DOES a pounding head see you reaching for the ibuprofen? Well perhaps you shouldn’t — because in the same way that we’re taking greater care over our clothes, food and skin products, we’re now rethinking attitudes to medicine and turning to herbalists for natural remedies.
According to Laura Stannard, president of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, more of us are opening our minds to alternative methods.
‘We believe a lot of this comes from a general increase, especially among the under-30s, in people considering what they put into their bodies and the potential long-term effects,’ she says. ‘The reduction in meat-eating, smoking and alcohol consumption are more visible signs but a consideration of reducing pharmaceutical use seems to be emerging.
‘The difficulty in getting GP appointments and the shorter length of them is also encouraging people to explore herbal medicine. There’s also a likely reaction to the increases in antimicrobial resistance linked with antibiotic usage levels.’
Jenya Di Pierro, a member of the Association of Master Herbalists and the founder of wellbeing clinic Cloud Twelve in Notting Hill, has also noticed an increase in enquiries about herbal medicine.
‘Once people know how powerful herbal medicine is, there will be a lot of demand,’ she says.
Of course, herbal medicine isn’t a new phenomenon. It dates back thousands of years and at one time there would have been a herbalist in every village. But in the UK, it’s a skill that’s been predominantly lost over generations, unlike other parts of the world.
‘All of us should start looking at natural ways to be well because it’s sustainable. Herbal medicine can be very gentle on the body and particularly good at treating chronic conditions, regulating hormonal balance, improving gut health and auto-immune conditions, and clearing skin conditions. It aids the body’s self-healing mechanism and makes our bodies stronger.’
As she highlights, we already take a lot of herbal medicine without realising it, naming the likes of fennel, cumin, coriander and garlic.
‘Herbal medicine is so accessible — we just need to wake up to the fact we can use more of it,’ she says.
Vicky Chown, who runs Handmade Apothecary with fellow herbalist Kim Walker (both pictured top), notes that while modern medicine is undoubtedly life-saving — and, as the NHS states, necessary for conditions that are more serious than self-medicating ones (eg coughs, colds or general aches and pains) — ‘herbal medicine, when used holistically and properly, can be a good tool for deep healing’.
‘We’re not the type of herbalists who say you should never take antibiotics,’ she continues, as we sit in a garden by Highgate Wood, a bucolic oasis in north London. ‘There are so many instances when you have to take antibiotics — sometimes they’re the only way.’
‘It’s about good integration of both,’ adds Kim. ‘The pressure on the NHS is a big issue and part of the problem is people going to the doctor for colds and the like, so if you can empower people to be aware when they need to go to a doctor and when they can treat themselves at home, for coughs, colds, fungal foot infections and so on, everyone’s happier all round.’
The pair met at Westminster University, where they both completed a BSc in herbal medicine, before launching Handmade Apothecary in 2012. They now organise festival workshops and foraging walks from their barge on the River Lea in Hertfordshire. They have also published two books and recently appeared on Countryfile.
‘Once you go to a park and see the weeds as useful plants, they become more valuable, which means we value the space and preserve the space,’ notes Vicky.
‘We want people to see beyond the green, to start to recognise plants and reconnect with the way their ancestors would have seen the green and all the different foods and medicine you can get from the hedgerows,’ says Kim, who’s a historical plant researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens.
‘If you can boil an egg, you will be able to do it, and then it’s about building skills.’
Vicky and Kim suggest buying herbs from the supermarket at first — look out for the THR mark, which proves the product complies with quality standards. Or you can try foraging for your own, although it is important to do this safely and sustainably.
‘Go for a community or botanical walk with an expert to show you the correct identification,’ says Kim, adding that you don’t need lab-worthy utensils. ‘Most of the time, all you need is a saucepan, a jug, a funnel and labels, and to wash out a load of jars.’
‘Just remember to label,’ adds Vicky, ‘or you’ll have a cupboard of weird liquid and no idea what it is.’
And ensure you seek the advice of a qualified herbalist before embarking on any herbal medicine because it is not always harmless.
‘Look for a BSc in herbal medicine (or a Dip Phyt, which is the equivalent level diploma), which implies a high standard of medical knowledge and the ability to diagnose illness accurately,’ says Stannard. ‘Being a member of the NIMH and other accrediting bodies requires practitioners to have full medical insurance and a strict code of ethics and conduct.’
If you do wind up visiting a doctor or pharmacist, tell them what herbal remedies you’re on, says the NHS. For anything less alarming, herbs could be just the tonic.
Three herb & onion cough syrup
■ 1 onion, finely chopped
■ 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped (optional)
■ 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
■ 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
■ 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano
■ Honey or sugar
Layer onion, herbs and garlic (if using) in a jar in finger-width-sized layers alternated with equal layers of sugar. If using honey, add all ingredients and pour honey over to cover. Allow to infuse until the liquid leaves the onion and syrup mixture forms. This will happen quite quickly and the liquid ‘cough syrup’ can be taken. For best results, infuse overnight. Use 1-2 tablespoons as needed.
Nettle Soup (for circulatory health)
■ 2 garlic cloves
■ 2 tablespoons cooking oil
■ 1 onion, chopped
■ 150g mushrooms, chopped (optional)
■ 3 medium potatoes, chopped
■ 1 litre hot vegetable stock
■ 1 colander of fresh nettle tops
■ Salt and pepper
■ Wild garlic, or chive flowers, to garnish
Chop garlic and set aside. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat and cook onion until translucent. Add mushrooms (if using) and continue to cook until softened. Add potatoes and stock to cover. Simmer gently for 15 minutes until potatoes are cooked. Add nettle tops and garlic and continue to simmer for a few minutes until nettles have wilted. Use hand blender to make a smooth consistency. Season with salt and ground black pepper, and serve with crusty bread.
■ Recipes from The Herbal Remedy Handbook by Vicky Chown & Kim Walker, published by Kyle Books