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Planetary Herbal Wisdom Interview with Michael Tierra

by Helen Morris(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 133 - March 2007

The fundamental philosophy behind Michael Tierra’s learning and experience is that we should not confine ourselves to one system of medicine, but take advantage of the knowledge and wisdom of all cultures, our planetary wisdom which provides us with universal principles for mankind, bringing the best from all these cultures together. This is what his book, Planetary Herbology1 and his teaching is based upon.

Tierra believes that assessment of the patient is the most important element of herbal medicine; understanding and determining the energy of a person, rather than just prescribing on the basis of disease, as this is not always the most appropriate option.

He emphasizes that ‘differential diagnosis’ is fundamental to the practice of herbal medicine, and is something the ancient Chinese and Indian cultures have tended to use more than in Western civilization. This diagnosis is based on many different principles: a person’s constitution, whether they are ‘hot or cold’, the yin and yang of a person (homeostasis), their tongue, how they walk and talk, what they are deficient in, what they have in excess.

Michael Tierra’s experience also highlights the historical, cultural and fundamental concept of Tri-dosha. This defines three different humours which early Middle-Eastern and Greek medicine was based upon.

These three humours are:
•     Vata: wind/nerve-based constitution;
•     Kapha: water/fluid-based constitution;
•     Pitta: fire based constitution.

The basis of all herbal medicine using this principle is that these three humours need to be balanced in a person, and remedies can be used to help achieve this when that is not the case.

Tierra argues that in Western practices these energy concepts are not embraced, and there is no traditional energy classification for them. Also, using differential diagnosis is more complex than just basing diagnosis on a disease and treating that. Therefore, Tierra acknowledges that in herbal medicine you do have to try out and test combinations. Although mainstream medicine has its place, the advantage of herbal medicine is that it is generally mild in form and will not completely overcome the nature of the person like orthodox medicine can, resulting in a plethora of possible adverse reactions.

As Tierra points out, “Herbs are the first medicine of humanity, and we turn to them because we expect them to be mild and forgiving. Having said this, in the hands of a well-trained Planetary Herbalist, their benefits are enormous”

The Tri-dosha energies that Tierra describes can be balanced out by Triphala, three fruits. These, in the right combination and context for a person, bring the body back to balance by
eliminating the toxins that the body does not need, without weakening the system.

Tierra asks, “What is a toxin? It’s not necessarily a poison or something that is bad for you on a consistent basis, but is basically what your body doesn’t need. Therefore anything can be toxic to you, and detoxification is getting rid of what you don’t need at any particular time.”

However, to detoxify, you have to have the energy to eliminate natural toxins, which is something that Tierra believes many methods do not consider. It’s not good just to eat raw vegetables or only salad, for example, as the body needs energy to detoxify. If you don’t balance, you are just overwhelming your body with one thing, and that in turn could make it toxic to you.

After studying the herbal medicine of other cultures, Tierra has introduced Triphala to the western world, which exemplifies his philosophy of bringing the highest healing wisdom and knowledge from all cultures to benefit all. Triphala uniquely promotes balanced detoxification and elimination while acting as a mild tonic – thus causing no deficiencies. It is excellent for helping digestion, liver function, while promoting bowel regularity even for those with an atonic or laxative dependent lower bowel.

Tierra advises that Triphala can be used as a base around which other remedies can be added.

The three fruits that are part of Triphala are:
•    Amla (Emblica officinales) – ‘the most important herb in the world’ and the best known source of vitamin C, an anti-oxidant par excellence, that is pretty good for everything, as well as being impervious to ageing
•    Bihara (Terminalia belerica) – which is good for the cardio-vascular system.
•    Harada (Terminalia chebula) – for balancing the body and mind.

As well as advice on the benefits of Triphala, we asked Tierra about different issues relating to diet in the western world, including the problem in the West with allergies to milk and dairy.

The Case of Milk

There are plenty of people in the UK who claim to have a dairy or milk intolerance but one explanation that Tierra gives for this problem is something he has learned from India and that Rudolf Ballentine refers to in his book, Diet and Nutrition: A Holistic Approach.[2]


In India, no-one drinks cold milk. Milk consists of long-chain proteins, and is very difficult to pass through the liver when it’s cold. However, when scalded, it is broken down into smaller parts which therefore helps the body digest it easily. For traditional lacto-vegetarian Hindu people and those following yoga, scalded warm milk with ginger and honey or the Ayurvedic herbal formula Chyavanprash is used, as chicken or meat soup cooked with herbs is used by the Chinese to strengthen and build individuals who are constitutionally weak and deficient.

Tierra also points out that when you feed yourself you have to be good to yourself and feed your ancestors. If you are a vegetarian you do need to consider what your body is missing that your ancestors would have had. He also advises us to take everything in moderation and be realistic in our expectations. You might not always be able to have organic milk, but any milk is better than nothing for some. Tierra also points out that our society eats muscle (meat) rather than the organs of animals, where all the goodness comes from. In traditional cultures, for example, the Native Americans, it was traditional that one who was recovering from illness, or was weak in some way, would be fed cooked heart and liver to promote speedy recovery. Similarly, in China, if one has a heart problem, then heart is eaten, a kidney problem, then kidneys are eaten – it is important to realize the principle that like treats like. In all of this, only the finest sources of naturally raised, organic animal foods should be considered.

It is possible to be healthy as a lacto-vegetarian, but it must be done consciously and carefully. Being a vegetarian does not simply mean leaving the meat out of one’s diet.

Following this lecture we asked Michael a few questions about his experience:

Where did your Philosophy of Planetary Herbology come From?

I never started out to study one type of medicine but my interest began as I was fascinated by plants in the forest. It was later when I got the opportunity to study with Chinese and Indian Herbalists and others that it became clear to me that utilizing all systems together made total sense; using only one seems preposterous to me!

Each tradition has its strong points, and I wanted to integrate these, which I’ve be doing for 35 years, and which Planetary Herbology, also the title of the book I have written on this subject, is based upon.

What is Your Advice for Future Herbalists?

The most important thing for Herbalists is diagnosis, and Western herbal medicine doesn’t have the best practice in regards to diagnosis, not in the way Indian and Chinese medicine has. We can learn a lot from them.

Herbal medicine is an art, and yes, it’s a difficult art – you have to know and understand the herbs, the combinations of herbs and how these will affect different people. All I can say is that you learn through practice with formulas and treatments.

A person can know just a little bit and be effective. Any person can do good with herbs, and the thing is, if you don’t get it right or make a mistake they are much more forgiving. You need to test and experiment with formulas to see how the patient reacts.

However, Herbalists, if they want to be the best, have to go much deeper. They need a wide knowledge of more herbs to be top-level experts. Really good Herbalists should know as many herbs as possible. I would recommend that an Herbalist really needs to know and practice with around 300 herbs.

Herbs are like music, with each key an herb. If you are playing a symphony you can’t miss a key or play with some of the keys missing.

As far as practicalities go, for having this many herbs, tinctures are useful as they don’t take up so much space and last a long time, so you can be mobile with them.

To be a healer takes some courage, there is always a risk involved. You have to learn to trust your elders, their experience and their mistakes.

What do You Think is the Greatest Threat to Herbal Medicine?

The wisdom of each culture is more important than the herbs, and we’re in danger of losing the wisdom of the world.

Another huge threat to Herbalists is regulation of herbs by those who know nothing about them. The Government doesn’t even consult Herbalists when they make these regulations. Herbalists need to encourage a way around this, otherwise it will be impossible to practise in years to come.

Do You See the Problems that Our Environment is Facing as an Issue?
Well, we do need to consider the availability of herbs in context and be careful with them. Lady Slipper in North America is an example of this, it is the most powerful herb for the nervous system but it’s not cultivated in the US so it’s endangered. A reputable Herbalist will consider these issues and ensure that if any herb is under threat, they will seek out an alternative.

You Really Brought Echinacea to the West; What do you Think about its Popularity Now?
I never imagined Echinacea would become mainstream as it’s become. It is fantastic, but I think it’s being used often for the wrong reasons. There is no doubting its benefits, though – it’s anti-biotic, resistant to diseases and can be used against bacterial infection.

What is Your Most Memorable Healing Story?
There are almost too many to mention, but some stand out more than others. For example, the old man who I treated who had pancreatic cancer but following a course of herbs; it went completely into remission.

Another time, I was on holiday and surfing alongside this young girl who was holidaying with her mother. We all got talking and once they discovered who I was the mother hugged me and said, ‘You saved my daughter’s life’. It turned out that her daughter had a heart defect as an infant. The mother had read about my experience of Echinacea and had prescribed this to her daughter. It actually healed her daughter and saved her from a life-time of open heart surgery.

There was another man I saw who had blood poisoning and was close to having his leg cut off. Using herbs we were able to get the blood poisoning into remission and thus avoided the amputation.

What do You Think about the Besistance of Orthodox Medicine to Herbal Treatments?
There is a place for western medicine and it can be effective, but it all comes down to a risk versus benefit. With herbs, in general, the medical establishment doesn’t think there is benefit to them, so if anything happens, they see them as an unnecessary risk without any benefit. In reality though, herbs are fairly safe.

For example, 6-7,000 people in the US have died from liver failure as a result of taking Ibuprofen, but it is still on the market.  Less than 10 people may have had adverse effects from comfrey and died, but it has been banned.  It could even have been taken in combination with ibuprofen and alcohol, but it was considered a forgone conclusion that the comfrey is the cause.[3]

The problem with the medical establishment is it is driven by fear and motivated by fear, and everything is dealt with as a crisis.

References

1     Michael Tierra. Planetary Herbology. Lotus Press. USA. ISBN 0941524272. 1989.
2     Rudolf Ballentine. Diet and Nutrition: A Holistic Approach. Himalayan Institute Press. US. ISBN 0893890480. 1978.
3.    Patrick Holford and Jerome Burne. Food is Better Medicine Than Drugs: Your Prescription for Drug-Free Health. Piatkus Books Ltd. 2006.

About the Interviewee

Dr Michael Tierra, L Ac OMD is a leading Herbalist from the US and is Patron of the CNM. He is also founder of the American Herbalists Guild, author of numerous books on Health and Herbal Healing including The Way of Herbs, The Natural Remedy Bible, and The Way of Chinese Herbs, (Pocket Books), Planetary Herbology, Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine, Vol. 1 & 2, Biomagnetic and Herbal Therapy (Lotus Press) and The East West Course of Herbology. Dr Tierra practises at the East West Clinic in Santa Cruz, California, and may be contacted via herbcourse@planetherbs.com; www.planetherbs.com

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About Helen Morris

Helen Morris is a PR Consultant and Writer, working with the College of Naturopathic Medicine (CNM). She interviewed Michael Tierra following a lecture Tierra gave at the London College of Naturopathic Medicine. She may be contacted on hm@helenmorrispr.com

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