What is Western Herbal Medicine?
Next week is National Herbal Medicine Week. This is the time of year that Western herbalists come out of the woodwork and share their knowledge and love of herbs with the public. Around the country there will be demonstrations, clinic open days and a variety of other events celebrating all things herbal. Just check out the link above for more informations.
Regular listeners of Health Trip will be aware that herbs are one of my passions. Having previously studied herbal medicine for 4 years and later taught at the Southern School of Natural Therapies for 7 of my 15 years in practice, I am a strong believer of the healing powers of these humble plants.
Over the years I am often asked whether I use the same herbs as a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner. Though there are a few herbs common to both traditions, the humble legume licorice being the most popular one, the paradigms for diagnosing and prescribing differ. While both are based on treating the individual rather than the disease (the opposite is a common complaint about orthodox medicine) the philosophical frameworks differ – though both spring from an ‘energetic’ basis. In TCM, complex traditional formulas combining many different plants and sometimes animals or other substances tend to be prescribed, usually in the form of dried herbs, powders or pills. In Western herbal medicine, we often use a smaller number of herbs (and no seahorses or other creatures) in simpler formulas or even single plants. These are commonly dispensed in alcohol extracts, dried herbal teas or tablets. Most herbalists formulate individual liquid prescriptions that are unique to the patient’s needs at the time they see the herbalist. These can be altered with each visit, as the patient’s health picture changes with treatment.
Most herbalists (from all traditions) back up each treatment with suggestions of foods and lifestyle changes that will assist the recovery process.
What can I expect to happen the first time I see a herbalist?
Though we all differ to some extent in the way we practice – you should expect a qualified Western herbalist to not just ask you about your current health condition(s) but also get a full medical history, including information about your biological family, a review of how each body system is working, your diet, lifestyle and any environmental or professional hazards. With so much information to collect – a first visit will usually take at least 1 hour. You will usually come away with herbs in some form, sometimes other remedies such as vitamins. suggestions about food and other aspects of your life. Most herbalists would expect to see you for another, often shorter, appointment 1-4 weeks later.
Can I use herbs myself at home?
While it is always a good idea to consult a professional herbalist about any serious or chronic health conditions, you will find many herbs in your pantry or garden that can be easily used at home.
How to find a herbalist in your area
Like finding any reliable health professional, word of mouth is a good place to start. It is important to find someone with adequate education. Having a string of initials after their name doesn’t always mean they have had more training (these might be a series of short courses and association memberships) where as a single diploma or bachelor of applied science (or ND – naturopathic diploma, which predates this) often signifies a 4 year full time course of study. There are many professional associations that herbalists may join in Australia – the NHAA being the only one dedicated to herbal medicine, while many herbalists are also naturopaths (an umbrella term covering many modalities) and belong to organizations such as ANTA or ATMS. All 3 associations guarantee a minimum level of education – which also includes medical health sciences and ongoing professional development.
Ideally it is useful to see an experienced practitioner, someone with at least 5 years of clinical experience. However a recently graduated practitioner should have a lower fee, though a well experienced clinician may diagnose and treat more accurately which could be quicker and cheaper overall.
Most herbalists are happy to answer a few quick questions about their qualifications and experience, if you are looking for a practitioner. It may assist you to know about their qualifications (or length of course, full or part time – if you don’t know anything about the institutions), how long they have been in practice, whether they have treated people with your health condition before, how frequently they expect you to consult them and the costs involved. However, don’t expect them to give you a mini consultation over the phone!
For further information about Herbal Medicine week or to find a herbalist in your area – check out the NHAA website or call (02) 8765 0071.