The History of Herbal Medicine


From a historical perspective herbal medicine is the oldest form of medicine. Even today Empirical and scientific evidence continues to validate its use. As we understand the strides made by men and women in the past we can begin to understand the evolution of herbal medicine. Most of the original herbal information was not written down only passed from healers to their apprentices. The bible speaks of several herbs but does not give a formula for their use. Most folk medicine originated in the home administered by a wise woman or man who attended to the sick. Through their knowledge they used plants and there was no need to expound the theory of healing. As every village had one of these wise sages it was not necessary to write this knowledge down. As a result, much information of the past is lost.

There are many approaches to understanding the virtues of plants. One very popular method used among the Native Americans is called the Doctrine of Signatures. We learn that if we take in account the physical characteristics, including the growing environment, we can learn the application of the herb for use in healing.

People learned a great deal about which herbs and plants to use by watching animals. Many early cultures observed the animals and how they used plants for medicine. As a result of the knowledge gleaned from watching animals many including the bear were on the head of the totem of the herbal doctor. One should not deem watching the wild animal's diet as a cure all.

Many of the foods indigested by animals are poisonous to man and visa versa. After the method of Applying Signatures came the introduction of the elements, temperatures and constitutions in understanding the nature of disease and the application of herbal remedies. If one suffered from a condition that was hot and dry or cool and moist, plants that were cooling and moist or warming and drying were used accordingly.

Today many people around the world use herbs in cooking as well for medical relief. The aroma of cooking with spices and herbs coming from any kitchen where home cooked meals are prepared is something to behold for the palate. Food preparation and even the sequence of food served have its therapeutic effect on our body. The foods and spices we eat are the foundation for good health. These thoughts are far away from our concern for out health as we order fast food high in fat, cholesterol and salt.

Processed food denatured of every living nutrient is a cause for disease. Since we refuse, for the most part, to adhere to sound nutritional practices we oftentimes get sick and almost always want a quick fix. We live in a complex world with a lot of people who want to do everything as fast and easy as possible. If the planet is to provide us with every herb necessary to enjoy life we must turn again to the past and grow and eat unprocessed food. Do not be fooled by denatured herbs that have been processed of every living nutrient. If we are to benefit from mother earth we must learn the medicinal and healthful values of herbs.

Whole Herbs Preparations Vs. Standardized Extracts Writing about herbal therapy, in my mind, would not be complete without shedding some light on the difference between standardized herbal products and whole herb preparations. What is a standardized extract? We hear about them so often, or do we? Do you read the labels when you buy a product? Do you read every ingredient? Even the preservatives and binders that they so conveniently list at the bottom of the package in really small print? Well, if you don't read the label then I highly advise to do so. In addition to being in the form of a little white pill, the amount of fillers and chemicals that somehow show up in "herbal" products is astounding.

Let's take this one step further. What is standardization? Herbs contain hundreds of constituents or better-said, chemical properties. Each of these properties has a specific effect on the body and must be tested individually, in a clinical setting, for scientists to identify how it actually works. Recent studies have indicated that one specific constituent, for each herb, are the most important and effective and needs to be isolated. Through chemical extraction, in a laboratory setting, that one constituent is placed in pill or liquid form for intended use. These herbal standardizations will guarantee the consumer a certain amount of that one constituent.

Whole herb extracts, on the other hand, are not manipulated in a lab and all of the properties are present and in relationship to each other. The active constituents in these products are chemically identical to those found in nature. The major difference in a whole herb preparation is that it is truly natural. A whole herb preparation looks, tastes and smells like the real thing.

These statements are not made in any way to discredit certain products but simply to explain the difference. In my personal experience, I cannot look at a little white pill and believe that I am ingesting and herb. I can look at a cup of tea or a capsule made of a whole, ground herb and indeed know and feel like I am taking exactly that, but not so with little white pills. There is a place for standardized extracts and that is the trick. We know what whole herbs were used for at the turn of the last century. Pick up any 1930's herbs text and find out. What we don't know much about is how to specifically apply a standardized extract to specific disorders. The testing is being done. Some of the results are final. Certain disorders warrant a standardized extract because a whole herb extract would not be effective. A word of caution to my readers...do not be too quick to read the bad press about herbs and do not self medicate with a strong, standardized product if you aren't certain of its effects. Try to keep informed with the latest state-of-the-art information that is backed by scientific evident.

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