Herbal medicine (or ‘herbalism’) uses plants or plant extracts to treat, prevent or cure illness, and promote good health. Like most other complementary therapies, herbal medicine takes a holistic approach - it aims to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms, and to encourage the body to heal itself.
All parts of the plant are used - roots, leaves, stems and seeds – as herbal practitioners believe the whole herb has a wider healing potential than the single active agent used by the pharmaceutical industry in traditional medicine.
Many well-established, conventional medicines come from plants. For example, morphine comes from poppies, aspirin from willow bark, and digoxin (a treatment for an irregular heart beat) from foxgloves.
Herbal remedies are available as drinks, tablets, capsules, ointments and creams, and are on sale in health food shops, pharmacies and even supermarkets. But they must be approached with caution. They have side effects and regulatory procedures differ from country to country so it is not always clear what the remedy contains, in what concentration, or whether it was manufactured properly. As a result, the safety of herbal medicines is often questioned.
Even established remedies that have been shown to be helpful for certain problems, may not be safe for you, for example if you are taking other medicines. In particular, herbal remedies should not be taken of you have angina, high blood pressure or glaucoma. Herbal treatment should therefore only be taken under supervision from a trained herbalist or doctor.
There is limited scientific evidence on the effects of herbal medicine. Some remedies have been clinically tested in the general population and have been found to be beneficial. For example garlic can reduce blood cholesterol levels and potentially lower the risk of heart disease, ginkgo biloba may improve mental performance in Alzheimer's disease and St John's Wort can be used to treat mild to moderate depression but St John’s Wort can interfere with Parkinson’s medications so you should always ask your doctor before taking this remedy. However, the evidence for most herbal medicines is conflicting and further studies are needed.
How can it help in Parkinson's?
The effects of herbal medicine in Parkinson’s are largely untested with the exception of preliminary studies into Ayurveda - an ancient Indian healing system that combines a variety of interventions including herbal remedies.
Mucuna plants, which are used in Ayurveda herbal treatments, are known to contain levodopa - a key Parkinson’s medication that increases dopamine levels in the brain and therefor improves the motor symptoms of the condition. Several studies into mucuna plants and Parkinson’s have had positive results and some have even suggested that the plant might have advantages over conventional levodopa preparations in the long term management of Parkinson’s. However, a rigorous clinical study into this is needed.
A qualified herbal practitioner will be able to advise on other remedies, for example nervine herbs to reduce tremors, or vascular dilators to relax rigid muscles. Some herbs may help with skin conditions.
But remember that natural does not mean harmless, and some herbal treatments can have serious side effects and interfere with Parkinson’s medications. Always talk with your doctor before taking any herbal medicines.
What should I expect at an appointment?
Herbal medicine is not regulated in many countries. It is therefore a good idea to ask your doctor or other healthcare professional for recommendations. Friends, family, other people with Parkinson’s or your national Parkinson’s association may also be able to advise based on personal experience.
It is advisable to see a therapist who has experience of Parkinson’s so do ask about their experience of the condition as well as their qualifications.
The first consultation with a herbal therapist will probably last at least an hour, during which he or she will ask detailed questions about general health, medical and family history, lifestyle and emotional state.
As the approach is holistic, treatment often includes advice on diet and lifestyle as well as herbal remedies. The medicines prescribed may well be made up of a variety of herbs, and will be tailored to individual needs. They can come in a wide range of formulations, including syrups, tinctures, lotions, creams, tablets, inhalations, gargles and washes.
The herbalist may make a follow-up appointment after two weeks, and then monthly, to monitor progress, but this depends on the condition being treated and the individual’s general state of health.