Body, Heal Thyself

Herbalist Lise Wolff uses natural remedies to help people get through – rather than fight – illness

By Sarah Tellijohn
The Southwest Journal, August 7–20, 2000

A few drops of liquid catnip might help to clear up an infant’s case of colic. Chickweed has been known to shrink fatty tumors. Ground ivy is a remedy for plugged ears or kidney disease.

All of these plants––found within a few yards of each other near Lake of the Isles––are collected by herbalists, who use them as natural alternatives to Western medicine. Ragweed, clover, buckthorn (yes buckthorn) and countless other common weeds, plants and flowers all possess qualities that may help heal ailments of the body and mind.

Lyndale resident Lise Wolff is an herbalist, but said she never intended to be.

“I really used to be very mainstream in terms of killing pain, killing a cold,” she said. “Think about it: I was from New York City and I had no interest in plants whatsoever.”

Wolff studied herbalism several years before she decided it was the right career for her, she said.

“I’m always skeptical and that’s the thing that’s saved me,” she said. “I liked herbs, but it didn’t mean I thought they worked. Unless something really dramatic happens, I tend not to believe it.”

Wolff runs her own practice out of a suite in the Calhoun Building, 701 W. Lake St., and teaches a popular series of classes on the medicinal and edible value of plants. She leads plant walks along Minnehaha Parkway and Lake of the Isles each summer, offering a host of stories and historical information for nearly every plant she encounters.

Wolff works seven hours a week at Present Moment Books and Herbs at 35th Street and Grand Avenue. This year she also has been teaching weekend seminars in greater Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Wolff, 32, grew up in Brooklyn––”where only one weed grows”––and came to Minnesota to study history at Macalester College. After earning her degree, she decided to start preparing for a career in physical therapy. She moved back to New York and started working in a physical therapist’s office.

“It made a lot more sense than it felt good,” said Wolff of the 9-5 work world.

She started taking classes on herbal medicine as she was preparing to become a physical therapist. She assumed that her future patients would ask about alternative medicine, so she wanted to learn about the medicinal uses of plants in order to answer their questions.

But in those classes, Wolff said, she found herself overwhelmed with the desire to learn more: “I studied with anybody and everybody I could get my hands on.” When she returned to Minnesota after 18 months in New York, she began teaching classes at North Country Cooperative as a volunteer. The demand for her lectures grew, and she began to be paid for them.

During that time, noted mythologist Joseph Campbell was the subject of a public television documentary. Wolff remembers being moved by one of his quotes: “Follow your bliss.”

Flicking the body along

Wolff describes her work as a way of “harnassing the body to heal itself”. Rather than killing or stopping a process in the body, she said, she helps her clients through it. “Flicking the body along,” she calls it, using small, gentle remedies.

A client’s first consultation in Wolff’s one-room office lasts two hours. She takes inventory of the client’s medical history and current regimen of medications or supplements. She asks about physical and emotional symptoms and then starts “pulse-testing” with different remedies. She’ll usually apply a drop to the skin or have the client hold the bottle to see if there is a shift in the person’s pulse. Depending on the shift and how the person’s symptoms react, she’ll choose a remedy.

The top of Wolff’s prescription pad reads, “If I were you I would…,” which she said describes the nature of an herbalist’s work: “We suggest.”

“All [the body] needs is a suggestion, and it does a great job if given the opportunity,” said Wolff, who follows up over the phone on a weekly basis with her clients.

She doesn’t discount Western medicine, but she said a situation becomes sticky if a patient’s physician doesn’t approve of herbalism. Sometimes, however, patients don’t tell their doctors they are seeing an herbalist.

Wolff said she appreciates diagnostics tests done by physicians, which may give her useful information on how to treat a patient, or on how her remedies have worked, “because then we know what we did.”

Once a person’s condition has gotten better, Wolff said, she recommends stopping the treatment. “You don’t keep taking the remedy,” she said. “It’s not like a pill.” She said staying on a remedy too long, or taking too much at one time, can send a person into a “healing crisis” that keeps the ailment recurring.

Wolff describes the body as a river, with her job being to make it flow right. Often a simple cold or headache means the body is stuck, or plugged, she said. When people are tired or stressed, their bodies are about to undergo an illness, and her job is to facilitate that process, she said. Instead of killing the pain with a pill, she helps it move through and then brings the body back into a state of resistance.

“If your body is moving through things, why would you bother to stop it?” Wolff said.

About 50 percent of her practice is made up of flower-essence treatments, which are used to treat psychological problems like depression or anxiety, she said. For physical ailments, she uses herbs. Twenty percent of her herbs are bought commercially, but Wolff is a “wildcrafter,” which means she collects herbs and makes many of her own remedies. She said she is often invited to farms or other large tracts of land to pick plants for her practice.

Remedies come in several forms: ointments, tinctures or the leaves of plants. A tincture is a plant extract that has been soaked in alcohol.

There is no licensing or training requirements for herbalists. Wolff said there are peer-review organizations, and there is a close-knit group of people who learn from each other.

Herbalists and other alternative medicine practitioners won a long-fought battle at the state Legislature this year, when lawmakers passed a bill creating a consumer’s bill of rights for complementary and alternative health care services. In November, Wolff will be required to post in her office a disclosure statement that explains her profession and training.

Wolff said she is careful not to alienate clients. Often people associate herbalists with a hippie stereotype, she said, which is perpetuated by some alternative medicine practitioners. That can turn off some people.

“I look like everybody else,” she said. “It’s really, again, about being a bridge. That’s what I see my job is, to be able to explain and to give people a way to ease into this world that they’re able to do.”