Leisha Novy naturopath - Herbal Medicine

The word Naturopath often encompasses many fields and with Herbal Medicine being my favourite. Herbal medicine can be used in the same way that a Doctor's drugs can be used to improve the health of people who are unwell. There are many Herbal medicines that haven't had the expensive laboratory testing that drugs have undergone, purely because of the cost involved and then people can simply grow them in their garden. Despite the lack of laboratory testing, Herbal medicine has been around for thousands of years and we therefore consider this "Imperial" knowledge to be proof enough that Herbal medicines do indeed improve the conditions for which they are prescribed.

History of Herbal Medicine

There are estimated to be around 70,000 plants worldwide known to have a medicinal use, and approximately 500 are used within the practice of 'Western Herbal Medicine' (WHM). WHM is what is taught to Naturopathic and Herbalist students here in Australia and it is derived from the traditions of Europe and America. 'Herb' refers to plants, and medicines can be in liquid, dried teas, capsule, tablet, powder, poultice, ointment or cream form.

Up until the last century, plants have been used as medicines by every culture on the planet. With the introduction of mineral and metal-based medicines (lead, arsenic, mercury and others) in the 18th century, the use of herbal medicines began to slowly decline. Then with advances in science and the introduction of antibiotics, traditional herbal medicines were pushed further onto the fringes of medicine. It is interesting to note that as many as 40% of the pharmaceutical drugs used today were originally derived from plants, for example Morphine, our most powerful pain-reliever, is made from an alkaloid derived from the Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum). There has been a recent resurgence of interest in herbal medicine as many people again see the benefits of using this form of therapy for both the prevention of and management of disease.

How Herbal Medicine works

Plants contain thousands of chemicals, many of which have a therapeutic affect on the human body. In WHM, the whole plant or part of the plant is used to make a medicine, which is different to the way pharmaceutical companies use a single isolated chemical to then synthesize a drug (as with Morphine). In a herbal medicine, the chemicals work together in concert, and this is often how they work beneficially in the body - some chemicals helping others to work, others buffering harmful chemicals that may otherwise cause side effects. Herbs are often combined for different therapeutic effects – herbalists custom make liquid tonics based on several herbs that have been chosen for the individual patient. It is often the herbs working together that seems to have a better effect than if they were taken on their own. And some herbs have a different effect depending upon which other herbs they are mixed with (this all comes down to those thousands of chemicals working together). For example, St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) is often combined with Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) for anxiety and depression or with Korean Ginseng (Panax ginseng) and Oat (Avena sativum) for exhaustion.

Safety Issues

It is clear that 'natural' does not always mean 'safe'. Herbal medicines are technically drugs, just like pharmaceutical medications. Sometimes adverse effects from taking herbal medicines are due to an excipient (added ingredient) in the tablet, contamination of the original plant or even the wrong plant being used. This is why it is so important to seek advice from a trained herbalist or naturopath who will select medicines from reputable manufacturers and who understands any potential drug interactions.

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