Part 6 - Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine is the world's most ancient form of medicine. Every ancient civilisation used plants for healing and in many cultures herbal knowledge was said to have been handed down from the gods.

Studies of herbs and their medicinal properties were prominent in the ancient civilisations of China, Egypt, Greece, Tibet, Persia and India. Much of this knowledge is still used today.

Around three-quarters of the world's population, especially those in developing countries, rely on herbal medicine. Almost quarter of all modern prescription drugs, including aspirin, are derived from plant sources.

The medicinal part of the plant is harvested or extracted and then either dried for use in teas or made into ointments, powders, pills, capsules, lozenges, pessaries or liquid tinctures.

Trial and error

Traditional herbal medicine treats the whole person rather than individual symptoms, and a prescription is individually formulated to stimulate the body's natural healing powers.

The medicinal properties of different plants have been identified by trial and error - and later through scientific investigation - over many centuries. The 16th century alchemist Paracelsus believed the appearance of a plant gave clues as to what it could be good for medicinally. This theory is known as the 'doctrine of signatures'.

Chinese herbal medicine classifies herbs according to their taste and effect on different internal organs and acupuncture meridians. In Western herbal medicine, each medicinal plant is thought to contain ingredients that prevent side effects as well as those that cure. For this reason, Western herbalists believe it's better to use ingredients from parts of the whole plant rather than just isolated individual ingredients, as is common in modern pharmaceuticals.

Typical uses

Conclusive studies have shown that individual herbal ingredients have specific physical effects - such as calming and relaxing or stimulating and warming - and that certain herbs can benefit specific conditions.

Many studies have demonstrated the efficacy of different herbs for a variety of conditions. Valerian, for example, has been shown to have a relaxing effect and has successfully been used to treat people with anxiety and insomnia. Ginger, which relieves nausea, is now widely used to relieve morning and travel sickness.

Consulting a practitioner

The first consultation with a herbalist usually lasts an hour. The practitioner will take your medical history and may ask about your symptoms, lifestyle, diet, work and emotional state.

The herbalist may take your blood pressure, listen to your chest and examine your eyes and ears. Occasionally, blood or urine tests are carried out. A diagnosis is then made and one or more herbs prescribed, with advice on dosage and the most appropriate way of taking them. Dietary advice is often given too.

Just because a herb is natural doesn't mean it's safe. Some plants are highly toxic if taken in large dosages, or may have side effects when combined with other herbs or medicines.

It's vital that your practitioner is well trained in the effects and indications for each herb, so always ask about qualifications. If he or she trained abroad - in China, for example - it may be difficult to assess their qualifications and competence. In such cases, it's best to use only those practitioners who are registered members of one of the professional UK associations or check the experiences of other patients. If you're taking any prescribed conventional medication, always inform your practitioner and doctor before taking any herbal medicines.

Poor-quality herbs may contain contaminants or only small amounts of the active ingredient, so always ask your practitioner for assurances on safety and quality. He or she should be able to tell you the name of the supplier and all products should be clearly labelled in English. Ideally, they will also have a batch number. This usually means the product has been checked for quality and ensures it can be traced back to source if there are any problems.

If you're buying your own herbs or supplements, only use reputable suppliers that carry out regular quality controls (this is usually specified in their literature or you can ask).

The standards of herbal medicine training and supplies are becoming increasingly stringent to ensure safety and quality. Many codes of practice and conduct are already in place, although at this time they're mainly voluntary.

How to use herbs?

Follow these tips when buying your chosen herbal remedies:

Make sure they're in clearly labelled containers from reputable suppliers.
Always check for the percentage of active ingredient on the labels. If there isn't one listed, the supplement isn't likely to be effective.
Look for the words 'standardised extract' on the label, which guarantees the potency of the active ingredients.

Herbs can be taken in the following forms:

Infusion - leaves or flowers steeped in water to make a herbal tea.
Decoction - bark, twigs or roots simmered or boiled in water.
Tincture - herb soaked in alcohol and water for a specific length of time.
Extracts - parts of the herb dried and powdered, or oils extracted and made into tablets or capsules.
Creams or ointments - herb combined with oils, fats and water.
Poultices - mixture of fresh dried or powdered herbs applied directly to a wound or problem area.
Compress - cloth soaked in a water-based herbal preparation and applied to an affected area.
Oils - herb infused in hot or cold oil over time.
Essential oils - see the A to Z of aromatherapy oils.

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