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Using Herbal Medicine

by Kirsten Hartvig(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 266 - November 2020


The long history of traditional use of herbal medicines to safely treat common family illness needs to be more widely recognized and understood.

In our grandparent’s generation, many people in rural areas knew which medicinal herbs to use to relieve common complaints such as upset stomachs, colds and poor sleep. They also knew where to find medicinal herbs in their local environment – in the garden, in nearby hedgerows, or at the greengrocer’s.

This use of herbs to relieve family ailments came from necessity rather than superstition because, for many people, expert medical services were out of reach for financial, practical and geographical reasons.

Many people now have access to excellent and efficient medical facilities when needed, and the problems that the medical profession faces today are, to an extent, a result of its own success. People may live longer, more secure lives, but they have largely forgotten how to help themselves deal with minor health complaints and are unaware that simple herbal remedies can often relieve the symptoms chronic disease

A Legislative Paradox

It is clear that the population must be protected from harmful effects, interactions and side effects of all kinds of medication. As Hippocrates said over 2000 years ago “Above all, do no harm”.

So, to protect the population from fraudulent sales of medication by ill-qualified practitioners, many governments have made it illegal to make health claims about medicinal herbs and herbal products that have not undergone rigorous testing comparable to that used in the development of modern drugs.

However, an unfortunate side effect of such legislation has been to create a problematic distinction between food and medicine, which has effectively discouraged people from following Hippocrates other famous piece of advice: “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.”

For example, Kyolic is a licensed Japanese herbal product consisting of 100% garlic. It has been demonstrated to help lower blood cholesterol levels, so herbal practitioners and pharmacies are permitted to sell Kyolic as a licensed cholesterol-lowering product. If they, on the other hand, sell fresh garlic as a cholesterol-lowering remedy, they are breaking the law! This is because Kyolic is classified as a medicine whilst garlic itself is classified as a food.

There are many other examples of this anomaly arising because fresh and dried herbs (and the products made from them) are classified as foods unless a licensed product is made from them; and it is illegal to make health claims about plant foods, despite their obvious beneficial effects on health.


Hartvig 266 Herbal Medicine


The Modern Herbalist

Medical herbalists keep herbal traditions alive, but also keep detailed patient records and promote continued research into the active constituents of medicinal plants and the synergistic effect these constituents have on human health. They also know how to use medicinal herbs safely, and support health authorities by helping patients with chronic conditions who have found insufficient relief from the remedies offered by conventional medicine.

Overall, herbal medicine has an excellent record for safety and effectiveness in dealing with a range of conditions, including gastro-intestinal problems: Aperitifs and liqueurs such as Vermouth and Pastis were developed by monks as remedies for indigestion when monasteries acted as hospitals as well as places of worship. Liqueurs, tinctures and syrups are examples of how the monks preserved the medicinal properties of herbs that were difficult to use fresh or dried.

Allowing properly qualified herbal practitioners to prescribe natural herbal remedies, and to teach their patients how to help themselves with well-chosen lifestyle changes, would significantly ease the burden on European health systems in dealing with a range of chronic diseases.

Herbal Medicine and Public Health

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is becoming increasingly problematic both in Europe and the wider world.  Experienced medical herbalist Dr Frances Watkins has researched 3 medicinal plants that were used for their antimicrobial effect in Europe 1000 years ago - see

These plants are nowadays often thought of as troublesome weeds, but in rigorously controlled in-vitro studies Dr Watkins clearly demonstrated that Agrimonia eupatoria, Tormentilla reptans and Plantago media are effective against a range of microbes.

This should not come as a surprise because the human race was clearly able to survive and thrive before the advent of modern medicine, without detailed scientific knowledge of how to use the plant world as a source of food and medicine.

Changing our perception of medicinal plants as invasive weeds to a renewed understanding of their importance for our survival Earth, both as foods and medicines, would be helpful not only for the human race but also for all living things and the environment we all share.

By increasing our knowledge of and respect for the plants themselves – and for those who spend years studying them – we can increase the health of the general population and at the same time ease the burden on our health services.

Details of the substantial amount of good-quality research data that already exists on the safety, action and efficacy of herbal remedies should be more widely shared. This would ensure that the potential of medicinal herbs to alleviate the burden of chronic illness is properly understood. It would also provide new pointers towards solutions for pressing public health problems such as AMR.

Reference Materials

1. Research into the effectiveness of herbal remedies

Herbalists and their patients have long known that herbal remedies can be both safe and effective treatments for a wide variety of digestive, urinary, gynaecological, skin and stress-related conditions, and – contrary to what is sometimes supposed – there is a considerable body of evidence supporting their clinical use:

Herbs and Natural Supplements - an evidence-based guide (Braun, L and Cohen, M. 2015. 4th Edition. Elsevier. Amsterdam) provides well-referenced, up-to-date evidence on the latest research impacting on the use of herbal medicines, as does
Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy (Bone, K and Mills, S. 2013. 2nd edition. Churchill Livingstone. London)

2. The current legal situation in Europe regarding Herbal Medicine (McIntyre, M, 2017. Study commissioned by the Danish Health Authority’s Council for Alternative Medicine).

3. CAM Educational standards in Europe, with recommendations for how they may be streamlined and improved (Rowley, N, 2017. Study commissioned by the Danish Health Authority’s Council for Alternative Medicine).


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About Kirsten Hartvig

Kirsten Hartvig ND MNIMH DipPhyt is a Medical Herbalist and Registered Naturopath. She is Director of the Healing Garden and the Rachel Carson Centre at Emerson College UK in Sussex, comprising a complementary medicine library and a medicinal herb garden. You may contact Kirsten for private consultations, to join one of the monthly herb walks, sign up for workshops, or if you would like to visit the gardens:  The Healing Garden, Emerson College, Forest Row, East Sussex RH18 5JX; Tel: 07477 220707; If you want to support the Healing Garden, please visit Patreon: You can find out more about the Heartwood professional and foundation courses in Herbal Medicine on   Instagram @heartwoodbotanic  Watch Herb Hunters on YouTube;  Listen to the Herbal Medicine Show on UKHealthRadio. Watch Herb Hunters on YouTube. Kirsten may be contacted on Tel: 07477 220707;

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