Botanical / Herbal Medicine

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What is herbal medicine?

Herbal medicine — also called botanical medicine or phytomedicine — refers to using a plant’s seeds, berries, roots, leaves, bark, or flowers for medicinal purposes. Herbalism has a long tradition of use outside of conventional medicine. It is becoming more main stream as improvements in analysis and quality control along with advances in clinical research show the value of herbal medicine in the treating and preventing of disease.

What is the history of herbal medicine?

Plants had been used for medicinal purposes long before recorded history. Ancient Chinese and Egyptian papyrus writings describe medicinal uses for plants as early as 3,000 BC. Indigenous cultures (such as African and Native American) used herbs in their healing rituals, while others developed traditional medical systems (such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine) in which herbal therapies were used. Researchers found that people in different parts of the world tended to use the same or similar plants for the same purposes.

In the early 19th century, when chemical analysis first became available, scientists began to extract and modify the active ingredients from plants. Later, chemists began making their own version of plant compounds and, over time, the use of herbal medicines declined in favor of drugs. Almost one fourth of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from botanicals.

Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that 80% of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for some part of their primary health care. In Germany, about 600 – 700 plant based medicines are available and are prescribed by some 70% of German physicians. In the past 20 years in the United States, public dissatisfaction with the cost of prescription medications, combined with an interest in returning to natural or organic remedies, has led to an increase in herbal medicine use.

How do herbs work?

In many cases, scientists aren’t sure what specific ingredient in a particular herb works to treat a condition or illness. Whole herbs contain many ingredients, and they may work together to produce a beneficial effect. Many factors determine how effective an herb will be. For example, the type of environment (climate, bugs, soil quality) in which a plant grew will affect it, as will how and when it was harvested and processed.

How are herbs used?

The use of herbal supplements has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. Often, herbs may be used together because the combination is more effective and may have fewer side effects. Health care providers must take many factors into account when recommending herbs, including the species and variety of the plant, the plant’s habitat, how it was stored and processed, and whether or not there are contaminants (including heavy metals and pesticides).

What is herbal medicine good for?

Herbal medicine is used to treat many conditions, such as asthma, eczema, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer, among others. Herbal supplements are best taken under the guidance of a trained health care provider.

Is there anything I should watch out for?

Used correctly, herbs can help treat a variety of conditions, and in many cases have fewer side effects than some conventional prescription medications. Some herbs may cause allergic reactions or interact with conventional drugs, and some are toxic if used improperly or at high doses. For example, there is a high degree of herb/drug interaction among patients who are under treatment for cancer or those taking prescription medications. Be sure to consult your practitioner before trying any herbal products.

How is herbal medicine taken?

The herbs available in several different forms: teas, syrups, oils, liquid extracts, tinctures, and dry extracts (pills or capsules). Teas can be made from dried herbs left to soak for a few minutes in hot water, or by boiling herbs in water and then straining the liquid. Syrups, made from concentrated extracts and added to sweet tasting preparations, are often used for sore throats and coughs. Oils are extracted from plants and often used as rubs for massage, either by themselves or as part of an ointment or cream. Tinctures and liquid extracts are made of active herbal ingredients dissolved in a liquid (usually water, alcohol, or glycerol). Tinctures are typically a 1:5 or 1:10 concentration, meaning that one part of the herb is prepared with 5 – 10 parts (by weight) of the liquid. Liquid extracts are more concentrated and potent than tinctures which are used by trained health care practitioners and are typically a 1:1 concentration.

Are there experts in herbal medicine?

Herbalists, nutritionists, naturopathic physicians and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine all may use herbs to treat illness. Holistic practitioners believe that the body is continually striving for balance and that natural therapies can support this process. They are trained in conventional medical science (such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, microbiology, pharmacology) along with clinical training in herbal medicine, homeopathy, nutrition, and lifestyle counseling.