Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The real free (healthy) health service

Today's blog post was going to be another negative rant about the NHS, specifically the new Spine database, along the lines of 'NHS Consumes Itself', because there was a piece in the newspaper this weekend about Helen Wilkinson, the NHS practice manager who was falsely labelled as an alcoholic in her medical notes, went to the House of Lords to have her files erased from the system and is now barred from using the service for which she works. The Daily Mail version of the story, an online copy of which bizarrely does not exist, concludes as follows:

"What of the trusting relationship between doctor and patient? Will that disappear when Tony Blair's Brave New World with its giant health computer is up and running? Helen, who has worked for the health service for 20 years, thinks so. 'Patients will begin to lie. They won't tell the truth if they have been sexually promiscuous, or overdosed on drugs or even smoked a few cigarettes. They won't want it on their records if they know those records will not be kept secret. I can see patients turning their back on the health service completely,' she explains. It is a chilling prediction, but one that Helen Wilkinson believes with all her heart."

Well it's only a chilling prediction, in my opinion, because we have all been taught to believe that the only alternatives to the NHS are either expensive private healthcare or no healthcare at all. None of us can remember a time when we managed without a hierarchically structured, official healthcare system because we weren't alive then. Abdicating responsibility for our healthcare to the professionals is now so much the norm that many people simply would not accept there is any other way of living.

So I think we need to start talking about the real free health service. The one in which you only have to invest a small amount of time and thought: no cash outlay, not even National Insurance payments. The one laid on gratis by our planet upon which, last time I checked, we really do still live although it's sometimes easy to forget this in our concrete and tarmac enclaves.

But we are still part of the planet's natural systems, however much we try to divorce ourselves from them. We breathe locally produced air and most of us still drink locally produced water even if we don't eat locally produced food any more. The substrata of geological substances beneath our feet, unique to every locality, tries its best to create soil and plants in synergy with its animal (including human) inhabitants, who are (albeit unconsciously) constantly synchronising their own biological structures and functions in synergy with their home environments.

What all that means is that nature provides the perfect medicine for all our ailments in the neighbouring vicinity. Free of charge. The irony is that instead of learning about and making use of this free medicine, we view it all as weeds and we pay council workers to kill it with toxic sprays.

Glossing over this collective insanity, I'll move swiftly onto practicalities. To work with this system, you have to know and understand your local habitat.

The land around here, for example, on a bed of hard stone and clay subsoil, makes for quite an acidic growing substance. The area is hilly, so we're subject to quite a lot of rain and chilly dampness in winter, so chest complaints are common. That the perfect medicine for our local typical ailments grows in abundance around here is evidenced by the old names of some of our towns and villages. The name Hebden comes from 'hip dean': the valley of the rose hips. Heptonstall was 'hip town stall': the dairy farming village where the rose hips grow. The places themselves became known for the lifesaving medicines that grew there.

When you look around here in autumn and early winter there are indeed rosehips all over the place. The plants grow easily and healthily of their own accord wherever they're allowed to, each one producing thousands of natural (not plastic!) capsules of the perfect medicine to help people survive a Yorkshire winter. Full of vitamin C, the seeds of the Dog Rose are astringent, strengthening to the stomach, useful in diarrhoea and dysentery, allaying thirst, 'good for coughs and the spitting of blood'. Culpepper described them as being 'grateful to the taste and a considerable restorative, fitly given to consumptive persons, the conserve being proper in all distempers of the breast [lung disorders] and in coughs and tickling rheums.' The seeds were gathered and used as both food and medicine throughout the winter and the leaves were dried and infused in boiling water to make tea.

Nettles grow in abundance here as in so many places, much to my neighbour's annoyance. To him they're a scourge on the planet: to me they're an incredibly useful medicine and food. Gathered in the spring, they can be dried and taken as tea which is the perfect remedy for anaemia. Nettles contain a lot of vitamin C as well as iron, and our bodies need vitamin C to enable us to absorb the iron. This is why iron tablets alone (as commonly prescribed by the NHS) often don't cure anaemia and only cause constipation. Nature's truly free medicine does the job properly. Nettles are also helpful in gout and arthritis, again often ailments related to cold, damp climates - which is where the nettles grow!

The chemical constituents of nettles include histamine, formic acid, acetylchlorine, serotonin, glucoquinones, many minerals including iron and silica, vitamins A, B and C and tannins. Its actions are astringent, diuretic, tonic, nutritive, stops bleeding, circulatory stimulant, promotes milk flow, lowers blood sugar levels, prevents scurvy. So this plant is the perfect natural cure for many of our local, common, niggly and more serious ailments and yet we call it a weed and choke it to death.

Dandelions, commonly growing here and throughout the UK, are nature's solution to the common problems of fluid retention and other urinary disorders. They promote bile flow and are mildly laxative and antirheumatic. They can also be used to treat boils and abscesses.

The Elder tree, which chooses to grace our hilltop field in great numbers, produces berries rich in vitamins A and C, which were made into wines and syrups and taken to prevent winter colds. Elder flowers are anticatarrhal and encourage sweating, so are an ideal treatment for feverish colds and flu. They are also helpful for hay fever, taken as a prophylactic early in the year to strengthen the upper respiratory tract before the pollen count rises. Topically anti-inflammatory, they are also used in skin creams and for chilblains.

The Rosebay Willow Herb, which springs up in great healthy clumps here wherever land is cleared or changed, is very useful as a intestinal astringent. It has been recommended for its antispasmodic properties in the treatment of whooping cough and asthma.

Plantain, which the Anglo-Saxons knew as Waybread, was used in first aid to treat bee stings. This poor plant, much maligned by lawnsmen, tries valiantly to grow wherever there is grass and if you look closely, it's very common. The leaves soothe urinary tract infections and irritations and ease dry coughs. They can be applied externally for healing sores and wounds. They are anti-catarrhal, useful in allergic rhinitis and gastric inflammations. The seeds ease and can cure the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

Within the square mile in which we live, there are also wild bilberries (natural antibiotics and a cure for dysentery,) red clover (a bronchitis and cancer remedy,) chickweed (helpful for eczema and skin irritations, the root useful for preventing heaving menstrual bleeding,) comfrey (traditionally called knitbone - containing allantoin, which encourages bone, cartilage and muscle cells to grow - both my mother and I have used this for broken bones and astounded medical staff by our rate of recovery) and hawthorn, which was traditionally used for diarrhoea, heavy menstrual bleeding and in first aid to draw splinters. In the last century hawthorn flowers were found to improve coronary circulation, reducing the risk of angina attacks and helping to normalise blood pressure.

All this used to be common knowledge at one time, passed down from parent to child to help ensure the survival of our species. Food was used as medicine and medicine as food, both taken liberally from the local environment where nature was largely allowed to flourish as she saw fit. People saw themselves as products of their natural environment, dependant on and interactive with it in a way that we seem to have lost now.

This is the real, effective, truly free health service in which, if our interest is rekindled by the NHS losing our trust we may look forward to a much healthier and happier future. A cheerful, altogether unchilling prediction in my opinion.


Blogger Louise said...

Wow Gill, that is one brill informative post. I'll see what we have even here in the city...we have a lovely lane nearby called hawthorn that is lined with hawthorns, nettles, elders etc. Nature truly beats everything doesn't it :o)

3:41 pm, December 13, 2006  
Blogger Rosie said...

I have been letting the nettles and dandelions grow, but haven't used these, or any other herbs medicinally for a long time. I suppose it's down to the confidence of knowing you've got the right plant.
I friend of mine was recenly going to make something with rosehips when I pointed out that the ones she was after were from cultivated roses- I didn't know if you could use these.
I suppose the last wild foods we had were the blackberries and bilberries, but there's loads more out there. It's just so wild up here at the moment it's difficult to drag them all out to even find firewood ;-)
I like the idea, though- plants growing localy must be the right thing to have.
O, I know where I heard this recently- I was reading an Alison Uttley story last night (of Little grey rabbit fame), and also another story about blackthorn or sloe berries? Something about them ripening after the first frost and the tea/juice being good to keep the cold out? I'll have to go and find it now...I think it might be just what we need...

12:07 am, December 14, 2006  
Blogger Gill said...

Lou, it's great that your Hawthorn Lane still has hawthorns on it!

Rosie, yes identifying can be a problem but there are some great books to help with that. I don't think medical use of cultivated roses would cause any severe problems, but it probably wouldn't be as effective as the wild dog rose, just because the cultivated roses have been selectively bred for other purposes, so any remaining nutritional/medical value will be only there by accident.

5:44 am, December 14, 2006  
Blogger Rosie said...

Ok, cheers, Gill, and thanks for this post- it's really got me thinking :-)
I think I had a bit of a revellation about Sloe berries and my homeopath has advised me to go with it ;-)

12:03 am, December 15, 2006  
Blogger Lindsey said...

Hi Gill, we just received a birthday card from the NHS this morning which I thought you might like to see. I've scanned and blogged ;)

9:49 am, December 15, 2006  
Blogger Gill said...

Rosie, did you blog your revelation? I'm fascinated! Off to check out your blog to find out ;-)

Lindsey, will swing by yours too, you have me intrigued!

10:47 am, December 15, 2006  
Blogger Rosie said...

urm no, Gill, but I might do later if it still seems to be right ;-)
mm... off to see Linsey, too- intrigued!

11:47 pm, December 15, 2006  
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