The scope of herbal medicine

The majority of the world’s population has access only to traditional, mostly herbal, medicine, so it could be argued that any ailment or disease could be treated with herbal medicine. Some people living in rich industrialised societies, however, have the luxury of being able to choose herbal treatment from a palette of healthcare options which include orthodox modern medicine. In this scenario the different healthcare modalities are complementary to each other, and the selection of one over another is often a matter of personal choice. Without doubt, orthodox medicine is superior for the treatment of many acute and life-threatening conditions. Herbal medicine, however, has much to offer in the treatment and management of a wide range of conditions that do not constitute medical emergencies.

Many common acute illnesses, such as the common cold, influenza, sinusitis, digestive upsets, insomnia, urinary tract infections and menstrual pain, to mention but a few, can be treated successfully by herbal therapy. It is often in the management of chronic conditions, however, that herbal medicine comes into its own. Herbal medicines are generally well tolerated and associated with only minor side effects. This makes them suitable for use in chronic conditions, where long-term treatment is required. In terms of chronic disease it should be emphasised that herbal medicine is unlikely to cure where conventional medicine has failed, but herbal medicine is often highly successful in managing the symptoms of chronic conditions, resulting in improved quality of life for the patient. The holistic approach to health and disease and the focus on individualised treatment makes herbal medicine an excellent option for the management of chronic disease such as elevated cholesterol levels, problems associated with poor circulation, osteoarthritis, non-insulin-dependent (type 2) diabetes, chronic hepatitis, asthma, anxiety, mild to moderate depression, pre-menstrual syndrome, benign prostatic hyperplasia and chronic skin conditions.

The role of herbal medicine in serious or life-threatening conditions is supportive and complementary to conventional medicine. Herbal medicine cannot substitute for insulin in diabetes, anti-viral drugs in HIV/AIDS or chemotherapy in cancer. What herbal medicine can offer in these conditions is improved quality of life through amelioration of secondary symptoms and side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. Needless to say, only experienced practitioners should treat patients with these conditions, and wherever possible it should be done in concert with the patient’s medical practitioner.

Herbal therapy, like any other kind of therapy, has its limits and a well-trained and experienced practitioner is aware of when these limits are being reached. Referral to another health professional may be required, be it a naturopath, counsellor, psychologist, osteopath or medical practitioner. Herbal medicine complements a wide range of other therapeutic interventions, in particular nutritional therapy. In the hands of a skilled practitioner herbal medicine can also be successfully combined with conventional medical treatment, with due attention to the potential for drug interactions between herbal medicines and pharmaceutical drugs. As with any case of patient co-management, a superior treatment outcome can be achieved if all practitioners involved are willing to communicate and cooperate.