So here is a little bit more discussion around my letter that was published recently in the Royal College of Nursing monthly bulletin.
Is herbal medicine available on the NHS? The short and simple answer to this is ‘no, it isn’t’. I have one or two colleagues who are able to provide herbal medicine as part of specialist palliative care services, but largely there is no NHS provision.
I expect some of you might agree with that and believe that, due to lack of evidence, herbal medicines should not be prescribed on the NHS. And of course I would respect that opinion. As you may know, homeopathic treatment was formerly available in some areas on the NHS but that has been discontinued due to resistance from some in the medical field.
I don’t know much about homeopathy really, as it is a completely different discipline to herbal medicine. However, I know a fair bit about herbs! My experience in conventional medicine is quite wide ranging too.
What I do know, is that herbs are largely safe, with a low incidence of side effects. There are contraindications with some herbs, and these are generally well known and understood. Herbs are pretty easy to grow, and compared to most orthodox medications, it is cheap and simple to make herbal medicines.
And do herbal medicines work? Well of course they do, but not for everything and not for everyone. What about conventional medicines? I think that is the same answer. Yes of course they work, but not always and not for everyone, and there are usually more side effects and more contraindications.
Side effects of orthodox medicines are measured in thousands in comparison to the very few side effects of herbs. Of course people can react to any substance, and I am definitely not advocating people stop taking their routine medicines and replace with herbs.
Why do herbs get a bad press?
Very often in the medical world herbs get a bad press. I really find this difficult to understand having worked in healthcare for over 35 years. I can’t speak for all herbalists, but as a lecturer and an active member of the National institute of Medical Herbalists, I know a lot of practitioners. My herbalist colleagues all work in a similar way. We have longer appointments- usually an hour or more for an initial consultation, then at least 20-30 minutes at subsequent meetings. This is so that we can really get to know patients, and find out all about the problems they are experiencing. Sometimes it might be a new issue or something that has been going on for years. People might have been through the conventional medical system or might have called the herbalist first!
The luxury of an appointment with a herbalist, is that we can listen. We have to charge a fee because no one else is paying us, but we will give patients our undivided attention and talk through the difficulties with them before deciding on a medicine or lifestyle suggestions. We have all experienced a situation where we have not been listened to very well, and as herbalists we definitely don’t want that to happen when you see us.
This is one of the main reasons that I think herbal medicine is so effective. We are able to properly listen to someone and discuss the appropriate remedies and strategies.
There are so many different herbs to choose nowadays and we might use herbs from all over the world. However, I think I could perfectly comfortably use local herbs to treat most of my patients. Sometimes I like a specific herb such as Withania (also called Ashwagandha) which is native to India. This amazing tonic herb really helps people who are feeling exhausted and run down. But if for some reason we were unable to access Withania, I would be able to substitute it with something like nettle seed or maybe even oatstraw for a similar effect, perhaps combined with something else as well.
Should herbalists work in the NHS?
I think herbalists should be encouraged to work in the NHS. I think conventional medical staff should be able to refer to herbalists for treatment. The least I would expect is that medical practitioners are respectful to herbalists and start to recognise that we have unique skills and knowledge that could seriously support people’s health in a struggling NHS system.
We can make medicines from plants that grow in our gardens! Why wouldn’t that be useful?
When I wrote this letter to the RCN bulletin I was hoping to start a conversation about it. The letter got a lot of social media attention and I was delighted that so many people were supportive. I intend to keep the conversation going and raise the profile of herbalists within conventional teams.
If you have experienced the benefits of herbal medicine or a consultation with a herbalist, why not tell your doctor or nurse. It may be that they are disinterested or even scornful but you might be surprised. My aim is for us all to work together to continually learn how to improve our health and wellbeing.