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An introduction to herbal energetics

  • Sebastian Pole
    Sebastian Pole

    I am a registered member of the Ayurvedic Professionals Association, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine and a Fellow of the Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. I qualified as a herbalist with the aim of using the principles of Ayurveda (the ancient art of living wisely) and the Herbal tradition to help transform health. I have been in clinical practice since 1998.

    Having co-founded Pukka Herbs in 2001 I have become experienced in organic herb growing, practitioner grade quality and sustainable value chains. I am a Trustee of the FairWild Foundation, a Director of The Betonica School of Herbal Medicine and an Advisor to The American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and The Sustainable Herbs Project. Fluent in Hindi, a qualified Yoga therapist and passionate about projects with a higher purpose, I am on a mission to bring the incredible power of plants into people’s life. And that is why I started Herbal Reality and what it is all about.

    I live in a forest garden farm in Somerset growing over 100 species of medicinal plants and trees. And a lot of weeds!

    Author of Ayurvedic Medicine, The Principles of Traditional Practice (Elsevier 2006), A Pukka Life (Quadrille 2011), Celebrating 10 Pukka years (2012) and Cleanse, Nurture, Restore with Herbal Tea (Frances Lincoln 2016).

    Listen to our Herbcast podcast with Sebastian as the host.

  • 24:48 reading time (ish)
  • Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Chinese Herbal Medicine Western Herbal Medicine

Herbal energetics are the descriptions Herbalists have given to plants, mushrooms, lichens, foods and some minerals based on the direct experience of how they taste, feel and work in the body. All traditional health systems use these principles to explain how the environment we live in and absorb, impacts our health. Unsurprisingly for cultures deeply rooted in Nature, a natural and elemental language is used to describe the tastes, qualities and effects of these plants and ingredients. You might consider that energetics are a way to describe the therapeutic character and personality of a plant.

An introduction to herbal energetics

Traditional healing systems understand that human health is an extension of environmental health and that it is the relationship between the two which health depends upon. Understanding the patterns expressed in our ecosystem and whether it is dry, humid, warm or cold, offers valuable insights into how our human organism might respond in our environment. Understanding how these patterns are expressed in individual plants leads to expertise in herbal energetics. Ultimately, on our co-evolutionary path we have developed complex physiological and psychological systems to understand and benefit from plants.

Deduced by acute sensory observation and the direct experience of generations of practitioners, herbal energetics are the way we describe nature’s natural pharmacology. The character of a plant is often described in terms of the polar opposites of temperature, moisture, direction and texture; hot-cold, wet-dry, up-down, rough-smooth but also including tastes, colour, smell, feeling and sound. The language of energetics is the language of nature, it’s the language we use to describe how we experience life and how it makes us feel.  As the Chinese Traditional Inner Classic says ‘Hot diseases must be cooled and cold diseases must be warmed’, so these herbal classifications guide the herbs to be used in a treatment.

This approach to interpreting nature’s pharmacology emphasises the qualitative nature of the plant as opposed to how much of what molecule is in it. However, there are quantitative assessments in terms of strength and hierarchy of some energetics; for example the Galenical classification of ranking extremes of hot or cold in the first, second or third degree. This energetic approach is certainly more macrocosmic than microcosmic, more holistic than reductionist, more vitalistic than chemical, more systemic than cellular. And its just one of the ways that herbalists interpret how to use herbs; herbal energetics are always used in conjunction with the other aspects of knowledge based on the collective insights into specific herbal actions and doses.

We share detail on how Traditional Western, Chinese and Ayurvedic approaches describe the energetics of health. (Whilst broadly in agreement, other Galenic, Eclectic, Physiomedical, Kanpo, Native American and other health traditions contain their own particular insights we have not been able to cover here). The detail can be quite technical and nuanced so a real understanding of energetics must be learnt from a good teacher and directly experienced. It is important to remember that energetic classifications need to be interpreted in the context of the individual’s constitution and presenting patterns, as well as the seasonal climate and the dose. Herbalists always consider ‘who’ is having ‘how much’ of ‘what’ and ‘when’ in order to individualise the theory into practice.

Whilst exploring this world of energetics, experiment for yourself; some plants are hot, heating and lively – just chew some fresh ginger-, and some are much more cooling and calming – sip some chamomile tea. Some plants dry our mouth like a strong cup of black tea and some moisten it by chewing on a few linseeds or a bit of marshmallow root. All sorts of other physiological and emotional responses may be felt at more subtle levels with each herb.  This polarity is also seen in concepts of yin-yang  in Chinese culture  and purusha-prakriti in Indian world views.

The best books on energetics are the original classics of traditional medicine (e.g. Galen, Culpepper, Charaka, Sushruta, Bhavaprakasha, Huang-ti Nei Ching, Shen Nong Bencao, Shang Han lun, Li Shizhen’s Bencao Cangmu).

Some of our favourite modern books on energetics are:

Sebastian Pole

I am a registered member of the Ayurvedic Professionals Association, Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine and a Fellow of the Unified Register of Herbal Practitioners. I qualified as a herbalist with... Read more

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