What is botanical/herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine is plant based medicine in which concentrated plant extracts are used to bring about a specific physiological effect or to generally tonify an organ or body system. Herbs have been used medicinally throughout history and an Herbalist will draw from this traditional knowledge base plus from the large base of current scientific information to choose an appropriate treatment. Herbal medicine was one of the earliest scientific traditions in medical practice and remains an important part of the healthcare system of many cultures today. Due to continuing research and the availability of greater and more varied plant species Herbal medicine has remains an integral part of Natural medicine.

"Modern chemical based medicine and procedures are useful and effective in situations that require a speedy effect but they usually come with side-effects or consequences and don't often address the underlying cause of the disease to prevent it recurring"

Herbal or chemical medicine?

Many doctors are trained in herbal medicine and do prescribe them for illnesses, however most doctors are trained in chemical based medicine. Chemical based medicine is often seen as more effective than herbs and other natural medicines. This is accurate in some instances, especially emergency lifesaving treatment. Modern chemical based medicine and procedures are useful and effective in situations that require a speedy effect but they usually come with side-effects or consequences and don't often address the underlying cause of the disease to prevent it recurring. Herbs are very biocompatible with our bodies which are designed to consume and metabolise plants. The side effects/consequences when using herbs are less and generally they support the body in its own healing process.

One example which may highlight the differences between herbal medicine and chemical medicine is in looking at treating an ear infection.

  • Ear infection treated with antibiotics - may give quick relief (not always) and prevent perforation of the ear drum (which is not dangerous and can heal by itself in most cases), however antibiotics have a weakening effect on our own defences including our immune system and our protective good bugs. Also with antibiotic treatment the reason for the ear infection is not addressed and this typically leads to more frequent infections.

  • Ear infection treated with herbs - there are many herbs with anti-infective properties that act as natural antibiotics, not as strong as medical antibiotics but not as damaging to the immune system and beneficial flora. There are also herbs which support the immune system strengthening our own defences against infection and herbs which help liquefy the congestion allowing it to drain easing pain. Drops are quite often used to deliver the herbs directly to the ear (external canal) in warmed oil. Once symptoms have been addressed the next important thing to consider in reducing the re-occurrence of infections is to look at what is happening to allow the infective process to develop. Commonly this is addressed using immune strengthening herbs in conjunction with diet changes.

Manufacture of modern herbs

As an Herbalist, using my knowledge of manufacturing, it would be possible to prepare my own herbal remedies as was done historically.  As was found in the past it would be difficult to ensure the quality of the tinctures that were prepared.  When prescribing herbal medicines it is essential to use the highest quality herbal extracts.  I believe this is best achieved using extracts made by dedicated medicinal herb manufacturing companies, for example Mediherb.

There are many variations of constituents in plants as they are influenced by growing conditions and harvest time of year. During modern manufacturing processes methods of standardization are used to ensure there is a certain amount of the active constituents in the final product. This is important as different specimens of even the same plant species may vary in chemical content. Modern manufacture of herbal extracts also stabilises them to increases the shelf life while preserving the active constituents.

Are herbs safe?

Herbs are safe when used properly and are from a reputable source. Consultation with a trained Herbalist will ensure that all factors that may influence the effect of using selected herbs are considered. This is especially important if there are pre-existing conditions or a patient is taking other medication. The interaction of herbal medicines and drugs may lead to unpleasant side effects which can be avoided if guided by a professional Herbalist.

My favourite herbs

The following are some of my favourite herbs, I regularly use these as part of treatment.

  • Licorice: a sweet tasting herb which has a positive and soothing effect on the digestive system. It is considered a lung tonic because of its positive effect on lung and respiratory health and is an effective cough treatment helping the lungs expel mucous. Licorice helps restore function to the adrenal glands, a major part of our endocrine system. It is soothing and healing to the gut wall and is mildly laxative. Stress is a major hindrance to health and licorice helps the body recover from long term stress, when taken regularly it builds resistance to stress. One of its strongest actions is as an anti-inflammatory which makes it useful for any inflammatory condition.

  • Echinecea: is an immune modulator, it increases the body's resistance to infection. It is also antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal in its own right and is useful at helping clear all types of infections throughout the body. I consider good quality Echinacea as essential in treating any infection.

  • Withania: an adaptogen, increases the ability to handle stress and helps recovery from stress. It is specific for assisting recovery from long term stress, nervous exhaustion or chronic illness. Withania helps improve resistance to stress without being stimulating and helps improve sleep. I have found Withania useful when long term stress and anxiety is hindering the body's ability to recover from illness.

  • Gentian: is a very bitter tasting herb, which increases digestive enzymes including saliva and gastric acid to improve the digestion of foods and improves gastric tone. It increases blood to the liver and promotes the peristalsis movement of the bowel all leading to more effective waste removal/detoxification.

  • Siberian Ginseng: improves mental and physical performance and minimises the effects of stress. Improves immune defences and improves resistance to chemical carcinogens and radiation. Fatigue and poor immunity are key factors in most chronic illnesses and Siberian Ginseng is very useful at lifting the 'vital energy' to allow the body to heal.

  • Chaste Tree: One of the most important herbs used to treat problems in the female reproductive system especially when symptoms are worse pre-menstrually. It helps correct progesterone deficiency restoring balance to the female menstrual cycle.

  • Slippery Elm: is a wonderful herb for normalising bowel function. Its primary constituent is mucilage which soothes whatever tissue it comes into contact with and as it is very absorbent it has a cleansing action on the bowel.

  • Chamomile: has a very gentle but significant relaxing and calming effect. It reduces spasms and cramping in the digestive system making it useful for easing digestive discomfort. Chamomile is a wonderful herb for children as it is mild tasting and is effective as a warm tea.

  • Andrographis: is a very bitter tasting herb which helps stimulate the body's own detoxification system in every cell it comes into contact with and has been shown to be protective to the liver. It has a positive effect on the immune system and I have found Andrographis very useful in treating infections especially when toxicity is an underlying factor as it supports the body's own ability to get well.

Medieval Herbalists