Medical Herbalist

The Medical Herbalist and The Trichologist

by Helen Moore BSc (Hons) MTTS MNIMH

At the Society’s inception I was a surfactant chemist.
I now work as a Medical Herbalist. Many would say a contradictory choice of careers. But I feel that my knowledge of chemistry, and particularly surfactants, is of value to both communities. To this end I have written material for the Society’s internet site and taught herbalists phytochemistry.
I am a member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. My discipline is European Herbal medicine, not Chinese and not homeopathy. I use plants which grow in our own countryside, with a few exotic exceptions, to treat my patients.
Many people’s knowledge of herbal medicine is limited, if not non-existent. The attitude is often of “How can dandelion leaves possibly be regarded as medicine and do any good?”, that herbs are all nice safe things that you can’t do any harm with. Well, let me just say that we are allowed to prescribe Deadly Nightshade, Henbane, Lily of the Valley (with very similar properties to digitalis), and Aconite. It’s not all fluffy flowers and gentleness. Yes, herbs can work in a very gentle and steady way but where necessary they are also capable of treating acute problems extremely rapidly. More seriously we also have to take into account the interactions of herbs with orthodox medication. This is a common consideration as many patients come to us after trying the orthodox route and are still under a treatment regime.
The knowledge of trichology, and even its existence, is growing. I have done my bit pointing herbalists to the site when we get questions on our own internet discussion group. I have been heartened by the backing I have received from some quarters when herbalists attempt a “blunderbuss” attack on “chemical” shampoos or specific surfactants without any knowledge of their chemistry or the alternatives. An example is the insistence of some people on avoiding sodium lauryl sulphate due to carcinogenicity. This originates from old information about sodium lauryl ether sulphate in the days when the removal of excess ethylene oxide from the end product was shown to be a potential hazard to health. The limits allowed for EO in SLES is now very tightly controlled by the Cosmetics Regulations and SLS never contained and EO anyway and could therefore not be a source of concern.
What I would like to see is greater training and knowledge of trichological conditions amongst herbalists. It is a subject that is touched upon in our training on dermatology, but not enough. We do see trichological conditions in practice but we are then not sufficiently knowledgeable or equipped to be able to make a good diagnosis. Referral may be essential and the society is a good source for this.
Like so many areas of medicine there is room for help from both orthodox and complementary therapies. A notable feature of trichological problems is the psychological reaction the conditions. This can often be much greater than the observers’ concept of the scale of the problem. The social impact can be immense. As herbalists we would therefore feel that symptomatic or systemic treatment of a condition in itself would be greatly helped by support of the nervous system, especially since the nervous system may have been one of the causative factors in the condition to start with.
Every person has a weak point in their system which will act as the escape route in times of stress. For some this is the hair and scalp. For others this may be the hormonal balance of the body which can lead to changes in hair distribution and density. A remarkable number of patients seen by herbalists have hormonally related conditions, mostly menopausal, but also polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid dysfunction and a few other pathologies more rarely.
Thankfully we do have plants able to improve these conditions. Our approach is not just one of giving hormone balancing herbs but also of improving the overall way that the body excretes wastes, any excess of hormones and the balance of the hormonal axis.
Although many of the plants that we use are available over the counter this very much misses the point that a combined, multi-faceted approach is usually needed to achieve balance. Doses can often be far from ideal, either pitifully low or too high. Sadly the use of these products can often lead to disillusionment with potential clients as they perceive that “herbs don’t work” as a result. Even worse we come across clients who have had bad reactions to over the counter herbs sold to them by staff who’s knowledge of the herbs and their indications are limited and sometimes just plain wrong. It can be quite scary what some people are told in health food shops!
Without going into a long and somewhat confusing list of herbs that might be used for trichological conditions I would like, in conclusion, to ask the members to consider the use of a professional herbalist to augment the treatment of scalp conditions. We are a complementary therapy, not necessarily a total and complete alternative. As I stated earlier, there is room for help from both disciplines in the care of the patient.

© Helen Moore
Neal’s Yard Remedies, 28 Market Place, Salisbury SP1 1TL, Wiltshire – 01722 340 736