Fit to be tried: Herbal treatment

Amanda Phelan

SHE potters about in her small clinic, shaking bottles, smelling pungent powders and doling out herbs like a modern-day apothecary.

Christine McQuillan is confidently at home among over 100 bottles containing ingredients ranging from the mysterious-sounding cascara sagrada (a colon cleanser) to more well-known products such as cayenne pepper or ginger.

Ms McQuillan -- a small, dark-haired woman with a clinic in central Dublin -- is one of a growing number of therapists using herbal medicine to treat ailments ranging from acne to angina. She's also often asked to help with digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome or reflux.

The benefits of taking herbs are gaining recognition worldwide. A recent international study found herbal remedies may help in the treatment of endometriosis, a womb condition that often leads to severe pelvic pain for many women.

For centuries, the traditional Chinese herbal remedy for malaria was wormwood, or Artemisia annua. In 1972, Chinese scientists unravelled its anti-malarial secrets and showed it was in fact an effective treatment for the disease.

Ms McQuillan smiles at the spate of reports in medical journals hailing the herbal methods used overseas.

"I wish doctors would be a bit more open-minded about using herbs in Ireland," she says. "After all, most medicine originally comes from plants."

She enjoys her craft and studied for four years to get her master's diploma in herbalism and iridology from the School of Natural Medicine in Portlaoise. Iridology is the art of looking into your eyes, literally, to get a road map of your health.

In my case, her diagnosis is swift and clear -- low energy and high stress levels. My faith in her ability is put to the test as I swallow five milliletres of a pretty vile concoction, to be taken three times daily.

In addition, she advises a change in diet: "Eat whole foods, especially grains. Cut down on your red meat and dairy products."

My eye reading is unusual: "You're a polyglandular type. This means fluctuations in moods and energy levels, and an artistic temperament. I would only see two people with an iris like yours in a year, if that."

Great, so I'm a moody artist -- how's that going to help pay the bills? The assessment indicates, among other things, a large stomach. Ha, I knew I had space for all those Magnum ice creams.

I give it a go anyway, encouraged by reports of all those Ms McQuillan has helped.

Some say they've noticed a big improvement in their health by simple changes to their diet and the use of her herbal remedies.

James (64) says he was frightened for his wellbeing when he first went to the herbalist. The Dublin man had difficulty breathing, tingling in his hands and feet, tiredness and high blood pressure. He could barely make it up the stairs to Ms McQuillan's clinic on Wicklow Street.

"One of the first things we changed was his diet," she says. "It was pretty poor -- two servings of meat per day, often sausages. Cheese, white bread, very little veg, no wholegrains and no fruit."

She admits she was concerned. "I didn't want to alarm him, but I was thinking, here's a man on the verge of a heart attack."

A list of simple dietary changes followed: mainly a reduction in animal foods and a big increase of raw fruit and vegetables. James also took a herbal formula including wormwood, hawthorn, ginkgo and cayenne.

After two months of herbal treatment he went to the hospital for an angiogram (heart check). It came up completely clear, Ms McQuillan says proudly.

James credits the herbalist with giving him back his quality of life. "I was amazed at the difference. I don't know what was in it but it made me feel great."

Although my own malaise is not so serious, after six weeks of taking herbs there's a big lift in my energy levels, particularly when I follow the dietary advice.

I'm sleeping better and I've cut down to one coffee daily. Learning how you may be contributing to your own poor health is a humbling experience.

As Hippocrates, the original herbalist and the Greek credited with founding modern medicine, said: "A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings, and learn how by his own thought to derive benefit from his illnesses."

A wise woman too, I say.