Embark with Delivery Rank on a holistic journey to well-being with Donna Koczaja, a trailblazing Clinical Herbalist and the visionary force behind Green Haven Living. In a world where health is often fragmented into isolated symptoms, Donna Koczaja stands as a beacon of integrative healing. As the founder of Green Haven Living, she has redefined the path to wellness by delving beyond the surface and addressing the core of ailments. With a profound commitment to clinical herbal medicine, Donna works in tandem with you, unraveling the intricate tapestry of your well-being to uncover the very roots of your discomfort. Green Haven Living is not merely a wellness practice; it's a haven where personalized care flourishes. Through tailor-made herbal formulations, dietary insights, and lifestyle recommendations, Donna collaborates with you to craft a comprehensive strategy that nurtures every facet of your being, promising not just a remedy, but a remarkable enhancement in your overall quality of life.
I have always been drawn to plants, ever since I was a little girl growing up in Western Pennsylvania. Mom’s family were farmers originally from Austria and, well, everybody had a vegetable garden back in those days. I have many fond memories of walking through the woods with my dear Aunt Aggie, who always seemed to have a wealth of knowledge about the plants we saw along the way. I was mesmerized.
Fast forward a few (hah!) years, two degrees in Mechanical Engineering, and a successful career in the Defense industry. It wasn’t until these things were settled and I’d moved into a home of my own that I was drawn back to the plants. It started out with vegetable gardening, as growing vegetables brought me back to a time of fond memories of family long past. In 2008 my hunger for knowledge and a better outcome in the garden led me to become a Maryland Master Gardener.
It was about this time that my ‘day job’ began to get more and more stressful. I began to look for other outlets to relieve stress outside the workplace. I found the Tai Sophia Institute (now Maryland University of Integrative Health, MUIH), which offered classes in Herbal Studies. Curious about using ‘plants as medicine’, I signed up.
The program, which I soon learned was about far more than ‘this herb for that ailment’, was nothing short of life-changing. A whole, new world of what it means to be well and how to embody that in my everyday life was opened up to me. To help others heal, I had to learn how to make better choices for the sake of my own physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing – as well as for the sake of those I encountered. Of course, I began to unlock the healing power of the herbs, too.
The next thing I know, I’m finishing a Master of Science in Therapeutic Herbalism with a clinical rotation. The strength of this program, I found, was that it married both the science and the art of herbal medicine – as a scientifically trained engineer the former was imperative, the latter provided the context that we are all individual, whole, human beings, each with unique gifts and challenges.
Today I practice as a Clinical Herbalist, where I regularly see clients with wide-ranging health-related challenges and for a variety of personal reasons. I am continually humbled by the progress that they make – not only by incorporating these plant healers into their routine, but also by learning to make better choices in what they eat and how they live. They are the ones doing the work to make for a better life, and I am honored to be along as their herbalist, educator, guide, and partner.
As I mentioned, a real strength of my training at MUIH was to learn about both of these aspects of herbal medicine as equally important. Each comes with its pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses. Traditional herbal knowledge has been handed down – often not written - from practitioner to practitioner, and is informed by plant characteristics, intuition, and observation of results over time. It also takes into account the individual’s constitution – stressing “the right herb for the right person” rather than “prescribing” an herb for a particular condition. I find this philosophy quite useful in my practice, while being careful of traditional use that has not stood the test of time or has even become dangerous.
Science often starts where tradition ends – putting a traditional use through the scientific process in an attempt to prove or disprove its efficacy or discover its mechanism of action, in an unbiased manner. There is a wealth of scientific studies, and unfortunately many of them conclude that herbs are NOT effective. To that, I learned how to understand and interpret the results and put them into context (e.g., was the study on humans? Was it a whole herb or just a constituent of it?). From reviewing the body of knowledge on a particular herb, I can make some conclusions as to how best it’s likely to be used.
In my practice, I go out of my way to NOT have an ‘Us Vs. Them’ mentality. We are fortunate to have the wisdom gained from both traditional use as well as scientific discovery – why not take the best of each? The weight of each approach is dependent on my client’s particular challenges. For example, I am more likely to select an herb with a lot of scientific backing in occasions where my client wants to improve objective biomarkers such as blood sugar or blood fats. For more somatic/quality of life issues, I consider herbs for their traditional use. Ultimately, though, I end up with a combination as I have found that incorporating both into my practice yields results far greater than either individual approach.
Ultimately, I create customized herbal formulas for each of my clients as part of an overall strategy that includes diet and lifestyle improvements. The formulas are based on a number of factors, most notably their individual goals as well as their presentation of current symptoms. I use a functional medicine model, meaning that I do not diagnose or treat disease; rather, I determine where function in the body isn’t optimal, and then work to restore that function or return it to balance.
In terms of creating the actual formula, I use the following process: I consider the primary herbal actions that I would like to apply. Then I think of what herbs provide that particular activity on the body. All herbs have multiple actions, so I try to think of herbs that might offer more than one benefit for my client. After selecting a few primary herbs, I consider what secondary actions I would like to incorporate and then select one or two more herbs. Finally, there are what are known as ‘harmonizing’ herbs – herbs that serve to bring a formula together, either enhancing or promoting the primary activity of the formula, addressing any constitutional considerations or imbalances (i.e., such as ‘running hot’, or being ‘overly dry’), or for taste.
I also consider the preference and lifestyle of the client. Herbs come in different formats and at different price points, so it is important to create a formula that the client will actually use. I occasionally will recommend a pre-packaged supplement, but I tend to avoid those because I lose the ability to customize exactly which herbs and in what dosage I think are best for the individual.
First and foremost I endeavor to create a trusting relationship with each client. This starts with truly listening to someone’s story, someone’s challenges. A recent new client told me that she ‘felt heard’, and that warmed my heart. Too many times I hear that their healthcare providers don’t take the time to listen, and they are so appreciative that I do. They are starving to be heard.
In our work together I indicate that I am a partner in their wellness journey. We discuss what I like to call “opportunities” for a client to take charge and improve their own health. These are things like adding more fruits and vegetables into the diet, taking a walk in nature, or perhaps doing some deep breathing exercises. I tell my clients that herbs do not operate in a vacuum, that their success rate in achieving their goals will be much higher in the context of making other diet and lifestyle modifications. Indeed, my clients who incorporate herbs in this context tend to have better results.
In terms of the partnership, every recommendation I ultimately make is with the permission of the client. I propose several ideas, and we discuss together which ones may work for them. It is not uncommon for a client to say, ‘no, I don’t think that will work for me’, and so we discuss and tweak the plan to be sure it is something achievable. This is really important – if a client has ownership of the plan then it’s more likely to be followed.
I believe in using whole plants in their purest form (infusing them as a tea, eating a powder, or extracted in a tincture). In that respect the specific uses of herbs don’t change rapidly – turmeric is a key systemic anti-inflammatory and will likely continue to be used as such for a long time. However, I do continue my education by taking the occasional seminar (sponsored by the American Herbalists’ Guild, for example), reading herb-related journal articles, or connecting with my fellow MUIH herbal medicine graduates. I often learn about herbs I was previously unfamiliar with, or new ways to use old friends. I also do a lot of research for individual clients when they have a particularly challenging health issue to find new strategies I might not have previously considered.
Though every year more and more wellness products and supplements are put on the market, they are not my primary method of herbal intervention. There’s always the latest health craze or fad promising to provide miracle results. This can be very dangerous, because herbal supplements are not tightly regulated. There is no guarantee that the product contains the ingredients listed on the packaging, and the processing that many undergo bears little resemblance to the original herb from which it was derived. Still, because many of my clients are experimenting with these products, I try to stay abreast of the latest trends, either by attending the occasional trade show or reaching out to specific supplement companies with questions. Through thorough vetting, I have found several companies with products that I like and trust, and am happy to recommend those to my clients who prefer that mode of administration.
Mostly, though, because I am in private practice, I have the luxury of deciding the type of herbalist I want to be. As much of my training was centered around the practice of being a healing presence as it was about the plants. I think the Clinical Herbalist’s Oath sums it up nicely:
Through self-exploration and growth I will strive to become a catalyst for positive change. I will honor the innate wisdom of the natural world and walk in partnership with other living beings.
If you would like to find out more about Green Haven Living, visit https://greenhavenherbalist.com/