Photo / Christopher Nyerges

Dr. James Adams

Dr. Adams says that the medical profession is mistaken when it comes to how to treat pain.

Adams explains that although the brain processes pain, all pain in the body is felt mostly in the organ of 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 with 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. James Adams is a man on a mission. He teaches pharmacology at USC, and also teaches medical students Chumash healing as part of regular classes. Adams earned his PhD in Pharmacology in 1981 at UC San Francisco in comparative pharmacology and toxicology, and is now an Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences at USC.He’s written over 200 articles.

Adams got very 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 local plants had been used by the local Native Americans.

Adams then set out to find a Native American herbalist to learn from and, after about two years, he met Chumash medicine woman Cecilia Garcia. Adams then became Garcia’s student, and spent 14 years studying the intricacies, and underlying belief structures, of the Chumash healing traditions.

 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 which describes the chemistry and uses of the plants that were used by the Chumash for medicine, and generally used throughout the west.

Since their collaboration, Adams and Garcia have led nearly 100 walks and workshops to teach about the Native use of healing herbs, until Garcia’s untimely death in 2012. 

I asked Dr. Adams whether or not he was just cynical of the medical profession, as I am, or perhaps 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.

He points out that there are currently at least 67,000 people who die in the US every year from prescription opioids, and that figure is rising. According to Adams, 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, 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 work.

But 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 combatted by giving the patient drugs that suppress pain detectors in the brain.

“That’s the prevailing notion. 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.

Dr. Adams learned Chumash healing from Cecilia Garcia, and she taught him — among other things — the traditional ways to deal with pain.

“Cecelia 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.”

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

“Western trained people do not want to believe that the Indian medicines are efficacious,” he explains. “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.

“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, 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.

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.

“Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West” is now in its third printing, which 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.

RECIPES [more details are found in Adams’ book]


Soak about a quarter-pound of black sage leaves and stems (Salvia mellifera) in two quarts of water, and set in the sun for several hours until the tea is dark red brown. Strain. 

Pour the sun tea into a pan, and soak feet for 15-20 minutes a day for seven days. Refrigerate after each use. Wait one week to see what happens to your pain. Repeat process after second week. This is for any body pains.


Into a container [he typically uses an 8 ounce Mason jar], place one leaf of white sage. Add 4-to-6 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 use either tequila or vodka instead. Let sit for at least 6 weeks.  Decant, and use the liquid sparingly, as a spray or rub, on those painful parts of the body.

(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

For information about Dr. James Adams’ class schedule, and his several books, contact Adams at