Jenna Volpe's Journey to Becoming a Clinical Herbalist

Journey to Becoming a Clinical Herbalist

Given that tea was the catalyst which kicked off my journey to becoming a registered dietitian-nutritionist, it was just a matter of time before I was drawn down the path of also becoming a clinical herbalist!

But first things first…

What is an herbalist?

An herbalist is someone who works with edible and/or medicinal plants to enhance or improve wellbeing of people, animals, and/or the planet.  This practice is often referred to as “herbalism” or “herbal medicine” and has been around worldwide for millennia!

Herbalists are stewards of the earth; we practice in ways that are ethical and sustainable for the planet (in addition to people), and we demonstrate reverence and respect for the plants.

For many centuries, herbalists have been most well known in communities for prescribing herbs to help people feel better – but it’s important to note herbalists are not considered a medical doctor or naturopathic doctor, and not all herbalists work in the health field.

There are more than a dozen different types of herbalist paths, and many of us tend to practice more than one of type of herbalism!

But personally, without a doubt, I feel most in my element as a clinical herbalist

what is a clinical herbalist

What is a clinical herbalist?

(Updated March 2022) – Lately for me, when I think of a clinical herbalist, Claire Fraser – the doctor and clinical herbalist from my favorite show, Outlander- comes to mind! (Claire is often portrayed harvesting herbs and making them into medicine for patients.)

While we can’t time travel like Claire (unfortunately), clinical herbalists still have lots in common with her!

  • Clinical herbalists are practitioners of herbal medicine who help clients address health goals in a clinical setting by prescribing herbs to help people heal and recover from dis-ease.
  • Clinical herbalists are also holistic-minded, in that we treat the whole person, versus just his or her symptoms.  We help our clients tackle the root of long-standing health patterns and imbalances by partnering with the right herbs that will help to bring the mind and body back into balance.

We refer to specific algorithms, our mentors, and can tap into our understanding of herbal energetics (how different types of herbs impact the body’s organ systems and patterns from a constitutional standpoint) in order to match people to their best “herbal allies” (the herbs that can best help a person to achieve their unique health goals).

What does a clinical herbalist do?

To clarify, clinical herbalists aren’t just prescribing herbs in place of pharmaceuticals to manage or mask health symptoms!

We work from a more holistic lens, partnering with herbs to support the WHOLE person.  Like functional dietitian nutritionists, we aim to address the underlying root cause(s) of a dis-ease but with more of a direct emphasis on herbs versus food and supplements.

We prescribe and sometimes provide herbal medicine formulas directly, often alongside nutritional and/or medical interventions from various members of a treatment team, as needed.  The herbal blends we prescribe, recommend and provide are intended to help people heal themselves faster on physical, mental, and emotional levels.

We essentially match people to their best “herbal allies” based on their clinical needs and constitutional patterns, to help bring the body back into balance.

For example:

  • We may recommend certain types of nervines (herbs that help to nourish and soothe a frazzled, overactive nervous system) for someone with insomnia or whose anxiety is in overdrive.
  • We would likely incorporate adaptogens (herbs that modulate/balance the immune system and reduce the stress response) into a protocol for somebody with an autoimmune disorder.

Those are just a few tip-of-the-iceberg examples.

Does clinical herbalism work?

Clinical herbalism can be safe, powerful, empowering, and very effective when practiced responsibly.

Herbs being administered safely and properly have the potential to accelerate, enhance, complement, and amplify a client’s healing progress and overall health outcomes.  (I get to witness this first-hand all the time in my clinic!)

However, herbal medicine/clinical herbalism as a stand-alone intervention is not usually enough for someone to heal and recover from a long-standing chronic illness; it’s more effective when combined with other health interventions.

For example, if a person is taking all the best herbs but not making healthy food/lifestyle choices, unfortunately in those cases, herbal medicine can only go so far! This is where clinical and functional nutrition can come into play and pack a powerful punch.

  • When paired with clinical/functional nutrition interventions, in my experience this combination is usually enough to “move the needle”, helping clients to resolve many different types of chronic health issues naturally!

Clinical herbalism and nutrition interventions can also be prescribed alongside pharmaceuticals and allopathic medicine (as needed) to support a person holistically from all angles.  This approach is often referred to as “complementary alternative medicine”.

  • Some of my fellow integrative/functional registered dietitian nutritionist colleagues may likely also incorporate complementary alternative medicine into their practice!

At this point, you may be wondering: how does one become a clinical herbalist?

Clinical herbalist training

A clinical herbalist is first required to receive training and practice in the foundations and fundamentals of herbal medicine.

We then receive specific training in human anatomy and physiology, herbal energetics herb-drug interactions/safety contraindications, herbs for human health, clinical consultation methods, clinical theatre observation, and more.

A clinical herbalist also receives training in advanced herbal medicine formulation preparation, so we may craft and provide custom herbal blends and formulations for clients on an as-needed basis (most often in the form of a tea or tincture).

Why and how I became a clinical herbalist

During my years as an undergrad nutrition student at Boston University, I have memories of adding anti-inflammatory spices like cayenne pepper to my omelets, turmeric and black pepper to my green tea in the dining halls, and even bringing my own cinnamon to Starbucks…

Although we covered some basic uses of a dozen different herbs during our unit on “complementary alternative medicine” while getting my bachelor’s degree in nutrition, and I loved every minute of it, deep in my heart I knew there was SO much more to learn about herbs!

Needless to say, I’ve since confirmed my early suspicions that herbal medicine and clinical herbalism practices extend far beyond adding spices to food, or putting “superfood” powders in our beverages.

Clinical herbalism: my first experience

Since working in private practice, I’ve also had the privilege of being on the same treatment team as renowned herbalist and New York Times’ best-selling author Maria Noel Groves starting in 2015. (Maria has been the clinical herbalist for a handful of my nutrition clients on and off over the years.)

  • One of our mutual clients was very committed, following all of our recommendations and she successfully reversed her Grave’s disease (autoimmune thyroid condition) 100% naturally, with nutrition and herbs (also alongside a consistent practice of Tai chi and acupuncture) in under a year!
    • This was the catalyst event which inspired me to learn everything I could about herbal medicine.

My clinical herbalist training

Since I had already been working as a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) for almost ten years with a bachelor’s degree in human nutritional sciences (where I completed anatomy and human physiology), and had already worked in hospital settings on/off for almost a decade, I was able to “leapfrog” my way to clinical herbalism at a pretty quick pace!

There are many more amazing herbal medicine teachers out there!

As a “student of life”, understanding there will always be more to learn, I plan to continue my education in clinical herbalism for the rest of my life and encourage others to do the same!

Conclusions

Practicing as a clinical herbalist is incredibly rewarding.  It’s a fun, exciting and empowering path to take as a health practitioner, and it can create an amazing ripple effect in your community! I highly recommend it.

Working with a clinical herbalist who will guide you on which herbs to take to accelerate, enhance and complement your healing journey is likely in your best interest!  (Call me biased, but I think everyone should have a clinical herbalist as part of their treatment team.) 😉

If you’re in the health field and would like to learn how to better support your clients with herbs, let’s set up a “pick my brain” session and we can nerd out on herbs & clinical case studies together for an entire hour.

Or if you’d like to work together as a client, please reach out here!