Herbs for health and healing: a fresh take on harvest time with Evelyn Coggins

It’s harvest season, but for some, “harvesting” means more than rounding up some root vegetables or ordering an organic turkey. Pemberton herbalist Evelyn Coggins has been exploring a different kind of harvest – the harvest of health from the natural world through herbs and botanicals. She often guides walks and workshops, so we sent her a long list of questions to find out more about what our backyard might hold in store for us, if we knew how to look.

What are you?
I am a phytotherapist (modern herbalist) who has specialized in the evidence-based use of traditional European botanical medicine to prevent and manage disease.

Fireweed, also known as “willowherb.”

There are numerous therapies available to people today: drugs & surgery (modern medicine), traditional medicine, massage, physiotherapy and so on. Of the traditional medicine modalities, I practice the traditional medicine of western European culture. TCM is the traditional medicine of the Chinese people as Ayurveda is of the Indian Hindus. Clinical herbal therapists (CHT), who are known in England as medical herbalists, share a common philosophy and history with modern medical doctors. We both trace our beginnings to Hippocrates and claim membership with Galen and Paracelsus. All Western medical doctors incorporated herbal therapy into their healing protocols until the ascendancy of drugs and surgery in the 1940’s. At that time, they discarded their traditional healing plant knowledge, while herbalists preserved it. In the last three decades, the herbalist profession has been improved through rigorous scientific inquiry and the practice of modern herbal medicine has been renamed ‘phytotherapy’ to indicate it’s evolving status. Currently, many medical doctors in France, Germany, Africa, India and China incorporate phytotherapy into their practice of medicine.

What is the difference between your training and that of a naturopath?
After four years of training, CHT’s and naturopaths are both equipped to practice natural medicine. Where naturopaths receive basic training in many therapies including acupuncture, manipulation and the botanical medicine of several cultures, CHT’s receive four years of specialized training in European herbal therapy only. As a specialist, I have recently been contracted by Boucher Naturopathic Institute to teach in their Western botanical medicine department.

Your website identifies you as offering clinical herbal therapy. What does the clinical part of that mean?
‘Clinical’ and ‘medical’ are interchangeable terms when referring to Western herbalists.These terms simply signify that we use Western medical examination techniques to assess a person’s health status. For example, we measure blood pressure, listen to heart and lung sounds and palpate abdomens. The ability to make accurate clinical observations is learned through education in pathology, anatomy, physiology, and  clinical assessment techniques that involve the use of some of the practitioner’s special senses (sight, hearing, touch and smell) rather than laboratory sample testing. Hundreds of hours of practical experience in patient clinics is also an important component of learning clinical skills.

Clinical herbalists in “the lab.”

What kind of services do you offer?
I am primarily in the education business. My main focus is on disease prevention and the things we need to know to achieve wellness and maximize good health. This usually includes assessing the current health problem and preparing appropriate, individualized herbal preparations. I also research my clients’ drug protocols and provide information on how the drugs act, possible side effects and potential food/herb/drug interactions. I assess individual risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer and recommend dietary and lifestyle modifications and nutritional supplements. I do offer salivary hormone testing and routine urine testing as needed. I sometimes act as an advocate for people who have been diagnosed with a serious disease and must learn to negotiate the unfamiliar health care system. I have also attended doctor’s visits with them to interpret medical terminology and ask the questions that they may be too shocked to ask. Often this advocacy continues throughout recovery or palliative care, as the case may be.

What’s your background or training, with respect to herbs and medicine?
I have a Master of Health Science degree in herbal medicine from the University of New England NSW and a Clinical Herbal Therapy diploma from Dominion Herbal College, Burnaby BC.

How many years of study have you undertaken?
Six years of full time study.

Flower and seedhead of yellow salsify

It’s the ultimate act of self-indulgence. At my age and stage, some people like to travel or collect antiques. I like to study herbal medicine and pass on the lessons to anyone willing to listen.

How deep can you go in this?
A professional masters degree is the highest university level offered in this field. If a PHd is offered one day, I’ll probably be first in line to sign up.

What is your biggest concern or worry about the world/society that we are currently living in?
One of my main concerns is our cultural and emotional disconnection from our roots and the natural environment as embodied by our lack of respect for traditional knowledge and unethical behaviour in the acquisition and use of natural resources. One of my most inspiring teachers, medical herbalist Chanchal Cabrera once remarked that in 27 years of practice, the most frequent causes of disease she has encountered include the lack of access to and appreciation of the natural environment and being unhappy but too afraid to change.

What does “wellness” mean to you?
In my opinion, the term ‘wellness’ denotes a state of balance and harmony. There is current evidence supporting ancient belief that human health and wellness require harmony and balance between our physical bodies, our minds, our spirits and our environment.

You host herb and nature walks during events like Slow Food Cycle, and Rivers Day, and down in the Callaghan. What is it like going for a walk with you?
I hope it is fun as well as illuminating and thought provoking. In the midst of breath-taking beauty, my messages during these walks are both simple and complicated. Wellness carries with it the burden of self-responsibility and the gift of self-empowerment. The simple lesson involves basic education in plant chemistry that will make people more confident in their ability to become self-sufficient in the skills they need to maintain good health and treat their own minor injuries and illnesses. It is estimated that 55% of ER visits and 25% of trips to the doctor’s office are for things that we can safely take care of ourselves. If we could achieve the same level of intimacy with  our environment that our forebears had, the cost reductions possible in society’s health care expenditures  simply boggle the imagination.

The complicated message is that Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest may be incomplete because even the strongest individuals cannot survive if their environment has been destroyed. We are all in this together.

Every plant, every insect, every animal, every microbe and until we learn to live and let live, there is no hope for our survival as a species.

Can you tell us a bit about this backyard of ours, from a herbal/healing perspective? Is it a healthy place?
OMG, our natural playgrounds are the envy of the civilized world and our greatest legacy to future generations. The rich cultural heritage of BC’s First Nations attests to a natural abundance that has generously supported human life for at least 10,000 years. Instead of having to devote all of their time to survival activities as was necessary on the Great Plains for example, the indigenous people of BC had the luxury of leisure time to pursue cultural activities and create intricate works of art that continue to astonish and amaze. People often lament that Emily Carr’s BC no longer exists but I have seen it on my trips into the wilderness. We truly have been given all that we need if we will only value and preserve it.

Saskatoon berry juice for the relief of upset stomach.

Isn’t a pill in a nice box packaged by a clean white coated pharmacist much safer?
Prescription drugs taken as prescribed in hospital are the fourth leading cause of death in North America. They are responsible for an estimated 10,000 deaths annually in Canada and 106,000 deaths in the US. It is estimated that Vioxx alone killed 65,000 people before Merck withdrew it from the market in 2004. My mother-in-law was one of them and I miss her every day.

Drugs that are freely available without prescription can be equally as dangerous. Every year more than 15,000 North Americans die from taking aspirin and ibuprofen. Tylenol is the leading cause of liver transplant in the UK and ibuprofen is the leading cause of kidney transplant in North America. Accidental ingestion of Visine eyedrops can cause sudden cardiac arrest in toddlers.

By way of contrast, the National Health Federation reports that every year 37 human deaths in the US are attributable to consumer use of herbs. Most fatalities involve the use of weight loss products.

When the drug regulatory bodies judge prescription medicine, a safe drug is considered to be one where the benefits are believed to outweigh the risks. When they judge herbal medicine there is no level of acceptable risk based on the carefully preserved fallacy that there is no gold standard proof of their efficacy.

Aren’t herbs and wildcrafted medicines dangerous?
There are risks associated with wildcrafting herbs. Fortunately BC only has a few ‘kill you dead instantly’ plants but there are more than a few that will either make you uncomfortable in the short term (vomiting, diarrhea, cramps) or cause permanent damage over the long term. Identification errors can have serious consequences. In the spring for example, sprouting foxglove leaves are easily mistaken for baby comfrey leaves. While rarely a fatal mistake for adults, accidental ingestion of foxglove by children has resulted in deaths, especially in those younger than 6 years.

There are also risks associated with preparing herbal medicines without knowing the traditional methods. The First Nations used wild ginger  (Asarum caudatum) safely and effectively for colds, flu, and congestion but this is a case where traditional knowledge is invaluable. Modern science has determined that if alcohol is used as a solvent for the constituents of wild ginger,  the final preparation will contain aristolochic acid. There have been documented deaths due to kidney failure and renal cancer associated with consumption of this chemical however First Nations healers always used water to extract their medicines and aristolochic acid is not soluble in water.

Wild ginger in bloom.

With Good Manufacturing Practices requirements and Natural Health Product regulations in Canada, you can be fairly certain of the product purity and safety of commercial herbal supplements. The biggest risk consumers run with use of these products is that they may interact with prescription medications. I would not recommend that anyone who is taking prescription meds self-medicate with herbs and other natural products.

What’s the biggest misconception about herbal medicine?
That there is no rigorous scientific evidence of herbal medicine’s safety, lack of serious side effects and effectiveness. Health professionals who tell you this have not updated their knowledge bases and may even be guilty of unethical behaviour.

What is the one thing you wish you could communicate to everyone, about health and wellness?
Species that destroy their environment cannot thrive or even survive.

Do you ever take pharmaceutical medicine, personally?
If I have necrotizing fasciitis, bring on the antibiotics. If I am hit by a train rush me straight into surgery.

If I have a cold or the flu, keep your over-the-counter remedies and bring me garlic ginger tea, elderberry syrup and Echinacea tincture

If I am living with a frail elderly parent or a child undergoing chemotherapy, I’m gonna roll up my sleeve and get that darn flu shot. If I have no such good reason, I’ll trust in my herbal immune tonic to keep me enjoying the ski slopes this winter.

If I have a heart attack or am diagnosed with cancer, I’m going to use my herbs to maximize the benefits of my prescriptions and minimize their adverse side effects.

If I am diagnosed with mild to moderate Type 2 diabetes or hypertension, my first step will be the use of natural remedies and making the necessary lifestyle changes. If I’m still in trouble, I’ll be grateful to add in prescription drugs.

Do you think it’s an either/or requirement?
No. I value the life-saving potential of medical treatments as much as I value the health-giving effects of herbal medicines. As far as I am concerned, a flexible approach to treatment optimizes your chances of getting well and staying that way. It is important to remember however that medicines only clear the way for recovery to begin.

The most difficult yet effective way to achieve and maintain wellness is to permanently change health-risking behaviours.

Typically, why do people come and see you?
People usually want to either reduce or eliminate their dependance on drugs, or experiment with natural treatment options for a wide variety of chronic health problems including (but not limited to) digestive disorders, skin rashes, hypertension, male and female reproductive problems, shingles, herpes, food allergies, headaches, obesity, arthritis, neuralgia, insomnia…

If their medical doctors are willing to work with me, herbal remedies can also be effectively used to complement standard treatment protocols for conditions such as cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

People sometimes want to know how to protect and enhance the good health they currently enjoy.

While it is always better to prevent disease than to treat its effects, most people tend to take good health for granted and this type of client is rare.

Sometimes people want help initiating a nutrition-based approach to enhancing athletic and academic performance or reducing the impact of aging. Herbal tonics can be very effective in ameliorating changes in memory, digestion, hearing, sight and joint movement.

My workshops are well-attended by people wanting to know how to use simple herbal remedies for common complaints such as colds and flu, diaper rash, sprains, strains and bruises and childhood viral ear infections.

A few of my clients are dealing with terminal illnesses and have been told there is nothing more that conventional medicine can do for them. With holistic practices and herbal treatments, there is always something that can be done to improve the quality of life and it is never too early or too late to begin.

What is Pemberton like as a place to practice?
Pemberton has been my home for the last 15 years and many of the residents are staunch supporters of my work and clients in my practice. A great big thank you goes out to all of them for their ongoing faith in me and belief in my mission.

Where do you harvest your medicines?
I harvest a few wild plants for personal use, mostly yarrow, self-heal, plantain and dandelion. I gather these plants in the Birkenhead, along the dyke and in my backyard but I use them mostly as teaching aids for my apprentices.

Tinctures that I make and sell to my clients are made from herbs sold to me by reputable herb growers in Alberta. They are guaranteed to be pure and unadulterated and are sold with lot numbers so they can be traced. I make my own Echinacea and rhodiola tinctures every fall from purchased root.

The majority of my remedies are purchased from Proline Herbs or Rutlands in England. They both have websites that are worth reading.

What are your favourite plants or herbs?
How to choose…how to choose? You are asking me to make Sophie’s choice and choose my favourite child! Truthfully, they all have their strengths and weaknesses and I love them all equally.

What do you most look forward to in the fall?
Crisp cool days, the smell of coming snow, autumn leaves, apples, apple pie, apple crisp, applesauce, Thanksgiving, digging roots for medicine, medicine making.

What’s the best way for people to find out more about what you do?
Check out my website at www.herbsforhealth.ca.

I have a blog on my website that I neglect shamefully but I have a sincere intention to make a better effort in future.

Do you have any other upcoming events?
Overnight horseback herb walks to Callaghan Lodge are available for groups of 6 or more until the snow buries the lodge. Call 604.938.0616 or toll free 1.877.938.0616

Pemberton based herb walks for one or more people and rides in the Birkenhead for 2 or more people can be arranged by calling 604-894-2303

I am currently accepting applications for apprenticeships. Please email herbsforhealth@shaw.ca for more information.

2 Responses to “Herbs for health and healing: a fresh take on harvest time with Evelyn Coggins”
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  1. […] ‘Wellness’ denotes a state of balance and harmony. There is current evidence supporting ancient belief that human health and wellness require harmony and balance between our physical bodies, our minds, our spirits and our environment. ~ Herbs for Health and Healing, Q+A with Evelyn Coggins […]

  2. […] Pemberton herbalist, Evelyn Coggins. Revisit her first post, here, a profile on Choose Pemberton, here, or check out her […]

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