13.04.2016 Naturopathy

The Power of Herbal Medicine

Naturopath Lyn Craven takes up the baton for one of the most traditional and powerful forms of healing - but one increasingly demonised in the West - herbal medicine

Genesis 1:29: And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which [is] the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.

Many of you have some awareness of herbal medicine. There are hundreds of products available in a variety of formulas in health food stores and pharmacies. However, most of these are generalised and many other herbs are not available through retailers since they require qualified practitioners to formulate and dispense them. No doctor or surgeon will know how to do this and unfortunately it is this lack of knowledge that often initiates their suspicion and disbelief in the effectiveness of herbal medicine.

Types of herbal medicine philosophies

  • Traditional Western herbal medicine (WHM)
  • Traditional Chinese herbal medicine (TCM)
  • Traditional Ayurvedic herbal medicine (AHM)

There are many other cultures which have their traditional ways of using herbs but these three philosophies are the best known in our society.

How are herbs taken?

  • Infusions such as in teas. Chamomile and peppermint tea are good examples.
  • Decoctions such as in TCM where you boil a quantity of water and place the twigs/leaves and plant parts in the water for a given period of time, strain then drink in accordance with instructions given to you.
  • Tinctures. Here, the herb is macerated in water and alcohol (known as menstrum) then pressed to extract the active components of the plant.
  • Fluid Extracts which are the most potent form of herbs manufactured. The herb is macerated as above for longer before extraction of actives via pressing. The fluid extract is often 1 part herb to 1 part menstrum (quoted as 1:1), with variations 1:2, 1:5 and 1:10.
  • Capsule which is 100% powdered herb.
  • Tablet which contains powdered herb often with some filler.

The last two options are often given to people who simply will not take the herb in liquid form due to strong or unpleasant taste and those who can’t consume any alcohol. However, tablet form is not as efficient as a fluid extract. If a person’s digestive system is not working efficiently for any reason the actives in the tablet may not be fully absorbed and assimilated. Fluid is always the better option.

Infusions are very mild and may be recommended to support the entire health program the practitioner has put together for you.

Decoctions can be quite strong, smelly and unpleasant to taste but they are commonly administered if you visit a TCM practitioner. They also issue small herbal pills.

Tinctures are not as strong as fluid extracts but they are very effective at helping resolve many physiological imbalances. Many retail products consist of tinctures.

However, fluid extracts are what Western herbal medicine practitioners will use. They are strong, potent and very effective. They are quite safe when used in trained hands and are the preferred option.

Someone who is not a trained herbalist (including other therapists) should not dabble with potent herbs and mix them, especially if you are taking any pharmaceutical medications. All fluid extracts are manufactured in Australia unless, of course, the practitioners source any products from overseas. We can be assured of top quality standards in both collection and the entire manufacturing process. Extensive quality control is put in place and no source material is used if there is any contamination. Usually, local products are the best quality.

Why take herbs instead of pharmaceutical drugs?

Herbs are healthier for you and do not create any side effects if you have received them from a trained practitioner.

In some cases, herbs can be administered when you are on some pharmaceutical drugs but care must be taken with any drugs that are working with your nervous system or brain. These include anti depressants and tranquillisers. In the case of drugs taken for blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, you’ll also need to consult a qualified practitioner who can assess you and recommend which herb is right for you.

Herbs are metabolised easily by the body, especially the liver, unlike pharmaceutical drugs which interfere with digestion and liver function, creating toxicity and stress on many organs.The entire physiology is affected by pharmaceutical drugs. Even one tiny drop can create a systemic reaction. I know this from personal experience!

However, herbs are natural so it makes more sense to consider them for your health and wellness due to their affinity with the human physiology.

Herbs have the ability to work on the root cause of the problem, rather than just treat you symptomatically as many pharmaceutical drugs do. Some medical practitioners may recommend a few common herbs to people but they are really only offering symptomatic relief through one herb rather than drawing upon therapeutic activities of the correct herbs and formulations.

Most pharmaceutical drugs have evolved through the powerful active constituents in herbs, something that surprises many people. This is where medicine began - through nature. However, there are no great profits to gain by using active constituents from herbs alone. Pharmaceutical companies realised this so, over time, as technology and scientific testing became more sophisticated, synthetic drugs were manufactured with the same or similar molecule structure to the original plant source. This is where side effects occur. Nature, in her cleverness, has evolved a wide array of plants for healing many disorders. When the most powerful actives are removed from plants to create pharmaceutical drugs, other plant constituents were discarded. This is where imbalance arises.

Let’s take the example of aspirin. It is created by extracting the most potent constituent from plants like Meadowsweet and Willow Bark, called salicylate. However, a mucilaginous substance within these plants and tannins counteracts the irritant action of salicylate, thereby enabling someone to ingest this remedy (the herb as a whole), over a period of time without any side effects. When aspirin is ingested continually, it can irritate the stomach lining and contribute to bleeding. Both plants also contain tannins, which have an astringent action on the gut mucosa, generating toning and healing activity to the cells at a deep level. Aspirin also interferes with normal digestive acid and enzyme function, unlike the whole plant where its various parts work together synergistically and holistically.

Herbalists spend from 30 months to three years studying the pharmacology, therapeutics and physio medicine of Western herbal medicine. Constituents found in plants include alkaloids, tannins, astringent properties, glycosides, anthraquinones, resin, volatile oil, mucilage, saponins, triterpenoids, berberine, asparigin, phytosterol and bitter principles just to name a few.

Herbalists and naturopaths have to understand how to formulate remedies and how such actives can work with the physiology of the body. This knowledge allows them to select the correct remedies for your health disorder. So they need to know if you are taking any pharmaceutical drugs. It is not the herb’s fault if a “reaction” occurs; it is due to the potent, often synthetic and chemical, components in the drug that challenge the herb. Some may clash. So please tell your practitioner what you have been prescribed.

It is often very frustrating for the patient when the medical doctor will not meet them halfway and even venture to discuss any remedies the naturopath or herbalist has prescribed. Many natural medicine practitioners would be more than happy to share and discuss protocols if only medical practitioners were more open to alternative viewpoints. Many people I have spoken with over the years have felt intimidated and frustrated at what they see as narrow minded attitudes and prefer to pay for functional lab tests to assess their health status. After all, we all have freedom of choice!

Why are herbs best formulated?

The inclusion of several herbs in a formula works far more efficiently in a synergistic way than just one single herb. It takes a few years of training to understand the actives in a wide range of herbs. Western herbalists refer to the Materia Medica, which contains A-Z of all herbs used over hundreds of years. Some may be extinct now but records have been handed down and recorded, as with Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines.

It is so important to formulate the correct herbs for the disorder being treated and to ascertain the correct dosage.This is where some formulas will succeed against others.

You may be given herbs in a millilitre or drop dosage - it really depends on the practitioner you see and their training. Some work with both as I do.

Will they taste nasty?

There is an old saying, “If it tastes nasty it will do you good”! There is some truth in this and a good example is in treating liver disorders. Bitter herbs are often prescribed which many people initially find overpowering. The liver loves bitterness, not sweetness, as bitterness helps balance digestive juices and liver enzyme activity.

But rather than have someone decide not to take the herb because of its taste, we can suggest adding a drop of black grape juice since this is not acidic. Some herbalists may “lace” their formulas with peppermint or licorice. I have personally never done this, preferring to keep the formula as it is. Often your taste buds will grow accustomed to the taste after a few days and you won’t worry about it. Society has seduced our taste buds with so much sugar added to processed foods that anything bitter, sour or pungent is a “turn off” for many. It is these tastes and the sensations they trigger that comprise part of the action for healing to take place. A good example is Swedish bitters, which stimulates your appetite via enzymes produced first in your mouth (hence the taste is important) then your stomach, pancreas and liver.

Next month we’ll look at what health problems can be successfully treated with herbs.

Lyn Craven

Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804