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The Job

There are several kinds of herbalists in the United States. Their job descriptions vary widely depending on the area of the herbal industry in which they work. According to Roy Upton, co-founder of the American Herbalists Guild, herbalists who want to practice primarily as health care professionals have two options. They can become primary health care providers or they can work as allied health professionals, working more as consultants than as practitioners. In the United States at this time, there are two officially recognized forms of training for herbalists: Oriental medicine and naturopathy.

Oriental medicine practitioners are trained in Chinese herbology. They study approximately 300 herbs and herbal formulas, including their actions, indications, contraindications, side effects, and standard formulas. Chinese herbalists practice herbal science according to the philosophy and principals of Oriental medicine. First, they perform a careful evaluation and diagnosis of the client's situation. Next, they consider all of the person's characteristics and symptoms to determine what is out of balance in the person's qi. Oriental medicine practitioners believe that the body's energy flows along specific channels, called meridians, in the body. Each meridian relates to a particular physiological system and internal organ. When qi is unbalanced, or when its flow along the channels is blocked or disrupted, disease, pain, and other physical and emotional conditions result. Finally, Chinese herbalists select the proper herb or combination of herbs to use in a strategy for restoring balance to the individual's qi. Chinese herbalists sometimes develop special herbal formulas based on their diagnosis of the unique combination of the individual's characteristics, symptoms, and primary complaints.

Naturopaths are trained for many years in a distinct system of health care called naturopathy. They use a variety of natural approaches to health and healing, including herbal medicine. Like Chinese herbalists, naturopaths recognize the integrity of the whole person, and they consider all of the patient's characteristics and symptoms in planning a course of treatment. If they select an herbal remedy as the appropriate approach, they may use Chinese herbs or Western herbs. Naturopathic physicians study approximately 100 herbs. Unlike Chinese herbalists, they do not base their choice of herbs on the philosophy and principles of Oriental medicine. Compared to Chinese herbalists, naturopaths learn few standard herbal formulas, and they do not usually develop their own formulas. Naturopaths take a more Western approach to the use of herbal medicine, and they are more likely to prescribe a particular herbal medicine based on a particular diagnosis.

Many professional herbalists have studied herbalism extensively but are not certified as Oriental medicine practitioners or licensed as naturopathic physicians. Some of them use their knowledge of herbal therapeutics to help their clients improve their health and their lives. They usually describe their services very carefully in order to avoid being charged with practicing medicine without a license.

With the surge of interest in alternative health care and natural approaches to medicine, the demand for botanicals increased dramatically during the 1990s. As a result, a growing number of herbalists work in health food stores, drugstores, and other retail stores. There they decide which botanicals to order, monitor the stock, and help customers understand the myriad of products available.

A few herbalists become wildcrafters, individuals who collect herbs that grow naturally outdoors. They may need permission or permits to take herbs from particular areas. They follow very detailed guidelines about which herbs to harvest, and exactly when and how to collect them. Wildcrafters need to be trained to know which species are sensitive or endangered and how to avoid harming them.

Some herbalists grow herbs for sale. They must know exactly the right conditions for growing herbs, how to select good plants, and how to harvest, store, and ship them properly.

Other herbalists work in the manufacturing and distribution of botanicals. Their duties include quality control, literature review, and development of technical, educational, and promotional materials for products. They give educational seminars for health professionals, retailers, and consumers. They may also be called upon to provide technical support to consumers and health professionals and to conduct market analyses.

Herbalists also become teachers. Those who are certified in Oriental medicine or licensed as naturopathic physicians work in colleges and universities that teach the approaches in which they are trained. A few professional herbalists run their own schools. They offer a variety of programs, and some offer certificates of completion. Some also become writers.

Many who work in the various areas of herbalism run their own businesses. Like all business owners, they recruit, hire, and train staff. To be successful, they must maintain detailed records about their businesses.