Lucy Stephens, of Reva Clinic, is a qualified medical herbalist, nutritional advisor and reflexologist with practices in Kensington and London Bridge. In our latest Ask The Expert feature, Lucy gives us an insight into the wide range of benefits that herbal medicine can offer, both independently and alongside conventional medicine, to help you improve and maintain a fit and healthy body.
What is herbal medicine?
Herbal medicine is a traditional system of medicine that uses active compounds from plants to exert a physical effect on the body. The vast majority of modern drugs are derived from plants, but whereas drug companies are looking for the one compound in a plant that they can extract and repackage as a drug, medical herbalists will use the whole plant in treatment believing that the interaction between different compounds in a plant is gentler on the body.
How does it work?
Herbal medicine aims to bring the body back into balance and improve the function of body systems. It aims to address the underlying cause of the illness, not just the symptoms, allowing the body to heal itself. The actual mechanism of action of the plants is similar to conventional medicine, and in some cases it can have the same effect, which is why you have to be careful when taking herbal medicine and conventional medicine at the same time.
How do you diagnose patients?
Diagnosis of a condition in Western herbal medicine is based on a conventional medicine model of pathology, in this way it is different from Chinese herbal medicine.
What sort of conditions can it be used to treat?
I usually say that herbal medicine can be used for virtually every condition that you would go to see your doctor with, it just depends on the condition as to whether you’d need conventional medicine alongside herbal medicine. Common conditions that I see in my clinic include:
Female health – infertility, premenstral syndrome (PMS), endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), urinary tract infections
Gut health – Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), acid reflux
Skin disorders – psoriasis, acne, eczema, alopecia, rosacea
Mental health – anxiety, depression, stress
Why should someone consider visiting an herbalist as opposed to self-prescribing supplements? Or perhaps, as opposed to other alternative therapists?
The difficulty with people self-prescribing supplements is that they still contain active ingredients and have an effect on the body. If you’re taking other medication you need to be careful in case there is an interaction. On the other hand, sometimes a particular herb can be very useful for a condition but because it needs careful administration the products on the shelf are very low-dose or poorer quality and so you won’t see any effect by taking them. Finally, many people use off the shelf products to treat the symptoms of their condition – in some cases this may work, but the benefit of seeing a practitioner is that they can really get to the root cause of the problem and treat at that level (the symptoms are just the end picture) so will help to resolve your issue.
Do you need to have a specific ailment to see an herbalist or can anyone benefit from a general MOT?
No, you don’t need a specific ailment; I do sometimes have people coming to see me for a general MOT. Particularly as I’m a nutritional advisor as well, there is so much conflicting information out there when you’re trying to manage your own health, it can be useful to have someone pick through all the information with you. It’s my job to keep up to date with the latest science and research and so I can explain the best protocols for your health and help you avoid the latest fads or crazes!
What accreditation would you look for when seeking out an herbalist practitioner?
The government is currently working on statutory accreditation for medical herbalists with the Health and Care Professions Council, meaning we’ll soon be regulated alongside physiotherapists, radiotherapists etc. Until this happens however it’s important that you find a medical herbalist who is registered with a professional body – either the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) or the College of Phytotherapy. Both of these professional bodies ensure that a medical herbalist has a degree in herbal medicine and has worked over 500 clinic hours under supervision.
What sort of format would you expect your first appointment with an herbalist to take? What would an herbalist ask you? What sort of length of treatment would be prescribed? That sort of thing?
The first appointment usually takes about an hour. I ask a lot of questions to get an overall picture of a person’s health. These questions can range from condition specific, to family history, emotional and psychological health; questions about lifestyle, early life, and current home life – anything I need to get a very wide-picture of what might be going on with the patient. It’s important for patients to be aware that symptoms can present for many reasons – eczema for example is linked to stress or psychological health, dietary causes, lifestyle causes, birth and foetal nutrition effects etc, which many people may not be aware of. It’s not just your practitioner being unnecessarily nosy!
Treatment length is a very difficult one to answer because it’s dependent on the condition, the length of time a patient has had a condition, their response to treatment, their age etc. I can give a much clearer idea after seeing the patient for the first time. I usually see a patient 2-3 weeks after the first appointment and then monthly after that. If pushed for an average treatment time possibly 3-6 sessions, but this could be more or less.
How soon would a patient expect to see changes when following herbal treatment?
Again this can really vary. It depends on the age of the patient; children tend to react much quicker than adults. It depends on how forthcoming the patient has been during questioning which determines if we’ve definitely found the cause of the problem. It also depends on how chronic the problem was – is this a new condition or has it been with a person for 20+ years? And it also depends on how willing the patient is, to take advice and make changes to their lifestyle.
What are the risks, if any, of herbal medicine?
If you see a qualified practitioner, there shouldn’t be any major risks. Some herbal medicines can be dangerous in high amounts, which is another reason why unqualified people should not prescribe herbal medicine. Herbal medicines can interact with conventional medication, so your herbalist may ask if they can liaise with your doctor to ensure patient safety.
How can herbal medicine be used to assist in weight loss? (e.g. through stress reduction, alkalising the body, restoring hormone balance, that sort of thing)
There are many reasons why someone might struggle to lose weight that are not just purely due to nutrition and exercise. Thyroid issues, hormonal imbalance, poor blood sugar balance, sleep issues, poor gut health and changes in gut bacteria…etc can all have an effect on weight. So, yes from this perspective herbal medicine and really addressing the cause of the problem can be a very useful adjunct to weight issues.
There is always a lot in the press about weight loss supplements, like Alli , Adios, etc. What are your views on weight loss supplements in general? Do they work? Are there herbal alternatives?
My first goal for patients is always improved health. Fat-loss or weight-loss as the only goal is not something that I ever would advocate. Necessary weight reduction and fat loss should be the added benefit to becoming healthy, alongside improvements in insulin sensitivity, increased lean body mass, healthier organs etc, so short-term quick fixes are not for me.
As to whether they work, that depends on your view about what ‘works’! Alli stops the absorption of dietary fat (with the lovely side-effect of loose stools) – contrary to popular belief the right dietary fats are an essential part of our diet and vitally important for hormonal health amongst other things. Adios contains the active ingredient fucus (bladderwrack) and it is supposed to speed up your body’s metabolic rate. Fucus is used by herbalists for hypothyroid issues (hence its effect on the basal metabolic rate as the thyroid controls this). Fucus is not recommended for people with hyperthyroid issues and the thyroid is certainly not something I would suggest people start playing around with!
Herbal alternatives would only ever be used as an adjunct and anything with a laxative effect is not recommended. Herbs such as senna can make the bowel lazy leading to longer term problems. Chromium supplements can be used short-term for blood sugar balance, as long as there are nutritional protocols and a proper treatment plan in place to address the underlying cause of the problem.
If you want to find out more about herbal medicine, or make an appointment to see Lucy directly, then get in touch with her at www.revaclinic.com.