Herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine in the world. It is also known as phytotherapy, botanical medicine or plant medicine. Herbal medicine relies on the medicinal properties of specific plants. These plants, called herbs, have well defined effects on human physiology.
Herbal medicine uses pharmacologically active preparations from plants in the form of tinctures, teas, powders, oils, creams and waters.
The reason why medicinal plants have a medical effect on the human body is due to naturally occurring phytochemicals that interact with human physiology.
Phytochemicals are also called active ingredients or active compounds. Many have been isolated from plants and turned into pharmaceutical drugs, e.g. aspirin, digoxin and ephedrine.
Unlike pharmaceutical drugs, herbs contain dozens of active ingredients which act in different ways on the human body simultaneously. This is known as the synergetic effect of herbs, due to the synergy of action between different phytochemicals displayed. Some active ingredients may be described as providing the principle physiological action but secondary active compounds can play an important role. The principle active ingredient of Berberis vulgaris is considered to be berberine, a natural antibiotic. Studies have shown that pathogenic bacteria exposed to purified berberine are able to develop antibiotic resistance. But when the same bacteria are exposed to whole plant extracts of Berberis vulgaris they cannot get around the multiple antibiotic defences they encounter. Other phytochemicals in the plant are multiplying the antibiotic effect of the berberine. This is possibly due to secondary compounds protecting the activity of the primary compounds.
The complexity of medicinal plants is ideally matched to the complexity of a human body and disease processes. Herbs can be used as gentle supporting agents to enable the body to heal and rebalance itself. For instance, by improving blood circulation, nutrient absorption, elimination of metabolic waste.
At present, herbal medicine is not a regulated profession and anyone can call themselves a herbalist. This is why it is important to look for a herbalist who is vetted by professional bodies such as National Institute of Medical Herbalists or College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy. The difference between these two organisations is that the former more embraces the traditional use of herbs and healing practice, and the latter focuses more on applying a scientific research methodology to herbalism. I am a member of both organisations.
Only a qualified and registered Medical Herbalist will be able to offer you advice and treatment that is relevant to your unique case. General advice found online may be useful, but it can be harmful as it does not take into account your unique situation and the interactions with your pharmaceutical medications.
A Medical Herbalist acts as a therapist and offers you professional knowledge and expertise that takes into account the “whole” of you, your entire biological and psycho-social blueprint.
Shop-bought (in store and online) herbal products are more often than not of a weaker strength and dosage. They may contain the incorrect herb, the wrong part of the herb (root, leaf, bark), or be manufactured with an inappropriate extraction method. This means, that you might not get the results you expect and you may find that herbs in this way do not work for you.
Only a qualified and registered Medical Herbalist is licensed to obtain therapeutic-grade highest quality herbal medicines from professional suppliers of herbal medicines. Some herbs can only be obtained by prescription from a Medical Herbalist.
You will receive an in-depth initial consultation within a safe space and sufficient time to discuss your problem and find out its underlying causes. This includes understanding your present and past medical history, your family history, your diet, your current pharmaceutical drugs and supplements regimen, your lifestyle, your emotional health and your entire physical health. Herbalists will carry out physical examinations when relevant.
This allows a herbalist to develop a personalised treatment strategy and identify your unique herbal formula tailored to your specific case.
Later on, a herbalist will act as your health coach, optimising your wellbeing through the choice of specific herbal medicines, diet, supplements and lifestyle changes.
On average, the treatment length is from 3 months to 1 year. It really depends on the complexity of your health issues and your own personal determination to make a permanent change to your health status for the better.
You should start noticing results within the first 2-4 weeks of treatment. Remember, that herbs work in a gentler and slower way than pharmaceutical drugs. They work in the body on multiple levels and allow the body to correct imbalances or heal itself.
The herbalist approach is ‘patient-centred’ (or holistic) rather than ‘disease-centred’. Herbalists pay close attention to the unique set of symptoms for each individual that forms the basis of an individualised treatment.
Herbal medicine may be most effective in the following scenarios:
- Dermatology and gastroenterology related conditions respond very well to herbal medicines
- All kinds of chronic conditions will benefit from herbal medicine (if taking orthodox medication, your medical herbalist is trained to prescribe safely alongside those)
- Hormonal imbalances respond well to herbal medicine
- Severe health conditions including cancer patients may benefit from herbal medicine as a support to their route of treatment with NHS.
- You might not have any major health complaint but suffer from a lack of wellness due to high stress, poor sleep, low mood, poor digestion to name a few – herbal medicine would be an excellent choice to improve your wellbeing naturally
- You might be willing to maximise your chances of a disease-free life for as long as possible and are already leading a healthy lifestyle. If so, plant medicines would be an excellent contribution and investment into your long-term health. Prevention is better than cure!
Herbal Medicine is often confused with homeopathy, which also uses plant medicines. The main differences are a) philosophy, b) strength and c) dosage/ administration.
Homeopathy uses infinitely diluted herbal preparations that sometimes are likened to the placebo effect. For example, homeopathic preparations may contain 1 part of herb to 80 parts of solvent, whereas herbal medicine typically uses either a “mother” tincture with 1 part of herb to 1 part of solvent (water and alcohol), or tinctures that are 1 part of herb to 2-5 parts of solvent depending on the type of herb and the plant part used.
The dosagesalso differ. Homeopathic medicines are given in drops (10-15 drops at a time), whereas the therapeutic dose of a herbal medicine is on average 5ml of tincture per day (100 drops) x 3 times a day. So the active ingredients are often over 2000 of times more concentrated.
Yes. A qualified and registered medical herbalist is trained in herb-drug interaction and will chose herbs that are safe and suitable in your particular case.