Plants have been used by people and animals throughout the ages as food and for their healing properties. In fact it is unlikely that there was a time when people did not use plants as medicine. The knowledge being passed through the generations. There is certainly evidence of herbal medicine use in ancient texts dating back thousands of years.
Data from the World Health Organisation shows that around 80% of the world’s population still use herbal medicine as their main source of healthcare. This could be due to the affordability of herbal remedies compared to other medications. Yet, even in developed countries where people have access to conventional medicine and pharmaceutical medications, herbal remedies are still popular.
Many people view herbal medicine as natural and therefore safe. However, it is important to be aware that herbs can have side effects if used inappropriately. For instance they can interact with conventional medications. Which is why in some countries herbal medicine is strictly regulated.
How herbal medicine works
Herbal medicines are more than just a natural alternative to pharmaceutical drugs. There are thousands of medicinal plant species around the world. Over the years people learned to use the plants or plant parts with therapeutic benefit. Passing this knowledge through the generations.
The herbal remedies may be made from the whole plant. Or, they may be made from only a specific part of the plant. Such as the bark, flowers, roots, leaves or seeds. These herbal remedies contain medicinally active constituents that have a direct action on the body.
Modern medicine and herbs
The difference is that modern medicine is interested in single constituents of plants that can be isolated, purified and synthesised. However, from a herbalist perspective this isolationist approach loses a great deal of the benefits of the natural remedy. Herbalists understand that there are multiple constituents with medicinal actions without a single herb. These constituents work together to produce the actions of the remedy in a synergistic fashion. Where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Medical herbalists combine the knowledge of traditional healing methods, with modern scientific research.
Herbal medicine is often criticised for not having much scientific evidence to back it up. While its true herbs do not have the research funding enjoyed by conventional medications it is not true to say there is no evidence of efficacy. Many herbal remedies have shown benefit in many hundreds of research studies, for example ginseng, echinacea, garlic or turmeric.
How herbal remedies are used
There is also a great deal of difference in how herbal medicines and conventional medicines are used. Herbal medicines tend to be used to support the body’s own innate healing efforts. They can also be used to help prevent illness or to promote good health, vitality and well being.
Herbal remedies promote balance in the body, helping the body to resist infection or reject illness. They generally, but not always, have a gentle action on the body. Which is suitable for healing chronic ill health or disease. Not necessarily producing a dramatic effect but encouraging gradual healing over time.
Safety of medicinal herbs
One of the great benefits of herbal medicines is that most are safe and gentle. They are generally without toxic side effects. Even when they are used over a long period of time.
Herbal medicines used appropriately and in normal therapeutic doses are safe, with minimal risk. However, all plants may produce allergic reactions in some people. So, it is necessary to be cautious using herbal medicine for children, or during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Or in people that are old or critically ill.
Some herbs are known to interact with certain medications. A medical herbalist is aware of potential interactions. If you are taking conventional medication seek advice from a medical herbalist about using herbal remedies alongside your medicine from the doctor.