Herbal Medicine Facts: History and Theory
Herbalism - also known as herbal medicine and phytomedicine refers to any medical treatment in which plants and/or their extracts play the dominant role. Strictly speaking, herbalism includes aromatherapy and Bach flower remedies, and crosses the dividing line between therapies through its involvement in homeopathy.
Herbal preparations are used both in the form of patent remedies (available from health food stores and pharmacists), and as herbal prescriptions to treat symptoms. Familiar examples include valerian tablets to help cure insomnia, and cranberry extract tablets for the relief of cystitis. Medical herbalists do not, however, regard this as their main function, but in common with other holistic therapists consider that disease stems from an imbalance between a person's physical, psychological and spiritual aspects, and it is the aim of plant remedies to rectify this.
The need to reinstate harmony and thereby diseases remained a major goal during the evolutionary stages of modern herbalism. In about 420 BCE, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates classified foods into categories of hot, cold, dry or damp, to correspond with the widely held notion of "man's four humours." Centuries later, the physician Galen and his followers extended Hippocrates' original list, describing herbs and foods in such a way, based chiefly on their likely action on the humours. Cold, moist foods, such as apples, were thought to increase phlegm and lead to catarrh, while an excess of hot foods (e.g. mustard seeds, onions and almonds), or dry foods (asparagus, millet and coriander, for example) evoked the choleric humour (yellow bile), leading to skin or liver problems.
Our discrimination between foods and herbs is of relatively recent origin - in the 17th century carrots, cabbage and cucumbers were all referred to as "herbs" alongside what we now recognize under this name, such as parsley, marjoram and thyme.
Nicholas Culpeper, one of the best-known English herbalists, practiced as an apothecary in London's East End over four hundred years ago. His published work, Culpeper's Herbal, is still regarded as the definitive herbal in English, and is constantly referred to for its exquisite drawings of plants and detailed descriptions of their attributes, despite the author's conviction of a close relationship between astrology and the efficacy of herbal preparations.
It is easy from our privileged and sophisticated vantage point to mock the beliefs held in the seventeenth century, but the profound effect of the moon on the tides, winds and weather is beyond dispute, and more and more gardeners nowadays are taking the moon's waxing and waning phases into account when planning their planting programs. Also beyond dispute are the plant-based origins upon which so much of our modern pharmacopoeia is founded. It is common knowledge that the original aspirin (salicylic acid) came from willow bark, that opium (and all the opiate pain killers to which this gave rise) stemmed from the opium poppy, and that digitalis comes from foxgloves. We have also to thank the coca plant for the pain-numbing properties of cocaine, used in dentistry until recently, and from which the local anesthetics lignocaine and xylocaine are derived.
One fundamental way in which herbal remedies differ from pharmaceutical medicines (which are usually synthetic molecules modeled on original plant extracts) is in their preparation from plants in their natural state. This is because of the belief that the whole plant organism is in a state of balance, and that using it as it developed in nature provides both buffering action (counteracting possible unwanted effects) and synergistic action (enhancing the desired effects).