Patients cannot be standardised, nor can their medicines, if they are to be truly effective. Even supposing the pharmaceutical industry was not as antipathetic to herbal medicine as it currently is, this presents it with an enormous problem.
The nature of the beast dictates that it produces drugs in huge quantities, but the problem is that the recipients of such drugs remain, thank goodness, stubbornly individual. Over the years, this has led to widespread disillusionment with modern drug therapy. One man's aspirin is another man's stomach ulcer.
There is an alternative to this - herbal medicine. But before it is wrongly elevated to the status of the universal panacea, I should point out it is the chemical bastardisation of the properties of herbs that has, in many instances, led to iatrogenic (unintentionally caused by a doctor) disease in the first place. Many people fail to realise that conventional medicine is, in fact, firmly rooted in herbalism. They tend to assume, if they think about it at all, that all those multi coloured pills have nothing to do with nature, whereas medical science still depends heavily on plant life to provide the blueprint for much modern medicine.
Pharmacy tends to be more reliable because it enables chemicals to be reproduced in accurate doses and, given appropriate storage conditions, such medicines remain the same yesterday, today and forever. But the advantages of science are limited. It is the pharmacologist's concern to extract the exact chemicals from the plant that will cure a specific disease, and these chemicals tend to be very potent because they are so concentrated. Once inside the body, they have an ungovernable habit of travelling to various parts they are not supposed to be treating. The results can be side effects that are alarming and may even be harmful.
The principle that underlies herbal medicine is that there is an energy inside every human body which science is unable to quantify or explain. Herbalists call it the vital force, which inspires the body to life and is chiefly concerned with maintaining its equilibrium. If this delicate balance, this homoeostatis, can be encouraged, the whole person will enjoy good health. If it is disturbed, the result is disease. So a herbalist's well rounded approach to herbal medicine treats the patient, not the disease.
A good herbalist is concerned not merely with the symptom of the disease but, more importantly, with finding out why the body has not been able to heal itself. Even orthodox medicine acknowledges that an astonishing number of ailments are self limiting. Herbalists try to direct the vital force by encouraging it with herbal remedies, which stimulate the body's open defences to produce the desired return to positive health. The remedies they use are individually tailored to the patient's needs, so that two patients with the same disease may be treated with quite different prescriptions, simply because the underlying causes of the disease maybe quite different in each individual.
The advantage that herbs have over man-made chemicals is that nature sensibly packages herb chemicals in such well balanced and minute amounts that their safe assimilation by the body is assured. Take sage, for example. Its leaves contain an essential oil, which is both antiseptic and fungicidal, and tannin, which is astringent. Sage tea is a disinfectant because of the combination of the essential oil and the tannin, and this synergistic action makes it an excellent gargle for sore throats. But once the tea is swallowed, depending on its temperature, other properties come to the fore, such as preventing heavy nighttime feverish sweating and stopping lactation in nursing mothers. Sage also contains a toxic ketone as a part of the essential oil complex, which, if drunk regularly over a long period of time, produces an emmenagogic effect in women, that is, it causes spasming of the womb and may result in abortion if the woman is pregnant. A brief look at the varied action of this one simple herb shows just how subtle herbal medicine is.
The problem is governments all over the world are joining hands with Big Pharma and Big Food, (meaning the industrialised processed food giants) in an unprecedented pogrom against herbal medicine. I left Britain in December last year after 30 years in full time herbal practice and came into Australia on a Distinguished Talent Visa, precisely because so many of the herbs I needed in my extensive herbal pharmacy had been banned by the European Commission. The Gestapo tactics have long begun. In Germany and in the UK, the "drug police" recently confiscated natural remedies as though they were contraband drugs. The EU's main strategy has been to try and place every natural product, natural remedy or natural service firmly under the thumb of prescription drug law and, of course, if a substance is treated like a drug it has to be evaluated and studied like a drug. The millions that this costs, mainly for safety and efficacy evaluation, is out of reach of the vast majority of herbal manufacturers - in effect it is a de facto ban. My fear is that herbalism in the UK will be worn down eventually by a long war of attrition.
In the US, 700 natural products have been banned under the late Senator Edward Kennedy's instigation with his May 2007 Food and Drug Revitalisation Act. Compare this absurd overkill with the leniency afforded procedures like stents or most prescription drugs which kill 100,000 people every year in the US alone.
Don't misjudge me. I am not "a back to nature fanatic", nor do I regard herbalism as a universal panacea. I would prefer to encourage a mingling of the knowledge and talents of the synthesist and the naturalist so that we could all benefit from the larger view without missing out on minute truths. I would like to see preventative herb healthcare enjoying an equal footing with modern interventionist medicines.
I am not against the stringent and necessary approach Australia's TGA have taken through their Good Manufacturing Practice Guidelines to ensure there is no adulteration of herbal medicine, whether it be economically motivated or the result of mistaken identity. The Pan Pharmaceuticals debacle of 2003 brought alight many of the deficiencies in the checks and measures of the herbal industry. But it should be remembered that after Pan pleaded guilty to 24 charges of defective medication and was fined $3 million, Jim Selim, the founder of Pan, received $55 million for damages and legal costs after the TGA settled a civil action for acting negligently and outside the limits of its statutory powers when it issued the recall.
I would like to see herbal medicine accepted by the current medical establishment, not as a poor and somewhat second best cousin, but as a complementary and respected partner. It is after all the only medicine available to 80% of the world's population. The World Health Organisation is now positively encouraging developing countries to use the herbal medicines they have used for centuries. The United States has finally stopped jailing its herbalists, though my own teacher Dr John Christopher, a leading herbalist in the United States, went to jail many times in defence of his profession. My other teacher, Richard Schulze, practising in Santa Monica, had his door battered down by the SWAT squad so often while he was in practice that he eventually took the door off its hinges and left the door permanently open. The practice of herbal medicine is illegal throughout most of the United States.
What can we do against such a relentless juggernaut? There is a glimmer of light in the fact that two million organisations around the world opposed to the globalisation efforts displayed by Big Pharma and Big Food constitute tens of millions of people willing to defend against corrupt politics and climate change, corporate predation and the death of the oceans, governmental indifference and pandemic poverty, industrial forestry and farming, depletion of soil and water. Glimmers of light are beginning to dawn. Herbal medicine is available in most French and some Italian pharmacies, and Slovakia and Germany boast some of the best spas in Europe, while witchdoctors hold conferences in Zimbabwe and are considered quite respectable.
China has instigated a marriage between traditional and preventative medicine and modern medicine with considerable success, each therapy acknowledging the specific areas where the other copes best. When I studied in China, I saw the two approaches working well together. This success is largely the result of teaching people how they can best look after themselves. It is partly economics that has forced them into this synthesis, but in view of the current state of our Western economies, we would do well to investigate their example.
Dr Kitty Campion has written nine books detailing her experience in natural healthcare working with 25,000 clients.
Her bestseller A Woman's Herbal has been reprinted five times.