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Herbs - at the Forefront of Modern Medicine

by Anne McIntyre(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 24 - January 1998

Herbs, those “old fashioned” medicines, the stuff of “old wives tales” are being rightfully reinstated at the forefront of modern medicine. Certainly the wealth of articles that appear daily in the press would confirm that their age-old value is being increasingly recognised and that recent research not only validates their ancient medicinal uses but also takes this a few steps further by helping us to understand the biochemical mechanisms involved. Take ginkgo for example, the tree that could be as old as 200 million years, known as the living fossil, the Memory Tree, the Tree of Knowledge and the Plant of Youth, used in Chinese medicine for 5000 years. Apparently today 2000 tons of ginkgo leaf are being harvested a year worldwide and made into a variety of preparations to protect the heart and circulation from the ravages of the ageing process. It is being recommended for improving memory, tinnitus, Raynaud’s disease, helping to prevent heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies have repeatedly shown that elderly people whose mental capacity has deteriorated and who are becoming absent-minded and forgetful have seen some improvement using ginkgo through its significant effect upon cerebral circulation.

Substantial sums of money are being poured into research into the world of plant medicines as scientists continue to search for remedies for devastating illness such as heart disease and cancer. Recently we have heard how a substance derived from the bark of an African willow tree could revolutionise the treatment of cancer by initiating a new way to stop tumour growth. Extracts from the bark of the African Bush Willow (Combretum caffrum) have been shown to shut down blood vessels supplying oxygen and nutrients to tumours, thereby inhibiting their growth. Similarly, research has shown that numerous other herbs look hopeful for cancer treatment, including the American yew tree, the Madagascan periwinkle, borage and a Chinese herb called campotheca.

The world of herbal medicine offers a wide range of applications and treatments on several different levels, ranging from everyday over-the-counter remedies for more symptomatic relief of minor ailments, to individualised prescriptions prepared specifically for patients after in depth consultation with a qualified medical herbalist. Certainly herbs have their place as self-help for minor infections, coughs, colds, catarrh, stomach upsets, indigestion, constipation and so on. The wealth of information that abounds today about herbs is enabling people to make increasingly informed decisions about the specific remedies they choose to self-administer. Take Echinacea for example, currently the most popular American herbal remedy, available not only from herbal suppliers and health food shops but also the high street chemists. An excellent remedy for almost all minor infections that really works, available generally in tincture form. The sooner taken, ie. at first signs of infection, the better, and best taken in doses of ¼ – ½ tsp every 2 hours for maximum effect. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea / angustifolia) has an antibiotic and antifungal effect, an interferon-like antiviral action and an anti-allergenic effect. This means it can be taken at the first signs of sore throats, colds, chest infections, tonsillitis, glandular fever for example, as well as for more chronic problems such as candida and post-viral syndrome (ME). Taken in hot water it stimulates the circulation and promotes sweating, helping to bring down fevers. As a blood cleanser Echinacea helps clear the skin of infections and to relieve allergies such as urticaria and eczema. It is a great remedy for people whose deficient immune system makes them prone to one infection after another.

Ginger is another wonderful remedy for treating infections and enhancing immunity and ideal for home use. Hot ginger root tea tastes delicious and can be taken at the onset of a sore throat, cold or flu, when feeling tired, chilly or achy, to promote perspiration, bring down a fever and clear catarrh. Its pungency and warming properties have a stimulating effect on the heart and circulation, creating a feeling of warmth and well-being. It invigorates the digestion and moves stagnation of food and subsequent accumulation of toxins, which has a far-reaching effect throughout the body, increasing general health and vitality and enhancing immunity. Ginger makes an excellent remedy for nausea, stomach and bowel infections, wind and colic. Recent research has shown that ginger inhibits clotting and thins the blood, it lowers harmful blood cholesterol and reduces blood pressure. Similar warming remedies that make delicious “cocktails” in hot decoctions with ginger include cinnamon, cloves (avoid during pregnancy) and cardamon. Taken on a regular basis they increase energy, lift the spirits, keep you warm in the winter and help prevent seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Another well researched herb that grows daily in popularity is St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), a marvellous remedy for the nervous system, relaxing tension and anxiety and lifting the spirits. Research confirms its ancient use as a sedative and antidepressant, and it is now being hailed as the herbal answer to Prozac, but of course without the side-effects. The mood-elevating properties can take 2–3 months to produce lasting effects, which are brought about by the plant’s ability to enhance the effect of neurotransmitters in the brain. St John’s wort increases sensitivity to sunlight and therefore is well worth using to relieve SAD, and may well be helpful for jet lag. It can provide excellent support for emotional problems during the menopause. Taken internally and applied externally, St John’s wort is a great remedy for nerve pain and trauma to the nervous system. Some refer to it as “the Arnica of the nerves”. It can be thought of for treating trigeminal neuralgia, sciatica, back pain, shingles, headaches and rheumatic pain. The red oil produced when the flowers are macerated in oil in sunlight for two weeks can be applied to sites of nerve pain such as sciatica and shingles, to ease pain and speed healing.

Self-help using herbs may well be suitable for straightforward and minor complaints but for more complex and chronic problems, and to enable a greater understanding of specific patterns of health and their treatment, consulting a qualified medical herbalist may well be preferable. After an in depth consultation the practitioner will use his/her skill and expertise to analyse and understand the patient and their symptoms and to treat accordingly. A herbal prescription, tailor-made to the individual patient is designed to help create the conditions that enable healing. Such a prescription may consist of anything from 1–15 different herbs and will be subject to review during the follow-up consultation. A discussion of diet and lifestyle will also be involved and the practitioner will advise accordingly. People with hormonal imbalances, gynaecological problems and menopausal problems, chronic stress-related symptoms, heart and circulatory disease, skin problems, bowel symptoms such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as chronic infections, would be well advised to consult a medical herbalist. Irritable bowel syndrome is something that crops up in herbal practice on a regular basis, and is complex because those who suffer this problem may be suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, they may have food intolerances or even candida. Their symptoms need to be distinguished from inflammatory bowel problems such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, infectious enteritis and diverticular disease before treatment is commenced. Treatment will involve changes in eating patterns, elimination of suspect foods such as wheat and dairy produce, support for the nervous system and restoring normal bowel function. A herbal prescription may consist of anti-spasmodic and relaxing herbs such as chamomile, hops and lemon balm which are specific for stress-related digestive problems, intended to relieve intestinal spasms, expel gas and relieve pain, combined with nerve tonics, such as skullcap or vervain, with a demulcent remedy such as marshmallow, and the addition of a little peppermint. Psyllium seeds may also be prescribed to regulate bowel function.

Those who are attracted to trying herbal medicine in one form or another are very often people with a love of plants and flowers and a respect for the miraculous world of nature, or they may simply be referred to a remedy or a practitioner by personal recommendation. It is interesting that as gardening continues to be one of the most popular leisure pursuits in this country, even if as a city dweller one only has a patio, balcony or window box, people are increasingly growing herbs. Fascinated not only by their attractive shapes and colours, delicious tastes and often wonderful scents, there is something that people find about growing or being among herbs in the garden that has a subtle healing effect of its own. Just try gazing at a rose and see what happens!


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About Anne McIntyre

Anne McIntyre FNIMH MAPA is a fellow of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and a member of the Ayurvedic Practitioners' Association. She has been practising as a herbalist for 30 years and has also trained in remedial massage, aromatherapy, counselling, homoeopathy and Ayurvedic medicine. She is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal (Gaia), The Complete Floral Healer (Gaia), The Herbal Treatment of Children (Elsevier), The Top 100 Remedies (Duncan Baird), The Complete Herbal Tutor (Gaia) and Healing Drinks (Gaia). Anne's latest book Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way has recently been published. She teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden which she opens to the public by appointment. She practises at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, (Tel: 01451 810096) and in London and Wales once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096

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