Posts Tagged ‘herbal medicine’

Research shows that bisabolol contributes to the anti-inflammatory activity of chamomileWhy bother doing research?

Research into herbal remedies and why they work is a topic close to my heart. Some people believe that the fact that most of the herbs we take have been used traditionally for hundreds of years means that we don’t need to know why or how they affect the body. However, scientists are constantly discovering new things about herbs and their actions in the body. This can lead to new potential uses for herbs, or better ways to take them. For example, research into the way that Vitex agnus castus affects hormone release in the body and the differences caused by high and low doses can help herbalists make better decisions about when and in what dose to prescribe it.

Who does it?

Humans are by nature curious and that is what fuels the pursuit of knowledge about the world we live in. I’m not happy with accepting that herbs work by magic and, while for some people the healing process is more effective through belief in supernatural events, I’m a logical person who is interested in why. This is the reason I am currently studying for a Masters degree in medicinal natural products and phytochemistry at UCL. One of the many interesting things I have learnt while doing the course is that lots of people are interested in the healing power of plants without studying to become a herbalist. There are people dedicating their lives to figuring out how and why plants affect our bodies and health just for the advancement of knowledge, which is an inspiring thought; particularly since the numbers of people who are able to afford to study a degree in medical herbalism is dwindling in the UK.

Homegrown herbal research

A problem that worries me is that the scientists doing research aren’t communicating with the herbalists prescribing the plants. Yes, there are scientists carrying out ethnobotanical research into the way tribes from far off lands utilise plants, but not many of them are analysing the place plants have in Western societies. Only a small proportion of research papers address the use of herbs in the UK, despite the use of herbal medicine being common. There is a fascination with the exotic, but research into the potential of common weeds growing in our gardens isn’t very exciting. However, the most sustainable medicines are those that grow faster than we can weed them out! One of the problems with drug discovery from natural products is the issue of making medicines from unsustainable sources. Therefore, using rare, slow-growing or hard-to-source plants doesn’t make sense, while using weeds has the potential for truly sustainable medicine.

Weeds as food

Not so long ago, it would have been common for us to pick salad to go with dinner on the way home, with plants such as sheeps sorrel, chickweed, wild garlic and dandelion leaf. The rampant Japanese knotweed, which is considered such a pest plant that its presence brings down house prices, actually makes a tasty addition to a meal. The young tender shoots apparently taste a little like rhubarb and are high in beneficial nutrients such as resveratrol and vitamin C. It may be that the loss of some of the diversity in our diets from foraged foods like these has diminished the number of beneficial plant chemicals and increased the risk of chronic health problems.

There may be many more benefits to our local UK plants than just a good addition to a health diet, but we’ll never get to the bottom of it unless more people are inspired to study the plants around us.

Predictably, lots of people I know are using a quiet January as a chance to detox. They are mainly just abstaining from alcohol, but some are also steering clear of sugar and fatty treats too. At the other end of the spectrum, there are detox diets that involve days of fasting then only drinking juices and water. But the question is, is it worth it?

What is a detox and who needs to do it?

Detox, or detoxification, essentially means the removal of toxins from the system. Our bodies are built to do this themselves via the digestive system, liver, kidneys, and the skin. The more “toxins” that are ingested, the harder these organs have to work to get rid of them to prevent them doing damage. So if you have been eating a reasonable diet and drinking alcohol responsibly, and you generally feel well, it is likely that your organs are doing ok by themselves. However, if you have been over-indulging for a long period of time, you feel sluggish, tired and unwell, and/or your digestion is slow and not functioning very well, it is likely that your body could do with a bit of a break and some looking after.

Why it might help

Fatty foods and alcohol put extra strain on your liver, as it has to produce more bile and enzymes, to emulsify all the fats and break down alcohol in your blood. Cutting out or significantly cutting down fried foods and alcohol will, a) give your liver a bit of a break and b) allow your tolerance to alcohol to decrease a bit. The problem with having a high tolerance to alcohol is that you end up drinking more to feel an effect, which causes more damage in your body. It’s also more expensive!

In more extreme detox diets, almost all fats and proteins are cut out and all your energy comes from fruit and vegetables. Cutting down protein will spare your stomach and pancreas from having to produce the chemicals necessary to break it down, and will lessen work carried out by the kidneys to remove any excess amino acids (protein building blocks) from the blood. However, protein is essential for growth and repair of the body, so restricting intake for a long period of time can lead to health problems. While reducing fat will spare the liver, it is essential for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, and fat is needed for the production of hormones and healthy cells, so again, that isn’t sustainable for any length of time. The other problem with very low-fat and -protein diets is that you will be eating high levels of carbohydrates (which are essentially complex sugars), which have to be broken down by enzymes from the pancreas, and will lead to lots of sugars in the blood and greater demand for insulin to store it all away.

Comparisons of different diets usually come to the conclusion that a Mediterranean diet leads to greatest health, lots of fruit and vegetables, but also plenty of healthy poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats and protein from seafood, beans, nuts, seeds and pulses. So, ultimately, you are better off sticking to a healthy diet and cutting out unhealthy, high-sugar, deep fried food, than going the whole hog and subsisting on juices for a month.

Herbs to help you along the way

If you have decided to cut out/down the alcohol and unhealthy foods for a while, you can help the whole detox process by adding some herbs in the form of teas or added to your food when cooking. There are lots of herbs that are used to help support different bodily organs and systems, which can aid detoxification. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is particularly great, as the leaves can be used to help support the kidneys (and act as a diuretic) and the roots promote liver activity. Turmeric (Curcuma longa) and milk thistle (Carduus marianum) both help to boost phase II biotransformation in the liver (this is a step in the detoxification process that prevents build up of toxic chemicals). Milk thistle has also been found to have a protective effect on liver cells and improved liver function tests have been demonstrated in many clinical trials. Cleavers, or goose grass (Galium aparine), is known traditionally as a “blood cleanser”, which helps to boost elimination of toxins by supporting the lymphatic system. It has also been found to be high in antioxidant compounds. Finally, nettles are great to add into your detox support mix, as they help cleanse the body of uric acid, act as a mild diuretic, and are really high in vitamins and minerals.

My husband is currently studying permaculture, which means that every aspect of our lives is currently being assessed for how sustainable it is. The term permaculture comes from the words permanent and culture and it is a philosophy and design process that is inspired by natural ecosystems, which are more sustainable than the systems that modern life has been built on. The desired end point being a system that is not dependent on fossil fuels, and works efficiently with the minimum amount of maintenance work necessary.

As a herbalist, I have found it really interesting to think about how sustainable it is to use herbs for healthcare. While modern medicine is completely dependent on fossil fuels for the production and transportation of pharmaceutical drugs, herbal medicines can be wild-harvested, or grown in private or community gardens. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. Many of us herbalists in the West have appropriated particularly useful herbs from the East, and while some can be cultivated here, it is hard or impossible to grow others and these are shipped in from abroad. I’d like to spend more time trying to find local herbs that can fill the shoes (or roots!) of some I depend on from China or India, but can’t grow here. It is more rewarding to grow herbs yourself rather than buying them from a wholesale company, it enables you to get to know the plants much better and encourages you out into nature, which is good for the soul.

Another aspect of herbal medicine that contributes to its sustainability and lives up to permaculture principles is its holistic approach to health – permaculture takes in every aspect of a system, and herbalism addresses the person as a whole. All aspects of a person’s life and wellbeing are assessed, including emotional wellbeing, lifestyle and diet. As many of these factors can contribute to good or ill health, addressing them is essential to achieving wellness. The herbs help to gently coax the body into better balance, while easing symptoms and supporting people as they work out how to live their life in the best way for them.

Many herbalists are interested in sustainability and permaculture and I can see why, there’s a natural connection.

You can always tell a well-used plant by an abundance of common names and folklore stories about it. The herb yarrow (or Achillea millefolium) definitely falls into this category. It has been suggested that it got its Latin name from Achilles of Greek mythology using it to stop the bleeding of his soldiers, → Read more

My name is Marion Mackonochie (aka Field Remedies) and I have decided to start this blog as a way to share new information and ideas that I come across about herbs, herbal medicine, and ways to live a healthier life. I’ll start with a bit of background info… → Read more