Annie McIntyre on the wonder of herbs & her own herbal adventure
In this edition of Pukka Planet, Suze Pole interviews renowned herbalist Annie McIntyre for her Womankind column.
I have known Annie’s books for many years and really enjoy her company; she is a wise yet light presence full of infectious enthusiasm and love for herbs.
Anne McIntyre has been practicing as a herbalist for nearly 35 years and is the author of several books on herbal medicine, including The Complete Woman's Herbal, The Complete Floral Healer, The Herbal Treatment of Children, and The Complete Herbal Tutor. Anne's latest book is Dispensing with Tradition: A practitioner's Guide to using Indian and Western Herbs the Ayurvedic Way. Anne teaches regularly in the UK and USA and spends as much time as she can in her herb garden, which she opens to the public by appointment. She has recently launched an online course in Ayurveda.
Welcome to Pukka Planet Annie, we are delighted to have you here. Could you begin by telling us about how you got started on your herbal adventure?
When I was 16 I was given a book called ‘ The wisdom of India’ I was bowled over by it and became passionate about Eastern religion and philosophy and started going to Buddhist meditation classes. To the dismay of my parents I became very austere refusing to go out to the cinema or for meals as I thought it would be an indulgence of the senses. I imagined that by 30 I would be an enlightened being!
A few years later my parents sent me an advert they’d seen for a house to rent on Osea island off the Essex coast and this was the beginning of my herbal adventure.
It was 1976, a long hot summer and the era of self sufficiency so armed with a copy of ‘Food for free’ by Richard Mabey I embarked on my romantic vision of living off the land and wild foods and wandered around the island trying to identify the plants I was seeing.
During my explorations I realised that a lot of the wild foods were also amazing medicinal herbs. I completely fell in love with the island and developed a romance with nature. It was so beautiful and remote. I slept outside on the beach, sat with plants and under trees and had a real sense that nature was everything we needed and that herbs could heal us not just physically but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It was my first spiritual experience of plants and my first direct experience of the philosophy of Ayurveda that the elements outside us and reflected within us are one and the same.
This led to a desire to learn more about herbs and after further experiences with nature working for Suffolk Herbs and travelling in South America I realized I needed to study herbal medicine.
We know Ayurveda is a big passion of yours; what makes you love it so much?
I qualified in western herbal medicine but didn’t feel I knew enough so kept searching. After studying massage, aromatherapy, homeopathy and counselling, I saw an advert for a course on Ayurveda and thought this is it, this is something that combines meditation, food, herbal medicine, massage oils and has an approach for the mind, spirit and heart in keeping with my love of Eastern philosophy.
If our ultimate aim is to find inner peace and enlightenment then Ayurveda is the path. It is a concrete system which addresses and provides guidance on bringing all parts of ourselves into balance physically mentally and emotionally so that we are able to sit in meditation and hopefully achieve enlightenment.
It helps us to keep balanced with all the crazy stresses of life going on.
What are your favourite Ayurvedic herbs to use in the clinic?
Well my nickname in the US is ‘Ashwaganda Annie’! I think Ashwaganda is the most amazing plant and it is one of the herbs I use more than anything else both for women and men. I use it for people who have very imbalanced vata.*
The main seat of vata is the lower part of the body where you have the bowel, the urinary system, the reproductive system, and the area of the hips, thighs and lower back. Vata is responsible for movement so it moves pitta and affects kapha. Apana vata is the seat of everything and so you always have to include it in treatment.
You can’t get an imbalance of pitta or kapha without a problem with vata first. Vata is about movement and apana vata is the type of movement that is a big downward moving energy. So this energy is responsible for defecation, urination, menstruation, childbirth etc. Everything we take into the body moves down and out through the energy of Apana Vata and when that gets imbalanced everything else is affected. Period pains, endometriosis, practically every gynaecological problem there is relates to Apana Vata and Ashwaganda is one of the best herbs there is for its regulation; therefore it regulates practically everything.
And of course it’s very calming; I find Ashwaganda gives me the space to feel that I’m happy.
Yes, Ashwaganda is really good at bringing the energy down and grounding and calming you and creates that kind of space for the mind to be clear and not a worrying monkey mind. Ashwaganda is the main energy tonic in Ayurvedic medicine and at the same time it helps you to sleep. It’s a fantastic adaptogen so increases your resilience and ability to cope with all of those physical and environmental stresses on the body which can pre dispose us to being unwell and it increases our resilience to emotional stresses at the same time. It is a wonderful herb for adrenal exhaustion.
Ashwaganda is also a really great protective remedy useful for example in cancer treatment as it helps reduce the side effects of radiation therapy and direct it to the affected cells. It’s also a wonderful herb for all sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.
Another herb I am a great fan of is Shatavari which means ‘ she who has the strength to have a hundred husbands. ‘ It’s supposed to be the women’s equivalent of Ashwaganda but actually you can use them both for men and women.
Shatavari is really useful for the menopause and for women who are very depleted. It’s really good for strengthening Vata as well as Pitta so it’s very grounding and strengthening and stabilizing and therefore good for women with fertility issues.
Shatavari is a wonderful tonic and is nourishing in a very different way to Ashwaganda; its especially good for women who are underweight with scanty periods.
Like Ashwaganda it is a rejuvenative and so increases your energy, your vitality, your immunity, your longevity, your fertility and your joie de vivre.
In your 35 years of practice have you noticed a difference in the way your clients view herbal medicine?
Absolutely. When I first started using Ayurveda none of my clients had even heard of it. I would keep quiet about the concepts of Vata, Pitta and Kapha as people already thought herbalists were so weird I wanted to appear as normal as possible. I used to talk about heat and cold instead. Most people come to see me now specifically wanting ayurvedic treatment and they often understand a lot about it themselves.
I really enjoy making strong herbal infusions such as nettle, red clover and oatstraw and recommend them to lots of my acupuncture clients as a gentle but effective tonic. What do you think are the best ways are to incorporate herbs into our daily lives?
I try to get all my patients to incorporate as many culinary herbs and spices into their diet as they possibly can. There are bundles of coriander, parsley mint etc in all supermarkets and turmeric, cumin and ginger are also easily available.
There is lots of new research showing just how vital good gut bacteria is for our all round health. This ties in with Ayurveda which says that all disease starts in the gut due to weak digestion. So as well as taking acidopholus and fermented foods to put back the good bacteria you need to destroy the unfriendly bacteria proliferating after years of bad diet, sugar, medication, artificial hormones etc. The best way to do that is to drink ginger tea first thing in the morning and eat as many culinary herbs and spices as we can get into our food as they all combat unfriendly gut bacteria. I tell my patients to look at each plate, breakfast, lunch and dinner and see if it has herbs and spices in and if not put them in. And of course drink herbs in between, not fruit teas but spicy teas so you are constantly working on your digestion.
What do you think is the most empowering thing that women can do for their health?
The most empowering thing you can do as a woman is make a good relationship with yourself. Drink Pukka Love or Womankind tea, connect with your heart and empower yourself. So much of my treatment of women is enabling them to really celebrate who they are and I find that Ayurvedic herbs are really good at helping people with this heart connection process. Sariva and Rose and Gotu Kola and Chamomile are also fantastic herbs for this.
Thank you so much Annie for sharing your passion for herbs with Pukka Planet. It has been wonderful talking to you.
Annie practises herbal medicine at Artemis House, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, and see patients in London once a month. She may be contacted on Tel: 01451 810096 or at www.annemcintyre.com
* (see our article on Ayurveda here to read more about these Ayurvedic concepts)