What is herbal medicine?

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

Herbalism is the oldest form of medicine.  Nowadays people often take their herbal medicine in tincture form, as an infusion or sometimes even in capsules.

Medical Herbalist Catriona Gibson tells Nadine McBay some of the basic principles of prescribing herbs for an individual.

Are herbs prescribed in combination with others or by themselves?

Sometimes a single herb can be used when appropriate, and herbs are used in combination with each other quite commonly.  Often there are herbs which are commonly used together, and that can be because one of them has a secondary effect that you want to ensure is not overpowering.  Sometimes it could be that the different herbs have a sympathetic relationship which creates something bigger than the sum of its parts.  A lot of times you will be adding in other things, for example, things that work in combination, things that address different parts of the person’s condition.  You want there to be an overall picture in a prescription, as well as dealing with different parts of the person’s condition.

Herbalists will commonly include some herbs in mixes to do very specific things, for example address the underlying cause of particular symptoms, which may be working on a particular organ in the body, such as the liver.  So there are many different aspects you’re taking into account when devising a mixture for a person.

How long can people expect to be taking herbal medicine?

It’s completely individual and depends on the person and their unique condition.  Often, lifestyle changes can have as much impact as taking herbs, but sometimes people find these changes very difficult to make.  Just look at the number of support groups to help people to lose weight; these habits can be very challenging to change.  Herbs can help support people through some of these changes, and when people find all of the changes just impossible to make, herbs can often help there.

Ideally, a person will take herbs for as long as they need them.  Often people find that when they start to feel better, they will begin to take them less.  Some like doing this is in a more structured way, others do it in a less organised way.  Sometimes the length of time a person takes herbs depends on the actual herb; some of them can take a while to take effect, just as some conventional medicines do.  If someone is perhaps able to take on board all of the lifestyle and dietary advice I give them, and put it into practise, it may be that they’re just taking the herbs for a wee while until their body has adjusted to whatever is the optimum for them.

Can any herbs cause a dependency?

For most herbs, this tends not to be an issue, especially the ones commonly used for their anti-depressant qualities.  What there can be is that people can become emotionally attached to taking their herbal medicine, believing that they can’t get by without them.  This is most common when someone has been very unwell or unwell for a long time and the herbs are working for them.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is commonly found in Scotland

Why do herbalists usually use extracts of plants rather than isolating particular parts of the plant and making medicines from them?  Is there a benefit in taking herbs in their more natural, whole form?

The idea of using whole plants is that it will work more effectively rather than using particular constituents from the plant in isolation.  Rather in the way that herbs can be prescribed in a combination to dampen down potentially problematic secondary effects, there’s this idea that the whole plant will have multiple constituents that will work with each other.  An example of this would be Meadowsweet, which grows a lot in Scotland.  It’s used a lot for acid reflux and muscle and joint pain.  Meadowsweet contains a compound – salicylic acid – that is used to make aspirin.  People often find that aspirin can give them a stomach ache, and yet there are other constituents in Meadowsweet that are used to help with sore stomachs.  When constituents are isolated, they can sometimes cause problems, whereas plants often contain another constituent that can reduce or counteract that problem.  For example, a lot of plants have both drying and soothing properties – tannins and mucilages are the medicinal terms for them.  This makes these particular herbs, eg Plantain and Eyebright useful for particular respiratory conditions. A lot of plants work this way.

Catriona Gibson is a medical herbalist and massage therapist who trained with both the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine and the University of East London. Before becoming a herbalist, Catriona worked for a number of years with people who were homeless and who often had severe, long-standing health problems. Her decision to train as a medical herbalist due to her interest in helping people help themselves and herbalism’s potential to provide a sustainable form of medicine.