What are the origins of herbal medicine?
People have used extracts from plants for thousands of years to treat their ills. The Egyptians were using herbal remedies some 3,500 years ago, while there is evidence other ancient peoples, such as the Persians, the Chinese, the Indians and the people of the Americas have
used medicinal herbs for centuries.
No one knows, however, who or where the first people used plants to make themselves feel better. In fact, there is evidence that apes and other animals seeked out certain types of plant when they felt ill, so it could be older than human history.
More than eighty percent of the world’s population uses herbal medicines in one form or another from China to Australia, from America and Europe to Africa. Western herbalism evolved from the work of Apothecaries and the Alchemists going as far back as the Romans.
Herbal folklore slowly evolved over the centuries with lotions and potions being passed down through families. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century led to an explosion in herbal medicine as recipes for treatments could be copied and used by anyone who could read.
By the seventeenth century, Nicholas Culpeper had put together a book of herbal remedies, which became very popular. In his book, Culpeper built on the idea of the ‘doctrine of signatures’ which the early chemist Paracelsus had first thought of. He believed that how a plant looked provided clues as to what ailment it would cure. For instance, the walnut looks similar to the brain. The nut is beneficial to the brain because of the nut oil it contains.
By 1985, the World Health Organization was saying that herbal remedies are an important part of healthcare. In continental Europe it has become very common, It Germany most doctors prescribe herbal remedies first.
How does herbal medicine work?
Herbalists try to find the underlying cause of an illness rather than treat the individual symptoms. The belief that the use of tinctures and herbal tonics can help the body to heal itself by restoring harmony and balance and activating the body’s ‘life force’.
Herbal “synergy” is, herbalists believe, the key principle of herbal medicine. Their remedies are extracted from leaves, petals and roots of plants and are a complex mixture of lots of different compounds. While a conventional pharmaceutical will usually be a single active ingredient, the idea of herbal “synergy” explains that the hundreds if not thousands of constituents of a plant extract all work together to treat an illness.
For example, ephedrine an early antiasthma drug was first isolated from the herb Ephedra, traditionally used to treat chest complaints. One of the side-effects of ephedrine is that it raises the blood pressure. Herbalists point out that among the many compounds found in the plant itself is one that lowers blood pressure. So, the herbal remedy contains a compound to treat the chest but also to counteract the side effects of that compound.
Another example of herbal synergy can be found in the plant meadowsweet, which is used for stomach complains. The plant contains salicylic acid which is closely related to aspirin. The compound can cause internal bleeding from the stomach wall, but meadowsweet contain compounds called polyphenols, which protect the stomach.
What happens during a treatment?
When you consult a Master Herbal Practitioner, they will usually take about an hour to discuss your problem, your medical history, your diet and lifestyle and build up a picture of the ‘whole’ person.
The herbalist will then use their knowledge of plants and their different effects on the body to find a mixture that will treat the underlying cause of a problem.
The herbalist will usually give you enough of the remedy, or tell you where to buy it, to take away with you to use before your next consultation. You could experience some of the herbal remedies (teas or liquids) to taste unpleasant because of the bitter compounds found in some plant extracts. However, this taste could be part of the remedy for the body; by putting the body back into balance.
What are some symptoms herbal medicine can help?