Plants have been used as medicine since the dawn of human civilization. Also called “botanical medicine” or “phytomedicine,” herbal medicine uses all the parts of various plants for healing: seeds, berries, leaves, roots, bard, flowers. The World Health Organization reports that 80 percent of people worldwide use herbal medicine. In 1998, Americans alone spent over $4 billion on herbal products.
Over 700,000 different plants have been identified, but many more grow in isolated and remote environments, like the Amazon jungle. We have scientific data about only a handful, but even these have proven very useful as many modern pharmaceutical drugs are derived from plants. For instance, digitalis, from the foxglove plant, has been used by herbalists to treat heart disease. Extracts from this plant and its compounds are used in modern heart medications. The herb ephedra has been used in Chinese Medicine for over 2,000 years to treat asthma. The extract, Ephedrine, is used in commercial asthma medications
Though the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recognize licenses of drugs from overseas, research in other countries has brought many medicinal plants into modern usage in Europe. Germany utilizes over 600 plants in medicines available by prescription. These plant-medicines are prescribed by over two-thirds of German doctors.
Healing with plants has been mentioned as far back as man has been keeping records. Ancient Egyptian papyrus relate recipes for cures using plants, as do medical systems from other cultures, such as Ayurveda in India and Traditional Chinese Medicine. With the advent of modern chemistry, scientists began to analyze the chemical make-up of various plants, and then synthesized compounds for use in pharmaceuticals and medicine. The FDA now classifies many herbs as dietary supplements, since the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. Most herbs are sold over-the-counter, that is, without a prescription, and registration as a dietary supplement does not regulate the manufacture of herbal medicine.
Herbs can be taken internally as tea, tinctures, or extracts. They can also be added to oils or creams and used externally, not only for the hair or skin, but for absorption through the skin to treat various ailments.
Some of the more commonly used herbs in the United States are echinacea, used to boost immunity, and ginkgo bilboa, used for memory retention. Commonly utilized teas include chamomile and peppermint. Food plants such as ginger, chocolate, flax seed oil, and garlic are also classified in herbal medicine because of their healing qualities.
Side Effects from Herbal Medicine
Some herbal remedies do have side effects or allergic reactions, so it is important to talk over health concern with your doctor or health provider before beginning any new therapy. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested that over half of people using herbal medicines did not report the usage to their doctors, and this can interfere with other drugs or medical treatments. You can research warnings and safety advice at the FDA website or the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Integrating natural and conventional treatments is often the most beneficial path to health, as one third of Americans know, so keeping our health providers informed will only speed the integration of herbal medicine into its rightful place as a healing agent.
Melanie Grimes will introduce you to the many types of alternative and complementary health practices and describe specific treatments for common ailments. Natural health can be yours through natural medicines.