Herbal medicine is the use of plants for medicinal purposes to treat and prevent disease and promote health. Although today there are dedicated herbal medicine schools to train would-be herbalists, the practice of using plants as remedies is traditional in many cultures.
Whole medical systems such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine rely on herbal therapy for many of their treatments. Often, herbal medicines in the United States are derived from European or North American plants, but herbal practitioners may use medicinal plants from all over the world.
Herbalism Career Overview
Herbal medicine is practiced by a range of health professionals, from herbalists to chiropractors to naturopathic doctors. And with increasing numbers of patients interested in complementary therapies and dietary supplements, even conventional medical practitioners may seek out herbal medicine training to enhance their skill sets. A degree from an herbal medicine school may qualify you to become a physician or nurse, grow or manufacture herbs, study plants as an ethnobotanist, or teach others about herbal therapy.
The Herbal Therapy Profession
In the United States, an herbalist is a self-defined professional. Here are some herbalist career concentrations:
- Growing herbs
- "Wildcrafting" or picking herbs
- Manufacturing herbal products
- Teaching or counseling people about the use of herbs as medicine
- Supplementing another profession, such as naturopathic medicine, nutrition or chiropractic careers
One branch of anthropology, called ethnobotany, studies the use of plants in other cultures, particularly their use as medicine. Ethnobotanists, who receive their training through the standard university system, have classified a number of medicinal herbs. Their work helps preserve the traditional folk medicine of indigenous people around the world. The American Botanical Council provides current ethnobotanical expeditions.
Training and Education
What You'll Study in Herbal Medicine School
Most herbal medicine training will include curriculum in botany and plant identification, pharmacology, human physiology, biochemistry, nutrition, the history and philosophy or herbalism, and issues of professional practice. Many herbal medicine schools also teach clinical skills such as assessment and recordkeeping.
Average Length of Study
To become a practicing herbalist, the American Herbalists Guild recommends a program of at least 1600 hours of study at a school of herbal medicine, including a 400-hour clinical requirement. Naturopathic physicians must complete a bachelor's degree as well as a 4-year Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine (ND) program.
Some basic distance learning programs in herbal therapy cost as little as $400 to $1,500. A full-time course of study may range from $4,000 to $14,000 per year. Naturopathic medical schools generally cost between $20,000 to $25,000 per year.
Herbal Medicine Certification
Currently, 17 U.S. states, five Canadian provinces, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands require licensing for naturopathic doctors. For graduates of herbal medicine school, there is no specific federal- or state-level regulation. However, if you work as a chiropractor or other health practitioner, you may have to meet licensing requirements for that field in order to practice. Membership in the American Herbalists Guild can grant an additional degree of professionalism, since guild members are required to complete a set of standardized educational requirements.
Herbal Medicine Career Outlook
Practitioners with herbal medicine training can expect their skills to be in increasing demand. With more and more herbal medicines proven beneficial through scientific research—the development of the heart medicine digitalis from the foxglove plant being just one example—interest in herbal therapy is growing throughout the world. The World Health Organization reports that herbal medicines generate billions of dollars in revenue.
At this point in time, most herbologists or herbalists are self-employed. Here are a few herbal therapy career options:
- Run small manufacturing companies making herbal products
- Grow herbs for sale to manufacturers
- Own retail stores
- Counsel others about herbal products
There are also a few teaching positions available through the alternative medicine colleges. Some herbalists do go to work for other herbalists at the type of businesses listed above. To find these jobs, the most effective way is to network by attending the conferences of the various professional groups or by getting to know herbalists in your area. Very few of these positions are advertised through the standard means, such as through the Classifieds or the Web.
Is an Herbal Medicine Career Right for You?
The burgeoning field of herbal medicine offers a wide variety of career opportunities, whether you plan to find a job in research, academia or clinical practice. As a trained professional, you'll perform the important work of ensuring that people use herbal medicines safely and effectively in conjunction with other medical treatments and lifestyle choices. If you're interested in holistic natural therapies and traditional remedies, then herbal medicine school may be right for you.
Sources: American Herbalists Guild, University of Maryland Medical Center, HolisticOnline.com, Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges, World Health Organization, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.