MarshmallowThe art of herbal medicine is based on an amalgam of ancient tradition, clinical experience and modern scientific research. Herbal practice involves the use of seeds, berries, fungi, seaweeds, roots, tubers, vines, mosses, lichens, leaves, bark, fruits or flowers to treat and prevent ill health using a variety of preparations from quality-sourced whole herb ingredients such as tinctures, herbal teas, decoctions, syrups, poultices, infused oils, essential oils, salves, ointment or creams.

The Herbal tradition is the oldest extant system of medicine and has developed from ancient cultures such as:

•    The Western Herbal Tradition (Graeco-Roman & Medieval)
•    Ethnobotanical traditions of America, Africa and Australia
•    The Ayurvedic Tradition of India
•    Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine (TCM)

And more recently its expanding evidence-base also includes:

•   Specialized Herbals – academic books on plant medicines

   The clinical experience and observations of practitioners in the field

•   Recent clinical research into the safety & efficacy of plants

This combination of the ancient and modern provides herbal medicine with a formidable background with which to approach modern healthcare, and yet herbal medicine remains largely misunderstood. This is partly due to a tendency to lump anything which isn’t general medical practice under the CAM (Complimentary and Alternative Medicine) bracket. This means that more esoteric practices with little rationale or history are grouped together with long-standing and proven therapies like herbal medicine much to the confusion of the media and general public.

A second and more pressing issue is the pharmaceutical approach to herbal medicine which sees plants solely as substances with ‘active ingredients’ which are to be extracted to manufacture pharmaceutical drugs. Traditional herbalists on the other hand consider that herbs work by the combination of constituents that make up the chemistry of the whole plant. The difference between this whole herb philosophy and the pharmaceutical approach is that isolated extracts are much more likely to create side-effects when compared to whole herbs.

As a consequence many herbalists think that modern clinical research is providing very limited data and is often inconsistent with modern herbal practice. The danger of using modern clinical trials as a sole evidence base is fraught with incongruity and makes for very poor science.

Many well established drugs originally came from plants. For example, the world’s most efficient painkiller morphine comes from the opium poppy (Papavar somniferum); aspirin was originally produced from the Meadowsweet herb (Filipendula ulmaria) while digoxin (a drug used to treat heart failure) comes from the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea). The World Health Organization (WHO) now estimate that over 70% of world population use herbal medicine as their primary source of health care. In Germany, roughly 600 to 700 plant-based medicines are available and are prescribed by approximately 70% of German physicians, and across the Western world more and more people are reconnecting with natural medicines. WHO estimate annual revenue of €3.8billion in Europe by 2004 (WHO Fact Sheet #134, 2008).

In light of this the IRH remain concerned about the safety, quality and efficacy of OTC (over the counter) herbal products and accept the need for regulation. However we feel that recent EU legislation such as THMPD (Traditional Herbal Medicines Product Directive) may well be disproportionate and limit or deny access to a number of herbal medicines unnecessarily, based as it is on a predominantly pharmaceutical model.

coneflowerDespite restrictions under THMPD there are still many herbal remedies for self treatment available as over the counter products, and the interest in herbal medicines continues to grow exponentially. If you would like to know more about a particular herb, or if you’d like to report an adverse reaction to a herbal product then please get in touch. If you are suffering from a more complex condition you might consider visiting with one of our registered herbalists. However if you have a serious illness or acute condition we recommended you consult with your GP before making an appointment. If you would like more information on any aspect of herbalism please don’t hesitate to get in touch.