Herbal medicine is the use of plants and plant extracts to treat disease or ailments. Many modern pharmaceuticals use compounds found in plants, although these days they are generally created synthetically. Modern drugs focus on utilizing only the perceived active ingredient in a plant, whereas herbal medicine uses the plant, or parts or the plant, as a whole. There are arguments that point to the mixture of chemicals in a plant as a whole work together to produce a more desirable effect than a single active ingredient.
Healing with plants predates records and is a practice not only used by humans but other animals which are naturally drawn to certain plants to help them maintain their health. The first recorded use of herbal medicine dates back approximately 5000 years ago. Evidence was found on a clay Sumerian slab from Nagpur. It comprised of 12 recipes for medicine preparation and references over 250 different plants. Traditional Indian herbal medicine is called Ayurvedic medicine. We stock a wide range of Ayurvedic herbs.
The Chinese book “Pen T’Sao”, which was written by Emperor Shen Nung approximately 2500 BC references over 365 dried parts of medicinal plants, many of which are still used to this day, including Rhei rhisoma, camphor, Theae folium, Podophyllum and more such as jimson weed, ginsend, cinnamon bark, and ephedra. At Herbal Apothecary we stock a range of Chinese herbs, herbal tinctures and fluid extracts. Throughout history there has been a notable use of herbal medicine across cultures and civilisations, with references in the Indian holy books and the Bible.
In the Middle Ages, cultivation and preparation of medicines had moved towards monasteries, where most therapies were based on 16 medicinal plants. The monks at such monasteries commonly grew sage, anise, mint, Greek seed, savory, tansy and more. Charles the Great (742-814 AD) founded a medical school in Salerno, made an order dictating which medicinal plants were to be grown on state-owned land. Around 100 plants were quoted to be grown, many of which are still used today such as sage, sea onion, mint, common centaury, poppy and more. Charles the Great was said to especially appreciate sage (Salvia officinalis L.), which was named so in Latin as it was referred to as a salvation plant (with salvare meaning “save, cure”). Even in modern times, sage is a mandatory plant in all Catholic monasteries.
Historically in the Arab world, numerous plants were used in herbal medicine, mostly from India where there were good trade relations. Many of the medicinal plants used by the Arabs then are still in use today, some of these include aloe, deadly nightshade, henbane, coffee, ginger, saffron, pepper, cinnamon and senna. European physicians in the Middle Ages often consulted Arab works such as “De Re Medica” (John Mesue, 850 AD), “Canon Medicinae” (Avicenna, 980-1037 AD) and “Liber Magnae Collectionis Simplicum Alimentorum Et Medicamentorum” (Ibn Baitar 1197-1248 AD), where over 1000 medicinal plants were described.
In the 18th century, Linnaeus (1707-1788 AD) decided to create the work “Species Plantarium” (1753 AD) to provide short descriptions and classifications of species which had previously been described. Plants were described and named without taking into consideration previous descriptions and names. Most plant names up to this point used a polynominal system, where the first word denoted the genus, whilst the latter polynominal phrase described other features of the plant. Linnaeus changed the naming system into a binominal one. The name of each species consisted of the genus name, with an initial capital letter, and the species name, with an initial small letter.
In the early 19th century there was a scientific breakthrough concerning the discovery, substantiation and isolation of alkaloids from the poppy, quinine, pomegranate and other plants. With the improvements made to chemical methods, other active substances were discovered such as tannins, vitamins, hormones and more. This showed the different chemical make-up of different plants and how this would have an effect on their uses. In the late 19th century and early 20th century there was a looming danger that medicinal plants may be eliminated from therapy. Some authors wrote of perceived shortcomings of drugs obtained from plants, due to enzymes and their destructive action during the drying of medicinal plants, noting that healing action may depend on the mode of drying.At the turn of the 21st century, 11% of the World Health Organisation’s list of 252 drugs considered ‘basic and essential’ were exclusively of flowering plant origin, which shows the use of herbal medicine has most definitely not been lost, and is still relevant to this day. Herbal medicine comes from natures own laboratory, naturally occurring solutions to our health. The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of the world’s population, or about 4 billion people, currently use herbal medicine for some of their health care. Thirty percent of the US population uses herbal remedies each year. In the past 10 years, the use of herbal supplements has grown over 380%.
Herbal medicine can be useful on its own to support our immune systems and to help with ailments. However, our immune systems are three dimensional, meaning their function relies not only on the physical health and the things we consume, but also our social and cultural health. Where we lack in one dimension there is a profound impact on the system as a whole. Herbal medicine can be used alongside other forms of treatment to support and maintain a healthy immune system. The ‘medicine’ so to speak, is more than just a consumable, and until relatively recently this was a widespread and understood idea – our health, immune system, mood etc. are a reflection of our physical, social and cultural wellbeing. In more recent years, the idea that our social and cultural wellbeing can affect our physical health has been somewhat brushed under the rug. This has resulted in the root causes of problems which individuals experience (such as social isolation) not being addressed and instead they are given treatment which widely involves being prescribed a synthetic drug.
There are several problems with this approach of which the consequences can been quite clearly today. Bacteria has evolved to become resistant to our modern antibiotics, which humans have become increasingly dependant on. The European Commission estimates that adverse reactions from prescription drugs cause 200,000 deaths each year in Europe; together with around 128,000 deaths each year in the US. Consequently around 328,000 patients in the U.S. and Europe together die from prescription drugs each year. Another problem is the efficacy of prescription drugs is much lower than would like to be admitted, Dr Allen Roses (Ex Vice-President of GSK) has said “The vast majority of drugs – more than 90% – only work in 30-50% of the people”.
Herbal medicine has been utilised since humans existed, we know instinctively what our bodies need and what we should avoid. As observations have been made over the years it has become apparent which plants are best at treating certain ailments, which ones support our general health and which plants should be avoided. We have known for millennia the importance of social and cultural interactions too. Together these things all contribute to our health as a whole, but without one the others are weakened. It’s no surprise that the herbal medicine market is beginning to boom again, which significant growth projected over the coming years. Perhaps the COVID-19 situation has opened people up to prophylactic treatment using natural remedies to boost their immune system, or perhaps the wider public are again being drawn back towards what is, and always was natures solution to our physical health.