The herbal medicine garden, belonging to Victoria and Pieter, which includes skullcap for anxiety, motherwort for palpitations, yarrow to increase circulation to the uterus, and California poppy, a sleep remedy.

Botanical Romance

4th August 2017

Victoria Kearns

Lisa Botwright meets the duo who are promoting the scientific credibility of herbal medicine…

I’m taking a walk around Victoria and Pieter’s beautifully tended herb garden – and my head is spinning. It’s not just the glorious scents that are released as I brush past the plants, or the bitterness of the leaves I’m invited to taste… it’s the sheer amount of botanical knowledge that these two possess and are enthusiastically sharing with me. As I try to scribble down all the names and properties of each of the herbs, I feel rather overwhelmed. Perhaps I need some calming valerian root tea, made from one of the plants in my path.

In their consultation room, I stare nosily at the intriguing rows of glass jars filled with mysterious dried concoctions: it’s part old-fashioned apothecary in here, and part state-of-the-art chef’s larder.

Victoria and Pieter are the two halves of Kearns and Meiring, a medical herbalist consultancy based in Watford. Their paths converged at university a few years ago when they were both drawn, as mature students, to a degree course in Herbal Medicine. Romance didn’t distract them from their studies, however, and each graduated with first class honours. Their practice now aims to ‘harness nature’s healing power to restore wellbeing’.

Their motivation is genuine, but my inner cynic wonders what place herbal healing can have in our world of science-based conventional medicine. Why visit a herbal practitioner when we can simply pop along to our local GP? “We live in a culture where people just want to take a pill,” explains Pieter, “rather than make changes to their lifestyle. Often GPs don’t have time to look at the underlying causes of complaints, which can lead to secondary issues. People need more support.”

Victoria herself is a case in point. She grew up among a family of scientists – “scientific method was everything” – but her parents had no interest in cooking, and fed her on little but tinned or microwaved food. By her teens, she was existing mainly on sweets: “My diet was appalling,” she confesses. I nod, sympathetically, thinking back to my own teenage diet of Frosties and Kit Kats.

Scientific studies now show that a high sugar diet lowers immunity and creates a hostile internal environment where bacteria can feed. Victoria goes on to tell me that all was mostly fine until she had her first child. The extra strain meant that her body ‘fell apart’. She suffered from fever and fatigue, and was referred to a cancer hospital, and to an ENT consultant, but the medical profession was stumped. By her 30th birthday she felt so ill that when a friend suggested she might see a herbalist, in desperation, she did so. From then on, she claims that alternative medicine ‘changed her life’.

Pieter, on the flipside, was drawn to herbalism through his love of good food. “When I added herbs into my cooking, I started to think, what else can I use them for?” He had enjoyed an eclectic career in IT, radio, music and advertising, and “had all sorts of projects on the go”. But about six years ago, he made the decision to round up his freelance career and go to university.

He tells me that herbalists are the only complementary therapists trained as highly as GPs in diagnostic techniques. They offer a full consultation: at least an hour, where plenty of (possibly uncomfortable) questions are asked about diet and lifestyle. “We would never prescribe herbal medicine on its own, without looking at diet too.”

Their code of practice means that they don’t treat serious conditions such as cancer, although they can offer support during recovery; and if they believe herbal medicine isn’t appropriate for any reason, then they’ll refer the patient back to the NHS. But for many chronic conditions herbal medicine is proven to offer a great deal of long term benefit.

“We look at the holistic picture,” Victoria explains. “All people are different, even with the same condition. Take the menopause – some women have insomnia, some have hot flushes, some have depression, yet all would be put on HRT by their GP.”

It strikes me that the ‘them and us’ stance of herbal versus pharmaceutical medicine is a shame, and possibly self-defeating when both camps must ultimately share the same goals.

“Conventional medicine has its place and it would be wonderful to work together,” Victoria and Pieter reflect, but explain that both sides are hampered by over-stringent NICE guidelines.

NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) is part of the Department of Health, with the responsibility of rigorously testing medicine before it’s deemed fit for human consumption. The clinical trials involve a huge amount of volunteers, meaning that the process is very expensive, and beyond the financial reach of herbal medicine practitioners. While 72% of modern drugs are plant-based (the very same plants used by herbalists), the huge pharmaceutical companies who can afford the trials are able to do so because they have developed techniques to make the drugs very cheaply. They don’t use the whole plant, but isolate the active ingredients and synthesise them. This approach makes economic sense, but it comes with a price, as Victoria explains: “The isolated ingredients in aspirin, for example, can cause bleeding disorders in the stomach. Yet other parts of the same plant have compounds that protect the stomach wall.”

It’s evident, to me at least, that nature’s cleverer than we appreciate.

Human use of plants as medicine dates from perhaps 200,000 years ago, and developed independently in different regions all over the world. Later, migrating civilisations such as Romans,

Vikings and Saxons shared their knowledge with each other. Today, most traditional medicine systems – Kampo (Japan), Ayurveda (India) and Traditional Chinese Medicine – include some form of herbalism.

In England, medical knowledge was passed down through the church and through individual families. The Punch and Judy dichotomy between herbalists and the scientific community began to emerge in the Tudor age with the dissolution of the monasteries (which functioned as early community medical centres) and the development of the printing press, which made the documenting of knowledge increasingly elite. As physicians became more powerful and began to patent their elixirs, the village wise women, with their generations of herbal lore behind them, were condemned as witches.

In the nineteenth century, as thousands of people moved to cities, the rise of urbanisation meant a corresponding decline in sanitation. Early pharmaceutical medicine became hugely successful in combating infectious diseases, and the concept of a ‘pill as a solution for all ills’ became accepted.

Victoria and Pieter believe that we’re seeing a rise in a new set of diseases, from Alzheimer’s to anxiety to auto-immune issues. “A simple pill may not be the answer for an illness where there are multiple causal factors such as diet, exercise, pollution and stress,” Pieter maintains. And from the medical community’s perspective, they explain that there are many instances of natural remedies that are widely recognised as beneficial, such as probiotics for digestive complaints, which doctors are not allowed to recommend because the treatment hasn’t met NICE guidelines. “And they never will,” concludes Victoria starkly. “But lack of evidence, doesn’t mean evidence of lack.”

I sympathise with their frustration. Herbal medicine has an unfair reputation as ‘woo woo’, when it’s so clearly based on millennia of evidence-based results. If you’re unwell, you should always consult your GP in the first instance, of course, but integrative healing – where best practice from both pharmaceutical and herbal medicine could be offered as appropriate – must surely be the ideal way forward.

• kmherbalists.co.uk

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