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Healing Natures way: Advice from a Leading Medical Herbalist

Healing Natures way: Advice from a Leading Medical Herbalist

Herbal medicine in a pestle

The practice of using plant-based or herbal medicines to treat problems can be traced back 60,000 years to the Paleolithic age. So it’s certainly not what you’d describe as a flash in the pan. Up until fairly recently, the practice was viewed by some, especially traditional doctors, as a slightly new-age way of dealing with medical problems.

Thankfully in these more enlightened times that outdated way of thinking has dissipated and the area of herbal medicine is now generally seen as an attractive alternative to orthodox medical treatment, with strong published evidence out there to back up that this stuff really works.

Christopher Etheridge is a leading Medical Herbalist (Phytotherapist) with extensive experience as a herbal practitioner, researcher and writer. Among his many key roles within the field, he’s Chair of the British Herbal Medicine Association (BHMA), so you could say he knows a thing or two about this fascinating subject.

We spoke to Chris recently to pick his considerable brains on all things herbal medicine, gleaning information on the range of treatments available, how safe they are and to get some top tips on what you can make from the comfort of your own home to ease your own common complaints.

*[This interview was conducted before the first reported case of Covid-19 in the UK and the information contained here shouldn’t be viewed as guidance for treating symptoms of Covid-19]*

The MALESTROM: Exactly what is herbal medicine?

Dr Chris Etheridge: It’s practiced by medical herbalists who are highly trained. There’s a 3-4 year degree to become trained in the area. It has a traditional reputation of being somewhat hippy, but it’s actually very science-based.

A large part of the course, over three quarters, is clinical medicine, so similar to what a GP would study in terms of differential diagnosis and examination. Then also that goes together with understanding the plants, so botany and the herbal medicine as well. So, its a very complex and highly trained profession.

In order to practice you have to have a membership of a professional regulation. Herbal medicine is the study and practice of the use of therapeutic and medicinal plants for treating disease states and to prevent health issues as well.

TM: What are the typical uses in terms of treatments?

CE: At the current time I would say coughs and colds. People are getting quite worried at the moment with the news about Covid-19, so we’re getting lots of questions about respiratory issues.

Also, skin conditions, so rashes, eczema and aches and pains, rheumatism, sciatica, osteoarthritis. There’s also IBS and digestive issues.

Herbs work very well on those as obviously you’re taking the herb orally, so it has a direct effect on the gut. I’d also say for a whole range of female problems like period pains and menopausal symptoms. There are very good actions on those as well.

TM: Are there particular conditions that herbal medicine treats better than others?

CE: That’s a difficult question to answer. I would say, generally speaking, herbal medicine tends to be able to offer things where orthodox medicine can’t.

For example, orthodox medicine can treat ailments like eczema very well with steroid creams. But these creams have side effects long term and they’re only masking the symptom they don’t get rid of the issue. As soon as you stop the treatment the eczema flairs up worse than before.

With herbal medicine, you wouldn’t just be treating the symptoms, but also the underlying cause of the issue. So looking at the immune system, digestive health, those sorts of things which are key for that. You would actually give creams to use topically as well for a quick effect, but you’re looking at the underlying effects as well. Which, unfortunately, orthodox medicine doesn’t have the time to look into. It’s very much like putting a sticking plaster on something and hoping that’s ok rather than fully healing something.

TM: Would you say using herbs is safer than orthodox medication? 

CE: It’s a difficult one again. It really depends what you’re talking about. A lot of prescription drugs are absolutely fine to use long term, obviously, there are ones that have more serious side effects.

It’s the same with herbal medicines as well. There’s the misunderstanding that because they’re natural they’re safe. They are if used properly, but there are a number of herbs that are very potent and if used inappropriately they can cause side effects.

We all know about St John’s Wort. A fantastic herb for stress, anxiety and low mood, but it interacts with a lot of conventional drugs. So even though it looks good on paper you can’t give it in conjunction with things like the oral contraceptive pill or anti-viral medication. So herbs generally are better, with a better side effect profile, but they have to be used carefully.

TM: One supposed wonder herb we hear a lot about is Oregano. Is it as effective as people say?

CE: Oregano oil is useful for treating dysbiosis, so bacterial overgrowth or undergrowth in the gut. It can weed out bad bacteria. But like anything it’s something that has an effect, it’s not useful for all people for all conditions.

For more difficult conditions people may need antibiotics as much as they may not want to take them. But certainly, for minor IBS and digestive issues, oregano oil can be useful short term. It’s not something I would recommend using long term as it can cause other issues.

It’s important with herbal medicines you know what you’re doing if you don’t see a herbalist. Failing that, in most pharmacies, there’s a whole range of products that have been tested for quality, they have the THR logo, the Traditional Herbal Registration logo. They all have a patient information leaflet that shows what you can and can’t use them for.

TM: What about things we can do ourselves? Maybe teas we can make from herbs we grow in our gardens?

CE: Absolutely. This time of year peppermint and elderflower are absolutely fantastic as teas for treating coughs and colds and for getting rid of fevers. They act as decongestants, so it’s something that’s soothing and warming to take if you have a bit of a cough or cold.

TM: Roughly how would people go about making that tea? 

CE: Generally speaking you would use more herb if you’re treating something than you would in a normal teabag. For example, if you wanted to treat a cough or cold you wouldn’t just make a cup of peppermint tea using one tea bag, you’d make a pot using perhaps four peppermint tea bags.

If using dry or fresh peppermint, you would use a couple of tablespoons of dry peppermint or probably a few large handfuls of fresh peppermint if you have access to that at this time of year. Essentially you need three to four times the dose toy would making a normal herbal tea.

TM: What would you recommend for another common condition, insomnia?

CE: It’s quite a complex one. It’s all about changing what’s going on in the body at that time, balancing the nervous system. It’s looking at lifestyle as well, so cutting down on caffeine and alcohol. Making sure you exercise during the day, but not at night.

Good sleep hygiene, not watching TV too close to bedtime. Maybe having the bedroom as an area where you don’t watch TV, where you can read and relax. Making sure the bedroom is the right temperature and it’s dark and quiet. Practicing things like guided meditation and mindfulness just to let the mind relax.

There is an awful lot herbs can do to aid sleep, that’s backed up by good quality research. In particular, there are herbs such as passionflower, valerian, skullcap and hops which are very useful. You can buy these as capsules, as teas, as medicines in chemists. They work very well. Although they aid sleep they’re actually relaxants, so you can take them in the day and they won’t make you sleep and it’s safe to drive with them, they just help relax you. And if taken at night time they strengthen the natural need to sleep and make you more sleepy at the appropriate time.

Also, there’s a company called Puressentiel that do a whole range of essential oil products and they have a variety of products that help with rest and relaxation. Their rest and relax spray is absolutely fantastic. It contains lavender essential oil which we know is very relaxing and good for sleep. I have a lot of patients who use this, they spray it in their bedrooms and it helps start the whole sleep process. It gets people in the mood for sleep with that relaxing smell.

TM: What are your views on essential oils? Do you believe they compliment herbalism?

CE: Yes. Of course, most herbs have their actions due to essential oils and the same with culinary herbs like mint and turmeric. They all have essential oils in them. They’re very much part of our culture and very useful. By themselves, they can be extremely useful particularly when used externally for treating a wide range of symptoms.

There’s a lot of good quality research to back up their use as well. The slight caveat is you have to be careful using essential oils internally. They are very, very potent and some of them can be toxic if taken in large amounts inappropriately. I wouldn’t recommend anyone take essential oils internally unless they really know what they’re doing. It should be done by a professional, whether an aromatherapist or a herbalist.

Saying that there are some things that are safe to take. Essential oils can be good for treating things like indoor air pollution, one of the buzz words at the moment, aches and pains, respiratory issues, coughs and colds, headaches, irritated skin, poor sleep, anxiety.

Another type of the Puressentiel products getting a lot of attention at the moment with coronavirus is their essential oil containing antibacterial, anti-viral, sprays lotions and gels. Essential oils are really good at killing off bacteria and viruses.

Bear in mind coughs and colds including this nasty Coronavirus are more likely spread by touch rather than airborne coughing and sneezing. So it’s really important to protect oneself by making sure you wash your hands, especially after going on public transport or wheeling a trolley around the supermarket.

Have a spray or a gel to put on your hands a lot. Some people don’t like using the alcohol-based anti-viral gels, so using essential oils is a great alternative to that. There’s lots of evidence that shows how effective they are in killing off bugs.

TM: You mentioned indoor air pollution just before. Tell us about that…

CE: We know about outdoor air pollution, everyone talks about the ozone and nitrous oxide from cars. We know now that indoor air pollution is in many ways more of an issue because generally, we spend more of our time indoors than outdoors.

We’ve been bombarded inside the house with a lot of different very dangerous chemicals. These range from wood fires to cooking, paints, preservatives, anti-fire retardants used in sofas, anti-bacterial and dust mite treatments, bed mattresses, cleaning fluids. Also things like mould spores from mouldy windowsills. They can be very irritating to the lungs and cause inflammation.

So all these different chemicals we’re exposed to in the house if we’re not careful can increase inflammation, asthma, skin conditions, headaches, that sort of thing. A lot of work is currently being done to clean up homes, to make sure a lot of these things are being got rid of as much as possible by limiting exposure and using different products like low volatile organic compound paints and sprays.

Avoiding artificial air fresheners that put a lot of nasty chemicals into the air, as well as the use of wood burners and fires in the home. Candles as well, we used to think they were good for the home, but the smoke from candles actually contains a lot of nasty compounds. It’s better to use the heating essential oil products rather than tealight evaporators.

TM: What’s the biggest struggle you face in your profession? Is it the stigma of the treatment itself? Or is that attitude changing?

CE: I think it’s changing slowly. Particularly in some media circles and in some older doctors there is still a line of thought that this is 1970s hippy flower power. It’s very easy to look upon it as a bit wacky and that it’s not based on any evidence or research. But that’s actually not true at all. There’s a lot of published good-quality randomized controlled trials that show herbal medicine works extremely well. The evidence for things like turmeric, ginkgo, valerian and St John’s Wort is very, very high.

In many ways, it’s on a par with a pharmaceutical drug. A lot of orthodox doctors think herbal medicine is dangerous as well, and not just because of the herbs themselves, although the doctors think they don’t do anything, they still think they’re dangerous, which is an interesting viewpoint. They consider that people might take herbal medicine rather than see a proper doctor, so they might be putting their health at risk.

A lot of doctors don’t realise that medical herbalists are highly trained and can diagnose ailments. Also, know that if they can’t treat something they will tell them to get in touch with their doctor. It’s very much part of safe practice. But I think, generally speaking, herbal medicine in the mainstream, in the media, in younger doctors, is generally very well accepted.

There’s been a lot of interest from The College of Medicine. They have a lot of doctors and nurses who are very interested in herbal medicine, who want to find out more and train in it and use it in their practices, which is fantastic. So things are definitely changing.

With the whole thing around antibiotic resistance, there’s a push towards trying to use safe herbal medicines for treating things like coughs and colds and urinary tract infections where antibiotics aren’t working very well or they have a limited lifespan before they run out.

Find more information and consultations visit Chris’ website:

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