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Education, Schools, and Career Overview

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 is 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
  • 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.

How to Become an Herbalist

Herbalism is the plane where traditional medicine and botany meet. Herbalists advise patients on how to use certain plants and extracts to treat and prevent injury or disease, both physical and emotional. Though herbalism falls into the category of alternative or traditional medicine, proper training is just as important for those who practice it as it would be for professionals specializing in modern medicine. Herbalist programs can provide the education herbalists need to practice the craft safely and effectively.

Common Coursework

Though herbalist education programs can vary, many include instruction in the same courses, including basic healthcare, science, and specialized herbological courses. According to the AHG, these include the following classes:

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

Degree Programs

Herbalist programs can lead to a wide range of credentials, from postsecondary certificates to undergraduate and advanced degrees. Which one is right for you depends on your career goals and any state licensing and training requirements, if applicable.

  • Private herbalism consultants may only need to complete a certificate or associate degree program.
  • Naturopathic physicians who practice herbalism must typically earn advanced degrees in herbalism, or they must have degrees in related fields plus herbalist certifications.

Programs for becoming an herbalist can vary tremendously in terms of length, intensity and educational requirements. While one program might require students to complete a round of classes over the course of just a few weeks or months, the next might require years of study plus hundreds of clinical hours. The American Herbalist Guild reports that they can also vary in emphasis. Some focus on Western botanical medicine, for instance, while others focus on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). We recommend researching herbalist programs and schools extensively to learn more about a specific program's admissions and graduation requirements, and whether campus-based or online herbal science programs are available.

In general, these are the two basic education tracks:

  • Entry-level certificate and undergraduate degree programs — Students often need not have anything beyond a high school diploma and a passion for herbology, though a working understanding of biology is helpful.
  • Advanced herbalist programs — Students at this level may be required to have earned relevant undergraduate degrees. This path is often designed for naturopathic physicians.

Internships and Apprenticeships

Some herbalist training and degree programs require students to complete internships or apprenticeships under practicing and often certified herbalists or naturopathic physicians. These can offer students valuable hands-on experience in working with real patients.

Note: 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.

Herbalist Certification

While herbal science degree or diploma programs are an excellent way to establish a knowledge base, some clients prefer to consult certified herbalists -- those who have taken extra steps to certify their herb savvy through a third-party organization. Certification also serves as a means of specializing your training. For instance, you might become certified in therapeutic Western herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic medicine.

Some herbalist certifications are offered through schools or professional organizations, like the Institute of Traditional Medicine (ITM) and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM); others are offered by less official groups and practitioners that may or may not have broad industry recognition. Some programs are designed for dedicated herbalists; others are meant to supplement the training other professionals have received in their own fields, such as those designed for nurses or massage therapists.

This variability makes each program decidedly unique in terms of both scope and recognition, so it pays to do your research before applying. Here's a look at how the two main certifying bodies compare:

  • ITM expects students to complete at least 2000 hours of study, including 400 hours of clinical internship, before earning a clinical herbalism diploma. The organization's therapeutic herbalist certification program requires the same type of training minus the clinical component. In other words, this certification program can serve as a stepping stone to a higher degree.
  • NCCAOM requires candidates to meet more stringent educational guidelines and have experience in both Chinese herbology and biomedicine before they can even apply. The NCCAOM permits students to complete this training either through a recognized herbal science program, an apprenticeship, or both.

Not all herbalists need to become certified to practice, but some states might require professionals who use herbalism — like acupuncturists and naturopathic physicians or nurses — to be certified. Herbalists who want to align themselves with larger practices may find that many employers prefer to hire candidates with herbalist certifications.

Career Advancement

In programs that require candidates to complete continuing education courses to renew their credentials, certifications can offer the additional benefit of keeping you current with changes or innovations affecting the field.

Skills and Qualities

Herbalist programs can provide the technical know-how herbalists need to practice their craft, including how to identify, harvest and process plants in a way that is both safe and effective for patients. There are other skills and traits that can be helpful in the field, however, many of which might seem innate. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's O*Net, those working in natural medicine — like acupuncturists and naturopathic physicians — must exhibit listening, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making skills. They should also be service oriented and strong communicators.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

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 2012, about 33 percent of adults age 18 years or older and 11 percent of children reported using some type of complementary alternative medicine — including herbal treatments — up slightly from 2002.

Herbalist working environment

Many herbalists work in private practice or even out of their own homes, but some align themselves with larger practices, like TCM centers that offer a range of services such as acupuncture and herbal medicine. Whatever the setting, these professionals usually meet with patients and clients to discuss their overall health, diet and medical history. Some — particularly naturopathic physicians who specialize in herbology — may even physically examine patients. Herbalists then advise patients about herbal regimens that can improve or preserve their health, distributing or administering therapies as necessary. Many, but not all herbalists also grow and harvest their own herbs.

Employment Projections and Salary Data

It can be difficult to say for certain how in-demand herbalists may be over the course of the next several years; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes herbalists in a broad category of professionals, providing no projections for these professionals specifically. On the plus side, O*Net reports that demand is growing for many naturopathic and TCM professionals. Formally trained and certified herbalists may have a competitive edge over lesser-trained colleagues, so it may help to invest in the right education.

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners, All Other$84,210$41,100$138,160
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

As with employment outlook, it can be difficult to project how much herbalists may earn because the BLS includes them in the much large, broader healthcare practitioners and technical workers category. The AHG reports that many practicing herbalists supplement their earnings through other professional activities, like teaching, writing and consulting.

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.

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners, All Other35,97011.4%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Professional Resources

The American Herbalist Guild offers a variety of information for students interested in the field as well as for professional herbalists. Resources include a directory of herbalists, schools, and AHG chapters; public webinars; mentorship programs; and a journal published twice a year.

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
  • Eligibility Requirements, National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, http://www.nccaom.org/applicants/eligibility-requirements
  • 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
  • Herbal Medicine Fundamentals, American Herbalists Guild, http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/herbal-medicine-fundamentals
  • Major: Herbalism, The College Board, 2013, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/majors/health-professions-related-clinical-sciences-herbalism
  • Naturopathic Physicians, ONet Online, Summary Report, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-1199.04
  • Therapeutic Western Herbalism, Institute of Traditional Medicine, http://www.itmworld.org/programs/therapeutic-western-herbalism
  • Use of Complementary Health Approaches in the U.S., 2012 National Health Interview Survey, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/NHIS/2012
  • Willow Bark, University of Maryland Medical Center, Medical Reference Guide, Alternative Medicine, February 14, 2013, https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/willow-bark

Herbalist Schools