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5 herbs instead of anti-inflammatories

  • Simon Mills
    Simon Mills

    I am a Cambridge medical sciences graduate and have been a herbal practitioner in Exeter since 1977. In that time I have led the main professional and trade organizations for herbal medicine in the UK and served on Government and House of Lords committees. I have written standard textbooks used by herbal practitioners around the world, including with Professor Kerry Bone from Australia.

    I was involved in academic work for many years, co-founding the University of Exeter pioneering Centre for Complementary Health Studies in 1987 (where we built a complementary research and postgraduate teaching programme from scratch), then at Peninsula the first integrated health course at a UK medical school, and the first Masters degree in herbal medicine in the USA, at the Maryland University of Integrative Health.

    I am particularly fascinated by the insights we can distill from the millions of intelligent people who over many centuries needed plants to survive. Mostly I want to learn and share the old skills, to experience healing plants as characters, that can help us fend off ill health. My passion for offering people tools to look after themselves and their families has led me to work with the founders of the College of Medicine on pioneering national self care and social prescribing projects. I am now the College Self Care Lead and also Herbal Strategist at Pukka Herbs.

    Listen to our Herbcast podcast with Simon Mills as the host.

  • 17:22 reading time (ish)
  • Immunity

Inflammation is part of many common diseases. Herbalist Simon Mills explores herbal alternatives to anti-inflammatory drugs.

5 herbs instead of anti-inflammatories

Inflammatory processes are the key disturbances in the majority of diseases. They define any condition ending in ‘-itis’ (e.g. arthritis, dermatitis – aka eczema – gastritis, cystitis, colitis, bronchitis, cellulitis, pericarditis, phlebitis, meningitis). However, inflammation is also central to chronic immunological diseases like rheumatism, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis and lupus, and is now understood as causative in diabetes, arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer.

The modern approach to most inflammatory disturbances is to suppress them with anti-inflammatory drugs, mostly steroids like hydrocortisone or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). When steroidal drugs became widely available in the early 1950s, the transformation these made to the progress of arthritic, skin and other connective tissue diseases was dramatic. For decades any challenge to these drugs was dismissed. However, it then became apparent that both steroids and their non-steroidal counterparts (initially based on aspirin-like COX inhibitors and now extended to fenamate class of LOX inhibitors) were associated with a range of side-effects and diminishing benefits. There is again a demand for other approaches, especially in the case of those sufferers otherwise condemned to a lifetime of powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.

Healthy inflammation

Traditional herbal practices approached inflammatory problems in radically different ways. Although there is huge diversity of traditions and cultural variations these approaches were surprisingly consistent. Importantly they also accord with modern findings about the mechanisms of inflammatory and immunological diseases.

Inflammation starts as a healthy though robust response to an assault on the tissues. It is invoked when trouble cannot be cleared in the usual quiet ways. It is the body’s way of bringing reinforcements while also making clear that there is a threat that should be taken seriously. The initial stages we can all recognise were classically described in ancient Greece as rubor, calor, tumor and dolor: redness, heat, swelling and pain. They describe the activation at the site of the assault of chemical agents (cytokines) like histamine, TNF-alpha and the interleukins, leading to increased circulation (redness and heat), movement of defensive white blood cells and fluids out of the circulation into the tissues (swelling), and activation of pain fibres by cytokines (so that proper notice is taken of the injury). In the case of bacterial infections the inflammatory process can lead to accumulation of dead cells known as pus. When this extraordinary burst of activity has done its job the inflammation subsides and tissue resolution heals the damage.

All this is healthy and should not be suppressed, unless the defence is so robust that it risks damaging the body. Problems really start when the inflammation becomes chronic, in other words the initial healthy response does not finish the job. This may be because of repeated assaults, diminished vigour, or immunological complications. As we have seen the immediate medical response when this happens is to provide anti-inflammatories. By contrast the traditional medicine response is to ask: how can we support healthy inflammation so that it finishes the job?  The term ‘anti-inflammatory’ does not fit well with traditional medicine.

So where can herbs act to help inflammation finish the job and move on?

Simon Mills

I am a Cambridge medical sciences graduate and have been a herbal practitioner in Exeter since 1977. In that time I have led the main professional and trade organizations for herbal medicine in the... Read more

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