What does it mean to be healthy?
In the most scientific sense, to be a healthy human is to have a properly-functioning body absent of disease. As it’s broadly defined today, health is not exclusively a physical characteristic, but also a state of mental and social well-being.
To fulfill those physical, mental and social aspects of good health, people explore many different avenues that they hope will lead to a healthy life.
For Nicholas Zemp, health and herbs go hand in hand.
A clinically-certified Chinese and western herbalist, Zemp is the founder of Grey Mountain Herbs, a herbal apothecary and clinic near downtown Provo. Through his business, Zemp offers an array of herbal remedies as varied as the discomforts that can plague the human body. Most of those remedies manifest themselves as herbal teas, but remedies can take the form of capsules, lotions, oils and other vehicles offered by Grey Mountain Herbs and its distributors.
“I just facilitate people through knowledge and guide them in ways that people have been healing themselves for thousands of years,” said Zemp.
Though his remedies are designed to set the body back on its natural course of health, Zemp doesn’t claim to be any sort of miracle-medicine man.
“I don’t treat any disease, or especially any western-defined medical condition — that would be practicing medicine without a license and I would go to jail,” he said. “Our bodies are amazing in their ability to heal themselves. It’s really about facilitating the body to take care of itself.”
Nick’s house of herbs is also his home.
“It’s small, and I like it that way,” he said. “I like the intimacy and building those strong personal relationships with people.”
The front room of his home is dedicated to herbalism. Large jars of various herbs fill shelves about 6 feet high and other educational tools of natural medicine such as books and diagrams can be found among the room’s comfy couches and potted plants. Though Zemp has 17 years of personal and professional experience with herbal remedies, he feels that his expertise can only go so far, and that true healing must come from within each client.
“I believe that health is something that is very personal,” he explained. “I can tell you what you need to do until I’m blue in the face, but unless you take it upon yourself and take responsibility for your own health you’ll never change — you’re never going to get better.”
Nick’s personal fascination with herbal remedies began at the age of 15 when he saw a PBS documentary about a disease called African sleeping sickness.
At the time, there was no cure for the disease. Without any treatment, most cases resulted in death. A pharmaceutical company formulated a cure for the disease, but high demand from a population with very little disposable income to purchase the drug kept it out of the hands of many in need of treatment.
“As a precocious 15-year old, I was just all up in arms and decided I was going to boycott the pharmaceutical industry,” he said with a laugh. He later noted with a grin, “As we age, we kind of mellow out in our revolutionary ideas.”
His revolutionary and inquisitive nature led him to begin educating himself on alternatives to traditional western medicine. He carried that curiosity with him when he moved from his hometown of Idaho Falls to Sisters, Oregon when he was 18 years old.
In order to pay his bills, Zemp relied on his other passion to make money: cooking. Though after much soul searching, he felt that he didn’t want to make a career out of cooking and would rather keep it a hobby. The realization made him reconsider his idea of what it is to have a career.
“Instead of thinking about what do I want to be when I grow up, I changed my thinking to what do I want out of a career, or what do I want the career to give me as opposed to what I would give it,” he explained. “So I came up with three things: one was that I wanted to be able to help people, the second one was I wanted to have my hands in the dirt (work with the environment) and the third thing was that I wanted to travel.”
Later that day he went out to visit some friends that owned a medicinal herb farm. Zemp recounted, “I went out there and was hanging out with them and it kind of clicked in my head that day that I wanted to study herbal medicine and be a healer and a herbalist.”
From then on, he began to focus his lifestyle on herbal remedies.
In 2004, he moved to western North Carolina where he eventually attended the Appalachian School of Holistic Herbalism. While in North Carolina, he also studied at the Institute for Chinese Herbology and worked at Golden Needle Acupuncture, Herbal and Medical Supply, where he eventually became the head herbal pharmacist.
While working at Golden Needle Acupuncture, he was invited to a housewarming/birthday party for an acupuncturist. On Jan. 7, 2009, he attended that party.
Five days later, he woke up in the hospital.
During the party, Nick was chatting with a friend smoking a cigarette as he enjoyed a drink. The two stood on the back balcony of his friend’s new home, which stood on top of a hill. As Nick talked with his friend he lost his balance, his 6-foot-4 frame tripped over a low railing on the balcony and he fell about 20 feet.
His friends rushed to him as he briefly regained consciousness long enough to urge them to call an ambulance. He explained that he doesn’t recall much of what happened after that. He woke up in the hospital five days later after being intubated.
“After having not taken any pharmaceutical drug or even over-the-counter medication for 14 or 15 years, I woke up in the hospital with a brace around my neck and I was on 30-plus pharmaceutical drugs,” said Zemp.
When he regained consciousness, doctors told him he was paralyzed from the chest down and that he would never walk again.
With severely limited mobility at the age of 28, Zemp took the news surprisingly well.
“I was surprisingly OK and calm with all of it,” he recalled. “I definitely don’t feel that I’m special in any kind of way or that my attitude is all that unique, as far as not allowing my abilities to control my life — I’m the master of my own life.”
Despite a positive attitude, he stated, “It definitely takes a lot of planning and thinking and figuring out ways to get around obstacles I face now.”
Zemp was sent to in-patient rehab at the University of Utah for five months. After rehab, he moved in with his brother and sister-in-laws in Orem for three years. For the first year and a half after his accident, Zemp did his best to simply sleep and let his body go through the healing process.
“There are lots of horrible days where I don’t get out of bed and I don’t want to deal with anybody and I’m just totally depressed,” he said. “Luckily those days are few and far between.”
Though he remained steadfast in his passion for herbal remedies, the accident gave Zemp a new perspective on traditional western medicine.
“I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for western medicine,” he said. “Western medicine is really great for acute care, but not so great for long-term chronic illness. In my case, I broke up neck. Had I not had a doctor that could relieve the pressure on my spinal cord and do surgery, I probably wouldn’t be here. If it weren’t for antibiotics to treat numerous infections I’ve had over the years, I probably would have died a long time ago. But at the same time, herbal medicines have really helped me reduce my dependence on pharmaceutical drugs.”
Throughout Zemp’s life, he has made a business of sorts from selling his herbal remedies. His accident put that practice on hold, but for the past three years, Zemp has revitalized his herbal lifestyle in earnest.
“I love drinking tea,” he simply stated. “So, I would buy teas from the places I get my herbs from, and I was buying a few pounds of tea at a time to save money. Before long I realized that I had tons of tea and I was like, ‘all right, I have tons of this and it’ll take me years to drink it, so I might as well offer it to the community.’”
Zemp began selling his own herbal blends at local farmers markets. He sold his teas with modest success until this past year when he began selling teas that focused on taste rather than natural remedies. “It really just started taking off,” he said. His teas can be bought from Grey Mountain Herbs, or found at local establishments such as Rugged Grounds coffeehouse and Communal.
Today, Zemp balances his growing business with schoolwork as he pursues a Bachelor of Science in Biology at Utah Valley University.
Since beginning his degree at UVU in 2011, Zemp has presented at biological conferences abroad and is currently co-authoring academic papers and research projects. “They’ve given me to explore my other passion, which is science,” he said. He is on track to graduate with his degree this summer.
Zemp is pondering the idea of graduate school after graduating from UVU. Though he explained with a chuckle, “I’ll put that one on the backburner until I graduate and figure the rest of my life out.”
“Our bodies are amazing in their ability to heal themselves.
It’s really about facilitating the body to take care of itself.” — Nick Zemp