Clinical herbalist offers alternative treatments for various ailments

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BRATTLEBORO -- Justin Garner spent about three years of his life looking for acorus calamus.

After a book called "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" sparked his interest in medicinal and edible weeds in the fourth grade, he searched constantly for the tall perennial -- more commonly known as Sweet Flag -- before finding it in an RV campground.

This labor of love, along with a passion for herbal sciences, is one of the reasons that little boy from West Brookfield has grown up to open the Sweet Flag Medicinals Herbal Clinic & Apothecary.

Garner said his new business venture, located at 38 Park Place, will use the powers of herbs and tinctures, the alcoholic extract of leaves or other plant materials, to treat clients with ailments ranging from insomnia to depression to cancer.

"With herbalism, it's not necessarily just specifically about fixing a disease. It's looking at the whole picture and there can be some signs pointing to body systems having a weakness that isn't a full-blown issue yet but could use support," he said in his office in the rear of the building.

"I look into those systems and I also use a couple of traditional assessment techniques," he continued. "One is looking at the tongue, which shows some of the stages of the health of the digestive tract, and also I use a Chinese pulse technique, which is not just determining the rate of the heart but looking at different qualities in the heart that reflect on how the circulation is working."

Garner, 30, held a couple of appointments last week, though he officially opened on Feb. 20. He attended the University of Vermont for a couple of years before earning a bachelor's degree in herbal sciences from Bastyr University in Seattle and later received clinical training from the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism in Montpelier.

According to its website, Bastyr University is an accredited institution of natural health arts and sciences, with a mission of improving the planet through innovative education, research and clinical service.

Garner's shop will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and by appointment. And he hopes to be available during evening hours one day a week to accomodate people's work schedules. Initial consultations, he said, run about two hours while follow-up appointments last between 30 and 60 minutes. He asks $75 for the initial visit and $45 for follow-ups. He also sells herbs for $9 an ounce. Insurance does not yet cover herbal medicine.

Garner, a resident of Guilford and a general member of the American Herbalists Guild, said he will sit down with his clients during a consultation and go through a list of questions with them before suggesting a remedy.

His office shelves are lined with the tools of his trade -- he has 100 alphabetized types of tinctures, which range from rosemary, gotu kola and wild cherry and his lower cabinets contain 120 jars of bulk herbs that he combines to make teas to fit the symptoms and desires of his clients.

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"(Tinctures) offer a concentrated way to take an herb and they also are easy to be kept in a bottle or in a small purse on your person," he said. "There are other types of liquid extract that can be used for children and for those who want to avoid alcohol. But generally the amount of alcohol it takes is much less than even a single drink. It's something that can be processed, on average, in like five minutes by the liver."

He also proudly talks about his samples of local reishi mushrooms.

"They're medicinal. They don't taste particularly good," Garner said, adding that they can be used for allergies and to help cancer patient feel better while going through treatments. "With radiation, the white blood cell count is affected and so the reishi can be used to help the immune system. But rather than having it in a capsule, for a cancer patient, it would be more effective to have them cook with it and make a little soup stock that they can take daily."

He said it's important that clients are up front with him about the medications and supplements they are taking, recommended by their general practitioners. Though some herbs can help a drug work better, others will not.

He also said he is not one of those herbalists that shuns Western medicine.

"I hope to have a decent number of cancer patients be my clients, so much that I can help them get through the Western treatments," he said. "Some alternative practitioners might be like, ‘You can either go to them or you can come to me,' but that's not my stance. I think there is plenty of efficacy from those treatments. If someone said they wanted to avoid all Western treatments and wanted me to try to help them I would do it but I would still counsel them to really strongly consider (Western medicine)."

Though he still is quick to mention the wonders he has seen herbs do. He spoke about them improving individual's moods and energy levels and even treating wounds, when they are soaked in oil and thickened with wax, with minimal scarring.

He also mentioned his parent's dog.

With an inoperable malignant tumor in her nose, the canine was given six months to live by a veterinarian. That was before Garner suggested a tea made of Chaga, a mushroom that grows on birch trees and has been used to treat cancer in Russia. It contains hundreds of times more antioxidants than blueberries.

"It's been three years," he said.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.


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