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What is herbal medicine?

At the heart of the practice of herbal medicine is the understanding that we, like all living things, have an extraordinary, intelligent, natural ability to heal ourselves from injury and illness.

Herbs were our very first medicines. Leaves, flowers, berries, roots and barks have been the subjects of an on-going clinical trial for at least 60,000 years! Over countless generations our ancestors have learned, refined and passed on the knowledge of those herbs that have reliably helped to ease our suffering and return us to good health.

Today the World Health Organisation recognises that herbs are still the most widespread form of medicine used on our planet. The great test of time has proven which herbal medicines work, now the tests of science are helping us to understand how they work and in that process, new possibilities are constantly coming to light.


The Medicines

The herbs used in modern herbal medicine are the most tried, tested and safe in the world and adverse reactions to medicinal herbs are extremely rare. Herbs do not suppress the symptoms of illness, but rather help the body to heal itself. The effects of taking herbs are accumulative - the longer you take them the better they work.

Firstly, it is vital to get the right remedy for the right person (more about the subject of people's different constitutions here). Secondly, herbs are natural drugs - they contain complex chemicals that the body does not normally produce by itself nor obtain from food - the importance of giving a sufficient physical dosage to achieve real success cannot be overstated.

Historically most herbal medicines were given in the form of teas (where the herbs are steeped in water) or decoctions (where they are simmered in water). Nowadays we use a lot of concentrated herbal liquid extracts and capsules as well. These methods of delivery give greater ease of use to a person who needs to take the herbs over some time.


How to find a good herbalist


Qualifications are important but do not in themselves necessarily reflect how able or experienced the herbalist may be as a practitioner. That said, if possible, you should definitely find someone who has trained and qualified in herbal medicine. Most modern herbalists have completed at least several years of full time undergraduate study and are well versed in the health sciences as they are in their knowledge of plant medicines.


Membership matters. A herbalist who is a registered member of a professional association has several important advantages going for them:

  • They are bound by a code of ethics and commitment to good practice which they have promised to uphold. They know that if something goes wrong they are answerable to a higher authority.

  • They must accumulate continuing education points each year to remain as full members of their associations. This ensures a vital professional development throughout their career.

  • They have the humanising, balancing and sometimes humbling benefits of being in regular contact with their colleagues.


Location is a crucial consideration. Before you make a booking, think about how hard it would be go to back for a follow-up visit within a reasonable time frame. Many complex health problems can be helped tremendously by a good herbalist, but it is unlikely to be an overnight fix!

If you are in one of the below countries, then these links to the professional herbalist's associations should be a good place to start:

~ in New Zealand ~ http://nzamh.org.nz
~ in Australia ~ http://www.nhaa.org.au
~ in the UK ~ http://www.nimh.org.uk
~ in Canada ~ http://www.herbalists.on.ca
~ in the USA ~

I do realise that the above is a very short list however every old culture has developed its own system of herbal medicine and, wherever you are in the world, there is an excellent chance that you will still be able to find a good herbalist.

If you don't know where to start with this then one approach could be to get in touch with a midwife in your local community. Most drugs are not suitable for pregnancy and many midwives have a good working knowledge of herbal medicine including knowing who are the best practitioners in their area to refer to. Another option is to go to your local fresh-produce or farmer's market. Someone who grows and sells herbs for the kitchen may also have herbs for the medicine cabinet and should know something about this subject, possibly including who are the best and most experienced herbalists in your area.

Experience & Individuality

When you make contact, along with whatever else you might want to know, and especially if you feel you have a particularly difficult or chronic problem, then there are one or two useful questions that it is perfectly polite to ask

1) Have you had positive experiences working with   _______ (health problem x, y or z)
2) Do you make individual herbal formulas for people or do you only work with ready-made products?

The first question explains itself - in health, like life, experience counts a great deal. Most experienced herbalists will have seen many different kinds of problems and are very accustomed to tricky cases.

The second question tells you that they are a dedicated herbalist who is practicing the ancient art of combining individual herbs in unique formulas for each patient - this is usually very potent and effective.

Taking time to find a good herbalist to help you with your health will probably end up counting as one of the big decisions that has changed your life for the better. I wish you well with it all!

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic. This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd