In this second blog in my series, we’re looking at how herbal medicine can treat different kinds of infection. As antibiotics become less and less effective, we’ re starting to look again at how we see infections and ways of treating them. In mainstream medicine, the focus is more on the pathogen or bug itself, and which medicine might be able to kill it. There are different antibiotics for different strains of bacteria, and many strains still don’t have an antibiotic for them! In herbal medicine we concentrate more on the person, how an infection has been able to take hold, and how it’s affecting them (or likely to affect them). Even Louis Pasteur agreed in the end that it was the terrain of the body that was more important than the bug itself. That said, science is giving us new insights into both herbal medicine and essential oils all the time, and occasionally we find that a herb or oil is active against a specific pathogen. These invariably get added into the mix, but are rarely used in isolation as a mainstream drug would be.
Although I’m talking about herbs here, we should remember that high doses of nutrients like Vitamin C can be lifesaving in certain cases. In some parts of the world, upto 60g Vitamin C at a time can be given intravenously, with amazing results. Chinese TCM hospitals also give Garlic juice intravenously for patients with difficult infections, including MRSA. Unfortunately, despite being cheap and effective, these are not currently available in the UK.
How Herbal Medicine Works For Fever
The ideal scenario when we get an infection is that our bodies mount a healthy immune response, which kills off the virus, bacterium or fungi which caused it. Very often we’d expect to see a fever as part of this response, and although we’ve been taught to be frightened of fever, they’re very rarely dangerous. In fact, fever is your friend if you have an infection. The pathogen which caused it can only thrive if your body stays within a certain temperature range, so your body raises its temperature to kill it off quickly. Hippocrates said “Give me a fever, and I will cure any illness” and we know that it’s a very important part of the infection process. Suppressing a fever was thought to increase the risk of organ damage and chronic health problems, so Herbalists knew both how to induce a fever if it wasn’t happening, and to manage it safely. I’ve done both myself when my family have been ill, and whilst it’s quite intense and nerve wracking the first few times, the speed of recovery I’ve seen following a good fever has been remarkable. Alterative herbs are used to alter the course of an illness, and a prime example during infection is Echinacea as in my experience it can induce a fever very quickly when needed. During the chill stage of fever, when the person feels cold, we can use warming spices in food, drink and footbaths to introduce some heat. During the heat stage, we can use diaphoretic herbs to bring on a sweat and safely reduce the temperature if we need to. Good examples are Elderflower, Yarrow, Boneset, Limeflower and Lemon Balm. Cooling herbs like Peppermint, and bitter tasting herbs are also useful.
Getting Herbs To The Site Of Infection
As well as giving herbs to help a person mount a healthy immune response, we can add in some to help them cope with the stress of a nasty infection, and others to help kill off the infection at the site. For example, abnormal smear tests are often found as a result of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection, leading the cervical cells to become pre-cancerous. This is a chronic infection which doesn’t necessarily require a fever in the same way an acute one would, but we still give medicine to help the person cope, and pessaries to help kill the infection directly. Suppositories are sometimes used for prostate infections too.
In the context of respiratory infections like the ones we see every winter, again, we can treat the whole person with an internal mix of herbs, and target the chest itself at the same time. Luckily there are a number of ways to get herbs directly to the lungs, including steam or smoke inhalations, chest plasters, and rubs. Throat and nasal sprays can be used for upper respiratory problems as well.
How Herbalists Work With Infections
As people become more aware of the power of herbs in treating infection, Herbalists are increasingly being asked to treat them. Whilst it’s very rewarding to help someone navigate an infection with herbs, at the same time it can be challenging. That’s because things can change very quickly, and we need different herbs at different stages. Ideally we need to be constantly at the person’s bedside, but the way we work nowadays means that it’s quite difficult to do that. Severe infections can go on for days or weeks and it wouldn’t be practical for a lone Herbalist to stay with one patient for that long, especially when we don’t have our dispensary to hand either. It would be wonderful to have herbal hospitals like they do in Asia, where Medical Herbalists work as mainstream Doctors do. It may just happen one day, but in the meantime, make sure you know how to access urgent help from your Medical Herbalist if you ever need it.
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