Herbal Medicine Week

Herbal Medicine Week

This week is Herbal Medicine Week, so to mark the occasion I thought I’d write a post! As regular readers will know, my mum is a medical herbalist, so using herbs as medicines has been a natural part of my life. I tend to forget that not everyone knows what herbal medicine is and that not everyone can just pop in ‘the surgery’ when they’re feeling under the weather and whip up something appropriate for the ailment. I feel very fortunate to be able to do so and thought I’d take this opportunity to share a little about herbal medicine for those who may not know anything about it.

Simply put, herbal medicine is the use of plants to treat illnesses and restore health. When they first hear of it, most people are quite sceptical and ask, “Do you actually believe in it?” or, “Does it really work?” However, when you consider the things we do and do not eat because of the effects they will produce on our bodies, it stands to reason that plants would be capable of exerting both health promoting and health damaging effects. For example, most people are very happy to see their children eating fruits and vegetables, because it is widely accepted that these plant materials are nutritious and beneficial to eat. Most people would be deeply distressed to learn that their children had eaten holly berries or yew berries, as these plant products are highly poisonous. Nobody questions these facts or asks another person whether they believe them. They are just accepted truths. And so it is that most plants, if ingested, exert effects of some sort on the body and mind.

Herbal medicine is the harnessing of these effects to provoke desired reactions in various body systems. Common examples that most people know about include the drinking of peppermint tea after a meal to aid digestion; the drinking of chamomile tea to aid relaxation; and the use of black cohosh in treating menopausal symptoms. There are, however, hundreds of less well known herbs that exert more specialised and less notorious effects. The medical herbalist learns about the medicinal actions of all kinds of herbs that the average person has never heard of, as well as several that they have.

  • Culinary herbs with medicinal actions include sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano;
  • Culinary spices with medicinal actions include turmeric and ginger;
  • Some garden herbs with medicinal actions are calendula, yarrow, feverfew and lavender;
  • Common weeds used by herbalists are nettles, dandelions, dock and clover;
  • Trees with medicinal uses include horse chestnut, hawthorn and elder;
  • Plant foods with medicinal actions include celery, fennel, lettuce and garlic.

Anyone can set up in business as a herbalist, but to be a medical herbalist, formal training is required. The clue is in the name – a large part of the course overlaps with the studies doctors or nurses must complete, i.e. it is medical in nature. Medical herbalists are expected to sit exams, both theoretical and practical, in: anatomy and physiology; pathology; differential diagnosis; and physical examination. Whereas conventional medics then branch off into learning about drugs, medical herbalists learn about herbs instead. They must learn not only the medicinal properties of dozens of herbs, but also the pharmacology – this means the chemical components that actually give the plants their medicinal actions. They are expected to have some knowledge of conventional drugs as well, as many of their patients will already be on several different medications by the time they go to see a herbalist. As normal doctors have to do work experience in hospitals, medical herbalists have to do clinical hours under the supervision of qualified practitioners before they themselves can qualify. Three years of study are required, plus 500 hours of supervised clinical experience.

When you go to see a medical herbalist, it is in many ways like going to a doctor, except you will have a lot more time together. My mum says she feels quite sorry for general practitioners in many ways, because they have only a few minutes to spend with each patient. This makes it very hard for them to ask all the questions they’d like to, or to help as much as they would be able to if they had longer together. An initial appointment with a herbalist usually lasts between 45 minutes and 90 minutes, dependent on the practitioner and the presenting problem.

During the consultation, the herbalist will take a full medical and family history from you, as well as asking about the particular issue you are seeing them about. They will want to know how exactly you experience the problem, whether you feel something specific triggered it, whether there are particular aggravating factors or things that help. They will want a list of any medication you currently take. They may perform a physical examination, if appropriate, as well as perhaps testing your urine, measuring your blood pressure, or taking your pulse. They will ask about your diet and lifestyle. They will ask about your health in general, system by system to ensure you don’t forget to tell them anything that might be important. And then they will make a prescription for you (except they’re not allowed to actually call them prescriptions or make diagnoses now, under EU regulations).

The mixture the herbalist makes will be tailor made according to your unique requirements. It won’t be at all like going to a health food store and just choosing what you want off the shelf. Over the counter herbal preparations do have their place, but they must be innocuous enough that the general public can’t go around accidentally killing themselves with whatever they’ve bought after a quick Google. This means that their effects may not be as pronounced as something given to you by a professional. Over the counter herbal preparations are also standardised – a certain tablet has to give a certain dose and that dose will hold whether you’re a tiny woman or a huge man. In the world of medicine, one size does not fit all, so one person may find a certain product to be far too potent, whereas someone else might feel it has no effect at all.

The medical herbalist makes your medicine especially for you. They decide what ingredients to include in what dosages. As my mum says during her talks, if three people all present with migraines, they will all go away with a different mixture. Yes, there will likely be ingredients in common, but there will also be combinations chosen just for that individual, because the way their symptoms manifest or the other health issues they have will be unique to them. Every man wants to own a bespoke suit, because he knows it will fit him perfectly. In the same way, the medicine that is made for you will suit you better than something similar made for someone else, or an off-the-peg option.

Although herbal teas are still very much in use, the herbal medicine you are given will most likely be in tincture form. A tincture is a highly concentrated herbal liquid dissolved in alcohol and the beauty of tinctures is that they can be mixed together really easily and you only need to take quite small doses of them, as they’re really strong. A prescription might consist of five to ten herbs. (Some herbalists favour fewer herbs in larger doses; some like to mix more smaller doses together.) If you had to brew five or ten herbs a day into a tea and take each one two or three times a day, you would spend all day brewing and drinking tea. And most of them wouldn’t taste like Twinings either, I assure you. Five or ten herbal tinctures can be mixed together really easily and then you’ll get a single bottle of mixture given to you. Much like Calpol, the label will say something like, “Take one teaspoonful, three times a day, before meals,” and the whole thing can be necked with a bit of water as you go off to work. It still usually tastes horrible, but it’s all over much more quickly than a cup of tea!

Herbalists may also use capsules, ointments, creams, oils, juices and gargles. It all depends on what your health problem is and what their preferred way of working is. What you definitely won’t need to do is go foraging round hedgerows yourself, or do anything that looks like a Halloween activity. While it’s true that plenty herbalists do have herb gardens, love the foraging life and err on the hippie side, the herbs they use in their practice are almost always purchased from wholesalers. My mother is testimony to the fact that plenty of herbalists are pretty mainstream people, who walk their dogs, drink coffee and take paracetamol for headache just like the rest of us. In other words, there is a herbalist to suit all preferences: if you want someone who epitomises the stereotype of an alternative therapist, there will be someone out there who can do that; if you want them to look like a proper doctor and act like a pharmacist, there will be someone who can do that too!

Nowadays, herbalists are not allowed to claim they can ‘treat’ anything (more EU regulations), but since I am not a herbalist I shall use the word. Herbalists are able to treat pretty much anything you might go to the doctor with and, like doctors, some have different areas of expertise to others. Obviously if you’ve got appendicitis or your arm is hanging off that’s not the time to book in for a consultation, but for most chronic health problems, a herbalist may well be able to help. Common problems people see herbalists for include:

  • Digestive issues
  • Hormonal issues
  • Thyroid problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Arthritis
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Skin problems

Herbs can be used in acute situations as well, but these are not things that herbalists are generally called upon to deal with these days. There is a herbalist who loves to treat minor acute problems though and attends a large festival each year, where she has a tent and provides medical assistance to anyone who has had an accident or feels unwell. I’m hopelessly squeamish and am thus useless in any situation involving blood, but I am able to identify various leaves commonly found in hedgerows that can be used to place on wounds to stem bleeding, should I ever be injured while out and about. It’s the kind of knowledge that everyone used to have, but sadly hardly anyone does anymore.

There are plenty more things I could say about herbalism, but the post is getting rather long and I’ve got to end it somewhere. There are entire books devoted to introducing the subject to beginners, so I can’t hope to tell you everything in one blog post. If you are interested in learning more about the history of herbal medicine and medicine in general, I heartily recommend the book ‘Green Pharmacy’ by Barbara Griggs. It’s full of gory details and fascinating facts. If you’re interested in learning more about herbs in general, the National Institute of Medical Herbalists will be able to provide you with information about courses that are open to the public. As far as books go, there are too many to choose from to recommend just one, but there are publications for every level and every budget!

If you would like to make an appointment with a medial herbalist, there is a register of practitioners on the National Institute of Medical Herbalists’ website and another on the website of the College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy. These two of the major professional bodies of medical herbalists in the UK – any herbalist may choose to be a member of one or both organisations. By choosing a herbalist who belongs to either of these, you can be sure that they have been properly trained and are fully qualified to practise.

I’ve used herbs throughout my life and passionately believe that human beings should be able to choose for themselves what form of medicines they use. I feel truly privileged to know as much as I do about herbal medicine and nutrition and to be able to mix and match these with conventional medicine as I wish. So much traditional knowledge has been lost over the centuries and I think it’s vital that we preserve what knowledge is left, so that generations to come can continue to optimise their health by blending the best of traditional wisdom with the best of cutting edge medicine. When Tiny Pioneer was established, I thought long and hard about our strapline (yes, I really did!) and I deliberately chose the word ‘complementary’ instead of ‘alternative’ because I don’t believe we should ever have to choose between orthodox medicine and traditional medicine. I see no reason why we shouldn’t all have the right to select – and indeed strive to select – the very best combinations of disciplines for whatever health challenges we encounter.

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Wishing you the best of health this week and always,

Tiny Pioneer

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