What is phytotheraphy? — by Dr. Sonia Couto



by Caitlin


Phytotheraphy is not a well known form of medicine in South Africa, although it's existence has been around for years. Functional doctors are recognising the benefits of this ancient medicine and the power of herbalism by employing herbs and adaptogens into some of their treatment plans for patients as well. However, we were even more excited to learn that there are fully qualified Doctors of Phytotherapy in South Africa. Today we 'sit down' to chat to Dr Sonia about Phytotheraphy as she shares a little more about this Medicine as an option for primary health care.

Why did you get into Phytotherapy?

A primary-school teacher once told me that a scientist is anyone who sees the world around them and can’t resist but to ask ‘why’ and ‘how’. Throughout my formative years, I was always daydreaming about inventions, nature, the universe and the meaning of life. I was a strange kid. My dad would continuously say “Sonia, get your head out of the clouds” but it was those daydreams that led the 15-year-old me to a pinnacle moment in my life. In the moment I was sitting with my biology textbook and staring out of our french doors into the garden, it dawned on me… all plants are here for a reason.

What could these reasons be? How could I find out? Surely with the millions of species that exist on this planet, there must be a “fit” for every ailment. So I found an old small book on herbs at a second-hand store and proceeded to devour its every morsel of information. I was astonished that pure culinary herbs could be helpful for such a diversity of health complaints. From that time on I became infatuated with nature.

Initially I thought I wanted to go into research, but then I attended a Clinic session and a Materia Medica lecture at the School of Natural Medicine in the Western Cape, it was then that I realised that Phytotherapy was my future. It fascinated me to hear people talking about diseases and plants. They kept using the word “constituents” which sounded scary and amazing at the same time. I couldn’t comprehend how they knew so much! So, from that age I started my journey towards implementing health care through herbs. In a nutshell, I can say that I got into Phytotherapy due to a sheer fascination with the complexities of life and creation.


What is Phytotherapy?

Every Phytotherapist is armed with a concise and well-practiced speech to answer the inevitable question of “what is Phytotherapy”? Many do not know what it is. It is for this reason that I am excited to have been given the opportunity to write this article. It has become my passion, to educate as many people as possible about the option of herbal medicine in primary health care.

Most people allude to homeopathy or traditional healing as their point of reference. Whilst these practices have a cultural role to play, they are not the same as Phytotherapy. According to Britannica “Phytotherapy is a science-based medical practice and thus is distinguished from other more traditional approaches such as medical herbalism which relies on an empirical appreciation of medicinal herbs and which is often linked to traditional knowledge.”

In the context of South Africa, Phytotherapists are recognised as doctors. They are registered with the Allied Health Professions Council of South Africa. Within their scope of practice Phytotherapists are allowed to perform clinical examinations and make a diagnosis. I usually suggest to people that a Phytotherapist should be utilised like a family GP. Personally I find that the beauty of Phytotherapy lies in the prescription. After a lengthy consultation a Phytotherapist will then begin to formulate a mixture of herbs (the herbs are usually in the form of a tincture). This process is referred to as compounding and dispensing and means that the herbal medicine you receive is tailored to your specific needs at the time of consultation. The medicine will also likely change each and every time you go for your follow up. In this regard a Phytotherapist gets to be the doctor and the pharmacist. The specificity of treatment is one of the greatest attributes in my opinion to herbal medicine. Other herbal preparations include dry herbs (infusion/decoctions or herbs that have been powdered to make capsules or tablets. Herbs can also be infused into oils and distilled to extract essential oils. They can also be used in syrups, creams, lotions or ointments for a wide variety of internal or topical applications.


How does it differ from conventional medical practices?

In terms of the scope of practice, a Phytotherapist is not permitted to do anything invasive. This includes drawing blood, minor sutures and giving iarious injections. A Phytotherapist is also not allowed to prescribe antibiotics. These legislations are implemented by the government body and are a large frustration to most Phytotherapists. The Phytotherapeutic approach is also different to an allopathic medical approach in that a first time consultation is at least an hour. Building a doctor-patient relationship is very important to a Phytotherapist. This is because the doctor is viewed as the teacher and not merely as the authority. A good Phytotherapist will take care to teach the patent about their body's health and well-being. Another difference lies in the prescription. Many pharmaceutical drugs originate from the ‘blueprint’ of a constituent found in a plant. The constituent is either isolated and extracted or it is replicated in a laboratory setting. While this process allows for increased testability it removes the synergistic effect of the plant as a whole. This synergistic effect lowers the chances of side effects that are seen in isolated drugs. An example of this is Salicylate (Aspirin) being isolated from Salix alba (willow) and Filipendula ulmaria (meadowsweet). When in the isolated forms Salicylates have an increased efficacy however they also have the chance of irritating gastric mucosa and causing gastric bleeding. Willow and Meadowsweet do not have this side effect in their whole form. However it is important to note that herbs can have side effects. The common misconception that “all plants are safe” is a dangerous perception.


How can Phytotheraphy serve women on their wellness journeys?

Not only can herbs themselves serve a woman on their wellness journey but the knowledge of simple herbal remedies is indispensable to her “life-hack toolkit”. Whether she has menstrual cramps, the onset of a cold or can’t fall asleep one night. It is the most empowering feeling to understand oneself and to be able to assist our bodies when they are ‘under the weather’. That empowerment extends into family life. There is a lot of pressure for the female of a house and it is a relief to be able to treat your children on the most primary and basic level. But going back to the herbs themselves and this above mentioned issue of “pressure”.

Females are currently under incredible amounts of stress. The levels of cortisol that are now floating around any female’s body are astronomical and have a detrimental effect on overall health. Through herbs, diet and lifestyle as advised by a Phytotherapist, can assist a female in keeping their bodies in balance. This also extends to mental well being. A key class of herbs to look out for on this topic is adaptogenic herbs. These herbs help you to cope with mental, emotional and physical stress.

Another important use of Phytotherapy is in fertility. The pharmaceutical options for increasing fertility are intensified to say the least. I wish (and hopefully through this article it will start to come true) that more women would realise that they can try the herbal route first. There is no greater need for hormonal balance within our lifestyle than now  and the society that we live in.

Lastly there is so much to say about bitter herbs and gut health. Bitter herbs and whole foods are imperative to a healthy gut and mind. Unfortunately food stores do not often cater for bitter foods because the masses have tended towards sweet, salty and fatty flavours. If there’s one piece of practical and effortless advice that I could leave you with today it would be to swap out your coffee for some Green Tea (unless you have caffeine intolerances).


I highly recommend Phytotherapy to any woman who is seeking a deeper understanding of their body and those who are looking to restore their balance from within.



Marize AlbertynComment