Phytotherapy or herbalism is the oldest medical practice in the world. Our ancestors used herbs to treat their illnesses and even today many cultures still rely on herbs for their medicine. South Africa has a strong culture of using herbs to treat illness and modern South African herbalism makes use of indigenous as well as European herbs.
In South Africa, Phytotherapy is a registered profession. To qualify as a Phytotherapist requires five year’s study at the university of the Western Cape. So far this is the only university in South Africa which offers a recognised course in Phytotherapy. Once qualified, the person can register with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa.
What can you expect when you visit a Phytotherapist?
- The first visit takes about an hour, maybe longer
- A complete history is taken – that means questions are asked about your whole body
- The practitioner will try to establish the cause of the problem
- A medical examination is conducted
- If necessary blood tests, scans, or other tests may be requested
- Diet and lifestyle will be discussed
- Herbal medicine will be formulated and dispensed
- Treatment will be explained
What is Herbal Medicine and how does it work?
Herbal medicine is medicine that is derived from whole plants or parts of plants. This may be dried herbs or herbs that have been tinctured (steeped in alcohol for several weeks to draw out the chemical constituents), or herbs that have been powdered to make capsules or tablets. Herbs can also be infused into oils and distilled to extract the essential oils. All these forms are used in a Phytotherapy practice. Most Phytotherapists use dried herbs and herbal tinctures or tablets. Medicines are formulated and prepared by the Phytotherapist. The Phytotherapist also can make a syrup, cream, lotion or ointment for a wide variety of internal or topical applications.
Phytotherapists only use whole plant parts so that the balance of chemical constituents is retained in the medicine. Plants contain many hundreds or even thousands of chemical components.
Herbal medicine compared to conventional drugs.
The pharmaceutical industry uses many plants in the manufacture of medicine, but in most cases they isolate one active ingredient, which concentrates one main active chemical constituent. This invariably leads to a chemical drug which once isolated is much stronger than in the plant form, causing side effects. Also the chemical constituents of plants are in a balanced form and work synergistically. Once this synergy is removed by isolating the chemical components, it becomes a drug.
One of the first constituents to be isolated for use as a drug was the salicylate called Aspirin. This constituent was isolated from Salix alba (Willow bark) and Spirea ulmarea syn. Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet). Once the salicylic acid (Aspirin) has been isolated it irritates the gastric mucosa and can cause gastric bleeding.
In the whole plant extract the salicylate is initially in the form of salicin. This constituent is only converted into the active salicylic acid after it has passed through the stomach and becomes active at the site of inflammation. Therefore whole plant extract of willow bark does not cause side-effects. This example serves to illustrate one of the fundamental principles of Phytotherapy.
Another simple example is the carrot. A whole carrot is a combination of vitamins, carbohydrate and fibre. When you eat the carrot, it is easily digested because all the components of the carrot are immaculately designed to be in balance. The body has no problem with this form of nutrition. If however, you isolate beta carotene from the carrot, and give it as a medicine, it may become a problem. In its isolated form it is often too strong and not as effective, because the synergistic compounds are missing. Researchers found smokers had a significant increased risk of lung cancer due to the intake of a beta-carotene supplement, even years after the study had ended.
Herbal medicine dispensed by a Phytotherapist, is formulated specially for the individual patient. Phytotherapists work on the principle that each person is different. Several herbs may be mixed together in a tea or tincture formula, providing different effects for different areas of the body. The whole idea is to allow the plant extracts to work as closely as nature intended, to balance and heal the various organs and systems in the body.
Herbal medicine is most effective when dispensed and formulated by a Phytotherapist. It is much stronger than over-the-counter medicines and the dosage is correct for the condition. It is also specific to your body’s needs. Self medication with herbal remedies is often a complete waste of money because of poor formulation of the product and inadequate potency.
Herbal medicine and drugs.
Under supervision of a Phytotherapist, herbal medicine may be used in conjunction with conventional medicine. Phytotherapists are specially trained to understand how herbs and drugs interact, patients on chronic medication require this professional attention and will benefit from the formulations dispensed by a Phytotherapist. This ensures that you avoid side effects and drug interactions, and receive the best possible advice and treatment.
What can herbal medicine treat?
Almost any condition can be treated with herbal medicine. In some cases herbal medicine alone might not be sufficient and can form part of a treatment for serious, life-threatening illnesses, providing organ support and nurturing and helping to improve quality of life.
Herbal medicine can treat acute and chronic conditions and is effective for almost all disease states, from the common cold to rheumatoid arthritis.
Phytotherapists will refer a patient for further investigation or other treatments if necessary.
It is important to remember that the body heals slowly, and dietary and lifestyle factors may need to be adjusted.
What can Phytotherapy do for you?
Phytotherapy can provide many health benefits:
- It strengthens the immune system
- Can help you become healthier and less prone to illness
- Slows down the progress of certain chronic diseases
- Helps you stay fit and well for longer
Herbal medicine has many advantages:
- It facilitates body functions by nurturing and balancing the various organs
- It doesn’t block functions to “normalise” physiological states
- It is not alien to the body and side effects are very rare
- It is nutritious as well as healing
- The chemical constituents of herbal medicine are “recognised” by the body as most of them are abundant in nature and foods
- Certain herbs have strong effects on certain systems, either calming or stimulating
- It can be used together with allopathic medicines, which may be necessary in some conditions
- It is non-polluting once excreted and will not harm the environment
- In many instances it is scientifically validated by research
- Progress can be clinically evaluated by blood tests, scans, endoscopy etc
- The use of herbal medicine strengthens the immune system and does not cause antibiotic resistance
- Above all herbal medicine is really green and planet friendly.