The Efficacy or otherwise of herbal medicines

This 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.

In 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.

As 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!!

Where 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.

It 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.

Is 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.

You 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.

Most 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.

We 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 fit.
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

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