As we spoke about in An Introduction to Alternative Medicine, many different natural therapies are becoming very popular in our society these days. One of my favorites, is Herbal Medicine.
What is Herbal Medicine?
Herbalism is a traditional medicinal or folk medicine practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts. Herbalism is also known as botanical medicine, medical herbalism, herbal medicine, herbology, and phytotherapy. The scope of herbal medicine is sometimes extended to include fungal and bee products, as well as minerals, shells and certain animal parts. Pharmacognosy is the study of medicines derived from natural sources.
Herbal medicine has been the dominant form of “health care” since the beginning of human culture. Even today, 75% of the world’s population depends on some form of herbal medicine as their primary source of health care.
Many herbs are considered nutrient-rich foods and, as such, can be utilized as dietary supplements benefiting anyone regardless of their level of health, as well as complementing and supporting conventional therapy.
Some of the reasons I feel that herbal medicine has consistently remained so popular world-wide are:
1) Safety – Herbal Medicine is inherently much safer than pharmaceutical medicine. A recent study of all poisonings shows there has not been a single death traced to the use of nutritional supplements, including herbal supplements. Meanwhile, prescription drugs – those properly prescribed – account for 128,000 deaths and 2.74 million serious adverse reactions each year.
2) Accessibility – Most people only need to step out their front door to find medicinal herbs. Even in the city, a window ledge can provide an abundance of plants to use as medicine.
3) Efficacy – There is a long, documented history of success with Herbal Medicine. In fact, TCM and Ayurveda have been practiced and documented with several thousand years of imperical evidence.
4) Synergy – Herbal formulations work in a subtle manner that is harmonious and synergistic with the body’s healing processes. The body’s natural defenses are strengthened, allowing it to heal itself. Herbal remedies don’t just alleviate the symptoms of illness, but actually work towards fixing the underlying cause of the problem.
There are many different ways to incorporate herbs into daily life. One of the best and most meaningful is to grow them yourself. When you work with plants on a daily basis, you get to know them, their “personalities”, their energies. You begin to get an intuitive feeling for their affinities, what they can offer to you, how they can help you flourish, while, in return, you offer them a healthy place to grow and flourish.
History of Herbal Medicine
Herbalism has a long and rich history. In fact, nearly all cultures and societies have depended on some form of herbal medicine throughout the recorded history of the human race. From the Ayurvedic texts of India, and the Unani Tibbs system of medicine in the Middle East, to Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Native American ethnobotany of the Americas, Herbal Medicine has been central to how we have always helped our bodies to heal. Ancient Egyptian and Chinese writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3,000 BC.
Interestingly, many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin. In fact, about 25 percent of the prescription drugs dispensed in the US contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material. Some are made from plant extracts; others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.
Additionally, the World Health Organization notes that of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 75 percent are used in conventional medicine in methods that correlated directly with their traditional uses as herbal medicines by native cultures.
Myths/Misconceptions about Herbal Medicine
There are many misconceptions about the use of herbs these days. I will attempt to dispel many of them here.
- All herbs are safe – Herbalist David Winston does a great job of breaking this down for us: “In Cherokee medicine we distinguish between three categories of herbs (Winston D, 1992). The “food herbs” are gentle in action, have very low toxicity, and are unlikely to cause an adverse response. Examples of “food herbs” include Lemon Balm, Peppermint, Marshmallow, Ginger, Garlic, Chamomile, Hawthorn, Rose hips, Nettles, Dandelion Root and Leaf, and fresh Oat extract. These herbs can be utilized in substantial quantities over long periods of time without any acute or chronic toxicity (it is important to note that allergic responses like with foods are possible, as are unique idiosyncratic reactions, and even common foods such as grapefruit juice, broccoli, and okra can interact with medications).
The second category is the “medicine herbs”. These herbs are stronger acting – they need to be used with greater knowledge (dosage and rationale for use) for specific conditions (with a medical diagnosis) and usually for a limited period of time. These herbs are not daily tonics and they should not be taken just because “they are good for you”. These herbs have a greater potential for adverse reaction and in some cases, drug interactions. The “medicine herbs” include Andrographis, Blue Cohosh, Cascara Sagrada, Celandine, Ephedra, Goldenseal, Jamaica Dogwood, Oregon Grape Root, Senna, and Uva-Ursi.
The last category is the “poison herbs”. These herbs have strong potential for either acute or chronic toxicity and should only be utilized by clinicians who are trained to use them and clearly understand their toxicology and appropriate use.
Even though the herb industry is often portrayed as unregulated* and irresponsible, the vast majority of the herbs in this category are not available to the public and are not sold in health food or herb stores. Examples of “poison herbs” include Aconite, Arnica, Belladonna, Bryonia, Datura, Gelsemium, Henbane, Male Fern, Phytolacca, Podophyllum, and Veratrum.”
- All herbal formulas are safe for everyone – Just as we have learned that not all herbs are safe, we know that not all herbal formulas are safe for everyone. For instance, an herbal formula that was created for, and is safe for an adult, may not be safe for a small child.
- Herbal medicines are free from side effects – While many, if not most, herbs do not have what we would call side effects, especially compared to the long list of side effects that pharmaceutical medications have, it is important to understand that herbal medicines are not completely free of them. In fact, I prefer not to use the term ‘side effects’ at all. Herbs all have ‘effects’ on the body. Most are desirable and some are not. It is our job, when we are using medicinal herbs, to know the difference.
- Herbal products are always pure and natural –
Unfortunately, not all herbal products you find on the store shelves are pure and natural. In the past few decades there have been a number of unscrupulous companies who have taken advantage of the upsurge of interest in herbal products and pumped out herbal formulas that were adulterated with cheap fillers, inferior materials and additives. This is most unfortunate, but points to the importance of knowing your suppliers.
- More is better where herbs are concerned – Our society has bought into the myth of ‘more is better’ hook, line and sinker. There may be many reasons for this, but regardless of the reasons, it is absolutely not true when it comes to herbalism, or any other alternative modality for that matter. There are many times when less is definitely more. Starting small and gradually increasing dosages until the right balance is reached is almost always the better strategy.
Now that we have a better understanding of what herbal medicine is, we can take a look at how to use it for ourselves. In my next article, I will discuss this in detail. In the meantime, let me know in the comment section if you have used herbal medicine and what herb is your favorite?