Herbal Medicine: Ancient Art – Modern Wisdom
This article is an introduction into the vast and incredible field of Herbal Medicine, so that you will be more confident in getting started and (hopefully!) inspired to continue on a journey of discovery.
So what Exactly is Herbal Medicine?
Herbal Medicine is basically tapping into nature’s resources and improving health through the use of plants (roots, seeds, leaves, flowers, fruit, bark).
It’s all very simple once you understand a bit about plant chemistry and biochemistry. Plants contain chemicals (phytochemicals) which interact with our cells in a complex dance. You see, plants and humans are closely intertwined thanks to thousands of years of co-evolution and we have developed a special relationship during our time together on this planet. Plants ‘talk’ to us in their own unique way.
Now, thanks to thousands of years of human experience/learning, we are able to harness this power and use it intelligently. Essentially, ‘Herbal Medicine’ is just making the most of this natural relationship that has developed. Herbalists know that the human body has evolved to understand and utilize certain plant chemicals and they strategically use specific plants to help with various health ailments.
Whilst Herbal Medicine has become a lot more popular in recent years, there is still a fair bit of mystery and misconceptions surrounding it. Here are a few terms thrown around a lot:
Is it all hippy-dippy nonsense? Down to the placebo effect? Witchery even?! Certainly not! Herbal Medicine is entirely logical once you understand how plants work and how the human body works. Herbalists spend years studying both topics in great detail. These days, thanks to modern science, we also understand much more about the ‘Hows & Whys’. It is not ‘black magic’ – it is just nature! Well actually, in some ways Herbal Medicine is ‘magical’ because nature is magical. With it’s complexity, inherent intelligence and life force (ability to thrive, regenerate and survive) it never ceases to amaze. I guarantee that the more you learn about plants and the art of Herbal Medicine, the more it will leave you in reverence of nature and simply wanting to learn more.
Lack of funding is a problem when it comes to plant medicine (there are less profits to be made here, compared to pharmaceuticals). However, despite the lack of funding, there is a steadily growing mountain of research, which is really helping to advance our understanding of how the affect the human body. Many herbalists rely on a mixture of science, traditional knowledge and the sharing of clinical experience from other practitioners. It is also worth noting that as valuable as science is, we do not always have to have scientific validation to know that a certain plant works. Science cannot necessarily explain everything – and this is OK! (in some cases it is even likely that our ‘science’ is not yet advanced enough). There is also a lot to be said for trusting in the thousands of years of human experience and wisdom that we already have access to! The long history of herbal medicine means that we already have many long term human trials documented (real life cases – not test tubes!)
Of course Herbal Medicine is not without risks but it is generally safe when used appropriately. You can invest in some reference books but for best results and safety, I always recommend visiting a qualified Herbalist. This is especially important if you have a serious health condition, are pregnant/breastfeeding or are on medications. Also take care with children/babies as not all remedies are suitable for them and doses will need to be adjusted. Again it’s just a matter of being educated about it and if in doubt always ask a professional!
Conventional Med vs Herbal Med
How is Herbal Medicine Different to Conventional Medicine?? Before moving onto the differences, I have to point out that Herbal Medicine and Conventional Medicine are not totally different to one another. They do share some common ground, consider this:
Many pharmaceutical drugs are actually obtained directly from or inspired by plants. This is why pharmaceutical companies actively research plants so that they can extract the active chemicals and develop it into a drug. So actually plants are drugs, though much more complex by nature and generally much safer! The big difference is that in Herbal medicine we use the whole plant- not a single chemical extract/replica.
This brings me onto some of the key differences between the two…
Natural vs Synthetic
Our bodies are designed to take in whole foods and plants rather than isolated synthetic chemicals. In nature we are meant to process plants as a whole package – we are simply not designed to take massive doses of a single chemical. This is the why most conventional medicines have so many side effects, because our bodies cannot process them in this refined form (a bit like refined sugar). Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing drugs available and there is definitely a time and place for them but for many chronic diseases or conditions (such as Heartburn, Diabetes, Depression etc…) there are often better alternatives. Nutrition and Herbal Medicine could fill a BIG gap in our health care system. They should be seen as allies to Modern Medicine – not enemies!
The Concept of Synergy
The incredible chemistry of plants cannot be replicated by a single chemical.. Synergy is what differentiates Herbal Medicine from Conventional Medicine or the whole plant from an isolated extract/drug. The balanced effects of a plant can’t be replicated by extracting one single chemical and making it into a drug. In herbal medicine we know that the sum/whole is bigger than the individual components; like a well functioning machine, all parts work together to drive activity. When one component of the machine is missing, it won’t work or it will not work to it’s best capacity. The chemicals in plants do not act in isolation, they act in SYNERGY… phytochemicals can compliment/enhance one another to give a combined stronger action or they can modulate/control excessive activity (calm down the activity from one particular phytochemical) thus protecting us from severe side effects. When you do isolate a plant chemicals, more often than not, either (A) The entire effect changes (B) It becomes less effective – this is why drug companies are often not able to replicate the effects of a plant or (C) It becomes much more potent and the side effects therefore also become much more severe. The moral of the story? Nature often knows best!
Herbs are Multi-Functional and Economical!
Drugs are single chemicals which dock onto a specific receptor. Plants on the other hand are complex substances containing hundreds of different chemicals, they often have many benefits rather than 1 single use. How is that for economy?! This also means that using just a handful of herbs can provide you with so many health benefits. You don’t need to study a formal course and learn hundreds of herbs and complicated formulas. Just pick 5 medicinal plants growing in your local area, learn more about these and find out just how much they can do – for body/home/beauty. Did I mention that herbs are free/low cost?! Drugs on the other hand are extremely expensive to develop and produce, costing billions to get just one drug onto the market. There is a real and current crisis in health care systems around the world, so the more we can do to take care of our health (even if just small steps) the less strain on the medical system and the better the health of the people. It’s a win-win if we learn to use plants intelligently and nurture our natural resources.
Plants are the Earth’s true treasures 🙂 Well said Bernadin St. Pierre de Maurice!
Which Health Conditions Can Herbal Medicine Help With?
- High Blood Pressure, High Cholesterol, Heart Disease/Failure
- Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, Injuries
- Depression, Anxiety, ADHD, Insomnia
- Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s Dementia, Parkinson’s Disease
- Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome, Obesity
- Bacterial, Viral, Parasitic, Fungal Infections
- Allergies, Hayfever, Autoimmune Disease
- Hyper/Hypo Thyroid states, Menopause, PMS, Oestrogen Dominance and other Hormone Imbalances
- Fertility Issues, Endometriosis, Fibroids, BPH, Prostatitis, Erectile Dysfunction
- Eczema, Dermatitis, Acne, Dry Skin, Fungal Infections
- Sports or Cognitive Performance, Energy/Wellbeing and General Health
Our Herbal Helpers:
Herbs can be used for acute conditions, symptomatic relief, chronic diseases or just for general health and well-being. The conditions mentioned (in the table below) are just some examples of those that may benefit from treatment with medicinal herbs, there are of course many more. For chronic diseases, visiting a qualified herbalist is always recommended as they are adequately trained to deal with the more complex conditions. However, this should not put you off learning about Herbal Medicine for home use as there are still many things you can do to help yourself. Being informed is key.
A Herb for Each Organ System
Interestingly, many herbs have a natural affinity for a specific organ or part of the body. Most good herbal textbooks categorize herbs in this way – that is which herbs are of most benefit to that particular part of the body. Herbs of course have multiple uses covering different body systems, but often they have an affinity for one particular organ/part of the body. Grouping herbs in this way simply helps when it comes to memorizing them, a useful learning tool. Here are just a few examples:
Brain/Nervous System: Ginkgo biloba, Sage, Valerian, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Ginseng.
Immune System: Echinacea, Oregon Grape, Thyme, Oregano, Andrographis, Astragalus, Reishi Mushroom.
Joints and Connective Tissue: Rosehips, Turmeric, Devils Claw, Comfrey (externally).
Liver: Milk Thistle, Dandelion Root, Turmeric, Green Tea, Rosemary.
Digestive Tract: Chamomile, Fennel, Licorice, Turmeric, Slippery Elm.
Skin: Bilberries, Rosehips, Gotu Kola, Nettle, Horsetail, Oatstraw.
Herbal Medicine as a Panacea?
I have to say that whilst it is true that in many cases Herbal Medicine stimulates healing and supports normal physiological functioning, it is not a ‘fix-all’ by any means. Nutrition, genetics, pollution, stress, psychological/social wellbeing and exercise all play a role in ‘health’. Herbalists do not claim to ‘cure’ any disease (this has to be stressed) but Medicinal Plants can certainly be of great benefit and a valuable addition to any treatment plan (alongside good nutrition and other therapies). I wholeheartedly encourage you to learn more about the art of using plants as medicine 🙂 it’s really not that difficult if you begin with the basics and get the right guidance.
Want to know More?
Take a peek at my website sections: ‘About Herbal Medicine’ and ‘Herbal Medicine Resources’ for further reading on all things Herbie