The Sean Penn-directed 2007 film, Into The Wild, spotlights the tenacity of one Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) who leaves behind the material world to live in the wilderness. In a chilling scene towards the end, we find the protagonist attempting to regurgitate the seeds that he is shown to have erroneously picked and eaten. Gaunt and emaciated, he dies as the film reaches its dark but enlightening conclusion.
In hindsight, the outcome isn’t unexpected; a layman like McCandless stood no chance. In a 2013 New Yorker report, Jon Krakauer — whose 1996 biography was adapted by Penn — thwarts his original theory about the cause of death. He argues that McCandless had, in fact, been gathering the right plant (the purportedly non-toxic wild potato and not the similar-looking poisonous wild sweet pea as he had supposed earlier), wrongly ascertaining that its seeds contain a neurotoxin. In another article for the magazine in 2015, Krakauer, upon further research, went on to concede that it is in fact the antimetabolite in wild potato seeds that is lethal in large quantities, leading to paralysis and ultimately starvation.
Highlighting the enigmatic enormity of nature, Krakauer concludes, “Even when some parts of a plant are known to be edible, other parts of the same species may contain dangerous concentrations of toxic compounds.” A nugget of information that trained medical herbalists like the London-based Rasheeqa Ahmad unequivocally treat as a rule of thumb.
Ahmad was born in the UK in 1979. The family moved to India for a few years — when she was between the ages of nine and thirteen — but generally, “life has been happening mostly on this side of the world”, she reflects over a video call. “My mother grew up in Calcutta whereas my father is from Uttar Pradesh and went to college in Agra. Both of them trained in what we call ‘conventional’ medicine. They moved to Leeds in Yorkshire in the ’70s to work in a hospital there, and that’s how they met,” details Ahmad, the oldest of three siblings.
Her immigrant parents would often bring their children to India. To Delhi, Calcutta and also Moradabad, where her father is from. “His grandfather, who was a hakim, had set up a Unani medicine house, and most of the family has spent time making medicine and serving the public there to some degree. So, it’s interesting that my father then decided to study ‘regular’ medicine and became a cardiothoracic surgeon. As a child, I remember going to the dawakhana (dispensary) in Moradabad — I would be given a little piece of newspaper with a mysterious powder mixed with honey paste. I was quite entranced by the place, but I never thought of herbal medicine as a career option,” she says in her lilting voice.
Ahmad initially studied English literature in her undergraduate years — subsequently working as a marketing assistant at an arthouse film and media centre. “I loved being surrounded by creative people, but at one point, I started to question what I wanted to do. I came to India and visited the dawakhana again. I remember wanting to know about the earth and trees and plants. It wasn’t a direction I’d ever really thought of going in before this point in time. And it opened up this whole new world of plant medicine for me,” she says.
By the time she finished a four-year-long BSc course that she had enrolled for at the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine in Glasgow, she was 32. She graduated with first-class honours. “Like in the liberal arts, there is infinite room to philosophise here too. Herbal medicine is an art as well as a science, and it draws from a range of knowledges including intuition and empiricism. When you qualify from the course, you have the right to practise and prescribe herbal medicine, but for the most part, you can’t practise as part of the National Health Service (NHS). There’s a mixture of responses to herbal medicine, but from the position of the authorities here, it’s generally not well regarded,” she admits matter-of-factly.
It’s human nature to view anything lying outside the purview of the mainstream with some misgivings. But, side by side, there is also a rising consciousness about what our children consume and how to cancel out the negative impacts of the healthcare industry on the environment. There is a call for shifting the emphasis from mass-produced, transport-heavy medicines to home- and community-grown health support. This move is geared towards improving public health, building social justice and supporting humans in becoming more balanced agents in the ecosystems of our environment. The proponents of this school of thought form a large chunk of the section that is drawn towards “integrative medicine” — the branch of medical therapy that combines practices from alternative medicine with conventional medicine. “The word integrative suggests that you’re bringing together different parts. In China, for instance, you have the presence of biomedicine as well as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the related modalities based on more than thousands of years of Chinese healing practice. So, if you’re looking for acute support — for instance, if you have a broken bone — you have to go the conventional way. But if you are experiencing a more chronic, long-term condition — like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure or arthritis, which are lifestyle-related — then you might be directed towards herbal medicine,” she explains.
Ahmad is a study in contrasts. She is candid but gentle. She approaches every question scientifically — a reflection of her analytical bent of mind — while also recognising the value of being even-handed. Then again, she is Promethean in a certain sense. “Because my father grew up in the Unani medicine environment, he’s somewhat open to alternative medicine. But he prefers the sledgehammer approach of biomedicine, which is evidence-based and where you can see immediate results. On the other hand, my mother, who studied psychiatry, is a much more open-minded practitioner in general. She looks at how somebody is feeling emotionally in their life or social situation. The same approach is taken in herbal medicine — and this ultimately makes it more broad-based and holistic,” she opines.
Ahmad is certain that her parents are more receptive to herbal medicine because they are Indian. “In India, there’s a plurality [of thought] that facilitates a medical freedom that doesn’t even exist here. Our belief systems arise from an ontological understanding of how we see the world, and in the West, there has been too much emphasis on science in the last few centuries. In India, China and certain parts of Eastern Europe, herbal medicine is part of the culture; you don’t have to take a big ideological jump to believe that this practice is valid,” she expounds.
Herbalism, however, stands out with a unique set of pros. “I network not only with herbalists, but also with people who are growing food or are otherwise connected to the land. That’s a really important part of how I want to live, especially in a city. There is a downside too: as a herbalist here, you have to be more or less self-employed. And a lot of my work takes place over the weekend because that’s when people are free to participate in workshops or the other activities I offer. I’ve reached the stage where I’m busy with a range of projects, so it does get easier,” she discloses.
Ahmad works out of her home rather than a rented space in the high street. And “in the style of a regular doctor”, she consults with patients. “If you visit the NHS doctor in your local surgery, you will have up to 10 minutes to tell them what’s wrong. With a herbalist, the first consultation can take up a couple of hours. We get into the depths of the patient’s health history. Then, we prescribe herbs for a specific period that could range from a few days to a few weeks. The follow-up, however, is shorter,” she says.
Herbalists typically invest in a healthy amount of community-based work by way of classes, courses and workshops to help people practise herbal medicine in their homes. Ahmad has been instrumental in the development of the Community Apothecary project in Walthamstow, North London, where she lives. The initiative centres around growing medicinal herb gardens as a group and organising herb walks to explore the diversity of local plant life — the vision is of a circular system where the local residents are in contact with what their particular healthcare needs are as a community. Currently, the medicines they make from these are available in a local cafe on a “pay what you feel” basis. A large part of it is aimed at reclaiming knowledge. “I price my classes on a sliding scale to make them more accessible. Sometimes, organisations pay us to deliver teaching programmes, which enables free learning for participants. For centuries now, there’s been this deference to the authority of the doctor. So, there is something of a political movement involved in bringing healthcare back into our own hands, especially since there’s been a history of gender-, colour- and class-based discrimination in medicine,” she points out.
“In India, the herbal medicine tradition hasn’t been entirely lost, but in this part of the world, there was a devastation of herbal medicine, especially in the Middle Ages when witch trials and hunts were rampant. Globally, in early societies, it was the women who were the healers. At some point, that balance tipped and only men were allowed to attend medical school, and medicine was removed from the domain of women. We’ve seen the repercussions ever since,” she adds.
Ahmad talks about the “horror stories” she hears from the women who approach her for help. “I offer my services at a free clinic once a week in a 175-year-old herbal shop called Baldwin’s in Central London. Being the oldest of its kind in the city, it is quite embedded in the local community. Members of the African Caribbean and South American communities as well as British people who live around the store come here to get herbs. I’ve had many women talk about menstrual health or depression. And it sounds like their situation has been neglected quite massively for years,” she shares.
Recently, she has increasingly been seeing women coming in with menstrual health disruption, including premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and endometriosis, a condition where the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus grows outside of it. The latter is accompanied by heavy bleeding and pain around the menstrual cycle. “It’s very difficult to diagnose. The standard treatment is to prescribe the pill, which doesn’t sit well with many women because of the increased risks of thrombosis, blood clots, depression, loss of sex drive and so on. So, they come to us to seek alternative treatment. I feel quite enraged when I hear about how the medical system still treats women; it doesn’t validate or prioritise female health conditions in the same way as it does male ones. Not much research goes into it…. And it’s quite amazing how herbs can help with reducing pain or even balancing the emotional effects of PMS,” she says.
Despite its relatively shorter life span of two centuries, allopathic medicine has more takers than its herbal counterpart that has evolved over thousands of years. But far from being bitter, Ahmad stresses the need to be rigorous about the way we practise medicine. “We often say that herbalism is the longest clinical trial in human history! We have evolved with plants over unimaginably long periods of time and in the early days, herbalism was intertwined with spirituality and the divine, and the use of ritual and ceremony…. We’re inextricably linked with plant life, both molecularly and energetically. That’s why walking in a field or forest feels healing. You see this primal need for greenery surfacing when people in the most densely built areas continue to grow plants on their windowsills and determinedly create community gardens,” she infers. One of the most important aspects of herbalism, according to her, is the personal relationship one can build with a plant — ironically, also the aspect that staunch rationalists dismiss as hopelessly unscientific. “It’s not just a white pill whose composition you are unaware of. When you grow a plant and make a tea with it, you form a connection with it. It’s in our DNA to connect with plants and the earth. On a physiological level as well, we’ve evolved to breaking down the molecular compounds of plants when we ingest them. When we’re taking in chemical compounds, our bodies have much less time to figure out what to do with them, which is partly why we’re more likely to experience side effects or adverse effects when we use pharmaceutical medicine. And then you have to take another medicine to deal with the side effects of the first one. But with herbal medicine, we’re trying to help the body find its own way of healing and functioning better,” she elucidates.
On any given day, Ahmad will make a mixture of five to seven different herbs. And not one prescription will be the same as the next. “Even if two different people were to come to me with the same health problem, I would make medicines that are responsive to their whole health picture. Each will be prescribed specific herbs that respond to their unique emotional dispositions. I ask questions like what’s happening with your digestion and your bowel movements? What do you eat? What’s happening in your social and emotional life?” says Ahmad, who tries to be as transparent as she can. As a result, she makes a point to be consistent about explaining her rationale and process to the patient who plays a role in their healing here. “I’ll always ask what they want to see in the short term, the medium term, and the long term with their treatment. It’s as much about the rapport between the practitioner and the patient as it is about the relationship between the patient and the plants,” she analyses.
In a sense, a herbalist straddles the amorphous middle ground that lies between the realms of a practitioner of conventional medicine and a therapist. And a herbalist, inevitably, ends up joining the physical with the psychological and the emotional. “I frequently find myself hearing about the patient’s personal life situation. And I do take that information into account when I’m thinking about which herbs to prescribe because there are a lot of herbs that are used for emotional support and to help the nervous system. Very often, people will say at the end of the first session, ‘This is the only time I’ve actually sat down and recounted the whole story.’ So, it’s a good opportunity for people to release any tension or trauma, which in itself can be a very therapeutic process,” reflects Ahmad.
Despite India’s Ayurvedic roots, there exists a deep-rooted and pervasive culture of biomedicine across the country. It has systematically invalidated and marginalised its herbal cousin and the knowledge that is all around us. We are programmed to trust conventional medicine to such a degree that we often end up taking a rather cavalier attitude towards it: we routinely self-medicate without a prescription. In the case of herbal remedies, it’s the inverse that is true. It is practically impossible for a layman to pick a herb or know how to consume it without a consultation. And it’s this gap that herbalists like Ahmad are trying to fill. Through courses, they teach the locals about herbs that grow around them in the wild or which they can cultivate relatively easily. There is a surprisingly large number of remedial herbs that are commonly available to treat a fever, cut or sprain. “It starts with recognising the plants or growing them yourself. I taught a practical course on the key remedies that we use; my students learned how to pick and dry herbs, blend them into teas for different purposes and infuse herbs into oil so that they can be used externally. I plant herbs throughout the year to spread the practice in the community,” she says. There are plenty of starting points. One could begin with herbs that are commonly known, like the kitchen spices that can be medicinal when prepared in certain ways. But it’s generally considered a good omen to have a herbalist at hand — someone you can turn to if required. “A lot of people don’t feel confident enough to simply go out and pick a herb, and if you’re not certain, don’t do it. If you’re unsure about anything, don’t do it! Start slow and get to know one plant at a time and get to know it really well,” she suggests. There’s a tea with three herbs — elderflower, yarrow and peppermint — that she’s making a lot of at the moment. “These herbs are antiviral and can manage the fever and help you sweat. The Indian masala chai blends that are so trendy here in the UK are also actually highly protective against pathogens like viruses, bacteria and fungi. And since it’s flu season the world over now, these herbs are accessible allies for strengthening and supporting our body functions and immune health system,” she advises.
Ahmad remembers a time when her practice would attract mainly the older generation. But in the last seven or eight years, her scope has widened considerably. Herbalism has exploded in London of late, and predominantly among women. Still, it’s difficult to escape the ingrained biases of a society. Ahmad has found herself grappling with dichotomous perceptions and fielding countless questions about her profession over the years, but she’s perspicacious enough to understand the psychology behind the reluctance to embrace this branch of medicine. “I don’t face it from the people who choose to come to me as they are already inclined towards herbal medicine. It’s more likely to come up among certain friends or acquaintances. You feel an implied criticism, and it’s funny because people often confuse it with homoeopathy (which also takes a holistic approach). But the practices are quite different. With homoeopathy, the medicine is diluted many times over. And the theory is that it gains its potency through the dilution. The concepts of homoeopathy are based on energetic transference and the fact that some memory is left in the water — concepts that science will absolutely not allow. Compared to that, scientists are more amenable to herbal medicine,” she muses, unfurrowing her eyebrows. Then her mouth turns upwards. “I’ve seen rationalists get furious about homeopathy! They think it’s a placebo effect. But so many people feel that it works for them which is, in itself, a very interesting phenomenon,” she finishes on a serious note, using her words in a measured way.
Ahmad regularly finds herself lured by a nature reserve called Walthamstow Marshes. “A lot of nettles come up in the spring, which is the time now…. Before the lockdown, I went there to harvest some nettles so that I could dry them out for tea. They’re also good for infusing in water, because they’re very rich in iron,” she observes. Her other favourite haunts are the canals of London, alongside which lie a great diversity of plants. “The signs of the wild are ever-present in this urban setting. Elder and hawthorn trees live in abundance here. They are long-revered plants of this land. But you do have to look out for whether they have been sprayed with any chemical — say, weed killers or herbicides — by the local councils,” she says.
Greenery is a known alleviator of anxiety, a condition peaking among Londoners according to a survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics mid last year. The “living nature” aspect of herbalism provides people with a reason to gather together in the green spaces of their neighbourhoods, which is an opportunity that many urbanites often have to forego due to lack of time or options. I smile, recalling what Ahmad had listed as “the main positive” of her profession earlier: “You get to be out all the time!” Being outdoors, surrounded by lush greenery — that’s a job perk each one of us wishes we had, now more than ever, as the green spaces slowly fade away before our eyes. But as we collectively wait for the coronavirus to blow over and the current climate of self-isolation to end, as we patiently or restively bide our time — as if on standby mode till we can breathe freely again — we are painfully aware that being outdoors is a distant luxury.
Calendula-infused oil For dry skin, cuts, burns and skin inflammation. Marigolds are prolific in India — the ones we are talking about here are not the ones used for garlands but the orange and yellow ones that have a single circle of pointed petals around the centre (rather than a thick head of wrinkly petals). These are used worldwide as both internal and topical medicine — they are a bitter digestive support as well as strongly antimicrobial and antiseptic. So they are often used to prevent or address infection. Infuse the flowers in oil and keep it in the sun for a couple of weeks. You can also thicken the oil into a balm using beeswax.
Cough syrup This can be easily made at home by simmering herbs like violet (banafsha), nasturtiums — which grows everywhere in India — liquorice and thyme in water, with a lid on (1 tablespoon of the herb mix per cup of water) for 20 minutes. Then dissolve sugar or honey into the liquid (1 gram for each millilitre of liquid). This can be taken by the teaspoon with a little warm water. Nasturtiums can also be infused into vinegar along with ginger and chillies to make a spicy salad dressing that also clears nasal and sinus congestion.
3 WEBSITES TO EXPLORE
5 BOOKS FOR BEGINNERS
1. The Nature Doctor: A Manual of Traditional & Complementary Medicine by Alfred Vogel
2. The Herbal Apothecary: 100 Medicinal Herbs and How to Use Them by J. J. Pursell
3. New Green Pharmacy: The Story of Western Herbal Medicine by Barbara Griggs
4. Old Wives Tales: The History of Remedies, Charm & Spells by Mary Chamberlain
5. In The Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine by Aarathi Prasad