Healing herbs sink roots


A medical herbalist in Galway believes there’s a significant move in people’s approach to healthcare, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

DR DILIS Clare is glowing with good news as I walk into her Health Herbs shop on Galway’s Sea Road. She has just been informed that she has been awarded €25,000 from Enterprise Ireland to carry out a feasibility study on developing the herbal medicine industry in this country.

“It’s a very auspicious time that you come to speak to me,” she says, offering me coffee and beetroot brownies before we retreat to her consulting room upstairs for the interview.

“I want to start this herbal medicine industry in a fully regulated way. I have backing from academics at Athlone Institute of Technology and Cork Institute of Technology. I have three farmers ready to grow herbs and I can distribute through Complementary and Alternative Medicine (Cam) Practitioners. Now I need to learn from international experience before I can start,” she explains.

Clare – a qualified medical herbalist and GP – already makes and sells her own blends of herbals teas, tonics and balms. Her integrated medicine practice in Galway operates a herbal dispensary ( healthandherbs.ie) and other medical herbalists who run clinics there also make up their own blends for their clients. Several other Cam practitioners also use the consulting rooms.

A native of south Dublin, Clare moved to Galway from London in 1999. “I had always wanted to come back to Ireland. I landed in Shannon and drove through Co Clare looking at the hedgerows full of St John’s Wort and Meadowsweet which treat melancholy and arthritis – and I knew I was home. A number of people told me Galway would be the most receptive to herbal medicine so I came here. Many Irish people are only one generation away from a farm and natural medicine is still part of our race memory,” she says.

One of 11 children, Clare says she grew up in an unconventional family. “My father gave up a senior executive post in the civil service to become an entrepreneur. He became a property developer. He was a maverick yet he sent us all to college in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Clare credits her decision to study medicine to the encouraging environment in the Dominican College in Co Wicklow where she did her Leaving Certificate. She studied medicine at University College Dublin and did her internships in Ballymena, Co Antrim and then in London.

“I struggled through every bit of medical school – not academically, but I didn’t see why medicine had to be so tough on people and psychologically judgmental. It was always us and them in the paternalistic, patriarchal system of doctors and patients.”

As a student, she was involved in the Irish Women’s United with women such as journalist Nell McCafferty and writer Mary Dorcey. “I was a rebel with a cause,” she says.

For about 20 years, Clare worked as a GP in London but she also studied herbal medicine and became one of the first graduates of the herbal medicine degree at Middlesex University. Slowly, she began practising more herbal medicine than conventional medicine but still works with a combination of both.

“I figured out more and more people were on more drugs and many of these drugs are tough on the body. Mature-onset diabetes is reversible. Eczema medication can be stopped if you moisturise the skin sufficiently. If people do the work, they can reduce the amount of drugs they are taking. For instance, I will ask some patients on high blood pressure medication to start walking and taking things like celery salt and multivitamins and then ask them if they still want to take their blood pressure medication.

“In conventional medicine, if patients don’t fit the diagnosis, they are being awkward and it is all in their heads. I have always seen things from the patient’s perspective,” she says. Yet, although she works principally with herbs, she does prescribe conventional drugs and she says she is proud to be a doctor. “I’ve such respect for doctors and I get referrals from GPs and consultants who have no problem with herbal medicine once they know my qualifications.”

“We must always remember that the good things in life are free. In the 13th Century medical school in Salerno, Italy the emphasis was on Dr Diet, Dr Quiet and Dr Laughter. I’ve added two for the 21st Century – Dr Movement and Dr Sleep,” she says.

“One of the most important aspects of herbal medicine is the one-hour consultation . It allows people to hear themselves and reflect on ways they can make things better for themselves.

“I don’t cure anyone. I just act as a signpost for them when they are making decisions. Some people don’t have the patience for herbal medicine though.”

Clare – who changed her name by deed poll from Bernadette Dilis Clare O’Farrell to Dilis Clare when living in London – is a founder member and former chairwoman of the Irish Institute of Medical Herbalists. She was on the Irish Medicines Board scientific committee for herbal medicine in 2003. She is also an honorary clinical fellow in the College of Medicine at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

Clare has her own herb garden which she opens to the public annually for demonstration purposes and she is currently writing a book on herbs.

She believes there is a paradigm shift happening in terms of how we look after our health and that the pharmaceutical industry will have less power in the future.

“Naturopathic thinking brought back fibre into our diets and now vitamin D is being mainstreamed.

“Herbal medicine is personalised. The body will choose what active ingredients are required for repair at a particular time. For instance, some herbs will raise blood pressure if that’s required and leave normal blood pressure as it is. This knowledge will require a new level of understanding. Medicine is a monolith and it takes about 20 years for a change to occur,” she adds.

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