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What is Phytomedicine?

Phytomedicine is modern and science based herbal medicine at its very best.

Phytomedicine applies scientific research and the highest professional standards to the practice of herbal medicine. It takes its name from the word used in other parts of Europe, where plant based medicines continue to be provided by doctors and pharmacists as ‘phytomedicines’.

Qualified Phytotherapists use herbs from around the world, and choose the most effective herbs from the best quality sources.

Phytomedicine encourages and adapts to a recent worldwide growth in scientific information on plant drugs and their effective and safe use. The methods used to evaluate plant based medicines are similar to those used by orthodox medicine. Yet, a herb contains many active chemicals, unlike conventional drugs, which focus on specific chemicals. Hence botanical or herbal medicines may combine several actions to support the body’s health.

Botanical drugs are safe for most conditions. The increase in clinical trials in this area has helped to include these compounds in evidence-based practice. Section 12 (1) of the 1968 Medicines Act permits Phytotherapists to make and dispense herbal remedies to individual patients following a consultation.

Phytomedicine, also called Botanical/Plant Medicine, differs from Chinese Herbalism. Phytotherapists use medicinal plants, which grow mainly in the western hemisphere, and do not combine their therapy with acupuncture. The word ‘phyto’ derives from the Greek work plant; hence it means plant based medicine. Phytomedicine is rooted in scientific research and therefore not to be confused with homeopathy.

Pharmacognosy, lies at the heart of Phytomedicine and is defined as the ‘science of biogenic or nature-derived pharmaceuticals and poisons’, and has been an established basic pharmaceutical science that has been taught in institutions of pharmacy education for nearly two centuries. The School of Pharmacy and King’s College in London, together with pharmaceutical / medicinal research companies worldwide, are actively involved in this type of research.

The history of Phytomedicine

Phytomedicine is based on the oldest and most universal system of medicine. Every early civilisation used plants as their main source of medicine, and most of the world’s population still rely on them today. Around a quarter of all pharmaceutical drugs currently on the market derive from plants.

The history of pharmacy was for centuries identical with the history of Pharmacognosy, which dealt mainly with plants but also minerals, animals and fungi. European traditions have had a strong influence on modern pharmacy in the West.  The use of medicinal plants in Europe has been influenced by early European scholars and by the concept of lay people. One of the earliest European examples is the finding of a medicinal mushroom with the Austrian/Italian ‘iceman’ of the Alps of Oetztal in 3300BC, which turned out to have a strong antibiotic effect. The oldest written information in the European-Arabic traditions comes from the Sumerians and Akkadians of Mesopotamia. Greek history has been the focus of historical pharmaceutical research for many decades: the Greek scholar Pedanius Dioscorides is considered to the ‘father of Western Medicine’ and he described more than 600 medicinal plants. His works governed pharmaceutical and medical practice for more than 1500 years and have heavily influenced European pharmacy. Hippocrates had also great influence on European medical traditions. Many Greek transcripts survived only in Arab transcripts and in the Middle Ages, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote the ‘Canon of Medicine’ in 1020. The 5-volume book remained the most influential work in the field of medicine and pharmacy for than 500 years. Much of the medicinal plant knowledge was kept alive in European monasteries by monks and their medicinal plant gardens.  Monks used to treat patients with medicinal plants and used to teach herbal medicine. In 1617, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries was founded in London and opened its own medicinal plant garden, today known as the Chelsea Physics Garden. One of the most well known English apothecaries of the 17th century is Nicholas Culpepper. He is also known for his translation ‘A physical directory’ (from Latin to English) of the London Pharmacopoeia of 1618. In the 18th century, William Withering transformed the British herbalism knowledge into a form of medicine that was used by medical doctors. The next main shift in herbal medicine came, when it became clear in the early 19th century that pharmaceutical properties of plants are due to specific molecules that can be isolated and characterized. This led to the development of a field of research now called natural product chemistry i.e. Phytochemistry.

Chemical structures are an integral part of the study of Phytomedicine, which indicate a plant’s pharmaceutical properties. Pure chemical entities can be isolated and their structures elucidated. These then can be developed into medicines.

A few very well known examples are:

  • Anis seed, shikimic acid (Tamiflu, Gilead/Roche)
  • Taxus brevifolia is the active constituent of the anti-cancer drug Taxol (1971)
  • Benzylpenicillin (1928, London, UK)
  • Morphine from opium poppy (1923, Germany)
  • Qininine from cinchona bark (1820, France)
  • Salicin from willow bark, known as Aspirin (1838, France)
  • Atropine from belladonna (1833)
  • Caffeine from the coffee shrub (1821)
  • Coniine from hemlock (1826)
  • Emetine from ipecacuanha (1817)
  • Strychnine from Strychhnos (1817)

Botanical medicines, as made by phytotherapists, are derived from specific parts of a plant species such as:

  • Aerial parts
  • Leaf
  • Flower
  • Fruit
  • Bark
  • Root
  • Rhizome
  • Bulb

These crude plant material is extracted by the phytotherapist for their active constituents (phytochemicals) with various methods and these are based on European and national legislation. Phytotherapists mainly use alcohol to extract the plant’s active constituents from dry or fresh plant parts. Alcoholic extracts are prepared by maceration and/or percolation. Plant barks and root constituents are more successfully extracted with differing gradients of alcohol, depending on the particular plant. Decoction or infusions are often too weak to extract the active constituents of harder plant materials, and are used preferably in aerial plant parts only. Hence most phytomedicines are prescribed as alcoholic tinctures, which are usually taken twice a day. A typical phytomedical daily dose is 15ml of alcohol, a minute but very effective amount.

Depending on the patient’s condition or the plant chemistry, infusions, decoctions, tablets, capsules, pessaries, creams, gels, vinegars, ointments or poultices are made and prescribed by the phytotherapist for his/her patient.

Phytotherapists in the UK go through the rigorous clinical trainings in the University’s own walk-in Polyclinics and qualify with a 3 or 4 year Bachelor of Science Honours degree, whichc overs most medical and pharmacological modules. The examiner in the final degree viva-exam is a GP. All UK Phytotherapists have to be insured in order to practice. They also have to be members of one of the following organisations: CPP (College of Pracitioners of Phytomedicine) or the NIMH (National Institute of Medical Herbalists).

Claudia Louch believes in the integration of conventional medicine and Phytomedicine, which reflects in her day to day practice.

How does Phytomedicine work?

In Phytomedicine, plant medicines are selected to stimulate or strengthen the body’s own functions and immune system, hence support the body to restore itself to health. The phytotherapist approaches each patient as a unique individual in making a diagnosis and assessing his or her needs. Any herbal medicine prescribed may be a combination of plants chosen for the therapeutic actions required to treat that individual.

What happens in a Phytomedicine consultation?

During the first consultation, the practitioner assesses the person as a whole. A detailed medical history will be taken, such as lifestyle, diet and any other underlying causes, rather than focusing only on the symptoms or disease. If appropriate, you may be advised also to see a doctor or other qualified practitioner.

Investigations such as blood pressure readings, urine tests or other physical examination may be done. Further tests may be advised via an independent laboratory or a specialist consultant.

The findings will help make a diagnosis from which an individual management plan and course of treatment might be proposed. The practitioner will discuss this with you, along with any dietary and lifestyle changes.

In what form do I take the herbal medicine?

At the end of the consultation, a herbal prescription may be prepared by our own pharmacy. The medicine can be in the form of a tincture, tea, capsule, powder or tablet, and a lotion, ointment or cream for topical use.

Can herbs be taken alongside my doctor's prescription?

Practitioners are trained to work with doctors’ prescriptions, so your herbal medicines will be chosen to avoid interaction with any current medication. Follow-up appointments at regular intervals will be made to monitor your progress and adjust either your management plan or herbal prescription.

Is Phytomedcine suitable for children?

Herbal medicine is appropriate for babies and children as it is a gentle form of medicine that supports their developing body systems.