Botanists define a herb as being a soft stemmed plant, which dies after flowering, while herbalists define a herb as any part of a plant which can be used for medicine, cooking, cosmetic uses and as a scent or dye.
Herbalism is the oldest known method of healing, being used to some degree by all Ancient cultures. Many herbs which were used for healing thousands of years ago are still in use today. Prehistoric sites in Irak show that Neanderthal man used herbs such as Yarrow around 60,000 years ago. Early humans were attracted to the aroma of herbs; they rubbed strong smelling herbs on their bodies to hide their human scent from animals which they were hunting. They also used the scent of herbs to mask the stench of rotting meat. Our ancestors discovered the healing properties of herbs by trial and error, learning the hard way that while some herbs heal, others harm.
Herbs were often considered magic in ancient times and form part of many love potions and aphrodisiacs. In the years before about 1300 AD, 1650 AD the image of the herbalist changed, people using herbs were thought to be witchs. Many witch hunts occurred throughout Europe, but herbalism was not abandoned it was practised in secrecy. Nycholas Culpepper wrote the first popular herbal as it meant that the poor could read the book, collect herbs, and make their own medicine, therefore no longer relying on medicinal practicioners. Around the time of Culpeppers Herbal, medicine started to change. Inorganic remedies were being invented and introduced, and since these were new and considered scientific they often took prescedence over herbal remedies, so that herbalists found themselves being associated in reputation with superstition and quackery.
The medical physicians were using inorganic metals and with bleeding and violent laxatives as treatments through to the early 19th century. The period from 1920-1960 may be called the decades of lost herbal healing, medical schools ignored herbs, pharmaceutical drugs replaced herbal tinctures in pharmacies and many of the culinary herbs fell from popularity. However in the early 1960s many people became disatisfied with orthodox medicine and so began a resurgence in herbal medicine that is still escalating.
History of Herbal Medicine
Herbal Medicine, sometimes referred to as Herbalism or Botanical Medicine, is the use of herbs for their therapeutic or medicinal value. An herb is a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, aromatic or savory qualities. Herb plants produce and contain a variety of chemical substances that act upon the body.
Herbalists use the leaves, flowers, stems, berries, and roots of plants to prevent, relieve, and treat illness. From a "scientific" perspective, many herbal treatments are considered experimental. The reality is, however, that herbal medicine has a long and respected history. Many familiar medications of the twentieth century were developed from ancient healing traditions that treated health problems with specific plants. Today, science has isolated the medicinal properties of a large number of botanicals, and their healing components have been extracted and analyzed. Many plant components are now synthesized in large laboratories for use in pharmaceutical preparations. For example, vincristine (an antitumor drug), digitalis (a heart regulator), and ephedrine (a bronchodilator used to decrease respiratory congestion) were all originally discovered through research on plants.
History of Herbal Medicine Herbal medicine is the oldest form of healthcare known to mankind. Herbs had been used by all cultures throughout history. It was an integral part of the development of modern civilization. Primitive man observed and appreciated the great diversity of plants available to him. The plants provided food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. Much of the medicinal use of plants seems to have been developed through observations of wild animals, and by trial and error. As time went on, each tribe added the medicinal power of herbs in their area to its knowledgebase. They methodically collected information on herbs and developed well-defined herbal pharmacopoeias. Indeed, well into the 20th century much of the pharmacopoeia of scientific medicine was derived from the herbal lore of native peoples. Many drugs commonly used today are of herbal origin. Indeed, about 25% of the prescription drugs dispensed in the United States contain at least one active ingredient derived from plant material. Some are made from plant extracts; others are synthesized to mimic a natural plant compound.
Undisputedly, the history of herbology is inextricably intertwined with that of modern medicine. Many drugs listed as conventional medications were originally derived from plants. Salicylic acid, a precursor of aspirin, was originally derived from white willow bark and the meadowsweet plant. Cinchona bark is the source of malaria-fighting quinine. Vincristine, used to treat certain types of cancer, comes from periwinkle. The opium poppy yields morphine, codeine, and paregoric, a treatment for diarrhea Laudanum, a tincture of the opium poppy, was the favored tranquilizer in Victorian times. Even today, morphine-the most important alkaloid of the opium poppy-remains the standard against which new synthetic pain relieves is measured.
Prior to the discovery and subsequent synthesis of antibiotics, the herb echinacea (which comes from the plant commonly known as purple coneflower) was one of the most widely prescribed medicines in the United States . For centuries, herbalists prescribed echinacea to fight infection. Today, research confirms that the herb boosts the immune system by stimulating the production of disease-fighting white blood cells.
The use of plants as medicine is older than recorded history. As mute witness to this fact marshmallow root, hyacinth, and yarrow have been found carefully tucked around the bones of a Stone Age man in Iraq . These three medicinal herbs continue to be used today. Marshmallow root is a demulcent herb, soothing to inflamed or irritated mucous membranes, such as a sore throat or irritated digestive tract. Hyacinth is a diuretic that encourages tissues to give up excess water. Yarrow is a time-honored cold and fever remedy that may once have been used much as aspirin is today.
In 2735 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Nong wrote an authoritative treatise on herbs that is still in use today. Shen Nong recommended the use of Ma Huang (known as ephedra in the Western world), for example, against respiratory distress. Ephedrine, extracted from ephedra, is widely used as a decongestant. You'll find it in its synthetic form, pseudoephedrine, in many allergy, sinus, and cold-relief medications produced by large pharmaceutical companies.
The records of King Hammurabi of Babylon (c. 1800 B.C.) include instructions for using medicinal plants. Hammurabi prescribed the use of mint for digestive disorders. Modern research has confirmed that peppermint does indeed relieve nausea and vomiting by mildly anesthetizing the lining of the stomach.
The entire Middle East has a rich history of herbal healing. There are texts surviving from the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India that describe and illustrate the use of many medicinal plant products, including castor oil, linseed oil, and white poppies. In the scriptural book of Ezekiel, which dates from the sixth century B.C., we find this admonition regarding plant life: "..and the fruit thereof shall be for meat, and leaf thereof for medicine." Egyptian hieroglyphs show physicians of the first and second centuries A.D. treating constipation with senna pods, and using caraway and peppermint to relieve digestive upsets.
Throughout the Middle Ages, home-grown botanicals were the only medicines readily available, and for centuries, no self-respecting household would be without a carefully tended and extensively used herb garden. For the most part, herbal healing lore was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. Mother taught daughter; the village herbalist taught a promising apprentice.
By the seventeenth century, the knowledge of herbal medicine was widely disseminated throughout Europe . In 1649, Nicholas Culpeper wrote A Physical Directory , and a few years later produced The English Physician . This respected herbal pharmacopeia was one of the first manuals that the layperson could use for health care, and it is still widely referred to and quoted today. Culpeper had studied at Cambridge University and was meant to become a great doctor, in the academic sense of the word. Instead, he chose to apprentice to an apothecary and eventually set up his own shop. He served the poor people of London and became known as their neighborhood doctor. The herbal he created was meant for the layperson.
The first U.S. Pharmacopeia was published in 1820. This volume included an authoritative listing of herbal drugs, with descriptions of their properties, uses, dosages, and tests of purity. It was periodically revised and became the legal standard for medical compounds in 1906. But as Western medicine evolved from an art to a science in the nineteenth century, information that had at one time been widely available became the domain of comparatively few. Once scientific methods were developed to extract and synthesize the active ingredients in plants, pharmaceutical laboratories took over from providers of medicinal herbs as the producers of drugs. The use of herbs, which for most of history had been mainstream medical practice, began to be considered unscientific, or at least unconventional, and to fall into relative obscurity.
Herbal Medicine Today
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 4 billion people, 80% of the world population, presently use herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care. Herbal medicine is a major component in all indigenous peoples' traditional medicine and a common element in Ayurvedic, homeopathic, naturopathic, traditional oriental, and Native American Indian medicine. WHO notes that of 119 plant-derived pharmaceutical medicines, about 74% are used in modern medicine in ways that correlated directly with their traditional uses as plant medicines by native cultures. Major pharmaceutical companies are currently conducting extensive research on plant materials gathered from the rain forests and other places for their potential medicinal value.
Today, the U.S. Pharmacopoeia , with its reliance on herbal compounds, has been all but forgotten. Most modern physicians rely on the Physician's Desk Reference , an extensive listing of chemically manufactured drugs. It is important to note that each entry in this enormous volume, in addition to specifying the chemical compound and actions of a particular drug, also includes an extensive list of contraindications and possible side effects.
Rather than using a whole plant, pharmacologists identify, isolate, extract, and synthesize individual components, thus capturing the active properties. This can create problems, however. In addition to active ingredients, plants contain minerals, vitamins, volatile oils, glycosides, alkaloids, bioflavanoids, and other substances that are important in supporting a particular herb's medicinal properties. These elements also provide an important natural safeguard Isolated or synthesized active compounds can become toxic in relatively small doses; it usually takes a much greater amount of a whole herb, with all of its components, to reach a toxic level. Herbs are medicines, however, and they can have powerful effects. They should not tee taken lightly. The suggestions for herbal treatments in this book are not intended to substitute for consultation with a qualified health care practitioner, but rather to support and assist you in understanding and working with your physician's advice.
Substances derived from the plants remain the basis for a large proportion of the commercial medications used today for the treatment of heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, asthma, and other problems. For example, ephedra is an herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than two thousand years to treat asthma and other respiratory problems. Ephedrine, the active ingredient in ephedra, is used in the commercial pharmaceutical preparations for the relief of asthma symptoms and other respiratory problems. It helps the patient to breathe more easily.
Another example of the use of an herbal preparation in modern medicine is the foxglove plant. This herb had been in use since 1775. At present, the powdered leaf of this plant is known as the cardiac stimulant digitalis to the millions of heart patients it keeps alive worldwide.
There are over 750,000 plants on earth. Relatively speaking, only a very few of the healing herbs have been studied scientifically. And because modern pharmacology looks for one active ingredient and seeks to isolate it to the exclusion of all the others, most of the research that is done on plants continues to focus on identifying and isolating active ingredients, rather than studying the medicinal properties of whole plants. Herbalists, however, consider that the power of a plant lies in the interaction of all its ingredients. Plants used as medicines offer synergistic interactions between ingredients both known and unknown.
The efficacy of many medicinal plants has been validated by scientists abroad, from Europe to the Orient. Thanks to modern technology, science can now identify some of the specific properties and interactions of botanical constituents. With this scientific documentation, we now know why certain herbs are effective against certain conditions. However, almost all of the current research validating herbal medicine has been done in Germany , Japan , China , Taiwan , and Russia . And for the most part, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is responsible for licensing all new drugs (or any substances for which medicinal properties are claimed) for use in the United States, does not recognize or accept findings from across the sea. Doctors and government agencies want to see American scientific studies before recognizing the effectiveness of a plant as medicine. Yet even though substantial research is being done in other countries, drug companies and laboratories in the United States so far have not chosen to put much money or resources into botanical research. The result is that herbal medicine does not have the same place of importance or level of acceptance in this country as it does in other countries.
Common Herbs and Herbal Preparations
Herbs are available in a variety of forms, including fresh, dried, in tablets or capsules, or bottled in liquid form. You can buy them individually or in mixtures formulated for specific conditions. Whatever type of product you choose, the quality of an herbal preparation-be it in capsule, tablet, tea, tincture, bath, compress, poultice, or ointment form-is only as good as the quality of the raw herb from which it was made.
Generally, herbs fall into two categories: wild-grown and farm-grown. A wild-grown herb is one that grows naturally, without human intervention. As a result of natural selection, plants tend to be found in places with conditions that optimize their growth. For example, horsetail grows best in moist, swampy areas, while arnica thrives at high altitudes in alpine meadows. The process of gathering herbs from their natural habitats is called wildcrafting .
The disadvantage of wild-grown herbs is that there is no guarantee the plants haven't been exposed to chemicals and pesticides. Herbs harvested from a meadow, for example, may have been exposed to chemical drift from a crop-dusted farm nearby. Exhaust fumes from passing traffic may have settled invisibly on plants growing near a country road. Water-loving plants, like horsetail, may be rooted in the bank of a polluted stream.
Because of the possibility of contamination, unless you are very sure of the source of wildcrafted herbs, organic herbs grown commercially may be a better choice. Organic farm-grown herbs are becoming increasingly available, as more and more herb farms are being established. With careful management, organic herb farms can provide a steady supply of quality herbs to the consumer.
To produce top-quality products, herb farmers require a great deal of specialized knowledge. For maximum potency, it is important that particular herbs be harvested at the optimum moment. For example, echinacea is gathered in the spring, winter, and fall, but not in summer, when the plant's energies are concentrated on growth and flowering.
Responsible farmers use compost and organic matter to fertilize and replenish the health of the soil. For obvious reasons, we favor the use of certified organically grown herbs, produced without the use of synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides. As of this writing, not all states have agencies inspecting and certifying organic growers, so to be sure you are getting pure, pesticide-free herbs grown without chemical contamination, check the label for the words "certified organic" before you make a purchase. The name of the certifying agency should be specified on the label. Two reliable organizations that certify organic products are the Organic Growers and Buyers Association and California Certified Organic Farmers. Organic products grown in the states of Washington and Texas should be certified organic by the Department of Agriculture of the relevant state. As of this writing, federal legislation on requirements for labeling a product "organic" has been passed, but is not yet being fully implemented. Once it is, it should be easier to be sure that you are buying a genuine organic product. Hopefully this will take place in the next few years.
Administering Herbal Treatment
Herbs and prepared herbal compounds are available in different forms, each of which has its own particular characteristics. Your health food store will have individual herbs as well as complex herbal formulations, including raw herbs, tinctures, extracts, capsules, tablets, lozenges, and ointments. Here's a look at what's available.
If the label says tincture, the preparation contains alcohol. In a tincture , alcohol is employed to extract and concentrate the active properties of the herb. Alcohol is also a very effective natural preservative. Because a tincture is easily assimilated by the body, it is a very effective way to administer herbal compounds. Tinctures are concentrated and cost-effective. However, the full taste of the herb comes through very strongly in a tincture. Children-and adults, too-may find the taste of some herbs unpleasant. Goldenseal, for example, is bitter-tasting.
Another concern when using tinctures is the presence of the alcohol. If you wish to lessen the amount of alcohol in a tincture before giving it to your child, mix the appropriate dose with one-quarter cup of very hot water. After about five minutes, most of the taste of the alcohol will have evaporated away, and the mixture should be cool enough to drink.
Extracts can be made with alcohol, like tinctures, or the essence of the herb can be leached out with water. When purchasing a liquid extract of an herb, the only way to be certain of the extraction process (alcohol or water) is to read the label. Extracts offer essentially the same advantages and disadvantages that tinctures do. They are the most concentrated form of herbal treatment and therefore the most cost-effective. They are easy to administer, but have a strong herbal taste.
Capsules and Tablets
Capsules and tablets contain a ground or powdered form of raw herb. In general, there seems to be little difference between the two in terms of clinical results. Because finely milled herbs degrade quickly, it is important that herbs be freshly ground and then promptly encapsulated or tabeleted, within twenty-four hours of being powdered. When making your selection, read the label to make sure fresh herbs have been used in the product. With the exception of certain herbal concentrates in capsule form, both capsules and tablets tend to be much less strong and potent than tinctures and extracts.
There are many delicious blends of herbal teas on the shelves of your health food store; they need no introduction here. You'll find loose herbs ready for steeping, herbal formulations aimed at specific conditions, and convenient pre-bagged teas. Some are just for sipping; some are medicinal. When your child is ill, a comforting cup of herbal tea (medicinal or not) is a wonderful way to give additional liquids.
Herbal-based, nutrient-rich, naturally sweetened lozenges are readily available in most health food shops. You'll find cold-fighting formulas, natural cough suppressants, some with decongestant properties. Many are boosted with natural vitamin C. Choose lozenges made without refined sugar.
Ointments, Salves, and Rubs
From calendula ointment (for broken skin and wounds) to goldenseal (for infections, rashes, and skin irritations) to aloe vera gel (to cool and speed the healing of minor burns, including sunburn) to heat-producing herbs (for muscle aches and strains), there's a wealth of topical herbal-based products on the market. Your selection will depend on the condition you are treating.