Herbal Medicine Herbs seem to get into everything these days! Of course, they have always added flavour to cooking, and herbal teas, such as rosehip and peppermint, have long been popular. Now, bath oils, shampoos, face and body lotions containing a variety of herbs sell like hot cakes as we are encouraged to believe that all things natural are good for us. ‘Herbs’ (which include a variety of plants, flowers and even trees) have been used for thousands of years to cure or prevent disease and even today 85% of the world’s population is largely dependent on herbal medicine. For a long time no one really understood how or why herbal treatments worked, but more recently scientists have been able to separate many of the active chemical ingredients from healing plants and set up tests to observe their effects.
Some of these substances are now produced synthetically in laboratories and form the basis of modern drugs. For example, digoxin (a heart stimulant) is the synthetic form of the active ingredient of digitalis, found in foxgloves. And salicylates, derived from willow bark, are now produced synthetically as aspirin. However, medical herbalists believe that by isolating and using only the main, active ingredient of the plant, one is losing the benefits provided by the other ingredients working in harmony. They therefore always use the whole plant.
Because of shortage of funds and other difficulties, there have been very few scientific trials using the whole plant (although some research has now proved that feverfew can be effective against migraine). This lack of conclusive evidence is one reason why doctors are sceptical of herbal medicine.
Herbalists say that medicines using the whole plant work in a similar way to foods providing, for example, essential vitamins and minerals – which help protect the body against illness – and enzymes which aid absorption of food.
Some plants have within them a natural antidote to the side-effects a medicinal ingredient could cause, were it extracted and given in isolation. For instance, ephedrine – a drug often prescribed by doctors to relieve bronchial symptoms – comes from the plant Ephedra sineca and can cause an increase in blood pressure. But the plant itself includes an ingredient that keeps blood pressure down.
As another example, dandelion leaves are a natural diuretic (that means they stimulate urine production and help to rid the body of excess fluid); they are also rich in potassium, an essential mineral salt. When man-made diuretics are used, the body may excrete too much potas-sium so that a supplement is needed to replace it. Herbalists can point to many such instances where the ingredients in the plant counterbalance each other.
The Herbal Remedies
available from chemists, health food shops and supermarkets may be helpful for minor problems, but, if symptoms are persistent or severe, consult a registered medical herbalist for a full assessment and tailormade prescription. Looking for the initials MNIMN or FNIMH after the practitioner’s name will help you avoid quacks – a professional herbalist (and many people do not realise these exist) will have done four years’ training.
Herbal medicine aims not just to treat a particular symptom, but to improve the overall physical and mental well-being of the patient. Diagnosis and treatment based on this holistic approach will include advice on diet and lifestyle, as these may be partly responsible for the symptoms. In fact, herbalism takes so many factors into account that two people with apparently identical symptoms may be given quite different prescriptions. Professional herbalists are trained to use many of the same diagnostic methods as doctors and to refer people on for X-rays and other specialist investigations or treatment, if necessary.
Medicines are usually given in the form of a ‘tincture’ – a concentrated solution made from suitable herbs which have been soaked in water and alcohol. Sometimes the herbalist provides the actual plants from which to make an ‘infusion’ (similar to tea) or a ‘decoction’, whereby the plants are gently simmered for some time and the juices then strained off. Medicinal herbs can also be given as suppositories, ointments and poultices.
It is part of a medical herbalist’s training to learn the most effective quantities of each plant to use, but the constituents of the plant can vary, depending on such factors as where it is grown and the time of year it is picked. This means it is impossible to measure accurate dosages, and is another reason that most orthodox doctors still have their doubts about herbal medicine.
Most Herbal Remedies
are safe and mild for children as well as adults, and even the names of many healing plants sound soothing – lemon balm, comfrey, meadowsweet and speedwell, for instance. However, like anything else, they can be harmful if used incorrectly or taken in excess. One man died recently from drinking too much carrot juice – so always follow the instructions carefully.
Some of the more potentially dangerous herbs (like lobelia, an anti-asthmatic) can only be prescribed by medical herbalists and/or doctors. Some, such as devil’s claw – a joint and muscle pain-reliever – should be avoided in pregnancy. If you are in any doubt, ask professional advice.
Conventional medicines usually act quickly and are therefore best for acute illness, but they can also cause side-effects. Herbal Remedies
often take longer to be effective but for simple, common ailments and recurrent problems such as indigestion, constipation, insomnia, eczema, ulcers and headaches, advice and treatment from a medical herbalist could bring relief. Serious side-effects are most unlikely.
Some conventional and herbal medicines work well together but others can interact badly, so always tell your doctor and herbalist about any medicines you are taking. Throughout this guide, I’ve listed a selection of herbal medicines and remedies available which may help some common ailments.