Interview with JOAN HANRAHAN : Herbalist & Nutritional Therapist

Joan Hanrahan


1. When did you first become interested in nutrition and health?
I lived in India as a child and we only had three books. One of them was “A Family Doctor” and I read it from cover to cover and became fascinated with the human body and all the different diseases. The other books were about wild flowers and birds and I also became interested in plants and nature.

2. What is your educational background?
I left school at 15. I asked too many questions so I was asked to leave. I was told that I wasn’t university material and that I should become a secretary or a nurse.

I went to work as a secretary in an advertising agency. There were lots of old health magazines there so I read them all from cover to cover. I read lots of health books too and just about everything I could find about health. I looked into studying health but each time I tried I came up against some obstacle, like not having A Level chemistry, so eventually I just gave up

I worked as an antiques dealer for quite a long time and I was 56 by the time I finally got to study what I wanted to study. I moved to London and studied for 3 years to get my degree in Nutritional Therapy and then I spent a further 2 years studying Herbal Medicine. University was a bit daunting for me initially, but I found the support of the other students great and it was a real sharing experience.

After I graduated I was asked to teach at a college. I was nervous at first but the more I did it, the more people told me how interesting they found it. It just goes to show that it’s never too late to do what you want to do – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

3. You have your own clinic in Dalkey and have developed a great reputation for helping people with a range of health issues. What aspects of your job do you enjoy most?
I enjoy the detective work aspect of it, figuring out what the root cause of the problem is. As a nutritional therapist you don’t treat symptoms, you look at the whole picture.

Whatever symptoms people have, the background advice around diet and lifestyle is more or less the same. If the basics are working and you get things right at the cellular level, everything else will fall into place.

Half the battle is education. My patients are often surprised when I give them homework. I send them away with websites to look at and doctors’ podcasts to listen to and then I meet them again a few weeks later once they’ve had time to take it all in.

You need to take control of your own health! Bit it’s much easier nowadays because the internet is an amazing resource.

4. What kind of health issues do people come to you for help with?
A lot of patients come with digestive issues and stress, which are often related, as stress has a huge impact on digestion. I need to rule out serious issues like IBS or thyroid problems first, but there are a lot of herbal medicines for anxiety that are very good.

Getting the gut in balance and the body working well is key. I have to unpick the stresses in people’s lives and you often need to go back to childhood for that. I’m not a counselor, though, and I always refer patients on to a counselor if they need one.

Educating patients is very important – no one will do anything unless they understand why they are doing it. If I’m telling them to take a magnesium supplement, they need to know why they’re taking it.

I also try to see the family or partner of my patients if possible. If people are cooking together, they need to make changes together, so it makes sense to get everyone on board. I don’t charge extra for that – it’s the same thing giving practical advice to a group of people as just one person.

5. How do you strike the balance between herbal remedies and conventional medicine?
I’ve always been against unnecessary medical interference. My father died as a result of an unnecessary operation and I’ve seen lots of things done by people from the medical profession that were not beneficial or were even harmful in some cases.

I’ve always had a fear of taking any chemical substance and I have personally avoided taking medicine and antibiotics over the years. I wouldn’t even take an asprin for a headache – I would just have a big glass of water before bed!

I certainly don’t dismiss modern medicine and obviously there are times when it is essential, but there is an awful lot of unnecessary use of drugs and there is a huge waste of money in the health service.

Often doctors don’t have enough time to properly assess their patients. Many of them only spend about 10 minutes with them, whereas I take a good hour to hour and a half for proper consultation. I go away and think about each case and I also do a follow-up with them a few weeks later.

It’s good when people have had the major things ruled out by a doctor before coming to see me. I like to see blood tests and thyroid tests and I also carry out my own advanced tests, like ones for parasites in the gut.

It would be great to see doctors and nutritional therapists working together more. It’s happening in UK now, where many medical practices have a nutritional therapist, but not so much here yet.

There is quite a bit of mis-information out there about nutritional therapy. You get a lot of so-called “experts” talking on radio shows, who are often wrong in what they are saying on many topics, which doesn’t help.

Increasingly we get referrals from doctors, but word of mouth plays a key role, too. If you’re good, people will hear about you.

6. You have been an inspiration to many of your patients and students. Is it important to pass on your knowledge to others?
Yes, I find teaching very rewarding, not just in a college setting but in my clinic too. So much of what I do is about passing on knowledge to patients and educating them, and I especially enjoy doing that with young people. They may come in looking for some advice on acne and I get them interested and show them that they can take control of their health and nutrition.

Many older people come to me as a last port of call. By that stage they may be on a cocktail of several different types of drugs and have blind faith in their doctors so it can be hard to get them to change. I would like to see these people at an earlier stage.

7. You are interested in growing your own food and using foods from the wild. What kind of plants do you grow?
I like unusual plants and edible plants and I have an interesting collection in my garden. Even at this time of year I can pop out there and find useful ingredients. I was making a green smoothie today and was able to find some kale leaves and watercress to add.

I have a patch of nettles that I use to make nettle soup. Many people don’t realise that nettles are full of nutrients like iron, potassium and silica. It’s better to use nettles from your own garden, though, as those found in other places may have been sprayed with chemicals. For nettle soup you just fry some onions, add chopped potato, salt, pepper, garlic, water and nettles.

I also grow lots of berries like blackcurrants, raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries, which are full of antioxidants.

8. You run gardening workshops from your own back garden. What
do these involve?

I bring people into my own garden and introduce them to the plants I grow and take them through the growing process and their uses. I have an interesting collection to show them and I encourage them to take cuttings home. I’ve always taken plenty of cuttings from different places myself so it’s nice to give back.

Do you think it’s important for people to try to grow their own food?
Everyone should grow their own food. Even if you’ve only got a balcony, you’d be amazed what you can produce!

A herb like sage, for example, has many uses besides cooking. It has healing properties and can be used to treat mouth ulcers or hot flushes.

9. You also have an interest in environmental medicine and you are involved with the anti-fluoride movement in Ireland. What’s the problem with the fluoride levels in our tap water?
I feel very strongly that the fluoride in our tap water is extremely harmful in this country, but there are a lot of vested interests who don’t want people to find out that it’s been a mistake.

Flouride interferes with the uptake of iodine in the body, which is needed for the healthy functioning of the thyroid gland, and there is a very high incidence of thyroid problems in Ireland.

There are receptors in the breasts, ovaries and prostate for iodine but most of us are not getting enough iodine and very few people eat shellfish or sea vegetables, which are good sources. When we are low in iodine, fluoride gets taken up instead.

I use filters on all my taps at home and don’t use tap water for drinking or cooking.

10. What is your personal nutritional or health philosophy?
Take control of your own health. Don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. Become your own expert.

Often doctors don’t have time to really investigate each patient’s individual case so if you get a blood test from the doctor that says you’ve got a particular illness, research it and find out all you can about it. That way, you can go back and have an intelligent conversation with the doctor and find out all you need to know.

11. Who inspires you in the nutrition and health world?
I don’t really have any one inspiration. My knowledge all comes from reading, reading and more reading. I also listen to a lot of podcasts from doctors in America.

It’s been a slow process of always being curious. Asking questions wasn’t always appreciated and that’s what annoyed the teachers, who said that I was not university material, but I kept asking them anyway.

12. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career as a nutritional therapist or herbalist?
I finally got my degree at the age of 60 so that’s proof that it’s never too late to study what you love! Age is actually an advantage, as you have life experiences that others don’t and that can really help.

13. How have things changed in the health and nutrition industry since you started out?
It’s interesting how attitudes to alternative medicine have changed over the years. I remember reading a book called “Dangerous Grains” about 15 years ago about allergies to grains and the dangers of gluten. I didn’t take too much notice at the time but looking back that book was actually way ahead of its time and these things are commonly accepted nowadays.

14. What do you think the future holds for herbal medicine and nutritional therapy?
We’re seeing changes in the USA now, where there is a movement towards functional medicine. The UK is also becoming more progressive, with nutritional therapists in many clinics, so it would be great to see Ireland follow suit.


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