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Are You a Nettle's Friend?

by Stephen Gascoigne

France, and the French, have attracted a lot of criticism in recent times. Remember the comment by George W Bush that they don't have a word for entrepreneur? There was also the accusation that they were 'cheese-eating surrender monkeys', whatever they happen to be! Such comments were seen, in Europe at least, as the product of overzealous Americans who didn't understand the complexities of European politics and history. As a committed Francophile, I could ignore these words and rest in the conviction that France is God's country, a place of great beauty, with an elegant, aristocratic language and wonderful food.

However, in recent times, the land of liberty, fraternity and equality seems to have taken complete leave of its senses. Eric Petoit, an organic grower, co-authored a book on organic composts using nettles, comfrey and dandelion. He has fallen foul of a law passed in January of this year which forbids anyone communicating, teaching or advising about non-approved products. M. Petiot has been told not to take his students into the fields to pick nettles and has been threatened with a 75,000 euro fine and 2 years in prison. A petition has been started to overturn the legislation entitled Les Amis de L'Ortie (The Friends of the Nettle).

What are non-approved products? They are products which have been evaluated for their 'risks and benefits' and have received a certificate from the Food Safety Agency in France. The cost of such certification is prohibitively expensive so that small producers, who are creating products used in agriculture for centuries, cannot afford to pay. Hence the visit by inspectors to M. Petoit.

Lest we think that this is merely a classical case of French bureaucracy gone mad (anyone who knows France will know that the French are particularly adept at state intervention and control), holistic therapists need to be on their guard wherever they live. Over the past few years, we have seen a steady removal of products used in herbalism by governments and medicines control agencies. In Ireland, for example, it is illegal to supply or sell herbs such as gingko biloba, St. John's wort and comfrey. In the UK, you cannot obtain aconite (Fu Zi) for internal use or shells and minerals used for centuries in Chinese herbal medicine.

It has always been clear to me that herbalism is vulnerable to control and restriction of the herbs themselves. Over many decades in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Medical Association have harried cancer clinics offering non-conventional treatments. In the 1970's, they even went to the extreme of banning Vitamin B17, amygdalin, which is used as a supplement in some alternative anti-cancer treatments. This is made from apricot kernels so patients began to store them up themselves, grind them and take as part of their treatment. The FDA stopped and impounded lorries of apricot kernels at state borders in an attempt to prevent patients gaining access to them. Eventually, the FDA gave up because people were going to Mexico to receive the treatments directly and because you cannot stop people taking something so routinely available as apricot kernels.

Herbs belong to the people and you cannot ban people growing them in the their gardens or taking them for medicinal purposes. You can make it difficult, for sure, and certainly restrictions on herbs will make life tricky for herbalists but you cannot stop it.

This underlines the importance of educating people about herbs and their uses. Governments are always reactive rather than proactive. When hundreds of supplements were removed from sale in Germany, a public outcry reinstated them. Whilst holistic medicine, in some ways, is still in its early stages of development there are huge numbers of treatments given each year. Many people benefit from its application and the power of their support should not be underestimated. As professionals we have a duty to apply our treatments competently whenever and wherever we can whilst educating people about their benefits.

In the West, at least, there is often a severe lack of understanding about the benefits of holistic medicine in general and herbal medicine in particular. A friend of mine recently told me about a professor of physics who, on learning that she used herbs, said, "Why? What is the point?". He was incredulous that anyone would use such an archaic and clearly unnecessary form of treatment. Whilst such views are at the extreme edge of opinion, they often inform official behaviour towards our treatments.

There is a hope within the profession that some type of statutory regulation which defines and protects the term, 'herbalist' will lead to the reintroduction of such herbs by these newly defined and regulated practitioners. In Denmark, for example, there is a positive list of herbs which can be prescribed by herbalists and a similar system is being discussed in New Zealand. Herbalists in New Zealand are very concerned that herbs not on the list will be forbidden whilst those on the list will have to go through an expensive system of certification (shades of the French situation here). In the UK, there is a debate about a 'positive list' of herbs also.

Such positive lists, at first sight, may seem reasonable particularly when the stated objective is public safety. Any objection to such a list will be open to accusations of lack of care about safety. Although there may not be a 'negative' list, you can see how a situation will arise where herbs will be considered to be unsafe or unnecessary simply by virtue of them not appearing on the positive list.

Such pressures on herbal medicine can engender reactions of either outrage or resignation. Neither is helpful and I think that we must focus on the benefits of herbs. When I trained in herbal medicine after initially practising acupuncture for 10 years or so, I found that my practice was transformed. I understood Chinese medicine more deeply, courses of treatment became quicker and smoother and more serious conditions could be treated. Whenever I teach students, I always encourage them to follow their acupuncture training with a herbal training although increasingly courses offer both.

We need to educate people in the simple, first-aid use of herbs. Homoeopaths frequently run 'first-aid' courses in how to use homoeopathic remedies for acute illnesses. This gives people resources to help manage their own health in cases of acute, self-limiting illness. We can do the same with herbs.

Chinese herbal patents provide an excellent opportunity for people to access herbal medicine. They are ready-made products which people can easily and simply use. Acupuncturists frequently use them in their practice to supplement the treatments. When statutory regulation occurs in the UK, it is likely that acupuncturists will not be allowed to prescribe patents unless they have done a full herbal training. As a profession, we really need to think about how we can encourage the greatest number of people to have access to our treatments. In the UK, The Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine specifically prohibits its members from teaching the general public in the use of herbs. Restricting ourselves in these ways plays directly into the hands of those who wish to control and limit us.

Certainly, we need to put our own house in order. There are issues about the supply of herbs and contamination. The production of herbal remedies, particularly from mainland China, which can be contaminated with toxins or with the addition of unnamed pharmaceuticals is nothing short of outrageous in its disregard for safety and the law.

In Chinese herbal medicine, we need to address issues of dosages. The use of herbs in the West needs to be very different because people's constitutions are different. I trained in herbs with a 3rd generation practitioner from Vietnam and he was very keen to teach us in the use of relatively low dosages of herbs. This is primarily because the constitution of most patients in the West is weaker than the East. Disease tends to be chronic, deeper and more entrenched. The deaths which have occurred in the UK, for example, from liver reactions to herbs may well be a result of inappropriate dosages.

So, how can we all be 'Friends of the Nettle'? We can:

educate people in the use of herbs for simple, acute, self-limiting illness
allow and encourage acupuncturists to use Chinese herbal patents
offer courses for acupuncturists to develop their knowledge of herbal medicine
support our colleagues who use herbal medicine
lobby for the reintroduction of herbs which are known to be safe and effective
assure ourselves that herbal medicine is safe, cheap and effective
be well-trained and well-supported


Stephen Gascoigne qualified in medicine in 1976 in Liverpool, UK and worked for 6 years in hospital and general practice. Stephen trained in acupuncture in China and subsequently in Chinese herbal medicine in London with the esteemed Vietnamese practitioner, Tinh Thong Nguyen. Stephen is the author of The Chinese Way to Health (Connections, 2000), an introduction to Chinese medicine and its methods for the general public and two textbooks for students and practitioners of holistic medicine - The Clinical Medicine Guide (Jigme Press, 2001) and The Prescribed Drug Guide (Jigme Press, 2003).

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