But do they work? Trying out herbal medicine

In the age of modern medicine we find out how the other half lives


There are lots of arguments both for and against the use of herbal medicine. Last year on these pages, I explored them in extensive detail, pointing out that while many conventional medicines are based on plant remedies, we can’t always assume that plants are safe.

Now, it’s my turn to see how these ancient remedies might work. I’m not thrilled to say I get flare-ups of dandruff and psoriasis. Meanwhile, occasional panic attacks and moderate bouts of anxiety have been par for the course for 10 years. I want to see if herbs can help me.

It’s not that I am shunning modern medicine at all; it remains my first port-of-call. My GP is great. He has a matter-of-fact manner and treats anxiety like any other illness. Occasionally, I go on a course of beta blockers, which block the effects of stress hormones. I exercise more, eat healthier, meditate badly, sleep better and see fewer people for a while. I get better and then neglect my health again.

The psoriasis though. I’ve tried everything: shampoos, creams, steroid creams, no shampoos, aqueous cream. None of it has worked. Years ago, for an earlier flare-up, I was sent to a specialist who charged well over €100 for a consultation that lasted no more than three minutes. She sent me off with the exact same coal tar a GP had given me years earlier.

So, I may just be an ideal candidate to see a herbalist. Giant, enormous disclaimer: my experience doesn’t confirm or disprove anything about herbal medicine. It is anecdote, not data. While it is good to hear people’s stories, the fact that Mary down the road says herbs worked – or didn’t – for her, is a useless guide to whether they’re right for you, me or the general population.

Fionuala Clarence is one of a handful of registered western medical herbalists working in Ireland and, as is ideal for a patient visiting a herbalist, she’s a member of the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists.

Clarence practises at the Sligo Clinic of Herbal Medicine but has a clinic in Dublin every few weeks.

I don’t know what to expect. I first visit her in the month of May. We start chatting. After about 10 minutes, I realise that she is slowly and subtly prompting me to ask questions about my own health and bad habits. I eat too much sugar. I have a ridiculous body clock that thinks 11am is the middle of the night.

I spend an hour and a half with Clarence on that first visit. I’ve never had such attention from a healthcare professional, never been allowed such self-indulgence. It feels marvellous.

She meets me where I am. She doesn’t tell me to stop eating all the sugar in Ireland but helps me figure out where I could cut back. She doesn’t tell me to stop using screens and to go to bed at 11am; instead, she asks me how I could stop using screens earlier and whether I could gradually move bedtime back. She gives me a little ritual of exercises to do just before sleep.

She gets a full medical history and checks if I’m on other medications, instantly knowing what herbs I should be avoiding. We talk about different combinations of herbs and what they can do. She answers my questions – many sceptical – with honesty and without defensiveness. And she states an important but often ignored truth: psoriasis is an inflammatory illness and is exacerbated by stress and sugar, so a topical cream alone is not a cure.

I leave feeling someone has empowered me to take back control.

For the psoriasis I take a tincture that includes turmeric, burdock and milk thistle among others. Tinctures are liquid extracts of herbs distilled in alcohol. It makes me feel a bit tipsy the first few times.

Turmeric is reputedly anti-inflammatory; burdock has long been used for skin ailments though there is insufficient evidence; milk thistle’s active ingredient, silymarin, has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

She gives me a tea to help with stress and sleep problems. It contains lemon balm, nettle, linden, cleavers and liquorice. Nettle: so damn healthy for many reasons. Lemon balm: calming and digestive. Linden: anti-spasmodic and sedative. Liquorice: dangerous if consumed in high volumes, not good for people with high blood pressure and heart problems, but University of Maryland studies show it can help healthy people with a variety of ailments.

The tea doesn’t taste wonderful, but it’s . . . lovely. So lovely that I soon can’t take it during the day as it makes me so relaxed that I can’t care about work and I want to have a little nap.

But all the herbs are hard work. Much harder work than a simple pill from the pharmacist. I take a probiotic and fish oils every day, as Clarence recommended. I measure out and dilute the tincture three times daily but I sometimes forget. I laboriously make the tea in a strainer.

What I do know is that before I went to the herbalist, I was doing nothing, and nothing wasn’t working. Afterwards, I was improving. I’m far from convinced that it was the herbs: there may have been other factors, such as the fact I was taking care of my own health and, yes, okay, maybe the herbs. But I was improving.

Then, one morning out of the blue, a close family member came to the brink of death. He was saved not by herbs, but by modern medicine.

It was a very rough few months. We were in and out of hospital. I ate junk food from vending machines and neglected both my own health and the herbs. I didn’t have time to take a herbal dilution three times a day and I kept leaving the bottle behind me. The idea of infusing a tea was abandoned altogether.

I suspect it was a combination of neglecting my health and the stress of having a very ill family member that brought the psoriasis roaring back. Work became very busy. I never properly went back to the herbs. I will try again. I am due a follow-up session. Just as importantly, I continue to take less sugar and to eat and exercise better. The psoriasis is still there but, when I mind myself, it responds positively.

Panel: Learn more about herbal medicine at UCD

Dr Bairbre Ni Fhloinn, a lecturer in Irish folklore at UCD, teaches an undergraduate module on healers and healing which includes a number of classes on herbal medicine.

“If folk medicine didn’t answer a need, it would be gone,” says Ni Fhloinn. “That need is local and on hand, delivered by people from your own community and who you can relate to. My course always begins with the achievements of modern medicine. These need to be spelt out; in no way am I claiming that herbal medicine is better than conventional approaches.”

Indeed, Ni Fhloinn has a visible distaste for the word “natural” which can be used as shorthand for “good” when it comes to healthcare: remember, death cap mushrooms and deadly nightshade are perfectly natural.

“But the course is an important insight into people’s perceptions of health and illness, and the whole process of healing which is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. Modern medicine is increasingly aware of the interconnected nature of different parts of our body and mind.”

The number of students on the healers and healing module is increasing year on year. This year, it hit maximum capacity with 50 students; at least 20 of these are nursing students. Large numbers of international students, especially American students, are choosing this UCD module and it is a significant draw for UCD. Academics from a range of disciplines are taking a fresh look at the UCD National Folklore Collection’s archive, in search of forgotten cures and cultural insights. These plants may be deepening their roots in our lives.

– CIT also runs an honours degree programe herbal science course. See cit.ie/course/CR330

The Holistic Gardener by Fiann Ó Nualláin is a good starting point for people interested

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