What is herbal medicine?
Although classed as an "alternative" or "complementary" therapy in the UK, it is still the predominant medicine for over 80% of the world's population.
Western herbal medicine is based on the work of the Ancient Greeks such as Hippocrates. Although it has been influenced by other traditions including those of the Native Americans which extended the knowledge of early European settlers and then returned to Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many of the herbs in use today, e.g. comfrey (Symphytum officinale), can trace their origins back to the writings of Dioscorides in the 1st century AD while others have much more recent origin, e.g. Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) which was brought to a wider audience in the 1960s by Russian researchers.
Herbalism is an holistic therapy where herbs are chosen to suit the particular circumstances of the patient to restore natural vitality and promote the healing powers of their own mind, body and spirit.
The patient will also normally receive advice on diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors that may be affecting their overall health.
She or he will be helped to take responsibility for their own wellness as the treatment is very much a three way partnership between the patient, the herbalist and the herbs.
What does the herbalist do?
Based on this information she will try to diagnose the root of the problems. Although the diagnostic training is similar to that of mainstream doctors, the herbalist considers the whole person – body, mind and spirit - rather than taking a narrow view of a single organ or function. Her diagnosis may include energetic terms (e.g. lack of digestive fire) or emotional considerations (e.g. suppressed grief) that she feels are contributing to the patient's unwellness.
A combination of herbs will be selected to encourage restoration of a healthy balance in physiology, emotions and energy. The herbs may be in dried form for you to make up as a "tea" or as alcoholic tinctures for you to take in water. Seldom will the herbs be given in pill or tablet form although creams, ointments, liniments etc will also be made up when appropriate.
You will be given detailed instructions on how to take the herbs and probably some suggestions as to dietary or other lifestyle changes. A review appointment will be arranged for somewhere between one and four weeks time depending on individual circumstances. Sometimes you will feel completely well again in a short time but some long-term chronic conditions may take weeks or months to alleviate fully, although changes should be evident within a week or so.
Who can benefit from Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicine is used to help re-establish the body's innate ability to heal itself so it can benefit a wide range of people both young and old, male and female.
Some people come to see me with a range of niggling complaints none of which they feel is bad in itself but nevertheless they think they could feel healthier. Some would like help to stop going down with one infection after another. Others have been to numerous GPs and specialists, who have pronounced that there is nothing organically wrong, yet their quality of life is still reduced by aches and pains, poor digestion, skin problems or whatever that they would like some help and advice with.
Ladies with very painful periods can find there is an alternative to going to bed with a hot water bottle and paracetamol while those with very heavy or irregular periods may be looking for an alternative to "going on the Pill" or help with menopausal symptoms. Many come for help to either deal with the side-effects of essential medication or help to reduce or come off such things as sleeping pills, anti-depressants or "HRT" – or to avoid going on them in the first place.
The advantage of consulting a fully trained medical herbalist, rather than self-treating with herbal remedies from a health food shop (or internet site), is that I will give you plenty of time to explain all your symptoms and then come up with an explanation for what is going wrong and an individualised way of overcoming the problem(s). Normally each client will be given a different prescription to deal with his/her specific symptoms as the herbalist treats the person not the disease.
Be aware that you may sometimes be advised to return to your GP, with a letter of explanation if you want it, if I suspect that a serious underlying problem has been missed.
Dispelling the myth
Many people believe it is an either/or situation, either they take drugs from their GP or they entrust all their health problems to herbal medicine. This is simply not the case. As a herbalist, I try to keep abreast of the latest medical treatments and how they might interact with the herbs. I fully appreciate that some drugs can be life-saving for many people but they may have other health problems for which they seek a gentler alternative or they may be struggling to keep taking their medication due to side-effects. In either case I will try to help. There will be occasions when the choice of herbs may be severely limited by the pharmaceutical medication but I would never advise you to stop taking it without discussing all the options with your GP or specialist.