James Green’s The Male Herbal: Health Care for Men and Boys is an interesting addition to the literature of alternative medicine. His focus is intentionally limited to a group that, believe it or not, could quite possibly be underserved – not through lack of resources, but because, as Green notes, men tend not to seek help for minor complaints, or even chronic conditions that are not disabling. (I know – I do it, too – we’re all the strong, silent types when it comes to being sick, as well as being horrible patients.)
The book begins with a chapter discussing the dearth of information on specifically male-oriented herbal medicine, and the difficulties inherent in treating men and boys from any medical perspective (mostly because of their own resistance to being “helped”), followed by an introduction to herbalism which discusses the basis of herbal medicine, healthcare from a holistic perspective, and Green’s own biases, which are largely those of a practicing herbalist, which assumes a holistic view of medicine and dismay at the Western reliance on allopathic, pharmaceutical medicine, infused by a kind of politically-correct, New Age awareness and a fondness for bad puns. Nevertheless, this chapter, entitled “Recycling Our Heritage,” does give a reasoned and well-balanced view of the history of herbalism and other so-named “traditional” medical approaches. Green is very careful to point out that “modern” medicine is useful and can produce miraculous results; his objections are simply that we, the recipients of theses miracles, have come to rely too heavily on this approach, to the extent that we as individuals no longer assume responsibility for taking care of ourselves.
The third chapter, “The Male Community,” is concerned mostly with bemoaning the fact that there isn’t one. Green is not alone in this feeling – Colin Turnbull, a very perceptive and intelligent anthropologist, devoted a whole book to this fact of modern Western life (The Human Cycle, which I heartily recommend); the poet Robert Bly has spent many years trying to reawaken men to the fact that they do have interests in common besides overthrowing the alpha male; and the men’s movement, although still relatively small in comparison to other movements, has had a tremendous effect on those who have become involved in it. Chapter 4, “Female-Male Herbal Heritage,” contains basic information on the differences and similarities between the sexes (complete with diagrams); it segues quite neatly into Chapter 5, “Green’s Hypotheses,” which offer the author’s thoughts on some of the ways in which herbs generally considered “women’s medicine” are useful for men as well, and some ideas about how certain specifically male problems originate.
Chapter 6 starts getting into the nitty-gritty of herbal medicine. Titled “A Technology of Independence,” it give good basic information on the terms used by herbal practitioners, how herbs are prepared for use, including instructions for making an infusion, a decoction, a syrup, tinctures, liniments, and the like. In Chapter 7, “Picking the Right Herbs,” Green lays down a good theoretical basis for herbal medicine; he points out that, while most people just want to look up a recipe for something that will deal with their symptoms, that is not what holistic medicine is about and reflects our habit of “asking the doctor for some medicine.” He explains how herbs work in the body, the idea of the body’s systems and the affinities of certain herbs for certain systems, discusses how to use an herbal (and what to look for in descriptions of medicinal herbs), and includes descriptions of the ways herbs are classed in herbal literature, providing good definitions of terms such as “alterative,” “analgesic,” “carminative,” and the like. There is a section in this chapter on “male herbs,” (yes, he does discuss ginseng), and an important caution on herb quality.
Chapter 8 deals with problems specific to men, and quite reasonably starts off with a section on emotional health, a concept which has invaded the precincts of allopathic medicine in recent years: “mens sana in corpore sano” does work both ways. He also discussess hypertension, arteriosclerosis, stress, ulcers, prostatitis (which he consistently misspells), several sections that deal specifically with the male sex organs, diabetes, hypoglycemia, infertility, impotence, and longevity. This chapter also includes a number of recipes and formulas for specific tonics and remedies which are quite complete and include a commentary which outlines specific uses. This is followed by a chapter on general health-care, which includes, among other things, a discussion of ARC/AIDS as seen from the holistic medical perspective. He also discusses briefly some of the basic concepts of aromatherapy, which is, after all, an offshoot of herbal medicine and does have legitimate therapeutic value (I’m not talking about the “relaxation” candles you’re going to find at the bath and body shop). He also discusses the benefits and deficits of vitamin and mineral supplements, and gives alternative, herbal sources for these compounds so that they can be included in one’s diet as needed. There are sections on skin care and hair loss which conclude the chapter. Chapter 10 outlines his rationale for including the herbs he has in the following section, the herbal, and provides an extensive listing of the common names of various herbs. Chapter 11, the “Male Herbal,” is a short list of the herbs that Green considers most valuable for male health, with formal botanical names, common names, properties, systems affected, effects, and normal combinations.
The last chapter is a philosophical rumination on the status of male community in the world today. The book also contains several appendices on sources for herbs and information, periodicals, a glossary, a bibliography, and a pretty good index.
If you are interested in herbal medicine, or looking for a good introduction, I recommend The Male Herbal. While specifically directed toward men, the sections on the technology of herbalism and the discussion of herbals and how to use them are valuable to those who may not be familiar with the area. Green also provides a very good sense of the history of herbal medicine – which has written sources going back almost 3,000 years, and was, for most of human history, the primary means of treating illness and maintaining health. It is this last factor that is the basis of herbal medicine, and the major difference between traditional forms of medicine and Wetern allopathic, pharmaceutical medicine: prevention is nine-tenths of the cure, since healthy people are less prone to disease to begin with, and recover faster when they do get sick.
I do have some qualms about Green’s treatment, aside from the bad puns and New Age philosophy. Perhaps most important, he is not, to my mind, cautionary enough about the risks involved in self-diagnosis and self-treatment, although he does, quite creditably, encourage readers to question his authority. I think this is something that needs to be stressed, because disease can be tricky and deceptive, and herbal medicines are medicines: yes, you can overdose on herbs. People have died from it. He also gives recipes and formulas in the book that include herbs not described in the herbal section, and doesn’t really give any substitutions for herbs that might be hard to find. His treatment of AIDS retreats into a philosophical treatise on the basis of modern medicine, and, quite frankly, in a book devoted to male health care, I find his heterosexual bias somewhat frustrating. (Not that I believe he is anti-gay; we just don’t seem to exist as a group that has specific medical needs.) On the whole, however, The Male Herbal is a good basic introduction to the philosophy and practice of herbal medicine.
( Crossing Press;, 2007)