Efficacy or otherwise of herbal medicines
has always been a contentious issue that the scientific community
have never managed to get their head round. This is relevant
to the question of the quality controls on herbal products as
well as to the practitioners.
the old days a herbalist was educated by traditional practitioners,
often from childhood within the family. They were taught by
traditional knowledge when herbs should be gathered for the
best effect - some herbs are best picked at dawn, some in the
day, some even at night. This was vital knowledge because if
a paying customer did not get over their problem, you did not
get paid either in cash, or perhaps with a chicken. There was
frequently a ceremonial aspect to the healers methods which
would have a profound influence on the mind of their client.
That may involve music of some kind, dance, meditation, aromatic
smoke, etc. All these effects are part of the overall healing
process, but are absent from most modern herbalist practice.
Thus they rely on the actions of the active constituents in
the herbs. That in itself can be fine, but the elements described
above will add that magic healing touch.
the years have past, a lot of that traditional knowledge has
been subdued due to the influence of academia. On some of the
modern courses you get students who just think "it will
be a nice subject to study", but have never gathered herbs
from the wild, or even planted and nurtured them. These people
then get book knowledge and so elements of their education are
missing. It is this kind of practitioner that the University
courses have been churning out in recent years, and it is that
kind of practitioner that will rule the roost if Statutory regulation
of the trade occurs. Traditional Healing, forget it!!
we do need (and to a degree we get) scientific input is over
the chemical constituents of herbs. There are huge amounts of
International studies into the ability of plants to help our
health. Many of those studies are not to be found in Complementary
medicine resources, but are in the food and other related trades
technical publications. You cannot distinguish between a so
called 'herb' and a 'food'. In many cases they are one and the
same. What can distinguish one from the other is how the plant
is used and in what proportions. For example, a sprig of rosemary
is great with lamb and may make you feel good, but its maximum
medicinal effects will only be achieved if the herb is processed
in the form of an alcoholic tincture, in a carefully dried herb,
or in some cases its distilled essential oil.
is in knowing these vital differences between the likely effects
achieved by different types of extracts where modern science
can be very valuable. Therefore, a good course in herbal medicine
needs both traditional use input and scientific input.
Sadly the former is very lacking in some University courses,
or the subjects are taught by teachers who only know chemicals
and nothing else. Statutory regulation will simply push book
knowledge to the exclusion of practical knowledge.
in not all Placebo?
Any scientist or Doctor who dismisses Herbal medicine as "all
placebo" is simply ignorant. They clearly know nothing
about the huge amount of scientific studies on medicinal plants.
We know plants contain thousands of chemicals, many of those
are still being investigated by the pharmaceutical trades as
potential new drugs. We know some plants contain chemicals that
if misused can kill. There is absolutely no doubt about what
herbs/plants can achieve as far as human health is concerned.
Every year there are numerous scientific studies where completely
unknown chemicals are discovered. If it
were all placebo, then the MHRA would have had no need in recent
years to put some of our most valuable herbs onto the 'prescription
only' register. Herbs that the average doctor or pharmacist
have no idea how to use, yet herbalists have used them safely
for thousands of years and now can't.
may think "well if they contain all these chemicals don't
you think we need more expert controls on who uses these chemicals"?
The answer to that is that Herbalists have knowledge of what
the whole plant can do going back thousands of years, the exact
chemical composition is then less relevant. Even the most expert
phytochemists can only tell you the actions of the major
compounds found in given herbs. They have no idea on if the
traces or 'unidentified' chemicals may or may not have any activity.
Careful analysis of herbs has shown most contain thousands of
trace natural chemicals, the therapeutic actions of which are
unknown and no chemist has a clue on their interactions.
of the academic courses on herbal medicine make a big fuss about
students knowing the major chemicals in the respective herbs.
This aspect of attributing therapeutic activity based on the
major components of the herbs is what badly lets down the academic
training of herbalists. Often it is because the teachers themselves
have no idea on subjects such as headspace analysis. This is
a technique long used by the fragrance trade to detect potent
plant chemicals that occur at just a few parts per billion.
Those trace chemicals can powerfully influence our olfactory
system, but internally as medicine no chemist knows how they
act and interact as part of the whole herb.
have had a whole string of highly useful herbs removed from
the repertoire of herbalists in the last few years based entirely
on the fact they contain individual chemicals with known dangers.
The fact these plants have been used safely for generations
is simply ignored. Certain academic herbalists have gone along
with these unjustified restrictions and there availability has
been removed under the guise of public safety.
We know herbs/plants contain very active substances.
We know those substances can vary a lot in volume and quality.
Despite those variations, traditional herbalists know how to
adjust their medicines to take account of these factors. A client
has individual attention and so changes in their health are
monitored and changes to the medication are made as thought
Herbalists are NOT dispensers of standardised drugs with their
huge variability on how they affect individuals. However that
is the road we are being forced down. If the reader does not
want that, please sign the petition via the save
our herbs website