Plants are incredibly important to both people and animals. They have been throughout the ages. Not just as a source of food but also for their healing properties. For instance, ancient texts describe the use of herbal medicines, some of them dating back thousands of years. But the knowledge of the herbs is not just about the herbal products but also the plants themselves. The particular species, the specific plant parts, when to harvest and how to prepare the medicine.
Though that we now have access to synthetic, standardised medicines, it may surprise some that herbalism remains popular today. Yet, the World Health Organisation holds data on herbal medicine use around the globe. And, they say that around 80% of the world’s population still use plant medicine as their main source of healthcare. One reason for this could be the affordability of herbal remedies compared to other medicine. Yet, even when people have access to conventional medicine herbal remedies are still popular.
This might be because many of us view herbalism as a natural medicine and therefore safe. While this is generally true there are some important considerations. In reality, it is important to know that herbs can have side effects with inappropriate use. For instance, in some cases, some herbs can interact with conventional medications. There are also reports of poor quality herbal products containing the wrong plant material. For these reasons some countries strictly regulate herbal medicine.
How herbal medicine works
Herbal medicines are more than just a natural alternative to synthetic drugs. There are literally thousands of medicinal plant species around the world. And, over the years people learned to use these plants therapeutically. Developing traditional systems of medicine and passing their knowledge on through the generations.
Each herbal remedy contains medicinally active substances. The plants often make these substances to protect themselves. For instance, against animals that might eat them. Or perhaps to protect themselves from weather conditions, and so on. In any event, some of these chemicals also have a medicinal action in the human body. For instance, demulcent herbs such as marshmallow, contain mucilages that are soothing and cooling.
Modern medicine and herbalism
The difference is that modern medicine is looking at single constituents of plants. In particular, those that can be isolated, purified and synthesised, in the preparation of pharmaceuticals. But, from a herbalist perspective, this isolationist approach loses many of the benefits of the natural remedy.
Herbalists understand that there are multiple constituents with medicinal properties within a single herb. These constituents work together producing the actions of the remedy in a synergistic fashion. Where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Medical herbalists use both the knowledge of traditional healing methods, along with modern scientific research.
Some people criticise herbalism saying there is not much scientific evidence to back it up. While it is true that herbs do not have the same research funding enjoyed by conventional medications. In fact, it is not true to say there is no evidence of efficacy. Many herbal remedies show benefits in several hundreds of research studies. For example, studies of ginseng, echinacea, garlic or turmeric show health benefits.
How herbal remedies are used
Herbal remedies may be made from the whole plant. Or, they may be made from only a specific part of the plant. Such as the bark, flowers, roots, leaves or seeds.
Herbal remedies come in several forms. For instance powders, teas, capsules, tablets, tinctures, glycerites, oils, creams, gels or ointments.
There is also a great deal of difference in how herbal medicines and conventional medicines are used. Importantly herbal medicines support the body’s own innate healing efforts. So, these remedies help to prevent illness or promote good health, vitality and well being.
Herbal remedies promote balance in the body. They help the body to resist infection or reject illness. They generally, but not always, have a gentle action on the body. Therefore they may be more suitable for healing chronic ill health. Not necessarily having a dramatic effect but encouraging gradual healing over time.
Safety of herbal medicine
All things considered, one of the great benefits of herbal medicines is that most are safe and gentle. After all, they are generally without toxic side effects. Even with use over a long period of time.
So, with appropriate us and in normal therapeutic doses herbs are safe, with minimal risk. However, all plants may produce allergic reactions in some people. So, caution is necessary when using herbal medicine for children, during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. Older people or critically ill people should also take extra care.
Some herbs are known to interact with certain medications. A medical herbalist is aware of potential interactions between herbs and medicines. If you are taking conventional medication it is important to seek advice from a medical herbalist. They can advise about using herbal remedies alongside your medicine from the doctor.