Herbal Medicine is the oldest form of medicine, it was used in all ancient civilisations. Early humankind used empirical observation to notice the effect eating leaves, roots and flowers had on the body.
As civilisation progressed so medicine evolved. The Islamic world had its Avicenna, the Greeks Galen and Hippocrates and the Chinese, the Yellow Emperor’s physicians, in India Ayurevdic medicine. Many of these systems are still practiced today. Herbs were classified according to their relative heat/cold/moisture and dryness together with their position in the philosophic structure of their practitioners. The Chinese had the eight principles and five elements, the Greeks and Islamic world had the four humours, the Ayurvedic system had the five elements. All the systems used astrology, empirical observation, analysis of the urine, pulse diagnosis and dreams to diagnose complaints.
Minerals and animal products were always used in medicine, but with the rise of scientific rationalism in the time of Descartes (1596-1650) the magico religious aspects of Western medicine began to decline. In England, Nicolas Culpeper (1616-1654), was one of the last famous herbalists to openly use astrology. A rational system gradually overtook the more holistic world view, although plant remedies remained the foundation of many medicines, the philosophy in the West became more obscure. In China and India, however, a holistic system of Herbal Medicine has remained to the present day.
In the twentieth century the development of chemistry meant active ingredients could extracted from plant materials. Then followed the discovery of penicillin, from mould originally, steroids, many from plant or animals; the contraceptive pill was originally isolated from the wild yam, Dioscorea villosa; digitalis from the foxglove, and many more. Major drug companies have purchased large swathes of tropical rain forest and are testing for plant compounds which might be helpful in the treatment of AIDs, cancer, dementia etc.
Although these medicines have had a fantastic impact on public health, fifty years after the discovery of antibiotics, drug resistance and the emergence of superbugs have caused great concern. Other medical compounds although super effective, have been found to have serious side effects, one study claims that one third of deaths in the USA are caused by iatrogenic disease (illness caused by doctors/medicine). www.yourmedicaldetective.com/public/335.cfm While these statistics may be over stated, it is clear that western medicine has its shortcomings.
Herbal medicine, has much to offer in cases where western medicine had found to be unhelpful or dangerous. Herbalists would argue it is the very holistic nature of their practice which helps where chemical medicine has found wanting.
Holistic vs mechanistic
Good herbal medicine treats disease holistically this means a herbalist will look at the whole person and use the whole plant (or an extract of the whole plant) to heal a disease. For example, although Western medicine is good to treat infections, antibiotics are not much help for a person who gets repeated infections, say, like chronic cystitis. In such a case, all the doctor can do is prescribe stronger and stronger antibiotics or suggest surgery which is a pretty drastic remedy. A herbalist, by comparison will not prescribe herbs to zap the microorganisms but will use remedies which a) bolster the body’s immune system –mostly remedies working on the liver and white blood cells and, b) remedies which soothe the lining of the bladder to heal local irritation and c) look at lifestyle adjustments that can be made which would lower the predisposition to bladder infections. A side effect of antibiotics therapy (iatrogenic disease) is candida, a fungal infection; often people with cystitis suffer from iatrogenic thrush making the condition more uncomfortable. A vicious cycle can then be set up where one condition irritates the other which then further irritates the first condition. Obviously, the herbalist’s treatment of cystitis will be more long term, less dramatic, but hopefully if the course of treatment is followed through, the patient can be rid of the condition.
Hows & Whys
Generally, herbalists prescribe their medicine in the form of tinctures, which are alcoholic extracts of dried plant material, steeped in a solution of alcohol and water. The alcohol is used to dissolve out those active ingredients which are not water soluble and therefore not released in teas. Other volatile compounds, like for example, azulene found in chamomile are released by steam and therefore are best taken in the form of a herbal infusion or in an essential oil.
Clearly, anything which is taken in large quantities may cause upset. Tinctures and essential oils should be prescribed or if bought over the counter, the label instructions followed carefully. People have died from overdoses of essential oils, they should never be taken internally unless prescribed by a qualified aromatherapist. Tinctures, likewise are powerful and must be used with respect. Pregnant women, people with serious pre existing medical conditions, the elderly and small children should not take herbal medicines unless supervised by a qualified practitioner. In the UK the oldest professional association of herbalists is the National Institution of Medical Herbalists www.NIMH.org.uk. Some GP practices have herbalists working with them.
The most ubiquitous of herbal remedies is Chamomile.
There are two types used the German and the Egyptian.
It has been estimated that over one million cups of Chamomile tea are drunk each day, making it probably the most widely consumed herbal tea.
As it contains volatile compounds, Chamomile is best taken in the form of a tea.
It is a muscle relaxant and antispasmodic, so use for all stomach complaints: for stomach aches, heartburn, reflux, nervous diarrhoea, poor digestion. It has been helpful in the treatment of gastritis, diverticulitis, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation caused by anxiety
It promotes relaxation and so is helpful for anxiety and stress, both in adults and children, tension, anxiety, mild insomnia, nausea.
Chamomile has been found helpful as an eye bath for conjunctivitis and red, inflamed eyes.
It can be used for nausea in pregnancy and for colic, teething, stomach upset and irritability in children.
Its anti spasmodic qualities are helpful for menstrual pain and tiredness.
Topically, it can be used for burns, scalds, skin irritation and dermatitis.
Chamomile contains terpenoids (e.g., alphabisabolol and bisabolol oxide derivatives, farnesene, matricine, and chamazulene). These are extracted from the essential oil in the flower head of the plant. Other important constituents are the flavonoids: apigenin and luteolin: coumarins, and a mucilage.
In experiments it has been found to inhibit the inflammatory mediators such as 5-lipoxygenase and cyclo-oxygenase. The flavonoids show anti-inflammatory effects similar to low-dose indomethacin.
Sedative and antispasmodic activities also have been demonstrated. The flavonoid apigenin appears to bind to central benzodiazepine receptors, resulting in decreased tension and spasm.
The terpenoid alpha-bisabolol was found to inhibit the development of stomach ulcers.