What Is Herbal Medicine?
Herbs were the first drugs that we humans had at our disposal. Our ancestors learned over time which plants harmed them and which plants seemed to help them. They developed ways to preserve and extract the healing compounds from these plants. The world over, most cultures have some knowledge about local plants that can do them good.
In some cases what ancient civilizations learned about treating illnesses with herbs has been proven correct by modern researchers. Echinacea, for example, has been shown to increase the activity of immune cells and help fend off infection by viruses and bacteria – attributes that help explain the herb’s cold-fighting power. Centuries ago Italian cooks added fennel seeds to sausage recipes; it turns out that the seeds help digestion and dispel wind.
The first herbal drugstore, then, encompassed all of nature, with its amazing array of medicinal plants. By comparison, the modern herbal drugstore seems far removed from its natural roots. You can take herbs as capsules or liquids or sprays that bear little resemblance to living plants. You can use products that contain combinations of herbs or compounds that have been chemically isolated from herbs and highly concentrated. And you can buy these products in many places – in health food stores and conventional chemists as well as from mail-order catalogues, and over the Internet.
Defining The Language
To choose wisely among the many remedies available to you, it’s best to have a basic knowledge of what herbs are, how they work and what they can do for you.
First of all, what’s a herb? For the purpose of this article, a herb is any plant material that’s used to alleviate unwanted symptoms or boost overall health. So in this context, garlic (a bulb), cayenne (a spice) and ginkgo extract (from the leaves of a tree) can all properly be called herbs. So can reishi, a mushroom, even though you’re most likely to take it in the form of a liquid or tablet. One of the few herbs that you might still take in its fresh, green form is feverfew, used to relieve headaches.
Herbal medicine, then, is the use of plants, plant extracts or plant preparations to improve health. It is one of a number of healing techniques that fall into the category of alternative medicine.
There are two fundamental principles that herbal medicine shares with other alternative therapies. One is the concept of working with the body instead of against a disease, as mainstream medicine does. Rather than killing germs, alternative therapies seek to enhance the body’s innate ability to fight disease and return itself to health. That’s why practitioners of many alternative therapies, including herbal medicine, put an emphasis on diet, exercise, deep relaxation and massage.
The other principle common to many alternative therapies is the use of medicinal plants instead of pharmaceutical drugs. Medicinal plants are the basis of not only herbal medicine but also aromatherapy and flower therapies. Herbs play central roles in homoeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and naturopathy.
In addition, medicinal plants are connected to nutritional therapies because some herbs, such as onions and apples, are foods.