Herbal Medicine: The Most Ancient Form of Healing
Remnants of medicinal plants have been found in ancient archaeological Stone Age sites from about 7,000 years ago, and healing plants are even known to be used by animals in the wild. For instance, it is known that chimpanzees roll up bitter leaves and swallow them whole, perhaps to get the bitter medicine without having to taste it. When analyzed these leaves demonstrate strong anti-parasitic activity.
Herbal Medicine in Modern Health Care
Today, people from many cultures of the world still use herbal medicine as their primary form of health care. In China for instance, herbal medicine has a 5000 year old history of use. Many millions of Chinese people still use herbal medicine in their daily lives, and government health insurance pays for most of the cost. Over 300 different herbs can be found in the official Chinese herbal pharmacopeia and are commonly recommended in many different prescriptions by herbalists and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine working in clinics and hospitals throughout the country.
In China, patients have many more options available to help alleviate their symptoms than we generally have in the west, and at a fraction of the cost. Traditional doctors of internal medicine in the many hospitals in China that include traditional medical modalities incorporate mix and match traditional diagnostic methods like tongue and pulse diagnosis, side-by-side with modern tests such as endoscopic examinations and MRIs to check for inflammation, polyps, and other abnormalities.
Practitioners might use modern tests to find out more about the nature of a person’s present state of internal health, and then recommend an herb formula, or even therapeutic massage, to help restore the patient’s health and reduce or eliminate symptoms. These treatments often work by activating the body’s innate defense mechanisms, seeking to restore internal balance, rather than suppress the symptoms at all costs.
In the next decade, herbal medicine might well take an important place among the modalities offered in medical clinics and hospitals. This is already happening in some places, as more and more human studies involving thousands of patients compare herbal treatments to drug treatments. Overall, the herbal treatments often show comparable benefits, with about half the side effects and a quarter of the cost. An example is the herb St. Johns Wort, which was just as effective as the antidepressant Zoloft for treating moderate depression, and in one trial, severe depression when the herbal treatment was given at 3 times the normal dose.
What is Herbalism?
Herbal medicine is the use of naturally-occurring substances for healing. In traditional Chinese medicine, one of the oldest and most-developed systems of herbal medicine in the world, the word herb is defined by any substance found in nature used as a medicine. Examples are minerals, sea shells, seaweeds, green plants, mushrooms, and even animal parts. Although this is the traditional definition, many modern herbalists do not use animal parts in their practice today because some animals such as the sea horse are now considered rare and endangered, and international laws prohibit their harvest or sale.
Herbal medicine practitioners today usually focus on dried plants and plant extracts, and recommend a wide variety as single herbs or in prescriptions sometimes containing ten or twenty herbs. A well-trained herbalist might be familiar with the traditional uses and safety profiles of one hundred, and in some cases as many as 300 different herbs. Increasingly, many herbalists are also versed in the published scientific literature detailing the efficacy and safety of dozens of popular herbal remedies.
All parts of plants are used for medicine, including fruits, leaves, bark, and roots. The knowledge of exactly what part of a plant to harvest and what time of year is best is considered one key to successful practice, and this knowledge has been passed down in written form, or by word of mouth, from generation to generation.
Dried or fresh plants are harvested from the wild or on farms, then dried, and processed into many different types of herbal medicines, including teas, alcoholic extracts called tinctures, creams and salves to be applied externally, and a large array of tablets and capsules. Today herbal medicines can be found in convenience stores, supermarkets, health food stores, and most pharmacies.
Some of the capsules and tablets contain herbs in their simple dried and powdered state. Other products in capsule in tablet form contain extracts where the active ingredients of the herbs have been removed by a solvent like ethyl alcohol, and then concentrated in a vacuum dryer or other dryer to produce a concentrated powder. This powder is then pressed into tablets and packed in the capsules. The left-over fiber is then composted, as it contains very little of the plant’s active compounds.
Herbal products can be used regularly for prevention of symptoms and disease, such as the frequent use of Hawthorne as a heart tonic, or in higher amounts for short periods of time to help relieve acute symptoms like a sore throat, cough, or runny nose associated with a respiratory tract infection.
Herbalism is a Holistic System of Healing
To an herbalist, herbal medicine is much more than just a safer drug. Herbal medicine is often part of a system of traditional medicine, such as traditional Chinese medicine or Native American Indian medicine or Ayurvedic medicine, of East India. Systems of traditional medicine emphasize the importance of understanding the roots of illness. Practitioners of these systems seek to understand the meaning of the symptoms of disease, and avoid masking the symptoms with a strong medication that might relieve the symptoms temporarily only to stress the body further leading to a lessening in the quality of one’s life.
Systems of traditional medicine often incorporate many other modalities that work in conjunction with herbal medicine, such as moxibustion, the burning of herbal “cigars” containing the aromatic herb mugwort to warm and stimulate areas of the body, triggering a healing response. The application of healing oils, and even hot and cold water in the form of hydrotherapy may also be used to compliment the action of the herbs.
Practitioners of traditional medicine also seek to understand the place of the individual in their environment. They listen carefully to what the patient has to say about how they are feeling day-to-day and season-to-season to determine how changes of the seasons and emotions affect internal balance, and ultimately, health.
Many factors are all taken into consideration by the practitioner, including the diet of the patient, to determine the best course of treatment that often includes herbal medicines. Practitioners of traditional medicine also emphasize the importance of strong and healthy family and community networks, the emotional balance of the patient, spiritual or religious beliefs, living and family conditions, and understanding the health and disease processes of the patient on the basis of individual differences.
In traditional medicine there is a concept that is called treat the root, treat the branch. This means that we should take a treatment or urban that can help reduce symptoms immediately so that we can be more comfortable. For instance, reducing a headache, Walt the same time, we can take an herbal tonic to restore in her balance and help remove the initial cause of the disease.
Personalized Health Counseling
Unlike modern medicine herbal practitioners are often trained to help the patient develop personalized plan. Not focusing on one-size-fits-all or one drug fits all. An interesting study was published in the Journal of American Medical Association a few years back. In this study, people with an herbal bowel syndrome were divided into three groups. One group received a placebo, a second group received a standard herbal off-the-shelf herbal treatment for irritable bowel, and a third group received a customized formula tailored to each individual's needs. At the end of the treatment, the patients in the group taking the off-the-shelf herbal medicine were doing a little bit better than the people in the placebo group, but the people in the group receiving the customized treatment saw their symptoms improved more consistently, and the benefits were longer-lasting.
Advantages of Herbal Medicine
Many people today understand the benefits of modern medicine, which is often very good at treating medical emergencies. For accidents, burns, major injuries, and when the disease processes continue to the point where serious pathology exists (as we often see in severe heart disease), modern medicine has many diagnostic methods and technologically-advanced procedures to help the patient survive. These modern procedures often depend on advanced technology, which comes with a price tag. This may be helpful for those who can afford it, but can leave a significant percentage of the population without this care. Research published recently by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that children without medical insurance are 10 times more likely to not receive the medical care they needed, compared with children covered by medical insurance. In 2005, about 47 million Americans were without health insurance, which directly causes 18,000 unnecessary deaths each year (1, 2). Most industrialized nations provide universal health care to all their citizens. The United States is the only wealthy nation that does not (2). Based on these statistics, it is easy to understand the advantages of a health-based system of healing such as herbal medicine provided by community-based traditionally trained practitioners. This care is often much less expensive than comparable industrialized medical care, and the emphasis on disease prevention and health education coupled with the use of gentle, time-tested herb products can provide additional benefits to many individuals, and to the larger society.
History of Herbalism
Herbal medicine has been used since time immemorial. We have some indication through archaeological digs that people used herbal medicines as far back as 5000 years ago during the Stone Age. Written records go back perhaps 2000 years, both in Asia and in Europe. The earliest significant Western document on medicine is from ancient Egypt. This work is called the Ebers Papyrus which contained many prescriptions based on herbal medicines, including herbs we still used today such as ginger and garlic. From the Egyptians the knowledge of herbal medicine was passed on to the Greeks and the Romans, about 2000 years ago. The knowledge of medicine subsequently flowered in Persia (now called Iran) in the Middle East, then into southern Europe to the first schools of medicine in Italy at Salerno and Padua in the 15th and 16th centuries. The late 1400s saw the invention of the printing press and the first two books to be printed with this new invention were the Bible and the family herbal. In those days, one could not go down to the corner drug store and pick up an aspirin for a headache. All medicine came directly from nature. The first English herbal was printed in the early 1500s, and this book was followed by a number of so-called great herbals, huge tomes, which included everything that was currently known about the uses and practice of herbal medicine. Some of the major herbals were written by physicians of the time, such as John Gerard, John Parkinson, and William Turner.
Today in North America, we are at an herbal crossroads. Many influences from the systems of traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda from Asia and India, respectively, are converging with the practice of Native American Indian medicine and traditional European herbalism that had taken root over the last centuries in North America. This is an exciting time for herbal medicine around the world. Educational programs, apprenticeships, and many good-quality texts and correspondence courses are available in many countries, and many more people are choosing herbal medicine as a career.
In many countries all over the world, herbal medicine has always been, and continues to be the major source of medicine. One especially thinks of Africa, many Asian countries, Indonesia, and South America.
- DeNavas-Walt, C.B. Proctor, and C.H. Lee. Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2005. U.S. Census Bureau, August 2006.
- Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. 2004. Insuring America’s Health: Principles and Recommendations. http://www.iom.edu/?id=17848 (Accessed 20 January, 2008).