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Herbs for Health 

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Anshu Bahanda: This is Anshu Bahanda on Wellness Curated. Thanks for joining me on this podcast. My mission is to empower you with health and wellness, so that you can then go and empower others. Today we’re looking at the healing powers of herbs, a tradition of medicine that dates back millennia. Over one in five adults have tried over the counter herbal remedies, but in reality, the number is much higher. If you’ve ever had a cup of soothing caramel tea or mint to help digestion, then you’re already a herbal user. Remember, too, that a significant percentage of drugs prescribed by doctors have been produced from plant extracts. These include aspirin, which is derived from a tree bark, quinine to prevent malaria, licorice root and cough mixtures, St John’s-wort, which has so many uses. 

So let’s start our exploration of the world of herbs with my guest, Collette Casey, who’s a trained nutritionist and medical herbalist and who specialises in women’s health. She will be guiding us through many useful herbs, how they use and how they work in healing and supporting the body. We’ll also hear how adaptogens help combat stress, mood swings, and low energy. Welcome, Collete. Great to have you on Wellness Curated. Now, tell me, a lot of people have tried herbal medicines. For those who haven’t, can you tell us how herbs are herbs used and how do they work? 

Collette Casey: We are always told via media or doctors television to eat plant foods. And we need plant foods to keep our bodies healthy because they give us lovely fibre, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and lots of vitamins and minerals. So when we talk about herbal medicines, they’re a more concentrated form of plant food. So there’s an array of chemical constituents that plants have, and there are secondary metabolites, and it’s things like polyphenols and flavonoids, and there’s a whole abundance of chemical constituents. How they work is they support the body’s innate healing process. The body will always try to heal. So when we give our body these concentrated herbs, and lots of them work in specific ways and different ways, then we’re going to have a real good preventative effect on our bodies to help us have a good, robust vitality in our health. 

AB: As you know, I’m Indian, and we’ve grown up with herbs and spices, and most people have a cupboard full of herbs and spices. So can they just use them to medicate themselves? 

CC: Well, absolutely. I mean, I think the more diverse a range of plant constituents that you can ingest… So there’s so many amazing spices and herbs. So you are going to have an absolute wide range of all those medicinal chemical constituents in those plants. So they’re going to work to support our health in so many ways. So, in terms of medicating, if you have a chronic health disease, then possibly to use them within the diet is always going to be beneficial. As a preventative measure? Absolutely. The more herbs and spices, the better.

AB: Okay. And you’re a medical herbalist, you have a practice, you probably see people all the time. What are the most common complaints that people come to you with? 

CC: So I see a lot of women and all the problems that come with the hormonal dance that we have as women. So lots of perimenopausal women, lots of menopausal women, but also young teenage women who are starting on their menstruation years, and they’re having some difficulties with maybe some anxiety or sleep disturbance. And actually they’re the things I see the most, I would say it’s anxiety and insomnia, depression, a lot of joint pain, and also fatigue. Fatigue is a big, big thing that we see in practice a lot. 

AB: You’re trained as a nutritionist as well, right? So how does that affect your work as a medical herbalist? The way I see it is food is the cornerstone to health. So I could give you an absolutely fantastic medicine to help you with your arthritis. But if you’re eating a pro-inflammatory diet that’s high in ultra processed foods, then I’m putting on a green sticking plaster. So you have to look at the whole person, their diet, and how the herbs can help them. So it’s very, very important to get the diet right. What is a person eating? Is that promoting their problems within their health? How do we change the diet? And then we bring in the herbs as well. 

AB: At the moment, what I am hearing about is long COVID and the fatigue that that’s caused. So how can herbal medicines help? Can you recommend something generic that you would tell people to take which would help them? 

CC: So I actually have quite a few patients at the moment that I’ve been seeing for a period of time with long COVID, and I’ve had really good effects. It’s not a panacea miracle, but it’s definitely huge progress, actually. Look at the liver and the gut. The gut has to be working efficiently and absolutely the liver, if the liver is sluggish and there’s been inflammation from COVID then you want to make sure those organs are working efficiently. And then I will be looking at adaptogenic herbs and the adrenal glands, because the adrenal glands are what provide us with the cortisol. And when we have chronic inflammation and there is a belief that COVID leaves a chronic inflammation in the body, then that adrenal gland is highly taxed. So then I’m looking at adaptogenic herbs. I’m looking at central nervous system herbs, the nervines. So working in a collective and holistic way, looking at the gut, looking at the liver, looking at the nervous system, and absolutely looking at the adrenal glands and the immune system. 

AB: That’s really interesting. Do you know, in today’s day and age, we’re seeing a lot more levels of anxiety and stress, some due to coronavirus, some due to what happened to isolated people and lots of other factors. If someone comes to you for help, how do you approach this as there are so many issues at play? 

CC: Well, first and foremost, it’s important to say that if anybody’s suffering from chronic stress or anxiety, depression, it’s very important that they see their medical provider as well. If somebody comes to see me, then I’m looking at a very sort of in depth, comprehensive health questionnaire with the patient in front of me to see what is the driver behind this anxiety, behind this stress response. So everybody’s different. So somebody may come with the same symptoms, but I would prescribe them different herbs on how they are, how they come across, how their story is told. And again, I’d be looking at the adaptogenic herbs and the nervine herbs, amongst others, most certainly. 

AB: And how did you happen to get into herbal medicine? 

CC: Okay, so my story starts at 17— I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis. So had my gastroenterologist say, “Okay, Collette, you’ll be taking medication for the rest of your life. This is something that you live with.” Okay, that was that. And for a number of years, I did take the medication. Then I did start to become a little bit interested in what I could do for myself— food science. Because I definitely felt the food was a driver for me, as well as stress, most certainly. So that was kind of where the interest in nutrition came about. When I was 38, I had an operation, a gynaecological operation, and then I was kind of put into an early menopause. So by the age of 40, I was suffering debilitating symptoms of menopause. And I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t told what to expect. So I was given lots of different medications for lots of different symptoms by the GP. Never really sat quite right with me. So somebody recommended a medical herbalist with a background in nutrition. So cynically I went off to see this person, not really sort of feeling confident about it, and it was fantastic. I absolutely had a wonderful result. Again, not a miracle— I have to say 80% better. And I just knew that I needed to know what this was all about. And I wanted to be able to help other people with chronic health conditions and hormonal conditions. It’s been a passion for me ever since. 

AB: And you say that all herbs try and get the body into balance. Can you explain that? Because there are herbs that don’t suit people. 

CC: There are herbs that don’t suit people. And that is why it’s very important to have that consultation process with the patient in front of you. If somebody’s excessively a hot person, there are certain herbs I would not give. I probably wouldn’t be given ginger, which is an amazing analgesic and stimulant. I wouldn’t give that because it would be more heating. Looking at the patient in front of me, considering their story and how they are to match them with the herbs, I believe would be beneficial to them. You know our bodies work wonderfully with herbs; we need them to survive; we need them for a healthy terrain. And when we have a healthy terrain, we can fight off disease, we can be strong. So it stands to reason, if we’re given our bodies wonderful plant constituents, help our body stay strong, tone the tissue, work at a cellular level, work on the organism, then we’re giving our bodies a really good, strong chance to work in its most efficient way. 

AB: I’m so glad you said that thing about ginger, because I see people all over the place going crazy about ginger and so many herbs. They’re just guzzling them down. Ginger shots every morning; and like you said, it doesn’t suit everyone. 

CC: They are heating herbs and things like Turmeric as well. Its bioavailability isn’t very good. So people sometimes are taking these herbs and they think, ‘Oh, it’s doing wonders.’ But in actual fact, it might not be. You have to have a fat sauce with Turmeric or black pepper— those things work to help you get it into the system more. But even herbs like Ashwagandh— Withania somnifera— is very, very fashionable. It’s amazing, and I use that a lot in clinical practice, but it’s not always right for everybody. Very important— I think if somebody wants to have medicinal herbs prescribed to them, that they should have a consultation, because it’s all about your energy, your vitality. Are you a hot person? Are you a cold person? What’s your history? What’s your gut health? You can be eating the best diet in the world, but if you’re not absorbing those nutrients, then your body’s starving. 

AB: I absolutely agree. Tell me something. I mean, you have all these people who are going and trying to self medicate themselves, poor anxiety or even depression, and buying the likes of St John’s-wort over the counter. What is your opinion on something like that? Does it help?

CC: For some people, it does help. I think it’s very important to know that you can be absolutely bewildered by the array of brands out there. And on the most, it’s more of a food grade supplement. It’s not registered like medicines are under the FDA, but you can find the traditional herbal registration on brands. And that gives you some confidence that you’re having an extract that’s of a therapeutic level, a safe level, and it’s efficacious. But having said that, sometimes St John’s-wort is a brilliant herb, but it can cause a problem for some people, and it can sort of cause problems with other medications. So you do have to be careful. You need to really adhere to what the bottle says, check that it’s got the traditional herbal registration logo, and then you should be okay. But it’s always worth mentioning to your medical practitioner what herbs you are taking, if you’re definitely taking some other orthodox medications alongside. 

AB: Again, I come across a lot of people, they don’t have a specific problem, but they don’t feel like they’re at optimal health. So in situations like that, maybe they feel a bit weak, maybe they feel a bit low energy. Would you prescribe an adaptogen? And again, this is a very fashionable word at the moment, what is an adaptogen? 

CC: So adaptogen herbs are wonderful herbs. So they work to help strengthen the adrenal gland, and especially for women, when women are menopausal, that adrenal gland takes over as a source of a lot of hormones in the body. So they are mighty organs that need looking after. So adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt. They promote resilience, resilience of the organs. And alongside the adaptogens, some of them also work as nervine herbs. So our central nervous system needs to be calmed. If our central nervous system is inflamed— that anxiety, those emotions, they take over. So we’re looking at herbs that really work on helping the adrenals work efficiently, calming the central nervous system. Some people want more of a stimulating adaptogenic herb. We might look at rhodiola rosea there, or at least the coccus. That’s another wonderful adaptogenic herb. There’s another one astragalus. There’s so many different adaptogenic herbs with lots of other mechanisms to them. They don’t just work as an adaptogenic. There’s an amazing herb, Hawthorn Crataegus, which is a wonderful herb for the heart, but that’s actually an adaptogenic herb too. So you get lots of side benefits, not side effects. That’s not to say, though, for everybody, just because it’s natural, it’s safe. They’re not always safe. And that’s why it’s very, very important to see somebody who’s adequately educated. 

AB: And tell me, how can we find someone who’s adequately educated? How do we know that someone is an authentic herbal practitioner? 

CC: It’s very hard because there isn’t a licence for herbal medicine. So we have the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, we have the College of Phytotherapy Practitioners, and we also have the association of Naturopathic Practitioners. So you can look on any of their sites and anybody that’s studied with NIM and the CPP, you have to have a degree in herbal medicine, and you have to have also completed at a high level, at least 500 clinical hours of practice. So when you go onto those bodies, you know that those people are adequately educated, will work in a safe manner, and they have a lot of clinical hour practice behind them. 

AB: Winter has started. It’s come with a bang in the UK. A lot of places people are going through extreme cold climates. So what suggestions do you have for them in terms of herbs? What do you think they should take? 

CC: Well, we want to look at the immune system. We want the immune system to be robust. For the immune system to be robust, we need our gut health to be strong. So we’re looking to feed our gut bacteria with lots of different plant foods. So I always say to people, if you can manage 30 different plant foods a week, and that includes your herbs and spices, so it’s not that difficult, you really help and feed that gut bacteria. Most of our immune system sits in our gut, so that’s the first thing. Secondly, I think lots of herbs like echinacea is a great one to take if you’re feeling unwell and lots of vitamins rich food. Elderberry is wonderful and garlic is one of these amazing foods that is actually a food, but also is an amazing medicine. It’s fantastic for people with high cholesterol and it’s good for heart health. Obviously, you’re taking a much higher dose. So I think concentrating on all those lovely plant foods, a diverse array of colours. Your herbs and spices in the cupboards, as many as you can, lots of warming teas, and if you’re feeling under the weather, vitamin C, elderberry, echinacea and also astragalus is another great one for the immune system. 

AB: Also, a lot of people are having adaptogens with coffee. What is your view on that? You’re getting these coffees which have adaptogens mixed in them. Is it a fashion? Is it a trend at the moment?

CC: I think there’s nothing wrong with having it. I think also, if you’re believing, it’s doing something in one coffee a day may well do so. But if you’ve got a chronic health issue, I think you probably need something a bit more concentrated and a bit more regular over a longer period of time. But that’s absolutely fine to do so. And if it tastes delicious, why not? 

AB: And any final words of advice? 

CC: I just think, going back to what we said, try and incorporate as many plant foods into the diet as diverse as you can. Lots of herbs and lots of spices to help that gut microbiome create a lovely, strong immune system. No part of the body is on its own. Everything works in conjunction. If you’ve got a health issue in one area, it’s going to affect the rest of the body, so look at it in a holistic way. Nothing is separate. Meditation, gratitude, happiness, a good diet and all those lovely medicinal herbs and spices help. And if you have a chronic health issue, come and see a medical herbalist. 

AB: That was lovely, Collette. Thanks for joining us. Hope you enjoyed the Wellness Curated podcast. Please subscribe and tell your friends and family about it. And here’s to you, leading your best life.