Rachelle Robinett’s Science-Backed Approach to Herbalism
The herbalist Rachelle Robinett refers to herbs as “icing on the cake.” It’s a mixed metaphor that, more deeply understood, makes complete sense: While herbs and plants are her primary focus area when it comes to well-being, they’re also the proverbial cherry on top of what she views as the ingredients of a healthy life. The founder of the “functional nature” company Pharmakon Supernatural—through which she teaches classes (“Magnesium 101! With Wooden Spoon Herbs,” “Herbalism for Fertility,” “Holistic Herbalism for Thyroid Balance”), produces an herbal gummy line called HRBLS, and sells items such as an “empathy-enhancing elixir” through an online shop—she is also the author of the newsletter The Art of Functional Nature, which goes out to more than 11,000 subscribers. In a space so often filled with hucksters and crackpots pushing gimmicky products, Robinett brings a relatable, no-nonsense, science-backed straightforwardness to the herbalism game.
Here, she speaks with us about her transformative jump from a career in fashion to one in holistic health, and why she eschews what she calls “trendy ingredients.”
Before Pharmakon Supernatural, before your work as a consultant and as a private holistic health coach, you worked in fashion and luxury for seven years. So I wanted to start there. What was your journey to shifting into the health and well-being space?
I had always been immersed and obsessed and practiced health and wellness personally, but it was very much something that I kept to myself. I didn’t share it publicly. I didn’t wear it to work, except when I brought smoothies to the office. I was in New York, and the wellness industry was just starting. You could feel it, and you could feel a lot of the early rumblings of it in the fashion industry as well. So I was immersed in that sea of change. I think people recognized me as a “wellness person” already, like, “She’s already eating that way. She’s already doing these sorts of things.”
The catalyst was a client meeting with Estée Lauder. We were presenting whatever we were selling, and the client stopped me from my presentation and said, “Could you just tell me what you do personally? What do you eat? What is your skin care routine? What are your wellness practices? I would like to know your personal situation.” I was embarrassed, and I blushed. I was like, “This is not what this is about.” She pulled me aside afterward, and she said, “Look, I really think you have something special. I really think you might want to consider sharing this.” I’d heard that over and over again. She was the last person to tell me before I actually took some action and started to come out of the closet about who I really was and what I was practicing.
Long story short, I started my company a few years later and transitioned over a short period to doing it full-time and independently. It went from there.
What’s your vision for Pharmakon Supernatural? How do you describe what you do?
Well, I claim the title of “herbalist,” but I always have to caveat it with what exactly that means. It just happens to be the most appropriate title. I’m also obviously an entrepreneur and an educator. What I do is help people to be healthier with plants. It’s a plant-based and natural approach to wellness, and it’s entirely holistic. I’m not focused exclusively on herbs and supplements. For me, it’s very much about the mind, body, environment, and our relationship to the natural world.
I’ve been using the phrase “the art of functional nature” a lot. To me, that includes a little bit of style and fashionability, as well as the heart of the matter, which is nature and our environments. I think there’s so much disconnection that can be remedied when we reconnect with our own nature. To me, nature is all one thing. Us and ours, nature and its—this is all one thing.
I’m curious about your daily practices. Could you tell me some of the best routines or rituals that you frequently recommend to people or that you practice?
I think that the most important thing we can do is to eat well. It’s absolutely foundational, and it makes such an enormous difference. It can also simplify so much of the practice of being well because if we are able to eat well, generally, we’ll need less things, less supplements, less herbs, and less of these other accessories to being healthy. What matters most are the things that we know, but tend not to like to hear: food, sleep, movement, mindfulness, water. [Laughs] Food is non-negotiable. Exercise is non-negotiable. Sleep is non-negotiable. Those things absolutely, positively happen for me every day. They need to happen; they’re my medicine. I love the herbs, but that’s all icing on the cake, really.
In an industry that’s rife with those we might call snake-oil salespeople, there’s so much bogus peddling out there. How do you determine whom, or which resources and companies, to trust?
I tend to prefer a science-based approach. Herbalism has elicited a lot of different approaches. The teachers that I’ve chosen to study with, and the methods that I’ve adopted and also teach, tend to be rooted in science. I think there are things that you can do to check the quality of products, like lab testing. I guess it’s difficult for me to say because I’ve been in it for so long that I feel like I can just see right through it all. I can look at the ingredient label and say no. I tend to look at the quality of ingredients: where are they sourced? Who’s formulating the products? If it’s a product company, is it made by an herbalist so they know what they’re doing? Because that actually matters. If it’s a supplement company, again, look at the quality and who created it. Unsurprisingly, you see a lot of capitalization on trends and trendy ingredients and concepts like CBD or adaptogens. I just look under the hood and check out who’s producing it. I’m very sincere about what I’m doing, and I’m in it for the long term. Trust and authenticity matter a lot to me.
Who are some of your teachers that have shown you the path?
As an herbalist, I really respect David Winston. He’s been practicing for decades and is probably my favorite teacher from a strictly herbal standpoint. I also like Thomas Easley, another teacher. For people who are looking for good teachers or good schools, the American Herbalists Guild is the most official regulating body for herbalists.
My parents were influences. I’ve really been in the weeds with this since I was a kid.
Your parents were interested in herbalism?
My dad was an anesthesiologist, and my mom was a dietician. So I grew up with a little bit of East and West at home. My dad was also a cowboy and raised us on a farm. So we learned how to garden, to be with nature, to be alone, to be out in the wilderness with our hands in the dirt for twelve hours at a time. I learned a lot of lessons from both my parents. They both taught us how to listen to our bodies in a way that allows for a relationship and communication. It’s so different from what I find in people who are struggling, which is a disconnection and feeling of being victimized by cravings or an inability to gain control over these urges. Just wanting to be a different way than we are, and not understanding why our body is a different way than how we want it to be. That relationship was something I learned very early on.
Let’s get into how you think about the words well-being and wellness. How do you define them?
I think of well-being and wellness as a degree of contentment and peace with living in this body in this world in this way. To me, health is a form of self-actualization. You are your best self when you are in health.It doesn’t mean that you have to be a wellness person. You’re not in an argument or in combat with it. That’s generally how I think about it.
To close, what to you, Rachelle, is the good life?
[Laughs] Well, I’m laughing because the good life I’m hoping for involves half of my time in New York and half of my time in Costa Rica. A little more sincerely, I think the good life is about being able to be here now, a bit more present, and enjoy the process. I’ll leave it at that.
This interview was recorded on August 31, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.