Herbs and their medicinal uses
Sixteen members were able to attend this meeting on Zoom at which Ruth Austin gave us a fascinating presentation on herbal medicine. She is a medical herbalist with a B.Sc. in western herbal medicine and has been a registered herbal practitioner in Leicester (Hyde’s Herbal Clinic) for over 20 years. Ruth explained that the clinic is run like a GP surgery with patients from across the U.K. and further afield. Ruth works with an immunologist.
Herbal medicine is still the most widely used form of medicine in the world today: WHO estimates that 75–80% of medical treatment uses herbal medicine, especially in developing countries. Herbal medicine differs from orthodox medicine in that herbal medicine uses extracts from the whole plant rather than a specific part of the plant. Herbal medicine takes a more interactive approach with the patient and each formulation is made specific to the patient. Ruth explained that preparations from a single plant are called simples and those prescriptions from several plants are called multiples.
She then went on to tell us about some familiar phytochemicals in plants with therapeutic properties, for example morphine, digoxin, quinine, and aspirin, coming from poppies, foxglove, the cinchona tree, and willow bark, respectively. Ruth discussed different types of plant medicines and how they are prepared. No two herbal medicines are the same: each medicine is individually prescribed and formulated for the specific patient and how the condition affects them. The medicines can be liquids or infusions, tablets, creams, lotions and even shampoos.
Ruth and her colleagues make plant tinctures by hand in the clinic and each one is specific to a particular consultation. The herbal medication is always given together with diet and lifestyle advice. Herbalists work holistically with the whole patient whereas modern medicine usually divides conditions into specialisms, for example rheumatology and gastroenterology. Herbal medicine does not stand up well to double blind randomized controlled trials so that evidence of results is much more empirical than in orthodox clinical trials. This arises because the circumstances and the person are different in every case.
In the past, plants were much more part of daily life and people were more comfortable with identifying them. Ruth told us that herbalists always refer to plants with their scientific or Latin names to ensure that the right plant is being used in any treatment, and she acknowledges how much more information there is in botanical illustrations compared to photographs. She showed us some old drawings and some more modern botanical illustrations, pointing out obvious botanical characters which are important to herbalists to be sure they are using the correct plant, and not an ineffective or even poisonous alternative. She showed us some mediaeval illustrations and pointed out where these were not botanically accurate. She was also quite critical of some modern illustrations where the drawings are rather small and lacking detail because of the size of the publication, for example the Collins Wildflower Guide. Where illustrations do not have enough detail and context, Ruth was concerned that these can lead to misidentification and even poisoning if plants are used by laypersons or amateur practitioners to treat themselves.
Ruth then discussed a number of specific plants and how they are used in herbal medicine. Some interesting questions were raised, including how the therapeutic constituents vary with soil conditions and possible applications of pesticide, also differences in herbal properties arising in varieties and hybrids. Other questions Ruths answers were about the longevity of herbal medicines (they are quite long-lasting) and how to move from treatment with orthodox medicine to herbal medicine (this should be on an individual basis and the herbalist might work in consultation with the patient’s GP).
May 17th, 2021