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Natural Therapies - Herbalism

A pestle and mortar with flowers

Herbal medicine has long been used to treat sickness and disease - in fact it’s the oldest form of medicine we have, and is still very relevant today. There is a temptation in medicine these days to disregard the wisdom that has evolved over centuries of using herbs in favour of more measurable procedures and drugs with exact known quantities, but must one really be sacrificed for the other?

There are many important differences between herbal medicine and what is often called ‘orthodox’ or modern medicine, although many drugs are derived from plants. However, once the chemical profile of an active ingredient has been identified, it is often synthesized for manufacture on a very large scale.

A key difference between herbal and pharmaceutical medicine is that the whole plant is used in herbal medicine, resulting in fewer side-effects. Plants have many different constituents which work together, with some modifying more powerful actions, making their effect on the body more gentle and having a truly ‘balancing’ action, whereas modern medical practice is more concerned with prescribing a drug that targets only the presenting symptoms.

Consider a common digestive ailment such as reflux - the orthodox treatment for this condition is to prescribe a drug that inhibits the production of gastric acid. This eases the symptoms but PPIs (proton pump inhibitors) also block the absorption of important minerals, creating a further problem. Using a combination of herbs with a soothing protective action (marshmallow, slippery elm), an effective anti-inflammatory agent (chamomile), a bitter such as centaury which helps to tonify the tissue in the upper gut, and perhaps herbs with a proven ability to reduce stress levels, herbs can address both the cause and symptoms.

Over weeks, symptoms are reduced and, in time, may be fully resolved. The herbalist tracks the changes and prescribes accordingly, and will advise on necessary dietary changes.

Herbal medicine is suitable for people of all ages and for all problems. It is very suitable for self-treatment and using herbs for minor complaints is highly recommended. Herbs work by supporting the body in redressing imbalances and correcting things that have begun to go wrong. There is however, quite a difference between using herbs such as Echinacea or Elderberries to treat a cold, or Peppermint for minor digestive complaints, and treating a condition that has developed into something more serious.

As with many traditional crafts, it is the skill, experience and training of the practitioner that determines the outcome. People on medication for an existing condition often enquire about the feasibility of taking herbs instead of, or alongside their prescribed medicine and, once again, this is best done under professional supervision.

Think of our precious medicinal plants as your allies in your own healthcare, and I hope you are inspired to learn more about how they will keep you well. Medical herbalists have been thoroughly trained in western medicine, and are experts in the most appropriate use of herbs for specific conditions, while tailoring the herbal prescription to your individual needs.

"Herbs helped my hot flushes"

‘Mary’ is 48 and lives in Dublin.

"When I was 45 I had a hysterectomy and they took one ovary. About two years later I started to go into menopause. Hot flushes started off mild but after two months they had become acute. I was wet through with sweat dripping from my face - my clothes would literally stick to me.

I was aware that the only conventional treatment was Hormone Replacement Therapy and I knew I didn’t want that so I tried different herbal teas, which didn’t really help. Then about a year ago my sister recommended herbalist Helen McCormack. I contacted Helen and asked her to recommend a tea – she asked me to come in for a consultation. To be honest I was a bit sceptical. I was reluctant but I was desperate so I went. I didn’t expect much.

Helen interviewed me for over an hour and asked lots of questions about my nutrition, my lifestyle and habits and my symptoms. At the end of the consultation she gave me a bottle of dark brown, smelly, intense herbal tincture which contained a combination of Chinese angelica, Rehmannia, Schizandra, Goji, Chinese Yam, Black cohosh and Sage.

She told me to take one teaspoon in a glass of water three times a day. This was impractical for me at work so I took one and a half teaspoons in the morning and night instead. Then I worked out that I could make up a bottle of water with the tincture in it, label it and sip that at work.

Within four days my hot flushes had just stopped and there were no side-effects. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t believe it. I went to see Helen a second time, then after that she was happy to keep in touch via email. She said that menopause is a time of depletion and through the consultation she was able to find out where I needed nourishment. The tincture costs about €10 euro per week. I would recommend herbalism to anyone."

Helen McCormack can be contacted at helen@homeofherbs.ie

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