Who needs herbs?
We have drugs for most problems in most species; humans, dogs, horses, cats and livestock. We know the entire human genetic structure, we understand bacteria and viruses and we no longer believe in magic potions.
What possible use could there be for herbs in the modern world?
This is a question that strikes a lot of us when confronted, time and time again, with ‘herbs’ and ‘natural medicine’ in the media. As a vet working in practice, seeing large and small animals, I used to think this as well. But I’ve been studying herbs for years now and I’d like to tell you a bit about what I’ve discovered.
Herbs were on the planet before us. If you think about it, when we were mudskippers just venturing out of the primitive oceans what else would we eat? Terrestrial plants provided food, but they also provided essential chemicals we needed for health – vitamins, antioxidants and minerals, for example. But plants provide so much more as well.
Together early Life and plants grew and evolved together over millennia. Animals, as they evolved dispensed with making some metabolites in their own body if they were abundant in the diet; no point making vitamin A, B, C, D, E, if you ate them day after day, year after year, generation after generation.
Similarly, our ancestors dispensed or failed to develop a million other molecules because they were found in plants or herbivores in their diet. Many of these molecules are now called medicinal because we need them, especially when we’re sick. We save our metabolism time and energy by going out and foraging for those essential medicinal plants ourselves. What is a medicine? Its just something that you need in sickness that you may not need in health, after all.
This is how it continued with primitive man, right up until the Industrial Revolution era in the West when chemical processes were discovered. From this time until the discovery of Penicillin before the Second World War chemical medicines began to be regarded as being superior to herbals.
Penicillin spelt the turning point for the young pharmaceutical industry. It’s growth from then was exponential. We see the pharma giants we have today; Ciba Geigy, Fort Dodge, Monsanto. Chemicals and drugs ascended, so herbs descended in the use and their trusted position in the kitchen of every home. Out with the Witch Hazel tincture, in with the TCP.
In the modern day we have many many benefits from pharmaceuticals, but also problems. Holes are appearing in the drug armoury. Antibiotics are causing multiple resistant strains of bacteria to thrive in our livestock, our pets and in us in hospital. Anthelmintics are universally prone to promoting resistant parasite species. Our homes are becoming more and more sanitary leading, some think, to increased allergic (asthma and eczema) problems in our children and perhaps our pets.
We have no drugs to specifically and safely boost immunity, fight infection, nurture and support organs (liver, kidneys and heart, for example) and treat chronic disease such as shingles, diabetes and atherosclerosis. Here, herbs can help.
Herbs do contain myriad chemicals. These can be isolated to make new drugs; Permethrins, derived from Crysanthemum, used in insecticides; Periwinkle, or Vinca, used to make the potent chemotherapy agent Vincristine or the toxic drug atropine derived from Atropa belladonna, Deadly Nightshade.
In the natural state, however, most herbs are non toxic, unlike some drug derivatives. Medicinal plants contain tempering, balancing and complementary chemical families that moderate toxicity and can even enhance therapeutic effects.
A century ago all vets were making up herbal pills and unctions for their patients. This practice died as drugs took over; not because it drugs were better necessarily, but because they were easily manufactured, controlled and immediate effects were easy to measure. We can now see, though, that drugs do not us all the health answers.
Modern veterinary herbal medicine is in its infancy in the UK. We’re just beginning to find our feet again. The newly formed British Association of Veterinary Herbalists (www.herbalvets.org.uk) is testament to this.
Drugs are incredibly helpful. Equally, there are problems with taking a wholly pharmaceutical approach to animal health, be it livestock, equine or small animal.
For example, in my practice I am commonly faced with problems such as animals with long standing sinus infections; horses, dogs and cats that have been on many courses of antibiotics by the time they come to see me. We use astringent herbs like Barberry to dry the nasal cavities, we use adaptogenic herbs like Siberian ginseng root to build strength and immunity and we use immune stimulant herbs such as Golden Rod root, Astragalus root and Echinacea root to great effect.
Liver disease or raised liver enzymes is a problem for medicine in many species. The classic herb here is Milk Thistle seed or Dandelion root, both bitters, cooling and promoting digestion. But we can also think of Withania (Ashwaganda – ‘Strengh of a Horse’), Globe Artichoke, Chamomile or Burdock
Another realm where conventional medicines are less strong is immune stimulation. Here, herbs rule! In a single breath, one can talk of the incredible power of of Echinacea, Cats Claw, Frankincense, Elderflower and Siberian Ginseng to name but a few.
If a majority of disease can benefit from immune stimulation and drug therapy cannot deliver this effectively, it amazes me that we’re not all rushing out daily to use herbs as preventatives.
Prevention is not only better than cure, as we all know it’s more cost effective for your pocket and your health.
Article on Verm-X:
Verm-X is herbal mix blended to control internal parasites in horses, livestock, dogs, cats, chickens and more. It was originally formulated by a qualified herbalist in 2002 to offer people who wanted to avoid chemicals an alternative option on parasite control.
It was made up of a dozen or so simple, non-toxic herbs including garlic, chilli, slippery elm, thyme and fennel in proportions and quantities to have maximal useful effect while minimising the chance of adverse reactions.
Garlic is long hailed as a vermifuge, but it is also antimicrobial, tissue healer and liver protectant. Chilli, or Capsicum minimum, has obvious stimulatory effects on gut and body circulation and is a renowned digestive tonic. Slippery Elm is the core bark of the Ulmus rubra tree. It is powdered and used as a prebiotic and nutritive to the gut and body. It has healing and soothing actions in the gut as anyone who’s tried it will testify. Thyme is an aromatic herb we tend to associate with cooking lamb. Roman soldiers used Thyme baths for courage. Modern herbalists recognise its’ antifungal, antispasmodic and vermifuge qualities. Fennel is similar, and its’ soothing effect on the gut is well known throughout history.
I love using herbal medicines for worm control as they do so much more than just what it says ‘on the tin’. A combination of herbs will soothe the gut, enhance gut health and promote good digestion as well as parasite control!
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Dr. Nick Thompson
BSc (Vet Sci) Hons, BVM&S, VetMFHom, MRCVS.
Tel: 01225 487778
Fax: 07092 233930