How did you first become interested in herbal medicine?
I think I was 14 years old when I first read Adelle Davis’ book on treating diseases naturally through diet and supplements, then moved on to books by John Christopher and other herbalists. I was fascinated with using diet and nutrition in a most basic way to prevent and treat disease and focused on the area of nutrition where I received my training.
When did you study with David Winston and how did you find his program?
I studied with David in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, I cannot remember how I found David, but felt fortunate to study with him. He taught out of his apartment. I remember he sat on this big easy chair and we sat in a circle around him while he lectured. I also vividly remember pressing herbs in his lab, and for the first time examining Chinese herbs. We studied American and Chinese medicine, Cherokee medicine and culture, herbal pharmacy, wildcrafting and field botany over a 3 year period.
In what ways have you used your herbal training in your career?
After studying with David and pursuing my degrees in nutrition, I accepted a position at Brooklyn College teaching nutrition. I developed, and for many years taught, a course for nutrition majors on how to interpret and evaluate research articles. As part of the class we evaluate evidence-based literature for integrative medicine and spend 1/3 of the semester on dietary supplements focusing on the efficacy of herbal medicines.
What attitudes towards herbal medicine do you find among your students and do you see them moving more towards a complimentary approach or are they more conventional?
The use of complementary and integrative medicine by Americans has exploded in recent years and more people are turning to integrative therapies to treat common disorders and diseases. In order to counsel patients and clients, it is imperative that our nutrition professionals are well versed in this area. In my experience, students are not only interested in this area, they are anxious to receive training to be better prepared for counseling clients as well.
Patients are visiting nutrition professionals with a long list of supplements including herbs. My students do not have the strong background of a professional herbalist, but they are well equipped to look at the literature and determine supplement uses and efficacy.
A few years ago, my students and I conducted a study looking at supplement use in a Brooklyn community. We classified supplement use into three broad categories:
- Functional foods
- any food that provides a physiologic benefit in addition to its nutrient content (e.g. garlic, broccoli, cranberry juice).
- Dietary supplements
- any nutrient taken to supplement the diet (e.g. vitamins, minerals, amino acids).
- part of a plant, leaves, roots, flowers or seeds (e.g. Echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo biloba).
We found that subjects used a variety of supplements from all three categories, but, interestingly, herbs stood out.
- Functional foods (17%)
- Nutrient supplements (24%)
- Herbs (59%)
We looked at perceived efficacy, 90% of subjects believed the substances were effective, but only 62% of supplements used were supported by the literature. This really underscored the need to incorporate training in herbs and supplements into our dietetics curriculum to educate nutrition students on alternative treatment options and assist them in evaluating their efficacy.
How do you see your work with herbs evolving?
After a bit of a hiatus, I am turning my focus back towards using plants as medicine. After Hurricane Sandy decimated my backyard in Rockaway, nothing was growing, then a year later, I noticed “weeds” popping up and I began to identify them and realized that these weeds were now healing the soil from the toxic chemicals that covered the entire neighborhood after the storm. This prompted me to go full circle back into my love of herbs, and I began learning foraging skills. Also, after the hurricane I was rummaging through some personal items that were damaged by the flooding and I found my entire notebook from David’s classes untouched, with notes on every herb, his triune system which I haven’t seen anywhere else, properties and actions of the herbs, and herbal formulas.
I feel fortunate to be going back to my original love of plant medicine. In the future, I would like to offer an elective course for graduate students that focuses on integrative nutrition and plant medicines.