Herbal Medicine is an art, the magic is in the individual formula suited to each person. Herbs for treatment of ailments and disease have been proven through research as well as thousands of years of clinical and traditional evidence. Spanning Traditional Chinese Medicine, Eclectic medicine, British herbal Pharmacopoeia, and Western Herbal Medicine. As such the magic and efficacy of herbal medicine are quite amazing!
Here, I will take you through the basics of the creation of herbal medicines and give you an understanding of what you need to know before embarking on your herbal journey, as well as the importance of finding a qualified herbalist.
History and research
Herbal medicine was there right at the beginning of modern medicine as we know it today. The pharmaceuticals we use today, some were and are still derived from plant phytochemicals and have similar actions on the body. There are many examples of these, just a few for your understanding including Digitalis also known as Foxglove which contains a cardiac glycoside, digoxin which acts on the heart andits rate of contraction. Then we have aspirin, the similar substance found in plant medicine is Willow bark which was the first aspirin, it contains salicin which is used to create salicylic acid and is a precursor to aspirin.
Research is extensive investigating herbal medicine, many studies look at the efficacy of herbal medicine compared to pharmaceuticals. More often than not the herbal medicine proves to be as efficacious and with the added benefit of reduced or no side effects. This however in no way is saying to use these instead of pharmaceuticals, this needs to be discussed in detail with your doctor in combination with your herbalist or your naturopathic practitioner who knows the research and your individual case intricately.
Considerations for treatment
Herbal medicine is not a standalone treatment, as with anything that is effective at optimising your health and having a benefit long term. Other aspects that must be included are environmental, sleep hygiene, nutrition, and base level functioning of the body. Correct acknowledgment of any underlying issues, under-functioning organs, and body systems will also impact the herbal treatment.
The other consideration that many ask is the form of herbal medicine. The options here are vast; tablets, capsules, liquid in the extract, tincture, decoction and infusion, topical treatments such as cream, poultice, balms. Pessaries and suppositories can also include herbal medicine. The preferential form of herbal medicine I believe is liquid. For many reasons; these include absorbability, strength, dosing flexibility for children and elderly, as well as the ability to individually prescribe a specific formula.
Herbal medicine treatment and prescription depend on the cause of the issue and the reason for the shift of the imbalance. This needs to be acknowledged. Herbal medicine is a powerful treatment and must be respected as that, it can be used to change our physiology, therefore it also comes with its own risk factors.
A Medicine not without its risk factors.
These risk factors can include herb/ drug interactions such as CYP enzyme interaction in the liver and small intestine. An example of this is St. John’s wort, a beautiful herb used to help with low mood and mild depression, the phytochemical hyperforin promotes the expression of CYP3A4 enzyme and therefore can affect medication/drug metabolism and increase the excretion of these out of the body and reducing their action ( which we don’t want). Therefore caution must be taken and the knowledge must be had around prescribing herbal medicine to avoid these issues.
Herbal actions and meanings relating to Anxiety, Stress, and Sleep
Adaptogens are a substance that increases the body’s resistance or adaptation to physical, environmental, emotional, or biological stressors and promotes normal physiological function.
Nervines improves time, vigor and function of the nervous system and they relax and energisethe nervous system
Anxiolytics alleviate anxiety.
Hypnotic induces drowsiness and sleep.
Sedatives reduce activity particularly in the nervous system and decrease nervous tension. They can alleviate pain, anxiety, spasm orinduce sleep.
Herbal Choice for Anxiety, Stress and Poor sleep
Each herb has many actions and this is the magic of the synergy and the combination of individually prescribing the herbs. They help to increase the effectiveness of each other, marrying perfectly for the correct action across the vast network of the body, truly working towards bringing balance.
All systems of the body must be considered, however, so we as professional herbalists look at all areas of dysfunction and can use different herbs to get a complete medicine spanning across the different interconnecting systems of the body to get effective treatment.
Here are some of the herbal choices we have under each of the actions. At the end, I’ll run you through an example formula for a very general sleep, stress, and anxiety case.
Ashwagandha ( Withania)
St. John’s wort
An example of a formula and the inner workings of the mind of a herbalist.
These herbs all have multiple actions, however here is a little idea of what stress, sleep, and anxiety formula might look like.
Passionflower is a warm soothing hug, with anxiolytic actions, it has wonderful benefits on nervousness, insomnia, and anxiety.
Skullcap, a mild sedative and anxiolytic, has an affinity for sleep maintenance, helping you stay asleep through the night.
Bacopa is a nervine tonic and adaptogen, helping to tone the nervous system as well as creating clarity of mind and cognition.
Withania is a super herb, an adaptogen, and is highly nutritive. It creates balance and increases resilience in all areas of the body and stress responses.
Phytochemicals, what are these?
Here’s the botany 101 very briefly for you to understand the magic of herbs a little deeper.
Phytochemical or chemical constituents are compounds found in nature in plants and are used by the body for purposes of protection and changing the physiology for the purpose of healing and optimisinghealth. These are the compounds extensively researched and have a plethora of studies to back up the effect these have on our bodies.
Some examples of these groups are:
Flavonoids – These are polyphenolic antioxidants, have been used to improve cardiac function, increase the function of pancreatic islet cells, as well as a wonderful antioxidant for the body.
Phenolic Acids act as antioxidants and help to fight free radicals, as well as benefiting inflammation in the body.
Stilbenes have anticancer, cell death activation, and anti-inflammatory as well as antioxidant actions.
Lignans can exert a phytoestrogen effect on the body, the role of lignans in the prevention of hormone-associated cancers, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease is possible but still not clear.
Tannins have anticarcinogenic and antimutagenic potentials due to their anti-oxidative properties, which is important in protecting cellular oxidative damage, including lipid peroxidation. They also have antimicrobial activities inhibiting the growth of many fungi, yeasts, bacteria, and viruses.
Terpenoids have many actions from anti-inflammatory, calming the nervous system, pain relief, anti-bacterial, antifungal plus lots more.
Alkaloids act as antimalarials, antiparasitics, and antibacterials, they encompass neuroactive molecules, such as caffeine and nicotine, as well as life-saving medicines. Alkaloids can act as defense compounds in plants, being efficient against pathogens and predators due to their toxicity.
Saponins act as antioxidants, can help lower cholesterol, increase immunity and help bone health
Cardiac Glycosides These compounds are primarily valuable in the treatment of congestive heart failure. They increase the force of heart contraction.
Sterols are mainly known and used for cholesterol-lowering effects. However, it also has been shown to ease symptoms of benign prostatic enlargement, reduce the risk of cancer, and prevention of oxidative damage through its antioxidant activity.
How do we extract these and make them into medicine?
Extracting the medicinal constituents of a herb while maintaining the integrity of other beneficial components of the herb is a lengthy and intricate process. There is firstly knowing the herb, then knowing the correct solvent for extracting the right phytochemicals, then there is the choice of which process would be best for quality as well as time and money. Then finally the storage, form, regulation, and testing for defining the quality and efficacy.
Solvents are the base required for the extraction of the constituents. These include alcohol or ethanol, glycerine, and water. Each of these has their pros and cons and can relate to preservation to suitability to age groups as well as disease states.
Each of the constituents has a particular affinity to the percentages of ethanol as an example and is required for them to be extracted effectively. These are the examples:
25% water-soluble mucilages, tannins, some glycosides, flavonoids/ saponins.
45-60%- essential oils, alkaloids, most saponins, some glycosides,
90% – resins and oleoresins.
Last word and where the magic is!
The synergism of herbs and plant medicines is where the magic is. The knowing, creativity, and art paired with science is a match made for bringing our bodies back to balance, to re-create innate healing, and instilling lost vitality.
I hope this has given you some insight into the power and wonder of herbs. Be sure to find a qualified naturopathic practitioner or herbalist, book in with us, or ask us where a recommended herbalist is in your area.