Health column: Nicola Parker - herbal medicine is an invaluable aid to health
While I was studying my herbal medicine degree, a common source of humour for us as students was that very few people outside of our studies had any idea what we did.
Years later, I’m still asked by visiting family members, “what is it that you actually do, again?”. After explaining my role to them, the next question is usually, “...and you can actually make a
career out of that?”
To many people, herbal medicine sounds like a weekend hobby and while I do find it mildly amusing to watch the surprise in their expression, I also feel it’s a shame that such a valuable form of medicine is something so many people are ignorant of.
Herbal medicine has a huge amount to offer health care services and, while I was doing my herbal medicine degree, I was lucky enough to be trained by herbalists working within NHS settings, such as GP practices and alongside consultants. In these environments, herbal medicine works in harmony with current orthodox medical practice, so the two approaches complement each other.
I often say that, at heart, we are all herbalists. You might have put extra chilli in your recipe (because it helps your stuffy nose), added lemon to a hot toddy (for its potent shot of vitamin C) or even taken an aspirin (which originated from the bark of the willow tree). All these things include working with plants as a medicine, so at these times we are our own herbalists.
Yet if you meet someone who describes themselves as a Medical Herbalist, it’s usually because they’ve studied a herbal medicine degree, learning about medicine far beyond the garden and kitchen. A degree in herbal medicine involves learning about the mechanisms of disease and the chemistry behind how herbs work in the body. From here, we glean knowledge of which herbs react with different drugs, how they can help with the side effects of prescribed medication or in some cases
negate the need for it. Medical Herbalists are taught clinical skills and examination techniques to help them identify the symptoms of certain diseases, to understand diagnosis, know when it’s appropriate to treat with herbs and when it’s appropriate to refer to other medical practitioners.
My belief is that there is a huge gap in the healthcare system for a different approach to medicine and Medical Herbalists have the ability to fill it.
After speaking to herbalists working within NHS settings, I’m told that the benefits are multiple.
Patients are more satisfied at being given a wider range of treatment options, especially in the case of anxiety, hormonal problems, pain management, skin conditions and functional bowel disorders. Normal treatment of these conditions often includes long term use of potent and sometimes ineffective medication. While a GP may have as little as 10 minutes to diagnose and prescribe a treatment plan, a herbalist usually takes at least 30 minutes and can discuss lifestyle and dietary factors in detail.
As well as pleasing the
patient, this approach has the potential to save the NHS an enormous amount of money, by lessening the need to prescribe certain medications and reducing the burden on GPs to see people with common, non-life threatening conditions and minor ailments.
The important thing here, is that a Medical Herbalist will know when to refer you for more serious treatment. If you’ve been told that your three-month chest infection doesn’t need antibiotics and you just need to ‘ride it out’, a herbalist can speed up that process. Been told you just need to keep using the laxatives, pain medication or antacids, to reduce the symptoms of your problem? A herbalist can help you work out why your body isn’t working as it should on its own, to find a solution.
The main difference between herbalists and many GPs is that a GP is trained to look for a disease to treat. Without a disease to treat, symptom management is the next step. A herbalist on the other hand, will use their medicine to build and restore health, so that symptom management is no longer needed.
Both orthodox medicine and herbal medicine have benefits and limitations. The key to using them successfully is realising that the two approaches complement rather than clash with each other.