Herbal medicine – not just for new-age hippies anymore

News & Analysis

31st October 2014

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Society is changing fast because we live longer. But the NHS was designed for a different age where the gap between retirement and death was much smaller. The result is that the health service’s financial footings are fragile and require new ways of delivering health to keep spending at sustainable levels.

A new roadmap for reform of the NHS has been produced by Sir Simon Stevens. But there is a large hole where herbal medicine should be. Sadly, it does not merit a single mention in Stevens’s otherwise inspiring blueprint, apart from a fleeting mention of ‘supported self-care’. This omission is despite the World Health Organisation suggestions that countries integrate both traditional and self-health care into their health systems.

Herbal medicine is as old as the hills. It now complements modern medicines and should be seen as a tried and tested method of curing chronic ailments, which is also scientifically based and looks at the patient as a whole.

I am not talking about popping into a herb shop and loading up with vitamins on a whim and a guess. I am talking about herbal medicine practitioners, a growing part of the health scene, who have spent many years studying for certified examinations.

Dr Michael Dixon describes us as ‘the alchemists of mother nature’s gift’ in his introduction to a new book on 150 years of my professional trade body – the National Institute of Medical Herbalists.

Some practitioners have medical research or biological backgrounds. I was a senior researcher at London Zoo before teaching bioscience at a further education college and then undertaking a degree in herbal medicine.

We cannot tackle every condition, but specialise in treating chronic diseases that affect people at all stages of their lives. There are very many common conditions that respond well to herbal treatment. It helps those who suffer stress, anxiety and low mood. Insomnia, fatigue and low energy can be overcome. Women and girls with menstrual problems can avoid the monthly misery. Those with migraines and headaches can get their lives back. Also: skin conditions, irritable bowel syndrome, osteoarthritis, lower back pain and gout and allergies.

Just think of the relief that this could bring to so many people and also how it could relieve the pressures on doctors and the NHS. Using herbal medicine for self limiting conditions such as respiratory and urinary infections could also reduce demand for their treatment by GPs. Meanwhile, curbing the use of antibiotics could help combat future antibiotic resistance.

The big question is whether it works in practice. I have myself, for example, successfully treated a 69-year-old man who had previously been treated with antibiotics but continued to suffer from recurrent chest infections, tiredness and periods of low mood. After two months of herbal treatment he has not had a respiratory infection, while experiencing increased energy levels and fewer periods of low mood.

In another case, a 65-year-old woman was suffering from irritable bowel syndrome with periods of stomach cramps, wind, diarrhoea and anxiety, which greatly limited her lifestyle. Within the first week of treatment she had less diarrhoea, stomach cramps, flatulence and was feeling much calmer and less anxious. After three months of treatment she had not experienced any of the symptoms for four weeks.

I have successfully treated a 12-year-old girl with itchy eczema on her hands and elbows. The herbal treatment, taken internally and as a cream, reduced itching, decreased redness and prevented drying of the skin. The cause of the flare-ups was also identified.

Herbal medicine practitioners around Britain show many other examples of success. Such cases and the wider role of herbal medicine should have been in the Stevens plan for the NHS. But I cannot blame him too much because we have a very low profile. Some people even confuse herbal medicine with homeopathy, which is an entirely different industry.

Of course, as a practicing medical herbalist, I want our sector to grow – but it can only do so if people are confident, as they can be, that it is not some fly-by-night fad but rather is rooted in the collective and age-old wisdom of humanity, and buttressed by scientific evidence as well as trained practitioners.

Herbal medicine will never replace the NHS but can play a part in making the NHS, and wider society, fit for purpose in the 21st century. It’s high time we stopped looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Gina Webley is a qualified Medical Herbalist based in West Wickham, who can be reached through her website at www.ginawebleyherbalist.com.