History of Herbalism
Healing Power of Herbs
Herbalists use plants to help heal both physical and mental conditions. This means that they follow the mind/body philosophy of treatment and healing. The use of plants can be a helpful and natural alternative to mainstream medicine. Plants have an innate nature that allows them to defend themselves from fungi, insects, and mammals. In terms of human use, about 12,000 phytochemicals (estimated 10% of the total) have been isolated so far. Some of these are useful in helping treat human diseases.
The field of “ethnobotany” studies the human uses of plants. It has been a proven method for so long that even pharmaceutical companies have developed medicines. Historical remedies have included herbal options such as “aspirin, digitalis, quinine, and opium”. Herbal medicine has global roots, as well.
Herbs for Cooking
One of the first historical uses for herbs was for cooking. Folks actually used herbs and spices to respond to “food-borne pathogens”. People in tropical climates especially season foods heavily with those spices with the most “antimicrobial activity”. This is to counteract those pathogens which thrive in such environments.
The Historical Use of Medicinal Herbs
Many common weeds are also medicinal in nature, including “nettle, dandelion, and chickweed”. The use of herbs for medicinal purposes has been known to be around for over 5000 years. In India, Ayurveda medicine makes heavy use of herbs. Ancient Egyptians and Sumerians have also documented their medicinal uses. Other historical cultures that have used medicinal herbs include the Chinese, Greeks, and Romans. By the Middle Ages, monasteries had herb gardens to treat disorders. And folk medicine in villages and homes continued with “wandering and settled herbalists”, including “wise-women”. Sadly, the latter group were incorrectly believed to have used “spells and enchantments” with the herbal remedies. For this reason, they became targeted during “witch hysteria”. Herbalism experienced a decline around the period of the “Black Death.” But there is a current resurgence about the benefits of plant-based remedies.1
Plants naturally create phytochemicals. Alkaloids are a category that one can use as either anesthetics or stimulants, and to fight cancer, arrhythmia, asthma, and malaria. Polyphenols have phytoestrogens and tannins. Glycosides are a component in medications. Terpenes can be used in resins, steroids, and in the essential oils that are used in food, coloring, and fragrances.2 There are many online and offline resources which both patients and medical practitioners may peruse. These resources list various plant-based compounds and their benefits.3 Common current herbs are Gingko (for Alzheimer’s and memory), St. John’s Wort (for depression), Valerian (for sleep), and Echinacea (for immunity).4
You can use herbs in a variety of manners. These include in the form of liquid, tisanes (herbal teas), tinctures (alcoholic extracts), inhalation (aromatherapy), or in other forms of supplementation.
Today, herbal medicines can be just as effective as conventional medications. Both medical practitioners in professional medical settings and patients at home use these herbs. This is a testament to how potentially safe and easy they are to use. However, patients who choose to use herbs at home should seek some education in their use.
Education standards for herbalists vary, and “standardization of purity and dosage is not mandated” in this country. Therefore, before taking any medications, one should examine potential side-effects and consult with a professional. The FDA regulates herbal remedies as “dietary supplements”.5
The American Herbalists Guild is a non-profit organization that aims to provide education about herbal medicine. They believe that herbalists have a philosophical difference from conventional physicians in that the latter aims to “attack diseases using strong chemicals…or through the removal of organs”. Traditional medications and invasive surgeries are more likely to come with the potential for harm. Herbalists seek to avoid the side-effects and the invasiveness of procedures, in order to naturally prevent disease, provide symptom relief, and improve overall health.
Many cultures around the world still practice herbalism. These include Native Americans, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, and Naturopathic Medicine. Some of these practitioners have registration and licensing, and others even have full medical training. These learned professionals are the types of practitioners that the patient could seek out for herbal treatment.6
As mentioned previously, aromatherapy is one common medicinal use for plants. One can practice aromatherapy both at home. Or they can do it in the presence of a Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) practitioner, such as a massage therapist or chiropractor. Aromatherapy makes use of essential oils, which are the essence of plants such as flowers, herbs, and tree parts. A lot of plant product is used just to make a little bit of essential oils. True essential oils are not blended in with other fragrances or chemicals.
Aromatherapy works by activating the smell receptors in the nose to send messages through the nervous system to the brain. Usually, these oils release positive chemicals, like serotonin. Additionally, the topical application of an essential oil to various areas of the skin and joints can also yield a response.
Aromatherapy’s health benefits include reducing stress, improving sleep, easing certain types of pain, and fighting bacteria. Do not consume essential oils orally unless your doctor advises you so. Generally, aromatherapy is a safe practice for relaxation and relief.7