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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

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.

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.

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 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.

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 provide the education herbalists need to practice the craft safely and effectively.

Herbalist program requirements/prerequisites

Herbalist programs are, in a word, variable. As the American Herbalists Guild notes, some programs focus on Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, while others approach studies from Western therapeutic point of view. Students can often complete their training on-campus, online or through apprenticeships. Whatever the case, most herbalist programs offer similar training. According to The College Board, many include basic medical and science courses, like anatomy and nutrition, plus additional training in areas like ethnobotany, harvesting and ethics.

Just as herbalist programs can differ so much from one school to the next, so can program requirements and prerequisites. 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. Those applying to entry-level certificate and undergraduate degree programs often need not have anything beyond a high school diploma and a passion for herbology, though a working understanding of biology is helpful. Those applying to more advanced herbalist programs, such as those designed for naturopathic physicians, may be required to have relevant undergraduate degrees. We recommend researching herbalist programs and schools extensively to learn more about a specific program's admissions and graduation requirements.

Herbalist necessary skills and qualifications

Herbalist programs can lead to a wide range of credentials, from postsecondary certificates to advanced degrees. Which is right for you depends on your career goals. Private herbalism consultants can often get by with a certificate or associate degree. Naturopathic physicians who practice herbalism, on the other hand, must typically earn advanced degrees in herbalism, or they must have degrees in related fields plus herbalist certifications.

Herbalist programs can often 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.

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, like 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.

It can be difficult to say for certain how in-demand herbalists will 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. Acupuncturists and naturopathic physicians, for instance, are both classified as having "bright" outlooks, with a projected growth of 8 to 14 percent for each between 2012 and 2022. Formally trained and certified herbalists may have a competitive edge over lesser-trained colleagues, so it may help to invest in the right education.

Herbal Medicine Certification

Herbalism is not a new field. According to the American Herbalists Guild, people have used herbalism to promote health and fight disease for thousands of years. That means we have compiled centuries upon centuries of information about which plants are a safe, effective way to treat which ailments. For new practitioners, this is a lot of ground to make up. While herbal science degree or diploma programs are an excellent way to establish this knowledge base, some clients prefer to consult certified herbalists -- those who have taken extra steps to certify their herb savvy with 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. Here is a brief look at how herbalist certifications work, and why they matter.

Herbalist education requirements

Unlike many modern health care jobs, herbalists do not necessarily need to be certified to practice, so programs enabling students to become an herbalist -- including their length, intensity and educational requirements -- can vary tremendously. Some herbalist certifications are offered through schools or professional organizations, like the Institute of Traditional Medicine and the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine; 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. At ITM, for instance, students are expected 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. This is not the case with the NCCAOM, which 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.

Benefits of herbalist certification

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. Even when not required, however, certification is valuable because it offers a means of verifying that you have invested in some degree of training, and that your skills meet the requirements established by whichever organization awards the credential. For many clients -- especially those who are unfamiliar with herbalism or wary of traditional medicine -- lack of certification can be a deal-breaker. That means that in some cases, certification can attract more clients, and, in turn, more money and more referrals. In programs that require candidates to complete continuing education courses to renew their credentials, certifications offer the additional benefit of keeping you on the cutting edge of changes or innovations affecting the field.

Candidates can often learn more about about various herbalist certifications and their requirements by contacting programs directly, or through organizations like the AHG.

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

"Acupuncturists" U.S. Department of Labor, O*Net OnLine, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-1199.01

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

"Major: Herbalism," The College Board, 2013, https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/majors/health-professions-related-clinical-sciences-herbalism

"Naturopathic Physicians," U.S. Department of Labor, O*Net OnLine, 2013, http://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-1199.04

"Eligibility Requirements," National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, http://www.nccaom.org/applicants/eligibility-requirements

"Herbal Medicine Fundamentals," American Herbalists Guild, http://www.americanherbalistsguild.com/herbal-medicine-fundamentals

"Therapeutic Western Herbalism," Institute of Traditional Medicine, http://www.itmworld.org/programs/therapeutic-western-herbalism

Herbalist Schools