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Herbal Medicine

Modern medicine has provided many breakthrough treatments for serious diseases. Some conditions, however, have eluded the healing grasp of contemporary western medicine, which emphasizes rigorous scientific investigation of therapies. In addition, rising costs of some treatments have placed modern healthcare beyond the reach of many. The drugs that routinely fill pharmacy shelves of post-industrialized nations remain inaccessible to the majority of the people in the world. Instead, populations in many areas of the globe use herbal medicine, also called botanical medicine or phytotherapy, as the principal means of healthcare. Herbal medicine is the use of natural plant substances to treat illness. Based upon hundreds, even thousands of years of experience, herbal medicine provides an alternative to modern medicine, making healthcare more available. In fact, the majority of the world's population uses herb products as a primary source of medicine. While some regulating authorities fear the consequences of unrestricted herbal remedy use, herbal medicine offers a degree of hope to some patients whose disease states do not respond favorably to modern pharmaceuticals. More often, however, herbal remedies are used to treat the common ailments of daily living like indigestion, sleeplessness, or the common cold. A resurgence in interest in herbal medicine has occurred in the United States as medical experts have begun to recognize the potential benefit of many herbal extracts. So popular has herbal medicine become that scientific clinical studies of the effectiveness and proper dosing of some herbal medicines are being investigated.

Herbal medicine recognizes the medicinal value of plants and plant structures such as roots, stems, bark, leaves, and reproductive structures like seeds and flowers. To some, herbal medicine may seem to be on the fringes of medical practice. In reality, herbal medicine has been in existence since prehistoric time and is far more prevalent in some countries than is modern health-care. Woman herbalist preparing Chinese herbal medication. © 1995 Eric Nelson. Custom Medical Stock Photo, Inc. Reproduced by permission. The use of herbs ground into powders, filtered into extracts, mixed into salves, and steeped into teas has provided the very foundation upon which modern medicine is derived. Indeed, herbal medicine is the history of modern medicine. Many modern drugs are compounds that are derived from plants whose pharmacological effects on humans had been observed long before their mechanisms of action were known. A common example is aspirin. Aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, is a compound found in the bark of the willow tree belonging to the taxonomic genus Salix. Aspirin, now sold widely without prescription, is an effective analgesic, or pain reliever, and helps to control mild swelling and fever. While aspirin is synthetically produced today, willow bark containing aspirin was used as an herbal remedy long before chemical synthesis techniques were available. Similarly, the modern cardiac drug digitalis is derived from the leaves of the purple foxglove plant, Digitalis purpurea. Foxglove was an herbal known to affect the heart long before it was used in modern scientific medicine.

A prime example of the prevalence of herbal medicine in other cultures is traditional Chinese medicine. Herbal remedies are a central aspect of traditional Asian medical practices that have evolved from ancient societies. The philosophical and experimental background of Chinese herbal medicine was established more than two thousand years ago. Large volumes of ancient Chinese medical knowledge, largely concerning herbs, have been preserved which chronicle wisdom gathered throughout periods of history. Some of the information is dated to about 200 B.C. One Chinese legend tells of how Shen Nung, the ancient Chinese father of agriculture, tested hundreds of herbs for medical or nutritional value. Many herbs from Chinese traditional medicine have documented pharmacological activity. Ma Huang, also called Chinese ephedra, is an example. This herb, Ephedra sinica has a potent chemical within its structures called ephedrine. Ephedrine is a powerful stimulant of the sympathetic nervous system, causing widespread physiological effects such as widening of breathing passages, constriction of blood vessels, increased heart rate, and elevated blood pressure. Ephedrine, whether from Ma Huang or modern medication preparations, mimics the effects of adrenaline on the body. Modern medicine has used ephedrine to treat asthma for years. Chinese traditional herbal medicine has been using Ma Huang to treat disease for many hundreds of years.

The term alternative medicine is often used to describe treatments for disease that do not conform to modern medical practices, including herbal medicine. Alternative medicine includes things such as apitherapy, the use of bee stings to treat neurological diseases. Apitherapy is used by some to treat multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease that can cripple or blind its victims. Also, alternative medicine includes scientifically unfounded therapies such as kinesiology (the healing properties of human touch), acupuncture, aromatherapy, meditation, massage therapy, and homeopathy. Aromatherapy and homeopathy are closely related to herbal medicine because they both use botanical, or plant, extracts. Aromatherapy uses the strong odors from essential oils extracted from plants to induce healing and a sense of well being. Homeopathy is the art of healing the sick by using substances capable of causing the same symptoms of a disease when administered to healthy people. Many homeopathic remedies are herbal extracts. Homeopathic medicine has been practiced for over 200 years. The German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, began the practice of homeopathy using herbs in 1796. The philosophy behind this form of herbal medicine is to induce the body to heal itself. The use of herbals in homeopathic treatment follows the unscientific principle of "Let likes be cured by likes."

Homeopathic remedies, and herbal remedies in general, are primarily used in alleged self-care, without the help of a physician. Because many remedies have genuine effects, the United States government regulates the sale of homeopathic substances. The Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States (HPUS) is the official list of accepted remedies that the law uses as standard. Along with the United States Pharmacopoeia and National Formulary (USP/NF) that lists all regulated drugs and drug products, the HPUS is the legal source of information for the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. Standards for manufacture, purity, and sale of drugs are listed in these documents, enforced by law. Many people are concerned that herbal medicine products that are currently widely available are a danger to public health, safety, and welfare because an official federal pharmacopoeia for herbals does not yet exist. Therefore, few legal requirements exist for the manufacture, dose standardization, labeling, and sale of preparations for herbal medicines. Yet, herbal remedies are the fastest growing segment of the supplemental health product industry. Such problems with purity and dosage only add to skepticism regarding the therapeutic value of many herbals. Most of the health claims made by advertisements have not been evaluated scientifically.

Examples of herbal medicine products in wide use today are St. Johns Wort for depression, Echinacea for increased immune function, Saw Palmetto for prostate gland problems in men, and ginkgo biloba for improved mental functioning and headaches. Other forms of herbal medicine in popular culture include herbal teas, like Chamomile tea used to help people who have trouble sleeping and peppermint tea to calm stomach and digestive problems.



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Selby, Anna. The Ancient and Healing Art of Chinese Herbalism. Ulysses Press, 1998.

Sravesh, Amira A. The Alchemy of Health: Herbal Medicine and Herbal Aromatherapy. Amira Alchemy, 1998.

Taylor, Leslie. Herbal Secrets of the Rainforest: Over 50 Powerful Herbs and Their Medicinal Uses. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1998.

Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicine. North Atlantic Books, 1997.


Rainforest Alliance. <http://www.rainforest-alliance.org> (March 2003).

Terry Watkins


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—The use of odorous essential oils from herbs to heal and induce feelings of wellbeing.


—A system in which diluted plant, mineral, or animal substances are given to stimulate the body's natural healing powers. Homeopathy is based upon three principles: the law of similars, the law of infinitesimal dose, and the holistic medical model.


—An official, and legal listing of approved drugs, drug manufacture standards, and use enforced by legislation.

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