Herbal medicine and Herbalism

herbal tea used in herbalism

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 medicine, some details dating back thousands of years. But knowledge of plant medicine 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. All these factors are important for the final herbal remedy.

Even though we now have access to synthetic, prescription medicines, herbalism remains popular today. In fact, the World Health Organisation holds data on complementary therapies and traditional medicine use around the globe. They say that around 80% of the world’s population still uses plants as their main source of healthcare. One reason for this could be the affordability of plant medicine compared to conventional medicine. Yet, even when people have easy access to conventional healthcare, complementary medicine including herbal medicine is 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 using plants therapeutically can have side effects with inappropriate use. For instance, in some cases, a herb can interact with conventional drugs. This might cause an adverse drug interaction. There are also reports of poor-quality herbal products containing the wrong plant material. For these reasons some countries strictly regulate herbal medicine.

How herbs work

Plant-based medicine is 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 plant materials therapeutically. Developing systems of traditional 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 for protection from weather conditions, and so on. In any event, some of these chemicals also have a medicinal action in the human body. Which is good news for us and our herbal preparations. For instance, demulcent medicinal herbs such as marshmallows, contain slimy mucilages that are healing, soothing and cooling.

The holistic approach

Practitioners of herbal medicine, whether western herbalism, Chinese herbalism or other forms of traditional medicine have a holistic approach to health care. Not only using whole plant herbal preparations, with their valuable synergistic properties. But, also using a holistic approach to the patient. Considering the total health of body, mind and spirit and their influence on illness.

A holistic approach also means that a herbal practitioner will seek the underlying causes of illness in a patient. Not just look for a reduction in symptoms. But, improving health and function, and aiding the body to heal itself.

Modern medicine

Many modern drugs came originally from plants. Common examples, in western herbalism, include aspirin from willow bark and digoxin from the foxglove. As a matter of fact, scientists are still exploring the natural world for new and promising therapeutic herbs.

The difference is that pharmaceutical companies look at individual constituents of the medicinal plant. In particular, those that can be isolated, purified and synthesised, in the preparation of new drugs. But, from a herbalist perspective, this isolationist approach loses many of the benefits of herbal medicine.

In herbal practice, the practitioner understands that each herb has many constituents with medicinal properties. These constituents work together producing the actions of the herbal remedy in a synergistic fashion. Where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Modern herbalism

In practice, a medical herbalist uses both the knowledge of traditional herbal therapy and modern scientific research.

Some people criticise medical herbalism saying there is not much scientific evidence to support its use. Certainly, herbs do not have the same research funding enjoyed by conventional drugs. In fact, it is not true to say there is no evidence of efficacy. Many herbal products show benefits in several hundreds of research studies. For example, clinical trials of medicinal herbs such as ginseng, echinacea, st john’s wort, garlic or turmeric show potent health benefits.

In addition, if we include evidence from traditional medicine and from treatment in herbal practice from a qualified herbal practitioner, then there is lots of evidence of efficacy.

How herbal remedies are used

Herbal preparations may be made from the whole herb. Or, a plant extract may be made from only a specific part of the plant. Such as the bark, flowers, roots, leaves or seeds.

Herbal preparations come in several forms. For instance powders, teas, capsules, tablets, dry extracts, and liquid extracts such as tinctures, glycerites, oils, creams, gels or ointments.

There is also a great deal of difference in how plant medicine and conventional drugs are used. Importantly herbal medicine supports the body’s own innate healing efforts. So, plant products can help to prevent illness or promote good health, vitality and well-being.

Herbal preparations promote balance in the body. They help the body to resist infection or reject illness. A plant remedy generally, but not always, will have a gentle action on the body. Therefore, medicinal herbs may be especially suitable for healing chronic ill health. Not necessarily having a dramatic effect but encouraging gradual healing over time.

Safety of natural remedies

All things considered, one of the great benefits of plant medicine 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 use and in normal therapeutic doses, medicinal 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. A herbal practitioner with clinical training in western herbal medicine understands which herbal products to use with an individual patient.

For instance, some medicinal herbs are known to interact with certain medications. These adverse events are generally due to additive or inhibitive effects of the conventional drug. A medical herbalist is aware of potential interactions between medicinal herbs and orthodox medicine. If you are taking conventional drugs, it is important to seek advice from a medical herbalist. They can advise about using herbal medicine alongside your prescription from the doctor.

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