The demand for trained medical herbalists has increased sharply in the past five years.

There are now at least 15 in practice in Sussex, treating people who prefer to take natural remedies instead of conventional medicine.

Siobhan Ryan looks at the growing trend for herbal treatments Florabel Campbell-Atkinson has a slightly different approach to medicine.

If a patient comes to see her with a headache, she not only gives them something to ease the pain but also looks for what caused the symptom in the first place, so she can treat with that as well.

The holistic approach, in which the patient and his lifestyle is treated as a whole, is a fundamental part of every herbalist's methodology.

Medical herbalists are trained in the same diagnostic skills as orthodox doctors but take a more holistic approach to illness.

The underlying cause of the problem is sought and, once identified, it is this which is treated rather than the symptoms alone.

The reason for this is that treatment or suppression of symptoms will not rid the body of the disease itself.

Herbalists use their remedies to restore balance in the body, thus helping it to mobilise its own healing.

Mrs Campbell-Atkinson said: "For example, a doctor may be able to pin a bone together if it is broken but it is the body that makes the new bone grow and heal."

After five years working in London, Mrs Campbell-Atkinson has just set up a practice in Bexhill and eventually hopes to expand into Brighton, Eastbourne and Rye.

She qualified at the College of Phytotherapy and is a member of both herbalist professional organisations, the National Institute of Medical Herbalists and the College of Phytotherapy Practitioners.

Mrs Campbell-Atkinson said: "The National Institute can send out information giving a full list of all qualified medical herbalists in the UK, so it is easy to find where your nearest one is based.

That way, you can be certain of getting the best and safest treatment possible."

Herbal medicine is the use of plant remedies in the treatment of disease and is the oldest form of medicine known.

It is classed as an "alternative" or "complementary" discipline but it is also the most widely-practised form of medicine worldwide more than 80 per cent of the world's population relies on herbs for health.

Herbalists say healing is a matter of teamwork, with patient, practitioner and the prescribed treatment working together to restore the body to health.

Treatment can include advice about diet and lifestyle as well as the herbal medicine.

Herbalists use a wide range of plant-based materials for internal and external use, which come in various forms including syrups, capsules, tinctures and creams.

Indeed many of the pharmaceuticals in use today are based on plant constituents and researchers often turn to the plant world for new cures.

Plants with a particular affinity for certain organs or systems of the body are used to "feed" and restore to health those parts which have become weakened.

Herbal medicine can treat almost any condition that patients might take to their GP.

Common complaints seen by herbalists include skin problems such as psoriasis, acne and eczema and digestive disorders such as peptic ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion.

Problems involving the heart and circulation, such as angina, high blood pressure, varicose veins and varicose ulcers, as well as certain gynaecological disorders, can also be treated successfully.

So, too, can conditions such as arthritis, insomnia, stress, migraine, headaches and allergic responses such as hay fever and asthma.

But qualified herbalists such as Mrs Campbell-Atkinson know when a patient is best seen by a GP or another therapist.

She said: "I was once based at a GP's surgery and it was very useful. Not only could I refer patients to the GPs but they would send patients to me if they thought it would be beneficial.

"There is no reason why conventional and alternative medicines can't complement each other."

*For more details, contact Mrs Campbell-Atkinson on 01424 210237 or the National Institute of Medical Herbalists on 01392 426022.