Written by Ruth Weaver
Herbal self-care is a life skill we believe everyone should have. However sometimes seeing a medically trained herbalist is the best healthcare option – here we explain when and why.
Understanding herbal medicine
Herbal Medicine has been around since the beginning of time, with animals and humans having interacted with plants for food and medicine from the earliest point of recorded history and beyond.
Herbal medicines are products made from botanicals, or plants, that are used to treat diseases or to support health, these can be called herbal or botanical products, or herbal/ phytomedicines.
Herbal Medicine is often confused with Homeopathy, however whilst homeopaths and herbalists may use some of the same types of plants, these two practices and their prescriptions are very different.
Herbal Medicines are whole plant preparations. ’Whole plant’ meaning that the unrefined, raw plant matter is used to create the medicinal preparation, as opposed to the extraction of an isolated compound or chemical to create a drug (as with pharmaceuticals). Or as opposed to the highly diluted homeopathic medicines, which hold more of a ‘memory’ or ‘energetic’ quality than one of substance and chemistry.
In Herbal Medicine, plant parts such as leaves, flowers, seeds, roots, fruits and barks are used (not all at the same time, although a herbalist may sometimes use a blend of different plants or plant parts in a prescription). Herbal Medicines may also be seaweeds, algae or fungi.
Herbal Medicine is a profession in its own right. In the West, there are many professional training schools that combine biomedical and holistic sciences with practitioner development that is focused around clinical training. Enabling qualified herbal practitioners to go on and set up a practice where they are able to treat patients using a combined approach.
What is a herbalist?
Anyone can call themselves a ‘Herbalist’. However, ‘Medical Herbalists’ along with clinical Chinese and Ayurvedic herbalists, are trained to a high degree level in medical subjects such as pathophysiology, diagnostics, physical examination etc, to a comprehensive standard with which they can safely work with patients.
A qualified Herbalist qualifies through practitioner focused training centered around supervised clinical hours.
The professional training will usually be a BSc. (Hons) qualification or equivalent for example a level 6 diploma which takes them 3-4 years at least.
To find a training course or Medical Herbalist near you; Herb Reality’s “Resources” page.
There are governing bodies for Herbalists such that can be found at The Herbal Alliance. Courses accredited by these governing bodies are of the highest quality as students must complete 2500 hours of class learning and 500 clinical hours
“Every house needs a herbalist, every village – a Medical Herbalist.”
This is a saying often shared by the herbalist community to express ‘an ideal world’ modern relationship to the use of herbal medicines and herbalists.
Perhaps similar to a more community based lifestyle such as in historic times where our ancestors carried herbal knowledge about native medicines commonly used as home remedies. In an ideal world – each household would have someone who is able to perform basic herbal first aid for minor illnesses at home, with a community Medical Herbalist to support those with more serious or long term conditions.
In the West, however, this knowledge is now much less common among the general population as it may have once been, even in our grandparent’s time. Meaning that we now have to actively re-engage with this information to return it into our lineage.
Many herbalists offer foraging walks, talks, workshops or short courses for those wanting to gain home herbalist knowledge that they can use for themselves and their close ones. As well as beginning a home library of herbal reference books, it is really worth reaching out to your local herbalist to see if they are sharing knowledge in their community. As well as running practice, this is another really important role in a herbalist’s work.
Herbal knowledge is a birthright to all of us, something that we in the West lost along the way. With the modernisation and reductionist scientific paradigm of medicine gripping society ever more firmly, herbalism was deemed ‘less medical’ and less important. However, as with much of our understanding now in the modern world, we see that returning to practices closer to nature, in structure and form serve both the health of the environment and our personal health in a truly sophisticated way. With this understanding, a future integrating natural and holistic approaches is well within sight.
Should I self treat or consult a professional Herbalist?
With the correct use, many simple and short term illnesses can be effectively treated at home. It is advised however for more ongoing, chronic or serious illnesses, or where contraindications such as medications, pregnancies or breastfeeding need to be considered that a fully trained Medical Herbalist should be consulted.
Not only will a herbalist offer a thorough approach considering safety, a herbalist also understands that human health and the underlying causes of disease are often complex and unique to the individual.
Professional Herbalists are trained in diagnostics and pathophysiology and of course through training and practice will have a deeper understanding of the disease process and possible root causes that would inform them of the most effective approach to treatment. A herbalist is also trained to identify nutritional deficiencies or problems that may arise from our diets.
In the holistic understanding of disease a herbalist will seek to unravel the unique cause for illness or health imbalance, and in many cases through nutritional and supportive herbal intervention a herbalist will work to support their patient’s back to natural balance of health.
A herbalist treats each case individually, and therefore rarely will two people with the same condition receive the same medicine or treatment plan. This is because the holistic approach of treatment is more focused on restoring the health status of the patient based on their unique history, constitution and presenting complaints, rather than treating the symptoms i.e. where pain relief for migraines would be a symptomatic approach/ a holistic herbalist will look for cause of migraines (which can be varied) and work from there.
Consulting a professional herbalist is the best way to receive safe and effective herbal treatment.
Herbal Medicine in acute illness and first aid
Herbal Medicines can be used to effectively treat short term or acute illnesses at home, using simple and accessible herbs. Conveniently many are also culinary ingredients we may already have in our kitchens such as herbs, spices and foods.
A great starting point, as above mentioned is to gather a herbal reference library (book suggestions listed below). Seek out your local herbalist to see if they are offering herbal education, some accredited herbal schools and herbalists also offer online home herbalism courses which are a great way to begin your journey with herbs. Herbal Reality also offers many articles for specific conditions, as well as more general herbal healthcare.
There are a wide range of herbal medicines that can be held in a basic home first aid kit for which there are multiple applications. For example: elderflower, a safe effective medicine for treatment of seasonal allergies, which can also be used to support during a cold virus or fever; ginger – a common kitchen spice which is both excellent for sickness and nausea whilst also an excellent remedy to use during acute viral infection.
All herbs have a number of different uses, which means, just to learn about a handful of herbs there will be multiple ways they can be applied.
The most common first aid illnesses that, with the right use and dosage can be treated at home include (but are not limited to); common cold and flu, minor burns, cuts and grazes, bruises, minor infections such as conjunctivitis, gastroenteritis, acute stress etc. This said, it is always important that all the recommended safety guidelines are followed even with acute illness.
Herbs should also be used and incorporated into our daily lives, least not only when we experience ‘dis-ease’ or illness, but also as a means to support and maintain our health. This is the beauty of herbal medicine, herbs offer a multitude of active nutrients and compounds that can both increase our health resilience and can even help us prevent illness.
NOTE: To effectively and safely use herbs at home for first aid, it is important to understand first aid conditions, in particular any potential red flags or secondary complications i.e. infected wounds and ‘tracking’ which can occur when the blood becomes infected and lead to a serious condition called sepsis. Even where herbal remedies are used as a form of treatment, conventional first aid advice should always be followed.
How are Herbal Medicines made/ prescribed?
Herbalists use a number of different preparations such as infusions (tea), tinctures (alcoholic extracts), decoctions (water), fresh plant, dried herb in form of a capsule, poultices, syrups and so on.
Many of the above preparations are easy to make for home use herbal remedies.
A herbalist will often create a blend of herbs to use in a patents prescription depending on the conditions and presentation of the individual case.
Herbs contain multiple, or sometimes hundreds of active compounds that work together to create an effect.
Some herbs compliment each other for example: compounds in black pepper support the metabolism of compounds found in turmeric, so they are often used together to enhance the effects of turmeric.
How do Herbal Medicines work?
Herbal Medicines work via a mechanism of multiple compounds.
There are many unique energetic or vitalistic approaches to the understanding of Herbal Medicine found across the globe.
These traditional ‘energetic’ practices include those such as; TCM (Traditional Chinese medicine), Ayurvedic Medicine (India), Tibetan Medicine and Western Herbal Medicine.
As opposed to the more simple ‘actions’ of pharmaceuticals, herbs can effect multiple body systems. Herbs can also effect each person differently, this is often a reflection of our constitutional individuality.
Herbs can also have an amphoteric effect- meaning that they can have a balancing action i.e. a herb that will normalise both high or low levels in i.e. a hormonal condition.
The holistic approach to treating illness would be set out using herbal medicines and dietary and nutritional advice. The intention is to create a lasting resolution, that rebalances the body’s normal function.
What can a herbalist treat?
Herbal medicines can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, from the acute or chronic, simple or serious, and of mind, body and spirit.
With care it can also be used safely along side orthodox medications and treatments. Very few side effects are reported for the proper use of Herbal Medicine. In fact sometimes they are utilized as complementary to pharmaceuticals to lessen their side effects.
Illness happens when we are out of balance and our work as herbalists is to facilitate the understanding of this imbalance with an aim to create a lasting resolution, that puts the individual back in charge of their health.