The practice of Herbal Medicine is as wide and varied as the people who use it. Written records go back 5,000 years and archeological evidence at least 60,000! Our human lineage has evolved and grown intimately alongside plants, and this has been consistent up until the last several hundred years with the proliferation of european/western civilization. Still, a majority of the world’s population uses plants and food to care for disease and ailments.
an advantage of the herbal and holistic approach is that we can gradually, subtly support the body to perform its own healing and restoration, instead of pushing it back and forth in extremes.
Out of these millennia of experience and observation in healing, different systems of understanding the human organism and our relationship to plants have emerged. Ayurveda, Unani-Tibb, Chinese Medicine, Native American Medicine, European 4 Humors, Curandurismo… Every culture of the world has developed a unique and functional way of working with illness by looking at the whole person – vastly more complex than a “take this for that” management of symptoms that herbal medicine is unfortunately associated with.
Generally, “herb”, “herbal medicine”, “botanical medicine” and the like refer to the use of preparations made out of plant roots, leaves, flowers, fruit or seeds. They are increasingly available in different forms such as
- Tinctures – a plant extract in alcohol (the little brown bottles you may have seen in stores)
- Teas – infusions (fresh or dried herb steeped in water) and decoctions (simmered over time)
- Neutraceuticals or Standardized Herbal Extracts – concentrated extracts usually sold as pills, capsules or tablets, sometimes of the whole plant, sometimes of a specific chemical constituent.
- Essential oils ( a distillation of volatile oils, eg. lavender), infused oils (plant extracted in oil), and fixed oils (oils derived from pressing, such as avocado oil)
- Creams, lotions, salves (herb extracts added to a carrier substance)
Sometimes people ask if herbal medicine works – forgetting that throughout history humans have had waxing and waning love affairs with with the physiological effects of plants. From the stimulating green and black tea, coffee, tobacco, and chocolate to the sedating opium and cannabis, antibiotic penicillin, and even the original aspirin, plants are most definitely in use.
Of course not all herbs are as obvious nor pronounced in their effect as the ones mentioned above, but don’t get the idea that a plant has to be “strong” to work! Many are strong but are used in prudent and low doses. Many are subtle so can be taken over long periods of time. In fact, an advantage of the herbal and holistic approach is that we can gradually, subtly support the body to perform its own healing and restoration, instead of pushing it back and forth in extremes.
In this way, herbs differ from pharmaceuticals as well. Pharmaceuticals are typically highly refined derivatives or synthetics and are one or just a few chemical compounds. In contrast, herbal medicines derived from whole-plant extracts such as tinctures or teas possess thousands of substances which synergistically interact with the body and produce certain effects that plants are known for. It is also the complexity of all the plant’s components working in tandem or even in opposition in the body which enable herbs to have such an excellent record of safety over thousands of years.
More recently, scientific research has focused on specific chemicals in plants, the so-called “active compounds” in a renewed search to find sources for new pharmaceuticals. There are many examples of these isolated parts producing quite different results than the whole plant, and it is often these culprits when people hear about safety issues with herbs like Ginkgo and St. John’s Wort. Simply put, the more refined the substance, the more it acts like a drug in the body, pushing a forcing a response rather than building, tonifying and strengthening.