met a migraine or blood pressure reading that does not have a person attached? I find that the most effective strategy for achieving lasting results is to treat each person individually, rather than as a symptom or disease state,” Derick said. “Custom tailored formulas are much more effective. Of the 20 or so clients that I’ve seen for migraines, none have had the same protocol, and only one has gotten ‘the migraine herb’ feverfew included in their formula. Yet, all have enjoyed success in being nearly or completely, migraine-free.”
But most of the time, she said, “A custom formula is not always required for success.”
Derick’s picks for “seven safe medicinal herbs” that people can easily incorporate in their daily lives include the culinary forms cinnamon, ginger, garlic, rosemary, turmeric, thyme, and cacao (chocolate). These kitchen herbs and spices contain nourishing and immune-enhancing anti-oxidants. Many are anti-microbial, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory as well. Additionally, all have been shown to interfere with various types of cancer proliferation in many research studies and clinical trials, according to Derick.
Attention gardeners: Of the millions of plants on the planet that are both nourishing and medicinal, here are some valuable local plants that grow wild here, according to Derick. Those she uses clinically include dandelion, chickweed, yarrow, stinging nettles, American ginseng (over harvested), poke (poisonous; must be used in small, controlled doses), and all the clovers. Knowing which parts to use, when to pick them for medicinal value, and how to prepare them are critical to their effectiveness. As a rule of thumb, Derick says the leafy parts are best harvested before flowering; flowers are picked when freshly opened and after the dew has dried in the late morning. The roots are most potent in the late fall as the plant top dies back and their chemical compounds settle downward. She cautions: Always identify your plants positively, prior to harvesting.
When herbs don’t work: If you have tried herbs for your condition and have had no success, (eg., Echinacea for colds), there are generally four reasons for failure, Derick says.
Number one: The product was made using the non-medicinal parts of the plant.
Number two: The product or herb was no longer fresh, and/or out of date.
Number three: Your dose was insufficient. Or,
Number four: It was the wrong herb for you.
If you have a ragweed allergy, for example, you may have a reaction to echinacea and chamomile, along with other plants of the Compositae family. So not only will it not work, but it can make your symptoms worse.
Most retail brands under dose their product on the directions for use, according to Derick. Many herbs need to be dosed more heavily and more frequently than people realize for a therapeutic effect. Echinacea is most effective at preventing colds and flu if taken in doses of 2,000 mg every two hours, up to seven times a day. However, Derick cautions, it is important to know the safe limits before assuming more is better.
Safety Concerns: As a clinician in a rural area, Geo believes it is critical that her work is both safe and effective—if she hopes to continue a successful career. Occasionally someone has an unfavorable reaction to a plant, or just can’t manage their protocol. This happens when using pharmaceutical drugs, as well. But the non-poisonous herbs rarely present a life-threatening danger, she said.
As far as safety is concerned, herbal medicine has a pretty good record. According to Dr. James Duke of the USDA, statistics on the likelihood of death from various sources places herbs and supplements as the safest (1 in 1,000,000).
As for drug-herb interactions, “We are in a continual learning state on this subject,” Derick said. “Most often, the herbs enhance the drugs, as they nourish the cells and support intercellular communication. However, people on blood thinners must be most careful. Since certain herbs are also blood thinners, bleeding episodes can occur when combined. Herbs like St. John’s wort activate the excretion of toxins and medications, so they are rarely compatible with pharmaceutical drugs. Certain foods are actually more of a concern than herbs, as they are taken in much higher doses and share many of the same actions,” Derick said.
“The plants have been on the planet for billions of years. We humans have been here for a few million years,” Derick said. “We rely on plants for life itself: oxygen, water, soil, food, energy, shelter, medicine. As for medicine, they are all we ever had until we began using heavy metals, single constituents (since 1802) and synthetic pharmaceuticals (since 1945). I call herbal medicine, original medicine. If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be here as a species!”
Geo Derick offers office consultations, phone and Skype consultations, and has a booth at the Clarke County Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings from 8am till noon, May through October. Visit www.geosjoy.com. or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-955-4769.
JiJi Russell, a writer, yoga instructor, and Integrative Nutrition practitioner, serves as the wellness coordinator for American Public University in Charles Town, W.Va. Reach her at email@example.com.
Schisandra: low thyroid, weight loss, energy and liver/gallbladder support that strengthens four body systems: immune, nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular.
Usnea: a broad spectrum anti-biotic, anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-parasitic that does not kill friendly gut flora. Geo uses it in cold and flu formulas for children and adults, and has found it effective on strep, staph, mono, MRSA, even herpes. And there are no reported drug-herb interactions with it.
Turmeric: her favorite herb for the cardiovascular system, as it “goes to the source of cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol to reduce vascular inflammation.” She believes it is a wonderful analgesic for arthritis, joint and tooth pain, a natural Cox-2 inhibitor, and a powerful anti-cancer herb.