Christine Thomas, Technical Writer at The Herbal Extract Company of Australia, researches plants for the company.
What is your role at your organisation and how do you support practitioners /or the industry?
I’m Christine Thomas, Technical Writer at The Herbal Extract Company of Australia, who specialises in manufacturing full-spectrum liquid herbal extracts. I research and write about plants for the company, specifically, I write herbal monographs which are plant biographies. I also write naturopath condition guides, herbal highlights, newsletters, brochures and website copy and answer technical questions. This allows our company to give our practitioner customers interesting, professional, accurate, in-depth, up-to-date and referenced content specific to their requirements.
How did you get into your field of expertise and why do you stay?
My raison d’etre is that I believe in herbs.
I forged an interest in herbs as a young girl while growing up on a cotton farm in outback Queensland. My father knew that to be a good farmer you needed to be an environmentalist. He taught me that if you look after your land, it will look after you. I followed him around in his kitchen herb and vegetable garden and began experimenting with the plants to make natural skincare potions.
On leaving school I followed my love of writing and became a newspaper journalist after completing a Bachelor of Arts and an internship on the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
In 1999 I decided to chase my first love and began formally studying herbal medicine. I studied in the garden of distinguished New Zealand herbalist Isla Burgess. It was here that I also learned from the plants themselves and witnessed them growing throughout the seasons. This was when I became an advocate for traditional herbal medicine.
I completed my studies with the godfather of herbal medicine in Australia, Denis Stewart, and was awarded a Diploma of Medical Herbalism in 2005. I have worked as a herbalist in private practice, as a practitioner consultant and sales manager in the herbal medicine manufacturing industry. In 2013, I was able to combine my knowledge of herbs with my writing skills to became a technical writer and researcher.
What has been the main focus or outcomes of your work over the past year?
I was squirreling away writing naturopath guides on such things as dementia and perimenopause then the pandemic hit. Our herbs started to sell out at a great rate, so we decided to do herbal highlights when each of the herbs came back into stock. I was able to be a bit more creative with my writing, and they were a great hit with the practitioners, so now we have continued with them. It made us realise practitioners like bite-sized pieces of current, relevant and interesting information translated into simple terms.
How has your field changed in the past 5 years? What new areas are emerging?
Over the last five years, the herbal medicine industry in Australia has continued to grow and achieve recognition as legitimate healthcare. I have been concerned about the loss of some of our herbs, for example, uva ursi and blood root, which is a sign of the times where the evidence-based, reductionist model dominates and we risk losing the core of who we are, but that’s another story.
The scourge of antimicrobial resistance is an area where I see herbalists can have an impact in the future. Case studies will be important for evidence when there aren’t the dollars for gold standard clinical trials.
The biggest change however has come recently with COVID-19. As British herbalist Simon Mills puts it, we have BC (Before COVID-19) and AC (After COVID-19). There is currently a lot more remote work impacting on practitioners’ businesses so flexibility and adaptation will be important in the future.
With the threat to food security becoming real there seems to be a more grassroots interest in plants, such as foraging, and connecting people to country through plants where community plays a large part.
What do you predict will happen in the next 5 to 10 years in your particular field?
Herbal medicine is as much the medicine of the future as much as it is the medicine of the ancient past. I think this pandemic has made it clear to a lot of people that our health is our wealth and wellness has never felt more urgent. People value their health a lot more now and are taking responsibility for their own health. As a result, more and more people are turning to herbal medicine.
I think the complementary medicine industry as a whole will strengthen especially with regard to preventative health and chronic health conditions, which are perhaps a more urgent plague. Immunity will be high on the agenda. These areas are inadequately managed by conventional medicine which offers exceptional symptomatic and emergency-oriented medicine but often fails to get to the cause of the problem and is troubled by side effects from its solutions. Hopefully this will lead to a fully integrated medical model in which preventing disease through healthy living is prioritised.
I think we will look closer to home for raw materials as the logistics of importing becomes increasingly complicated. I think the demand for quality will mean there will be a deeper concern for the provenance of raw materials and sustainability will become paramount for without herbs we won’t have a business.
I love this quote from Sebastian Pole, previously of Pukka Herbs, who said: “As herbalism becomes popular again, nothing could be worse than our trying to promote awareness around using plants and to then harm the earth in that process. That would be an oxymoron.”
What is the one-way you believe natural medicine practitioners, can make a difference for their clients?
Our disconnect with nature is one of the great tragedies of our modern society, so by introducing people to plant medicine herbalists take them far beyond their symptoms and reawaken them to nature. They give them the gift of reconnecting with the power of Mother Nature’s pharmacy.
What’s the questions you get asked the most by practitioners, and how do you answer it?
I don’t have a lot of direct contact with practitioners, but I receive questions related to my writing or some technical questions from our practitioner consultants. Safety, efficacy and quality seem to be the main concerns. I get asked about individual herbal constituents (or active constituents) in our liquid extracts and about herb/drug interactions and herbal contraindications.
Regarding the constituents I refer back to the importance of synergy. This concept, that the whole extract of a plant offers advantages over a single isolated ingredient, underpins the philosophy of herbal medicine. The challenge for herbal medicine is to integrate science with the traditional knowledge that is a foundation of its practice. No one disputes the scientific validation of a herb but in this context the rise of phytochemistry poses a problem for the serious practitioner of herbal medicine today. Pharmacological insights into individual plant constituents are important as long as the broader understanding of the whole herb is not neglected. We don’t want to denature them by altering their chemistry. Perhaps it’s time to get out of the laboratory and into the garden?
When it comes to herbal interactions and contraindications it is said that in fact most natural products (herbs and food) can interact with prescribed drugs. With little confirming evidence from clinical studies precaution should be exercised when prescribing ANY herbs to a patient on powerful drugs with a narrow dose range between efficacy and toxicity.
We would encourage practitioners to use our monographs as a guide but to apply professional judgement on the appropriateness of using a combination herbs and drugs for each individual patient.
New safety data and evidence is constantly emerging, so it is imperative that practitioners investigate other sources to find out whether there are any new known safety concerns or interactions when prescribing herbal medicines for patients already taking pharmaceutical medicines.
Fun Fact for the Readers: Tell us who inspires you / or who your professional idol is and why?
They all have one thing in common, they are traditional herbalists.
- Lyndsay Shume, the founder of our company. Lyndsay, who is in his 80s, is a pioneer of herbal medicine in Australia who has given the best years of his life to healing the ill and manufacturing quality herbal medicines. Lyndsay is a fourth-generation herbalist, and an active practitioner of traditional Western herbalism, who has been in clinical practice for more than 60 years. He is a unique, old school herbalist with an irreplaceable knowledge who, rather than using science and books, has learnt from the plants themselves.
- My teachers Isla Burgess and Denis Stewart.
- Passionate and practical American herbalist Rosalee de la Forêt.
- Grandmother of herbalism the late Juliette de Bairacli Levy who lived close to nature to learn about herbal medicine.
- French herbalist Maurice Mességué who reminds us to treat the patient not the disease and that the best remedies grow outside our door. His autobiography, Of People and Plants, is a must read for any herbalist.
- Internationally renowned herbalist, and proponent of traditional herbal medicine, David Hoffman, who has nurtured generations of budding herbalists with his textbooks.
To access and download the ‘Naturopathic guide to menopause’ log in to The Herbal Extract Company’s practitioner portal on their website