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How can herbal medicine nourish you?
Herbal medicine is based on therapeutic products prepared from plant ingredients. It is believed to be the oldest form of medicine, with prescriptions for plant-based medicinal treatments found on a Sumerian clay tablet estimated to be more than 4,000 years old. Also called ‘phytotherapy’, herbalism is practised in every culture worldwide, and it is estimated that herbal preparations are used by 75% of the world’s population today.
In Australia, the most popular traditions of herbal medicine are Western herbalism, traditional Chinese remedies, Indigenous medicine, and Ayurvedic treatments originating from India. Traditional Chinese medicine is regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), so check that any practitioner who prescribes you a Chinese herbal remedy is registered with this government body.
In traditional Chinese medicine, therapeutic preparations may also include mineral and animal ingredients. Reputable Chinese herbalists practising in Australia do not prescribe remedies containing ingredients derived from endangered species.
Although phytotherapy is associated with alternative medicine in conventional Western medical practice, many mainstream prescription medicines are based on active ingredients derived from plants. Morphine, one of the most powerful painkillers available, is still extracted from the opium poppy, while digoxin (a medication for heart problems) is made from a species of foxglove, Digitalis lanata. In both cases, the active ingredients are sourced from plants due to how difficult and expensive they are to synthesise artificially.
Benefits of herbal medicine
It has been known for hundreds of years that some chemical compounds found in nature cure serious illnesses. One example is quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, used to treat malaria since the 17th century. Today, the effectiveness of many herbal remedies is supported by evidence-based research, with many studies exploring the practicality of developing pharmaceutical drugs from these natural remedies.
There is evidence to suggest that a medicinal herb called ‘stonebreaker’ (Phyllanthus niruri) may be an effective treatment for ovarian cancer. The results of a systematic review indicate St John’s Wort, a popular Western medicinal herb, may be as effective as pharmaceutical drugs for treating major depression, but with less side effects. Research suggests sunflower seed oil may alleviate the symptoms of atopic dermatitis, particularly in young children, reducing the need for steroid-based medication.
Chinese herbal medicine is a subject of particular academic interest, with a number of studies researching its potential usefulness in the development of pharmaceutical medication. It is reported that Chinese herbal preparations may effectively treat disorders of the digestive system, and the results of a meta-analysis suggest this modality may double the chances of pregnancy for women with fertility problems. There is also research to suggest compounds found in Chinese herbal medicine may be effective in the treatment of liver cancer.
Herbal medicine may assist in relieving symptoms related to:
What to expect from a herbal medicine session
If visiting a Western herbal medicine practitioner, you will be asked about your medical history as well as your lifestyle and any specific health concerns. Your herbalist might also examine your hair, skin and nails for possible clues about nutritional imbalances or deficiencies, and possibly recommend a blood test or other diagnostic procedures.
Your practitioner will then develop a treatment plan for you that may involve individual herbal preparations, or a combination of several different ingredients, as well as instructions about how and when to take the medicine. Herbal products are often part of a holistic treatment program developed by a naturopath, which may also include homeopathic remedies and nutritional advice.
If you are being treated by a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner, they will ask you similar questions about your health, lifestyle and medical history. Your practitioner will perform diagnostic tests that include evaluating your pulse and looking at your tongue, and may refer you to a specialist in Chinese herbs who will prepare a formula of selected ingredients personalised to your specific requirements. Chinese herbal medicine is usually prescribed as part of a TCM treatment plan that may also include acupuncture, cupping and massage, with the overall intention of correcting imbalances and dissolving blockages of qi (vital energy).
The effects of some herbal medicines may be as potent as pharmaceutical drugs, so you should only take remedies that have been recommended by a suitably qualified herbalist, rather than selecting treatments for yourself. Herbalists registered with the Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia must demonstrate specialist qualifications, commit to a Code of Practice and undergo continuing professional development.
As with any exercise or wellness program, please consult your medical professional before commencing herbal medicine. It is particularly important to check whether there is a risk of interaction between any conventional medication you are taking, and a herbal preparation you might be prescribed. Also speak to your herbalist if you have any concerns at all; they will be happy to address these and ensure the preparations they prescribe are suitable for your individual requirements.
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