Catalysts in Herbal Medicine

 The following is a summary of the talk I gave at the most recent NEHA retreat. It was great to meet new folks and have a chance to relax with old friends in the countryside of the Hudson valley.

So you've found the perfect plant for yourself, or for a friend. Its actions fit the symptom profile, its indication is specific. To maximize its effectiveness, it might be useful to combine it with a synergistic catalyst, an herb (or herbs) capable of directing and aiding the remedy through the body.
But why not just use the single herb alone? Why is it even necessary to add a catalyst? To understand the answer, it's useful to take a little step back and explore some concepts from the art and science of alchemy.

I have always associated alchemy with late-Middle-Ages Europe - a time when the extraction of precious ores from mines deep in the Alps was taking place alongside explorations in the new art of distillation. But truly, alchemy (from the Arabic "al" and "khemeia", literally the metal-transmuting) far predates this time, even in the European tradition. And in China and India, mystics, sages, and healers were discussing the alchemy of immortality for many hundreds of years before the Greeks ever dreamed of turning lead to gold.
Nevertheless, though he may not have been the first, Paracelsus articulated the concepts of alchemy in Europe in the late 1400s perhaps better that anyone before him. He drew on a personal history that involved his father's ore-smelting operations, as well as research into the hermetic arts whose roots date back to the Egyptian kingdoms. His practice was well-grounded in nature, focusing on plants - but, by employing the high-proof spirits that had just recently been discovered in Europe, he stressed the usefulness of extraction and alchemical potentization, primarily through reliance on the hermetic concept of the "vital force".
Hermes (the fleet-footed messenger of the gods whose name is the source of the term "hermeticism") became known as Mercury in the Roman pantheon. In acting as intercedent between the gods and humans, he became known as a sort of embodiment of the basic animating power that sustains all life - as sort of "carrier wave" from the divine to the physical. This idea is echoed in the Christian conception of the trinity, with the "holy spirit" acting as a bridge between the divine and the material. These doctrines actually rely on old Platonic conceptions of reality, whereby the "astral" (divine, idea-driven) world flows into the material plane (world of form) through the animating power of the vital force. Thus, by the time of Paracelsus, mercury became the alchemical shorthand for life-force itself. And it was the goal of every good alchemist to capture and harness this force, as it was seen as the key to all healing, and perhaps to immortality, too.
Paracelsus realized that a growing plant, source of all true medicine, would need to be sacrificed at least in part in order to help the sick and needy. He sought a way to capture and harness the living vitality of that growing, green being, that it might be infused into his medicines and thereby into his patients. In order to achieve this, Paracelsus emphasized separating the components of the plant - primarily the airy, volatile aromatics from the fixed, bitter and salty constituents - and then tying them together again with high-proof alcohol (we still call this stuff "spirit", an echo of its mercurial, vital nature). "Solve et coagula!" he urged his students: "dissolve and recombine!". In so doing, though the plant is no longer living, the extract is nevertheless alive, bio-available, and more potent than the simple dried leaf might be.

And that's really the crux of the matter: catalysts in herbal medicine, whether they be processes or substances, turn a remedy from a simple infusion to one capable of conveying the powerful, life-changing experience of interacting directly with a living plant out in the wild. All herbalists have experienced this interaction, and I'd wager most gardeners have too. This is a healing experience itself, and modern research is beginning to realize that garden therapy, forest bathing, and just simple time spent outside on the plants' turf can have profound healing implications. The most potent remedies I've ever made - the ones where folks tell me later that quick, profound changes follow their use - were made from plants I harvested in a state of semi-transcendent flow, where the edges of "me" began to bleed into "herb" and vice-versa. This experience is a catalyst in and of itself. It's what helps the action of a remedy "stick". It's what makes it different from all the mass-produced stuff in pills out there on the shelves of stores and pharmacies. It's what makes real, effective herbal medicine - as opposed to just a weak substitute for a drug.

So one way to add a catalyst to botanical remedies is simply being an herbalist. We are catalysts ourselves, in that we help to bridge the gap between plants and people (like some sort of green mercury). I'm not sure every herbalist really thinks about this quite so much, or realizes its importance. When you think about it, you see how crucial it is to cultivate ourselves as practitioners, to develop a healing presence. The herbalist (or doctor) is far from being simply an impartial observer! So we must consider practices such as mindfulness training, ceremony and ritual (even if it's just a moment of focus and hand-washing before meeting a client), and cultivate self-awareness to maximize our potential as catalysts. We are lucky that the discipline of herbal medicine includes such exercises and emphasizes self-development and relational understanding: to use old Taoist alchemical language, you refine the mercury through gardening and wild-harvesting. And a practitioner with a well-refined mercury will always achieve better results, believe me. Even with the smallest doses of remedies. Plant-spirit medicine may be the ultimate expression of this reality.

Next, we have the possibility of adding an actual substance to a formula or even to a single-herb extract. The first type of catalytic additive I would call a personal "signature" catalyst - a few drops of a special, highly meaningful preparation that you blend into every product you make. These are more likely energetic catalysts, somewhere between pure plants spirit medicine and the more material formula-additives we'll look at next. Their nature can be highly variable, depending on the herbalist, the client, the season, or whatever variables might come in to play. The key is that they be meaningful to you, and act as an undeniable physical reminder of a powerful living-plant connection you've made. Some choose to add a few drops of an elixir made from the fresh rosebuds of an old, wild rose from their family's homestead. Others will craft flower essences, or labor for a whole season over spagyric extracts of a personal plant ally, or painstakingly collect vials of morning dew from the leaves of Alchemilla, the Lady's mantle, to add to their simples or formulas. Deb Soule adds the essence of Heal All to many of her blends. I was able to run some spring water over a yarrow plant that grows on the top of the fairy hill of Queen Maeve, in Ireland, and I will add a single drop of this water to some formulas once in a while. You get the idea.

As a second option, from a more "rationalist" perspective, we have the possibility of adding biochemically (and energetically) active substances to a formula in small amounts (usually 10% or less of the blend). As a Western herbalist, I will focus mostly on catalysts from that tradition - though other approaches of course exist. A huge part of the art of Chinese medicine involves formulation, with complex blends often involving multiple catalysts and synergists. But for this discussion, consider the addition of one herb, often a powerful and strong-tasting one, to your formulas to enhance the overall potency, "revitalize" it in the Paracelsian sense, and also improve its effectiveness by aiding in the emulsification of extracts (such as Kava, or Reishi mushroom, which can have problems when blended with other extracts), or improving the overall flavor.
There are three general "classes" or approaches involved in picking a catalyst for a formula, and of course they can overlap. The first is energy-based: using a small amount of a powerful herb to either balance the overall energy of a formula, or to make it better suited to a particular client. The second is physiology-based: adding an ingredient that helps "direct" the formula to a particular part of the human being. The third is action-based: reinforcing the action of a blend with certain herbs particularly suited to that action.
Energetic catalysts, from a Western point of view, involve heat and moisture. This is a relatively simple idea: if you want to warm a formula, cool it, or balance out the overall energy of other ingredients, this is the approach to use. It often makes the blend easier to take, and safer, too (especially for long-term use). Warming catalysts include cayenne, ginger and rosemary; more cooling ones for me mean strongly bitter plants such as gentian, artichoke or lavender. I usually turn to a little bit of licorice, a time-honored harmonizer of herbal formulas, for an overly dry formula or constitution; conversely, agrimony and lady's mantle are nice to add to gloopy demulcent blends.
"Directing" a formula to a particular organ system is seen as a way to maximize therapeutic effectiveness. Traditionally, certain catalysts were thought to have this ability - and the rationale for this belief seems to rest either in the excretory routes for the catalyst's chemistry, or in its direct effect on the organ system itself. So, for instance, juniper can be added (in small doses) to urinary formulas to increase their effectiveness, partly because the volatiles in juniper are excreted largely through the kidneys. Other volatile oils, such as those in thyme or mint, are lighter and bubble out of the bloodstream through the lungs. Specific pulmonary antispasmodics, such as Lobelia, are added to reinforce the action of chest-congestion formulas. Cayenne and rosemary, classic low-dose circulatory enhancers, enhance the activity of other cardiovascular herbs. In the gastrointestinal system, bitters such as gentian serve as reliable catalysts in tiny amounts, though ginger might be of use too. And for the nervous system, classic "brain" aromatics such as rosemary, sage, or even lavender (for a more calming note) might be indicated as catalysts.
Action-based catalysts reinforce the overall goal, or action, of a formula. I tend to focus on major areas of activity, rather than each individual action: for example, if crafting a formula that's designed to address tension or tone in the nerves and muscles, there are a few ways to go. The first type of catalyst is an aromatic plant: such as lavender, rose, ginger, or mint (a pinch of mint goes great in many nervine teas, an enlivening trick I first heard from master tea-formulator Rosemary Gladstar). Another type contains alkaloids that have a profound rebalancing effect on neuromuscular tone: Lobelia is a safe choice, but it's interesting to note that the solanaceous plants (such as Atropa or Datura, sources of atropine, or Solanum dulcamara, source of solanine) were used by Eclectic physicians in drop doses to relax excess tension (1-5 drops) or stimulate a sluggish constitution (5-10 drops). This is the perfect dose range for a neuromuscular tone catalyst.
If your formula seeks to address immunity or inflammation in the body, consider adding a saponin-rich herb as a catalyst. These phytochemicals seem to have a biphasic effect, at first interacting with the immune tissue in the GI tract and "waking up" innate immunity, and then helping to control overall inflammation once their non-polar backbones are absorbed into the systemic circulation. Licorice features prominently here, again a great example of a catalyst that's energetic, immune-active, and also sweetening. But try horse chestnut too. It's dose is small, yet it has great effects on overall inflammation and immune balance. Extra bonus: saponins act as emulsifying agents, helping to keep plant constituents in solution (especially if you're mixing high proof and low proof extracts - so try a little licorice in your kava / crampbark blend).
If attempting to address imbalance in the digestion and metabolism (which includes the liver), I've had some success using bitter herbs such as gentian, absorption-enhancing pungents such as black pepper, or specific hepatic "activators" like Schisandra or agrimony. They cross the line between action-based and physiology-based catalysis - but remember, there's a lot of overlap between energetics, actions, and organ function.

In conclusion, adding a small amount of a very specific herb can help custom-tailor your formula and increase its effectiveness, re-awakening some of the vital power that may have been lost after harvest and processing. If we mindfully blend catalysts into our simples or blends, we reinforce the heart-centered experience of being with a whole, living plant in its own environment. We can also thereby help set our remedies apart from the growing pile of pills you'll find on store shelves. If you were a client, what would you choose? A remedy mass-produced and packaged in a plastic jar, or a blend where one of the ingredients was picked especially for you, has an incredible story it carries with it, and makes everything more effective? By using catalysts with intention, we go back to the root - back to the future.
So as it turns out, as herbalists we have a responsibility as go-betweens, as mercurial catalysts, not only in the garden, not only with our clients. Using catalysts to make truly vibrant, powerful medicines, we can stimulate change in our greater community, and perhaps in the minds and hearts of those seeking an alternative to technological medicine. Herbal medicine is from the heart, it's personal, it's vital. It is a catalyst for cultural change.