Herbal medicine is the
most ancient form of health care known to humankind.
Herbs have been used in all
cultures throughout history. Extensive scientific documentation now exists concerning
their use for health conditions, including premenstrual syndrome,
indigestion, insomnia, heart disease, cancer, and HIV.
Herbs have always been
integral to the practice of medicine.
The word drug comes from the
old Dutch word drogge meaning “to dry”, as pharmacists,
physicians, and ancient healers often dried plants for use as medicines. Today
approximately 25 percent of all prescription drugs are still derived from trees, shrubs, or herbs.
Some are made from plant extracts;
others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.
World Health Organization notes that of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74 percent are used in modern
medicine in ways that correlated directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures.
Yet, for the
most part, modern medicine has veered from the use of pure herbs in its treatment of disease and other health disorders.
One of the reasons for this is economic. Herbs, by their very nature, cannot be patented. Since herbs cannot be
patented and drug companies cannot hold the exclusive right to sell a particular herb, they are not motivated to invest any money in
that herb’s testing or promotion. The collection and preparation of herbal medicine cannot be easily controlled as a manufacture of synthetic drugs, making its profits less dependable. In addition, many of these medicinal plants grow only in the Amazonian rain forest or other politically and economically unstable places, which also affects the supply of the herb. Most importantly, the demand for herbal medicine has decreased in the United States because Americans have been conditioned to rely on synthetic, commercial drugs to provide quick relief, regardless of side effects.
Yet the current viewpoint seems to be changing.
“The revival of interest in herbal medicine is a worldwide phenomenon,” says Mark Elemental, Executive Director of the American Botanical Council. This renaissance is due to the growing concern of the general public about the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs, the impersonal and often demeaning experience of modern health care practices, as well as a renewed recognition of the unique medicinal value of herbal medicine.
“The scope of herbal medicine ranges from mild-acting plant medicines such as chamomile and peppermint, to very potent ones such as foxglove (from which the pharmaceutical drug digitalis is derived). In between these two poles lies a wide spectrum of plant
medicine with significant medical applications, “ says Donald Brown, N.D., of Bastyr College, in Seattle, Washington and an educator in herbal medicine. “One need only go to the United States Pharmacopoeia to see the central role that plant medicine has played in American
What Is An
How Herbal Medicine
The word herb as used in herbal medicine (also known as botanical medicine or, in Europe, as phytotherapy or phytomedicine), means a plant or plant
part that is used to make medicine, food flavors (spices), or aromatic oils for soaps and fragrances.
An herb can be a leaf, a flower, a stem, a seed, a root, a fruit, bark, or any other plant part used for its medicinal, food flavoring, or fragrant property.
Herbs have provided humankind with medicine from
the earliest beginnings of civilization. Throughout history, various cultures have handed down their accumulated knowledge of the medicinal use of herbs to successive generations. This vast body of information serves as the basis for much of traditional medicine today.
There are an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 plants on the earth today (the number varies depending on whether subspecies are included). Only about 5,000 of these have been extensively studied for their medicinal applications. “This illustrates the need for modern medicine and science to turn its attention to the plant world once again to find new medicine that might cure cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and many other diseases and conditions,” says Norman R. Farnsworth, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Considering that 121 prescription drugs come from only ninety species of plants, and that 74 percent of these were discovered following up native folklore claims,” says Dr. Farnsworth, “a logical person would have
to say that there may still be more jackpots out there.”
In general, herbal medicines work in much the same way as do conventional
pharmaceutical drugs, i.e., via their chemical makeup. Herbs contain a large number of naturally occurring chemicals that have
biological activity. In the past 150 years, chemists and pharmacists have been isolating and purifying the “active” compounds from plants in an attempt to produce reliable pharmaceutical drugs. Examples include such drugs like digoxin (from foxglove [Digitalis purpurea], reserpine (from Indian snakeroot [Rauwolfia serpentina]), colchicines (from autumn crocus [Colchicum
autumnale]), morphine (from the opium poppy [Papaver somniafera]), and many more. According to Andrew Weil, M.D., of Tucson, Arizona, because herbs and plants use an indirect route to the bloodstream and target organs, their effects are usually slower in onset and less dramatic than those of purified drugs administered by more direct routes. “Doctors and patients accustomed to the rapid,
intense effects of synthetic medicines may become impatient with botanicals for this reason,” Dr. Weil states.
Herbal medicine has most to offer when used to facilitate healing in chronic ongoing problems. By skillful selection of herbs for the patient, a profound transformation in health can be effected with less danger of the side effects inherent in drug-based medicine. However, the common assumption that herbs act slowly and mildly is not necessarily true. Adverse effects can occur if
an inadequate dose, a low-quality herb, or the wrong herb is prescribed for the patient.
The Action of Herbs
A great deal of pharmaceutical research has gone into analyzing the active ingredients of herbs to find out how and why
they work. This effect is referred to as the herb’s action.
Herbal actions describe the ways in which the remedy affects human physiology.
In some cases the action is due to a specific chemical present in the herb (as in the
antiasthmatic effects of ma-huang) or it may be due to a complex synergistic interaction between various constituents of the plant
(the sedative valerian is an example). A much older, and far more
relevant approach is to categorize herbs by looking at what kinds of problems can be treated with their help.
Plants have a direct impact on physiological activity and by knowing what body process one wants to help or heal, the appropriate action can be selected. The qualities of herbs which make them beneficial in treating the human body, include: