The medicinal and healing properties in flowers, leaves, roots, whole foods and inorganic substances, such as mineral salts, can be harnessed and used as natural ‘drugs’.
Some natural substances can be used in their original or ‘raw’ form. For instance, an easily recognisable herb, such as rosemary, can be picked from your garden and used to make an infusion. Other remedies are made from prepared extracts of natural substances which can be bought over the counter in chemists and health food shops. These include Bach flower remedies, essential oils and homeopathic pills.
Herbalism and Healing Powers
Before the age of manufactured medicines, people used plants from their environment to produce remedies. Although many drugs are based on herbs, there has recently been a resurgence of interest in the use of plants in their natural form. This may be due to concern about the side-effects and possible addictive nature of some prescribed drugs.
People are returning to remedies that offer a safe and effective alternative to these drugs, especially since herbalists claim the active ingredients that the pharmaceutical industry extracts or produces synthetically may be safer and more effective in their natural state.
Herbalism aims to tailor treatments to the needs of the individual, which may involve eliminating toxic waste products, stimulating the body’s defence mechanism or toning the whole body. Herbs can also be administered in a variety of ways.
Among the disorders that respond well to herbal remedies are digestive complaints, skin problems, insomnia, colds and arthritis. Although many herbs are now widely used in the home, some, such as comfrey, may be dangerous if they are taken over long periods. Others can be dangerous if you are suffering from a specific medical condition, such as high blood pressure, or if you are pregnant. For these reasons, herbs should be treated with caution — if you suffer any side-effects stop taking the remedy and consult a medical herbalist.
If you have been prescribed other medications you should consult your doctor before taking herbal remedies; drugs can interact producing adverse effects. You should also consult your doctor if you are pregnant. The most active remedies are likely to be those that are prepared for you by a medical herbalist. Proprietary remedies can be effective, or you can prepare some at home.
The Preparation of Herbal Medicine
The most common techniques for preparing herbs at home are infusions, decoctions, tinctures, poultices or compresses.
An infusion is made in the same way as a pot of tea (in fact, herbal infusions are sometimes referred to as teas). To make a standard infusion, place 25 g (1 oz) of a dried herb or 75 g (2’A oz) of a fresh herb in a glass or china teapot. If you are using several herbs, they should still add up to 25 g (1 oz). Pour over 450 ml (16 fl oz) of boiling water and steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain the infusion through a fine sieve or a piece of muslin and drink it while it is still hot. The standard dosage for a herbal infusion is one tea cup three times a day.
Decoctions are made instead of infusions when roots or the hard, woody parts of the plant are used. Because the active ingredient is harder to extract, simply pouring boiling water onto the herb is not sufficient. Instead, the herbs are boiled in water and then strained. Unpleasant tasting infusions or decoctions can be sweetened with honey.
Although infusions and decoctions are usually taken internally, you can also use them in a bath, a footbath or as a face wash or hair rinse. To use an infusion in your bath, you can add a standard infusion to the bath water, you can place a small herb-filled tea infuser in the water or you can use a herbal bath bag. To make a herbal bath bag, take a square piece of muslin, place a handful of herbs in the middle, then gather the corners and secure them with thread. Attach the bag to your bath taps so that the hot water runs through it.
A herbal tincture contains the active ingredient of a herb in alcohol. Some people prefer tinctures to infusions and decoctions because they are more palatable and, after the initial preparation, they are quick and easy to use. A tincture can either be taken neat or diluted with a little water. Tinctures, decoctions and infusions are usually taken internally, but compresses and poultices are applied to the outside of the body. They are commonly used to treat headaches, fevers, colds and skin conditions. You can seal in the heat of a compress or poultice by placing a layer of plastic over the cloth after it has been applied to the skin. Alternatively, lay a hot water bottle over the compress or poultice.
Another topical use of herbs is in the form of an ointment. Herbal ointments form a protective, healing layer on the skin and can be used as beauty treatments as well as for treating skin complaints. When you are buying herbs to use at home, it is important that you purchase the correct herb. The best way to ensure this is to ask for a herb by its Latin name because there is then no confusion.
The Power of Homeopathic Remedies
The principle that ‘like may be cured by like’ is one of the cornerstones of homeopathy. Remedies are given which, if applied in full concentration, would produce the same symptoms as the disease being treated. The remedies are thought to accelerate the body’s natural healing process.
In contrast, conventional Western medicine, which tends to take a more combative approach, seeks to eliminate the cause of the disease by destroying bacteria. Homeopathy, as we know it today, was founded by Dr Samuel Hahnemann (1788-1843), a German physician who published his first paper on the subject in 1796.
Intrigued by the use of quinine in the treatment of malaria, he took a dose and discovered it produced shivering, sweating and fever — classic malaria symptoms. He deduced that a disease’s symptoms were the body’s healing mechanism and so, by giving medicines that produced the same symptoms, recovery could be advanced. He went on to test arsenic, belladonna and mercury on himself and, by observing the symptoms each of these substances produced, he matched them to specific illnesses. Further tests appeared to confirm that a remedy would
help to cure a condition with which it shared symptoms.
The validity of this theory is still disputed, but homeopaths believe that remedies provoke the body’s natural healing mechanisms into overcoming the disease. It is also believed that the weaker (more diluted) the remedy, the more potent it is.
Homeopathic remedies usually come in pill form to be dissolved under the tongue or as a liquid to be dropped onto the tongue. Potencies are usually expressed in the centesimal system where 1 drop of the remedy is added to 99 drops of dilutent (usually pure alcohol or lactose) producing a strength of 1c. One drop of this dilution is then further diluted in 99 drops of dilutent to produce a strength of 2c and so on. However, a ‘high potency’ remedy can be over 24 c, meaning this process has been repeated 24 times.
The sources of homeopathic remedies are diverse. Some, such as pulsatilla, are made from plants; others, such as silicia, are made from inorganic substances like rocks or mineral salts. A homeopath has over 2000 homeopathic remedies to select from and will decide only after having asked detailed questions about symptoms, diet, lifestyle and even dental history.
Homeopaths say that all these factors can affect the efficacy of the remedies. In fact, for every remedy there are thought to be three separate indications (reasons why the remedy may be appropriate). First, there are constitutional indications; this includes stature, build, complexion and stamina. Second, are mental indications such as whether you are anxious or irritable. Third, are the physical indications of your illness, for example, whether you have a headache or stomach pains.
Homeopathy is generally accepted to be a gentle and safe treatment, and increasing numbers of European doctors are starting to prescribe homeopathic remedies in con-junction with conventional medicines.
Taking homeopathic remedies
If you decide to use homeopathy to treat your symptoms, it is wise to ask the advice of a qualified homeopath. Alternatively, you can treat yourself at home using standard strength over-the-counter pills. Although you will not harm yourself with these remedies, treatment is likely to be a more hit and miss affair without the diagnostic expertise of the homeopath. It is also important that you are aware of certain guidelines set by homeopaths so that you can achieve the most effective results. Because the active constituent in homeopathic remedies has been very diluted it can easily become ‘polluted’. Therefore, you are advised not to use the remedies while there is still the taste of food in your mouth, nor to eat for 20 minutes or so after taking a remedy.
Strong tasting substances such as coffee, mint, alcohol, tobacco and spices may also reduce the potency of homeopathic remedies, so wait 2 hours after exposure to these items. You should also avoid handling the pills: take them by tipping them onto a teaspoon or into the bottle cap and placing them under your tongue. Commonly used pills can be bought from chemists and health food shops at standard potencies — 6c or 30c — and dosage instruc-tions are given on the pack. Although these remedies may initially exacerbate your symptoms they should quickly alleviate them. If they do not, you may have selected the wrong treatment or you may be taking the remedy incorrectly. In this case, you should seek the advice of a homeopath or see your doctor. If you are taking the wrong remedy, you will not harm yourself because such extreme dilutions are used.
Since homeopathic pills contain lactose (a natural sugar in milk), you should avoid taking them if you are allergic to it. Ask a homeopath about remedies in liquid form. Remedies should always be stored in a cool, dark place and away from strong odours to avoid pollution.