In my clinical experience herbal medicine provides gentle yet profound support and relief from common complaints and chronic symptoms. Enabling patients to implement the dietary and lifestyle changes that support their long term health- once you feel better you can do better.
What is a Medical Herbalist?
I completed a BSC degree in Herbal Medicine at the University of Westminster and graduated with First class honours. Areas of study include biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, pathology as well as clinical skills and required hours with patients in the student clinic. A medical herbalist can legally diagnose, prescribe and dispense medicinal herbal formulas including restricted herbs that are not for general sale.
How does Herbal Medicine work?
Plants contain a vast array of constituents known as phytochemicals, which can be used to gently support, rebalance and modify our own biochemistry.
Herbs can be grouped according to their actions and many are specific to particular organs or body systems.
For example, herbal actions that may be used in a formula to restore digestive function can include:
· Astringents (can reduce loose stools), bitters (to stimulate digestive juices).
· Carminatives (to reduce gas and bloating).
· Cholagogues and choleretics (to support bile production and flow).
· Demulcents and anti-inflammatory’s (to soothe and reduce inflammation).
· Laxatives (to support regularity).
· Spasmolytic (to resolve cramping).
· Hepatics (to support the liver).
· Pungent and aromatics (to stimulate appetite and reduce nausea or indigestion).
· Anti-microbials (to clear infection).
· Antacids or mucoprotective herbs (to reduce reflux or sooth ulcers).
A personal prescription might also include herbs to support the nervous system if stress was affecting digestion, or the immune system if you are reacting to multiple foods, or hormones if symptoms are worse at a certain time of the month.
As a form of holistic therapy, a medical herbalist would look at you and how your symptoms are related and seek to resolve the contributing factors not just supress a symptom.
What can I use herbal medicine for?
People can take herbal medicine for many different reasons. Patients might have a specific medical condition, be suffering from stress or anxiety, or just wish to maximise their well-being. While many herbs can provide symptom relief, the aim of herbal medicine is to treat the whole person and restore health not just supress symptoms. Herbal medicine can be really beneficial in supporting chronic long-term conditions and also, in acute first aid situation and as an adjunct to conventional therapies.
How long will it take for me to feel better?
This will be different for everyone and depend on your starting point. Some patients feel the benefits immediately, and some effects may take longer to feel. You may be prescribed a formula for acute relief of immediate symptoms and a main formula to address longer term issues, generally to experience the full benefits 3 months minimum is recommended, although the formula maybe adjusted as you go to address changing patterns in symptoms.
Some patients can take a short course of herbs to rebalance and return to their desired state of health while others with chronic and long-term conditions such as auto-immune may wish to continue to take herbs for a longer period of time to keep their condition in remission. Some herbs are only for short term use while others are safe to take long term.
How do I take them?
Herbal tinctures are taken in a specified dose usually in water or a little juice to mask the taste, at specified times each day, usually after a meal, or before if indicated.
Herbal tablets or capsules are also taken with water as above.
Herbal teas are steeped (1 tablespoon per mug) in boiling water for 10 minutes in a covered pot or cup to keep the essential oils in, and drunk usually up to three times a day. They can be brewed the night before and drunk cold the next day. Roots, and woody stems or seeds may need to be decocted (boiled) for 30 minutes to extract their constituents so read labels for specific guidance.
Is there evidence that they work?
Yes, lots of evidence in many different forms. Medical Herbalists mainly use whole-herb extracts in unique formulas for each patient, so it's difficult to produce the kind of rigorous, large-scale clinical trials that support the use of pharmaceuticals. However, there is a huge amount of clinical experience and history of traditional use underlying the effectiveness of herbal medicines. And an ever-growing body of clinical trials and observational studies.
I have tried buying herbal medicine from the high street and it didn’t seem to do much?
The supplement industry in the UK is very poorly regulated in terms of quality and most not all manufacturers often use very low levels of a particular herb to keep costs low and to ensure safety so that anyone with any existing condition on any medication can take the product. What this often means however, is that the product doesn’t contain a therapeutic dose- an amount that would be needed to deliver the desired outcome, which is why working with a medical herbalist who can prescribe the right dose for you is so important.
Are herbs dangerous, can they do harm?
All substances ingested at certain doses have the potential to make you sick, on the whole herbal medicines are very safe, at the worst side effects can be upset digestion although this is rare. We are all biochemically unique and some people may react to certain herbs but again this is rare. Some plants are very toxic and their use is restricted to licensed practitioners in regulated doses. Most reported case of adverse effects or toxicity from herbal medicine occur when the herbs are adulterated or mixed with the wrong plant, which is why it’s important to work with a herbalist who sources their medicine from a trusted supplier.
Isn’t alcohol bad for you? Why do herbal tinctures use alcohol?
Alcohol is a powerful solvent and allows the active ingredients that aren’t water-soluble to be extracted from the herbs. Since the amount of diluted alcohol ingested is very small- roughly the same as eating a very ripe banana, it is considered negligible and safe. Some people may If wish to decrease the amount of alcohol and you can add your dose to boiling water which will allow a good proportion of the alcohol to evaporate. Medicines can also be dispensed in powder’s, capsules and as teas which can be equally effective and more suited to certain individuals.
Is it the same as homeopathy? What's the difference?
A very common misunderstanding, homeopathy is a very different practice, using ‘vibrational’ essences of plants providing greatly-diluted essence of various substances. It doesn't use plant extracts containing active constituents and uses a very different underlying theory, although both herbal medicine and homeopathy share a holistic approach.
Can I take herbal medicine when I'm pregnant?
While certain herbs are contraindicated during pregnancy, many herbs are beneficial and can relieve common symptoms and support health during and post pregnancy.
Will the herbs interfere with medicine I'm already taking?
Medical herbalists are trained in the pharmacology of most common prescription medication and will be able to prescribe in a way that avoids interactions to ensure your safety. And for those wishing to reduce or avoid taking medication herbal medicine can provide bridging support to reduce dependency on many common drugs.