Local herbalist promotes natural medicine

LINCOLN — As the United States grapples with burgeoning health care costs and Vermont trudges its way toward a single-payer system, a Lincoln woman is harking back to treatments of an older time — herbal medicine.
Emily French, a clinical herbalist, runs Sweetgrass Herbals out of her home. Through the business, she teaches classes about herbalism and natural medicine, and provides consultations for people seeking relief from simple rashes to chronic pain.
French, 29, first became interested in herbalism after taking a class on the subject while she attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
“I walked into a one-credit herbalism class in college, and left after the first day knowing this is what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I’ve never doubted it or looked back.”
After college, French apprenticed for four years at Clear Path Herbals in Wendell, Mass. Four years ago, she opened her own herbal clinic in the nearby town of Sterling.
Last year, a different calling brought her to Addison County.
“I fell in love with a man from Vermont and moved up here,” said French, who lives with her partner, timber framer Will Wallace-Gusakov, in Lincoln. “I’m in the process of transitioning my business up here.”
Currently, French maintains an office in Massachusetts, but primarily works out of the couple’s home in Lincoln.
French said she got into herbalism to spread the word about forms of medicine outside of what she called “the pharmaceutical route” of modern Western medicine.
“I feel very strongly about educating people around local medicine and accessible and affordable healthcare that comes from an alternative paradigm,” French said. “There’s a lot of medicine all around us that’s totally free, safe and very effective.”
French does not see herbal medicine as a substitute for modern medical care.
“If you’re having a heart attack, I’m not going to say ‘come to my apothecary,’” she said. “You should go to the ER.”
Instead, she sees herbal medicine working in conjunction with modern treatments. Whereas modern medicine often takes the form of reactive care, like resuscitating a heart attack victim, herbalism focuses on proactive care.
“For things that are more chronic issues, or for something that’s not acutely life-threatening, I find herbal medicine to play a huge role to improve quality of life,” French said.
In fact, recent national trends toward preventative care as a way of decreasing health care costs down the road align with what French and Sweetgrass Herbals aim to accomplish.
“When you come to me and say ‘I have this symptomatic picture,’ I say, ‘Let’s not just treat the symptoms, let’s figure out why they’re happening and try to shift that balance in the body so that the symptoms don’t happen anymore,’” French said.
She has 200 herbs in her home apothecary, most grown in her garden or harvested in the wild. She buys a few herbs, like turmeric, that aren’t native to the northeast United States. She shares her bounty with a 15-member CSA.
In many ways, French said she sees her business as a way of connecting Americans with the medicines people used before the 20th century. As modern medicine advanced, she said, Americans moved away from using centuries-old traditional medicine.
Today, French said she believes many people know little about herbalism because corporate interests have promoted pharmaceutical treatments.
“I think a lot of it has to do with a multifaceted campaign that has been put on by pharmaceutical companies, and quite possibly the American Medical Association, to keep profits where they want them to be, which is in their own pockets,” French said. “I also think that as humans, we are attracted to whatever is new and shiny and seems the most life-changing.”
French does not discount the benefits of modern medicine, but also extols the use of inexpensive, natural remedies. She sees herbalism and natural medicine as a growing trend in Vermont and the United States.
“I see a return to local medicine as the next local food movement,” French said. “We’re becoming re-empowered about food systems in understanding both the economic and the political food systems, growing local foods and helping local farmers.”
And Vermont, she added, is the perfect place to do that.
“There’s a lot of pristine natural places with really potent medicine all around us,” French said. “The people in Vermont are pretty self-reliant and able to take care of themselves, and not afraid of hard work.”
French said she enjoys working out of her home, because she can show patients how she makes treatments from the Earth’s bounty. She also sells some of her products at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op.
“It’s intimate and it’s real-time connected; a very different paradigm of health care,” French said. “I want it to be professional but not so white-coat clinical.”
French treats patients with a variety of ailments, from common discomforts like allergies and insomnia to serious maladies like Lyme disease and cancer. She said there’s no single demographic of people that seek out her services.
“My youngest client is 8 and my oldest is 104,” French said. “It’s the full range, everything from puberty to menopause to sports injuries.”
While she sometimes advertises classes she offers, French said she largely relies on word of mouth to attract new business.
“When someone is choosing a health care practitioner, it’s so much more about word of mouth,” French said. “The business just steadily grows because of positive feedback.”
French provides a variety of services through Sweetgrass Herbals. A half-hour “acute consultation” costs $25, while a full consultation, which takes anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours, costs $90. But French stressed that she structures her fees as a sliding scale based on an individual’s ability to pay.
“I am very passionate about not turning anyone away because of a lack of funds,” French said. “I’m not in it for the money, though I need the money to continue to do what I love, to continue to give people access to good medicine.”

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