Euan MacLennan, NHS Medical Herbalist and Pukka Herbal and Sustainability Director, talks about the human health crisis and why systemic change is needed
We are facing a human health crisis. You don’t have to look far to see that modern lifestyles are affecting our health
According to the NHS, one in three people suffer from poor sleep, and a 2018 study showed that even before the Covid-19 pandemic, 74% of people in the UK had moments where they felt so stressed they were overwhelmed or unable to cope.
The events of 2020 made an already critical situation worse, with eight in 10 people in the UK experiencing stress during the year.
Stress and lack of sleep put us more at more risk of serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes – which is putting pressure on our already strained healthcare systems.
Pharmaceutical drugs are often prescribed to treat patients with these issues, but these tend to treat the symptoms, not the root cause.
Antibiotics, which have long been one of the best defences to fight infection, are starting to become resistant. Overuse and misuse are making them less effective, which is recognised by the WHO as one of the biggest global threats to human health.
Urgent change is needed and preventative healthcare is one of the best ways we can make it happen.
A large and growing body of research shows us that many illnesses and diseases can be avoided, prevented or reduced with good diet, sleep, exercise and herbs.
Can you imagine going to the doctor and being given a prescription for a herbal remedy instead of a pharmaceutical drug? Depending what country you live in, that may sound far-fetched, or it may sound completely normal.
In Germany, doctors often prescribe herbs to patients, and in China and Japan, traditional herbal medicines are often fully integrated with conventional medicine practice.
But in the UK and many other countries, there is very limited understanding amongst the general medical profession of how herbs can be used for a wide range of health issues.
If you zoom out on the timeline of human history, you can see we became lost somewhere along the way. For thousands of years, people have relied on nature’s ancient herbal wisdom to support healthy living, from improving digestion to better sleep.
Modern medicine is a marvel, but today herbs are being overlooked as an effective form of healthcare.
The research team at Pukka recently ran a clinical trial in the UK, to test whether our Andrographis supplements could be used as an alternative to antibiotics to treat respiratory infections.
GPs in 20 surgeries across the south of England took part in a randomised placebo-controlled feasibility study.
The verdict? GPs across 16 busy practices were happy to prescribe the herbal remedy over antibiotics, and patients were happy to take it. Given that I work in an NHS surgery every Friday, I can attest to the importance of this result.
Although a small study, it could be the start of a huge step forward in the fight against antibiotic resistance, which is one of the biggest threats to global health today.
Indeed, our research team currently have more than 60 studies running in partnership with leading universities to understand more about the efficacy of herbs in a wide range of contexts from women’s health to brain function, which is contributing to the growing body of herbal evidence worldwide.
We’re making progress, but the systemic barriers we face as we do this are enormous. The strict regulations around health claims mean we are not allowed to tell people how herbs can help them, even though humans have been using the same plants for thousands of years and many modern medicines have evolved from natural remedies.
Really, herbs represent the bridge between food and medicine. They are natural sources of concentrated plant compounds that we know can be critical in supporting health, a fact not lost on many cultures with more integrated health systems.
But Europe and the UK are stuck in a quagmire of layered regulations and poor understanding which stops us sharing such valuable wisdom. If we want to fix this, there are several things that need to happen.
Firstly, we need better regulation of the herbal medicine industry, to bring much needed consistency over strength and efficacy, so that we can start to remove poor-quality (and sometimes dangerous) products from the market.
Secondly, we need a review of medical training, which does not presently reflect the latest research into the benefits of preventative healthcare.
Even though 80% of patients in the UK already take herbal medicines, doctors don’t have the knowledge or permission to recommend them.
It’s amazing to see a growing movement of GPs starting to adopt more alternative treatments but it could be much more widespread.
And most of all, we need to recognise that this is all part of a wider systemic challenge of trying to keep people healthy on a planet that we are making sick with pollution and environmental degradation.
Looking after our planet is a huge part of looking after our health, which is why everything we do is with utmost care for the planet. We can see that everything is interconnected. The whole sector needs an overhaul.
We aim to be at the front of the fight, raising our voice around these challenges. Because health is in crisis – both human and planetary – and systemic change is our only option.