You are here

Are herbs suppressive?

The question:

"I was told that if I take an herb in its natural form, it can be suppressive. According to that logic, anything I ingest, be it animal, vegetable or mineral may be suppressive. I see no difference between an herb and the potatoes I love so much—this is a worry. Perhaps we need a very clear definition of what exactly we mean when we talk about suppression, because if potatoes are potentially suppressive, then the concept becomes, to me anyway, slightly ludicrous."

The Answer:

An interesting question. The difference is, what is the medicinal effect of the substance on the body—regardless of whether you intend it as medicine or as food? 

     Now potatoes (my favorite too! especially those little yellow caloras—I made a great curry with them tonight) don't seem to bother me either. But keep your eyes open for possible medicinal issues with your Alumina, Bryonia, and Sepia patients, among others. And good thing I'm not in need of Nux vomica (especially for my family's sake!), or the curry (it was a red Thai curry) could have done me in—or cured me if I needed Capsicum.

     Why do you suppose many homeopaths caution about avoiding vinegar when relying on Sepia as a simillimum? About coffee when treating psora? These substances, although consumed with the intention of being foods or beverages, are potentially suppressive of those dissimilar disease states. Now for many persons and cases this suppressive influence is of little consequence, but for those of high sensitivity and/or low vitality, the medicinal effect of these substances may be a source of disturbance of health, and may present an obstacle to cure. I've had more than one Sepia patient who failed to budge until she finally was convinced to give up her beloved vinegar.

     Hahnemann went perhaps a bit overboard with his "homoeopathic diet" in restricting foods rather severely to minimize the possible medicinal influence of dietary items. He lightened up on this in later years, perhaps realizing that the "subtlety" of homeopathic treatment is most often robust enough to not require such caution. But we all still find cases where such caution is warranted—in our highly sensitive patients and our patients of low vitality. 

     Now back to those potatoes ... They're a Solanaceae plant (nightshade family), as is the chili in my curry. So also is Datura stramonium, so why not add a side-dish of Datura greens? Your dreams would likely not be so sweet! [Datura stramonium, aka Stramonium or Jimson Weed, is a potentially poisonous plant with narcotic properties.

     When we take an herb specifically for its medicinal purposes, by definition we are taking something powerful enough and in sufficient dose to affect our health in a rather specific way. Now Euphrasia tincture may act very nicely as a simillimum in some cases of acute hay fever, and that's OK. Similarly, Hypericum tincture oil is an old standby for perineal tears in childbirth, and that makes sense in light of "similia similibus curentur." This is homeopathy. The remedies are not potentized, but that's not the central issue in homeopathy anyway—the law of similars is. Hydrastis (goldenseal) tincture is often suggested routinely for upper respiratory infections "as an herbal/natural antibiotic." Sometimes it fits the case as the simillimum or a reasonable simillimum. But much more often it's not even close, and its action on the case is that of a dissimilar disease. Read the Organon, paragraph 39, for Hahnemann's spin on this. A possible (though not guaranteed) result is suppression. With some luck, reasonably low sensitivity, and reasonable vitality, the body will avoid the suppression—in this case, the tincture will have no effect on the disease. In others, the suppression is of little consequence, because the alternate expression of the disease, denied its most benign expression, is only slightly worse, and not to the major detriment of the organism—in acute disease still manageable by the dynamis [i.e., vital force] given time; in chronic disease, still presenting us a reasonable symptom picture and still responsive to the well-chosen simillimum. In still others, the suppression may be the cause of significant deterioration of health and an obstacle to cure.

     Can we tolerate suppression in acute disease and still recover completely without significant sequellae? Certainly we can. It happens all the time. Lots of kids with otitis media get antibiotics, kids with upper respiratory stuff get Dimetapp, kids with coughs get Robitussin, etc. Some are suppressed profoundly and become the continuous otitis media crowd or the asthmatics, but really most do OK. It's a testament to the strength of the dynamis that we can abuse it this way and get away with it so often. Now don't get the idea that I recommend it; I certainly don't, and those kids don't get the stuff I've mentioned above from me. Some folks might even, recognizing suppression for what it is, recommend minor suppressive treatments in acute disease to ease the local symptoms, knowing the dynamis usually can deal with it and go on to recover with ease. Some folks bungee-jump. When it comes to colds and Echinacea, the jump is small and the cord is strong, so I don't get too upset. My own counsel, though, is to listen to the body, use a simillimum if it is called for, and understand that there is a healthy way for a body to express a cold which does not call for treatment. 

     Can we tolerate suppression in chronic disease and still do OK? We can, though it is not such a pretty picture. We aren't expecting spontaneous (unassisted) recovery from chronic disease, like we are from minor acute disease. Coffee is likely the widespread beverage of choice of suffering humanity—even in its decaffeinated form—because it is suppressive of psora. Most folks have adequate vitality and low enough sensitivity such that, even though they feel a little better superficially with their coffee habit—enough to find it hard to stop—their health is only minimally impacted and they still respond decently to their well-chosen simillimum. We all treat folks effectively despite coffee, suppressive allopathic drugs, suppressive herbs, and dietary items with suppressive effects. It would be nicer if we could easily eliminate these factors, but we often cannot. On the other side are those folks of higher sensitivity and/or lower vitality, whose health may be tremendously impacted by suppressive influences, and whose response to homeopathic treatment may depend on identifying and removing suppressive influences prior to treatment. 

     That suppression may often be of minor consequence and able to be overcome by the dynamis spontaneously in acute disease, or with the appropriate simillimum in chronic disease, does not mean that we can disregard it or minimize its significance as a factor for us to acknowledge, recognize, and address in our work.

About the author:

Will Taylor has a practice devoted to classical homeopathy in a small coastal community in downeast Maine. Initially trained in conventional medicine, he received his MD from the University of Vermont, did a residency in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and returned to rural Maine to practice as a family physician. His own intractable case of shingles led him in desperation to homeopathy and to the discovery of his own "true and highest calling" as a homeopathic practitioner.