The apothecary’s daughter: Maria Vlotides
We begin our series of interviews with Maria Vlotides, an inspiring Medical Herbalist based in London and travelling widely.
Maria began her training in 2002 with a course in Natural Therapies with Neals Yard Remedies and this led on to a degree in Herbal Medicine at the University of Westminster in London. She holds a series of incredible herb walks in London to familiarise you with plants in their own highly urban setting and to give a voice to the silent greenery around us. She talks about their medicinal uses as well as folklore and mythology, it’s fascinating and makes a brilliant gift for a Londoner. To find out more about Maria or to arrange a consultation meeting, visit her website: the-apothecarys-daughter.com
The approach of a Medical Herbalist differs from other complementary practices in which ways?
The main difference is that we are both “doctor and pharmacist” in that we actually prescribe and then prepare individualised medicines for patients to take internally. Many of those in the medical or pharmaceutical profession find this to be an extraordinary and possibly dangerous liberty to have, as taking anything internally has greater risks (and nutritionists only prescribe ready-made products that have been tested and approved on the market). It is because of this “liberty” that we are still fighting the status quo to become regulated and recognised as healthcare professionals, rather than working under the rather antiquated ‘Quacks Charter’ legislated by Henry VIII once he closed all the monasteries, thus denying healthcare to the general populace. Our more recent protection is under the Medicines Act of 1968, which permits a herbal practitioner (not well defined by the way) to supply herbal medicines exempt from licensing as long as they are made on the herbalist’s premises and following a one-to-one consultation. This act also restricts our use of certain plants that are known to have toxicity issues at certain dosages (eg Atropa belladonna) but only a few plants are banned to us, Foxglove (Digitalis) being one of them.
Another difference is that we are the only complementary practice to have studied what is known as Differential Diagnosis, so that when a client presents with symptoms we are able to make an informed assessment of what the problem might or might not be and know when to refer to a medical professional. This means that we have a more medical training than other complementary therapists.
Finally, there are systems of herbal medicine that exist all over the world (e.g. Chinese, or Ayurvedic, or African) and it is still the most widely used form of healthcare when one looks at healthcare globally. It is also the oldest system of medicine (from which pharmacy and modern medical practice are derived) and I would include distillation, aromatic waters and essential oils and resins within this. There are many complementary practices that are just a couple of centuries old and euro-centric (e.g. homeopathy) or just a few years old! (quite a few bodywork techniques…a new “method” seems to crop up every few years or so!)
Over the time you have practiced, how have you seen the views about Medical Herbalism change? Do you see an increase in interest to solve things naturally?
There is definitely a fashion-led increasing interest in healthier eating (inversely related to our increasing obesity rates) as well as an internet-driven interest in looking for alternatives to certain drug regimens, but I wouldn’t say that views on Medical Herbalism have changed much: I think we are still popularly viewed with suspicion, and most of the view-changes have come from the retail rather than medical end. For instance, herbal mixes for cocktails or herbal “superfood” supplements.
Thinking about the quality of the ingredients you use…. do higher quality, organic products have a greater impact in your treatments?
I am very conscious of the quality of the herbs I use, I really believe quality is everything and I use organic wherever available. I can’t say I know about therapeutic impact as I have never trialed or made a comparison between patients (and anyway it would be nearly if not impossible to do as patients and conditions differ so much), but I believe the healthier the plant and the raw material, the richer and more powerful it is in its chemistry (phytonutrients, alkaloids, sterols, you name it), so the better medicine it is…a bit like food! The non-homogenised organic milk from a single herd tastes much better and probably has more nutritional value (or at least less negative value in the traces of extra hormones/antibiotic residues than non-organic animal products have).
Have you ever used Olive Oil in a herbal medicine treatment and can you describe this?
I use olive oil externally in herbal medicine as a base oil for certain oil mixes (eg garlic oil drops for earache) but it is quite a rich / heavy oil with a scent of its own (compared to jojoba for instance) so it is not always suitable. However it’s richness makes it ideal for dry skin or hair or as a moisturising base for soap or skin scrub. I also always recommend using olive oil over any other oil in cooking and food preparation when talking through dietary habits and cooking practices with my clients.
How does the Naturopathic approach use diet to best effect and can you tell me whether Olive Oil is ever a feature?
The Naturopathic approach to diet is crucial: if someone comes to me seeking herbal treatment, but their diet is what is hindering their wellbeing, then one has to start with the diet before the herbs can have any effect, in other words diet is what herbal medicine is then founded on: without a good diet, free for example of hydrogenated fats, it is much more difficult to successfully treat any condition with herbs alone. Olive oil is as I say above always a feature in that it is in my view the best oil to use in cooking and foods: its use in this goes back millennia and one cannot produce it in a mass-production GM big agro-business-pharma way like many of the other “good” oils on the market.
Herbal medicine is a great choice for babies and small children. Having just given birth to your first child, can you tell me about a treatment that might be useful for parents to keep in mind?
Oat water baths for babies with dry skin; Calendula cream for healing skin irritations; making thyme tea to pour into a baby’s bath water if they have a cold; catnip tea if they have a slight fever (add to drinking water), and of course fennel or dill for colic are treatments I use regularly.