What is a Herbalist?
Medical Herbalists make use of plants whose traditional uses are backed up by modern scientific research and clinical trials. A Qualified Medical Herbalist has a BSc or equivalent in Herbal Medicine, has studied orthodox medicine as well as plant medicine and is trained in the same diagnostic skills as a GP. However, Herbalists take an holistic approach to illness, treating the underlying cause of disease rather than just the symptoms. They are able to prescribe herbal remedies to be used alongside other medication and treatments, and many patients are referred to a Herbalist by their GP for treatment.
Herbal Medicine is suitable for people of any age, including children, who respond especially well to the gentle actions of herbs. Each patient is treated as an individual – a Medical Herbalist recognises that no two patients are the same.
What is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal medicines are plant-based medicines made from differing combinations of plant parts e.g. leaves, flowers or roots. Each part can have different medicinal uses and the many types of chemical constituents require different extraction methods. Both fresh and dried plant matter are used, depending on the herb.
NIMH members are aware of the importance of medicines being being sourced from reputable manufacturers, who maintain consistent quality standards. Traceability (right back to the original batch of herbs) and certificates of authenticity are key ways in which quality is maintained. Sustainability is also of crucial importance.
- Infusions: dried or fresh herbs, usually aerial parts, steeped in boiling water
- Decoction: usually harder plant material, boiled on the stove for longer than infusions
- Syrups: herbs incorporated into a thick, sweet liquid
- Poultices: moistened herbs kept in place by a cloth for localised healing
- Lotions: infusions or decoctions delivered in a smooth liquid preparation
- Compresses: generally a soft cloth wrung out of a hot or cold infusion or decoction and applied to the affected area
Alcohol-based preparations usually called Tinctures. There are non-alcoholic alternatives to this such as glycerites or vinegars which are taken in the same way.
Oil-based preparations such as infused oils and ointments are used externally.
Other preparations commonly used:
- Powders taken internally and applied externally, may come in loose form or in capsules
- Juices are very nutritive
- Creams are often preferred in the treatment of skin conditions
- Steam inhalations
- Baths and skin washes
- Gargles and mouthwashes
- Pessaries and suppositories
What does a Herbalist treat?
Medical herbalism is for everyone - if you would like more specific information on how a medical herbalist approaches health problems, please see links below or contact your local medical herbalist.
What happens during a consultation?
During your first consultation with a Medical Herbalist, the Medical Herbalist will build up a picture of you and your health by:
- Taking your full case history
- Asking about your family’s medical history
- Discussing your diet and lifestyle
- Finding out about any medication or supplements you use
This allows your herbalist to assess the underlying causes of your illness and formulate a mixture of herbs tailored to your individual needs. It may also be necessary to take your blood pressure or arrange for other tests to be done.
Your individual treatment plan will include herbal remedies and, where appropriate, dietary changes or nutritional supplements. Most herbal medicines are given in the form of a liquid tincture that is taken in 5ml doses of two or three times daily. You may also be prescribed a herbal tea, tablets, ointment, cream or lotion.
After the initial consultation, three or four shorter consultations are usually necessary to assess your progress, followed by check-ups every three to six months, depending on the nature of your condition. Because herbal medicines work in a gentle and subtle way, they can take longer to work than orthodox drugs, but their effects are long lasting and there should be no side effects.
Can Herbal Medicine be used as First Aid?
Medicinal plants have always been used as natural first aid remedies such as rubbing dock leaves onto nettle stings or applying lavender oil to treat burns. You may also come across herbalists running First Aid stations at outdoor festivals. The teams are qualified in Advanced First Aid; some are even experienced nurses and paramedics. Herbs are used to treat a vast array of acute conditions, in both emergency and non-emergency situations, from insect bites to headaches to serious wounds.
Whilst much of this tradition has been lost in modern times, there is a resurgence of public interest in the use of local plants for minor ailments. Many herbalists run beginners’ courses where you can learn more; from plant identification to making remedies.
Can herbs and pharmaceutical drugs be used together?
There are many instances in which herbs and pharmaceutical drugs work well together.
However, in some situations, there can be negative interactions. Some herbs, like St John’s Wort, cannot be taken along with certain other medicines. Your medical herbalist is trained to know which herbs to use safely and will be able to advise on any situation.
How long will herbal treatment take?
There is no definitive answer because so many variables will influence the duration of treatment. Our biological makeup is as unique as our medical histories and bodies heal at differing rates.
Influential factors affecting length of therapy required include:
• The condition
• Severity of the condition
• How long it has been present
• Past medical history
• Drug history
• Current health status
Your herbalist may be able to give you an estimated guideline once they have taken a detailed case history. It is important that progress is closely monitored and herbal prescriptions are adjusted accordingly over time.
Herbal medicine can sometimes take longer before beginning to achieve their desired effect when compared to pharmaceutical drugs. However, its gentle, supportive action aims to address the root cause of the condition and therefore usually produces more permanent results. In addition, when correctly prescribed, side effects are rare.
Whilst the above is applicable for chronic cases, the right dose of herbs can produce immediate results. Medical herbalists working in First Aid situations often resolve acute issues within hours or days.
As the choice of herbs and appropriate administration are key to safety and efficacy, professional advice is recommended.
Should I tell my GP and specialists that I’m taking herbs?
Yes, most definitely.
We advocate the integrated safe use of medicinal plants for our patients by working with other healthcare practitioners such as GPs, Nurse Practitioners, and specialists. It is very important that all healthcare providers responsible for your care are fully informed about the herbs and drugs you are taking, including over the counter products and food supplements. This is important in order to avoid possible herb/drug/supplement/food interactions. Your Medical Herbalist is aware of the difficulties involved and will provide information on request and with your permission will liaise with any of your other healthcare providers. See also Herbs and Drugs and Information Service
Medical Herbalists often work alongside, and in co-operation with, a wide range of practitioners, including conventional healthcare professionals, and this is something that we are keen to continue and develop.
What happens during a consultation with a Medical Herbalist?
The first appointment with your Medical Herbalist will find out about your current health complaint, take a detailed medical history and perform any necessary diagnostic examinations before suggesting a treatment. The consultation will include a full discussion on all aspects of health. It is helpful if the patient can bring to a consultation any information relating to their condition, including information about any pharmaceutical drugs or food supplements that they may be taking.
At the end of the consultation, a tailor-made healthcare plan will be drawn up. This can include herbal medicines (in alcoholic tincture, tea, capsule or cream form), nutritional supplements, diet and lifestyle recommendations. After this there may be a need for a follow up consultation, to check on progress and to make any necessary adjustments to the healthcare plan.
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