Medical Herbalism Demystified
If I wasn’t a Medical Herbalist I’d be really confused about the difference between a Medical Herbalist and someone who knows lots about herbs. Many people know about the healing properties of herbs and how to use them for simple, self limiting complaints. Some GPs, pharmacists, health food shop assistants, gardeners, amateur experts, avid readers and those who have undertaken short term study all might have a sound understanding of herbs and their individual actions in the body. Most people with a knowledge of herbs can tell you that Echinacea is good for helping the immune system deal with colds, that Elderflowers are anti-catarrhal and therefore help with hayfever and the sniffles, and that Garlic has a reputation for helping just about everything ! It’s pretty common knowledge among many that Sage is used to rub on stings, that thyme tea might help coughs and chamomile is calming and restoring to the digestive system.
I myself hold workshops to make sure we all know what herbs to pick from the wild, our gardens and the kitchen to use for simple, self limiting complaints. Amongst other things, we make ointments together, comfrey and marigold for healing, and we learn how to knock up rosehip syrup to make sure you get lots of vitamin C throughout the winter months. Contact me if you are interested in attending a workshop or organising one on behalf of a group.
So! Why the need for a Medical Herbalist?
Well. I’m all for people using ‘herbal first aid’ and trying infusions and single tinctures to see if that might help. In fact, if I think that’s all that’s necessary I’m likely to suggest you try it before booking an appointment. However, herbal medicine really comes into its own for more complex, long standing and difficult conditions. This is where it’s important to seek out a properly qualified herbalist that has completed professional and specialist training.
What makes a qualified Medical Herbalist different then?
We study for 4 years, and have a Batchelor of Science degree or equivalent. It is compulsory to undertake 500 hours supervised clinical training and be able to assess the patient medically as well as holistically. A medical herbalist is permitted by law to ‘diagnose’ in the same way as a GP (reflecting our level of training). It’s unlikely many of us do though, as our approach to treatment is very different, and the diagnosis is not always central to us, what’s more important is how the person came to develop the illness in the first place. Nonetheless, it’s vital to have the medical knowledge, as primary health care professionals we need to be able to spot any danger signs of serious undiagnosed conditions and refer on where necessary.
What am I doing in my consultation?
Firstly I’m taking your basic details, date of birth, address etc and then I ask you to talk to me about what you would like my help with. I go on to ask lots of questions about your condition and past medical history, current medication, diet, lifestyle and I review the workings of your body. I’m looking for signs that tell me how well the different organs and systems are working to see what has gone wrong, where and why so I know which areas to support to reduce the risk of the problem recurring after treatment. All the time I’m thinking about what I might want to include in your prescription. I will definitely be including things to help your symptoms, so if your digestion needs calming I might use chamomile, or something more appropriate with similar properties. I may use sage if you are having hot flushes or thyme if you have a persistent cough. But, this is only part of the picture. I’m basically building a unique recipe for each person. With in-depth knowledge of therapeutic dose and individual need I ensure you get the strength and quantity of each herb that is most likely to be of benefit for you and this will be different for each person. And then there are the ‘restorative’ herbs, aimed at targeting the body systems that might be contributing to maintaining the symptoms; your adrenal glands might have been overworked, your liver may have been sluggish, you may have been producing abnormal levels of hormones or your nervous system may have been under stress. Any number of things may have contributed to your condition. All the time I’m building your prescription I’m accounting for your medical history and any contra indications for existing medical conditions and medications you might take from your GP – this is all an important part of our training. A deeper part of being a medical herbalist is to be able to assess a person ‘constitutionally’ and identify which herbs may, or may not, be right for them. Most herbalists consider constitution vitally important. All patients are different, some feel the cold, and others run too hot; some put on weight easily whilst others remain slim regardless of what they eat. Constitutional or traditional prescribing takes account of these tendencies when deciding how to treat and it’s vital to understand this when putting together a prescription. It’s when addressing ones constitutional tendencies that herbal medicine prescribed by a Medical Herbalist is at its most successful – meaning the right herbs are used for the right person.
Some conditions might need long term treatment. Most people are helped by 3-4 consultations and medicine lasting up to six months. It’s always my aim to reduce the medicine as soon as the body’s resources have recovered sufficiently for it to maintain health on its own. It could be said that herbs prescribed by a medical herbalist remind the body how it needs to work! How wonderful.