Herbalism is probably the oldest, most tried and tested form of medicine in the world. The use of plants for medicinal purposes is an integral element of all cultures and has played a significant role in healing since prehistoric times.
Also known as phytomedicine or botanical medicine, herbalism refers to the use of a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, fruits or flowers for therapeutic purposes. Not only is herbal medicine the science of using plants for treating the sick and managing various conditions from minor health complaints to serious illnesses, it is also the art of utilising nature’s medicine to protect and augment health and prolong life. Herbal lore is like a priceless treasure chest and knowledge of the healing power inherent in plants has been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation.
Herbs have a long and illustrious history. They were used extensively for healing by the ancient Greeks, Chinese, Indians, and Egyptians. There is some evidence of the Chinese use of herbs during the Shang dynasty circa 1 600 BC and the first known written record of herbal medicines was also found in China, dating back to 2 700 BC. Furthermore, ancient Egyptian papyrus writings described medicinal uses for plants, the Assyrian and Babylonian scribes wrote herbal recipes on clay tablets and indigenous African and Native American cultures have always been renowned for their herbal wisdom.
Western herbal medicine has its roots in the homespun practices of the British, Greek, and Roman traditions and can be traced back to the prominent physicians Hippocrates and Galen. The former, who lived 469 -377 BC in ancient Greece, is regarded as the Father of Modern Medicine. He wrote about 70 books on herbs, healing and holistic health, including a list of 400 herbs for common use and a book of 600 herbs that became the basis for many later books on this subject.
In the first century AD the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote the first comprehensive, illustrated book on herbal medicine – De Materia Medica – which included information on the preparation, properties and testing of herbs and became the basis for pharmaceutical and herbal writings until the 16th century. Herbal medicine spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire and in 200 AD the herbal practitioner and surgeon, Galen, created a system for classifying illnesses and remedies. In the following centuries herbal medicine became largely the domain of monks who took on the task of translating Arabic and Roman herbal scripts and cultivating medicinal herb-gardens. In 1500 AD herbal medicine began to go mainstream when it was promoted by Henry VII, who initiated the introduction of Acts of Parliament that allowed herbalists to practise. One of the most famous herbalists of the time was Nicholas Culpepper, who wrote the herbal book for the layperson, The English Physician. He later wrote Complete Herbal – a highly popular, informative and comprehensive book that is still available and quoted today.
A PARTIAL ECLIPSE
In the 19th century chemical analysis evolved, and scientists began extracting and modifying ingredients found in plants and identifying individual active constituents. This heralded the transition from raw herbs to synthetic pharmaceuticals. The discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in the 1930s ushered in the dawn of the antibiotic age. As developments in chemistry and fast-acting orthodox drugs increased in popularity, interest in herbs began to wane and herbal medicine faded into the background.
The pharmaceutical industry got under way in earnest from the 1950s. Pharmaceutical companies identified the active therapeutic principles of many plants, synthesised commercial analogues and patented new drugs. Many well-known pharmaceutical medications were originally derived from plants: for example, morphine comes from poppies, aspirin from willow bark and digoxin from foxglove. Today, approximately 25 percent of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from plants.
Herbal medicine may have been temporarily eclipsed by the advent of modern pharmaceuticals, but it has recently experienced a resurgence in popularity and is again one of the fastest-growing health trends. The World Health Organisation estimates that 80 percent of the global population uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. While herbal medicine has always been widespread in developing countries, its popularity is now increasing in the West.
Although the active ingredients of many plants have been isolated, imitated, refined and marketed as drugs, it is often the whole plant, not just the active ingredient, which has the beneficial action. This is because the plant’s constituents work synergistically to stimulate the body’s natural healing capacity.
The whole plant is often better than an isolated extract as the delicate balance of compounds within the plant is needed for best effect, as well as to reduce potential side-effects. Herbs work with the body instead of against the disease. Plants act in a variety of ways. They can be used for cleansing, eliminating and detoxifying, as well as for stimulating the body’s self-healing capacity and to boost immunity and resistance to disease.
Herbal medicine involves the preparation of specific parts of various plants and the individual actions of these herbs range from mild to potent. Mild herbs have subtle effects and may have to be taken for weeks before their full effects are achieved. More potent herbs will have an immediate and powerful effect. The form and dose play important roles in action and safety.
Herbs are available in many forms – as fresh or dried products, liquid or solid extracts, tablets, capsules, powders and tea bags. They are prepared either for consumption or for use on the skin in the form of creams, salves, oils, balms and ointments. Common preparations include teas, decoctions and tinctures. A tea, also known as an infusion, is made by adding boiling water to fresh or dried herbs and steeping them. Some roots, barks and berries need more forceful treatment to extract their ingredients and must be simmered into a decoction in boiling water for longer periods than teas. Tinctures are made by soaking a botanical in a solution of alcohol and water for some weeks and are used for concentrating and preserving plants.
The different forms have different strengths and different preparations vary in the relative amounts and concentrations of chemical extracted from the plant. For example, peppermint tea is safe to drink but peppermint oil is far more concentrated and can be toxic if used incorrectly. Whole herbs contain many ingredients that work together to produce a beneficial effect.
Herbal medicine has been practised for healing. Many medicinal plants have highly beneficial therapeutic properties and can be used to treat a wide range of symptoms and diseases. While some people consult a trained medical herbalist or phytotherapist, most use herbal medicines to self-medicate for prevention or treatment of common ailments. A variety of herbal preparations is available over-the-counter in health shops, pharmacies and supermarkets.
Herbs are ideal as a simple system of homecare for first aid, everyday ailments, the management of chronic conditions, strengthening the body and preventive treatment. There are many possible methods of using herbs for health. They can be taken internally as tablets, teas and tinctures or used externally in hand-baths, footbaths, skin washes, rubs, massage oils, eyebaths, compresses and fomentations. Local treatments allow the herb to act exactly where it is needed. Be aware that results from a particular plant will not necessarily be the same for everyone, as different herbs work for different people.
Not all herbs are created equal and efficacy is based on quality. Quality depends on numerous factors, starting with the environment in which the plant is grown; climate, soil, rainfall, genetics, insects and the time of day and season of harvesting all play a part. Everything that happens to the plant after it is harvested – extraction, preparation, storage, processing, manufacture and packaging – will also affect the quality and therapeutic activity of the final product. If the herbal product contains specific chemical components it will work; if these essential constituents are absent or are present in insufficient amounts, it will not work as effectively.
There are good- and bad-quality herbal preparations available on the market. Some products are standardised – i.e. tested for certain chemicals to ensure the herbs are sufficiently potent. This process is not compulsory across the global industry, however, but pressure is mounting for all products to be compliant with Good Manufacturing Practises (GMPs) for dietary supplements. These are a set of requirements by which dietary supplements must be manufactured, prepared and stored to ensure quality. Manufacturers are expected to guarantee the identity, purity, strength and composition of their dietary supplements. For example, GMPs aim to prevent the inclusion of the wrong ingredients, the addition of too much or too little of a dietary ingredient or an illegal substance, the possibility of contamination (by pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria, etc.) and the improper packaging and labelling of a product.
It is difficult to determine the quality of a herbal product from its label, but it is a good rule of thumb to favour reputable brands. As herbal medicine becomes more mainstream, improvements in analysis and quality control – along with advances in clinical research – show the value of herbal medicine in the treatment and prevention of disease.
Herbs must be recommended and taken with knowledge and responsibility. They are classified as dietary supplements and can be sold without being tested to prove that they are safe and effective. Many people believe that products labelled “natural” are safe, but this is not necessarily true because the safety of a herb depends on many things including its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared and the dose. The bioactivity of herbs is often underestimated.
Although generally considered safe, it is important to be aware that herbal medicines contain active ingredients which can be toxic if taken in excess and can also interact with prescription medications. With the growing popularity of herbal products, more research is currently being conducted into their safety and efficacy. It is always important to follow the manufacturer’s suggested directions for using a herbal product and not exceed the recommended dose without the advice of a healthcare provider. It is important to talk to your doctor or an expert in herbal medicine about the recommended doses of any herbal products.
Consumers need to be aware of the indications and contraindications of use for herbal products and specifically the interactions between herbal products and pharmaceutical medicines. However, herbs can be taken safely as long as a few simple rules are followed:
- Consult a doctor or other healthcare provider if you have a disease or medical condition, take any medications, are pregnant or nursing, or are planning to have an operation.
- Consult with a doctor or other healthcare provider before treating a child with herbal preparations.
- Like drugs, herbal or botanical preparations have chemical and biological activity. They may have side-effects. They may interact with certain medications. These interactions can cause problems and can even be dangerous.
- If you have any unexpected reactions to a herbal or botanical preparation, inform your doctor or other healthcare provider.
Used correctly, herbs can help treat a variety of conditions and in some cases may have fewer side-effects than some conventional medications.
INTO THE FUTURE
A worldwide renaissance in natural therapeutic systems is taking place and modern science is validating traditional practices. Renewed interest in herbs is being supported by a surge of scientific investigation into the use of plant-based medicines. These investigations are giving a greater understanding of how herbs work and greater credence to the ancient practise of herbal medicine.