Degree helps build field of herbalists

Program: As the herbal products industry grows, Tai Sophia Institute equips students with a knowledge of botanical healing.

May 10, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

The eight-member inaugural class in the botanical healing program at Tai Sophia Institute for the Healing Arts near Columbia will graduate next month, armed with master's degrees and three years' worth of knowledge in the therapeutic use of herbs.

They also know human anatomy, botany and chemistry, and how botanical remedies interact with conventional pharmaceuticals.

But it's unclear where these qualifications will take the trained herbalists as they strike out on their own in the burgeoning natural products industry with hopes of finding work as clinicians, researchers and educators.

While botanical therapy is considered an alternative medicine - and sometimes a fringe one - the field is undergoing a transformation as its use becomes more widespread and major medical schools conduct studies in herbal medicine.

Tai Sophia's three-year botanical healing program is the school's response to the explosive growth in the $4 billion herbal products industry.

With an education that combines hard-core science and ancient herbal traditions, students at the school say they are uniquely positioned to bring sorely needed skills and legitimacy to the field.

"I see this as the coming of age of botanical medicine," said student Kolleen Gowans, who spent 20 years as a communications manager with the International Monetary Fund before entering the Tai Sophia program in September 2002.

"I think this program fills an important role in bridging the gap between conventional medicine," she said.

Gowans, who lives in Alexandria, Va., is looking into opening a coffee shop where customers can order herb-infused smoothies and herbal consultations.

A classmate plans to have a small clinical practice and consult for manufacturers of herbal supplements. Another student wants to integrate botanical medicine with a veterinary practice.

The image of the aging hippie who grows herbs in the garden doesn't apply here. The soon-to-be graduates include midlife career changers from the corporate and technology worlds and recent college graduates with science backgrounds.

Dr. Adrian F. Dobs, director of the 4-year-old Johns Hopkins Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and a professor of oncology, said she envisions students from a program like Tai Sophia's working in partnership with conventional health care providers.

"Patients are using herbal therapies in increasing numbers, and we medical doctors need to have a much better understanding about what these are, whether they are helpful or harmful," Dobs said.

Best known for its 20-year-old acupuncture school, Tai Sophia launched its botanical healing program in September 2001.

Little guidance

After several years of booming sales in herbal products, consumers could go to health food stores in malls to pick up treatments for depression, sexual dysfunction or obesity. But they received little, if any, guidance about brand quality or side effects.

It was against this backdrop that Tai Sophia officials turned to British herb authority Simon Mills to develop a rigorous science-based botanical medicine program that would prepare herbalists to fill an information void in the field.

With accreditation from the Maryland Higher Education Commission, it is the country's only graduate degree program in herbal medicine.

"There are store clerks deciding what products people should take," said Kevin Spelman, a member of the program faculty. "My experience here is that doctors are really hungry for good quality information about herbs."

`Set a standard'

In addition to its academic program, Tai Sophia is developing internal practice standards that include minimum education requirements, consent forms and guarantees of the quality of herbal products used at the school.

"This program will set a standard for the industry," said Robert M. Duggan, president of Tai Sophia Institute.

Dobs, of Hopkins, said she supports the creation of more programs on botanical medicine in part to ensure that practitioners are aware of dangerous interactions that can occur when herbs are mixed with prescription drugs.

"There's a fair amount of data that a fair amount of these products interfere with metabolism and blood levels," she said.

The Tai Sophia students are completing the program at a time when herbal supplements are under increasing scrutiny. In December, the Food and Drug Administration banned the weight-loss aid ephedra, and the agency has identified 12 supplements that have been linked to serious side effects.

"We want to train people to a level where they can help others be informed of the right choices," Spelman said.

Natural healing

While the Tai Sophia students seek to carve out a role for herbalists in mainstream medicine, they're committed to preserving the defining philosophies of the practice.

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