What is Herbalism?
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.
Traditional use of medicines is recognized as a way to learn about potential future medicines.
A quick overview of Herbalism
In 2001, researchers identified 122 compounds used in mainstream medicine which were derived from “ethnomedical” plant sources; 80% of these compounds were used in the same or related manner as the traditional ethnomedical use.
Plants have evolved the ability to synthesize chemical compounds that help them defend against attack from a wide variety of predators such as insects, fungi and herbivorous mammals. By chance some of these compounds whilst being toxic to plant predators turn out to have beneficial effects when used to treat human diseases. Such secondary metabolites are highly varied in structure, many are aromatic substances, most of which are phenols or their oxygen-substituted derivatives.
At least 12,000 have been isolated so far; a number estimated to be less than 10% of the total. Chemical compounds in plants mediate their effects on the human body by binding to receptor molecules present in the body; such processes are identical to those already well understood for conventional drugs and as such herbal medicines do not differ greatly from conventional drugs in terms of how they work. This enables herbal medicines to be in principle just as effective as conventional medicines but also gives them the same potential to cause harmful side effects. Many of the herbs and spices used by humans to season food yield useful medicinal compounds.
Similarly to prescription drugs, a number of herbs are thought to be likely to cause adverse effects. Furthermore, “adulteration, inappropriate formulation, or lack of understanding of plant and drug interactions have led to adverse reactions that are sometimes life-threatening or lethal. Play it safe and seek drug rehabilitation advice if you feel your life is at threat.
Herbalism in Ancient times
The use of plants as medicines predates written human history. A 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial site, “SHANIDAR-4”, in northern Iraq has yielded large amounts of pollen from 8 plant species, 7 of which are used now as herbal remedies.
In the written record, the study of herbs dates back over 5,000 years to the Sumerians, who described well-established medicinal uses for such plants as laurel, caraway, and thyme.
Ancient Egyptian medicine of 1000 B.C. are known to have used garlic, opium, castor oil, coriander, mint, indigo, and other herbs for medicine and the Old Testament also mentions herb use and cultivation, including mandrake, vetch, caraway, wheat, barley, and rye.
In Indian Ayurveda medicine has used many herbs such as turmeric possibly as early as 1900 B.C. Many other herbs and minerals used in Ayurveda were later described by ancient Indian herbalists such as Charaka and Sushruta during the 1st millennium BC. The Sushruta Samhita attributed to Sushruta in the 6th century BC describes 700 medicinal plants, 64 preparations from mineral sources, and 57 preparations based on animal sources.
The first Chinese herbal book, the Shennong Bencao Jing, compiled during the Han Dynasty but dating back to a much earlier date, possibly 2700 B.C., lists 365 medicinal plants and their uses – including ma-Huang, the shrub that introduced the drug ephedrine to modern medicine. Succeeding generations augmented on the Shennong Bencao Jing, as in the Yaoxing Lun (Treatise on the Nature of Medicinal Herbs), a 7th century Tang Dynasty treatise on herbal medicine.
The ancient Greeks and Romans made medicinal use of plants. Greek and Roman medicinal practices, as preserved in the writings of Hippocrates and – especially Galen, provided the pattern for later western medicine. Hippocrates advocated the use of a few simple herbal drugs – along with fresh air, rest, and proper diet. Galen, on the other hand, recommended large doses of drug mixtures – including plant, animal, and mineral ingredients.
The Greek physician compiled the first European treatise on the properties and uses of medicinal plants, De Materia Medica. In the first century AD, Dioscorides wrote a compendium of more than 500 plants that remained an authoritative reference into the 17th century. Similarly important for herbalists and botanists of later centuries was the Greek book that founded the science of botany, TheophrastusÕ Historia Plantarum, written in the fourth century B.C.
The uses of plants for medicine and other purposes changed little in early medieval Europe. Many Greek and Roman writings on medicine, as on other subjects, were preserved by hand copying of manuscripts in monasteries. The monasteries thus tended to become local centers of medical knowledge, and their herb gardens provided the raw materials for simple treatment of common disorders.
At the same time, folk medicine in the home and village continued uninterrupted, supporting numerous wandering and settled herbalists. Among these were the wise-women, who prescribed herbal remedies often along with spells and enchantments. It was not until the late Middle Ages that women who were knowledgeable in herb lore became the targets of the witch hysteria. One of the most famous women in the herbal tradition was Hildegard of Bingen. A twelfth century Benedictine nun, she wrote a medical text called Causes and Cures.
Medical schools known as Bimaristan began to appear from the 9th century in the medieval Islamic world among Persians and Arabs, which was generally more advanced than medieval Europe at the time.
The Arabs venerated Greco-Roman culture and learning, and translated tens of thousands of texts into Arabic for further study. As a trading culture, the Arab travelers had access to plant material from distant places such as China and India. Herbals, medical texts and translations of the classics of antiquity filtered in from east and west.
Muslim botanists and Muslim physicians significantly expanded on the earlier knowledge of materia medica. For example, al-Dinawari described more than 637 plant drugs in the 9th century, and Ibn al-Baitar described more than 1,400 different plants, foods and drugs, over 300 of which were his own original discoveries, in the 13th century.
The experimental scientific method was introduced into the field of materia medica in the 13th century by the Andalusian-Arab botanist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati, the teacher of Ibn al-Baitar. Al-Nabati introduced empirical techniques in the testing, description and identification of numerous materia medica, and he separated unverified reports from those supported by actual tests and observations. This allowed the study of materia medica to evolve into the science of pharmacology.
Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine (1025) lists 800 tested drugs, plants and minerals. Book Two is devoted to a discussion of the healing properties of herbs, including nutmeg, senna, sandalwood, rhubarb, myrrh, cinammon, and rosewater.
Baghdad was an important center for Arab herbalism, as was Al-Andalus between 800 and 1400.
Abulcasis (936-1013) of Cordoba authored The Book of Simples, an important source for later European herbals, while Ibn al-Baitar (1197-1248) of Malaga authored the Corpus of Simples, the most complete Arab herbal which introduced 200 new healing herbs, including tamarind, aconite, and nux vomica.
Other pharmacopoeia books include that written by Abu-Rayhan Biruni in the 11th century and Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) in the 12th century (and printed in 1491).
The origins of clinical pharmacology also date back to the Middle Ages in Avicenna’s The Canon of Medicine, Peter of Spain’s Commentary on Isaac, and John of St Amand’s Commentary on the Antedotary of Nicholas. In particular, the Canon introduced clinical trials, randomized controlled trials, and efficacy tests.
Alongside the university system, folk medicine continued to thrive. The continuing importance of herbs for the centuries following the Middle Ages is indicated by the hundreds of herbals published after the invention of printing in the fifteenth century.
TheophrastusÕ Historia Plantarum was one of the first books to be printed, but DioscoridesÕ De Materia Medica, Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine and Avenzoar’s pharmacopoeia were not far behind.
The fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries were the great age of herbals, many of them available for the first time in English and other languages rather than Latin or Greek.
The first herbal to be published in English was the anonymous Grete Herball of 1526. The two best-known herbals in English were The Herball or General History of Plants (1597) by John Gerard and The English Physician Enlarged (1653) by Nicholas Culpeper.
GerardÕs text was basically a pirated translation of a book by the Belgian herbalist Dodoens and his illustrations came from a German botanical work. The original edition contained many errors due to faulty matching of the two parts. CulpeperÕs blend of traditional medicine with astrology, magic, and folklore was ridiculed by the physicians of his day yet his book – like GerardÕs and other herbals – enjoyed phenomenal popularity.
The Age of Exploration and the Columbian Exchange introduced new medicinal plants to Europe. The Badianus Manuscript was an illustrated Aztec herbal translated into Latin in the 16th century.
The second millennium, however, also saw the beginning of a slow erosion of the pre-eminent position held by plants as sources of therapeutic effects. This began with the Black Death, which the then-dominant Four Element medical system proved powerless to stop.
A century later, Paracelsus introduced the use of active chemical drugs (like arsenic, copper sulfate, iron, mercury, and sulfur). These were accepted even though they had toxic effects because of the urgent need to treat Syphilis. The rapid development of chemistry and the other physical sciences, led increasingly to the dominance of chemotherapy – chemical medicine – as the orthodox system of the twentieth century.
Herbalism role in Modern Society
The use of herbs to treat disease is almost universal among non-industrialized societies. A number of traditions came to dominate the practice of herbal medicine at the end of the twentieth century:
- The “classical” herbal medicine system, based on Greek and Roman sources
- The Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine systems from various South Asian Countries
- Chinese herbal medicine
- Traditional African medicine
- Unani-Tibb medicine
- Shamanic herbalism: a catch-all phrase for information mostly supplied from South America and the Himalayas
- Native American medicine.
Many of the pharmaceuticals currently available to physicians have a long history of use as herbal remedies, including opium, aspirin, digitalis, and quinine. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of the world’s population presently uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Pharmaceuticals are prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s population, half of which lives on less than $2 U.S. per day. In comparison, herbal medicines can be grown from seed or gathered from nature for little or no cost.
In addition to the use in the developing world, herbal medicine is used in industrialized nations by alternative medicine practitioners such as naturopaths.
A 1998 survey of herbalists in the UK found that many of the herbs recommended by them were used traditionally but had not been evaluated in clinical trials.
In Australia, a 2007 survey found that these Western herbalists tend to prescribe liquid herbal combinations of herbs rather than tablets of single herbs.
The use of, and search for, drugs and dietary supplements derived from plants have accelerated in recent years. Pharmacologists, microbiologists, botanists, and natural-products chemists are combing the Earth for phytochemicals and leads that could be developed for treatment of various diseases. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation, approximately 25% of modern drugs used in the United States have been derived from plants.
Herbology is traditionally one of the more important modalities utilized in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Each herbal medicine prescription is a cocktail of many herbs tailored to the individual patient. One batch of herbs is typically decocted twice over the course of one hour. The practitioner usually designs a remedy using one or two main ingredients that target the illness. Then the practitioner adds many other ingredients to adjust the formula to the patient’s Yin Yang conditions.
Sometimes, ingredients are needed to cancel out toxicity or side-effects of the main ingredients. Some herbs require the use of other ingredients as catalyst or else the brew is ineffective. The latter steps require great experience and knowledge, and make the difference between a good Chinese herbal doctor and an amateur. Unlike western medications, the balance and interaction of all the ingredients are considered more important than the effect of individual ingredients. A key to success in TCM is the treatment of each patient as an individual.
Chinese herbology often incorporates ingredients from all parts of plants, the leaf, stem, flower, root, and also ingredients from animals and minerals. The use of parts of endangered species has created controversy and resulted in a black market of poachers who hunt restricted animals. Most herbal manufacturers have discontinued the use of any animal parts from endangered animals.
Since the dawn of creation, plants have been the primary source of medicine for the human race. Medicinal plants have been mentioned in the Bible, and in historical literature. Plants that are used as medicines have been referred to as “herbs” for over 4000 years by European and the Mediterranean cultures, hence the word “herb”, being a derivation of “herbe” and the Latin word, “herba”.
Originally, the term “herb” only applied to non-woody plants.
Today, “herb” refers to any part of any plant used for flavoring or medicine. Although the term “herb” can also be equated with food spices, it is generally used in reference to any plant, or any part of a plant, having nutritional and / or medicinal value(s). Additionally, an “herb” may be a fruit, a bark, a flower, a leaf, or a root, as well as anon-woody plant.
There are several types of herbal medicine systems that are used today; European, Native American, Chinese, Ayurvedic, and Western herbalism are the most prevalent systems. Despite differences in terminology and in the herbs used, there is a common thread that joins these systems: all of these systems treat the body as a ‘whole’, and they each utilize the energy of plants to ‘work as needed’ in synergy with the natural energy in each individual.
Because there are many different herbal systems, there are also many different ways of classifying herbs. Some systems being used over the years tend to classify herbs by ‘plant part’; by humoral theories; by botanical family; by color; or by morphology. One example is the Chinese system, which has a complex classification system based on ‘chi’, or ‘body energy concepts’. This classification scheme is very successful at correlating the human body to proper herb usage, but does not provide for easy substitution of one herb for another.
There are many other ways to classify herbs. Another simple method is to identify five (5) major herbal categories:
- Aromatic (volatile oils)
- Astringent (tannins)
- Bitter (phenol compounds, saponins and alkaloids)
- Mucilaginous (polysaccharides)
- Nutritive (food stuffs)
This category system makes it easy to identify herbs using ‘taste’ and ‘smell’, and becomes useful when needing to substitute herbs for one another.
Growing, Gathering, Harvesting in Herbalism
There are many ways to grow, gather, and harvest herbs. Herbs are considered the “best” by some practitioners when they are naturally grown in the wild, untouched by industrial pollutants. Others prefer herbs that are cultivated indoors, away from all contaminants, in a controlled environment.
Some herbalist’s recommend gathering only certain herbs (depending on the seasons, the weather, and the time of day) to achieve the highest level of medicinal qualities.
And still others may disregard this practice, and will purposefully plant herbs ‘out of season’ so that they will be available for sale year round.
Many believe that the energy with which the herbs are gathered is also very important, and should always be done with great spiritual awareness and prayerful thankfulness. And others feel that herbs should be handled with reverence and respect.
In addition to growth and gathering techniques, harvesting practices vary as well. Recommendations may include taking the whole plant at once (buds, roots, seeds, leaves and blooms), or taking each part of the plant in a particular order, and only using younger, or older, plants.
Dispensing in in Herbalism
There are also several ways to dispense herbs. The most common methods are herbal pastes, juices, decoctions, hot or cold infusions, powders, pills (tablets, capsules), aromatics, tinctures or extracts (alcohol or glycerol bases), liniments, syrups, poultices and fomentations, medicated oils, salves and ointments, lotions, teas, and whole herbs.
Each type is good for specific ailments, and often may be used together (i.e. internally and externally for an external wound) to take full advantage of the healing attributes of each. For those who do not have the time to prepare herbs on their own, there are many natural treatment products available that offer prepared herbal ointments, extracts and tinctures for various conditions.
All these choices, like others, should be integrated with both your personal external needs and your internal ideals for the best possible results. An experienced herbalist can help you decide which system is right for you. Herbs are foods, and like any other food, herbs should be taken in moderation. Always follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.
In Chinese medicine herbs are associated with the major organs of the body. For example – certain herbs are used to heal lung ailments and the meridians associated with the lungs. The practitioner will always provide the patient with 2 herbs. One is called the guiding herb that gets the healing herb to the right spot. The second herb is the healing herb. Much of this is intuitive – as the body will crave the food, tastes, or herbs that it needs.
In plant spirit medicine the practioner not only administers the healing herb but he has a relationship with the Spirit of the healing plant. He can actually communicate with the spirit of a powerful healing plant to heal the patient. This can be done as a remote healing – with patient and practitioner in two different parts of the country. In this case the spirit goes to the patient.
More about Herbalism…
Herbalism, also known as phytotherapy, is folk and traditional medicinal practice based on the use of plants and plant extracts.
Finding healing powers in plants is an ancient idea. People in all continents have long used hundreds, if not thousands, of indigenous plants for treatment of various ailments dating back to prehistory.
There is evidence that Neanderthals living 60,000 years ago in present-day Iraq used plants for medicinal purposes (found at a burial site at Shanidar Cave, Iraq, in which a Neanderthal man was uncovered in 1960. He had been buried with eight species of plants). These plants are still widely used in ethnomedicine around the world.
The first generally accepted use of plants as healing agents were depicted in the cave paintings discovered in the Lascaux caves in France, which have been Radiocarbon dated to between 13,000 – 25,000 BCE.
Over time and with trial and error, a small base of knowledge was acquired within early tribal communities. As this knowledge base expanded over the generations, tribal culture developed into specialized areas. These ‘specialized jobs’ became what are now known as healers or Shaman.
Plants have an almost limitless ability to synthesize aromatic substances, most of which are phenols or their oxygen-substituted derivatives such as tannins.
Most are secondary metabolites, of which at least 12,000 have been isolated, a number estimated to be less than 10% of the total. In many cases, these substances (esp. alkaloids) serve as plant defense mechanisms against predation by microorganisms, insects, and herbivores.
Many of the herbs and spices used by humans to season food yield useful medicinal compounds. The use of and search for drugs and dietary supplements derived from plants have accelerated in recent years.
Pharmacologists, microbiologists, botanists, and natural-products chemists are combing the Earth for phytochemicals and leads that could be developed for treatment of various diseases.
In fact, many modern drugs have been derived from plants. The use of herbs to treat disease is almost universal among non-industrialized societies. A number of traditions came to dominate the practice of herbal medicine in the Western world at the end of the twentieth century:
- The Western, based on Greek and Roman sources,
- The Ayurvedic from India, and
- Chinese herbal medicine (Chinese herbology).
Many of the pharmaceuticals currently available to Western physicians have a long history of use as herbal remedies, including opium, aspirin, digitalis, and quinine.
All plants produce chemical compounds as part of their normal metabolic activities. These can be split into primary metabolites, such as sugars and fats, found in all plants, and secondary metabolites found in a smaller range of plants, some only in a particular genus or species.The autologous functions of secondary metabolites are varied. For example, as toxins to deter predation, or to attract insects for pollination. It is these secondary metabolites which can have therapeutic actions in humans and which can be refined to produce drugs. Some examples are inulin from the roots of dahlias, quinine from the cinchona, morphine and codeine from the poppy, and digoxin from the foxglove.As of 2004, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine started to fund clinical trials into the effectiveness of herbal medicine.
Examples of some commonly used herbal medicines:
- Artichoke and several other plants reduced total serum cholesterol levels in preliminary studies.
- Black cohosh and other plants that contain phytoestrogens (plant molecules with estrogen activity) have some benefits for treatment of symptoms resulting from menopause.
- Echinacea extracts limit the length of colds in some clinical trials, although some studies have found it to have no effect.
- Garlic lowers total cholesterol levels, mildly reduces blood pressure, reduces platelet aggregation, and has antibacterial properties.
- St John’s wort, though dangerous in incorrect doses, is more effective than a placebo for the treatment of mild to moderate depression in some clinical trials.
- Peppermint tea for problems with the digestive tract, including irritable bowel syndrome and nausea.
- Nigella sativa (Black cumin) is a generalist medicinal plant used for diverse ailments such as cough, pulmonary infections, asthma, influenza, allergy, hypertension and stomach ache. The seeds are considered carminative, stimulant, diuretic and galactogogue. It is often taken with honey. Seed powder or oil is externally applied for eruptions of skin.
A common misconception about herbalism and the use of ‘natural’ products in general, is that ‘natural’ equals safe. However many plants have chemical defence mechanisms against predators that can have adverse or lethal effects on humans. Examples are poison hemlock and nightshade, which can be deadly. Herbs can also have undesirable side-effects just as pharmaceutical products can. These problems are exacerbated by lack of control over dosage and purity. Furthermore, if given in conjunction with drugs, there is danger of ‘summation’, where the herb and the drug have similar actions and add together to make an ‘overdose’. In animals, there are other dangers. There may be residues in food from farm animals (e.g. eggs, milk, meat) or danger of ‘doping’ in competition animals. The latter may also apply to human athletes.
The common names of herbs may be shared with others with different effects. For example, in one case in Belgium in a TCM-remedy for losing weight, one herb was swapped for another resulting in kidney damage. One variety of the herb causes elevated blood pressure and increased heart rate, versus another variety for the weight-loss remedy, the varieties are differentiated by the suffix in the Latin names.
The legal status of herbal ingredients varies by country. For example, Ayurvedic herbal products may contain levels of heavy metals that are considered unsafe in the U.S., but heavy metals are considered therapeutic in Ayurvedic medicine.
Those wishing to use herbal remedies should first consult with a physician, as some herbal remedies have the potential to cause adverse drug interactions when used in combination with various prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Dangerously low blood pressure may result from the combination of an herbal remedy that lowers blood pressure together with prescription medicine that has the same effect. Physicians may not be the best sources of information because most have no knowledge of herbal medicine. There is little known about interactions of herbal remedies with pharmaceuticals because, contrary to pharmaceutical medicine, there is no official system, database, or hotline to report and publish adverse interactions, so even herbalists may not be aware of adverse interactions.