A Natural Approach to Feeling Better

Health is a foundation factor of “survival.” It goes without saying that you can do little or nothing for yourself when you lose your good health. Healthy food, clean water, regular exercise and a positive attitude—all these are the foundations of a healthy life.

Dr. Adams is shown with his book, Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, which was the result of years of research.

And yet, with all we have access to, we have a health epidemic—not just in the United States, but throughout the world. We still put ourselves at risk, and every year, thousands of people die from complications with surgeries and dangerous pain-management drugs that might have been avoided.

The problem and the solution are both complex. Let’s deal with just one aspect today: natural pain management.

Student, Researcher, Instructor and Advocate

Dr. James Adams is a man on a mission. He teaches pharmacology at the University of Southern California (USC) and also teaches medical students Chumash healing as part of regular classes. Adams earned his Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology in 1981 at UC San Francisco and is now an associate professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at USC. He’s written more than 200 articles, both for lay and academic audiences.


Dr. Adams says the medical profession is mistaken when it comes to how to treat pain. He explains that although the brain processes pain, most pain in the body is felt mostly in the organ that is our skin. (However, pain in the mouth and other orifices is felt at the site of the pain [such as a tooth]). Therefore, based on his Western medical training, and supported by his Chumash healing training, Adams always treats the skin for all pain conditions. Further, he states that everyone can do such self-medicating “for free” for any pain with no harmful side effects.

Dr. Adams spends quite a bit of time in the field providing instruction to people who are interested in a natural approach to pain management.

Adams got interested in the medicinal uses of native plants back in 1994. He had been taking his son out on Boy Scout walks and began to realize that all the plants he saw had been used by the local Native Americans. Adams then set out to find a Native American herbalist to learn from.

Dr. Adams discusses the properties of black sage, which can be seen at the center of this photo. To the left is a California sagebrush; to the right is white sage.

He talked with people from the Chumash tribe but made no progress in finding a skilled herbalist for about two years. Then, he heard about Cecilia Garcia and arranged to meet her in the Santa Monica Mountains. Adams brought his wife along. When he met Garcia, Adams was a bit taken aback by Garcia’s request that he sing a song.

Dr. Adams in the field with a class. The tree to his left is an elder, and the yellow flowers are wild mustard.

“I sang a Ponca Indian song,” said Adams, “and she told me that it wasn’t a very good song—but that I sang it well!”

Garcia spent the next two hours talking with Adams’ wife, and when it was over, Garcia agreed to work with Adams.

“She had to be sure that I wasn’t just trying to take advantage of her and exploit her knowledge,” explains Adams.

Adams then became Garcia’s student and spent 14 years studying the intricacies and underlying belief structures of the Chumash healing traditions.

Dr. Adams describes the medicinal attributes of the elder tree during an ethnobotanical field trip.

According to Adams, “I was her apprentice for 14 years. I worked with her on every aspect of healing—making medicine, gathering medicine, leading hikes, talks and religious ceremonies, and more. She taught me about Chumash medicine and religion, as well as how to interview patients and reach a diagnosis, along with the traditional way to treat patients and how to keep the village productive. 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.”

Adams and Garcia eventually collaborated to produce the book, Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, which was published in 2005. It’s a fully illustrated book describing the chemistry and uses of the plants chosen by the Chumash for medicine that are generally used throughout the West. Since their collaboration, Adams and Garcia led about 100 walks and workshops to teach about the native 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 and their father Ted Garcia, as well as Frank Lemos and many other Chumash people.

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

Opioid Addiction

I asked Dr. Adams whether he was cynical of the medical profession (as I am) and if he believes that doctors are more concerned about making a buck than actually healing a patient.

Apprentice Enrique Villasenor blesses a student with a burning white sage leaf during a field trip led by Dr. Adams.

In response, he explained, “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 added that there is a lot of good medicine being practiced … but not with the use of opioids for pain.

Student Vicki Chiu photographs the black sage plant for future reference. To the left is a California sagebrush.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017, 47,600 people died in the United States from causes related to opioid overdose—and that figure is rising. Adams pointed out that doctors work from the premise that you should try to control pain by using the drugs that affect the brain. They tell the patient, “Let’s try x, y or z,” and when those don’t work, they try opioids such as Vicodin.

Dr. Adams teaches a class during one of many outdoor field trips he has led.

Adams explained that opioids are compounds synthesized based on opium’s chemistry. This is highly addictive and has not been shown to work. It is all based on the notion that you need to cure the pain in your brain—but there are no pain receptors in your brain! Over 95 percent of the body’s pain receptors are in the skin.

But why have doctors gotten this so wrong? Adams pointed out that the prevailing theory is still that the brain is the center of all pain, and that pain can be combatted by giving a patient drugs that suppress pain detectors in the brain.

Apprentice Enrique Villasenor discusses the medicinal properties of the California sagebrush plant. The red mark on his cheek is from the cochineal bug, from the prickly pear cactus plant.

“That’s the prevailing notion. But the pain comes from the skin,” Adams said. “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?”

Adams pointed out that this approach might have been based on the best of intentions, but it is not working.

“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 uses a ‘bigger hammer’: opioids. And some doctors just go right to that bigger hammer.”

A Natural Solution

Among other things, Cecilia Garcia taught Adams the traditional ways to deal 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 painkillers, which also have the ability to deal with chronic pain.”


He added the scientific aspect to his corroboration 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,” adding that he has written several academic papers on this topic.

Dr. Adams discusses the history of the Datura wrighti, or “sacred datura.” It is a poisonous perennial that is sometimes used as a hallucinogen.

Two of his papers are, “Chronic Pain—Can It Be Cured?” in the Journal of Pharmaceutics and Drug Development, 4, 105, 2017. Another is “Control of Pain With Topical Plant Medicines” in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 5, 93, 2015.


“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,” Adams pointed out.

Students soak their feet in a pan that contains black sage sun tea — a treatment for pain.

“We need to learn how to treat pain correctly, and we are not doing that correctly with oral medicines. When I was a boy, everyone knew how to take care of themselves (such as by using sassafras, yerba santa and other common herbs) when it came to the most basic, everyday medical issues. 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 a doctor can “heal” us.

Black Sage and Sagebrush

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

However, he cited 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. There are dozens of other patients who treat themselves this way. None of them has ever reported any incidence of toxicity.”

Sage is often used to make a tea that can be used to treat pain and other ailments.

Adams has also been compiling actual testimonials to demonstrate the efficacy of the healing method 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. Learn to live in balance.’”

Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West is now in its third printing. It includes many of Garcia’s recipes for how to use the herbs. Unlike many books on medicinal plants, this one attempts to present the full picture of what it means to be healthy, including the spiritual aspect. There are some prefatory chapters on what’s wrong with modern medicine and how the body must be allowed to heal itself.

The book even goes as far as suggesting that natural selection over the 200,000 years that humans have used plants for medicinal purposes has been influenced by humans whose bodies have responded positively to the curative properties of these plants.

Special Herbs

Dr. 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 the book he co-wrote with Cecilia Garcia.

Artemisia californica

“Native Americans have traditionally used sagebrush liniments in pain therapy. The main pain- relieving targets are the various transient receptor potential channels in sensory neurons of the skin. Used with rubbing alcohol to make a liniment, this is a powerful pain reliever.”

Artemisia douglasiana

“Use this plant for PMS, menopause or dysmenorrhea. It’s also good for attention deficit disorder. You can use it to relieve itching from stinging nettles and poison oak. This plant contains serotonergic agents that interfere with addiction mechanisms.”

White Sage

“A drink is made by putting a leaf in cold water to promote strengthening and cure colds and flus. The drink is used every day.”

Black Sage

“The most common sage in California, black sage, has been used by the Chumash to create a sun tea of leaves and stems … that the feet are soaked in for pain.”

Yerba Santa

“The Chumash use this plant for lung problems, including asthma, tuberculosis and pneumonia.”

California Bay

“California bay is an immunity enhancer. It was drunk as a tea for the first four days at the start of the season to enhance immunity. Today, people use it for migraines.”

Help the Body Heal Itself  

Although there is a comprehensive depth to Dr. Adams’ scope of teaching, he usually emphasizes that he’s not healing anyone; he’s only making it possible for the body to heal itself.

His family came to Virginia from England in 1635 and learned healing from the Native Americans to stay alive.


Black Sage Sun Tea Foot Soak for All Body Pains

Soak about ¼ pound of black sage leaves and stems (Salvia mellifera) in 2 quarts of water and set it in the sun for several hours until the tea is dark reddish-brown. Strain the liquid. Pour the sun tea into a pan and soak feet for 15 to 20 minutes each day for seven days. Cover and refrigerate after each use. Wait one week to see what happens to your pain. Repeat the process after the second week. This is useful for any body pains.

A student at one of Dr. Adams’ classes soaked his feet in the black sage tea and reported that his chronic neck pain was gone for over a week.

According to student James Ruther, “Yes, it worked! I go to the chiropractor every three weeks to manage my condition. My condition is a pinched nerve in my neck. I soaked my feet in the black sage tea, and I was pain free for about a week and a half. My daily pain is more of a discomfort now.”


Winter Pain Medicine: Sagebrush Liniment

Place one leaf of white sage into a container (such as an 8-ounce mason jar). Add four to six pieces of avocado pits (for their oil). Fill the container with as much sagebrush (Artemisia californica) as you can. Fill the jar with 70 percent isopropyl alcohol. (Some people use either tequila or vodka instead.) Let it sit for at least six weeks. Decant and use the liquid sparingly as a spray or rub on those painful parts of the body.


James Adams, Ph.D.


Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the June, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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