One of the main reasons for seeking herbal therapy or other alternatives to conventional medicine, is the belief that it will promote healthier living. Dr Caren Hauptfleisch, chairperson of the SA Association of Registered Phytotherapists (SAARP), who has more than 30 years of herbal medicine experience, says the steady increase in the use of herbs can be seen throughout the world.
Herbal medicines are often viewed as a balanced and moderate approach to healing. With the many side-effects of modern medicines and growing antibiotic resistance, people the world over see herbal medicine as a safe way to stay healthy and to treat and prevent illness, says Hauptfleisch.
“The introduction of modern healthcare as we know it has led to the disappearance and displacement of many indigenous health practices, however scientists worldwide are now looking to plants and herbs to formulate new phytotherapeutic agents (plant-based treatments) to prevent and treat disease.
“South Africa, and in particular the Western Cape’s floristic region, is home to a wide variety of indigenous medicinal plants that have been used safely and effectively since time immemorial. Science and clinical use are confirming their medicinal value.”
Get to know Mzansi’s herbal treasures
Hauptfleisch highlights the benefits of some of our local herbs and how they can be used to maintain health. These herbs include rooibos, honeybush, buchu, aloe ferox and devil’s claw, among others.
Rooibos (Aspalanthus linearis):
Rooibos is a herb of great significance in Mzansi. It is rich in antioxidants, also referred to as polyphenols, which are compounds that allow plants to resist infections and insect infestations. According to Hauptfleisch, drinking it regularly may help to:
- Enhance immunity.
- Reduce the incidence of cancer due to its cytoprotective effect.
- Regulate blood glucose.
- Protect the heart from degenerative damage.
- Slow the ageing process, since it is able to reduce oxidative stress, and in turn reduce free radical damage.
- Prevent certain skin cancers.
When used topically, its anti-inflammatory properties can soothe skin irritations, such as eczema and dermatitis. “Rooibos is a good daily supplement to improve overall health in combination with a healthy lifestyle.”
Devil’s claw (Harpagophytum procumbens):
Haupfleisch notes that herbal medicine should only be used if it is able to be sustainably grown. Human use and trade in a plant should never threaten its existence in the wild.
Devil’s claw is also used in an ointment to treat various skin problems such as sores and boils.
Herbs used in the prevention or treatment of common ailments:
Herbs that are commonly used for the prevention and treatment of common winter ailments found in the Cape and various parts of Africa, include:
- Wildeals/Umhlonyane: Prevents and treats various respiratory infections.
- Kankerbossie/Cancer bush: Helps the body to ward off infections and ill health, when used regularly. It also eases symptoms related to colds and flu.
- Wild olive: Prevents infections, including viral infections of the respiratory system.
- Pelargonium sidoides and other pelargoniums, Tulbaghia violacea (wildeknoffel): Treats the common cold and associated symptoms of wet cough and soothes inflamed respiratory tissues, including a sore throat.
- Sage: Targets viral respiratory infections and eases a sore throat.
- Helichrysum species helps treat coughs.
- Mint: Eases pulmonary infections, headaches, fever and colds, when used in combination with other herbs like Artemisia afra (wildeals), Saliva species and Olea europeaea.
- Sand olive: Traditionally used for treatment of colds and associated sore throat, influenza and measles.
Making the right choices
Hauptfleisch says when using herbal medicine, it’s important to use the right plant for the associated ailment and in the correct dosage. If in doubt, it’s best to ask a professional before trying it at home.
“Like our food, our bodies are designed to respond to herbal medicines. Many of our modern medicines were first isolated from plants. e.g. Aspirin from Salix alba (White willow bark); antimitotic chemotherapy drugs from the alkaloids of Catharanthus roseus; Quinine from the Cinchona officinalis tree and many others.
“The adage: ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, sums up the approach in herbal medicine. We rely on whole plant extracts to work within the body safely and efficaciously to both prevent and treat illness. An example is the antimicrobial action of Artemisia afra. The herb interferes with the cellular replication of the pathogen (e.g. bacteria) by breaking down its cell walls and enhancing the body’s innate immune response to keep the pathogens in check and restore or maintain good health.”
She says herbal medicines contain a mixture of different phytochemicals that act in combination with body cells, tissues and chemicals to enhance health. It can either work quickly or at a steadier pace over time depending on what is being treated.
“Treatment should be started at the first sign of disease to achieve the best results or preventatively as part of your daily health regimen.”