Practitioners of modern herbal medicine (phytotherapy) combine a knowledge of the traditional properties of medicinal plants, which has been passed down and developed through the generations, with a rigorous scientific approach. The vast body of research into medicinal plants and their effects on the human organism that has been built up over the past few decades provides definitive proof of the pharmacological properties of many herbal medicines – for example, the beneficial action of saw palmetto and nettle root in benign prostate problems.
This doesn’t mean, however, that high-quality plant extracts should simply be used as a kind of substitute pharmaceutical drug, aimed at a specific disease. Modern phytotherapists (who undergo several years of training at university level) are taught always to respect the unity and integrity of the individual patient, and to set any specific illness or disorder in its context, taking into account the patient’s overall physical condition, as well as his or her mental and emotional state, general lifestyle and environment, and diet. Experience shows that this thorough approach, although it takes time, gets much better results over the long term than a ‘quick fix’.
Thus, herbal medicine may be used for a wide range of disorders, including digestive, respiratory, nervous system and musculoskeletal problems, as well as gynaecological conditions such as PMS, menopausal issues, endometriosis and PCOS. It is particularly useful for chronic disorders, where the in-depth clinical approach may help the practitioner to identify causative factors that have previously been overlooked.
In terms of specific research, evidence exists for its effectiveness in the following conditions:
Digestive problems: functional dyspepsia (poor digestion) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Gynaecological problems: premenstrual syndrome
Nervous system problems: depression and migraine
Respiratory problems: common cold, acute rhinosinusitis, uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infections, and influenza types A and B
Musculoskeletal problems: back pain and osteoarthritis
Like GPs, herbal practitioners may request blood tests and other laboratory investigations to supplement their findings from case-history taking and clinical examination.