One Medicine

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

The other day, I was introduced to someone who smiled, shook my hand and said: “Hello, I’m the enemy…” It’s an introduction I receive on a surprisingly regular basis, usually from people who work in the pharmaceutical industry or orthodox medicine. However, it always surprises me… If we’re both interested in people’s health, how can we be enemies?

Herbal medicine is often described as ‘alternative’ medicine.  However, what most people don’t realise is that many of the modern pharmaceutical drugs used today were originally found in plants.  Even now, the plant world is often the first place the scientific community turns to when seeking new drugs to treat medical conditions.Pharmaceutical companies aim to identify a single chemical within a plant that is responsible for its medicinal action.  This component is then chemically extracted and usually synthesised artificially to create the drug. This generally results in a product which has an extremely powerful effect on the body, and which can be very useful, even essential, in the treatment of many serious conditions.  However, it can also lead to imbalances of the body’s normal functions and an increased risk of side effects.

In some cases, using orthodox medicine can be likened to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But what happens if a sledgehammer is all you have? This is where herbal medicine comes in. If orthodox medicine is like a sledgehammer, and herbal medicine is like a nutcracker, a responsible practitioner will decide if what they are dealing with is a nut, or a rock, and choose the appropriate tool.

Herbal medicine makes use of the plant in its natural form.  Extracts of flowers, leaves, roots, bark or seeds are usually prepared by soaking the plant material in water, alcohol or glycerine.  This extracts a much wider range of the plant’s complex profile of chemical constituents. The so-called ‘active’ constituents that are used by the pharmaceutical companies are still present.  However other components are also present which support the action of the active constituent or help to reduce its side effects.  The result is a powerful, yet gentler, more balanced action on the body.

Aspirin is a very well known and widely used pharmaceutical drug.  It is composed of a chemical called salicylic acid, which was originally discovered in the plant known as meadowsweet. Aspirin has the unfortunate side effect of causing damage to the lining of the stomach.  However, the active constituent of meadowsweet is present in a much gentler form and is only converted to salicylic acid after absorption into the bloodstream.  Therefore, it does not have a damaging effect on the digestive system.  In addition, meadowsweet contains tannins and mucilage, which actively protect the stomach lining.

Another example is orthodox antibiotics, which have revolutionized the treatment of infectious diseases, and saved many lives. However, used inappropriately or to excess, they can lead to imbalances in microbial flora and the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  Herbal antimicrobials such as thyme and myrrh are very effective in the treatment of a wide range of infective illnesses but do not upset the normal microbial balance of the body.  In addition, the complex range of constituents they contain makes it very difficult for bacteria to develop resistance to them.

While orthodox medicine tends to focus on treating specific diseases, Herbal medicine is a holistic form of healthcare, which places a significant focus on nutrition and other measures to improve the overall health of an individual. In my view, this makes them ideal companions, not enemies.

For people suffering from complex or chronic illnesses (such as allergic conditions, recurrent infections, digestive problems, poor circulation, arthritis, hormone imbalance, depression and migraines) herbal medicine is often the most effective approach in the long term. However, orthodox medicines such as painkillers can still be used for acute symptoms. Similarly, an individual with a serious illness such as cancer, or a severe or life-threatening infection, will benefit most from the combination of a powerful orthodox drug to target the disease directly, plus herbs and nutrition to support the immune system, rebalance the body, and reduce the side effects of the drug.

I look forward to a time when (hopefully) all those who are involved in healing the sick will stop seeing those practicing different forms of medicine as ‘the enemy’, and learn to work together for the good of their patients.

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