Agnus Castus: Holland & Barrett an ethical company?

I had a disturbing insight into the tactics of the big herbal suppliers when a homeopath called Maeve, who used to work at Holland & Barrett, commented on my blog recently (see the comments under ‘About’ for the full conversation). In our correspondence I asked her if the sales staff were informed about the massive reduction in dosage of Agnus Castus tablets forced onto the herbal industry by 2011 legislation – see this post and this one for more on the impact of these changes.

Maeve replied:

“I can honestly say that they [Holland & Barrett] never sent through a training update or any info on the new doses, there was never any explanation, this has most likely left staff floundering, forcing them to tell customers that they are equivalent to the same levels as the whole herb.”

This is shocking. If the change in dosage was minimal then you might forgive H&B for not informing the sales staff, but the dosage was reduced from the equivalent standardised extract of 20mg to 4mg (1/5 of the original dose). If your GP prescribed you a drug at a dosage five times lower than you had used before (and your health was damaged as result), this would constitute gross negligence. But it appears Holland & Barrett, Healthspan, Boots and so on can do this to a herbal remedy with no explanation to the customer nor a legal imperative to provide one.

Taking Agnus Castus at the correct dosage is vital for my continued well-being. Prior to taking it I was prescribed morphine for period pains and routinely missed 2 to 3 days a month of work. I was depressed and desperate and even contemplated a total hysterectomy at the age of 35 (which, without taking a hormone replacement, would have brought on early menopause and the risks to bone density as well as an assault on my sexuality and identity). Thankfully, I have reached 43 with my ovaries and womb intact and take nothing stronger than ibuprofen for period pain.

As it is Agnus Castus is not on the list of prescribable drugs for PMT despite being recommended by Dr Nick Panay, Consultant Obstetrician and trustee for NAPS (see this post for more on guidelines to GP’s). This means many women are being prescribed antidepressants with their long list of side effects (e.g. loss of libido), when trials for Agnus Castus reveal it is at least as effective if not more so (with none of the side effects). On top of this inability to prescribe the herb, Agnus Castus is rendered ineffective by draconian and frankly bizarre licensing decisions by the European Medicines Agency – see this document for the responses to consultation prior to licensing.  Even if women do their research and buy Agnus Castus on the UK high street, they will believe it be a con when they find their symptoms do not improve (RCT’s reveal that 20mg is the optimal dose – see this study). Because of the prohibitive costs of obtaining a product licence for Agnus Castus (£100,000 approx), retailers have opted for the cheaper Traditional Herbal Registration option (£10,000 approx), restricting dosage to no more than 4mg per tablet with the corresponding advice to take 1-2 tablets a day with a warning not to exceed the stated dose. I am not one to buy into conspiracy theories, but you only have to read this post on ‘Sarafem’ (Prozac in disguise) to realise big pharmaceutical companies will do anything to ensure their drugs are sold as widely as possible, including eliminating the competition.

As Maeve comments:

“This erosion of choice will have a serious impact for the next generation. The goal of all this is to create a complementary health free world, free of herbalists and homeopaths and all natural practitioners to be ruled and dominated by the Pharmaceutical drug lords. Sounds like fantasy- it is happening now. In the next 10-20 years, we’ll either need to learn the old ways and grow our own herbs or forget they existed entirely.”

With recent news about doctors in the US receiving ‘perks’ from drug companies in ‘return’ for prescribing a particular drug, the world Maeve predicts doesn’t seem that far-fetched. She is right, it is happening now. We are already forgetting remedies our grandparents routinely used and believe everything can be solved by a pill, from acne and addiction to schizophrenia and weight loss.

Take statins and cure dying!

Of course it is not just Big Pharma that is corrupt, it is capitalism itself. Profits for the few at the expense of the majority is bound to result in the blurring of ethics, or, as this satirised advert makes plain, absence of ethics altogether. Holland & Barrett are no worse than the majority of high street chains that ‘claim’ to put their customers first and as Maeve points out not everyone at H&B is corrupt (just the ones at the top it seems).

“I joined H&B hoping they were an ethical company. I left a year later deeply disillusioned and disappointed. I know there to be a lot of good people in H&B but there is a constant tug of war going on and unfortunately, the sales force is stronger than the integrity force. H&B are not investors in people. Having said that. It is still possible to find good products in an H&B along with lovely, knowledgeable staff if you know what you’re looking for.”

In my quest to make women aware of the incredible benefits of Agnus Castus I have been confronted with the selfish, self-interested nature of capitalism. Curing a distressing condition is only worthwhile if it makes a lot of money for a niche few. The dystopian future of Atwood’s trilogy (Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam) where pharmaceutical corporations manufacture diseases in order to sell drugs to cure them, seems less like speculative fiction and more an inevitable reality.

So what can us little people do? (I am only 5ft 2 so this is a literal statement for me 🙂  We can keep sharing knowledge of herbs and vitamins, passing this information onto the next generation so it is not lost and we are not beholden to big Pharma to ‘solve’ all our health problems (when nature has already provided us with solutions). We can seek out like minded others and support campaigns such as this one or write to our MEP’s  – see this post for template – but don’t expect a reply. We can do our own research on the web; I find this blog gives a refreshing perspective on modern medicine, although I don’t always agree with every view it espouses, it has certainly made me question in whose interests am I being ‘sold’ a particular cure. I also find medical journalist Jerome Burne’s blog an insightful and at times shocking read. We can also, where our climate is favourable, grow our own herbs and learn how to harness their properties. There are many books and internet guides out there to help you achieve this.

“Herb users are going to have to learn the old and safe ways of using safe, medicinal herbs if they don’t want to be a captive consumer audience 🙂 ” Maeve

I, for one, will keep blogging about it and plan to grow my very own Agnus Castus bush. Join me. Please. Let’s start a backyard revolution!

An open letter to Ann Saunders (Former Deputy Head Teacher – Sittingbourne Community College)

Dear Ann,

I don’t know if you will even remember me, but you gave me my first teaching job in 1995 after I responded to an ad in the local paper to teach GNVQ Health and Social Care.

Teaching was something I had always wanted to do, but without a degree I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of securing a position. At the time I was a registered nurse with a toddler and new baby, married to a Sergeant in the Royal Engineers and living on an army base in Chatham. I am not sure what possessed you to take on an unqualified and completely inexperienced novice like me, but you did.  Looking back I must have driven you mad arriving in your office every morning to show you my lesson plans and a bombard you with a million question, but never once did you act like I was a nuisance – even though, as Deputy Head, you had a zillion things to do. The eighteen months I spent at Sittingbourne Community College made me surer than ever that teaching was the career I wanted to pursue. You also saved me from certain death by mother and toddler conversations (I was never cut out for full-time motherhood). You generously gave me your time and nurtured the teacher within. I was in total awe of your ability to manage a class of boisterous fourteen year olds without ever losing your cool – and vowed to one day be as good as you. I particularly remember one student on the Child Development NVQ course who claimed to be psychic and remarked on more than one occasion that she had a strong sense of twins when we were together in the same room. Disinclined as I am to believe in the mystical, I chose to believe in her assertion – daring to hope it meant that you saw yourself in the untrained, but eager me.

It was with a huge reluctance I left Sittingbourne. My husband, John, had been posted to Hameln, Germany (the town where the Pied Piper stole all the children).  I cried on and off for days at the thought of leaving the UK and a job that I loved, but as we celebrate twenty-two years of marriage and he supports me on yet another life-changing adventure, I can honestly say I would follow him to the end of time and beyond.

In Germany, with teaching jobs in short supply, I returned to my first career of nursing, but kept my skills up to date by using my NVQ Assessor qualifications. As you know I was studying for a psychology degree (OU), which I finished in the final year in Germany in 1999. My husband left the army and we bought our first house back in my home county. We arrived in the UK just in time for my graduation. I was presented my 1st Class honours (BSc) by Cherie Blair – when Tony Blair was still riding high and we all believed this prosperity and peace would last forever. Armed with a degree and the invaluable teaching experience I gained in Sittingbourne, I trawled the papers for a teaching job – despite still not having a teaching qualification. Another wonderful teacher, Mr John Brandon, Head of Mark Rutherford Upper School in Bedford, gave me that chance and funded my training to reach Qualified Teacher Status.  A year later I repaid his faith in me and started Mark Rutherford’s first psychology department (which is still going strong today). I spent four years at the school developing my teaching and middle management skills and completing a Masters in Research Methods. I also learnt to control my classes without losing my cool (most of the time). Five years later, in 2004, with my children entering middle school and the addition of a cat and dog, plus another house move, I applied for Head of Department at a well-respected local school and got it.

In the ten years since, my two children have grown up and left home, one to Warwick to study philosophy, and one to Honduras to work as a teacher volunteer (now returned and off to UCL to study languages in September). The cat and the dog have gotten a bit decrepit (and been joined by a scruffy rescue puppy) and I have somehow reached my forties and have too  many grey hairs. In that time I have mentored five student teachers (one is now a head of department) and built a thriving, successful department as well as enjoying the challenge of enhanced roles in learning and teaching . I have taught psychology to hundreds of students and have finally mastered the art of behaviour management – almost 🙂

At forty-three it is time for me (before it is too late) to say goodbye to my role as a classroom teacher and begin a new and exciting career. A career that would not have been possible if eighteen years ago you hadn’t hired a twenty-something nurse whose only classroom experience came from watching Dead Poet’s Society (five times).  A week ago I accepted a place on the Doctorate in Child and Educational Psychology at University College London (UCL).   I am incredibly fortunate to have been offered only one of 11 places from a field of 300 applicants! In three years’ time (all going to plan) I will be a Chartered Educational Psychologist and have the skills and professional standing to enable even more positive change in the lives of young people.

So thank you Ann Saunders. Thank you for everything – it all started with you 🙂

Your humble student (and spiritual twin),

Juliet O’Callaghan

Me and my son in 1995
Me and my son in 1995
me and both my children in 2013
me and both my children in 2013