Herbalism: Kill or cure?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Line after line of colourful cardboard boxes hug the edges of a stack of shelves. Sitting inside a herbal remedy store in west London, the containers' evocative images of plants, bark and berries are emblematic of the natural world's healing properties.

But soon, such remedies, sold by the likes of herbal medicine retailers such as Cornucopia, run by 91-year-old Margaret Weesz just off the capital's King's Road, could be in trouble. From 2011 European law will dictate that sales of all herbal remedies will need to be licensed by the Government. Licenses are likely to only be granted to a small number of products for minor ailments, which include St John's Wort (used to treat low mood) and echinacea (which can cut the chances of catching a cold). This will hugely restrict the practices of the country's 750 herbalists – as well with the UK's Chinese herbalists – who use a blend of many herbs to treat major ailments that can include everything from epilepsy to hysteria.

"It's just silly," says Weesz, who sells a wide variety of herbs at her shop, many of which are likely to be banned. "I have a number of different herbs which I import from all over the world. In Italy, I can buy them in the chemist so I don't see why I can't do the same thing here. I want to go to the House of Commons and tell them about the clinical evidence for the herbs that I sell. The Government could save a lot of money through using herbs instead of expensive medicines."

For some, though, the legislation could not come soon enough. Many in the medical world say there is scant clinical evidence that herbal remedies are of any use at all – and those that are can have harmful side effects. In 1993 Professor Edzard Ernst left his chair in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Vienna to set up the department of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter. Since then he has written more than 700 papers in an attempt to scientifically test herbalists' claims regarding complementary medicine.

"I am keen not to write off herbal medicine because scientifically, around half of modern drugs were derived from herbs," he says. "But it is important to realise that herbs are pharmacologically active compounds and can cause harm and sometimes even kill." He says there is evidence to suggest some herbs work: like devil's claw, used to treat back pain, or St John's Wort, which can effectively treat depression.

He does, however, have less approving words to say about Britain's herbalists. "They assess you according to a series of criteria that are obsolete in modern medicine," he says. "They then treat you according to a further list of rules before giving you their individually tailored treatment." He says there is little scientific evidence to suggest this approach works. "We have reviewed the work published and conclude there is no evidence that this type of herbalism does more good than harm," he continues. "That is to say, the potential for harm is greater than the potential for good."

So what do the herbalists think? The European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association chair Michael McIntyre says a herbalist is someone who uses plant medicines to "restore and strengthen the body's systems". "Oats can strengthen the nervous system," he explains. "If you are very stressed we might give you skullcap [a type of mint] or valerian [a flowering plant which has sedative properties]." He says far from being quacks, herbalists are following a tradition that has been practised for thousands of years, and have often studied for several years to become experts in their craft. What's more, when confronted with a serious medical complaint, they will often refer the patient to a traditional doctor. But when they can, herbalists rely on taking long medical histories, analysing people's constitution, diet and lifestyle, before treating the patient with a complex, individually tailored combination of natural substances.

"What I would say is that clinical trials work in a reductionist way whereas herbalists don't," says Kent-based herbalist Hayley Jones. "In orthodoxy there is no room for synergy or interactions between different things, which is what herbalists talk about. We might prescribe between three to 12 herbs for a patient that are tailored specifically to their make-up; there is no one-size-fits-all prescription, which is something doctors rely upon."

The herbalist community also takes issue with the way the Government has consulted them over their future. "The herbalist community was due to receive its own form of regulation after we were consulted earlier in the year, but out of the blue the Government appeared to change its mind and asked us again," says National Institute of Medical Herbalists spokesperson Andrew Hoyle. "But the way they organised this process was so clouded with obfuscation that even experienced medical professionals are unable to make sense of it."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

    SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

    £20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Plumbing & Heating / Bathroom Trade Counter Sales

    £22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established London ba...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat