Herbal medicine is also known as botanical medicine or phytotherapy. It is the oldest form of health care known to man. Herbs have been used in all cultures throughout recorded history. The word ‘drug’ comes from the old Dutch word ‘droog’ meaning ‘to dry’ as ancient healers often dried plants for use as medicines.
The word ‘herb’ in herbal medicine refers to a plant or plant part that is used to make medicine, spices or aromatic oils. An herb can be a leaf, flower, stem, seed, root, fruit, bark, or any other part of a plant used not only for medicinal purposes, but also for food flavoring and for its fragrant property. Herbal medicines, in general, work much the same way as conventional pharmaceutical drugs – via their chemical constituents or active compounds.
Herbal medicine has much to offer when used to facilitate healing in chronic problems. By skillful selection of herbs, a profound transformation in health can be effected with less danger of the side effects inherent in conventional drug-based medicine. Herbs and herbal products come in many forms; whole herbs, teas, capsules and tablets, extracts and tinctures, and essential oils.
Conditions benefited from herbal remedies are many, including self-medicating minor ailments such as stomachaches, colds and flu, minor aches and pains, constipation and diarrhea, coughs, headaches, menstrual cramps, digestive disturbances, sore muscles, skin rashes, sunburn and insomnia.
A growing number of health consumers use herbal remedies for the following conditions, which have been traditionally the domain of prescription or over-the-counter drugs. Peptic ulcers, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatic and arthritic conditions, chronic skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis, problems of the menstrual cycle and especially premenstrual syndrome, anxiety and stress, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions, hypertension and allergies.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is the restoration of harmony and integral to Chinese herbal medicine. Harmonious balance is expressed in terms of the two complementary forces-yin and yang. TCM involves working with and balancing the five elements; fire, earth, metal, water, and wood, and the tastes that they represent; bitterness, sweetness, acridity, saltiness and sourness. Herbs that have none of these tastes are described as bland. Besides defining particular herbal tastes, the Chinese pay attention to the herbal temperature characteristics of hot, warm, neutral, cool and cold.
Herbs are a primary part of Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment. Chinese herbal prescriptions are generally a combination of a variety of ingredients. An example of an historic Chinese herbal remedy is Astragalus (Huang qi). It is used by TCM practitioners to strengthen the body’s defense or the immune system.
Along with the Chinese culture, which dates back to 3000 BC or even earlier, remains of medicinal herbs along with written records of their preparation have been found in stone-age burial sites from ancient Egyptian, Indian and Greek cultures.
Ayurvedic medicine, which has ancient roots in the Indian subcontinent, also recognizes five elements: ether, fire, water, air and earth. These elements manifest themselves in the body to form the tridosha or three basic humors: vata, pitta and kapha – air, fire and water, respectively. Ayurvedic medicine sees the healing process as a balance between the elements.
Ayurvedic medicine also holds that the taste of an herb is indicative of its properties. There are six tastes or essences; sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. As in Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic texts categorize all plants according to this system, so that their herbalists can prescribe herbs more easily.
A very common and popular Indian spice is turmeric (Curcuma longa). The anti-oxidant isolated from this spice is widely used by Ayurvedic herbalists for its detoxification, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activities. Ashwaganda has been verified in clinical studies as a protectant of the heart with its anti-coagulant properties.
The use of medicinal plants is also fundamental to Western society’s pharmacologically based approach to medicine. Centuries ago, the early American settlers – especially the eclectic physicians – learned about and relied heavily on the local herbs and on the knowledge of the Native Americans, especially the Cheyenne and Comanche that gathered herbs that grew wild on the Great Plains. The herb of choice of the Native Americans was Echinacea. They found its healing properties varied and used it for its wound-healing and anti-inflammatory properties. They found it effective against toothaches, sore throats, tonsillitis, blood and lymphatic diseases and externally for skin problems, bites and wounds with a poor tendency to heal.