In modern biomedicine, the main approach to treating illness is to find a single drug that will act decisively to overturn, or halt, the disease process. Steroids, for example, are often invaluable in controlling acute, life-threatening inflammation within the body, as occurs in conditions such as asthma and rheumatoid arthritis. Herbal medicine, conversely, is more likely to be helpful in chronic illness, where long term treatment may be required, though it can also prove very useful in minor acute health problems, such as ‘flu and colds.
The herbal approach involves combining specific herbs (generally between 3 – 10 herbs per formulation), each with distinct therapeutic activity that together work to support and strengthen the body’s own physiology, thereby aiding recovery and a return to a higher state of health.
- A prescription for someone with a digestive problem, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), might include the following herbs in equal proportions:
- Garlic, Chamomile, Peppermint and Valerian.
- Garlic has a wealth of medicinal uses and is a natural antibiotic. Here it is used to control harmful bacteria within the gut that can cause excessive wind, bloating and muscle spasm.
- Chamomile has significant anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic activity and is known affectionately as ‘the mother of the gut’! It helps to soothe inflammation and irritability within the gut, reducing cramps and spasmodic pain.
- Peppermint is a tonic and carminative (relieves wind) herb, with mild anaesthetic activity. It helps to numb the nerve endings within the gut and is an established treatment for IBS.
- Valerian is another antispasmodic, that also has a tranquilising effect. It works to relax the intestinal muscles and to relieve anxiety and tension throughout the body.
- These herbs can be prepared as an infusion, where the cut herb is brewed in a covered pot for approximately 10 minutes, then strained and drunk; or as a tincture, an alcohol extract of each herb.
Using whole plant extracts, e.g. as an infusion or tea, is thought to produce a greater therapeutic effect than the equivalent dosage of isolated active constituents. This is one reason why relatively small amounts of herb are more effective than larger doses. There is also evidence that this synergistic effect can be enhanced when combining herbs, as each herb aidings the absorption, uptake and therapeutic activity of the others.