Herbal Medicine

Western Herbal Medicine

“Western herbal medicine has its roots both in the indigenous practices of the British Isles, and in the European and Greco-Roman traditions, and can be traced back to prominent physicians such as Dioscorides, Hippocrates and Galen. There are also strong links to North America, and some exporting and re-importing of ideas and practices that have taken place particularly over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In North America, the Eclectic and physiomedical herbal movements incorporated the herbal lore of the Native Americans, and many North American herbs are still routinely used in western herbal medicine in the UK – the well-known immune stimulant Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) is a good example of this cross-cultural exchange. Additionally, as global communication and transportation have expanded, plants from all over the world are now found to be in regular use within the Western framework: an example of this is Ginseng (Panax ginseng).

It is often noted that a significant proportion of orthodox Western medicines were originally derived from herbal medicines. Perhaps because of this, it is often assumed that western herbal medicine is philosophically and theoretically allied to orthodox western mainstream medicine and modern research into herbal medicine has tended to evaluate herbal medicines as ersatz drugs suited to the treatment of specific diseases (for instance Hypericum perforatum specifically to help with depression).

Whilst this approach has contributed much vital information to the science of herbal medicine, it has by and large failed to highlight the modus operandi of western herbal practice and consequently the traditional, holistic elements of western herbal medicine are not widely understood or appreciated.

Western herbalism is characterised by a person-centred approach, where the patient rather than the disease is the focus of the practitioner’s attention. The background to the patient’s condition is assessed through a thorough case history, taking account of family history, personal health history and lifestyle choices, and therapy is directed at the causes, not just the presenting symptoms. The practitioner uses the information obtained during the taking of the case history to make an assessment of the vitality and constitution of the patient.  The choice of herbs in the prescription is based on this assessment. The prescription, rather than being based simply on the diagnosis of a disease or condition, is determined by an understanding of the significance of the signs and symptoms in that individual. Prescriptions may vary substantially between individual patients apparently presenting with a similar condition. Herbal treatment is commonly backed up by appropriate advice on lifestyle, particularly nutrition, and the practitioner works at all times to create an ambience of trust and positivism in the therapeutic relationship.”

provided by Max Drake (taken from the EHPA website)

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese herbal medicine (CHM) is one discipline within a broad tradition, which also includes acupuncture, massage (tuina), dietary therapy and exercise (qi gong).  It is one of the great herbal traditions of the world, with a recorded history of more than two thousand years.  CHM has retained a strong presence in health provision in China today, where it is practiced alongside western medicine in state hospitals throughout the country in helping a wide range of conditions.  More recently it has become increasingly popular in the West, and has expanded rapidly in the UK since the 1980s.

Although some of the same herbs are used within CHM as other forms of herbalism, there is a great difference in terms of the way that a practitioner of CHM will view a person’s physical and emotional make up.

In other words, Chinese herbal medicine, along with the other components of Chinese medicine, is based on the principle that good health depends on achieving optimum vitality and balance; a balance described in terms of the fundamental harmony of Yin and Yang.  For instance if a person feels tired, cold, weak, and mentally listless, there may be a depletion of Yang energy in the body.  Too much Yang energy could be displayed in signs such as fever, restlessness, thirst, sweating and irritability.  A practitioner of CHM will consider a person according to their Qi or vitality and assess how this may be depleted or blocked.  Clinical strategies are based upon diagnosis of patterns of signs and symptoms that reflect an imbalance.  A practitioner will also view a person in terms of environmental conditions within their body which are described in terms such as dampness, dryness, heat, fire, wind, or cold.  An excess of dampness might be shown as someone feeling heavy in their body, having a ‘muzzy’ head, lots of mucous in their system, diarrhoea, water retention or watery discharges.

As well as taking a full case history, attention is given to the feeling the patient’s pulses and examining the tongue, both of which give information on which to base a diagnosis.  Treatment will aim to address not just current diseases, but to maintain good health and prevent future illness.

Chinese herbal medicine is successfully used for a very wide range of conditions. Among the more commonly helped disorders are skin diseases, gastro-intestinal disorders, gynaecological conditions, hepatitis and HiV, chronic fatigue syndrome, respiratory conditions, rheumtalogical conditions, urinary conditions, psychological problems, problems of pregnancy and children’s diseases.

The results that can be expected and the length of treatment required will depend on the severity of the condition, its duration, and the general health of the patient.

Herbs are now available in a number of formats, both traditional and modern. The traditional method is to boil a mixture of dried herbs to make a tea or to use pills. The herbs are also now commonly prescribed as freeze dried powders or tinctures. The herbs will at first taste unusual and often bitter to anyone who has not tried them before, but the vast majority of people get used to the taste very quickly.

Anyone wishing to take Chinese herbal medicine is advised to seek treatment from a practitioner who has undergone a full training; is a member of a professional body which demands that he or she follows a Code of Good Practice and Ethics; obtains his or her herbal supplies from reputable companies; will take a full case history (including finding out about any current medication that a person is taking) and will give advice about what to do in the unlikely event of an adverse reaction.

by Emma Farrant (Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine)

Herbal Medicine Links:

British Herbal Medicine Association – established in order to advance the science and practice of herbal medicine in the UK.