PICTURED: Master Herbalist Ron Teeguarden with Duanwood reishi, a fungus prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its anti-aging properties. Photo by Michael Eivaz

Do medicinal herbs curb illness as well as pharmaceutical drugs? What are the biological reasons that naturally-growing plants can alleviate symptoms?

Answers are on the way. The Second Annual Ojai Herbal Symposium, set for Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17, is themed “The Wisdom of the Body,” and will include a wide spectrum of presenters with expertise in medical training and healing experience. Varied topics will be covered by a physician, a pharmacist, herbal healing practitioners, a Chumash elder, an acupuncturist, botany experts and more.

“In my 43 years of leading Herb Walks in Ventura County, I have met and learned from so many knowledgeable herbalists, authors, M.D.s, acupuncturists and other health and medical experts,” symposium organizer Lanny Kaufer told the VCReporter. “Two years ago, it occurred to me how cool it would be to bring them together for a conference to share their wisdom and experience. Then I reached out to other great minds in the field of herbal medicine and the first Ojai Herbal Symposium was born last year.” Kaufer is the founder of Ojai Herbal (ojaiherbal.org) and has been leading Herb Walks in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties for decades.

The symposium theme, “The Wisdom of the Body,” is the title of a classic 1932 physiology textbook. Its author, William Cannon, described “homeostasis,” which the National Institutes of Health defines as a core concept of biology, because it means the constant regulation of the body’s internal systems, in the face of challenges from illness and injury.

Pain Relief

The presenters’ combined experience will encompass every angle, with a balance of pros and cons. One of the dozen presenters will be Dr. James Adams, associate professor at the USC School of Pharmacy, who will explain why herbal medicines can provide effective therapy when standard medicines do not.

Dr. James Adams, associate professor at the USC School of Pharmacy, holding a bunch of mugwort. Photo courtesy of the Ojai Herbal Symposium

“The best example is pain relief,” Adams told the VCReporter. “The use of opioids and NSAIDs for pain relief is dangerous and kills about 150,000 people every year.” NSAIDs are aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, acetaminophen and others. Acetaminophen is an inhibitor of cyclooxygenase-2 (a critical enzyme needed for good health). He points to plant medicines such as sagebrush liniment and black sage sun tea that can be safer and more effective for pain relief and can even cure chronic pain.

“Human beings have used herbs as medicines since the beginning of our existence, about 200,000 years,” Adams said. “We have evolved using these medicines. There has been a genetic selection for those people who respond to plant-based medicines. We need to continue using plant medicines.”

For those who habitually rely on a morning caffeine jolt, Adams noted that tea and coffee are plant medicines.

Adams will speak about the use of medical marijuana, as well as about California plant medicines. “I will present the clinical findings for the use of these medicines,” he said. “Availability of plant medicines is a concern,” he added. “I grow plant medicines in my yard to increase availability.”

Limitations and Lack of Regulation

Another presenter, Dr. Jena Sussex, an internist and pediatrician at the Los Angeles County and USC Medical Center, will address some of plant medicines’ limitations. “Herbal supplements are actually very diverse and unfortunately not regulated,” she told the VCReporter. “They are largely interpreted by patients as safe but there are significant side effects, even frank toxicity of supplements.”

Dr. Jena Sussex, an internist and pediatrician at the Los Angeles County and USC Medical Center, will address the limitations and regulatory issues of plant-based remedies.

Herbal supplements can sometimes be unsafe. “There are well-documented cases of patients with fulminant liver failure after taking dietary supplements,” Sussex said. The supplements studied included kava, ma-huang (also known as ephedra, and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine), LipoKinetix, skullcap, and herbs that make up bai feng wan (used for female reproductive health). “Several of these patients unfortunately died while awaiting liver transplant,” she said. “The largest issue is there is frighteningly minimal to no regulation,” in Sussex’s view.

She pointed out that herbal supplements are not FDA-regulated, and don’t need to be proven safe or to contain the supplement they claim or be effective prior to being sold. “These companies are under no obligation to do any post-market safety testing either,” she said. “That is, they don’t have to monitor for its effects on its customers.”

Although she makes no general recommendations, Sussex does discuss herbal medicines with her patients, if there are a significant number of studies suggesting safety and benefit. “For example, there are several high-quality studies demonstrating a benefit in pain relief in certain types of arthritis with turmeric use. It is important to remember there are no blanket recommendations that can be applied to anyone when it comes to herbs — just as aspirin may not be safe for everyone — and each patient’s entire medical history and medications must be reviewed prior to considering if herbal medicines are safe for them.”

Risk of contamination is another concern, she added. Pesticides, heavy metals and undeclared other drugs have been found in herbal supplements. Herbs can be poorly labeled and confusing. “Also, there can be too much of a good thing,” she said. “Some otherwise safe ingredients and products can be harmful when consumed in high amounts, when taken for a long time.”

And “natural” does not mean “safe.”

“There are many toxic compounds that occur naturally: morphine, cocaine, box jellyfish venom, arsenic and ricin to name a few,” Sussex said. “Additionally, while the desired compound may be beneficial, the amounts and additional compounds in the supplement are often unknown.”

Support, Not Cure

With regard to constant regulation, symposium presenter Ron Teeguarden, master herbalist at Dragon Herbs, will detail the difference between tonic herbs and other types of herbs, a critical distinction. Channeling homeostasis, Teeguarden emphasizes the proactive use of herbs to cultivate good health rather than to cure disease.

The author of Chinese Tonic Herbs and other books, Teeguarden will explain the Chinese tonic herbalism approach. “We humans evolved in a natural world along with every plant, animal, fungus, bacterium and virus that is alive on earth today,” Teeguarden told the VCReporter. “We can thrive in our earthly environment so long as our body is strong and adaptive.”

Lanny Kaufer, founder of Ojai Herbal and organizer of the symposium. Photo by Harold Wissell

Teeguarden will also address limitations. “Tonic herbs strengthen functions,” he said. “They enhance life force. They should not be considered medicinal for any ailment. When one falls ill, they should seek medical care and advice and follow that advice.

“Sometimes, people have chronic weaknesses that medical care is not quite handling, so they need to discover the diet that improves their state of health, the art of sleeping well, the way to destress, and so on. Tonic herbs fall into this category of ‘life cultivation’ arts. They are not medicine — they provide support.”

Teeguarden does not regard plant medicines as “magic bullets for disease.” No diet, exercise program, or anything else is a magic cure either. “But tonic herbs are the best herbs in the world to take to promote our functional balance, and to support our quest for healthy aging, well-being and longevity.”

Teeguarden explained that Chinese tonic herbalism is not medicinal, but rather a path toward achieving vitality. The ability to achieve health, he said, “chiefly depends on the ability of any organism, including us, to resist disease from within and to flourish by maintaining dynamic balance, vitality and a steady spirit even as circumstances change.”

“Chinese tonic herbs are largely capable of modulating a vast range of critical mechanisms that determine how well we function,” Teeguarden said. “They are not acting as drugs to alter functions in one direction or another but are nurturing to the regulatory mechanics of our biochemistry.”

At the symposium Teeguarden will cover the core of Chinese herbalism — to “assist the positive and eliminate the noxious. ‘Positive’ represents the functions of regulation, defense and adaptation of the organism. ‘Noxious’ represents all the disadvantage factors that hinder the regulation, defense and adaptation of the normal organism and that lead to sickness.”

“Tonic herbs are not a replacement for pharmaceutical drugs suggested or prescribed by a physician for any medical condition,” Teeguarden stresses. He teaches that tonic herbs are not medicines, but superfoods.

“These herbs are now available to anyone with the insight to study them a little, and to obtain them,” he said. “I strongly recommend that health seekers become connoisseurs of tonic herbs, so that they can discern high quality from cheap, low-quality products. The results are well-established by the masters of the past in many traditions. These days, many of the world’s greatest athletes use tonic herbs.”

Teeguarden claims that worldwide, “Tens of millions of people know that they get sick less often, feel better and perform better as a result of consuming a moderate quantity of tonic herbs on a regular basis. Thousands of research studies are confirming the positive actions of tonic herbs.”

“People love them because they are natural,” he continued. That could be the key.

The Ojai Herbal Symposium takes place Nov. 16-17 at Krotona Hall, 2 Krotona Street, Ojai. For acupuncturists in attendance, the symposium is Continuing Education Provider #1526, under the California Acupuncture Board, approved to offer 12.5 Category 1 CEUs and 2 Category 2 CUEs, for a total of 14.5 possible CEUs. For registration, schedule and more information, call 805-646-6281; email info@ojaiherbal.org; or visit: ojaiherbal.org/event/2019-ojai-herbal-symposium/.