What can I expect when I see a herbalist?

Catriona Gibson, Medical Herbalist

If you haven’t seen a herbalist before, you might wonder what to expect.  Doing anything for the first time can make us a little apprehensive, or at least curious.  Medical Herbalist Catriona Gibson explains to Nadine McBay that there’s nothing to fear.

If someone has never come to see a herbalist before, what should they expect during their first consultation?  Will they be examined and asked lots of questions?

They might.  But everything is carried out only with the person’s permission.  Sometimes a herbalist with have to carry out a physical examination and do things like take the person’s blood pressure or listen to their chest.  Of the 60 minutes of the first consultation, typically around 45 minutes will be talking and the vast majority of the questions will be relatively simple such as questions about diet, smoking, alcohol, exercise etc.

There may also be some questions which seem a little more unusual but these are necessary to help the herbalist build the most complete picture of the person in front of them as possible.  For example, we may ask about the people around them, if they have good support and what they do in their spare time etc.  These might be slightly strange questions to ask within a medical setting, but it’s to help get to know the person and their habits.  This allows the herbalist to make suggestions to do with self-management and activities that may help them with their condition.

With regards to physical examination, this would be done only with the person’s consent, of course.  The main things often done are: taking blood pressure, listening to someone’s heart and often looking at the particular part of the body that is giving the person bother.  Observation is very important in herbal medicine, hence why face-to-face consultations, certainly for that initial visit, are very important.  Getting a chance to meet someone in person is very valuable; you get a particular feeling for a person and how they might be feeling.

It’s also important to ask them if they’re feeling the way they mostly do on the day you see them, or whether something has happened or they feel particularly out of sorts on the day you see them.  Sometimes people come in and they’re having a bad day, or they may, for example, be looking a little puffy around the eyes, when this is actually perfectly normal for them.  They may say they’re feeling ‘normal’ temperature wise, but when they are very cold or hot to touch.  Things that have changed for the person are very important, and it’s very difficult to assess this on the phone.  Sometimes though, if a herbalist has met already met a person for that first, in-depth consultation and they live very far away, or are stuck somewhere because of illness or bad weather, a phone consultation can be appropriate.

What are some of the typical issues that people come to see a herbalist for?

Skin conditions are very common.  The skin can become sore, itchy, there could be acne going on, or conditions such as eczema or discolouration.  It’s obviously a very visible part of us and, as well as the discomfort, people can get embarrassed about it and can have a big effect on their quality of life.

Stress, in any number of forms.  It could be a general feeling of stress, or it could be that it’s got to the stage where it’s causing them a particular difficulty, such as insomnia.  Often those with long term conditions find that their symptoms get worse when they are stressed.  So stress may be the primary reason they come to see a herbalist, or it may be a factor in the worsening of a particular more long term condition.

Many women come for menstrual and menopausal conditions.  There aren’t that many conventional medicines for these conditions, whereas there are many herbs that can help.  This may be partly down to herbal medicine being very much the provenance of women in the past.  There is quite a broad range of quite specifically different plants for particular conditions related to menstruation and menopause.  A lot of conventional practitioners are picking up on this, which is great.  I have a friend, for example, who was advised by her GP to take Red Clover.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) is commonly used in medical herbalism

Digestive problems are common too, which is understandable.  People seem to be more comfortable talking about difficulties with going to the toilet during the longer consultation with the herbalist.  Herbs can have a quick effect on digestive problems, and longer term, a great deal is down to the individual being prepared to change their lifestyle and diet, both of which can have a huge effect on healthy digestion.

It really can be anything and everything that people come to see a herbalist for, but those are some of the most common issues.