Western Herbal Medicine and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

What is it?: Western herbal medicine uses European and Native American plant remedies in the treatment of disease

What is it?: Western herbal medicine uses European and Native American plant remedies in the treatment of disease. Most of the practitioners of Western herbal medicine in Ireland are medical herbalists and use many of the same diagnostic methods as orthodox medical doctors. However, they take a more holistic approach to health - seeking out the underlying cause of the problem for treatment in the belief that the suppression of the symptoms will not rid the body of the disease itself. Herbal drugs are extracts from the whole plant, compared to many pharmaceutical drugs which are derived from the active constituent of plants. Herbalists believe that the whole plant contains other substances which work alongside the active constituent (in some cases to modify the side effects) in the treatment of illness.

What does it treat?: Western herbal medicine treats many conditions including skin problems, digestive disorders, heart and circulatory problems, gynaecological disorders, allergic responses such as hayfever, arthritis, influenza and stress-related conditions such as insomnia. Herbal medicine is dispensed in the form of tinctures, teas, tablets, capsules and creams. Herbalists generally make up their own prescriptions from fresh and dried herbs. Several plants and herbs that stimulate the hormones, strong bowel movements or elevate blood pressure should be avoided during pregnancy. Medical herbalists advise against self-diagnosis for potentially serious illnesses. However, they continue to campaign against the recent Irish legislation which permits solely orthodox doctors to prescribe certain herbal remedies.

A first timer's experience: (47-year-old female nurse): "I went to a herbalist with very heavy periods. I had previously been to my own doctor who had had a lot of blood tests and scans carried out finding nothing wrong internally. I was left with no alternative than to have a D & C, so I opted to go to a herbalist instead. The consultation room was very similar to that of a GP without the queues outside. The herbalist took my blood pressure and asked me a lot of the same questions that a doctor would, except that she spent a lot more time on them. She also took a detailed medical history, asked me about my diet and if I was using Evening Primrose oil. She suggested some adjustments I could make to my diet. Then, she made up a mixture of herbs in front of me and put the liquid in a brown bottle. She asked me to take two teaspoons of this every day for three months. She also gave me five capsules to take one a day for five days and another liquid remedy to take a half an hour before going to bed to help with insomnia. At the end of the consultation, I felt I trusted the herbalist and her professionalism. I thought that even if these remedies didn't do me any good, they wouldn't do me any harm.

An advocate's view: Mairead (66) is a counsellor: "I have had irritable bowel syndrome all my life and have been aware that it is stress-related. Once every few weeks, I would experience pain and bouts of diarrhoea and feel very drained, low in energy and down in spirits afterwards. I didn't think it was something which could be treated and in fact, it took me years to find a name for it. I didn't try the conventional route but I did discover from experience not to eat acidic foods or highly spiced foods. Then I saw the name of a medical herbalist (who I initially thought was an orthodox doctor qualified in herbalism) and decided to go to see her. At the consultation, she explained to me all about my condition and the herbs which would bring my bowel back into balance. She advised me to take the liquid herbs three times a day before meals and a little extra prior to an event I anticipated would be stressful.


I found that I had confidence in the medicine and felt it was going to help. There was no sense of a magical instant cure. I had one episode of pain and diarrhoea three weeks after beginning the remedy. Since then, the condition has become much milder and I feel that after having such a pattern throughout my life, I will now be able to keep my bowel in balance by using the herbs indefinitely - in consultation with my herbalist.

The Medical View: Dr Muiris Houston, Irish Times Medical Correspondent says, "Herbal medicines have been shown to be helpful when applied topically in otherwise difficult to treat cases of eczema and psoriasis. It is important to inform your conventional doctor about any oral herbal medications you are taking. Likewise, you should inform your alternative practitioner of all conventional medicines you have been prescribed. There is a strong tradition of medical herbalism in Ireland. Probably its most famous practitioner is Sean Boylan of Dunboyne, the Meath Gaelic football trainer."

There are 20 medical herbalists affiliated to the Irish Association of Medical Herbalists, Tel: 091 638183. Most medical herbalists in Ireland have completed a four-year training course in the UK. Treatments cost from £20 to £30 for the first visit, plus approximately £15 for two to three weeks' supply of herbal medicine. Subsequent visits cost £12-£15. See also www.users.globalnet.co.uk/ehpa/

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment