Plant Medicine

Sustainable Healthcare – When Botanical Med Boffins Get Together.

As a Medical Herbalist, I belong to a professional regulating body. This is the National Herbalists Association of Australia. It’s the oldest, most respected, and well run complimentary medicine association in the country.

Like many professionals, my knowledge base doesn’t stop with what I learned all those years ago at university. I’ve learnt mostly from the plants and people that i work with, from personal study and research, and I also learn from the formal continuing education opportunities that the NHAA provides. One such opportunity was the recent  9th International Conference on Herbal Medicine that the NHAA put on (end of March – much has happened in between then and now, but I’ve been itching to write this post). Held over 3 days (oh why must it run over the Sabbath – thank goodness for conference recordings!), it was the best excuse for a semi-isolated nomadic practitioner to talk nothing but botanicals, phytochemistry, and grass roots clinical experience, and not have people look at you like you have two heads. In short, it was exhilarating and encouraging, and a good opportunity to catch up with old class mates, tutors, and colleagues, and make new contacts along the way. The presentations and presenters were world-class and cutting edge. Evidence-base and research driven was emphasised, but balanced well with a nod to our empirical roots, getting our hands in the dirt with the plants, and the importance of the heart-centred therapeutic relationship.

The theme of the conference this year was ‘Sustainability in Herbal Medicine’, which seemed to be the theme for March, as I had previously been made aware of a Kickstarter project by Ann Armbrecht (from Numen film fame – a post on that to come) for a new doco on sustainability in Herbal Medicine. The irony was that both were coming from opposite ends of the sustainability spectrum. While Ann is focussing on where our herbal medicines are coming from – are they sustainably grown or wildcrafted?, and although there were a couple of presentations on the former aspect of sustainability in Herbal Medicine, the NHAA conference focussed more on the sustainability of the profession of Herbal Medicine itself.

And I have to concur. In this age of the self-appointed health guru (read ‘coach’), where the internet is primary health adviser number one, and with a close runner up being those sensationalist columns in women’s glossies, Dr Oz, and health food shop marketing, are actual clinical visits to the medical herbalists and naturopaths becoming obsolete? Have we who have spent the better part of a decade burning the midnight oil to amass a diverse knowledge base spanning the biomedical sciences, the art of diagnosis, and the art of counselling, the complexities of phytochemistry, pharmacology and pharmacognosy, the intimacy of medical botany and it’s therapeutic application, the endless hours of learning to critique and then wade through the equally endless research papers, and then the practical application of it all in hundreds of hours of student clinic, in order to earn our degrees and our place as legitimate and truly holistic healthcare providers – have we done this in vain? Only to be trampled by the new fad ‘one size fits all’ cure-all health guru? The recent (and tragic) death, and ‘outing’ of some high-profile ‘wellness gurus’ in Australia has highlighted the contrast. As an interesting side note: as a trained wellness coach, giving actual medical or even health advice is not part of the coaching model. The goal of wellness coaching is simply to help people achieve their wellness goals, and to refer to a trained professional if there is a specific health concern.

So having ranted about that, back to the conference. In regard to the sustainability of the profession we are encouraged to contribute more to conducting our own clinical research (as a body of clinicians) building our own body of evidence-base research, and therefore taking ownership of our own herbal medicine (can anyone say ‘medical herbalists for the use of medical cannabis’? – sorry, another issue which may warrant a post sometime in the future).

Interspersed with this was new clinically practical information on the human microbiome (which i referred to in my previous post), the alarming incidence of gluten intolerance and it’s progression to auto-immune disorders, and the amounting evidence for the environmental toxin factor in the development of most degenerative diseases, as well as working with cancer patients, and managing other clinical presentations and measuring outcomes.  There was a LOT to take in, some of it not necessarily new to us (but new to science-backed evidence), but it was wonderful.

Perhaps my highlight was getting back to our roots and interacting with the actual plants – tasting, smelling, feeling, observing – the art of organolepsis. The difference in organic/biodynamically grown and conventional/commercially grown was clearly palpable.

There is a science and an art to this wondrous calling, and the NHAA managed to honour both seamlessly with this conference.

I realise that this post may seem a bit foreign to the lay person. I am not sorry. This practice that I find myself embraced by requires passion and compassion – for both plants and people. It is obsessive and demanding, yet utterly rewarding. So if nothing else, know this, we are a strange, us plant folk, but we are in love with what we do.