Dr. James Adams, who teaches pharmacology at USC, also teaches students about the healing techniques used by the Chumash people as a part of his regular classes. Adams earned his PhD in comparative pharmacology and toxicology at UC San Francisco in 1981, and since then he’s written more than 200 articles for both average readers and and academic audiences.

Adams became interested in the medicinal uses of native plants in 1994. It was then that he was taking his son out on Boy Scout walks and began to realize that all the native plants they encountered had been used by local Native Americans.  Adams then set out to find a Native American herbalist to learn from. After a lengthy search, he found Chumash medicine woman Cecilia Garcia.

Adams became Garcia’s student in 1998, and he studied the intricacies and underlying belief structures of the Chumash healing traditions.

“I was her apprentice for 14 years,” Adams said. “I worked with her on every aspect of healing — making medicine, gathering medicine, leading hikes, leading talks, leading religious ceremonies and more. She taught me about the medicine and the Chumash religion. She taught me how to interview patients and reach a diagnosis. She taught me the traditional way to treat a patient. We spent many hours and days together, sometimes just the two of us out hiking. We went from Davis to Ensenada and many places in between.”

Nature’s Way

Adams and Garcia eventually collaborated to produce the book “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” which was published in 2005. The fully illustrated book, which describes the chemistry of the plants that were used by the Chumash for medicine, and generally used throughout the American West. Since their collaboration, Adams and Garcia led about 100 walks and workshops to teach about the Native American use of healing herbs, until Garcia’s untimely death in 2012. 

Adams was also instructed by Ted Garcia (chief of the Chumash), his brother Dennis Garcia, their father Ted Garcia, Frank Lemos and many other Chumash people.

Adams points out that he is accepted by Ted Garcia and the Chumash people who follow him as a healer, but that there are some Chumash people who do not accept him.

I asked Dr. Adams whether he was cynical of the medical profession, or whether he believes that doctors are more concerned about making a buck than actually healing a patient.

Neither, he told me.

“Doctors are simply working on a false preconceived notion that herbs are not strong enough to deal with certain physical conditions. But believe me, some herbs are just as strong as any patent medicines out there.”

He adds that there is a lot of good medicine being practiced, but not with the use of opioids for pain. In fact, their use is not only counter-productive, but sometimes deadly, with at least 67,000 people dying every year in the US from their misuse, and that figure continues to rise.

According to Adams, doctors work from the premise that people should try to control pain by using the drugs that affect the brain. They tell the patient, let’s try  x, or y, or z, and when those don’t work, they try opioids, like Vicodin.  Adams explained that opioids are compounds synthesized based upon opium’s chemistry.  This is highly addictive, and has not  been shown to cure chronic pain.  This is all based on the notion that you need to cure the pain in your brain, but the brain only processes pain signals from the skin. More than 95 percent of the body’s pain receptors are in the skin.

Why have doctors gotten this so wrong, I ask.

He tells me that the prevailing theory is still that the brain is the center of all pain, and that pain can be combated by giving the patient drugs that suppress pain detectors in the brain.

“That’s the prevailing notion,” Adams said. “But the pain comes from the skin,” he tells me.  The brain might process that pain, but you still need to treat the pain in the skin. “When a child skins their knee, do they quickly grab their brain, or do they grab their knee?” he asks wryly.

That form of treatment may have been based on the best of intentions, but it is not working, Adams said.

“Think of a carpenter who can’t do a job with his hammer. What does he do? He gets a bigger hammer.  In medicine, pain is often treated with ibuprofen and naproxen. But when that doesn’t work, the doctor has a bigger hammer — opioids. And some doctors just go right to that bigger hammer.”

Cecilia Garcia taught Adams, among other things, about the traditional ways of dealing with pain. “Cecilia taught me how to make and use liniments from black sage and sagebrush. And as a result of working with several hundred patients over the years, I have seen that these are great pain killers, which also have the ability to deal with chronic pain.”

Adams added science to his collaboration with Garcia by explaining medically why the Chumash systems work.

“Most modern Western-trained people do not want to believe that the Indian medicines are efficacious. I have learned how these herbs worked. It took me a lot longer to learn how they cure chronic pain,” he said, adding that he has written several academic papers on this topic.

Two of his papers are “Chronic pain – can it be cured?” which appeared in the Journal of Pharmaceutics and Drug Development, and “Control of pain with topical plant medicines,” which was published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine.

“Everyone says they feel pain in their organs, but it is almost always in the skin. So you put this herb liniment from native herbs on your skin, and the pain is gone. Even kidney stone pain can be treated with the sage brush liniment,” he explains.

“We need to learn how to treat pain correctly, and we are not doing that correctly with oral medicines,” said Adams. “When I was a boy, everyone knew how to take care of themselves when it came to the most basic everyday medical issues, like using sassafras, yerba santa, and other common herbs. But no one seems to know any of this anymore.”

Through his writings and teachings, Dr. Adams hopes to bring back the notion that the body can heal itself if we allow it to do so, and that everyone should take charge of their health, and not assume that the doctor can “heal” us.

Sage and Sagebrush

Adams readily admits that there are some cases that his black sage or sage brush liniment doesn’t entirely cure, though there are no side effects either, as in the case of opioids.

He cites an example of a 77-year-old woman with terrible hip arthritis. “She has been making the sagebrush liniment and applying it every day for the last five years, and she says that it keeps her going. Her pain is relieved.  And there are dozens of other patients who treat themselves this way, and none have ever reported any incidents of toxicity.”

Adams pointed out that there were six top herbs used by the Chumash in healing: Mugwort, sagebrush, white sage, black sage, bay and yerba santa.  These are described in detail in their book. Though there is a comprehensive depth to Dr. Adams’ scope of teaching, he usually emphasizes that he’s not healing anyone, that’s he’s only making it possible for the body to heal itself.

Adams has also been compiling actual testimonials to demonstrate the efficacy of the healing method that he practices.

“Even if a person is told by their doctor that there is nothing the medical profession can do, and that you will die, I say, you are still alive. Your body can heal itself. Don’t give up,” Adams said. “Learn to live in balance.” n

For information about Adams’ class schedule and his books, contact him at www.abeduspress.com.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods” and other books on self-reliance and the outdoors. He conducts regular wild food classes. He can be reached at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.