Herbalists use plants to help heal conditions. It can be a helpful alternative to mainstream medicine.
History of Herbalism
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, and some can help treat human diseases. The field of “ethnobotany” studies human uses of plants, and it has been a way 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. One of the first historical uses for herbs was for cooking. The herbs and spices actually were used to respond to “food-borne pathogens”. In tropical climates, especially, foods are heavily seasoned with those spices with the most “antimicrobial activity”. Many common weeds are also medicinal in nature, including “nettle, dandelion, and chickweed”. The use of herbs 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 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, who used “spells and enchantments” with the herbal remedies 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 create phytochemicals. Alkaloids are a category can be used as anesthetics or stimulants, and to fight cancer, arrhythmia, asthma, and malaria. Polyphenols have phytoestrogens and tannins. Glycosides are used 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 resources that 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
Herbs can be used in a variety of manners, including 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. 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”. Herbalists seek to avoid side-effects and invasive procedures, in order to prevent disease, provide symptom relief, and improve overall health. Many cultures around the world still practice herbalism, including 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.6