Boulder herbalists aren’t doctors, and they don’t claim to be. Their mission is to listen to people and to educate them on options — on centuries-old remedies.
For Lisa Ganora, director of the Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism, a career in herbalism has been one rife with personal healing and perseverance.
Ganora has been studying herbs since the 1980s, when she first fell in love with medicinal plants and natural healing. Not long after giving birth to her first child, Ganora started experiencing problems with her joints. There is one day in particular that plagues Ganora now: It was the day that she bent down and couldn’t stand back up.
“You know how you push from your knees when you’re squatting just like this,”Ganora says. “Well, I couldn’t push. I couldn’t get up.”
Little did she know, that moment was one of the earliest warning signs of her multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system. The progress and severity of MS is unpredictable, and symptoms can vary from numbness in the arms and legs to total paralysis and loss of vision.
A woman Ganora had come to know while living in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains suggested that she rub stinging nettles all over her knee to help ease the pain. The leaves of a stinging nettle plant act like hypodermic needles and produce a stinging sensation when they come into contact with human skin. So, rubbing the leaves on an area that was already in so much pain seemed absurd to Ganora. But Ganora considers herself an open-minded person, willing to give just about anything a shot.
So she grabbed herself a handful of nettles and went to town. Before she knew it, it burned like hell. But she woke up the next morning, and her joint pain was gone.
“For me, that’s what it’s [herbalism] about; it’s the radical DIY ideas about self-care,” says Alanna Whitney, herbalist and student at Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism.
Boulder herbalist Rebecca Luna, who refers to her career in herbalism as a total fluke, says she can imagine just how Ganora felt back then.
“There’s something about herbalism,” Luna says. “It’s like a hook. It just gets you if it’s meant to be.”
Herbalism definitely hooked Ganora. While in school, she studied botany, wrote a thesis on Native American pokeweed and conducted research on antioxidants produced by tomatoes. At 40 years old, she graduated with a 4.0.
She reached out to the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and was invited to come teach a chemistry class focused on plants: phytochemistry.
Sometime around 2008, Ganora’s personal health started to take a turn for the worse. She was noticing a lot of problems with fatigue and chronic joint pain. That’s when she was diagnosed with MS.
Ganora started reaching out to all of her contacts, including herbalists, nutritionists and traditional physicians. At the top of her list was Paul Bergner, a medical herbalist and clinical nutritionist she had met at Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies.
“He is a fabulous weirdo,” Ganora says. “He really is just a sweet guy with a lot of wisdom, and he’s an obsessive researcher.”
Bergner asked Ganora to eliminate dairy from her diet. Although she was skeptical, Ganora tried it, and within a month, she noticed a lot of her aches and pains were disappearing. Ganora went through two more “re-challenges,” where she eliminated dairy and then re-introduced it to her diet, before she decided that Bergner was onto something.
“It’s about being your own authority and experimenting and educating yourself about what’s good for you,” says Ganora. “Often, what’s so basic is what’s so powerful.”
With Bergner’s guidance, coupled by her own research and perseverance, Ganora says she has alleviated almost all of her MS symptoms, but she worries that the fatigue will never fully go away.
“The one thing that’s still such a huge variable is my energy — the fatigue,” Ganora says. “But you know, in the big picture, I’m doing great.”
Last year, Bergner decided that he was ready to retire from his position as the director and owner for the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. He asked Ganora to take over for him — to become the director of school. It was one of the hardest decisions Ganora has had to make in her life, not knowing if she had the strength or stamina, both mentally and physically, to take over the school.
Ganora retreated into the mountains and into nature, the one place that she has always found solitude, she says. She decided that she would sit by a creek until it gave her an answer, and after a few minutes, she had one. Ganora bought the school from Bergner and soon changed the name to Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism.
“Sometimes it wears me out and it kicks my ass, but you know it’s worth it,” says Ganora of the school. “It’s probably the best thing I could be doing with my life.”
Every day, Ganora grapples with her fatigue and has to decide what’s best for herself and for her school. Sometimes that means not getting work done, or staying in bed. Ganora herself is living proof of the herbalist manifesto.
“We’re not psychologists, or psychiatrists or counselors, but we listen when people talk,” Ganora says. “It’s not about diagnosing or prescribing. It’s about understanding and learning how to support your body’s natural resistance.”