What is a herbalist?
Herbs: ancient, mysterious and powerful. In this article, we meet one of our expert herbalists and get an insight into one of the oldest professions on earth.
Sensory enjoyment is at the heart of everything we do at Twinings and flavour is paramount but there is so much more to the humble cup of tea.
Our Master Blenders work hand-in-hand with herbalists to create blends that refresh revitalise calm support immunity and digestion and more. But what is a herbalist? Pamela Spence Twinings Herbal Expert (Medical Herbalist BSc MNIMH) explains.
What is a herbalist?
Pamela: A herbalist refers to a person who supports people with their health using remedies made from plants. In the UK (where I trained and now work) we differentiate herbalists by their training since it is not a protected title. I am a medical herbalist – meaning I have undergone training in the medical sciences at university level and have had at least 500 hours of clinical training.
As a medical herbalist I am qualified to see patients in my clinic diagnose and treat their illnesses in conjunction with pharmaceutical medicines. Herbalism is probably the only profession where its practitioners are able to work with plants from the very beginning – we can grow them ourselves harvest them from the wild make medicinal preparations from them and see the results in our patients. It’s a thoroughly satisfying job.
I joined the New Product Development (NPD) team at Twinings in 2016 to explore the possibilities of functional herbal blends. After the success of the first Superblends range I was invited to sit on the expert panel and contribute to blend development across the company looking at initial concepts formulations and sometimes naming or copy. I also helped to create and deliver an in-house training programme to upskill Twinings teams about herbs and herbal medicine.
Is it an old profession?
Pamela: For as long as there have been humans there have been herbalists. We know this because evidence of herbal practice has been uncovered on archeological digs around the world. There’s a rich tradition of herbal medicine in First Nations people and written accounts exist right through the Ancient world including Babylon Mesopotamia Egypt Greece Rome India China… the list goes on.
How is herbalism different from say naturopathy?
Pamela: A naturopath will tend to work with several different modalities. For example they may practice a bit of massage acupuncture nutritional therapy and herbal medicine. Medical herbalists are experts in herbs – that’s always the core of our treatment regardless of whether we employ other modalities too. We do however study nutrition and lifestyle advice as part of our training and many of us have studied massage and aromatherapy too.
What role do herbs play in our lives?
Pamela: I simply can’t imagine a life without them! They add aroma and flavour to our meals and make them more digestible. Herbs were even once used to preserve food. More than that though they help support bodily functions like digestion the nervous system the cardiovascular system – you name it there’s a herb to support it.
Rather than targeting specific pathologies as pharmaceuticals are designed to do herbs are tonic medicines. This means they provide broader support to strengthen the body and its functions. However it’s important to understand that they are still medicines – they need to be taken with care. If you have any underlying health conditions or take pharmaceutical medicines it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider.
For as long as there have been humans there have been herbalists.
What are some of the main herbal traditions that are still being used around the world?
Pamela: Some of the key ancient traditions are still in use today and those include:
Ayurveda – which is traditional Indian herbal medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
Tibetan herbal medicine
Unani Tibb from the Middle East and
The Western or Four Elements tradition
The Four Elements (also known as the Four Humours) tradition largely died out but some exciting work is being done at the moment (mainly in the US) to bring it back to life. This tradition has its roots in Ancient Greece and formed the cornerstone of what we know today as modern medicine.
While each tradition describes the body and its ailments in different ways (which we may know today to be inaccurate) the herbs used in that tradition can still bring huge health benefits.
Picture this: you’re stranded on a desert island and you only have access to one herb. Which herb is it?
Pamela: I get asked this a lot and my answer has remained steadfast for many years – camomile*. Now it’s not my favourite cup of tea (although I do enjoy it with other herbs blended with it) but it is in my opinion the single most useful herb there is.
Camomile is calming it helps you sleep it supports your digestion it soothes skin conditions it has an antihistamine component for allergies. You can drink it bathe in it use it as a wash use the essential oil – the list is seriously endless!
* In herbalism there are two very distinct forms of the camomile plant: Roman camomile and German camomile. I’m specifically referring to German camomile here.
About Pamela Spence
Pamela has been fascinated by herbs since growing up surrounded by the fragrant wet markets of Singapore as a teenager.
After a hectic career in film and television Pamela left to study herbal medicine in 2002 and has been running a successful clinical practice in Scotland writing and teaching about herbs ever since. Pamela is often spotted giving expert commentary in the media including in her own BBC online series and inHello Women & Home and The Financial Times magazines.
Pamela has been the Twinings herbal expert since 2016 helping create herbal blends for Australia UK and the USA.