Herbal medicine is ancient, and it gave birth to the modern sciences of botany, pharmacy, perfumery, and chemistry. Some of our most useful and beneficial medicines originate from plants, including aspirin (salicylic acid derivatives from willow bark and meadowsweet), quinine (from cinchona bark), digoxin (from foxglove), and morphine (from opium poppy).
- What Is a Medicinal Herb?
- How Is Herbal Medicine Used?
- Balancing Allopathic & Herbal Medicine
- The Benefits of Herbal Medicine
- Herbs in Modern Health Care
What Is a Medicinal Herb?
If you use herbs in cooking, then you’ve already taken the first step in using herbal medicine. All of our common culinary herbs and spices are among our most important and esteemed herbal medicines. And if you garden, tucking herbs here and there in your vegetable and flower beds for their added scent and beauty, then you also have been “practicing” herbal medicine.
Garden herbs such as lavender, thyme, sage, basil, rosemary, mint, yarrow, and peppermint are some of our most trusted herbal medicines and have long histories of use as teas, salves, poultices, and tinctures for healing purposes. Open your refrigerator and you may find more common herbal remedies, including horseradish (one of the best remedies for sinus infections) and cabbage (a singularly effective poultice for shingles and hives).
But wait, you might say, aren’t some of these plants vegetables and not herbs? Botanically speaking, an herb is an herbaceous plant with a nonwoody stem. However, when herbalists speak of medicinal herbs, they are basically including any plant that can be used in healing. Remember, herbalism is an art that evolved over centuries around people and people’s needs. It only makes sense that people would use what they had available, in the kitchen or in the backyard. Many of the most common plants are still our best and most popular remedies for common ailments.
So even without knowing it, you may already be a practitioner of herbal home medicine.
How Is Herbal Medicine Used?
While conventional or allopathic medicine is particulary effective in life-threatening situations and unrivaled in its ability to save lives, herbal medicine is the medicine of the home. It is used most effectively for the myriad non-emergency health problems that arise in everyday life: simple first-aid situations, the bumps and bruises of life, headaches, colds and fevers and flu, coughs and aches and pains, and chronic illness.
But more important than “curing” illnesses, plants play a great role in preventing them. Rich in nutrients, herbs are the supreme preventive medicine, bolstering our body’s ability to fight off pathogens that cause illness. How do they do this?
In addition to having superconcentrations of the important nutrients essential to the health of the human body, medicinal plants tend to be concentrated in specific chemicals that aid and abet the human immune system. When we eat medicinal plants, our own body becomes more resilient, hardy, and persistent, like the tenacious weedy plant that seems able to survive anything, from endless mowing to barrages of nasty “weed killers.”
Balancing Allopathic & Herbal Medicine
Health problems that are beyond the care of a home herbalist include life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease and kidney disease, neurological disorders, clinical depression and anxiety, broken bones, poisoning, and life-threatening injuries such as gunshot wounds, wounds with excessive bleeding, and so on. Any life-threatening injury or illness should always be treated under the supervision of a competent medical professional.
A good rule of thumb to follow is that any injury or illness that does not respond to herbal remedies and home health care in a timely manner should be evaluated by a professional health-care practitioner. If an injury or illness gets worse, not better, then seek professional help. If you don’t feel comfortable using herbal remedies to treat a particular injury or illness, then seek help.
One of the major differences between conventional (allopathic) medicine and herbal or natural medicine lies in their relationship to constitutional or foundational wellness. Conventional medicine, as we all know, is great for treating acute illness and can often temporarily alleviate its symptoms. Such treatment can be extremely comforting to someone in the midst of an “attack”: an asthma attack, for instance, or an oncoming migraine. However, symptom suppression, while necessary, hardly means the cause or root of the illness has been addressed.
Herbs and natural therapies are the medicine of choice for fostering constitutional wellness and addressing the root of chronic health problems. Chronic issues — meaning they are long term and/or recurring — usually have their root in lifestyle choices, environmental conditions, and/or genetics. They are most often corrected by lifestyle changes that include dietary changes, herbal remedies, and exercise programs. Treat the root or core of the problem, and the whole gets healthier.
Thankfully, we don’t have to make the choice between conventional medicine and herbal medicine. Both are amazing, effective systems of healing, yet they are distinctly different systems, designed to be used in different situations. Each is complementary to the other.
A field of echinacea can provide a wealth of immune-boosting remedies
The flowers of St. John’s wort have medicinal properties that are useful for relieving stress and anxiety
The Benefits of Herbal Medicine
One of the greatest benefits of herbal medicine is that it gives us the ability to become more self-reliant. Feeling that we have choices in how we care for ourselves and our families, and that we ourselves can play a central role in treatment and preventive medicine, can help us build a positive attitude of empowerment. With very little effort, time, or money, we can grow our own herbs, make our own medicines, and care for our families and ourselves, much as people have been doing for millennia. Herbalism is truly an accessible, inexpensive, natural, gentle, and, most importantly, effective system of healing.
Herbs are among the safest medicines available. This does not mean that there are no herbs with harmful side effects. There are, but they are an isolated group, and most of them are unavailable commercially. Occasionally an herb will stimulate an idiosyncratic, or individual, reaction in a person. This doesn’t mean the herb is toxic; it’s just a poor choice for that particular individual. Strawberries, a perfectly delicious fruit, are a sweet treat for some and a noxious poison for others.
Herbs are also an inexpensive way to boost your health. Herbal supplements for sale in a natural foods store are, capsule by capsule, much less expensive than pharmaceuticals. And herbal medicine becomes really cost effective and inexpensive when you plant some herbs, don an apron, and brew up your own remedies.
You’ll be surprised to discover how easy, inexpensive, and fun it is to make your own salves, tinctures, syrups, capsules, and teas, especially if you’re making them from herbs you’ve grown yourself! Begin by making simple medicines for coughs, colds, cuts, infections, and sprains, and you’ll find they not only work wonderfully but can also cut the cost of family health care, in the same way that growing your own vegetables helps reduce your grocery bills.
Herbs in Modern Health Care
Herbal medicine is finding its way into modern Western health care through the fields of integrative medicine (IM) and complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Both IM and CAM combine mainstream medical practices with “complementary” approaches — including herbal remedies, when appropriate — that have some evidence of effectiveness. In some nations, such as China, traditional herbal medicine exists side by side with Western medicine, and many physicians are trained to use both traditional Chinese and conventional (allopathic or “mainstream”) medical treatments.
In the United States and Canada, most conventional physicians receive little, if any, training in the use of herbal medicines, and some are skeptical about their use. But this is beginning to change, as more than 50 academic institutions and affiliated centers now offer formal IM training programs.
In many European nations, health agencies have approved hundreds of herbs as official medicines. Conventional physicians there often receive training about botanicals in medical school, and they prescribe certain herbal medicines as low-cost, nontoxic alternatives to standard pharmaceutical treatments for common ailments. Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), for instance, is now a preferred treatment in Europe for benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate), a common health problem for men over the age of 50. European physicians also commonly prescribe black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) for symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes.
Through global commerce, practitioners and consumers of conventional (Western) health care now have access to herbs from around the world. In Europe, physicians prescribe the Polynesian herb kava (Piper methysticum) for anxiety. Germany has approved the use of the Indian herb turmeric (Curcuma longa) for the treatment of indigestion. And physicians in the United States are recommending the Chinese medicinal herbs astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and shiitake mushroom (Lentinus edodes) for patients undergoing chemotherapy.
People all over the world also use herbs to treat themselves for minor illnesses and injuries — a practice often called folk medicine (the everyday medicine of the people). Herbal medicines are affordable; people who live in rural areas can even gather their own wild herbs locally and prepare the remedies at home. Pacific Islanders, for instance, use freshly squeezed juice from the root of a banana plant to help stop bleeding from a cut. Even city dwellers use herbs this way. If you’ve ever used aloe vera from a potted houseplant to soothe a burned finger or calmed an upset stomach by drinking ginger ale or chamomile tea, you’ve practiced herbal folk medicine.