Herbal medicine

So what exactly is herbal medicine, anyway?

Firstly, herbal medicine is old medicine - in fact the oldest form of medicine in the world. It’s still the primary type of healthcare for around 80% of the global population, and the basis for a high percentage of drugs used in conventional settings (such as the NHS). Cultures across the world - and over many thousands of years - have established safe, reliable and effective methods for utilising the healing and strengthening properties of herbs, to help people with all kinds of symptoms and to promote and maintain good health at all stages of life. Herbal medicine has been a highly sophisticated system of healing for millennia, and its depth and effectiveness continue to grow as knowledge of healing systems from across global cultures is integrated and developed. This leads to an increasingly nuanced and robust practice. It’s a living and thriving therapy, a natural and deeply wise approach to working with the body, mind and spirit.

Herbal medicine uses all of the parts of plants and trees – from the roots and the bark, to the leaves, flowers, berries, seeds and pollen. Some parts strengthen, others soothe and heal, and still others stir things up and trigger our innate healing responses. And it’s not just about plants! I use seaweeds, mushrooms and lichen in my practice, so in the context of herbal medicine they are regarded as herbs too.

What do herbs do?

One of the great advantages that herbal medicines have over pharmaceutical drugs - which forcefully take over body functions, leaving us vulnerable to dependency and often wreaking havoc through side-effects - is their ability to improve the function of the various organs and systems of the body. Improvements with herbs will typically remain once a course of treatment has finished, and in fact may continue to develop spontaneously over subsequent months as increased vitality acts as a catalyst to the body’s innate healing processes. The body knows how to repair itself, but it may currently lack the strength and resources to do so, and this is where herbs come in: they promote our ability to heal by providing nutrition, stimulus and relaxation to specific parts of the body.

For example, the herb wood betony nourishes the nervous system, strengthening circulation and the mind/gut relationship; burdock improves the liver’s ability to process oils and the absorption of nutrients from food; and cleavers cleanses the lymphatic system, promoting robust immune function and the free circulation of hormones. Some herbs have a directly healing and repairing effect, such as oak, which I use to help repair damage to the colon in cases of ulcerative colitis, while other herbs, such as those in the Bach Flower system, help us to work through psychoemotional challenges and address patterns of behaviour and thinking.

BorageEven after many years of working with herbs I’m still regularly amazed by the transformations that can occur when we work with them as medicines, especially the humble ‘weeds’ and common trees that live all around us - plants like nettle, chickweed, dandelion, horsetail and silver birch. These plants are just as powerful as exotic and rare species from places like the Amazon rainforest or China, but because we see them (or perhaps ignore them) every day we tend to assume they must not be worth much. On the contrary, they’re likely to be the very remedies we need most, because they have evolved to thrive in the same environment in which we live, and face many of the same challenges – such as a relatively cold, damp climate. These are the plants I look to first, and I trust, honour and value them deeply. And because we live with them, if we choose to make medicine from them we have much more control over the process and the quality of the end product – for example by picking them at the right time, ensuring they’re grown in a non-polluted area, and harvesting them in an ethical and sustainable way. So these are the kinds of herbs that I primarily use in my practice.

Herbs can also be used in a more drug-like manner by treating symptoms directly, and while this is not generally the best way to use them, it can be helpful during periods of drug withdrawal - for instance, using aspen and rosehips as natural anti-inflammatories when helping people to reduce their conventional arthritis medicines. Herbs are powerful and extremely versatile.

Herbal medicine vs. conventional medicine

Conventional medicine (e.g. the NHS) is primarily concerned with the direct treatment of symptoms. Sometimes this is exactly what’s needed – for instance, the hospital is absolutely the right place if you’re having a heart attack! Conventional medicine is the best treatment we have for serious emergencies like this.

Herbal medicine offers something different. While it can be used very effectively in certain first aid situations (such as infections, and to promote wound-healing), it comes into its own in the treatment of longer-term, chronic health conditions.

Herbal medicine looks beyond the direct treatment of your symptoms, placing them in the wider context of your overall health and the rich complexity of your life. It looks to understanding the layers of meaning that lie beneath the surface of things, and focuses treatment on the root causes. Symptoms shift from being a problem to be fixed directly to something more akin to the warning lights in a car – they indicate that something needs our attention. And just as covering over a warning light won’t fix the steam coming out of an overheated engine, so putting steroid cream on skin eczema, for example, won’t help someone’s kidney function which has weakened from years of anxiety which was itself an adaptation to early childhood experiences. Nor will it resolve their tendency to eat sugary foods because they are looking for emotional nurturing, which in turn has lead to an imbalanced gut microbiome and problems with metabolism, digestion and immunity. Health and illness are many-layered and intricately woven, and herbal medicine is particularly effective in the treatment of long-term health problems because it approaches the process of healing in the same way.

Is herbal medicine safe?

Herbal medicine is one of the safest therapies of all, especially given how effective it is. The herbs I prescribe have thousands of years of empirical evidence proving their safety and reliability as medicines, with well-documented safety considerations and contraindications. I make my own high-quality medicines from primarily native Scottish plants, either foraged for or grown in my local area, and can therefore ensure that I harvest them at the perfect time from non-polluted places, use the correct parts, manufacture them carefully, and store them appropriately. This makes my practice safer still. I also occasionally buy medicines from UK-based organic or biodynamic suppliers, but only those who care as much about safety and quality as I do.

Do herbs have side-effects?

I’m not a fan of side-effects. The herbal medicines I prescribe are made from the whole of the plant (or fungi, seaweed, lichen, etc), rather than extracts of particular chemical constituents, and this means side-effects are rare and tend to be very mild, if they happen at all. This is because some constituents of herbs act as buffers to the stronger-acting chemicals and, as whole organisms, they come in a form that our bodies have evolved to recognise and absorb.

If you were to experience side-effects of any kind then I would most likely recommend switching to a different herb or formula rather than persevering with something that’s causing you discomfort in some way; there are almost always alternatives to using herbs that cause side-effects.

The ‘small dose’ approach

I use really small doses of herbs in my practice. In a typical prescription comprising a combination of different herbal tinctures (i.e. herbs in a mixture of alcohol and water), the amount of each herb I prescribe in a given dose is likely to be just 1-4 drops, or perhaps even as little as a fraction of a drop, with the total combined volume of herbs not usually more than 1ml per dose. This way of prescribing is more common amongst herbalists in the United States but less so in the UK – where a typical dose is 5-10ml total volume – and it’s one that I believe has many advantages:

• Small doses are more readily accepted by the body and often have a different effect than larger doses. While larger doses tend to have a drug-like action and force the body in certain directions, small doses have a subtler influence, acting as catalysts for changes that can develop at a pace that is comfortable and more in keeping with the body’s delicate mechanisms and balances. Small doses work with the body’s innate healing potential and allow change to happen at its own pace, and as such there is less risk of side-effects.

• Small doses mean lower-cost medicines. Because I use small doses, I don’t need to charge the people I work with as much for them. For example, a typical price for a month’s supply of tinctures from most UK herbalists is around £40-£45; from me, it’s just £12 – and that’s for herbs that I’ve personally produced, that (if I do say so myself!) are of the highest quality.

• Smaller doses of tinctures mean less alcohol in your body. One of my 1ml doses contains significantly less alcohol than a medium-sized glass of orange juice; more typical 5-10ml doses, taken three times each day, add up to quite a bit of alcohol over the weeks and months of treatment. This is unlikely to assist the healing process. (In case you’re wondering why tinctures contain alcohol at all, there are two reasons: firstly, alcohol acts as a highly effective solvent to certain constituents of herbs (such as resins) that aren’t extracted by water alone; and secondly, alcohol is an excellent preservative, allowing tinctures to be kept safely for many years.)

• Small doses mean significantly reduced environmental impact. Because I use such small doses, the amount of herbs I need to grow and gather from the wild, and therefore my environmental footprint, is also proportionally smaller.

Can I take herbs alongside medicines prescribed by my doctor?

In most cases, yes. I’ve been trained to prescribe herbs in conjunction with conventional medicines, and this can usually be achieved safely. However, some herbs and conventional medicines should not be mixed together, and I’ve been trained to recognise any potential interactions or contraindications.

Can I stop taking my prescribed drugs and take herbs instead?

It’s common for people to come to me on a cocktail of drugs and supplements, and many people are understandably keen to get off them. You will probably be able to reduce your drugs and perhaps eventually stop taking them altogether, but the process of withdrawing from medication needs to be approached with great care. My preference would be to stabilise your symptoms through a combination of drugs and herbs first, and at that point, provided we are both in agreement, we would collaborate in drawing up a detailed plan of drug withdrawal, focusing on one drug at a time and usually taking place over many weeks or months. We’ll need to monitor your symptoms closely and ensure you have time to adjust to reduced dosages. This is necessarily a slow process and rushing things is likely to be counterproductive and potentially harmful, although of course all decisions regarding when to stop or reduce medications are yours to take.

The ideal scenario from my perspective is that once drugs have been completely withdrawn you would continue to take herbs until these can also be gradually removed, leaving you either entirely or predominantly drug- and herb-free and coping well.

Want to know more? My What to Expect and FAQ pages have lots of information about how I combine herbs with other therapeutic strategies, and what the experience of working with me is like. To book a consultation or chat with me about what’s happening for you, please Contact me.