Herbal Medicine Introduction

May 11, 2012 at 9:21 am Leave a comment

Herbal Medicine

An introduction

 By Ruth Baker, BSc (Hons), MNIMH


Historical background

Plants have been used as medicine for thousands of years, and until recently were the only form of medicine available to the majority of people. In Europe, early texts illustrating the use of medicinal plants date back to ancient Greece, and by the 16th century lavish herbals were being printed for the wealthy, giving detailed descriptions of plants and their medicinal properties. Gerard’s Herbal, first published in 1597, is still available today. By contrast, Culpeper, writing in the 17th century, championed the ordinary people – his work is also still in print. Household herbals were compiled by the women of large houses, giving recipes for plants as food and medicine – the Wellcome Library in London has an invaluable and fascinating collection.

Plant medicine continued in popularity until the advent of pharmaceutical drugs. Plants could be collected in the wild and used fresh, or dried and made into teas. Wine was also used as a preservative. Country folk would go to the local herbalist, often a ‘wise woman’, for help with their ailments. Herbalists were popular in the developing industrial cities too – the urban poor could not afford to be ill. The most well-known pharmacy, Boots, had humble beginnings as an urban herbalist in Nottingham. Older people today may remember some of the medicine their mothers gave them – slippery elm for boils and abscesses, syrup of figs for constipation (not always popular!) and thyme and liquorice syrup for coughs. Plants formed the basis of nearly all the drugs prepared by pharmacists until well after the first world war.

Herbal medicine is becoming popular once again, though surprisingly few people seem to understand what it really is. This introduction is designed to give you a much better idea of how herbal medicine is used today. It focuses on European or ‘Western’ Herbal Medicine, a term sometimes applied when referring to practices which have evolved in Europe and North America.


Some common medicinal plants

Wherever you walk, you will find medicinal plants. I first identified shepherd’s purse (used for heavy periods and urine infections) growing out of a crack in the pavement in Camden Town. In the past, people would have known more about their value, but they are often just classed as weeds now. Dandelions are excellent remedies for the kidneys and the liver, and daisies can heal bruising in much the same way as arnica. Yet if they dare to appear in the lawn, they are usually attacked with weedkiller.

As children, we would play with ‘sticky willy’, or cleavers, throwing it at people’s hair and twisting it – but it is also excellent as a tonic for the lymphatic system. It often grows entwined with nettles, which are one of Nature’s most valuable sources of vitamins and minerals, especially iron and potassium. You may also have played with the flower heads of plantain, twisting the stem round the top and ‘shooting’ the head at people. But did you know it is an excellent remedy for both coughs and wounds?

Herb walks and talks offer an opportunity to learn more about our local medicinal plants, and herbalists are finding that they are becoming increasingly popular, as people want to get closer to nature and are becoming more aware of their environment.

Herbal medicine today

A glance at the shelves of pharmacies and health food shops will show a bewildering display of ‘natural’ remedies, modern plant-based medicines in pill or capsule form, for a variety of ailments. Among the most well-known are Echinacea, St. John’s Wort and Valerian. While these products can be very helpful for some people, and reflect an increasing interest in using more natural products, they cannot get to the root of why a person is run down, depressed or can’t sleep. Professional herbalists adopt a more holistic approach, and aim to promote health and well-being and encourage the body to heal itself. Plants are chosen which will support the body’s systems, rather than suppress symptoms. Most plants are gentler than pharmaceutical drugs (senna is one exception!) and have fewer side-effects, so they are particularly suited to long-term conditions.

In the UK, Western medical herbalists are trained to degree level. This training includes many elements of medical degree studies, in addition to a detailed knowledge of medicinal plants. A minimum of 500 clinical hours are also required, giving herbalists experience in consultation and diagnosis.

The most common form of treatment is a tincture, or whole-plant extract in alcohol, and the usual dose is between 15 and 20 ml per day. If you can’t take alcohol, then dried herbs are prescribed, again several herbs in a formula, and these are used to make a tea. Some people find it easier to have the dried herbs made into capsules, particularly if they are in powder form. Syrups, ointments and creams can be made up by practitioners to suit specific conditions.

A full initial consultation will usually last about an hour, and the herbalist will ask you details about your health, diet and lifestyle, and may carry out a physical examination. If you are seeing your GP about a medical condition and are taking medication, the herbalist will want to know details about that as well. It is often possible to take both prescribed drugs and herbs. It is also very helpful if you can bring along any test results from your doctor. The herbalist will write up a prescription and dispense the medicine to you, usually about two to three weeks’ worth to start with. Most herbalists then arrange shorter follow-up consultations to check on your progress.

Example of treatment

This example is taken from Medical Herbalism, by David Hoffmann, one of the most well-known herbalists practising today. It illustrates how herbs can be blended together and perform more than just one function, and also gives a clear idea of the holistic approach.

Treatment of IBS

This is quite a common condition in which a person suffers from cramps, gas, bloating and either diarrhoea, constipation or both. There can also be headaches and anxiety, and it is often worsened by stress, food intolerance or poor diet.

Herbal actions

  • Astringents to reduce diarrhoea and tone the bowel

  • Bitters to promote digestive secretions and hence improve digestion
  • Anti-inflammatories, as the bowel can often be inflamed
  • Carminatives to help eliminate wind and reduce griping pain

  • Antispasmodics to reduce cramps, if the carminatives are not enough

  • Vulneraries, or wound-healers, if the colon appears damaged in any way

  • Aperients, or mild laxatives, if there is constipation

  • Relaxing nervines, to calm not just the bowel but the person as a whole

Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is an excellent herb in this case, as it performs a variety of functions: it is a bitter, an anti-inflammatory, carminative, antispasmodic, vulnerary and a nervine. In fact, it may well be enough on its own. However, herbs work in synergy with each other, so a formula may look like this:


Bayberry (astringent)

Mugwort (bitter)

Wild yam (anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic)

Peppermint (carminative, antispasmodic)

Valerian (relaxing nervine)

Do I need a medical herbalist?

Some simple conditions can be treated at home, and there are excellent self-help herbal medicine books available*. However, other conditions are more complex and benefit from professional guidance. Many herbalists will offer short consultations at reduced prices so that you can discuss your case with them and decide whether you would like a full consultation and treatment.

Medical herbalists registered with professional bodies can be found on the following websites:

www.nimh.org.uk (National Institute of Medical Herbalists)

ww.phytotherapists.org (College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy)

*Hoffmann, D. Holistic Herbal. London: Thorsons

Robbins, C. The Household Herbal. London: Bantam Press

Entry filed under: Herbal Medicine.

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