What is Medical Herbalism?

Herbal medicine is the oldest documented form of health-care on the planet. There is pre-historic evidence of the use of botanicals in many countries including America 1, it having been suggested that herbal medicine was used since the beginning of man, in fact it probably predates homo sapians. Archaeologists have found herbal medicine remnants in 60,000 year old Neandethal tombs in what is now modern Iraq. 2 These same herbs found in the tomb are still today taken medicinally. Currently the majority of the world’s population use herbal medicine. The WHO (world health organization) estimates that 80% of the population of some Asian and African countries use herbal medicine as their primary form of health care. 3 With an estimated one in four Americans having taken complementary medicine in the past year. 4

Many modern drugs have their roots in herbal medicine, in fact the name drug itself comes from the french drouge meaning dried herb. Whether it be older drugs: like Aspirin, originally derived from willow bark; to Artemisinin, the most effective modern anti-malarial drug, derived from the Chinese herb Artemisia anua. 5 The main difference between modern drugs and herbal medicines are that drugs are typically one isolated ingredient whereas herbs contain a myriad of chemical constituents. Here in can lie herbal medicines first benefit, the herb can often contain the remedy for the side effect. As with willow bark that contains tannins that prevent the gastric bleeding that can be associated with long term aspirin use. The second advantage of a combination of the constituents is that they have a synergistic effect on the main active ingredient. On further studying a plant seemingly unimportant side constituents are shown to have vital properties of their own. All these factors make the multi-constituent herbal medicines more potent than if one ingredient was isolated out of them.

Modern herbal medicine (Phytotherapy) combines the traditional use of the botanical medicines with scientific research and knowledge of plant pharmacology to treat a myriad of health complaints. In Europe where I trained, herbal practitioners undergo a rigorous three to four year University based training. Once in practice licenced Herbalists undergo continuous professional development and adhere to the highest professional standards. 6

Through the use of Herbal medicinal supplements, dietary, and lifestyle changes; the goal of Herbal Medicine is to treat the symptoms and the underlying cause of illness. For example in the case of anxiety, the herbalist may give symptomatic anti-anxiety herbs that calm the mind but alongside this they would also treat the adrenal gland function so that the anti-anxiety herb can then be eventually stopped so the patient is no longer reliant on suppression of the anxiety. The herbalist would then advise on lifestyle and dietary changes which would allow the cessation of the adrenal support, thus causing a person who may have taking Xanax for years being able to be drug free and well. Throughout Europe and many other countries, herbal medicine is commonly used alongside conventional medicine. Registered Medical Herbalists, like conventional medical practitioners, are required to meet to the highest standards of education and professional regulation in the world.
Of course with any medicines there is the issue of safety, the vast majority of herbs are extremely safe and can be taken as a food for example parsley, ginger and turmeric to name a few. However as with all medicine there are real side effects and precautions to be taken. The way I practice is to prioritize the use of ultra-safe herbs at all times. Herbs so safe they can be used by a child. This may mean using nettle as an antihistamine over baical scullcap. However when herbs with side effects are needed this will be discussed with the client. In my experience over the past 12 years of practicing I can count the adverse reactions I have encountered on one hand. I also have given several lectures on herbal safety and drug herb interaction. 7

1: Leach JD Holloway RG Almarez FA. Prehistoric evidence for the use of Chenopodium (Goosefoot) from the Hueco Bolson of West Texas. Texas Journal of Science 1996; (2): 163-165
2: Solecki M. Shanidar: The First Flower People. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971: 245-50.
3: World Health Organisation. Fact sheet N°134, Traditional Medicine. December 2008, retrieved 5 July 2012, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs134/en/
4: National Centre for complementary and alternative medicine. The use of complementary and alternative medicine in the United States.
http://nccam.nih.gov/news/camstats/2007/camsurvey_fs1.htm retrieve 5 July 2012
5: Milhous K. Weina PJ. The botanical solution for Malaria. Science 15 January 2010:
Vol. 327 no. 5963 pp. 279-280
6: The college of practitioners of phytotherapy. What is Phytotherapy? 2008, retrieved 5 July 2012vhttp://phytotherapists.org/about.php
7: Bone K. Mills S. The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. Churchill Livingston, 2005. USA