School of Clinical Herbalism favors holistic


BOULDER | It’s a common Boulder story: Move here to go to school and end up staying.

However, in the case of Kat Mackinnon, the school in question was not the University of Colorado. Instead, it was the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism, a small school on Valmont that teaches a holistic approach to herbal medicine in the Western tradition.

Mackinnon is now the manager of the school’s Evergreen Clinic, a sliding-scale facility that uses student-clinicians to evaluate and consult with clients. Mackinnon, who moved to Boulder from Connecticut, says she found the program to be exactly what she was looking for — an education that took a holistic approach, offering not only herbal remedies, but in-depth study in anatomy, physiology and nutrition.

“It was working with the whole person in every respect,” she says.

It’s a combination that appeals to many students and one that is not easy to find, says Lisa Ganora, the school director.

“It’s higher level than a lot of other herb schools,” she says. “It’s for training professional clinical herbalists. They study physiology, herbal constituents, biology, how to make things, field botany and plant ID.”

Ganora says the school enrolls a good number of students like Mackinnon, who have graduated from other herb schools. About two-thirds of the roughly 30 students come to the school from elsewhere.

“They want to take their education farther,” she says.

And the mystique of Boulder doesn’t hurt.

“You get a chance to go to herb school and live in Boulder. It doesn’t hurt that it’s such a great town,” she says.

The school, which was founded in 2003 by Paul Bergner, was then called the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. Bergner retired last year, and considered closing the school. However, Ganora took over as director.

The school year begins in August with students studying fundamentals through November. The advanced herb program starts in January and after graduating from those two programs, students can go on to specialize in clinical nutrition, advanced nutrition or flower essences. In addition, the school is starting an evening track for the fundamentals course in which classes take place two nights a week and one Saturday a month.

The school works in the western traditions of herbalism, which includes Native American medicine as well as the herbal traditions of countries such as Britain, France and Germany. In addition, Ganora says, the school incorporates the writings and clinical diaries of doctors who worked in the United States during the 19th century and used herbal treatments.

“The medical system (then) … was a lot more diverse than it is today,” she says.

However, she is careful to add that the school doesn’t teach “herbs good, doctors bad.”

“Every system has its strengths and weaknesses,” she says.

Her own case is instructive in that regard. About five years ago, Ganora developed neurological symptoms, including dizzy spells, problems with dropping things, balance issues, tingling neuropathy in her fingers and bad leg cramps. In addition, her joints were swollen and painful. She saw every type of practitioner — from a Native American shaman to a neurologist who gave her an MRI. The doctor thought she had multiple sclerosis.

Then she asked school founder Bergner what he thought was wrong. He suggested she try eliminating dairy from her diet. To Ganora the suggestion made no sense: She didn’t have the gastro-intestinal issues or respiratory problems that are common with dairy intolerance. Nevertheless, she went on a six-week dairy elimination diet and her symptoms resolved. Then she tested it by pigging out on cheese, and the symptoms returned. Since then, she has also eliminated gluten from her diet and has seen further improvement, but nothing as dramatic as with the no-dairy diet.

She says her case is emblematic of the school’s approach in another way. While she took herbs to ease her symptoms, the school does not merely offer an “herbal Band-Aid” to clients.

“We sit down and talk about where problems might have come from,” she says.