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 conventional medicine. It is becoming more mainstream as improvements in analysis and quality control, along with advances in clinical research, show the value of herbal medicine in treating and preventing disease.
What is the history of herbal medicine?
Plants have 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 to 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 are not 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, and 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. Herbal supplements are classified as dietary supplements by the U.S. Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994. That means herbal supplements, unlike prescription drugs, can be sold without being tested to prove they are safe and effective. However, herbal supplements must be made according to good manufacturing practices.
The most commonly used herbal supplements in the U.S. include:
- Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea and related species)
- St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
- Garlic (Allium sativum)
- Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens)
- Ginseng (Panax ginseng or Asian ginseng) and Panax quinquefolius or American ginseng)
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis)
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
- Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium)
- Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
- Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)
- Milk thistle (Silybum marianum)
Practitioners often use herbs together because the combination is more effective. 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 allergies, asthma, eczema, premenstrual syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine, menopausal symptoms, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer, among others. It is best to take herbal supplements under the guidance of a trained provider. For example, one study found that 90% of people with arthritic use alternative therapies, such as herbal medicine. Since herbal medicines can potentially interact with prescription medications, and may worsen certain medical conditions, be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any herbs.
Source: University of Maryland Medical Center