I've added this section to help you better appreciate the big wide world of Herbal Medicine and all that it entails. Ok, admittedly some of this content is thanks to questions I commonly get asked. A few of which (though innocently asked) reeeaallly infuriate me so I feel compelled put pen to paper and address some of these – or fingertips to laptop rather? Anyway, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding out there – when it comes to our plant friends (and note I call them friends for good reason!) Possibly because we have lost touch with nature and also likely thanks to the often less-than-accurate media & the dominating influence of the much-less-than-ethical pharmaceutical companies. So… here goes & hope it helps shed some much needed light on this ancient and impressive system of healing.
Is it witchcraft?! Yes really… I do get asked this Q!!
No it is not ‘black magic’ or dangerous– it is just nature! I guess some herbalists like to be called ‘white witches’ 😉 Well actually, in some ways Herbal Medicine is ‘magical’ because nature is magical. With it’s complexity, inherent intelligence and life force (ability to thrive, regenerate and survive) it never ceases to amaze me.
How Exactly do Herbs help us?
Herbal Medicine is simply the use of plants (roots, leaves, seeds, flowers, fruit, bark) for various medicinal purposes or just to maintain good health. This is an ancient form of healing which has been used by humans globally for thousands of years. During our shared time on this planet, the co-evolution of plants and humans together has led to a common language. Plants can ‘talk’ to us in their own unique way, a chemical language – as one example. It’s all very simple once you understand a bit about plant chemistry and biochemistry. Plants contain chemicals (phytochemicals) which interact with our cells in a complex dance. Herbalists simply make the most of this relationship, strategically using plants and basically tapping into nature’s resources.
Many pharmaceutical drugs are actually obtained directly from or inspired by plants. This is why pharmaceutical companies actively research plants so that they can extract the active chemicals and develop it into a drug to make lots and lots of money. So actually plants are drugs, though much more complex by nature and mostly much safer! (as a general rule – there are of course some v potent/dangerous plants but those routinely used by herbalists generally have a good safety record.
Some herbalists also tap into the more subtle energetic aspects of plant healing, in the form of flower essences and shamanic medicine. Though this is not an area I specialize in, I find it fascinating nonetheless.
However you want to define it, I guarantee that the more you learn about plants and the art of Herbal Medicine, the more it will leave you in reverence of nature and simply wanting to learn more.
How did we gain this knowledge?
This vast body of knowledge that we call herbal medicine has accumulated through trial and error, careful observations and experimentation by humans throughout history. This wisdom has travelled through time, passed down from one generation to the next – worldwide. It blows me away that so many are ready to simply disregard thousands of years worth of collective knowledge. Now, thanks to this long trial of human experience/learning, we are able to harness this power and use it intelligently. ‘Western Herbal Medicine’ as we know it in modern Europe, Australia, the USA actually spans thousands of years and encompasses knowledge from Ancient Greece and Rome plus Folk Medicine from all parts of Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. It is also influenced by other great systems of Natural Medicine, namely: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurvedic Medicine, as well as Native American Indian and Arabic Traditional Medicine and many others… I'm lucky with the (other) job I do, as I get to travel and experience some of these systems first hand. Today, we as herbalists are so lucky to have access to this vast body of knowledge from all around the world. The phrase ‘We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants’ couldn’t be more truthful. If you want to learn more about the history of herbal medicine (from a European perspective anyway), the book ‘The Green Pharmacy’ by Barbara Griggs is worth a read.
Our Herbal Helpers…. What can they be used for?
Herbs can be used for acute conditions, symptomatic relief, chronic diseases or just for general health and well-being over the long term. Their actions are so diverse that it is impossible to describe them in a few paragraphs. For chronic diseases, visiting a qualified herbalist is always recommended as they are adequately trained to deal with the more complex conditions. However, this should not put you off learning about Herbal Medicine for home use as there are still many things you can do to help yourself, so long as you have learnt your stuff! There are some great online herb courses/communities for the home herbalist (such as ‘Herb Mentor’ or ‘The Herbal Academy) where you can pick up some good tips. It is an art and one well worth having – a lovely skill to own.
I have to say that whilst it is true that in many cases Herbal Medicine stimulates healing, it is not a ‘fix-all’ by any means. Nutrition, genetics, pollution, stress, psychological/social wellbeing and exercise all play a role in ‘health’. This is what ‘holistic’ health means, taking all aspects of a persons health/life into account.
Boil boil toil & trouble! Preparations in herbal medicine
Herbs can be used both internally and externally and include many preparations from tinctures to herbal teas to essential oils to powders to capsules or topically as compresses, creams or oils. They can also be used in baths or inhaled via steam. It depends on what you are treating.
The most commonly prescribed herbal preparation is a tincture. Tinctures alcoholic extracts of herbs. This is where the herb is macerated in alcohol to extract most of the active phytochemicals, thereby making them much more bioavailable and easily absorbed by the body. The actual amount of alcohol is very small (when you consider that many fruit and vegetables naturally contain alcohol). Usually a mixture of around 5 herbs (+/-) is blended into a tailored herbal formula- the beauty of liquid herbs is that you can make customized blends for each individual client, making for a more targeted treatment.
Herbal teas and capsules also commonly used, they are especially suitable for long term use and for children/people who want to avoid alcohol. Water extracts are also better for certain herbs, when certain phytochemicals dissolve better in water than in alcohol. A skilled herbalist will prescribe the correct preparation for you.
Herbs as Food? Food as Medicine?
You will also see that there is a lot of overlap between food and medicine- medicinal herbs can be eaten as foods and many standard foods also have medicinal properties. In Asia, medicinal plants are commonly incorporated into recipes (such as mushrooms, goji berries, Burdock root, Astragalus etc….) As Hippocrates famously said ‘Let Food be thy Medicine’ (and this was several thousand years ago!) So if you don’t know where to start, start in the kitchen! Those culinary herbs pack a powerful punch and have a rightful place in the medicinal plant chest.
What makes Herbal Medicine so Special?
It is an ART and a System of Healing
Many people know about herbs, but not many know about herbal medicine. It is not simply substituting a drug for a herbal alternative. Many people think that you just take St Johns Wort instead of Prozac (for example). But this is NOT herbal medicine. Herbal medicine is a whole system of practising – you treat the person as a whole, find underlying causes and use herbs to correct any imbalance and restore function. Over the counter herbs (self-prescribing) may be fine for occasional acute treatment of minor ailments, but for any chronic or recurring issues, seeing a qualified herbalist is vital. In addition, herbalists have access to a much greater range herbs at competitive prices and are able to formulate a bespoke mix for your particular needs.
Our Bodies Prefer Whole Plants!
As I’ve said in the previous section, we have evolved with plants over millions of years. So it goes without saying that our bodies recognize and accept a complex array of natural substances in their whole form – as a package not as isolated chemicals, especially if that chemical is synthetic (not naturally occurring in nature) and certainly not on a long term basis. To have a large dose of single chemicals is foreign to the body and this is the reason there are so many unwanted effects with drugs. To give you an example…. think of refined sugar (stripped away from the plant) and the undeniable negative effect this has on health. Whereas the same sugar packaged within a fruit along with all the fibre, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds totally reverse this effect! So this same principle of ‘whole’ also applies to food, herbal supplements and nutritional supplements, which is why wholefoods, herbs and wholefood supplements are the mainstays of my treatments. Remember I am not anti-drugs, there is a time and place for them. I am just saying that there are many instances where plant medicine would be far safer for certain conditions, especially for long term use.
The concepts of Alchemy & Synergy
The whole is more than the sum of it’s parts.. It’s not just that whole plants are gentler, but sometimes whole extracts are actually more effective than the individual chemicals contained within! Using the whole form of plant medicine is preferable because it amplifies the therapeutic effects or in some cases dampens down undesirable side effects. This is the ‘magic’ in herbal medicine. The specific and complex combination of phytochemicals in a plant almost has an alchemical reaction, transforming the individual chemicals into something entirely different. Constituents in a plant can modulate the negative side effects of one another or they can enhance the therapeutic effects. This delicate interplay is impossible to replicate in the laboratory. Clever mother nature. Here are some basic examples to give you the gist:
- Vitamin C supplements: those that have added bioflavonoids (chemicals which occur naturally alongside Vitamin C in citrus fruits) have much better absorption and activity in the body, compared to the plain Vitamin C by itself. The irony. Funny that we take apart nature only to try to piece it back together in a pill!!
- The drug Asprin (acetylsalicylic acid) was first developed from Willow Tree bark and Meadowsweet flowers (in the form of salicylic acid). The problem with Asprin is that long term use is a major cause of gastric ulcers. However, herbalists know very well that Meadowsweet can have similar activity to Asprin- without increasing the risk of ulcers, conversely it is actually very gentle and soothing to the digestive tract. This is because the whole herb contains many other synergistic chemicals which somehow seem to moderate the activity of the salicylic acid (such as tannins).
- Multiple plant combinations…. It is not just the chemicals in 1 plant that can have a beneficial effect, by combining a selection of different herbs, you can further amplify the effect. 1 example is Turmeric and Black Pepper – a combination that enhances the anti-inflammatory effects of the turmeric.
Side Note... My view on ‘Standardised Extracts’
Manufacturers of a new wave of ‘high potency’ herbal extracts are failing to recognize the importance of this synergy between the different chemicals of a plant- producing a product that is very high in a single chemical (deemed the ‘active’ constituent) at the expense of other important phytochemicals (which also have therapeutic benefits or moderating effects). Herbal quality and consistency is important- but my concern with the current obsession with standardized ‘extra strength’ products is that they are becoming less like nature intended and more like a pharmaceutical product.
Using Turmeric again as an example (the current darling in the media). This medicinal plant has received a lot of attention in recent years (in particular, one of it’s chemicals called curcumin). So the market has now been flooded with expensive patented extracts containing a high percentage of curcumin – but doing so is at the expense of all the other beneficial chemicals within turmeric. Now studies are revealing the health benefits of these sister compounds, so the whole extract is likely superior. Luckily, some companies (such as Pukka) do broad spectrum, whole plant extracts.
Subtlety Always Wins
Many herbs are gentle enough to be used long term – making them ideal as part of a treatment plan for the prevention and management of chronic conditions (this is where our NHS is failing miserably). Most herbs prescribed for long term use are more subtle/gentle in their actions (especially when compared to standard drugs) and gradually ‘nudge’ you back to health. Their immediate activity may not always be as strong as pharmaceuticals drugs, but their long term effects are often powerful and unparalleled- being more gentle in action they are also usually without the unavoidable side effects of drugs. Sometimes subtlety is best and strength has no bearing on effectiveness in the long term.
Of course, some herbs are powerful and should only be taken under expert guidance. Stronger more potent herbs are usually reserved for acute conditions and short term use.
Natural Intelligence – herbs have preferences!
Herbs (like foods) usually have an affinity for specific organs/body systems – for example the circulatory system, nervous system or liver. Herbs of course have multiple uses, but often they have a special action on 1 particular organ/part of the body. As an example, Hawthorne seems to benefit the cardiovascular system (heart and arteries in particular), Milk Thistle is the undisputed king of liver herbs and then the adaptogenic herbs (such as Ginseng or Withania) are known to nourish the endocrine system (hormones) and nervous system. Most good herbal textbooks categorize herbs in this way – that is which herbs are of most benefit to that particular part of the body. Grouping herbs in this way simply helps when it comes to memorizing them, a useful learning tool.
Herbs are Multi-Functional and thus Economical
1 plant can be used for a multitude of issues. As plants are complex substances containing hundreds of different chemicals, they often have many benefits rather than 1 single use. How is that for economy?! This also means that using just a handful of herbs can provide you with so many health benefits. You don’t need to study a formal course and learn hundreds of herbs and complicated formulas. Just pick 5 medicinal plants growing in your local area, learn more about these and find out just how much they can do – for body/home/beauty. Did I mention that herbs are free/low cost?! Drugs on the other hand are extremely expensive to develop and produce, costing billions to get just one drug onto the market. There is a real and current crisis in health care systems around the world, so the more we can do to take care of our health (even if just small steps) the less strain on the medical system.
Is it Not Just the Placebo Effect?
Sadly yes, I still get asked this question! The word placebo is thrown around a lot by people who don’t understand much about herbal medicine or nutrition. Today there is a LOT of existing scientific evidence proving the efficacy of herbs/nutrients– and this evidence is growing fast. Though much more still needs to be done to further advance our understanding….
You can’t deny herbs and nutrients have a physical effect on the body. Many commonly consumed foods/drinks can actually be classed as herbal medicines- everything we eat/drink affects our physiology to some degree. Just think of our #1 drug of choice: coffee – this is a plant and could be classed as herbal medicine – it has a definite effect on our energy levels thanks to the caffeine it contains - there is no denying this! No one would accuse that of being a placebo effect – the coffee industry would not be worth billions if it were! So of course there are thousands of other plants that have a potential to affect the human body.
Secondly... often clients come to Herbalists/Nutritionists when they have been to countless doctors, specialists and even other alternative therapies, and nothing has worked- if herbal medicine/Nutrition suddenly works for them it is not placebo- otherwise they would have experienced improvements on seeing previous specialists.
Still think it’s placebo…. how much will it take to convince you!? Well then… another reminder that many drugs today originate from PLANTS. If Plants and foods didn’t work… then drug companies would not continue to invest in billions researching and developing the chemicals contained in them.
Here are a few examples:
Asprin is from Meadowsweet and Willow trees
Digoxin the heart drug is from foxglove
Ephedrine for asthma is from Ephedra
Codeine and Morphine painkillers are from the Opium Poppy
The Chemotherapy drugs Taxol and Vincristine are from the Yew tree and Madagascar Periwinkle flowers respectively.
As I mentioned in the previous article on Natural Therapies, lack of funding is a problem when it comes to plant medicine research (there are less profits to be made here, compared to pharmaceuticals). However, despite the lack of funding, there is a steadily growing mountain of research, which is really helping to advance our understanding of how different medicinal plants affect the human body. Many herbalists rely on a mixture of science, traditional knowledge and the sharing of clinical experience from other practitioners. It is also worth noting that as valuable as science is, we do not always have to have scientific validation to know that a certain plant works. Science cannot necessarily explain everything – and this is OK! (in some cases it is even likely that our ‘science’ is not yet advanced enough). There is also a lot to be said for trusting in the thousands of years of human experience and wisdom that we already have access to! The long history of herbal medicine means that we already have many long term human trials documented (real life cases – not test tubes!) and if a particular plant was not effective, we would not know about it today and we would not still be using it today – simple! Herbalists in clinical practice would soon know! Clinical evidence directly from herbal practice is not taken into consideration enough.
I’ve touched upon this in the previous section. Of course Herbal Medicine is not without risks but it is generally safe when used appropriately. You can invest in some reference books but for best results and safety, I always recommend visiting a qualified Herbalist. This is especially important if you have a serious health condition, are pregnant/breastfeeding or are on medications. Also take care with children/babies as not all remedies are suitable for them and doses will need to be adjusted. Then there’s the whole other world of foraging – if you want to pick your own herbs, that’s great – just be sure you are 100% certain as to what you are collecting! As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s just a matter of being educated about it and if in doubt always ask a professional, after all that is what we are trained for 🙂
It’s a win-win if we learn to use plants intelligently and with due respect. The more we learn about plants, the more we can benefit from them and in turn… the more likely we are to nurture our natural resources – the earth’s true treasures. I hope this article has provided you with a little more clarity and confidence when it comes to using herbal medicine.
Next Section... the equally important field of NUTRITION
Also see the 'Herbal Medicine Resources' page for further reading on this topic