Herbs First!

Interview at Manuka Health Store, Windermere

Catherine Tupper was a doctor for 35 years with the NHS, working in gynaecology and women’s health. “I left because of administrative awfulness and having to justify myself all the time.” Cathy said. “I did a degree in herbal medicine and worked at a health shop in Kendal advising on herbs. When the opportunity to buy Manuka in Windermere in 2016 arose, I decided to go for it. Manuka is literally my shop window for herbal medicine.”

Q Why herbal medicine? “Herbal medicine has a logical reason why it works; Morphine, Aspirin and Digitalis are familiar medications that come from plants. I had a terrible clinic with women experiencing PMS (Pre-menstrual syndrome), As a GP I could only offer the pill or antidepressants, which is like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A few days later I read an article in the British Medical Journal, about Agnus castus (herb) being used to treat PMS, which inspired me to research further.”

Q what kind of patients come to Manuka? “People that are only interested in herbal medicine and are anti-conventional medicine, and are happy to take good advice;
Last Resorts; they’ve tried everything else and they have nowhere else to go. So if it works in their case herbal medicine has proven its worth! And people who are thinking ahead and want preventative medicine, like glucosamine, fish oil or echinacea. But most people come here for treatment rather than preventative help. For example they’ve had a cold for 10 days and come in for echinacea which by that time is too late.”

Q What is the most important thing an individual can do to support their own health and well-being? “Diet and exercise. Unlike GP training, when doing my herbal medicine degree, we covered a lot about nutrition and lifestyle. This represents half of the treatment, but obviously requires people to change their habits, which is absolutely the hardest thing to do. Diet alone has been proven to reverse some diseases, for example type II Diabetes. It’s really about taking responsibility for your own health.”

Q What about patients who want alternative medicine but need a diagnosis? “I always recommend a visit to a GP to get things excluded. We have ‘red flags’ so certain symptoms would need further investigation. For example blood in your stools could be indicative of a serious disease, and you need a GP to access those services for you. Some patients have been scared into taking drugs. There is still a mindset that doctors are gods, and if the doctor says you need to be on certain pills for the rest of your life, the patient will believe it. But they are not being offered a viable alternative. But laying out different options takes time and GPs just don’t have time. The NHS is struggling because people aren’t looking after themselves. But once you have a diagnosis, then you can look for alternative treatments.”

Q How do you see the future of herbal medicine and what changes would you like to see? “I’d like to see GPs being more open minded. I had a customer whose GP told her not to take probiotics, as they’d stop the antibiotics he’d prescribed from working. GPs can make such statements out of ignorance, with no knowledge of probiotics or herbal medicine. I’d like other professions including standard medicine to show mutual respect rather than damming it out of hand and scaring patients from using it.

I think herbalists have to be more accessible, so when I am in the shop people can pop in and ask me for advice, they get to know me and gain confidence in my ability to help. They need to trust I’m going to deal with their issues sensitively and confidentially. Herbalists often hide away in offices offering consultations, for a fee: it’s too formal and it’s not getting herbal medicine out there.

The most helpful thing in this shop is that I have a medical degree and that GPs locally worry less about sending people to see me; it gives me more credibility with them.”

Q What’s your Ethos or mission statement? “Herbs First! I worry about people who are put on medication long term. If you need a medication short-term, fair enough. But long-term studies of drugs are only done for 2 years and some people are put on drugs for decades. We don’t know the safety of taking drugs for that long.

Herbs and supplements should be first for things like eczema, GI tract problems, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn and constipation. All of these can be treated with alternatives.

In the UK we have a curative approach to medicine not a preventative approach. We are not far from Europe physically but mentally we are miles apart. In Germany herbal medicine is offered as a first choice. When I was on holiday in Italy I was offered lemon balm lip balm, instead of Zovirax. That’s where we need to be. We are so used to getting free medicines that paying for alternatives is an inhibitor, but we need to change our mindset for the benefit of our future health.”

Deborah J Monshin (c) 2019