During this year’s Belmont Bash, Mary Michaud spent hours weeding her front yard on Levy Avenue. She thought that passersby kept looking at her funny, and once she’d pulled the last weed from the ground and stood up to admire her work, she saw why: She had left all of the dandelions behind.
“My neighbors probably think I’m crazy,” she says, laughing. But Michaud is an herbalist, and dandelions are medicinal. Dandelion leaves, eaten plain or consumed in salads or tea, are an appetite stimulant that can help an upset stomach; dandelion roots can help improve liver and gallbladder function.
It’s the kind of thing Michaud keeps stocked in her apothecary, one of the many plant-based treatments she keeps on hand for clients who seek her help in soothing all kinds of ailments.
Michaud’s practice, Be Herbal, operates under the umbrella of Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest medicine systems that originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. “Ayurveda is, literally, ‘the science of life,’” Michaud says; the system’s main principle is vata, which governs movement in the mind and body—blood flow, breathing, digestion, etc. It’s all about energy.
“The term ‘energy’ tends to turn people off because they think you’re talking New Age,” Michaud says. “But when I talk about energetics in the body, I’m talking about blood flow, lymphatic flow, metabolism…processing membranes and fluids coursing through the body. I’m talking about quantum mechanics, really.”
Michaud—a trained clinical herbalist and Reiki master—also holds a master’s of science in nursing from the University of California, San Francisco, among other degrees and certifications. She worked in an immunology clinic in Boston and was a family nurse practitioner in the San Francisco area (where she treated some 1960s rock stars but says she can’t share names) and in Charlottesville for years, practicing, diagnosing and prescribing. She still holds the FNP certification.
Michaud loved clinical work, but she says that with Western medicine, which relies on allopathy (the treatment with remedies, often pharmaceuticals that have the opposite effect of a symptom), “you get to a point where there’s nothing else you can do [for a patient], and that really bothered me.”
She’d always been interested in plants, and in college she dabbled in herbal remedies after visiting the home of an herbalist who had plants hanging from her ceiling. That interest grew during her time in San Francisco, so a few years after moving to Charlottesville, she completed a three-year clinical herbalist training at Sacred Plant Traditions, in 2006. There, Michaud began to truly understand how plants—and the many vitamins and minerals they contain—can help people in ways that pharmaceuticals cannot.
Michaud says that a major difference between pharmaceutical treatments and herbal ones is that pharmaceuticals affect specific receptors in the body whereas herbal protocols aim for larger systems that “give the body a nudge to say, ‘Oh, you remember how to do this.”
Plus, herbal treatments can be tailored to an individual in a way many pharmaceuticals cannot. “Everyone is completely unique. That’s another strength of Ayurveda [and herbalism]. It acknowledges the individual’s uniqueness; two people will have the same symptom and the remedy will be different. It’s very customized, and I feel that to be much more effective,” Michaud says.
All of her clients first fill out a lengthy health history questionnaire, and during their initial 90-minute session, Michaud asks questions that give her “an idea of the energetic of their system.” Is it too fast? Too slow? Hot? Cold? How is their digestion? How is their sleep? How’s their mood?
She’s checking to see how the body’s systems work together as a whole (a person’s “constitution”), looking for a disruption or a blockage that needs to be worked over.
For example, when a woman experiences severe PMS—cramps, headaches, irritability, etc.—it’s usually because at the start of a woman’s cycle, there are extra androgens (a type of hormone) in the body, and the liver can have trouble regulating those androgen levels. A bitter herb tea, made specifically with that woman’s constitution in mind, can gently remind her liver how to process that hormone.
Michaud’s apothecary cabinet is a wonder to behold: It’s full of quilted Mason jars and glass dropper bottles in many sizes and colors. There are neatly labeled flower essences (imprints of flowers on water), such as mimosa flower—take a few drops orally to help with anxiety, Michaud says—and tinctures (alcohol extracts of herbs), many of which she’s made herself. The Be Herbal kitchen cabinets have enormous glass jars full of thing like gravel root (also known as Joe-Pye weed), peppermint leaf, St. John’s wort, holy basil rama, chamomile, oat straw and violet leaves.
Thanks to her clinical background, Michaud knows how pharmaceuticals work in the body and how different herbs interact with them. She knows the warning signs of serious ailments likely better treated by Western medicine, and will tell a client when he needs to see a doctor for medical imaging and lab work.
“It’s been such a funny road of going through the deep, deep science and then going into the hippie California experience, doing science there, and then coming to Charlottesville and finding the plants,” Michaud says of her journey. “In Ayurveda, there’s the idea of your true nature. When I’m getting the same message from different traditions,” she says, “that’s truth.”