What is an Herbalist?

In the grand scheme of health care, modern medicine is a relatively new development, and some patients still prefer to use naturopathic remedies over prescription drugs whenever possible. Herbs are a major driver in that trend. People have been using herbs to promote human health for more than 5,000 years, reports the American Herbalist Guild (AHG), and about 75 percent of the global population still relies on them over modern medications. Even some prescription and over-the-counter-drugs have herbal roots: The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that the willow bark extract Egyptians used to manage pain is now the active ingredient in aspirin. There are many different types of plants and herbs, however, and not all of them are safe or even effective. Knowing which to use, when and how crucial, and for that, many patients turn to herbalists.

Herbalists study herbs and their therapeutic properties. They assess clients to determine if herbs are an appropriate treatment for various conditions, and, if so, which herbs should be used, and how. Most herbalists also analyze one's diet and lifestyle habits, recommending helpful changes. The American Herbalist Guild notes that herbalists can assume a number of titles, depending on their training. These include native healers, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors and herbal pharmacists. Whatever one's job title, the right training is an absolute must, not just because this is a complex field, but because knowing how to advise patients how to use herbs safely is a matter of basic safety. Herbalist training programs are an excellent place to begin.

Herbalist degree programs

Herbalism credentials range from herbalist certificates and associate degrees to bachelor's and graduate degrees; which program is appropriate for you depends on both your professional goals and any state licensing and training requirements, if applicable. The AHG reports that programs can also vary in emphasis. Some focus on Western botanical medicine, for instance, while others focus on traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. Students can enroll in campus-based or online herbal science programs. Apprenticeships and independent study programs may seem a convenient alternative to formal training programs, but the AHG warns that there are disadvantages to this approach, namely lack of exposure to a variety of practitioners and a narrow academic focus. When completed in conjunction with a formal program, however, internships and apprenticeships offer students valuable hands-on experience working with real patients.

Herbalist training

Though herbalist training programs can vary, many include instruction in the same courses, including both basic health care and specialized herbological courses. According to the AHG, these include the following classes:

  • Therapeutic herbalism
  • Botany and plant identification
  • Anatomy
  • Pathology
  • Biochemistry
  • Medical terminology
  • Nutrition
  • Pharmacognosy and dispensing
  • Ethics

Some herbalist training and degree programs require students to complete internships or apprenticeships under practicing and often certified herbalists or naturopathic physicians.

Herbalist career outlook

It can be difficult to project herbalists' employment potential because the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) does not track this data for herbalists specifically, but there are other signs that the field is on the upswing. The National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or NCCAM, conducts periodic national surveys tracking what share of Americans use alternative medicine, like herbology. In 2007, about 38 percent of adults age 18 years or older and 12 percent of children reported using some type of complementary alternative medicine -- including herbal treatments -- up slightly from 2002. As demand for these alternative therapies grows, so will demand for herbalists. The U.S. Department of Labor's National Center for O*Net Development provides career and salary information for acupuncturists and naturopathic physicians, which are closely related to herbalism and may even have training in the field. Both fields are classified as "Bright Outlook" occupations, meaning they are expected to grow by at least 8 percent between 2012 and 2022.

As with employment outlook, it can be difficult to project how much herbalists will earn because the BLS includes them in the much large, broader health care practitioners and technical workers category. According to the BLS, these professionals earned a national mean annual wage of $55,210 in 2013. The AHG reports that based on its own review of salary data, herbalist salaries start at approximately $20,000 each year. It notes that many practicing herbalists supplement their earnings through other professional activities, like teaching, writing and consulting.

You can learn more about herbalist degree programs and employment projections by contacting schools that offer herbalist training directly, or by visiting professional organizations like the AHG online.

Sources:

"Acupuncturists," ONet Online, Summary Report, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/details/29-1199.01

"AHG Guide to Getting an Herbal Education," American Herbalist Guild, 2013, http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/herbal_education

"Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Workers, All Other," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes299099.htm

"Naturopathic Physicians," ONet Online, Summary Report, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-1199.04

"Willow Bark," University of Maryland Medical Center, Medical Reference Guide, Alternative Medicine, February 14, 2013, https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/willow-bark

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