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The power of herbs

Sebastian Pole, Pukka Herbs’ co-founder and ‘Master Herbsmith’, on how the incredible power of Nature can help everyone lead a happier, healthier life
Sebastian Pole planting a magnolia stella

This article first appeared in our autumn ’18 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Consumer Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 16 Nov 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

When he’s not in his herb garden, Sebastian Pole is either out hunting for herbs or formulating Pukka Herbs’ organic herbal blends and leading the company’s environmental and social mission. ‘Before Pukka, I was an enthusiastic herbalist who wanted to inspire the world by introducing people to the power of herbs’, he tells us.

Sebastian’s love for traditional medicine and plants started in his 20s, after a period of travel in the Himalayas. After returning to the UK to study Ayurvedic, Chinese and Western herbal medicine, Sebastian started teaching yoga and practising herbalism. ‘But I had more ambitious plans to awaken people to the wonders of herbs’, he says. ‘I wanted to really promote the benefits that plants can bring – as well as the brilliant insights of herbal science and tradition – and I knew that a great way to achieve this would be to set up a mission that would champion herbs.’

Pukka is just that. It’s built on a desire to grow the best quality organic herbs, influence the health of the environment and the people we connect with and use business as a force for good. Renewable energy is used to make Pukka teas and all Pukka’s herbs are 100% certified organic.
The company uses sustainably harvested herbs checked by FairWild, and brings direct benefit back to its farmers through Fair For Life. 20% of the staff at Pukka are herbalists or plant specialists, whose enthusiasm for the mission has been a driving force behind Pukka’s success.

‘I often say I have the best job in the world as I just love blending deliciously beneficial teas and supplements that so many people enjoy’, Sebastian tells us. ‘I also have the privilege of visiting many of the farmers we work with to enhance their organic impacts and herb quality.’

Tea with holistic intentions

The philosophy behind Pukka teas is a bit like guerrilla healthcare; before Sebastian creates a blend, he begins with a clear intention about who he wants to benefit from it. He says he spends a lot of time thinking, researching and tasting ‘to create a perfect balance’.

‘I also like to make sure there are some conservation and social benefits in every cup or capsule – which is why we use herbs that are FairWild or Fair For Life certified’, he tells us. ‘The journey then continues with growing the highest quality practitioner-grade organic herbs, rich in natural oils, carefully sourced from where they grow best in the world. The herbs are then analysed in the Pukka lab to ensure they meet our herbalist-level quality standards. Every Pukka herbal blend is created with holistic intentions in mind – every sip must create benefits for people, plants and planet.’

The problem with modern medicine

Until recently, the history of herbal medicine has been the history of human medicine. Over the last 100 years or so we have developed an incredible system of medicine using thousands of antibiotics and isolated drug chemicals – they save millions of lives but are also now becoming a leading cause of death.

Despite all best intentions, we have reached a crisis in modern healthcare – and the entire paradigm of how we manage human and animal disease is being questioned. The fear is that our saviours, such as antibiotics, are now causing more harm than good. The perception of antibiotics as a kind of magic bullet and their consequent proliferation is having three dramatic effects: escalating antibiotic resistance, a disturbed microbiome and disrupted immuno-neurological-psychological systems in animals and humans.

Increasingly, research implicates the proliferation of antibiotic use since the 1940s in the explosion of type 1 diabetes, allergies, respiratory disorders, psychological imbalances and inflammatory bowel diseases.

For Sebastian, some of the answers to these issues are right in front of us. ‘For the past billion years of our multi-celled evolution we have been in a dialogue with the world around us’, he says. ‘Our ancestors knew the benefits of the antimicrobial defence mechanisms that plants have developed through their co-evolutionary dance with the environment. Traditional health systems have identified that 30,000 of the 400,000 flowering species in the world have therapeutic properties. These plants still remain effective today. Our use of these species over millennia suggests that bacteria, fungi and viruses are less able to develop resistance to a broad-spectrum botanical pharmacy than to a narrow pharmaceutical one as used in our modern health system.’

Sustainable healthcare

Plants contain hundreds to thousands of natural chemicals that carry properties that have evolved to protect the rooted-in-the ground plant from evolving microbial and environmental challenges. Essential oils and colourful flavonoids optimise interaction with the environment to help the plant survive. Humans and animals have receptors and enzyme pathways that can harness these compounds for our benefit, suggesting a positive path for our future healthcare.

‘Unfortunately, conventional medical training omits an understanding of the traditional and holistic medicine; it’s oriented around the 11 body systems, without always fully understanding the important interactions between them’, Sebastian explains. ‘Virtually no nutrition is taught at medical school; we’ve therefore focused on the disease, and remarkable scientific breakthroughs have helped us explore biological processes down to the level of the gene, but we often can’t then build this back to provide a relevant picture of the whole person’s needs.’

Given this ideology, Sebastian says ‘it’s no surprise’ that herbal medicines aren’t prescribed by the NHS – although anecdotal data suggest doctors may recommend herbal supplements from health food shops as an alternative solution. ‘The inability of the NHS to embrace alternative approaches probably comes from the Gordian knot of industry pressure, media and misinformation’, Sebastian says. ‘Most people would not be aware that a good number of clinical trials exist; for the last decade over 600 peer-reviewed academic papers have been published on herbalism a year – with over 6,000 on the benefits of turmeric alone.’


Plants are complex living organisms, as we are, and they adapt to the seasons and climates. Aloe vera thrives in a hot desert and can soothe burns, cinnamon prospers in the drying heat and warms us, elderberry fruits grow just in time to help support us through the winter. Understanding how herbs and plants cope with extreme conditions can tell you a lot about what they can do for us. Given the winds change are upon us, here are my top herbs for autumn.

Ginger’s earthy spice is soothing and warming. Grate some fresh ginger into a mug of hot water and fresh lemon, or sip Pukka’s Lemon, Ginger and Manuka honey as soon as you feel a cold coming on.

A fantastic all-round winter boost. Take through the colder months to ward off the nasties.

Research has shown that this winter wonderberry can help to maintain the body’s immune system. Pukka’s Elderberry and Echinacea tea combines two powerful plants into one warming tea. Pukka has also created a syrup using elderberries, manuka honey, thyme
and ginger.

Known to bring you the grace and strength of a stallion, it’s famed for helping you adapt and regenerate.

So what role can plants and herbs play in modern healthcare? Some say humans are reducing their exposure to plant materials over time, and that intensive farming is limiting the diversity and quality of plant materials in our diets. In his book Plants and the Human Brain, Professor David Kennedy discusses how plant materials were an essential part of our ancestors’ diets, and how the natural world survives so clearly from synergies between plants, animal or insect species and soil fungi and microorganisms. David calls the dementia, diabetes, obesity and metabolic disorders the diseases of civilisation.

‘Key to the future of sustainable healthcare is raising awareness and providing education so that individuals and communities can care for themselves and their environments’, Sebastian says. ‘Sustainable healthcare is just that. Applying the principles of sustainability to health – so that it’s socially, environmentally and economically interdependent. Sustainable healthcare seeks to achieve the highest quality of life for all, and education and prevention are key. Natural, herbal and integrative solutions are all a part of this progressive approach.’

Revolution from crisis

Modern science isn’t all bad; for Sebastian it has brought us to an ‘exciting transition point’ at which we are beginning to understand the complex interactions within our body systems. Genomic research, for example, is unravelling the mysteries of the gut microbiome and how it’s connected to the healthy functioning of other parts of the body. We’re also beginning to appreciate the benefits that a wide, plant-based diet and certain herbs can have on our happiness, health and wellbeing.

‘Revolutions come from times of crisis’, Sebastian tells us. ‘The NHS seems to be at financial breaking point and is being rapidly privatised. Antimicrobial resistance is a major global health threat. In the UK, chronic disorders, so-called diseases of civilisation, are affecting more people – and for longer.’

For Sebastian, there couldn’t be a better time to create an alternative healthcare model. Preventing illness in the first place would be key, along with health education in schools. Our healthcare professionals must also be given a good grounding in healthy nutrition – particularly the power of plants. ‘There would need to be a seismic shift in policy and funding’, Sebastian says, ‘to disaggregate the strength of the pharmaceutical industry and redistribute investment. As we are the ‘customers’ it’s up to us to demand this.’ The good news for herbal practitioners, scientists, educators and advocates is that they can now digitally connect to form a global community. ‘They can share their data openly for wider exploration, and pool vital resources to address some of the big challenges’, Sebastian says. ‘All of these things are possible.’

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