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our story   ·   16. Nov 2021

talking sofi with Pamela Spence, our in-house medical herbalist

in people and plants and Pamela we trust

*Pamela has a bachelor’s degree in herbal medicine and over 15 years of experience in clinical practice, with a background in teaching, writing, and product development. She is an industry expert and an exceptionally witty author with a keen interest in ethnobotany and reconnecting people and plants. 

how did you first get involved with sofi?

I got involved with sofi because Kaveh, the Founder here at sofi, basically sent an email out (and I remind him about this all of the time) to practically all of the herbalist community.

And at that point, I was so fed up getting emails from companies that didn’t take plants seriously, that I emailed him back and said, “where’s your medical herbalist? We are the only people who actually work with medicinal herbs from start to finish; actually studying the effects, over time, within the people we prescribe them to — and I don’t see a medical herbalist here yet.“

I was really jaded seeing people making money out of plants and not involving herbalists, and it happens so often because, traditionally, herbalists are not business-minded people, we are more service-minded people. 

It can be such a struggle because there are times where medical herbalists have been taken advantage of...where someone comes along and takes their expertise and makes a profitable product from it. Or perhaps they don’t treat the plants well, or as they rightfully should, or perhaps it’s not being done in a sustainable and eco-friendly way.

So, Kaveh had this email arrive in his inbox from some cross herbalist but he came back with something along the lines of, “I think we can have a really good chat about this.” 

I said “fine,” and it turned out that I really liked him, and I really liked what he envisioned with sofi — and so that's how my journey first began.

what is it about the combination of traditional remedies and modern science that appeals most to you?

Well, we can very clearly see examples of where these two have failed to come together — where traditional medicine and modern medicine have remained in isolation — and I feel like that isn’t a particularly healthy way to go. 

Before we had our son, my husband and I did a lot of work in rural parts of east Africa where there were little or no healthcare systems in place. I was really excited to find out about local herbal traditions but what I found was that when Christianity came to Africa, with it came the idea that herbal medicine was evil because it was linked to the traditional belief systems there. There was no differentiation being made between the belief system often referred to as witchcraft and the benefit of the medicine. 

So, the parts of the world we were working in had rejected herbal medicine, but they had nothing to replace it with because they couldn’t afford modern, pharmaceutical medicines so; they were left  with nothing.

The witch-doctors (who would originally have had a very robust training in herbs) became outcast, and that effect on them meant that some traditions being practiced now are dangerous for example - packing open wounds with herbs. So our job out there really was to re-train people through local community health workers,  to re-embrace of the natural herbal medicines as something not evil, but in fact, incredibly helpful and essentia when practiced safely and hygienically.We did a lot of the work through the churches because if the churches and the ministers were seen to approve of this approach, then the wider communities would embrace it too. 

I feel so fortunate to live in a time and place where people have an option between pharmaceutical medicine, surgery, all different forms of intervention that absolutely save lives, and herbal medicine.

I get really frustrated when people want to throw out this traditional knowledge, which is a great example of empirical evidence — information gathered through observation, sometimes over hundreds or even thousands of years. Because some people don’t have the luxury of access to modern medicine and there is great value in traditional knowledge.

Many people say that there is no real evidence for plant medicine but it’s just not true.

What is true is that when you try to take a plant into a lab and conduct a gold standard, double-blind placebo-controlled trial with it, the plant does not perform under those circumstances and there are very clear chemical reasons for why. 

A pharmaceutical is a single chemical usually and you can absolutely see its laser sharp focus and what it does in that trial. Plants on the other hand have 300-350 chemicals — we don't even have names for some of them — but what we do know is that they work in synergy with one another. 

How can you study that in a lab setting? Well, you can’t; the plants just never come out well. They’re going to fail from the start. 

This is why it’s incredible that we have the option to do either, and to be able to combine the two modalities into one. 

what about the concept of N-of-1? What does that mean exactly?

One of the hashtags I use most often on social media is that one size does not fit all. 

There is a reason why some women going through menopause will take black cohosh and think it’s the best thing, but then their friend goes and tries it and thinks “that did nothing, herbal medicine doesn’t work.” 

It’s so funny how people are so judgmental, yet nobody goes to their doctor after taking paracetamol for their pain and says, ‘Paracetamol didn’t work... that’s it, pharmaceutical medicine doesn’t work, I'm never going to the doctor again!’ 

The truth is that tribes and peoples in the world all began with herbal medicine, in-fact some still solely work with herbal medicine now, and they all had a system of elements, and modern medicine was born from this system too. 

It’s a system of looking at which of those elements and qualities are particularly high or low within a person, and understanding that depending on where they sit will determine how certain things will affect them. 

As an example, if you come to my clinic with eczema and you are a hot constitutional type, your eczema will likely be fiery, red, incredibly itchy, and prone to infection. However, if you are a cold and dry constitutional type, your eczema is more likely to be more purple-blue, and not itchy at all. So for the cold dry type, I'm going to cover the eczema in moisture and oil, whilst also trying to heat their body, but if I were to do this to the person with hot, red eczema it would be awful and it would most likely cause an infection. 

I can say with confidence there are no pre-made herbal remedies in my dispensary, because for 5 different people that turn up with eczema, each will probably go away with a different prescription. 

The real challenge with a thing such as sofi is, how do we take this super individualized attention, yet still make it fit for lots of people? 

The answer is interaction. 

You have to interact with people and that’s what makes sofi unique. Because we can interact and there may even be scope to work with the constitutional types of certain people, which will then help identify which remedy would be the best fit.

The thing that makes sofi so interesting and special is that it is attempting to bridge the gap between these two things, and to measure them at the N-of-1.

last but not least, as a medical herbalist what aspect of sofi do you think matters most?

Actually, I feel strongly that it shouldn’t all have to be pinpointed. 

It shouldn’t just be about what particular aspect of sofi is working for you, because it’s all of sofi. From the first interaction to the end, all of sofi is designed to benefit. 

Take the herb we’re launching our Pioneer Program with, for example: valerian. Yes, it is possible to feel a strong response from a valerian, and yes, it’s possible straight after taking valerian to feel calmer. However, because it depends on the individual’s levels of anxiety as well as whether or not valerian is the right herb to target the specific problems of an individual, not everyone will feel these immediate effects of valerian. 

If valerian isn’t the right herb, it just isn’t going to work for you, so we move on and try a different herb. Or it may work quickly for some people, but for others, they may find it takes a while to work. It completely depends on the level of problem you are dealing with, and that’s why we have the sofi community to back our experiences up and share our insights with others. 

But valerian is a really good starting point for most people because it is generally tolerated very well and tends to work amazingly for those who can benefit from it. 

Another thing to point out is that valerian will do different things for you on day 1, compared to day 30. 

This is not because the valerian changes; it’s that your body is changing. 

You may find that because you spend longer having better sleep, you get even deeper sleep in the next few days. Or you may find that you don’t notice the difference as much because you are just calmer in general.  

It is that two-way process: the plant is having a relationship with your body, and that is something that we can’t control.

The fact that deeper sleep or better sleep is being had is part of the process. Maybe it could be that they are communicating about their troubles for the first time, on top of that, there is the community, there is feeling supported, there are all these things coming together and it’s like this beautiful dance.

and like every person trying to learn a new dance — it's important to have someone there to hold your hand...

...and so we look to sofi.

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