I am here to propose the integration of two seemingly unrelated fields that in all actuality share many of the same core values, those being Herbalism and Wilderness Medicine. Wilderness Medicine is a growing field that requires the need for individuals to be highly qualified and knowledgeable on potential medical issues and treatments specifically in a backcountry setting. In this field, most treatments designate the use of conventional medicine and generally excludes the use of alternative medicine, specifically herbalism. I will now take you on a journey thru the history of herbalism and wilderness medicine, and how the two fields are related as well as how they can be integrated into a backcountry practice.
Wilderness Medicine is a field that is generally accepted by most if not all medical professionals as a stepping stone towards definitive medical care. It is used as a way to provide high-quality care while also having the ability to be immersed in the backcountry. Wilderness Medicine in general is considered a backcountry form of conventional medicine or eastern medicine which means that the techniques you see in wilderness medicine would resemble something similar to a front country EMTs protocol.
Why Herbalism? Before we ask why Herbalism, let's talk about what herbalism truly is. There are many variations of herbalism and in some cases, it is originally referred to as traditional medicine which generally takes more of a purist approach to healing. In many cultures, traditional medicine is the only readily available medicine at hand, which is why herbalism is given higher respect and validity in other cultures. For example, in Africa alone, traditional medicine accounts for 80% of the population's primary healthcare (Bussmann & Sharon, 2006). Nowadays in many western cultures, we have a form of herbalism referred to as western herbalism but rather than that being the only available medicine, herbalism is generally perceived as an additive to the conventional health care we see in our modern-day society. According to Clare Hanrahan in the Gale Encyclopedia of Nursing and Allied Health, Western Herbalism is a form of the healing arts that draws from herbal traditions of Europe and the Americas which emphasize the study and use of European a well as Native American herbs in the treatment and prevention of illness. To me, Herbalism is a way to use the resources that our environment has given us to deepen our connection to a less degraded form of nature.
So, why integrate Herbalism into a backcountry setting? Several reasons include your health, sustainability, and of course, the environment. The real question is, why not? Why not use the resources that the environment has given us? In many cases due to the inability to get definitive healthcare in the wilderness, medicinal drugs such as ibuprofen and Advil are used to combat many ailments (which do not have to be the end-all, be-all in most cases). Conventional medicine does not always fix the issue at hand, it just treats the symptoms. The idea behind this integration is that alternative medicine, in this case,
herbalism, would be used in conjunction with conventional medicine in order to identify the issue at its core, which therefore fulfills its’ intention and leaves the patient more satisfied and cared for. Another reason for a move towards a more traditional form of medicine is the growing issues in the overuse of Ibuprofen (NSAIDs), a commonly used backcountry intervention. With the introduction of herbal alternatives, this issue could easily be avoided (Cavagna et. al 2013). Although there is definitely a time and a place for NSAIDs, the intention of this integration is to decrease their overuse and create healthy alternatives for anti-inflammatory, pain preventing measures along with the treatment of various other ailments.
Herbalism can be implemented into wilderness medicine through the education of professionals in the field. There are limited resources in the backcountry so why not carry items that have multiple advantages; for example chamomile tea which can be used as a sleep aid, sunburn relief, and wound treatment to start rather than using Benadryl, which could be used in the case of an allergic reaction. The overuse of such antihistamines could lead to the decrease of effectiveness, possibly causing a dependence which could pose deeper problems down the line which is just another reason for the benefit of the introduction to herbal remedies (Creek 2018).
I am not here to tell you that all forms of conventional medicine should never be used or that one method of treatment is better than the other. We need both and we need to know how to effectively use them, not only in the front-country but in the backcountry as well. The Native American culture is especially interesting to the integration of these two fields due to the fact that they tend to hold traditional medicine to a higher standard while also appreciating the benefits of conventional medicine.
Native American populations generally believe that in ancient times, there were local plant cures for every disease. Today, because of drastic changes in the environment, the population, and the scourge of new diseases, these remedies are not as effective. Most of my Native Relations do not hesitate to see a conventional medical doctor for any condition that generally requires antibiotics or surgery. Native Americans use herbs and Western medications, realizing that each has its strengths and weaknesses (Cohen, 1998).
*we use the term Native American in this text with the understanding that preferences for these terms vary among the people they represent.
Based on this research, it seems that the way Native Americans practice medicine is the direction in which our society should move towards the inclusion of both conventional and Herbal treatments.
For this integration to hold the most value, both herbalism and conventional medicine need to be acknowledged and respected so that one is not taking a backseat to the other. Both the fields of herbalism and wilderness medicine, though vastly different, play big parts in our modern-day society. In the integration of these two fields, the intention is for this certification to result in an increase in the combined use of herbalism and conventional medicine. The more people who are aware of herbalism as an alternative backcountry intervention, the more likely this practice will be streamlined. That being said, the first steps towards an integrated backcountry medical system starts with the increase in awareness and knowledge of the two combined fields.
Bussmann, R., & Sharon, D. (2006). Traditional medicinal plant use in Northern Peru: tracking two thousand years of healing culture. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 2(1), 47–47. https://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-2-47
Cavagna, L., Caporali, R., Trifirò, G., Arcoraci, V., Rossi, S., & Montecucco, C. (2013). Overuse of
Prescription and OTC Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs in Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Osteoarthritis. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 26(1), 279–281. https://doi.org/10.1177/039463201302600132
Cohen, K. (1998). Native American medicine. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 4(6), 45-57.
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Creek, J. (2018). Insomnia. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/2087699407/
Hanrahan, C. (2018). Herbalism, Western (pp. 1708–1713).